She missed sex the most. She thought it was funny how it just stopped. One day she’d been having it quite regularly and then poof! It was gone. There hadn’t been any signs, or agreements or anything like that. Sex had simply became a thing of the past. Then it was all separate beds, and water bottles and bloody doilies and crocheting.
She picked up the crossword puzzle and glanced over at the armchair. Her husband had sat on that for forty years; until his second stroke had killed him during an episode of Countdown.
“Here you go Harold,” she said to the empty chair. “Here’s one for you. Five across. Parasitic. nocturnal being. Seven letters.”
She imagined Harold sitting there, taking a big puff of one of his unfiltered roll-ups and saying: “Vampire.”
She wrote it in the space.
“Right as always, my love.”
She imagined Harold smugly smiling on one side of his face.
“Don’t get cocky,” she said.
She heard a scuffling sound.
“The mouse is back,” she said to Harold.
Harold shrugged as if to say ‘I told you to use the glue traps.’
If Harold was alive the mouse would have been dead months ago. Gladys just couldn’t bring herself to kill another creature. Even one that nibbled through her bread and kept her awake with it’s scratching. She strained her ears, listening for the scrabbling noise.
The phone rang, horribly loud in the quiet little room. She looked up, suddenly realising how empty and lonely the room was. Harold’s chair sat unsat upon, gathering a layer of dust.
She put the crossword down and picked up the handset.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone and then a shuffling as if the person holding the handset wasn’t quite used to speaking on the telephone.
“H-hello? Hello?” said the voice on the other end, thick and toneless. Then they shouted: “HELLO!”
Gladys grimaced and held the phone away from her ear.
“Donny?” she asked.
She heard laughter and then Donny replied: “Gladys? Where are you?”
Gladys wondered why Donny was on the phone unsupervised. Donny was a volunteer at the same charity shop where Gladys worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I’m at home, Donny. It’s Wednesday. Remember?”
There was a long pause and then Donny said: “Irma went home because she felt ill.”
Gladys felt a moment’s irritation at Irma. That woman was a hypochondriac if ever there was one. The sort of person who thought that every cold was a symptom of a greater incurable disease that would astound and ultimately defeat all medical science.
“Donny, is there anybody else there?”
“Nah,” Donny said. “I’m all alone.”
“Donny, hold on. I’m coming in.”
Gladys hung up the phone and thought about poor Donny in the shop on his own. The boy had down syndrome and although he was a great volunteer he did have a tendency to lose his temper if pushed too hard. He also tended to wander off if not given any instructions.
It was all too easy to imagine Donny lying broken under the wheels of a car.
Gladys put on her warm coat and wrapped herself up in a scarf and went outside.
She immediately felt the cold autumn air biting into her bones.The first drops of rain were beginning to fall from a grim, battleship grey sky.
She walked down her garden path and felt her heart sink.
There was a bus shelter directly outside her house. Even before she reached her gate she heard the music. The kids these days called that type of music “dubstep”, she’d heard. And it was bloody terrible.
There were five kids standing under the bus shelter. They were playing music from their mobile phones and passing around what Gladys suspected was a joint.
Gladys opened the latch of her gate and stepped out.
The kids sniggered amongst themselves.
“Look, Spoony. It’s your missus,” one of them said, and they all started laughing.
Gladys closed the gate behind her and slotted the latch into place.
The biggest kid must have been at least seventeen. He was six foot one and had a perfectly shaved chinstrap beard.
“Alright, Mrs Mulligan,” he said, grinning. “Lovely weather, isn’t it?”
Gladys smiled uneasily. She’d seen the kid many times before, sitting in this same bus stop until the early hours of the morning.
Gladys began to turn away from the bus stop — she dreaded the idea of the walk and the effect it would have on her knees — when Craig said:
“I hope you locked your doors, Mrs Mulligan. There’s some right ‘orrible people around who wouldn’t think twice about robbin’ an old lady.”
Gladys stopped then and turned to look at him. Her fists tensed and her jaw set.
The kids seemed so young and healthy. Craig grinned at her with his stupid beard and his piggy little eyes.
She was too old to fight this lot. She turned away and the kid’s laughter followed her up the street.
The shop was a mess. After Glady had gone home a lady had arrived with a box of stuff. Her father had died and she’d packed the old man’s belongings and left them outside the shop. From the looks of things Donny had simply thrown the man’s belonging around the room. There were clothes, VHS cassettes and old vinyl LPs everywhere.
Gladys put her coat away and asked Donny to make her a cup of tea. Donny smiled and marched off to the backroom to do that while Gladys started tidying up.
He was a nice boy — always smiling and always happy to help. Gladys couldn’t help but like the kid.
She separated the donations into three piles — clothes, VHSs and vinyls. She was about to put them all back in the box they’d came in before realising there was something in the bottom of the box.
She reached in to grab it but pulled her hand back with a shriek. She’d felt a mild shock, as if she’d touched a child’s joy buzzer.
Donny, who’d been loudly stirring tea, stopped.
Gladys shouted back that she was okay.
She reached into the box again, cautiously now, and felt something that was smooth and flat and rectangular.
It was a book.
It was covered in brownish pink leather. Its title, which was handwritten in thick, reddish-black ink, seemed to be Latin.
Gladys grasped the book in both hands. She felt a throb of power thrumming through her fingers and up her forearms. It wasn’t unpleasant. If anything…it was…nice.
Just holding the book felt like receiving an all over body massage, like thousands of tiny fingers rubbing every inch of her body.
For just a moment she didn’t feel the dull ache of arthritis and lethargy.
“I feel young,” Gladys whispered in a dreamy far away voice that surprised and scared her.
“You feel young?” Donny said.
Gladys jumped, like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar. She dropped the book on the floor.
“Donny,” she said. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
Donny was staring blankly at Gladys with a steaming cup of tea in each hand.
Gladys took her cup and thanked him.
Donny stared at her as she sipped her tea. She felt her attention returning to the book, now laying on the counter before her. She felt an almost invisible tug, like every muscle in her body strained toward it.
“Would you like to listen to the radio, Donny?”
Donny’s face lit up in a smile. Some of the older gals didn’t like the music on the radio these days but Donny loved it.
“Why don’t you go put it on?”
Donny rushed off to the radio, sat on a shelf right next to the customer changing room.
Gladys waited until Donny was fiddling with the knobs on the old hi-fi and searching through the static for a good channel.
Then Gladdys Mulligan, a woman who had never stolen so much as a loose grape from the supermarket, picked up the book and stuffed it into her handbag.
She looked up at Donny, her heart beating wildly. Donny was still switching from radio channel to radio channel. It was raining outside and there weren’t many people on the street.
Gladys sat in the comfortable seat at the till and stared at her handbag.
She caught the bus home. Her knees ached and she knew that she probably would have trouble sleeping tonight as well as trouble standing tomorrow.
She nursed her handbag in the crook of her arm like a newborn baby.
It was raining heavily outside, sending sheets of water cascading down the sides of the window.
She imagined Harold sitting beside her, flouting the smoking ban with one of those unfiltered roll-ups of his.
“You shouldn’t have stolen that book,” she imagined him saying. “Very unlike you, that is.”
If he’d really been there she would have told him that she was old and didn’t have much time. In the grand scheme of things what difference would make if she took a dead man’s book?
The imaginary Harold shrugged yet looked at her sidelong with the same gentle reproach that parents reserve for children who lie and cheat on a small scale.
“Wrong is wrong,” he would have said. “You’re old enough to know better.”
She got off one street before her own stop and walked in the rain. By now her legs ached as if pierced by thousands of blunt needles. Her little red telescopic umbrella did little to stop the rain.
As she expected Neil was sitting in the bus stop, sheltered from the rain. She kept her head down and hoped he wouldn’t notice her.
“Been keeping your house safe for you, Mrs Mulligan!” Neil said cheerfully as she reached for the latch. “Good thing you’ve got me to look out for you, eh?”
She felt a twinge of anger but forced herself to say: “Yeah, thanks for that, Neil.”
She ignored his reply (“It’s Spoony!”) and let herself in to the house.
She stripped off her wet coat, turned the kettle on and closed all the windows. When she had a nice warm cup of tea she sat down and placed the book on the coffee table.
She imagined Harold sitting in the armchair and frowning at her with those thick eyebrows of his.
“Shut up, Harold,” she said.
She imaged Harold holding his hands up in a “on your head be it” gesture.
She gently ran her hand over the book’s cover, feeling that lovely tingly sensation once again fill her up, and tried to open the book.
The book was sealed closed.
She tried harder, trying to prise the cover open with her fingers.
It was solid.
She imagined Harold trying not to grin.
She looked at the empty chair with her lips pursed tightly.
There didn’t seem to be any lock or clasp holding the book shut. She turned it over in her hands and wondered if it was maybe glued together.
She went to the kitchen and came back with a breadknife. She slotted the knife into the gap beneath the cover of the first page and levered it until the knife snapped in half.
Gladys stared at the snapped knife. It was solid steel.
“That’s not possible.”
There was a loud pop and the room was thrown into darkness.
Gladys’ heart beat like a jungle drum.
Something was scratching in the dark.
Gladys’ blood ran cold. Her heart beat faster.
Her eyes were just beginning to adjust. She reached out for anything she could use as a weapon. Her fingers found the book.
“Hey!” She shouted. “You get out of here!”
She slung the book with all her might and there was a high pitched squeak and then silence.
She went into the kitchen, got a candle and came back into the living room. The book lay in the corner, poking out from underneath was a mouse, it’s legs twitching as it slowly died.
“About time you finally killed something.”
She swung in the direction of the man’s voice. It sounded familiar.
“Harold?” Gladys said.
The shadowy figure puffed on a roll-up, his face glowing orange for a second.
“Of course it is, love,” Harold said. His voice was real now, and so was the smell of his cigarette smoke. “Now how about a cup of tea, eh?”
Gladys sat at the kitchen table nursing a glass of tea. Sat across from her was the husband who’d died two years previously. Between them was the impossible book.
“I think I need something stronger,” Gladys said.
“Sounds good. Nip of sherry, eh?”
Gladys slapped a bottle of gin down between them, then a glass.
“Haven’t had sherry in the house since you died,” she said. “Gin was always my fancy.”
She thought about it and then put a second glass down for Harold.
“Can you drink?”
Harold raised an eyebrow. He took the bottle and poured two liberal measures, pushing Gladys’ glass back toward her.
“I guess we can take that as a yes then.”
Gladys watched him take a sip, then grimace.
“Are you … a ghost?”
Harold laughed. He shook his head.
Gladys sipped her gin.
“Am I mad, then?”
“Well, you were always mad, love,” he said. “But no more than usual, no.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“You know, this is just like whenever we watched M Night Shyamalan movies,” Harold sighed. “I always have to explain the bloody plots.”
Gladys started at him. He looked like her husband — he had the same bushy eyebrows, the same pot belly and the same west country accent. But something was off. She couldn’t put her fingers on what exactly.
“You know this isn’t just an ordinary book, right?”
“Well,” Harold went on, “what do you think it is?”
Gladys thought about it. Harold was giving her his “I’m being patient because you’re an idiot” look. She felt herself beginning to get annoyed again. She sipped her drink.
“Is it magic, or something?”
Harold didn’t answer. Gladys took the book and turned it over with her hands before a thought struck her.
“Where’d the mouse go?”
Harold simply smiled. This infuriated her more. She turned the book over in her hands. Despite having smashed a mouse to pulp just a little while ago it was clean and free of stains.
“Don’t be cryptic Harold. You know how I feel about people being cryptic.”
“Just like with Shyamalan movies, Gladys. You always want to ruin the endings.” Harold leaned back in his chair, checking his watch as if he had somewhere to be. “Tell you what, I don’t have a lot of time here but here’s a clue even you can get: how long do mice live?”
Gladys stared at him blankly. She hated it when he did this, answering questions with more questions.
“I don’t bloody know. Three years?”
“Round about.” Harold smiled. “Now, how long have your joints been aching.”
Gladys was about to reply to this. Then she realised the dull, aching pain in her hands, knees and feet wasn’t there.
She held out her hands and looked at them. She could flex them without that deep down toothache-like throb.
She looked up from her hands to ask Harold more questions but he was gone.
She went in to the living room where the candle had burned down almost half-way.
Harold’s seat was empty again.
That night Gladys tossed and turned uneasily as she dreamed.
She dreamt of a high tower on a far away world where an ancient and ageless creature bound a book of evil in the skin of his enemies.
She tossed and turned as his tower burned and he used the last of his strength to send his book through a blackness in reality.
In the dream she felt the book’s hunger.
She woke up in a cold sweat.
The following morning she sat in her kitchen, turning the book over in her hands and feeling that pleasurable tingling sensation run up her arms.
The phone had been ringing all morning.
It was thursday and she was supposed to be at the shop but she had bigger things to worry about.
She found herself wondering what would happen if she fed it something that lived longer than a mouse. A voice somewhere in the back of her mind protested at this, but it seemed weak and childish.
“Are you hungry,” she asked it. “Is that it?”
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and looked up to see the scraggy stray cat sitting on her windowsill.
The cat meowed pathetically.
She got a can of tuna from the cupboard, opened it in full view of the cat then set it on the window ledge. The cat rubbed against the window, eyes focused on the tuna.
She took a sharp knife out of the knife rack and opened the window.
Spoony sat at the bus stop waiting for customers. He had a few grams of hashish, some amnesia and some yellow kush. But business was slow today.
He took out his phone and flipped through his messages.
The gate to the old bag’s house clicked open and he saw the old lady scurrying down the street. She seemed to be moving faster than she usually did and he didn’t have time to shout after her.
Fifteen minutes later he saw her coming back in the other direction. She was moving slower this time, with her head down. She was carrying a plastic bag with random bits and pieces.
“Allright, Mrs Mulligan,” he said. “Doing some shopping, were you?”
She walked past him, painfully slow. Spoony watched her, wondering if it was true that her husband had pegged it leaving her with a shit ton of money.
He’d heard stories about these old people that had died after decades of being skinflints. He’d heard that they sometimes kept thousands of pounds under their beds because they didn’t trust banks.
Spoony was thinking about how much money the old bitch might have in that house when Mulligan dropped her purse and slowly bent down to pick it up.
“Jesus,” Spoony whispered.
The purse was open and stuffed with notes. Mrs Mulligan didn’t even seem to know that he was there. She put it into her handbag and limped up her garden path to fumble with her keys.
Spoony watched her go inside and waited for her close the door and turn the latch, like she usually did. Only this time she didn’t lock the door, she left it standing wide open.
Spoony whistled to himself. He looked both ways down the street and then opened the gate and walked up the path.
The house was dark and quiet. Spoony crept through the hallway and into the front room. The room was empty. Mrs Mulligan stood with her back to him.
Spoony reached into his pocket and took out the boxcutter knife that he kept in there. He pressed the little button on the side and the blade crept out of the end.
He took a step toward Mrs Mulligan and felt something crunch beneath his feet.
” … the fuck?”
The entire room had been carpeted in old newspapers. That’s when he realised that there was no furniture in the room either. The only thing between him and Mrs Mulligan was a weird old book.
Mrs Mulligan turned around. She was wearing a plastic apron and holding a butcher’s knife that glinted in the darkness.
“Hello, Neil,” she said. She looked younger by at least ten years.
“No, Gladys,” a man’s voice said. “It’s ‘Spoony’. Remember?”
Spoony turned his head to the sound of the voice and saw Harold Mulligan, Gladys Mulligan’s dead husband. He felt warm liquid run down his leg.
Gladys laughed and came at Neil at a run, swinging the blade at Neil’s head.
Neil screamed once before the blade opened a crooked red smile across his throat.
Donny stepped off the bus. He looked, once again, at the piece of paper in his hand, then up and down the street. It took him a few minutes to find the house where his friend Gladys lived, but when he did, he didn’t bother knocking, and just walked in through the unlocked door instead.
There was newspaper on the floor and the house smelled like cigarettes. Donny heard voices and followed them into what turned out to be the kitchen. A young woman of about twenty-five was sitting cross-legged and drinking gin. There was an older man there also. He was drinking what looked like wine. He was rolling a cigarette but stopped when he noticed Donny staring at him.
The young woman turned and her breath caught in her throat as if she’d been caught in the act doing of doing something bad. She seemed to be searching for something to say.
“You must be Donny, eh lad?” the older man said, eventually. “I’m afraid Gladys isn’t here. She’s gone on holiday to, uh, Australia.”
Donny registered no reaction.
“Would you like me to give her a message, or something?” The older man asked. “For when she gets back?”
Donny looked from the older man to the younger woman — who was now biting her nails as Gladys often did when making a mistake on the tills at the shop — then back to the older man.
“I wanted to tell her about my dream,” Donny said.
The young woman looked down at her feet while the older man raised an eyebrow.
“And what dream would that be?”
“About the book that came in the box of stuff on Wednesday,” Donny said.
The older man stood up, walked past Donny and went to the front door. He turned the key in the lock. For just a moment, a shadow crossed his face, making him look terribly ancient and cruel. Then he was simply a kindly old man once more. He walked back to the table.
“Tell me, son,” he said, smiling. “Who else knows you’re here?”