In The House
I have fallen through the floorboards
of my thoughts, collapsed beneath
the edifice we built, the place I thought
could last forever.
I watched the cells divide too quickly
but I thought the structure sound
a system or a disease, no Doctor could
define the difference.
Back again to a white-faced child
peering through the family sofa’s bones,
praying for a safety net, a way
to reach the promised land.
They watch from a distance with
not a dry eye, knowing my house,
my being might be a torment trap
or a barricade.
Here, deep within, I cannot be
reached, no one to turn to
but myself, buried under the past’s earth,
an extinct phoenix.
I glanced up from my breakfast to see my nearest neighbour hurrying past.
“No, what?” I asked, a little worried.
My apprehension was dispelled by the excitement of his next words.
“It’s moving day!” He waved at me urgently. “Come on!”
I looked further down the beach and, sure enough, the whole neighbourhood was out in force, moving as a crowd in one particular direction.
I dropped what I was eating and scuttled after my friend.
By the time I arrived at the appropriate spot, a line had already formed. Up at the front, I could see the newly available house looming large over my assembled neighbours. I could tell at a glance that it would be far too big for most of them, and wondered how long we’d have to wait for a suitable tenant to arrive.
I sized up those standing nearest to me and was dismayed to discover that my place would be at the very back of the line. Sighing, I took up my position and settled down to wait. The sun was already high in the sky and its heat beat down on the sand and those gathered there. However long we had to stand there, the actual move was going to be uncomfortable at best.
After what seemed like hours, my neighbours were starting to get impatient, shifting about in place and grumbling to those ahead of and behind them. At long last, though, a massive newcomer strolled up and did a careful circuit of the new dwelling. Apparently satisfied, he positioned himself at the head of the line, and an excited buzz rippled back towards me.
Everybody got ready, concentrating hard on the one next to them in line, preparing for the manoeuver, always a tricky proposition. And then, all at once, we each scrambled out of our previous homes and launched ourselves towards the next size up just in front.
I felt the punishing rays of the sun on my exposed lower half immediately. I had to get in my new house as soon as possible, or I might cook right there on the beach. But, before I could secure it, a latecomer suddenly muscled in from the side and grabbed it out from under me. Then, it was all over; everyone but me had upgraded, and was shuffling off about their business, quickly getting used to their new digs.
Panicked, and still heating up, I studied the discarded house of the thief and was disheartened to see that it was only very slightly bigger than my own. Worse, I could see a hole in the side that might prove treacherous.
Defeated, I turned to my old house and stuffed myself back into it, feeling the worrying pinch that told me it would soon be too small.
Then, I made my way disconsolately back to what was left of my breakfast, knowing that the next moving day I would absolutely have to make sure I was successful.
The life of a hermit crab is never easy!
“What? Tonight, of all nights? Not turning chicken on us, are ya? Yeller-belly custard...”
“ … an' green snot pie, Yeah, heard it all before! Ain't none of us scared o' nothin', Yosser, not t'night nor any other night. We've got a load o' swag already: we don't want no … nothin' bad happenin'!”
The complicated sequence of random, ungrammatical negatives in Mick's rejoinder might have caused confusion even a few miles outside Liverpool, but for Tom Hughes – Yosser to his mates – it was completely unremarkable, part and parcel of the rapid fire local dialect instantly recognised anywhere in the world as Scouse.
Mick had a fair point. Although the custom had only been 'imported' from America in recent years, the round of “Trick or Treat” doorsteppings which they'd planned and carried out with near-military precision had resulted in the six close friends being tested to the limits of what they could carry.
Tom was the oldest of the Usual Suspects (by a whole two days) and their acknowledged Chief Troublemaker by virtue of this fickle twist of fate. He had also been born with the natural instincts of a good Leader: this was quite possibly why none of the Gang had a file with their name lovingly inscribed on it at the local police station – or at least, not yet.
Yosser stared his cousin down for a moment, then turned to look at the house in question, a large detached house at the junction of two roads in a suburb of Liverpool which had always been a 'des. res.' district. It was set well back from the road, visible but discreetly masked from casual observation by a mini-forest of mature trees which had been carefully trimmed to a regular “short back and sides” coiffure. A double driveway swept in a sculpted semicircle from two ornate entrance gates to the front door: the flat roofed extension on the right of the building had to be the garage, and it was certainly bigger than many of the back-to-back terraced properties which were the most common type of house in that part of town.
“It's not that late! Look, there's lights on downstairs, there's someone in an' they 'aven't gone t' bed, yet! We've touched lucky everywhere we've tried: this is guaranteed our best chance t' score big time before we call it a night!”
Each of them carried two full, sturdy carrier bags with stuffed with 'contributions': Yosser had also brought a backpack, which had been filled during the evening with all the fruit they'd been offered.
Nobody could fault Yosser's call for one last raid: without further discussion they fell into line and followed their General as he led the final sortie of the evening.
Tom had half-expected motion-sensitive security lighting to come on as they approached the house, which had the unmistakeable patina of 'old money' oozing from every pore. He felt vaguely cheated when this didn't happen. Nobody shouted "Who goes there?" No dogs barked, no crazed gamekeeper with loaded blunderbuss leapt from the undergrowth to challenge them. Their hundred yard trek along the evenly-raked gravel driveway was achieved with no melodramatic incident whatsoever.
A warm glow suffused through the smoke-yellow glass of a fanlight above the door. Heavy curtains were drawn across bay windows either side of the door, and the lights were on in the room to their left. A heavy brass knocker was set just too high for any of them to reach comfortably, but within Tom's grasp there was a curious contraption he almost recognised: he ought to be able to put a name to it ...
Of course! It was an old-fashioned bell. He stepped up and gave it a good hard tug. Half a yard of wire spooled out: a bell tinkled softly, somewhere in the rear of the property.
"You rang?" someone growled, provoking nervous giggles all round as the gang pictured the door being opened by the hapless would-be butler Lurch from the perennial Adams Family TV comedy.
"Shurrup, youse lot! I'm tryin' t' hear if there's someone coming!" Yosser hissed. "Get ready, an' look smart: this is a 'posh' house, so watch yer manners!"
The door was suddenly open, catching them all by surprise. Tom was certain he hadn't taken his eyes off it, but somehow he'd managed to 'miss' the movement of the closed door through almost ninety degrees to the open position. And although the person standing on the threshhold wasn't Lurch (or any other butler) the lady who had answered the bell's summons was dressed in a distinctive servant's uniform which hadn't been used outside film studios in over fifty years. Tom realised she had reached the door without making a sound, and glanced at her feet. There was no clue to be had. Her neatly pressed black skirt flowed all the way to the floor, concealing whatever she might be wearing on her feet.
Tom took the initiative. He cleared his throat and consciously tried to project his Sunday-best winning smile.
"Good even, madam!" he purred, doffing an imaginary cap and making what he thought would pass as a 'fair leg' of a courteous greeting protocol, based on what he could remember of re-runs of Robin Hood and other TV series set in more chivalrous times.
"On this night of the year, when shades of the past are near,
We pray you, have no fear! My friends and I come here
... to entertain you. Trick or Treat?"
It wasn't until he finished speaking he realised he'd been 'declaiming verse' (even if it wasn't brilliant poetry) rather than speaking in his 'normal' manner. From the corner of his eye, he was fairly sure none of the Gang had noticed, for which small favour he breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief.
Another slight 'stop-go' moment: now she stood at a different angle, holding the door wider open, using her free hand to invite them inside. Her bright blue eyes were warm and friendly, reflecting the tiny flames of the wax candles burning in exquisitely carved sconces set high on both walls along the hallway.
"Trick, or Treat: and on this night of nights, All Hallows Eve!" she breathed. "Come, this is indeed an offer of entertainment the like of which has not been seen in this house in ... far too long! The Master is certain to approve, and the children: the children will be delighted! Come, come!"
Tom and Mick both noticed the slight hesitation, but let it slide - at least for the moment. A door on the left hand side of the hallway opened silently a full second before their Hostess reach it, her feel making no noise on the polished parquet flooring. She allowed them to file into the room, and beamed at them.
""Feel free to use anything you need to perform your Mumming of tricks and treats! I shall inform the Master and his family: they will be here presently to enjoy what entertainment it pleases you to provide."
She bobbed a gracious half-curtsey and glided out of the room: unseen hands closed the door as silently as it had opened.
"Weird, or what?" Mick muttered. "Not sure what we've got ourselves into ...!"
"We promised we'd put on a show" Yosser replied, "And that's the only way we're going to find out! One thing's for sure: we ain't got much time t' spare talkin' about it so let's make it the best show ever!"
The room had all the trappings and furnishings of a private theatre, including a small apron stage at one end of the room and half a dozen rows of plush red velvet seats for an audience.
A football was found and two of the gang immediately volunteered to entertain with a "keepy-uppy" display which they began to rehearse: they were actually very good, with feet, head and knee passes.
"Me Dad taught me t' juggle once" said Pete, a fairly quiet member of the gang. "Gimme a few minutes with these tennis balls an' I should be okay ..."
"Me an' Dave was muckin' about with that 'Fish Slap' skit on Morris Dancin' we saw on Monty Python las' week!" Mick said. "That just leaves you, Tom: any ideas?"
Yosser concentrated hard. As Leader he felt he had to come up with something worthwhile ...
"It's Hallowe'en, right? I'll tell a ghost story: one I heard at Scout Camp about Sir Rodric of Bispham comin' back from the Crusades.
"I'll go on last, an' introduce each act".
Despite the lack of any real rehearsal time, each act was completed without flaws and was applauded with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm.
Tom lined up the Gang on the stage for a final bow, annd stood before them as spokesman.
"We didn't expect to be welcomed into this House as entertainers tonight, but we have performed to the best of our ability. You are welcome to reward us as you see fit, and hope you will be pleased to release ..."
The Master raised his hand, shaking his head.
"None who have entered this house have ever left!" he thundered.
"And we were not told of this when we offered our entertainment!" Tom protested, "We were simply offering a harmless tradition of Trick or Treat - in the hope of some small Treat for ourselves ...!"
"Meaning you expected the 'Trick' to be played on me and my family, then? That seems a one-sided bargain to me!" the Master snapped.
"But they haven't played a Trick on me. Papa!" the younger girl piped up. "and I thought they were very funny! They've done you no harm: please, let them go home. How would you feel if someone tried to stop me coming home to you?"
The Master's attention was distracted by the pleadings of his youngest child. As he hesitated, Yosser's vision blurred: the whole room seemed to be dissolving, and faintly he heard the chiming of bells. Slow, sonorous strokes ... Midnight, he realised, and roused himself to seize the two carrier bags of goodies he'd kept close to his side since finishing his tale of Sir Rodric.
"Look sharp, youse lot! It's midnight: this is our one chance to leg it! Grab yer bags an' make for the door!"
He pumped his legs hard and headed for the door, not bothering to check the reactions of the rest of the gang. Self- preservation was the name of this game ...
The door to the room, the walls surrounding the door, and the outline of the front door beyond it were becoming less solid, more nebulous with every stride he took. At first it felt like running through treacle, but each step became easier than the one before it, and Tom passed 'through' what had moments before been solid wall slightly to the right of the door. Seconds later he was windmilling his arms, trying to remain upright as he tumbled down the remnants of the steps on the porch outside the front door. Curses and thumps left and right suggested the arrival of five other bodies scattering around him on extremely solid terra firma.
One by one, the Usual Suspects raised themselves from the overgrown grass which had sprouted where once a magnificent des. res. had stood proud in one of Liverpool's leafiest suburbs.