This morning the breakfast buffet which awaited Ted Worthington included fresh cherries, and he piled his bowl with them. Ana, the girl from the agency, had no doubt procured the cherries because it pleased her to see him spitting the stones across the table and into the teapot.
Ted’s eyes sparkled with mischief and his face blazed as if it had been scrubbed vigorously with a cold flannel. He was still wearing his pyjamas – dressing was such a nuisance and it would not do to put off breakfast. Little aeroplanes swarmed like gnats over the cotton.
When Ted had finished his breakfast, Ana had some news.
“That house across the street. They’ve taken down the For Sale sign.”
They may have erected that For Sale sign after laying the cornerstone, for all Ana knew. It had always seemed natural for the house across the street to stand derelict. There were no cracked windowpanes or a trail of broken furniture around the garden. The house across the street had faded peacefully out of residential life, and until now nobody had been so crass as to disturb its slumbers.
“New neighbours!” Ted’s eyes gleamed as if he had found a plastic dinosaur inside his breakfast cereal. “We can hold a bridge night!”
Ana looked at him. “It’s a card game,” Ted explained. “These days, I only get to play it on the internet.” This was possibly the sum of Ted’s acquaintance with tragedy.
Ana was wiping the skirting boards that morning. As she followed them up the stairs to the unoccupied third floor, at some point she paused to look out of the window at the house across the street. It was customarily inscrutable: a chunky structure in sooty granite, with a solid, squat tower and the rest of the villa wrapped around it like a heavy coat. Despite its gloomy grandeur, the house across the street had declined to be Gothic beyond a point where this could have been construed of as vulgar. It would remain eminently sensible, the house of an imposing but unimaginative Victorian.
And then Ana found herself instantly absorbed in the house. There was a removal van parked outside.
She watched the van until it was no longer feasible to continue doing so. It was as still as a photograph.
“Any sign of the new neighbours?” Ted called the next evening, as she wheeled in the trolley clattering with a soup tureen and farthings of woodpigeon. Ted smacked his lips over the claret – it was always a great mystery why he drank it, since you could pour an entire bottle into him with no appreciable effects.
“A van,” Ana told him dutifully.
“Asked my secretary to look into it. You know how we’re all being watched by satellites these days?” Ted speared a farthing, twirled it around on his fork and then put it aside. “Archibald Corpusty is the chap’s name.”
Ana was usually content to let Ted chatter away to himself, but at the name Corpusty, she was suddenly apprehensive, all slimy inside and shrinking away within her skin.
“Never heard of him,” Ted remarked, as if Corpusty had not done his job properly. “And I know everybody. He’s not a corporate man. Not a society man. We’ll have to spend days on end teaching the bugger bridge…”
Later in the week, Ted phoned from Singapore – or so he claimed – to remind Ana that the fromagerie wagon would be coming down Marchmont road around now, and could she nip out to purchase some of that blue moose cheese, if they had any? Ana apprehended the wagon, vexed as always that the swarthy Rumanian gypsies behind the counter could not speak English and that they were outraged by her demand for change. Hoping that the sweating, sour-smelling parcel in her hands corresponded with Ted’s requirements, Ana returned to the house.
At Ted’s door, she found herself transfixed by the sight of the house across the street.
In the front room, a baby was sitting alone at the dining table. For its size, it looked very alert, and Ana supposed that it must be at least a year old. It was wobbling in front of its dinner, its pudgy little arms dangling in the air like those of a puppet. It was absorbed in everything, with that air which babies have of saying “why, this is all extremely remarkable!” Bizarrely, however, Ana distinctly observed what looked like a glass of red wine in front of the baby. And then the world began to slide away from Ana as the baby picked up the glass and carefully nosed its aroma…
For a moment, Ana’s brain was choking on this image. Suddenly, she had crashed through the front door and bolted it shut behind her.
The next day, Ana reported to Ted that the new neighbours had a baby. Ted would have to learn for himself that the baby was a wine connoisseur.
Ted watched her thoughtfully as she cleared away the dishes.
“So who’s your latest beau, Ana? Who’s the lucky chap?”
“You know Ted,” she scolded, “that I have devoted my entire life to you…”
“Oh but I feel so guilty at keeping you all to myself…”
“I doubt it.”
“Mind you, if I was seventy years younger…”
“You would have been too much of a handful!”
Ted would not let go of the cat’s tail. “You know that we all get lonely. I still feel the absence of Bertha.” Whenever Ted said “Bertha,” the word seemed to shine like a gold ring. “You can settle down too much, you know. I’m worried that in ten years’ time, you’ll regret throwing away so much of your life in this damned house.”
All of the blood seemed to have drained out of Ana and she was left hanging in front of him like an apparition. She wanted to reply with something tremendously clever or to fling anger in his face like a wizard’s fire. But he looked steadily at her for a moment before nodding in dismissal.
She steered out of the room, her arms stacked high with plates.
The next weekend found Ted at the Queen’s garden party in Holyrood palace. Here, he bumped into Tori, the granddaughter of an ancient friend.
“What the devil are you doing here?” he exclaimed. “Serving the drinks?”
“If I was serving drinks, the first thing I’d do is serve one to myself.”
Ted ducked forward to confide in her, his eyes bright. “I’ve actually brought a wee flask of something a bit more nutritional than tea…”
Tori glanced around nervously. “Will we get hung, drawn and quartered for this? The Queen looks like a woman who can sniff out whisky at a tea party.” She peered at the flask. “Is it Bells?”
Ted beamed. “Bells – like making love in a canoe.”
“Fucking close to water,” Tori replied. He did not have a joke which she had not already heard. “Actually, I’m here on behalf of the Tychy website. My friend James – who edits it – has donated my invitation.”
“Titchy – think I’ve heard of it – does it compare car insurance?”
Tori had no idea. “Probably.”
They had been both passed around the party, changing hands as frequently as pound coins at the Sunday market, when they were reunited again beside the tea urn. “I say,” Ted inquired. “Can I consult your feminine intuition?”
“Shall I get my crystals?”
“I’m a little concerned about my personal assistant, Ana. She’s been quite confoundedly melancholy lately.”
Tori laughed. “You’re going to tell me that she’s in her early thirties…”
“My dear…” Ted extended his hands helplessly.
“…and you have this prehistoric theory that women begin to go mad if they haven’t had a baby by thirty-one?”
Ted was adamant. “It’s a scientific fact! However you measure the hormones, you’ll find that it’s true. The women remain desperate for babies, but these days men at thirty are still adolescents. I don’t think that all of the thirty year olds in this country have a dozen decent jobs between them.”
“You haven’t any children yourself. Have you gone potty?”
“The circumstances are quite dissimilar…”
“They’re exactly the same. Come on, you must be a nervous wreck.”
“The trouble is not that she’s sans a baby. It’s that there’s no hope of her ever having one. She spends her entire life in my kitchen. It’s morbid!”
Three miles away, at that precise moment, Ana had picked a ladybird from the mantelpiece of Ted’s second floor fireplace and she was walking over to the window to entrust the creature to the air. Suddenly, she was frozen to the spot.
With a view over the east wing of the house across the street, into a far corner of its broad garden, Ana found herself watching the baby toddling unsteadily across the lawn, its fat little arms raised above its head to grip the handle of what looked increasingly like a lawn mower. The baby was dressed only in its nappy. Then the mower was crooning faintly in Ana’s ears.
It was impossible, but there was no other possible conclusion. The baby was mowing the lawn.
Ana watched the baby pass in and out of her view, mowing the lawn in careful strips. It was entirely alone.
Ana jumped. The ladybird had escaped and it was somewhere about her person. She danced in her clothes, trying to shake away all traces of it.
She spoke to Ted directly this time. “The house across the street?”
“The mysterious Captain Corpusty? No CV in the system; doesn’t have a finger in any known company.” Ted shook his head ominously.
“There’s a baby in that house which has been left unsupervised. It was running around the garden yesterday. There was not an adult in sight.”
Ted looked away, wishing that he was more prepared for this conversation. “Well, you shouldn’t nanny the little blighters.”
“Maybe what you should do is call social services?”
“I disagree.” Ted flushed with determination. “In fact, I’m putting a stop to this right now.”
“I’m being serious Ted.”
“I’ve said no and I won’t hear any more of it.” He wished to give force to his words by striding away, but this would have made him feel like the teenager of the house, fleeing furiously to his bedroom. He gazed at her, aghast. “Maybe we could get you a cat?”
Ana squeaked, suddenly squaring up to him. “What?!”
It would take months to train a new girl. The agency sent girls with names that he could never pronounce. They became offended when he tried to tidy up Agnieska into Agatha. They laughed when he wanted them to iron the Scotsman for him. The bottles disappeared from his drinks cabinet one by one; his bed was made with damp sheets.
“We could keep it in the kitchen…” Ted pleaded. Ana was stalking away, her fists clenched.
Maybe it was just an extremely precocious baby. Childhood was evolving these days; children now entered puberty as young as eight. The idea of innocent, defenceless babes was a Victorian conceit. It was dark by the time that Ted’s house had released Ana, as if she was a roving bat. Her bicycle had not yet gathered speed as she passed the house across the street. She noticed that the front door had been thrown wide open.
Ana stopped. The house was silent. Ana gazed at the house, waiting for it to return to life. For an unremarkable-looking man to appear at the door without glancing at her and close it shut.
But the door remained open. The house remained silent.
“Hullo?” Ana called. She was now at the doorstep, peering in. It was unexpectedly cold inside.
How could somebody keep a baby in this house? It was not a homely place; the dusty floorboards seemed almost to snarl at her.
Quite incredibly, she was now inside the house. The bare walls passed in jolting steps, she was advancing audaciously towards a door which she sensed was waiting for her in the darkness.
She braced herself and opened the door. “Hullo? Is anybody home?”
She was anxious to keep the door open behind her, and her fingertips hovered on the handle.
She registered the shape of a body on the floor, laid out neatly like a coat. It was that of an emaciated old man, with closed purple eyelids and some ghostly white hair scraped back from his skull. He had a colourless beard and, from what she could see, his body was naked and blotched with black mould. Shards of salt seemed to have formed on the man’s face and forehead. A web of tubes dipped into his bare chest, like tree roots stretching down to drink from the surface of a river. Not taking her eyes off the man, Ana fumbled for her cigarette lighter.
The tubes were glossy with blood.
Ana jumped at her own shriek. For a second, a little mouse had trickled out from under the far window.
“My dear?” a voice called faintly from further within the house. “This way, my dear.”
Ana found herself following the calling voice through a door and then around a corner into a spacious room where the baby sat at a long dining table.
It sat quite upright and very still, with huge eyes.
Ana was dumbfounded. She suddenly wanted to scoop up the baby, to clasp its warmth against her chest. It looked so small and helpless, alone at the table. As if her heart was a highball glass stacked with ice, which had suddenly received a splash of something fierce, Ana felt a great softening inside herself, a gentle crumpling and collapsing. “Oh,” Ana spoke boldly to the baby. “Oh, you poor thing.”
And then something horrible happened. The baby suddenly smirked. Not a blithe baby smile, but the controlled expression of an adult. And when the baby opened its mouth wider, it was crammed full of pearly adult teeth.
“How do you do?”
The roof seemed to leap off the house; the walls seemed to scatter as if the big bad wolf was blowing them away. Ana had turned and she was running blindly through racing rooms, until she was met by the heart-stopping surprise of a closed door. She had run the wrong way. She twisted the handle in desperation and it yielded with a dry bark.
A rolling jet of water lifted Ana off her feet and carried her back the way she had come. It closed over her head and then every sense was leaping for dry air. But her hands were gliding uselessly over plaster and dumb bare wood.
Remorseless little jaws ground through the flesh of her calf. She could only hang in the water and helplessly admire the pain as the teeth slipped about in her leg. “I am going to drown,” she realised dully, surrendering to the water and waiting for everything to finish. Perhaps she was grateful for the notice, as if a death should be proper and unhurried.
She had resurfaced in the darkness, carried along by the water, with an impression of horrible, intimate laughter in her face. Somewhere in front of her, the water was choppy with teeth. She automatically tried to shield herself from the gobbling jaws and two of her fingers were bitten clean off.
Next she was trapped inside a computer which was being used to flick through child pornography. Every two or three seconds, the picture in front of her changed. She tried to cover her eyes to obscure the stiff scenes; they looked like naked corpses which had been left behind on a battlefield and assembled into jaunty tableaus to sicken the civilians who found them. But half of her fingers had been bitten away and the images continued to peep through the bloody holes in her hands.
Finally, she found herself sitting on the floor of a ruined kitchen, gripping the corpse of a baby. The corpse was so weightless that it might have been made entirely from hair. Her lap was filled with blood and there was something dry and unpleasant which she could not work out of her mouth.
The kitchen door opened smoothly. A gentleman with a white beard stepped into the room, waving two police officers after him imperiously and with great deference, like a butler upholding the dignity of his household. The policemen froze at the sight of Ana and they found themselves stepping back, as if from unholy fumes. One of them whispered urgently into a walkie-talkie. The other attempted to address Ana. The gentleman with the white beard stood in front of them, so that they could not see the expression on his face. His eyes were twinkling.
Ana would be taken to a place of safety. There would be hot drinks waiting, and friendly strangers. Ted would be waiting, no doubt, to offer words of condolence and give her arm a squeeze. But there would no longer be liberty. There would no longer be the city streets which wait outside the doors of your home, infinitely to explore.