and a pressure as of somebody striving to force his way in, which frightened him
—Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘Narrative of a Ghost of a Hand’
Make sure you lock the back door when you come in from the shed, his mother had said. She always said it, because he came in ten minutes precisely after her ten minute pre-dinner call, to wash up and be ready to eat. He liked eating, but he liked working in the shed even more. He had things to do, things to invent, things to achieve. He liked being alone in there, with the day’s dying light just illuminating his workbench through the louvred window just enough to ‘sign off’. That’s what he said, I’m signing off for the day. To no-one in particular, and maybe to ward off anything that lurked in the long shadows of late afternoons as they handed the world over to evening.
He was methodical. He locked doors. The dog would already be in the laundry, having gone up immediately the call came for dinner, for her dinner would be laid out next to her bed in the laundry. She would have wolfed it down by the time he got back, even walked out for a quick piddle before the door was shut. But later in the evening, before mum and Sue retired, the dog would be let out again for a final piddle. They would unlock and relock the door. He knew that, too. It was all methodical. It suited him.
He wanted to go to bed early that night. Friday night. He had big shed plans for Saturday. He’d be up early, and Sue would follow him out to the kitchen in her gown, and they’d exchange a ‘good morning’, and she’d cook him something special while he studied his notebooks. She’d sit cupping her coffee and inhaling its fumes, and not waking at all, just waiting to crawl back into bed. Coffee, even strong coffee, seemed to make her more tired. And then he’d say, Thanks Sue, that was magnificent. And she’d add, as she always did, Spend some time with your mum today … she hardly sees you on the weekends. And then he’d be off, dog in tow, to the shed.
And he did go to bed early, as planned. Don’t you want to watch a movie tonight? his mum asked, and behind her Sue was motioning, Go on, go on … We’ve got … and his mum gave a title that skated over him and settled in the empty bean bag in the middle of the lounge room. Nah, thanks, Mum … if you don’t mind, I want to read a bit then hit the hay. He liked that expression. It came from his country cousins up on the farm, where he sourced so many of his ‘bits and pieces’ that were the primary materials of his inventions. He liked the farm more than the shed, but they only went up there every third weekend. And the last time was last weekend and there were a lot of ‘discoveries’ to be processed, a lot of ‘bits and pieces’ to be bolted together or even soldered. He’d been given a soldering iron for his last birthday on the proviso he vented the shed really well when using it. And he did—hail, rain or shine … louvres open, shed door propped open at 45 degrees. Dog in doorway, away from the fumes. Sensible. Methodical and sensible.
He toileted so he wouldn’t have to get up again, read for 15 minutes, and turned off his light with the occasional laughter of Sue watching the movie with his mum, breaking into his half-sleep. It wasn’t uncomfortable—he liked them being there, making bits and pieces of noise, even if he never really told them. He liked it a lot. But then he caught something that wasn’t right. It was his mum saying something along the lines, But I am worried about him, Sue. He fought off sleep and dragged himself back up to the surface, the flashings of the television screen reflecting off the hall wall and down his corridor through the open crack of the door. He liked his door open just a bit, max 15 degrees. He propped himself up and bent his ear towards the door.
His mother’s voice faded in and out, and Sue was just saying, I wouldn’t worry, he’s still very young. He tried to piece it together, but couldn’t. He heard the word ‘socialise’ and ‘boys his own age’ and ‘no interest in girls’, and then Sue laughing—he loved that laugh—followed by, You’ve gotta be joking. Now come on. And his mum saying, It’ll just make it harder for him, you should know. Know what? But he was tired, and though distressed and interested, sleep grabbed him and took him back down, and he was neither happy nor unhappy, he just was.
He woke suddenly, sharply. He felt sweaty even though it was a coldish night. He switched his light on. He was sure he hadn’t locked the back door. His mind started running and he listened. Nothing. He worried that someone had come in and done something to his mum and Sue—before they’d let the dog out for its final piddle. But the dog (he always called it ‘The Dog’) would have barked if someone had come in. But not if they’d offered it a treat—just a growl, then a treat, then satisfied silence. Lovely nature, Sue would say, But not much of a guard dog. She’s anyone’s for a tasty treat. And she said it with that Kiwi accent mum described as ‘adorable’, with Sue shooting back, And what makes it more adorable than your ABC Australian accent? So door unlocked, murderer came in with treat, placated dog, in through kitchen door from laundry—mum or Sue would check it only when they signed off for the night—into the lounge where the movie’s blaring away, and death. Sudden and unanswerable death. But all was quiet. Total silence, and that was worse, much worse. The aftermath?
He was up, into his gown, found his torch, and was ready to head out and confront the murderer. No time for fear or weakness. He briefly worried about the contents of his shed—his secrets—but pushed that out of his mind. There were priorities to consider.
He noticed his mum’s and Sue’s bedroom door was closed. It was usually closed after they ‘retired’. They might be in there or not. The television was off, all the lights were off. He stood outside their door and listened for breathing. But the silence wasn’t working now because cars were driving past outside—they lived on a busy street in a gentrified area, although their house was old and hadn’t been ‘done up’. His mum often spoke about selling and getting out of the city because she and Sue hated it. He encouraged their plans, as he also liked the country, but there were some advantages in the city in terms of spending pocket money on special materials for his work. And he loved their quarter-acre block, with its hedge and tall trees and sheds—two of them, one for him and one for Sue and the car and all the garden stuff Sue used on her gardening round. I can get work anywhere, said Sue, and talked about the acres they might have to grow veggies.
Making a snap decision, he pointed the torch up and walked through the lounge to the kitchen. The kitchen door wasn’t locked—he could see clearly that the snib was down, in the unlocked position. His heart started crawling out of his mouth and his bowels felt loose. He shook. His mum would say, It’s important to have backbone when dealing with the world, so he shuffled his shoulder so he could feel his spine, and then lifted himself bolt upright and marched to the door and opened it, and shone the torch into the laundry. The dog lifted her head, slowly wagged her tail so the bedding moving slightly, then placed her snout back onto her paws and averted her eyes from the torchlight. He went straight to the back door, the very back door. It was locked. He tried it. Yes, locked. He counted to five under his breath and tried again. Locked. Then he unlocked it fast and locked it faster. He did this five times. And then he was confused. Had he just locked and unlocked door. Was it locked when he came in. He turned to the dog but got no answer.
Feeling flushed, he suddenly held the torch to his mouth, pushed his lips around it, and made his cheeks glow. He knew they were glowing, because sometimes when he was upset he’d do this in front of his mirror. Wanting to laugh but not being able to, he choked slightly then turned the torch off and stood in the dark, listening to his blood roar. The back yard gave different sounds from the front where the traffic went by—disturbing, indistinguishable sounds. But there. Coming in around the door. Now locked.
And then, without thinking—did he ever do anything without thinking?—he unlocked and opened the door and looked out into the night. He caught the Saucepan empting light into darkness, and he thought, Sue would say, The Saucepan is cookin’ tonight. And he saw lights of houses climbing the hill, and he saw light glinting off his shed and he felt a brief yearning to work out there in the night, by torchlight. And then he jumped as the dog pushed against his legs, thinking to go out for a piddle to suddenly shrink back and whimper and retreat to her bed. What’s wrong with you? he whispered, following her movements in the weak light, his eyes having adjusted.
Then he turned back to the darkly glittering back lawn where ‘green’ ate into the idea of colour, and he thought, that’s a frog I can hear. Mum and Sue will like that, they love frogs. And then he wondered if mum and Sue were all right and why the kitchen door had been unlocked and if the back door had been unlocked, really, and he could hear his blood again and felt hot then cold. But he was mesmerised by the back yard and stared as hard as he could, listening. And then there was the shadow near the fence that vacuumed starlight into it and his gaze as well. It was so dark, so dense. And it moved, it wavered. He shook a little and said to himself, Close the door. Close the door close the door now.
But he couldn’t. He was compelled by the flesh-eating shadow to stay where he was, in the threshold of the open door, two wooden steps going down to the path, the lawn, the shed, the fence, the shadow, moving now, moving towards him, clearly approaching like an amoeba. Words like murder and rapist and killer and death roamed fast through his mind, all the water-pressure doors busted open, the ship’s hull filling. He thought of the rifles on the farm and how much they upset him, although he always stood looking up at them in the gun cabinet when his uncle opened it, all chained in there, sparkling black, shadows in the pantry. The gun cabinet next to the preserves and stewed fruit in their cross-topped jars, orange hemispheres of apricots the fruits of interplanetary travel, return.
He heard Sue saying, It’s not his fault he’s got no cousins to hang around with. What did that mean? He didn’t mind other kids, but they weren’t interesting to spend time with. And he was with girls all the time—his mum and Sue. He liked girls. And the shadow grew thick and darker and wobbled and he felt himself dribbling. Then the shadow sprung up and sprinted across the lawn and the boy gasped and cried out and stepped back and went to slam the door shut, as the dog yelped. But as the door neared fully closed something pushed back hard with a jerk and the boy was fighting it with all his strength and there was a roaring in his ears.
He heard something laughing in the trees and the dog was whining and yelping and he was pushing stronger than any strength his body had and he felt cold in his loins and his bowels contracted and he yelled, You’re not murdering anyone tonight, and the door slammed shut and, with the efficiency of his uncle cocking the lever on the Winchester rifle, snibbed the door locked. He heard a yowling and a roaring and he looked to the curtain over the thin glass of the window, expecting it to break through then grabbed the dog’s collar and dragged her through into the kitchen and locked that door too. You come with me, he said, you sleep on the end of my bed. That was a rare thing and basically verboten in their house, but it happened.
He woke to Sue’s singsong voice, which meant he’d slept late because she was fully awake and engaged with the day. Well, we’re a sleepyhead today, and I see you’re breaking the rules again. You’ll have fleas in your bed.
He looked around the room, searching for the dog, but it was gone. Where is she? he asked. She’s been out back for hours. Found her scratching at the kitchen door waiting to get out.
He rubbed his head and said, You didn’t let her out there did you?
Of course. What’s the matter?
Nothing. It’s just that she likes the laundry.
She likes the sunshine and she likes to go to the toilet as well.
What time is it?
Eleven in the morning. We let you be because you obviously needed the sleep after all the tension of the week.
He tried to remember the tension of the week, but it wouldn’t come into focus. He felt mushy in the head, as if the system had failed and things were higgledy piggledy.
Now breakfast, sleepyhead, and then you can get down to your shed and inventing.
Oh, that can wait, he said, collecting himself. I’ve got a few other things I want to do inside today.
Well, you’ve changed your tune. Letting the dog in has done more than give you fleas.
He laughed, because he knew Sue always wanted what was best for him. He loved her as much as he loved his mum, though he’d never said it aloud and never would.
And as she was leaving the room, Sue said over her shoulder, It was nice of you to let her—The Dog—into your room; she gets scared when the wind is howling. We’ve a few branches down in the yard—must have been a real blow last night. Your mum and I didn’t hear it, we must have been dead to the world. But you’ll be happy to know your shed is safe and sound. Built to stand anything. •
John Kinsella’s recent books of poetry include Graphology Poems: 1995–2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016), On the Outskirts (UQP, 2017), and Renga: 100 Poems (with Paul Kane, GloriaSMH Press). His new book of stories is Old Growth (Transit Lounge, 2017). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University.