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February 03, 2023
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As always when he got back from the hospital Henry stood on the doorstep trying and failing to find the right key.

The house was familiar, had been home when he was a child and now seemed almost to resent him for going away or for coming back at all. That was why the key always seemed to skitter away from his hand, hiding amongst its identical brothers and sisters until he was cold and frustrated enough for a point to have been made.

At last Henry found the key, turned it in the lock and pushed his way into a house that had stopped being a home and had turned instead into a dozen empty rooms gathered around a lot of silence.

The hallway was dim and looked no different than it had when he was a boy. There was still an old fashioned telephone on a table resting on a pile of even older directories, framed prints of sea scenes and landscapes on the walls. The only change was a plastic calendar with sliding months and numbers, fixed forever on the 15th January, the day his father went into hospital.

Henry could have walked through every room of the house with his eyes closed, navigating its landmarks by memory without need for stars or compass. On that afternoon though something felt different, out of place even.

“Hello”

The single word spoken aloud echoed awkwardly in the empty space, he didn't get an answer; he wasn't expecting one, but he still felt that he wasn't alone.

Henry climbed the stairs one riser at a time and the feeling of not being alone climbed along with him. Each step produced its own distinct creak, sounds to which he paid unusual attention. Like a child walking past the haunted house every neighbourhood has for no other purpose on a dare he imagined unseen eyes watching his every move.

He told himself with the voice of a reasonable adult that his reaction was absurd. The house was empty, it had been empty when he left and it had stayed that way while he was sat by his father's bedside.

At the top of the stairs he turned right into the bedroom he had used as a boy and had been drawn back to two moths earlier by the elastic of filial illness. The curtains were drawn to hide the clutter that had colonised it over twenty years of disuse and the air inside was faintly musty.

Having taken off his shirt he walked back across the landing and into the bathroom, turned the hot tap on full and when the basin was full wiped steam off the mirror.

There was a noise from somewhere behind him, in the mirror Henry watched the eyes of his reflection widen in alarm.

It wasn't, he was sure, one of the familiar noises the house made as it shifted and settled on its foundations; there was somebody else out there. Turning quickly with his hands still wet Henry rushed out onto the landing, a cold chill bristled across his shoulders.

There was nobody there; that didn't make him feel any more comfortable.

From the landing he walked into his father's room. It was a museum untouched since the day he went into hospital, one with a  curator who deserved to be dismissed judging by the fine layer of dust covering every flat surface.

Out on the landing there was a stealthy scuffling noise, he couldn't identify what had made it; just knew that it shouldn't have been made at all.

Henry ran back out onto the landing, as he did do something flew up the stairs straight past his head. Instinctively he ducked, throwing his arms up as if to ward off a thrown object. Whatever he was trying to ward off changed direction and came back towards him, bringing with it a gust of air tainted with something musty and unclean.

The flying object passed around behind him and banged against the top edge of the open bedroom door. Turning around again Henry saw a small brown bird hovering against the ceiling, its wings moving so fast they were almost invisible.

For some reason Henry found this more alarming than the rock throwing burglar he had imagined to be invading his house. He didn't question how this tiny brown intruder had got into the house; he just wanted to drive it out.

Suddenly he was running along the landing shouting and waving his arms as if he too wanted to take to the air. Frightened the bird shot up towards the ceiling, found nowhere to go then banging its wings awkwardly on the top edge of the door flew away from his angry voice into the bedroom.

Still shouting and burning up with an anger that made him stupid Henry followed. He stood in the centre of the room turning around in circles, the bird was nowhere to be seen; somehow it had lost itself in the dimness of the room.

“Where are you? Who let you into my house?”

To his own ears his voice sounded strained and hysterical, like that of a child caught on the wrong side of a game he didn't understand. This brought him back to something like calm, he stood still in the centre of the room and listened to the too loud thump of his heart.

Out of the corner of his eye Henry saw something move. It was the bird, hovering at ceiling height in the corner of the room, its tiny black eyes shining in a shaft of sunlight coming in through a chink in the drawn curtains.

The anger flamed up in Henry again, he rushed towards the bird shouting and waving his arms wildly. At the last moment it fluttered away, he stopped, lumbered around in a clumsy half circle; then chased off after it again.

They played out this sad, silly parody of a cartoon chase for maybe half an hour, then stopped and retreated to their respective corners like the exhausted contestants in a wrestling match for idiots. The bird hovered by the window, its unblinking pebble eyes reflected back at Henry twin miniature images of someone made wild by panic and anger.

For some reason this more than anything else about the whole absurd invasion hurt like a slap in the face.

Henry lunged forwards into the chase again filled with the energy of pure rage. He chased the bird around in circles as before, this time though there was something like purpose behind his actions.

Flapping his arms wildly he drove the bird out of the bedroom back onto the landing and from there into the bathroom; triumphantly he slammed the door shut sealing them both inside. Sensing, perhaps, that the initiative had changed hands the bird flew up to the ceiling then hovered bumping its wings ineffectually against the top edge of the closed door.

Henry paid it no attention and reached again for the window catch, swinging the small casement upwards to let a blast of cold air into the room. The bird began to beat its wings frantically against the top edge of the door, a snow shower of dust drifted down and settled on the carpet.

Henry snatched up a towel and rushed at the bird waving it like a flag, his adversary fluttered away setting the light fitting swinging wildly in the process. Another snow shower of dust sifted down onto the carpet, some of it stirred up by the motion of the towel rose up into the air making him want to sneeze.

Frantically trying to avoid the swinging towel the bird made an awkward landing on the window ledge, then skittered along it sending even more dust up into the air. Henry trapped it in the corner of the window, dropped the towel and made a lunge for the bird; it fluttered away, but not far enough.

His second grab was successful, for a moment his fingers touched a ball of greasy feathers encasing a dementedly beating heart. Howling aloud with revulsion Henry shoved the bird through the open window.

As he slammed the casement shut and clicked the lock into place the bird hovered momentarily in the air glaring at him with its unblinking black eyes; then with a violent flap of its winds was gone.

Henry stood in the bathroom listening to the cymbal clash of his own heartbeat. Already what had just happened seemed unreal, like the outlandish events of a dream fading rapidly from memory.

Downstairs the telephone that had sat silently on the hall table since before his father went into hospital, started to ring.

 

A W Colclough lives and works in the West Midlands and is a regular reviewer of crime fiction for online magazine Shots.

 

August 2015

 

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