The Masons would not have booked their beds in advance. They were not that organised. Their journey towards the ferry terminal had been full of muddle and rage–Stuart Mason had sworn over the poor signage at every road junction, while his wife Laura muttered about all the things they’d forgotten–all the ointments and hairbrushes and face flannels and spare socks they’d failed to scrape together at six o’clock that morning, and would therefore need to buy, at great expense, once they reached the island.
Maisie Mason dozed on the back seat. Her parents’ anger was never directed at her and, although she was the pretext for the holiday, they had both forgotten about her.
She had a growing sense that her parents were not like other parents. She guessed that other families planned for holidays, packed methodically, and set off cheerfully, smiling from car windows and perhaps even singing songs. She was beginning to suspect that her parents needed looking after–and that, one day, this would become her job.
They made it to the island, having caught the ferry with minutes–seconds–to spare. They had been the last car to arrive. Stuart had driven over the teetering ramp just as the barrier was lowered, and Maisie watched the metal pole slicing down behind the rear window, shutting them in. They were committed now, squeezed onto the car deck with hundreds of laughing, brightly-dressed families. They were going on holiday.
In the passenger seat, her mother shook her head from side to side, then dropped her head into her hands. “Oh God,” she groaned. “Why does everything have to be such a nightmare?”
“Just look for ‘Vacancies’, will you?” Stuart hissed at his wife, steering the car between cloudy banks of meadowsweet. “It’s not difficult.”
“It is difficult when there are no buildings on either side of the road,” she shot back. “Why have you driven into these fields?”
“Because there weren’t any shitting B&Bs in the shitting town!” he yelled, raising his hands from the steering wheel. Dislodged, the long kinked hank of hair that covered his bald patch fell across his eyes. Maisie recognised the climax of the argument, which these days she followed like music. She sat white and rigid behind her mother, staring out at the furrowed acres of crops.
And then she saw a building. Tall and dark, on the edge of a field, with angular windows in its attic, like a row of pointed hats. Shuttered windows. It might have been a farmhouse, out in the middle of nowhere–and yet it didn’t have the rounded edges of a farmhouse. No animals would ever snuffle around those walls; no hens would peck at corn thrown from its back door. No birds would fly overhead. Maisie could only hear the rustle of the car’s wheels over the rough track, and the simmering silence between her parents.
They’ll miss it, she thought. They’ll drive straight past it.
Maisie wondered if it was a house only she could see. Some things were like that–cats and lights and certain trees appeared plainly to her, but she could not persuade others that they were real, and so she had gradually learned not to talk about them.
“There’s a sign!” said Laura, pointing towards the house. It loomed large now, and Maisie could see that its window frames were painted in a charcoal grey.
The wooden sign swung from a cross –
That word, Vacancies, made Maisie’s stomach sink. The V, followed by all the whispering C and S sounds: preceded by the hard C in Sycamore. It was like a poem, she thought, turning the words over and over in her head–or a spell, the sort of spell that makes the world fall away beneath your feet, leaving you stranded. Heights, she mouthed, feeling just as she had that time her class climbed the spiral staircase of a castle turret, the slippery stone steps dipping like water beneath their sandals.
Stuart gave a great subsiding sigh, and nodded that it would have to do. It was getting dark, and they needed to find somewhere. They needed to unpack, and have a meal, and unfold their maps; perhaps they were near the sea – perhaps this holiday might work out, against all odds.
Laura unclipped the passenger door and stepped onto the driveway of Sycamore Heights. Maisie immediately pushed the passenger seat forward and escaped from the car, slipping her hand into her mother’s hand. Stuart was only her stepfather, and being alone with him made her feel queasy. She didn’t like the way he looked when he took off his glasses to clean them on his shirt–his eyes protruded, and his long greasy hair fell in front of them, making him grumble, and push the hair back to the top of his head.
Laura squeezed her hand, and the two of them walked towards the shining grey front door.
“…and here comes a little girl!” said the woman who greeted them. “Hello, sweetheart!”
She bent down until her face was level with Maisie’s. She was an old lady wearing roughly applied coral lipstick, as though she’d smeared it on at the approach of visitors. She had a hard mass of blonde hair all around her head, and there were silver rings on her fingers. Maisie found her intriguing. Old ladies were usually nice to her, and a reliable source of sweets and comics. She wondered if she could have a room to herself, rather than a camp-bed in a family room. She even dared to hope for a four-poster bed, covered in gauzy veils. She’d seen one of those in the castle.
The house was quite cheery inside. They had been ushered into a room crammed with painted plates and horse-brasses. There was a crocheted cloth on a round table, and on top of that slept a ginger cat which the old lady shooed off, before turning apologetically to Laura – almost as though her visitor was someone who cared about housework, and put coasters under mugs, and bothered about a bit of cat hair. The Masons’ own house was inches thick in cat hair, and worse, and although they had a dining table it had disappeared years ago beneath an avalanche of plastic bags and broken appliances.
“The rates are twenty-five pounds per night for Mummy and Daddy,” the landlady explained. “And only ten for the little girl. Including breakfast, of course. And I can always find a little snack, if needed,” she winked, reaching out to pat Maisie’s shoulder.
Biscuits, thought Maisie–this woman will supply me with chocolate biscuits. She followed the ginger cat with her eyes as it padded sleepily around the table legs–it looked a fat old thing, amenable to stroking. She hoped for a room at the top of the house.
“…I’ll have to ask my husband,” Laura was saying, in a wavering voice Maisie hardly recognised.
“Well, nothing to ask really, is there?” smiled the lady. “You won’t find better rates anywhere, and I keep a clean house.” She slid a potted poinsettia towards the centre of the table, to cover the place where the cat had slept. “And it’s getting late.”
“I’ll just go and ask my husband,” Laura repeated. She had thrust Maisie behind her. Suddenly she turned and marched Maisie along the cabbage-smelling hallway to the front door. There she grabbed the handle and pulled–and twisted–and then at last, although it could only have been a few seconds, she slid back a bolt and the door sprang open.
Maisie was pushed across the crunchy drive. She could see Stuart reading a paper he’d spread over the steering wheel of the car. Behind her, she heard her mother’s shoes, pattering with a strange irregularity, as though she was dancing–and behind those steps, fainter still, an odd crawling sound, as though Laura’s partner in the dance had fallen and was being dragged along.
All in one motion, Laura’s hands siezed the passenger door handle, pulled it open, yanked the front seat and threw Maisie into the back. That was exactly it–she threw her, and Maisie landed sideways and astonished along the toffee leatherette. The car rocked as Laura jumped in the front.
“I can help with your things,” the landlady was saying. She had followed them out, and now she stood holding the passenger door so that it wouldn’t close.
“That’s very kind of you,” Laura was saying, and it sounded as though she was crying. Maisie was still seeing the world at an angle, as she lay winded on the back seat. The old lady’s dirty silver rings were moving further into the interior of the car, like a dentist’s instruments being inserted into a mouth. Laura was trying to tug the door shut. Thank you so much,” she wept.
Stuart, very slowly, folded his newspaper.
“So,” he frowned, as he watched the tussle. “Are we staying?”
“Drive!” Laura yelled, right in his face. “DRIVE!”
He gaped at her for a moment, reaching for the gear stick. Laura made a last desperate grab for the passenger door, which seemed to slam on the old woman’s fingers as the car moved over the gravel. Maisie looked back to see her doubled over and clutching one of her hands in pain. She was shouting something towards the car. There was a lot of noise everywhere, and the house looked different, suddenly–small and white, like a cottage, with its windowsills painted jaunty colours.
Maisie felt her heart juddering in her chest. She knew she got a lot of things wrong: she saw things that weren’t there, she got terrible headaches, and certain words made her feel ill. But now Mum was crying–great wracking sobs, and as she bent over the dashboard Maisie could see two long jagged rips in the shoulders of Mum’s blouse, and the pale skin underneath speckled with dots of blood.
“I fail to see,” Stuart was saying, as he pulled into a lay-by and braked abruptly. “I fail to see what this performance is about.”
Laura hadn’t said anything for twenty miles. She held a wet tissue to her face.
“You must have got tangled in something,” he reasoned. “To tear your blouse. Hardly the lady’s fault.”
Laura didn’t respond, except to take a deep inward breath. The air in the car was nasty. They would have to sleep in there all night–Mr. and Mrs. Mason tilting their seats backwards, and Maisie stretching in relative comfort behind them. She would have to pee in the hedgerow, among nettles and cow dung. Their toothbrushes and pyjamas, if they’d remembered to bring them, would be jumbled in laundry bags in the boot.
It was surprisingly easy to fall asleep. Maisie wanted to lose the terrible memory of her mother’s weeping. It gave her the same feeling of instability as those dipping steps in the castle had done; the feeling evoked by that word on the sign–Heights.
She closed her eyes and thought of the nice old ginger puss on the round table. As she dozed, she reached out a hand to his tufty fur. But he turned and hissed at her touch, and lashed out with his claws until her skin was speckled with blood. Roused from her dream, she opened her eyes to see the familiar orange stitching in the back of Mum’s car seat. Her hand stung. She shifted, and went back to sleep.
“…we would never have got out. I know you don’t believe me. But we would never have left that house.”
“She seemed harmless to me–“
“You didn’t see inside, Stu. All black and grey. Grey nets at the windows. It was like the ashes after a big fire.”
“It looked pretty enough on the outside. Window-boxes–“
“Of course it did. To lure us in. But inside–oh, God! And she had a dead cat, Stu, on her dining table.”
“It was dead.”
“You mean stuffed?”
Then they both laughed–a dark, desperate laugh.
“Oh, what are you talking about, Laura? As if she’d have a–“
I’m telling you it’s true–no, shh, you’ll wake Maisie–stop it!”
The car seemed to rock with their laughter. They were always like this, in their moments of reconciliation–teetering on the brink of an hysteria more frightening than conflict. Maisie lay still in the dark, waiting for them to be quiet. She could hear the wind outside the car. There was no moon, no stars, but she could make out the movement of straggly trees at the side of the road, shielding them from occasional passing cars. She was thirsty, but she felt warm underneath her checked jacket. Gradually she eased off her shoes, using the toe of each foot to lever their backs.
A dead cat? Ashes? She closed her eyes. She knew she got a lot of things wrong.
Stuart, still half-asleep, grabbed the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition.
“Wha – ? What is it?” cried Laura, turning instinctively to look over her shoulder. Maisie lay in the nest of her jacket, one eye warily open. “It’s alright, Poppet. Nothing to worry about.”
The car bucked out of the rough lay-by, until its wheels gripped the tarmac of the empty road. Maisie propped herself up on one elbow to watch the needle of the speed dial flickering past sixty, then seventy miles per hour.
“Stu, for God’s sake–what’s happening?”
“Never mind,” he muttered, easing his foot off the pedal a little. It was just before dawn, and a lilac light filled the air. Behind them, on the horizon, Maisie could see a thin line of fire where the sun rose. The Sun is fire, she thought, and the Moon is rock. And the Earth is both, she told herself, thinking of all the volcanoes jostling underneath the skin of the world–under the lawns and houses and shopping centres, even under this road they drove on now.
Laura begged Stuart to slow down, to stop, but he drove for miles until they reached a caravan park, where a convenience store was rolling up its shutters for a new day. The three of them went inside and bought individual cartons of sugary squash, moving around the aisles on shaking legs.
It was a good holiday. Maisie kept a record of it in a notebook she’d saved for the purpose, with a hedgehog on the front cover and its pages faintly lined. The family visited an owl sanctuary and a stately home. Her favourite trip, though, was to a model village, which depicted tableaus from the island on a tiny but consistent scale, and even contained its own model village, which presumably contained an even tinier version, and so on to infinity.
“Isn’t it clever?” Laura murmured, leaning over a section of the sculpture. “Apparently it started with a single village and kept growing. The whole island must be here. Think of the work that’s gone into it.”
“I don’t know how they get it to scale,” said Stuart, shaking his head in wonder. He looked around, as though to find someone in charge he could ask. “Getting it to scale’s the hard part. I don’t know how they–“
“Stu,” said Laura, straightening up. “Let’s go.”
“What? But we’re–what’s the matter?”
“We have to go. Now.” She was trying to keep her voice down. There were families all around them; couples with pushchairs, and elderly people leaning against railings. She was trying not to make a scene.
Maisie looked over to where her mother had been standing. That section of the sculpture was green, and flat, and boring. But among the green was a small grey spot, the size and shape of a Monopoly house. And if you looked closely –
“Come on, my girl,” said Mum, hooking her arm and drawing her along the path. “We’re going to the café.”
Stuart trailed behind them, gesturing in protest at his wife’s behaviour and looking for support among the indifferent crowd. Later Maisie heard him snarling “This has got to stop,” and Mum snapping back at him, with a viciousness she seemed hardly capable of, that he hadn’t damn well stopped that night, had he? In that lay-by? He’d driven off like a scalded bloody cat. And then she clapped her hand over her mouth, and Maisie guessed that the bad word had been ‘cat’.
Their return ferry crossing was at six a.m.–a terrible hour. The Masons were late risers. At weekends Stuart would lie-in until teatime. As a family they preferred things to be almost over–days, outings, concerts, holidays. They liked the sense of having survived an ordeal, and of being able at last to return home, however unsatisfactory home might be.
“We’ll find somewhere near the terminal,” said Stuart, as though he’d planned it all along.
“Another Bed and Breakfast?” asked Laura. “That might be expensive.” They had run low on cash two days earlier, and were eking out supplies from the boot of the car. Stuart had a credit card, but that was for emergencies, and it had worn a groove in his wallet with dis-use.
“No, no,” he said airily. “We don’t want all that fuss. Disturbing people at an ungodly hour. We’ll sleep in the car, and then we can be independent.”
Being independent was the great thing for the Masons. It would have been their family motto, inscribed on their coats of arms.
But Laura went quiet at the thought of sleeping in the car again. She knew they had no choice, but she tried to think of an alternative, or at least a safe place to stay. Perhaps they could go back to that nice caravan park, which was full of loud families, where they held nightly discos in a corrugated shed?
Stuart sneered at the thought.
So they spent the last night of their holiday in the car, with Maisie stretched out on the back seat as before. Stuart steered off the road and found a clearing in a copse–when night fell, and the traffic lessened, they might have been in the middle of a primeval forest, so dark and dense were their surroundings.
Mr. and Mrs. Mason fell asleep almost immediately. His hank of hair slid backwards and dangled above Maisie’s foot–she raised one toe and dared herself to touch it. He disgusted her, she realised. The breath that came out of his lungs became the air she inhaled into her own.
A sudden wind had started outside, and by the meagre illumination of passing headlights Maisie could see the shuddering trees. She thought about all the strange things that had happened, but mostly she thought about school, and whether she’d be allowed to get her ears pierced soon. She was conscious of keeping her thoughts under control, as though if her mind wandered too far to the left or right it would find something it could not contain.
In the morning Stuart would drive them to the ferry terminal, and then they would be free, she told herself.
She decided not to sit up and look out of the back window of the car.
Not ever to do that.
She would lie still with her eyes closed instead.
She turned and sat up very gradually. The night looked strange–not at all like a night framed by a bedroom window. She was in it, somehow, as though the car was a leaf being tossed among the highest branches of the trees.
No shelter, she thought. No protection.
In the darkness she saw a small patch of utter darkness. It had a shape, and a feeling, and Maisie thought that it was in pain. She screwed her eyes closed and lay down, down on the seat, trying to press herself into the springs and the webbing. The shape mustn’t look at her, she knew that. She had to make herself invisible to the shape–something utterly beneath its notice, like a stone or an insect, not the guilty thing she was.
Not the girl who had seen those silver rings sliding into the car’s interior.
Not the girl who’d seen blood pearling on her mother’s back.
There was no sound but the wind, and yet she knew that the shape came closer. It could look in through the windows, if it wanted to.
Maisie pushed a toe into the back of Stuart’s seat. He lay unmoving, his mouth open, his weak lower jaw ebbing into his collar. Her mother, next to him, resisted the hand Maisie pressed against her spine. They both lay as though dead.
Something leaned down hard against the back fender, and then let go, making the car rock.
Maisie fell through the gap in time between one exertion and the next. Over and again the car was pressed downwards, with a conscious malevolent force, and even as it jerked upwards her parents slept, perhaps dreamlessly, perhaps believing that the danger had passed.
“You’re quiet, Poppet,” said Mum, as the car nosed into the traffic queue. “Sleep well?”
Maisie nodded. The light was golden, ambrosial, all around and inside the car. The ferry terminal was the most beautiful sight Maisie had ever seen. Cellos seemed to play. It was over, whatever it had been, and there was no need to frighten her parents now. She would spare them. She looked at them compassionately. Being a grown-up was so frightening already.
Mr. and Mrs. Mason were chatting about finding a coffee up on deck as their car slotted in amongst all the others. Maisie had a warm sense of communion with the people she saw around her. Children were pressing their faces against car windows, or grizzling, and parents were arguing with the same grinding trapped loathing that arose sometimes between her own. We’re not so odd, she thought. Not so freaky.
She looked out of the back window, letting her petrified neck muscles relax. She sat up properly and took a good look, feeling that she’d conquered the morning. Their car rested high up on a curve, so she could see down the ramp to where the other cars trundled on, like slow gentle beasts–like the hedgehog on her notebook.
And then she saw the stumping shape, moving between cars. A patch of utter darkness against the light, walking where no person should walk. Bent over, as though in pain, and moving in a strange loping dance. The men in yellow jackets waved more cars on, as though the shape was not there.
Maisie felt her feet slip on those remembered stone steps; she felt herself plunge into insubstantiality.
As the ramp rose behind the last car, sealing the deck before the ferry set off, Maisie thought she saw a flash of silver in the darkness.