Albedo One invites you to celebrate the long summer nights of 2014 with a fine tale of mounting suspense from Mark J. Barrett, published for the first time exclusively online as number 8 in our Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase series! This story placed in the Top 6 Shortlist from the Aeon Award 2013.
Here’s a short bio from Mark: I am from Luton but now live in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. My short story collection The Dreams of the Black Butterfly – in which this story features – was shortlisted for the Impress Prize for new writers in 2012. I am hoping for it to be published later this year. The museum is real, as is the waxwork, and it really was missing the last time I checked…
The Jenny Museum, by Mark J. Barrett
It took fifteen years for Richard to pluck up the courage to return to Luton. It seemed appropriate to go down on Jenny’s birthday which fell on the last Friday in March, so he booked the Thursday and Friday as holidays and spent the month prior worrying about whether he should be making the trip at all.
The week before he left became extremely busy. Richard hadn’t planned it that way; he wanted to be relaxed for the trip, but something came up that he could not put off until afterwards. He rarely slept well, and the heavy workload coupled with nervousness at returning to his hometown meant that his sleep was disturbed even further. By Thursday morning he was shattered.
Richard rose at six and found his car slick with icy dew. He packed it and stood with his hands on the open boot lid for a couple of minutes, staring at the two suitcases, watching his breath billow over them like primeval fog. His thoughts were doughy and unfocused; he hadn’t slept well at all: the witch dream again. He slammed the boot shut and went back into the house, took a couple of sleeping pills and slept through until late afternoon.
The route from Norwich was knotted in roadworks exactly as it had been all those years ago, and Richard drove it thoughtlessly, as if it were a journey he made every day. At a service station on the outskirts of Thetford he filled a five gallon can with petrol and put it back in the boot.
He approached Luton along the A505 and passed the Vale Crematorium, felt his heart flare like a strip of heated magnesium, suddenly exposed to oxygen. It was the biggest cemetery in the town. His mother had been burnt there. Richard had paid to have her ashes saved, thinking he might spread them at some place she’d held a particular fondness for, like they did in all those TV dramas. But he’d never bothered to pick them up.
He wondered if Jenny’s parents had a plot for her on the site. Could you do that when there wasn’t a body to bury or burn? He resisted a strong urge to turn in and look for it.
There was no need to drive through the town centre, but he was curious. A cine-plex stood where the old Co-op used to be, some pubs had died or changed names, all the petrol garages seemed to be car washes now. Innocuous changes which couldn’t stop a sickly nostalgia welling up in his throat.
The guest house he’d booked was just across the road from Wardown Park, and the museum. The landlady, Mrs. Macdonald, led him up the steep, narrow stairs to his room.
“Where do you hail from then, Mr. Jet?”
“Luton, but I’ve been away for some years.”
“I thought as much, that accent hasne’ changed has it?”
“No I guess not.” The stairs turned sharply near the top and Richard got stuck, the meat in a suitcase sandwich. Mrs. Macdonald watched from the top of the stairs, a tight smile on her lips.
“Are you alright there?”
“Yes… fine.” Richard lurched forward as he freed himself from the bottleneck, sending a rain of magnolia woodchips onto the carpet. He squeezed past her into the unremarkable little room and hoisted his cases up onto the bed. The woman looked from him to the suitcases.
“What do you do for a living Mr. Jet?”
“I’m a Chemistry teacher.”
“A professional man. I expect you’re visiting friends or family?”
“Yes, something like that.”
They regarded each other for a moment. Richard pushed at the bridge of his glasses.
“Well,” she said finally, “dinner’s from 6 ‘til 7pm but I need to know if you’ll be wanting some.”
“I’ll just have breakfast here if that’s okay?”
She nodded. “Breakfast from 7.30 until 9 a.m., no later…”
Like many tall people, Mrs. Macdonald unconsciously hunched her shoulders. Her hair was thin and over-lacquered, and as she leaned forward, rattling off her spiel, sunlight from the landing window behind her turned it to smoke. She looked to Richard, like an ancient, desiccated witch. But then, he saw witches everywhere.
“Will you be needing anything else?”
“No thanks, that’s fine.”
“Right you are then.” She let the weighted door swing shut behind her.
Richard blew a long sigh through his teeth and unpacked his Antler Weekender case while he waited for the kettle to boil. He didn’t open the older suitcase. Drawing the curtains against the harsh glow of the street lamps, he sat and sipped a weak tea. The room was incredibly bland, echoing the rest of the house. Magnolia walls, chintz furnishings, and fussy mediocrity, a trait he’d come to expect in such establishments.
The bed was low and lumpy. Richard took a couple of sleeping pills and lay on his back, arms crossed over his chest like a man waiting for tear streaked faces to shuffle past. A large, delicate spider was moving across the emptiness of the ceiling with slow precision. What a fate he thought, to pace one’s life out across such an unremarkable landscape. Soon, tears were pulsing steadily down his cheeks and a dismal weariness overtook him. He mumbled Jenny’s name long into the night.
Richard woke before five the next morning and sat by the window, watching the world shiver away the spell of darkness. Eventually he heard movement downstairs and forced himself to have a tepid shower. He wore a black suit and tie, items bought specifically for the occasion, and spent ten minutes getting his Windsor knot just right.
The dining room was empty. It smelt of sour fat. Drab prints of hunting parties crowded the walls, like windows into a world where people still took themselves seriously. Mrs. Macdonald was very cool when taking his order, only coming to life when two young lads came down for breakfast. She then spent most of her time hovering around their table; a grotesque flirtation in which she laughed loudly and far too often. This morning, her hair was flattened at the crown like a crop circle, and whenever she went to the kitchen the boys laughed at her. She didn’t notice.
Richard ate a little of the rubbery sausage, shattered the bacon, and slid the jellyfish egg around for a few minutes, (noticing there were dried remnants of the egg’s ancestors in the fork tines), before returning to his room to fetch the old suitcase. It was large, constructed of stiff, black leather with metal reinforced corners, and was adorned with stickers from all of the towns he’d visited over the years. Two tan straps buckled over the top. The buckles and the metal handle were rust bitten.
“How much further?” Jenny was blowing hard as she leaned into the steep, tree-studded hill.
“Here… just behind these bushes.” Richard reached a bramble bush in an area of sunlight between trees. He looked around to see if anyone was nearby and then disappeared. Jenny found him sitting beside a hole he must have dug on a previous visit. His legs were splayed around a big, open suitcase. In it there was a blue hand towel, a cloudy amber soap bar, (the type Richard’s mum preferred), a tin of creamed rice and one of plum tomatoes, a box of matches and some shampoo sachets. Richard picked one up.
“I took these from the guest house we stayed at in Southend.” He pushed at the bridge of his glasses. “What do you reckon? It’s not a bad start is it?”
Jenny smiled nervously. “Are we really going to run away?”
“Yes, but we need more stuff. What can you get?”
It was a bright cool day. The sky was scattered with perfectly plump cumulus like a giant Magritte reproduction, but the old Victorian building held its damp shadows stubbornly close. The museum was just opening when Richard passed under its portico at precisely nine o’clock. The man who opened up gave him a quizzical look as he passed through the tall glass doors. Richard guessed they didn’t get much custom first thing on a Tuesday morning, and he did strike an improbable figure with his starchy funeral suit and battered old suitcase.
Richard looked around the museum interior in excitement, picking up memories. He passed through the Archaeology section first, his cold footsteps echoing around the glass display cabinets painfully. Some of the rooms had been extended, but the overall themes appeared very similar to what he remembered. Richard recognised the cut away of a Saxon dwelling; arrowheads of flint and rusting iron, neatly arranged in velvet cases like ancient cutlery sets. There were plastic dinosaur dioramas and the ubiquitous ammonites. Two interactive touch screen displays had been added, almost it seemed, as a within-budget concession to the modern world.
There was a room celebrating the history of hat making in the town, decorated in the blue and orange of the local football team. Beyond that, in the Military Room, there stood the same life-size model of a Chindit soldier burning a leach from his arm with a cigarette. Jenny had hated leaches and Richard teased her about it every time they came, which was quite often during the summertime. It was a crazy thought but he felt he could see something like recognition when he looked into the soldier’s eyes. He moved to the next room which always housed exhibitions by up-and-coming local painters. After studying them in a kind of stupor for a while he came back to himself, knowing he had to get it over with.
Slowly, he climbed the broad oak staircase to the first floor and put the suitcase down. He realised it was the first time he’d ever been up there alone. The corridor was about thirty feet long. At the far end was a dark, glass-fronted room. His heels tapped holes in the thick silence as he made his way towards it.
Jenny’s squeezed Richard’s hand so tightly he nearly cried out, as he listened to his own quick breaths and the squeak of Jenny’s black plimsolls on the polished wooden floor. Behind the glass ahead of them, was a waxwork of an old Victorian woman sitting alone in her living room, busy with some needlework. Reflections slid and fractured off the glass as they edged nearer. The woman’s pale, smooth face appeared to lift in a shuddery movement; Richard saw the shake of a withered arm, a sharp needle catching light… he let out an odd noise and Jenny screamed. They turned in panic, pushing and pulling at each other as they bounded down the curved wooden staircase, past the stunned curator and out into the breathless sunshine. They bent over, hands on hips, fear making them giggle in the centre of the carpet-like lawn.
“What did you see?” asked Jenny.
“Shit,” Richard muttered, staring into the empty room. He peeled his hands from the cool glass, and watched the prints fade away like disheartened ghosts.
The curator was silver haired, and wore a crisp white lab coat. Richard found him sorting through postcards in the tiny gift shop.
“The old lady?” the man asked, “or the witch!” His hands curled into claws and he moved forward flashing a wall of teeth that would never need flossing. Richard recoiled in horror.
“You’re worse than the kids you are,” the man laughed, a look of concern growing on his ruddy face. “I was only joking mate.”
“Yes I know,” Richard said unconvincingly. “We used to call her that back in the old days.”
The old man began stacking sweet-sized erasers that had a picture of the museum stamped on them. “Ah well, she always has had quite an effect on the children.” He straightened up, “gone for refurbishment actually, she’s getting a bit shabby after all these years.”
Richard left, and the curator’s voice stopped him at the door. “I’ll tell her you called. You never know, she might come and give you a visit.” The man’s laughter followed him out into the park.
He sat on a bench by the boating lake, a little shaken by his experience in the museum. Was it a coincidence that the witch wasn’t there on the very day he’d returned?
It’s just a waxwork. She’s not a witch. She doesn’t know you. Richard ran the words around his head like a mantra for a few minutes until he almost believed them.
He rang Mrs. Pity. When he had first decided to contact Jenny’s mother he imagined she might be difficult to trace, but he found her at the first attempt, in the same house she’d received the terrible news twenty years before.
“Are you sure it’s going to be okay?”
“I mean, if it’s too-”
“No, no, it will be nice to see you.” There was a strained quality to the woman’s voice; politeness, the habits of a lifetime, still overriding her true feelings.
“I’ll be there in about half an hour… if you’re sure?”
“Yes, I’m very sure Richard, see you soon.”
Richard put his mobile away and sat for a few moments, watching the swans drift on the water. He was excited about meeting Jenny’s mum after all this time, and wasn’t sure if that was the wrong feeling to have. Jenny was always with him of course. Richard looked for her in the faces of strangers. He had one photograph of Jenny at home, but he couldn’t seem to feel her anymore, or remember her voice. He hoped that somehow, he could re-establish a connection with Jenny through her mother. That maybe something would leak from Mrs. Pity when he looked into her eyes, or listened to her voice.
The house was the third in a long terrace. You could always tell the ones that had been bought from the Council: they were double-glazed. The door opened as he approached it. She looked like an effigy of the real Mrs. Pity, the one he remembered. Age had shrunken her. She wore black leggings, the type that hook over the heels, and he couldn’t see any evidence of her legs touching the stretched nylon. Her pale, round face popped out of the cream fleece smiling, and there was a fierce concentration on her features, as if it was taking all her strength to hold the muscles in position.
“My goodness you’ve got so tall,” Mrs. Pity grabbed his sleeve to test the quality of the material.
Richard shrugged, pushing at the bridge of his glasses. “I just thought it was suitable today.”
“Yes it’s very thoughtful, thank you. How are you anyway?”
“Fine and you?”
“Fine,” she opened her arms and they hugged awkwardly.
He put the case down in the hall and looked around: more fake mahogany and magnolia walls. Mrs. Pity showed him into the fussy living room and offered him tea. It smelt of lavender furniture polish and years of cigarettes. She left the room and he took a closer look at all the photographs of Jenny. There were none of Jenny standing proudly beside her first car; none of her posing, knife in hand, over her twenty first birthday cake. No nebulous shots of her wedding day, or one of her looking pale and bleary-eyed, holding her first child to her chest. In the majority of them she wore a school uniform. She had a wide, tentative smile, and lank hair cut into a lopsided bob. Richard remembered her father used to cut it to save money.
Above the fire was a large oil portrait of Jenny in an ornate gold frame; something her parents had obviously commissioned after her disappearance. A concentration of all the photographs in the room, rendered by someone of limited talent. It reminded Richard of the type of portrait you might see in a haunted house ride at a theme park.
“There you go.” Mrs. Pity set down the tray of flowery china and gestured around the room. “I couldn’t have them up for years you know. Harry couldn’t bear it, God rest him.”
Richard nodded sympathetically.
“But I love to look at her, I really do…”
She lit a cigarette and poured the tea through an old fashioned strainer. Richard sipped and nodded occasionally as she reminisced. She paused only to suck at her fag and roll blue clouds at the ceiling.
“You never did get to move then?” He asked pointlessly.
“Oh no, we couldn’t leave… not until we found her. What if she came back and we weren’t here you see? It’s unbelievable really. Little Jen’s still out there somewhere.” She gestured furiously with her fag hand, whipping a ribbon of smoke across the room like a rhythmic gymnast. Her eyes began to fill up. “I’m sorry; it’s the birthday and everything.”
“It’s fine.” Richard handed her a tissue.
“It’s all so unfair though, when we were just about to emigrate…”
“Yes, I know,” he sighed. “Jenny was excited about moving, she talked about it a lot. I didn’t want her to leave of course.” He shrugged sheepishly.
“Well you suffered as much as anyone. You were just a child for heaven’s sake.”
“I wish I’d stayed with her when she went back to the museum that day.”
The old lady shuffled uncomfortably, eyeing him through the smoke like a poker player on a long losing streak. “Nobody noticed her go back into the museum alone, that’s what I don’t understand.”
Richard held her gaze, despite his discomfort. “I wish I could tell you what happened. I’ve gone over it so many times in my head. Jenny wanted to go back one more time. I didn’t want to…”
He couldn’t blame her. The police had grilled him quite hard after Jenny’s disappearance because he’d been the last person to see her. The only witnesses who came forward at the time said they’d seen Richard and Jenny in the museum and playing in the park. There was nothing else to go on. No clothing or physical evidence of any kind. Even if there had been, it was nineteen eighty one, before the advent of DNA profiling and the like.
The clock on the wall broke the awkward silence. Mrs. Pity waited for the twelve chimes to finish.
“Right,” she said, pushing herself up from the table. “That’s my cue. Do you fancy a real drink?”
Richard was slightly appalled. “Erm… okay, what are you having?”
She poured a cheap whisky for him and a gin and tonic for herself. She flung the drink back and poured herself another before sitting down. He let her waffle a bit more after that. She kept repeating herself, jumping up regularly to refill her glass. Richard tried to appear interested, sipping the whisky slowly, feeling it smoulder in his empty belly. A witch’s familiar slinked into the room and began weaving figures of eight between the old woman’s legs. She shooed the cat away with a gentle flick of her foot.
“That’s Pluto; he’s the best friend I have.”
Mrs. Pity’s blue eyes glittered. “Sometimes you know,” her voice lowered, “when I’ve had a few, I feel like I can climb into the photographs. Is that crazy?”
“No… it’s just wishful thinking I guess.”
She stood up and closed her eyes, fists clenched at her sides. “I’m in there with her, I hold her and tell her I’m sorry and…”
“It’s okay,” he said stupidly and stood up. His legs were shaking. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“…and I ask her where she is. Do you know what she says?”
Richard shook his head, willing her to stop.
“She says mummy it’s so dark… so dark…”
The old woman crumpled and he held her, his tears dripping onto her silver hair. He wondered if that was rude or not and decided it wasn’t.
Afterwards, Richard poured Mrs. Pity another drink, and her face seemed to clear a little.
“Yes, she was excited about Australia.” Mrs. Pity drained her glass, crunching the ice cubes annoyingly. “If only we’d left a few weeks earlier. I wish I could just stop wishing and wishing, I’m so silly.”
“Don’t punish yourself,” he said mechanically. His store of platitudes was running low, those remaining becoming more and more clichéd. He felt ashamed of the moment they’d shared, crying like that. It felt too familiar, like they’d had sex or something.
“I really must be going,” he finally lied. “I’ve a long drive ahead of me.”
Mrs. Pity showed him to the door, and the alcohol made her move sideways and forward, sideways and forward.
“My friend will be here soon anyway. Thank you for coming.”
Richard took her little ape hand and kissed it. “It has been nice.”
“Packed already are you?” She gestured at the case and ran her hand over one of the frayed stickers on its side. “It’s been around a bit this one,” she laughed.
For a moment Richard was struck dumb. He’d wanted to show Mrs. Pity the contents of the case. Otherwise why had he bothered to bring it along? But now his nerve failed him. It would be too much for them both he reasoned; the morning had been more emotional than he expected. He would have to visit her again, and next time he would feel stronger for sure. But like a man who passes a beautiful girl every day on the way to work, and swears to himself every evening, that tomorrow he will ask her out, Richard knew deep down he would never have the courage.
“Yes, always organised, that’s me.”
Richard drove directly back to the guesthouse and lay down for a while. He felt utterly exhausted. The spider was in the corner of the room, reluctantly building a web. Its fragile movements quickly wove him into sleep.
He woke with a cry like a child’s, and hoped nobody in the building had heard him. It was just after two o’clock. He’d had the witch dream again.
The dream was always the same. In it, he came home from work and she was waiting for him in the kitchen, her back to the sink, those gnarly hands braced against the worktop. Sunlight came from the window behind, throwing her face into shadow. The horror was in the details; the cups upturned in the draining rack beside her; the breadcrumbs and sugar granules scattered across the counter. He knew what would happen next but could never move quickly enough. The grimalkin was on Richard in a flash, and by a terrible magic she shrank him and spun him into the darkness of her musty cardigan. There he waited, his body wrapped in hot, itchy thread, listening to the tremulous thump of her rotten heart. Knowing that one day she would take him out and do something unspeakable with him.
Richard splashed cold water onto his face for a full five minutes. He realised he would have to go home right away; all of this had been a mistake. Mrs. Macdonald was out so he concluded business with her husband; a listless creature who looked like a man who’d wandered through a wilderness for years, searching for succour, and had found only his wife’s mirage over and over again.
Richard stood outside the guesthouse in the small car park, kicking gravel half-heartedly, watching the museum through the swaying branches of the Horse Chestnut trees that surrounded the park. When he thought of the petrol can in his boot, of how he had intended to burn the museum down with the old witch inside, he shivered. It was madness, all of it. He shouldn’t be thinking this way. Maybe he needed therapy of some sort. It had been twenty years for Christ’s sake.
If he could just go back, do things differently, then maybe Jenny would still be alive, and he would be another person. He wanted to advise the child Richard, but he couldn’t reach him. There was too much between the two of them; a chasm of darkness they could only peer across wistfully.
Jenny wrapped her arms around the peeling, steel bar and fought the centrifugal force trying to rip her away from the roundabout. Richard was opposite her, whirling like the pages of a flicker book, his foot pounding the playground floor.
“Slow down Rich, please, I want to go back to the museum.”
“Not unless you promise to run away with me.”
Jenny could feel the pressure in her neck and back building as she struggled to hold her head up. Her shoulders glowed with pain. Richard’s face blurred and flew from her eyes. She blinked rapidly, hearing his foot pounding and pounding…
“Okay, okay, I will. Just please slow down.”
Richard leaned back and dragged his trailing leg across the grey tarmac with a rasping stutter. They sat on the grass watching the roundabout slow down, waiting for the fluids in their heads to settle.
“I’m so sorry Jen,” Richard touched her hand but she pulled away. He looked at the drying tears that were gumming up her eyelashes and felt sick.
I just can’t believe you’re going tomorrow night, all the way to Australia. I’ll never see you again.”
“You will,” she said without conviction. “Listen, I’m going back to see the old lady one more time, are you coming?”
He pulled at the grass between his legs and tossed it into the air, shaking his head. “Uh uh… no way.”
“Rich, you haven’t really seen her move have you? She’s not a witch, just a waxwork.”
“Of course I have, she’s after us… I know it.”
“Well I haven’t seen anything. I think she’s kind of creepy, but sweet as well.”
“You’ll be sorry if you go,” he warned her, but she was already walking away.
It was teatime when Richard finally pulled off the A140 and escaped the rush hour traffic into Norwich. The avenue was stretched with long shadows.
He got out of his car shivering, and popped cracks from his stiff joints. The front door swung open when his key touched the lock. He stood for a moment with the key outstretched, frozen in shock. It was impossible that he could’ve left it open wasn’t it? He couldn’t actually remember locking it, because he’d been so preoccupied when he left home, but this wasn’t something he’d ever done before.
“Hello?” Richard called out three times. He began to feel stupid. If there was a burglar… or something worse, they would hardly reply to him, would they? He put down the cases and took out his phone, keeping his eyes on the gloomy hallway over the threshold. Richard didn’t have his immediate neighbours’ phone numbers, but he had Anne’s, the Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator who lived two doors up. They’d almost had a thing six months previously but he’d backed out; he was rubbish at relationships.
Anne wasn’t home. He left her a message: had she noticed anything odd while he’d been away? It was pointless really. He couldn’t stand outside until she came back, could he? Richard listened to the occasional squeak of the door as it shifted in the wind, unable to force himself through it, and recalling the old curator’s mocking words he was suddenly convinced. It would have taken her years to find him wouldn’t it? He imagined the witch circling the cauldron-black sky, sniffing at the wind, working through the filigree of smells in the atmosphere, and occasionally catching the tiniest note of him: edging closer and closer every night until…
With great effort he pushed the thought away but his body still wouldn’t move.
What if she’s actually here?
A newspaper boy entered the garden and Richard jumped at the crackle of his tracksuit. He took the free local paper from the boy’s hand and the spell seemed to break.
“Stupid,” he said as he closed the door behind him, but his heart was banging as he turned into the kitchen. The dripping tap mocked his empty fears.
He went straight to the cellar door, unlocked it and released the large deadbolts. Uneasily, he tapped Jenny’s birth date 28371, into the alarm keypad. He kept looking over his shoulder as he descended the stairs, half expecting the witch to appear in the doorway behind him. The smell was rich and overpowering from the deodorizers, yet there was a sweeter smell underneath that caught the back of his throat, making his tummy quiver.
Richard walked the length of the quiet cellar, with just the buzz of the strip lights in his ears, his hand thumping along the row of suitcases. The last one was a recently bought Atlantic trolley case in top grain red leather. He knelt down beside it and whispered “Jenny?”
Something shifted feebly inside. Richard stared at the glossy photograph taped to the edge of the suitcase: a headshot of a ten year old girl, tousle haired and bewildered.
“Why do you keep coming back?” He looked along the line of suitcases, at all the similar photographs, and then he turned and glanced upstairs again. Maybe the witch wasn’t coming, maybe she didn’t know what he’d done after all.
He went to the large, glass display cabinet in the centre of the room. The floor inside was scattered with withered roses. Richard pulled the photo of Jenny from the glass door and carefully stuck it back onto the old black and tan case. He opened the door and placed the suitcase inside under the spotlights. He knelt and rubbed at one of the peeling stickers – a caravan with Southend written beneath it – then bowed his head.
“I’m so tired of looking for you.”