She hated London.
The grind, the grime, the grit—and that wasn’t even mentioning the basement flat. Lucky, she had been lucky to get it, everyone said so at the lab—and for the price! It was unheard of. Chance connections: her aunty Barbara who knew this woman from secretarial school back in the day—back when they had things like secretarial schools. This strange woman Mrs Cuttle who only rented to people after examining her crystal ball for the truth. The ball was not clear like glass but a smoky quartz—or so she said. What did Diana know about things like that? Hooey. That’s what her dad would have said but he was five years gone. With mum gone this summer in the slow free-fall of cancer, she was alone alone alone in this big city. Her first Christmas in London and she was on her own.
Diana was so low on Christmas spirit that when the fella in the shop around the corner wished her ‘Happy holidays!’ she very nearly snarled, ‘Bah humbug!’ Yet she found reading Dickens soothing. Not that one of course. She picked up a copy of Dombey and Son in Skoob Books, and read it on the bus, enjoying the characters’ suffering. Unmoved by little Dombey’s pathetic death scene, Diana did find some spark of interest in Alice’s plans for revenge. Revenge was an emotion she could nourish. Pity there was no one to aim it towards. You can’t kill death.
The habitual need to invest in holiday cheer would die hard though. Diana stirred herself to buy some baubles to hang around the room to try to make it look festive, though it looked more bedraggled than ever. The light was wrong. Perhaps it was the angle. The windows were small and because it was a basement flat you only saw feet, endless feet. Maybe it was the strobing effect: there really ought to be a warning for the flat like they have at the start of films: May cause seizures.
Foot parade until suddenly there weren’t any feet because it was the end of the working day. Single pedestrians wandered. It was worse because you heard each step distinctly on the pavement. There weren’t many: it was a cul de sac and there was no pub down the street to draw them, not even a café to get latté-drinkers. Diana found it mesmerising: the tap of shoes out of sight, getting louder, passing by, then fading away. She couldn’t tune it out. The only street light was a distance away so depending upon which direction the person walked from their elongated shadow would either fall before you saw the feet or linger afterward like some kind of ghostly presence.
Then there was the coal stove with its ash pit drawer. Mrs Cuttle made much of it as a feature of the flat. ‘Antique and very valuable! Why if I sold them off I could probably buy the house next door, too. Incredible iron works!’
‘So why don’t you?’ Diana asked, mystified.
Mrs Cuttle stared at her. ‘What would I do with two houses?’ Rapacious London capitalism seemed to have passed entirely by her notice.
The coal stove didn’t supply the heat, thank goodness. There was an entirely modern and efficient boiler set with hot water and heat so the little flat was snug and warm. Too warm at times, so she would open the doors on the coal stove. There was a little cool air that came in where once the coal burned or the ashes fell. It made Diana feel a little less suffocated by the subterranean rooms.
She must have been dreaming that night, of course. Or it was the lingering effects of her mother’s death. Grief ebbs and flows unpredictably: a tempest one moment, a puddle splash the next. Diana awoke to the sound of her mother’s laboured breathing and then wondered where she was. There was no hospital beep. As she stared off into the strange gloom she saw eyes glow golden.
Not her mother’s eyes. She caught her breath and then stayed silent. Some childhood memory persisted, warning that silence and stillness would protect you from whatever assailed you in the dark. For a few moments Diana clutched the covers of her bed and listened. The whole of London seemed to have disappeared in the night and there was only she and the eyes that watched her.
Then a blink and they were gone.
Diana heard a clicking noise and then only her own breath and wondered if perhaps it, too had been a dream. She lay back down, intending to sleep, tossing and turning and checking her phone for the time every forty minutes or so until it was nearly time to get up and only then falling asleep. Her alarm jarred her awake with its jaunty steel drums far too soon.
The whole day she felt out of step. She went to the lab although Dr Abbott had shooed them away until after the first of the year. Diana did not need to be there. She could have been anywhere: in Bruges, in Bucharest, in Brigadoon. No one needed her. Her aunty Barbara invited her to come back home and share the holidays with the endless brood of sons, daughters, children and grandchildren and the other foundlings that made their way to her door, their sad stories told and retold until they lost all meaning.
Diana did not want to be one of the foundlings. Better to be alone. Mrs Cuttle didn’t believe that. She invited Diana up for a rousing cuppa or to make gingerbread or toffee. Sometimes Diana found it too exhausting to fight against the constant cheer and submitted, drinking the milky tea and eating whatever was proffered, allowing the stream of running commentary to run over her like a cool breeze. Mrs Cuttle seldom required a response, so secure was she in her knowledge of the world. Whether she was talking about the man who came to dinner and surprised her with his scheme for renewable energy that required only a small investment on her part, or delineating the gremlins known to affect the baking of breads in the winter months and how to allow for their influence without altering the taste of the loaf, Mrs Cuttle was up to the challenge.
‘You don’t mind the stove?’ she said abruptly, startling Diana with a direct question.
‘Mind it? No.’ Why should she mind it?
‘Generally its good to have a source of iron in the place as it keeps ‘em away.’
Diana was confused. ‘Keeps who away?’
‘Why, the Gentry of course!’ Mrs Cuttle was off and running on the topic with such enthusiasm and a sure sense that her listener shared its familiarity, that it was some time before Diana figured out that by the ‘gentry’ the older woman did not mean people in DeBrett’s but those in the Sidhe.
Away with the fairies suddenly made so much sense: Mrs Cuttle and her crystal ball that wasn’t and her peculiar habits. Lucky, she was, lucky to get this flat, Diana reminded herself when she finally managed to extricate herself from the too-warm kitchen, the gingerbread and the elderberry wine—‘just a little, for your health!’
If her mum had lived it might have all been very funny to tell her about over their long phone calls but there was no one who might have been amused by it. Nursing someone over a long illness tended to cut down on your social life. Aunty Barbara remained steadfast but few others did. Mum’s bridge club sent baskets. But the day to day trudge made Diana wish for the umpteenth time that she had not been an only child.
‘You should get a pet!’ Mrs Cuttle had cried earlier. ‘What a comfort Fifi is to me.’ She turned to pat the old dog on the chair where it lay snoring. This indeterminate ball of fur woke long enough to snort, as it was perpetually short of breath, and fart noisily before lapsing back into its murmuring dreams. Diana blanched. She could not imagine anything less comforting than that smelly creature.
Yet lying wide-eyed in the dark later she wondered if there were not something in the idea. Without the lab to go to her days hung long and limp, waiting to be filled with something. Even Dickens was letting her down. Her eyes glazed over poor Florence’s fretting. She kept losing her place. Maybe she ought to have picked up something cheerier—Wodehouse or Heyer—but she could not bear the thought of such sparkling happy folk. Perhaps something fun but with a little suffering too: Trollope? Pym.
Contemplating possible novels finally allowed her to drift into troubled sleep until she woke with a start of fear. She could not breathe. A heavy weight lay on her chest. I’m dying. It’s a heart attack. A sliver of light shot across the room to illuminate the black shape that hovered upon her chest.
Diana cried out and the black shadow floated up and away in silence, disappearing into the darkness or perhaps the coal stove. For a moment all she could hear was the tell-tale beat of her heart—assuring her it was very much working—and her own ragged breath.
Was it a dream? The shaft of light had hit the shape with an uncanny accuracy. The room was dark once more. Diana took a deep breath and then shot out of bed, crossing the room in a bound to close the door to the coal stove, not daring to look inside. She had to kneel down to reach the ash pit door, so she dared a look inside. Golden eyes glowed back at her and she yelped, slamming the door shut.
She hopped back into the bed, tucking all her limbs in safely. A childhood belief that inside the covers was inviolable stuck with her. I’ll never get back to sleep now! Yet in what seemed like a twinkling Diana blinked awake in dappled sunlight interrupted by the legs of the morning commuters and shoppers.
Throwing back the covers she gave a cry of dismay: her hands, the blanket, the sheets all bore the blackness of coal, as if the creature had bled grim death upon them. Shaking Diana hastened to wash it off her hands. The coal dust swirled down the sink as if it were heading back to the pit.
What happened? Maybe it was a dream. Maybe she had imagined it all and had gone to the stove to slam the door—which was certainly closed now, both of them. There had been no weight, no golden eyes, no weird creature from her imagination and certainly no ray of light from the window with pinpointed accuracy like the lantern in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ of course.
Diana sat down at the little table in the kitchen area and rubbed her face. Some coal dust appeared on her fingers so she went back to the sink and looked at the mirror she normally avoided and grimaced. There was black on her neck and chin, doubtless from the bedding. She would have to do some laundry today.
Moving like an automaton, Diana stripped the bed and stuffed everything into the little washing machine, throwing her nightshirt in, too. I really need to get out. She took a quick shower, shivering because the washer monopolised the hot water. Throwing on random clothes, Diana shoved Dombey in her bag and headed out the door, locking it behind her and wondering if she was locking anything in there.
For a moment she stood on the pavement uncertain, allowing people to stream around her like a current. It was Christmas Eve. Where could she go? Maybe the British Museum was open at least for a little while. It gave purpose to her stride, yet when she got there it was shut. Diana wandered through some of the nearby shops, pretending to browse. Her eyes glazed, staring through windows as if to find answers—or at least to resist thinking a little longer.
In the window of Atlantic, her gaze fell upon a vintage book promising to reveal the secrets of the fairy folk and her heart leapt up. But then Diana caught herself and turned away from the colourful shop window. Are you mad?
After a beat, she thought what if I am?
Diana wandered along intending to buy something if only as a distraction. You need food, she scolded remembering nothing much would be open the next day. Diana treated herself to the upscale grocery store and even bought a bottle of wine and some cheese before losing the will to shop any more. As she came out the back entrance she spied that Skoob was indeed open that day and descended with gratitude into its depths. Books would never lose their allure. Definitely Trollope or Pym—funny but sad—or perhaps a Brontë to remind her what feelings were.
Diana reached up for a Pym on the new arrivals shelf and instead grabbed a book on the history of fairy folk. She set it down as if it were on fire. Her vision clouded with black soot for a moment, then she fled the shop.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Mrs Cuttle cried as they passed in the foyer. Diana tried to smile though she could feel only her teeth. ‘Come round tomorrow midday for sherry and mince pies, do. It’s a tradition here!’
Diana escaped to her flat. The winter light shone weakly, catching stray motes in the air. She put the groceries in the wee fridge and got the bedclothes out of the washer. Would they have time to dry before the night? No matter. She could curl up in the comfy chair. Maybe she would sleep better.
Fishing Dombey from the depths of her bag, Diana sat down to read. Five minutes later she still stared at the same page. Maybe some television. She reached for the remote and clicked it on.
‘…about the fairy tradition in Cornwall.’ Click.
This is madness. When you start connecting coincidence you might as well get your own crystal ball. Diana stood up, took a deep breath and strode over to the coal stove. One, two, the doors were open. Fine: there was nothing there. Let’s be really sure.
Diana grabbed her phone and tapped on the torch app. The light glared with a savage fury. The iron guts of the stove were black with old fire and burnt coal. The chimney pipe disappeared into the house above. Diana knelt to look through the ash pit. Like the stove above it the walls were black from the past burnings and a layer of ash coated the bottom. It seemed to be angled down. Where did the ashes go? Perhaps there was an exit door.
In any case, there was nothing in the stove.
All at once Diana felt exhausted. She washed the ash off her hands, turned on the television to some quiz show and sat in the comfy chair until she nodded off. When she woke it was dark. Everything felt wrong.
It took an effort but she got up, sliced some cheese and put it on a plate, poured a glass of wine and sat down again. There was some brash holiday show on now. Diana chewed the food and sipped the wine and tasted nothing. She considered another glass of wine but fell asleep before she could fetch one.
Something brushed her leg. She gave a startled yelp and her hand clanked against the empty plate on the little table. A documentary about some kind of factory was playing on the television. Her hand reached for the remote and snapped it off.
There was something in the room. She could hear it over her own breath. Or she imagined it. Had she left the stove open? Diana couldn’t remember. Her eye adjusted to the light. The drying sheets loomed in the darkness like an abandoned circus tent. Then they billowed as something moved behind them.
Fury more than fear propelled her from the chair. Diana snatched at the sheets and the rack clattered to the tiles. Out of the corner of her eye some vague black shape slipped away into the darkness leaving her all alone.
Diana wrapped the sheets around her like a shroud and curled up on the bed, willing herself to sleep.
She woke at dawn, exhausted, and made the bed properly. Her mother’s edict: if you make your bed you begin the day right. Happy Christmas, mum. I miss you. She sat down on the bed and cried. When she had cried enough, Diana forced herself to get up, shower and dress. After a few cups of tea she had the will to face the day.
Unable to manage reading, she watched mindless holiday television programmes until it was time to go to Mrs Cuttle’s little do. There were only a few people there yet the hubbub suggested a party three times the size. Music blared from tinny speakers whilst the television competed for attention. Everyone talked at the same time.
‘You made it! Have some sherry. Watch out for the mistletoe. There are mince pies on the table and chocolate and some kind of nut thing that Mr Cosmo brought.’ Mrs Cuttle had already downed a lot of sherry. Everyone had. Diana wondered how they would manage dinner later. Perhaps they didn’t.
She was the youngest there by decades. Miss Lastima, the Spanish boarder as Mrs Cuttle always called her, was probably nearest in age. She looked like a model, taut and impeccable, probably fifty though she looked a careful forty in her Prada jacket.
‘I think something’s got into the flue of the coal stove,’ Diana shouted to Mrs Cuttle when she could think of nothing else to do or say to these people.
She only nodded and bellowed back, ‘Mr Cosmo hears singing in his.’
‘Singing? In his coal stove?’
‘Yes, or maybe it was the bathroom vent. It’s not you, is it? No, I suppose not. Too far up.’ Mr Cosmo had the flat at the top of the flat with a view of Tavistock Park she claimed, though Diana suspected that was only if you were to hang out the window an squint a bit.
Mr Cosmo was conferring with three men in hats who looked as if they might be part of some secret government organization or perhaps some remnant of the Golden Dawn still haunting Bloomsbury. Diana decided it was not worth quizzing him on something so ephemeral.
‘I have a message for you,’ Mrs Cuttle said absently, as if it had just come to her then, though she added that it had come via the crystal ball. ‘Carpe diem, the spirits say. You must seize the day!’
Pithy as a mass-produced fortune cookie. ‘Oh yes, I see.’
‘Ah ha, a Sagittarian no doubt!’ Mrs Cuttle wandered off to pour more sherry all around and Diana helped herself to some cheese sticks and sausages before slipping out to head down to her flat.
The desultory baubles looked especially bereft now. There was no tree, there were no presents. Just Dombey waiting on the kitchen table. She could not stomach Florence just now. Diana poured a glass of wine and watched television until her head nodded again. Too early to go to bed, the winter light protested weakly. I’m the boss of me, Diana reflected. She put on an oversized t-shirt and got in bed.
She woke once more in a panic, a heavy weight on her chest. I’m dying!
With an effort, she shouted, ‘Get away!’ In a flash the black shadow leapt off her chest and bolted for the coal stove. Diana hopped out of bed and flicked on the lights. Black soot covered her chest and left a trail across the floor. She grabbed her phone and put on the torch. She drew a breath and crouched down to look into the stove.
It was a cat.
For a moment she just stared open-mouthed while its bright eyes took her in with panic. Then she laughed so loud that Mr Cosmo must have heard it through his sherry stupor four floors away. The black cat tried to flatten itself to the floor of the stove then started scrabbling up the flue.
‘No, come back!’ Diana cried. Thinking quickly she grabbed a bowl and poured the last of her cream into it. Cats liked cream or else cartoons lied. She put it in the stove near the door. ‘Here puss, puss, puss.’
Diana sat there for an hour, alternately calling the cat and babbling about all the stupid things she had imagined, the coincidences that she had weaved into magic and fairy tales. Finally she saw the green eyes peek out at her. Slowly the cat dropped from the flue and stared at her. Its eyes dropped to the bowl and then flashed back at Diana.
‘It’s all right now. The scary part is over,’ Diana said and cried because that’s what her mum always said after the Ghost of Christmas Past had gone.
The cat crept up to the bowl and started to lick at the cream. Droplets appeared at the end of the black whiskers. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you. I thought you were a nightmare. Maybe I should call you Nightmare. Or Night.’ Diana laughed. The cat seemed less spooked now.
It took another half hour to coax it out of the stove, but when it came out—warily sweeping the flat with its gaze—it crossed over to where Diana sat cross-legged. ‘Curiosity always, eh?’ She held out a hand to see if it would allow her. The cat sniffed her fingers and then brushed lightly against the hand. Diana ran one finger along its spine. It came away black.
‘If you don’t belong to someone already, I think I’ll call you Soot,’ Diana said with a laugh as the cat circled around her, fearless now.
Neither of them noticed the pair of golden eyes that blinked twice from the ash pit before disappearing into the black.