I sit on the bed, pillows hugging my back and my book in front of my face.
To the casual observer it’s a peaceful scene. A bookish but balanced nine-year-old reading in her room on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
But there’s more to it. The book is not just a way to escape my hum-drum suburban life into a technicolour world of adventures and heroic deeds. It’s not just food for the mind of an over-imaginative pre-teen. It’s my shield, my protection. The barrier between me and the voices.
Raindrops blatter the window, and I can hear Mum clattering saucepans in the kitchen against the low audible drone of some forgotten black & white movie to fill the empty slot on Saturday afternoon’s TV. My sister’s in her room with her friend Becky, playing some dumb game with their Barbie dolls.
Here, in my room, there’s just me. And Them.
I can’t remember when I first heard Them. It’s like they’ve always been there, lurking in the space between the top of grandpa’s old dark-wood wardrobe and the ceiling. A gap of a couple of feet high, enough for a child to sit reasonably comfortably amid the dustballs and dessicated spiders. And more than enough room for Them.
They’re always the same two. The man is stern and scolding, immediately making the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in anticipation of some dire punishment that never comes. But it’s the woman I hate. She’s wheedling, sly, sarcastic. Her words are soothing, supportive even, but her tone tells me everything I need to know. She’s the one who can hurt me the most. She’s the one I feel could drag me back to wherever they go where they’re not here, pulling me by the ankle one night when I’m lost in my dreams.
I haven’t told anyone about Them. Of course I haven’t. At best, they’d dismiss it as the product of an over-active imagination and send me out outdoors to get some fresh air and exercise. At worst, there’d be worried looks and whispered conversations about child psychiatrists.
So, I say nothing. Not to Mum and Dad. Not even to the voices, no matter how much they demand, plead or challenge me. “Ignore them and they’ll go away,” my Nan told me once when I confided to her about some boys picking on me. It worked with the school bullies, eventually, once they’d got bored with tormenting me and moved on to their next victim.
The voices seem to be taking longer. Much longer.
“Pay attention!” demands the man’s voice, not shouting, but cutting through the muffled air like an ice pick. “Put that stupid book down and listen.”
I hold my paperback even closer to my face, the tip of my nose almost touching the page. Words swim before my eyes and I have to blink to re-focus and re-arrange them into my shield.
“Oh, you don’t want to, do you?” I knew she would soon pipe up. With her soft, almost serpentine voice, hissing down at me from the top of the wardrobe. I hate her with a white heat that could melt entire galaxies. I sneak a peek over the top of the book, almost expecting to see tentacles curling down from the wardrobe, reaching out to touch me, grab me, take me. But there is nothing, just the old wooden door topped by a jumble of shadows.
“We know she can’t put her book down, don’t we?” continued the bitch, taunting me, daring me to answer. “She can’t do without her words, can she now?”
I grit my teeth and return my gaze to the page, concentrating hard and willing myself back into the world of elves and dwarves and dragon gold. Other times it’s to a girls’ boarding school, or a mystery adventure on an island in Cornwall, or a Victorian tale of time travel. Anywhere but here, with Them.
The voices continue like a pair of snakes slithering over one another in a glass tank. I hear their dry rasping, but I shut out the words, refusing to assign meaning to the sounds coming from them. Until…
“Put that book down. Put it down now – or we’ll make sure you never read again,” the man’s voice again, harsh, menacing, slicing through my silent shield with a threat that feels as real as knife to my throat.
“Don’t frighten her.” The wheedling bitch, pretending to care whilst preparing some new instrument to torture me with. “She knows we won’t hurt her, we just want her attention. You can give us that, can’t you?”
That’s it. Enough. If they want my attention, they can have it. Furious, I throw my book down, leap to my feet and take two steps over to the small desk wedged between the wardrobe and the corner of the room. I put one foot on the old kitchen chair in front of it and hoist myself off the ground to place my other foot on the desk.
The air is filled with a panicked slithering and low grumbles as I consider the bookshelves on the wall, wondering if they’ll take my weight to climb up to the top of the wardrobe to confront my tormentors. I try my luck. If the shelves don’t support me, the crash of collapsing furniture and falling child would soon rouse Dad from his crossword. And if they don’t, I’ll make it to the top of the wardrobe.
I stop, hesitating for a moment. Maybe that’s exactly what the voices want? Perhaps it’s all a trick to draw me into whatever dark realm they came from and to keep me there forever? Am I playing into their hands?
I dismiss the thought and with a push against my Children’s Encyclopedia sitting neglected on the lower shelf, hoist myself upwards and slide belly down onto the thick velvety layer of dust on the top of the wardrobe. It tickles my nostrils and my closed eyelids, making me sneeze. All sound ceases and I wonder if I’ve been struck deaf by my own sneeze.
Half expecting to stare into the mouth of a bottomless pit or dark swirling maelstrom, I open my eyes. I’m met by the sight of the wall, slightly speckled with damp from the attic and with a patch of magnolia paint in the corner, missed by the brush bearing the mint green I’d insisted I wanted for my room when we moved in. The wardrobe top is empty, except for cobwebs and a dead moth at the far end. No demons, no gateway to hell, and no more voices.
Somewhere between me taking the decision to trust my weight to the bookshelf and scrambling up with all the grace of a baby hippo, the noises have stopped. No dry slithers, no indecipherable whispers. Just the somber tick of the clock in the hall, the distant murmur or the TV and the tap of rain against my window.
I laugh out loud. They’re gone. For good. All it took was me to face them, challenge them to do their worst. Their worst, it turns out, is what they were already doing. Dragging my legs around I sit up, my feet dangling over the edge of the wardrobe I look down at my bed. I feel free like never before. I can do anything – even fly.
What if I really could fly? Emboldened by the banishment of my demons, I push myself off and outward towards the bed, flapping my arms frantically as I plummet downwards.
I land with a thud and a sickening snap from the bedframe beneath me. Probably broke the bed but I won’t tell Mum. She’ll ask too many questions I just can’t answer. She’ll see when she changes the sheets, but I’ll just blame it on my little sister. Til then, I can handle sleeping in a broken bed for a few days – now that I’m free of the voices.
And anyway, I swear that for a split second before crashing into the counterpane, I did fly, just a little bit.