William ran along the cliff path taking care not to slip on the loose stones under his feet. Holiday excitement streaming out of him as if it were visible, like a rainbow of energy trailing behind him. He breathed in deeply and yelled a huge whoop of joy! He laughed as the gulls scattered from the path in front of him. Time to find a hiding place before Nella came looking for him.
Face screwed up against the warm stone of the cottage, Nella finished her counting, “....46....47....48....49...50! Coming! Ready or not!”. The chase was on.
Nella ran directly towards the cliff path. She knew the route William liked to take. They both walked this way every day of their holiday, searching for early blackberries among the brambles. They knew to be careful along the path. Too many people had had accidents along there to be unaware that the cliff wasn’t stable.
As she ran along, Nella sang to herself, “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!”. She giggled. A whole week. Here, by the sea, on the beach, every day. A whole week. Where was William?
Nella stopped and glanced around her. The brambles were thick either side of her and she could see no sign of her brother. There were a couple of berries glistening in the sunshine beside her. She picked them both off and popped them in her mouth. Where was William?
William raced on down the cliff path, further than he had ever been from the cottage. They’d been coming here every year for a summer week for as long as he could remember. Every stone on the beach, each shell and rockpool contained memories of summers past. Sandcastles built and moats destroyed by waves. He’d never been this way before though. Never been old enough to be trusted to roam about freely.
There was a fork in the path ahead. William stood for a while on the point where the paths diverged, turning slowly on the spot, holding out his arms as he twirled. Eventually he flopped, dizzy and a bit nauseated, onto the warm grass. When the feeling subsided he took the left, higher path. He assumed Nella would take the lower one nearer to the sea. That would slow her down, he thought.
The path climbed through the bramble patches and came out into a broad, curving meadow high up on the cliff. Birds rose out of the long grass beside the path as William walked along. He gazed as they sped high into the sky above him, wings fluttering madly, singing their alarm. He carried on.
A while later he stopped. He hadn’t left the large curving meadow but he could no longer hear the birds, or even the sea. The stillness was thick and heavy. It seemed to be closing about him together with the heat, which now felt oppressive. William wondered if it would actually crush him. It seemed to lean on him from all sides, making it difficult to move forwards. Still he kept on, pushing through the air as it became like treacle all around him. His eyes began to see tiny creatures scampering around the edge of his vision, but when he blinked they disappeared. Then the rushing noises began in his ears. Like the sea, but definitely not. William stopped. Should he sit down and wait until this stopped, he wondered. Nella couldn’t be far behind, and he was anxious to have found a proper hiding place before she came this way. He kept going, ever more slowly.
Suddenly, the air around him seemed to lift. Breath rushed back into his lungs. He stood tall and stretched, yawning as he did. In front of him was a wall. How had he not seen it before? He walked slowly around it, following the path. The wall was old, made of the same honey coloured stone as the holiday cottage and it felt warm from the sunshine it had stored in its pores. William traced his hand along the wall as he walked. It seemed to buzz with life, as if a hundred bees were trapped inside it. As he rounded the corner of the wall, William saw a gate a little way along. It was made of metal, twisted and cleverly beaten into the shape of a rosebush. Beautiful, intricate and difficult to see through. William pushed at the gate. He wanted to see what was inside, behind the wall.
Nella sighed. Finding William was taking so much longer than she had thought it would, she was beginning to feel like giving up. “Come on William!” she called. “Where are you? Come out! You’ve won and I want to go home!”. She sighed. No one answered. It was hot, too hot to be wandering around on the top of the cliff when below on the beach, the cool, sparkling water looked so tempting. “I’m going back!” she yelled. No one answered. Nella shrugged. William would come home when he realised she wasn’t looking for him. He would be so happy that he had outwitted her again that he wouldn’t mind that she hadn’t told him she was going back. Nella trotted off happily in the direction of the beach.
William pushed harder at the gate. It began to give a little under the effort. Slowly, noisily it creaked and groaned its way open. In front of William was a very overgrown garden, and a cat. A large ginger cat.
The cat mewed loudly and wound its way around William’s legs. It was a fat cat. A big fat ginger Tomcat. William loved cats. He stooped down to stroke it and the buzzing he felt in the wall intensified under his fingers. William ignored it. “It was a very hot day,” he thought “of course everything feels odd.” He glanced up through the brambly garden towards a small cottage made of the same yellowy stone as the wall. William stood up and ignoring the cat’s complaints, he walked towards door. It was an old door, blue paint peeling off and with a rusty knocker in the middle of it. William stopped, hand half way to the knocker. Why was he knocking? He didn’t know. Was there even anyone inside?
Slowly his hand dropped back to his side. He walked past the door to the little window beside it and peered in. There was nothing inside. No chairs, no table, no comfy sofa. William was puzzled. The cat was clearly well fed and cared for. Where were the people? A sudden thirst came over William. If he went inside there might be a tap. It was such a hot day. He really needed a drink. He wandered back to the door and pushed, tentatively at it. It didn’t move. William tried the handle. It was stuck, stiff with rust. He lifted his other hand to it and turned it with all his strength. It inched round, not enough, but William knew he could push it all the way around. He locked his hands over the handle and twisted with all his strength. Quite without warning, the handle turned, almost as if someone were helping from the inside. The door opened quietly and easily and William fell through it and onto the cool, stone hall floorway. He stood up, embarrassed at having fallen, dusted himself off and glanced at the cat. It carried on sitting outside in the sunshine. Impassive, silent and heavy. William felt that the cat was watching him, waiting for him to do something. To make a decision. He turned back to the house. The hallway was dark and cool, the only light coming in through the open door. He was still very thirsty.
“I’m going inside.” William told the cat, who stared impassively at him from under its heavy eyelids. “Fine!” he said. “Be like that! See if I care!” and he giggled at himself.
As he walked further into the house, the cool hallway began to chill even further. It made sense given that all the doors and windows were closed and the stone walls were thick, but William felt as if the cold were a different kind of cold. It chilled you immediately to your bones, leaving none of the day’s heat behind. It was dense, almost as if you could reach out and touch it. William headed for the back of the house where he thought the kitchen would be.
The rooms at the front of the cottage were empty, devoid utterly of furnishings of any kind. At the back was a kitchen with a small white sink and two cupboards whose doors were left open, showing their lack of contents. Over the sink was a tap, which dripped into a rusty looking patch in the bowl below. William turned the handle and water trickled slowly into his other palm. He slurped it gratefully. It wasn’t much but he wasn’t too thirsty anymore.
He began to relax. Clearly no one lived there, the cat must have come down the cliff path from another cottage, just as he had, only it had been able to climb over the wall instead of using the gate. This was his own discovery, and it excited him as he thought about how much fun he and Nella could have there over the week. He scooped some more water out from the bowl and turned off the tap. It was too quiet in the house, he decided. It needed someone to come along and ruffle its feathers a bit. He giggled. “I’m going to be a plane!” he told the house. “World War 2, Lancaster bomber. They make LOADS of noise! Look!”. He zoomed off, a deep booming noise echoing from his throat. He whizzed through the ground floor of the cottage, laughing louder and louder as he went. Puffed, he finally came to a halt at the foot of the stairs. Immediately, the strange, heavy quiet descended on the house. It was as if William had never been there.
And then he heard it.
Above his head. Through the stillness and the silence, a noise. A tiny, squeaking noise. As if someone were moving very carefully on the floorboards above his head. William froze. The house temperature appeared to drop even further. Goosebumps rose on his arms. Then he heard it again. It didn’t sound like creaky floorboards this time. More like a rusted wheel, or a stiff hinge. This time William wasn’t scared. He was fascinated.
William turned his head upwards, craning to see if he could work out which room upstairs the noise was coming from. He started up the first few stairs, the thick layer of undisturbed dust dulling the sound of his shoes on the wood. The noise stopped.
William crept up the staircase. His heart pounding and his brain desperately trying to work out what could be making the noise. At the landing he stopped and listened hard, but there was no way of knowing which room it came from. He turned to his right, opening the door easily and peeking in around the side of it. Like downstairs it was empty, dusty and cold. William retreated closing the door carefully and quietly behind him. To his left was an identically silent room. He began to think he had imagined it, and then it started again, “Squeaksqueak, squeaksqueak” it went. William turned. A door, narrower than the others and somewhat hidden in the shadows of the corner was in front of him. This room would be above the kitchen, he realised. His heart began to pound again and the goosebumps rose on his arms. “Squeaksqueak, squeaksqueak”. The noise appeared to be getting louder and more insistent.
William stretched out his hand to the door. The noise stopped abruptly mid-squeak.
He turned the handle. From inside the room there was a shuffling noise, as if something big and heavy were dragging itself along the floor. William felt the familiar buzzing sensation in his hand and arm, as if a hive of bees had suddenly decided to sit on the handle on the other side of the door. He pushed gently at the door and it gave way beneath his hand.
The afternoon sun shone in through the windows at the back of the cottage so brightly that William was immediately blinded. He stepped forwards into the room, the buzzing feeling mounting in his body. Every step he took was mirrored by the vibrations now in his chest, his stomach, his legs, his feet and his head. Oh, his head!
William shook his head from side to side hoping to clear the now deafening sound of buzzing. As he did so his eyes started to clear and he could see around him a perfectly furnished sitting room. There was a fire burning in the grate despite the coldness of the room, a couple of armchairs positioned either side of it. In front of the window was a rocking chair and as it moved gently backwards and forwards, William realised that it was this which was making the squeaking noise he had heard from downstairs.
It was only as he drew nearer that he could see clearly the figure of the old lady sitting in the chair, moving it rhythmically in place.
William smiled despite his nerves. “Hello” he said. “I’m sorry but I didn’t know anyone was here. I thought your house was empty and I was so thirsty and I....”. His words trailed off into the silence. The old lady didn’t reply, she smiled at him and just kept on rocking, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, the chair squeaking more loudly each time.
William drew nearer. Perhaps she was deaf. His Granny was deaf and all her friends were deaf too so William was used to having to get close to them and raise his voice.
As he drew nearer the buzzing got louder again. So loud that he had to shake his head again to try and clear it. It made no difference and now his skin was beginning to itch too. The closer he came across the room the itchier his skin became and the more every nerve in his body jangled with the buzzing. William was very scared now, but he didn’t want to show it. He didn’t understand what was happening but he felt incapable of turning away, even though the old lady never stopped her smiling and rocking, smiling and rocking. The urge to scream rose inside him until he thought he would burst, but he kept on walking slowly and purposefully across the room towards the chair.
At the very moment when he thought he could bear it no longer, he realised he was standing directly in front of her. William shook his head again to clear it and realised that there was something very odd about this lady. He peered at her face, the buzzing becoming louder and more distracting. Her eyes were moving – but not like eyes should. These eyes were crawling! And her mouth, between her lips were black shapes, wriggling around!
William took a step back as the room exploded around him. The old lady’s mouth and eyes streamed forth flies which pelted William with their hard bodies. They buzzed and they swarmed and they threw themselves at him with kamikaze aim. The old lady seemed to deflate before his eyes and William ran screaming out of the room followed by the cloud of angry, biting insects.
He threw himself down the stairs, half tumbling, half running and out of the open front door. The buzzing was so loud around his head he couldn’t hear his own heart racing, nor the ragged breaths coming from his mouth.
Outside the house the fat ginger cat still sat, lazily licking its paws and contemplating the garden. William dived headfirst into the overgrowth, his hands over his ears. He knew he couldn’t outrun the flies, maybe if he played dead they would leave him alone.
And then he realised. There was no buzzing. There were no flies. Nothing. Just the heavy, intense quiet of the hot summer afternoon. No birds, no sea, no flies. Nothing.
William raised his head an inch from the grass. Nothing flung itself at him. He turned over and saw only blue sky overhead and grasses waving to and fro. He sat up. The front door of the cottage was as it had been when he arrived, firmly shut, with the peeling blue paint and rusted knocker. There was no sign of the flies.
The ginger cat looked at William smugly and lay down with a sigh. William didn’t need telling to leave. He stood up and ran out of the beautifully carved gate. He didn’t hear it close softly behind him as he jogged down the cliff path, anxious to put distance between him and the terrifying flies.
On the beach Nella stood back and admired her handiwork. A whole sandcastle and moat completed without William’s help. She pressed a couple of shells into the top ramparts for decoration and smiled. William would be so impressed with her handiwork.
As he raced down the path and onto the beach, William started to breathlessly tell Nella about his afternoon. She looked bemusedly at him. “There was no fork in the path” she said. “I went all the way along to the next beach before I turned back.” William looked confused. “You must have been hiding in the brambles really well. I couldn’t see you anywhere!”.
William didn’t know what to think. He was sure that everything which had happened to him was true, but Nella seemed so convinced there was no second path.
That night, at bathtime, William undressed and emptied his pockets. Predictably they were full of sand and shells from the games Nella and he had been playing until the tide came in. As he took off his t-shirt however, a couple of small dark blobs plopped softly onto the rug. William bent down to inspect them. Flies. He shivered, threw them in the bin and went to have his bath.