Write something Gothic, they said. Great, I thought. Set it in modern times, they said. That could be a challenge, I thought. After all, what’s creepy about the 21st century?
And then I thought about what might freak someone out today and I penned the following. Welcome to …
As a child, I was always terrified of Grandma’s house.
I had a nervous disposition as a little girl, thanks to the fairy-stories I read. The witches and ogres in the tales I devoured on a daily basis came back to haunt me by night. I would lie awake for hours, eyes closed, listening to the dark. I was sure I could hear them breathing, even if I couldn’t see their shadowy outlines.
If I was scared in my own bedroom, Grandma’s house was even worse. Every room had a slightly sinister atmosphere, from the ominous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway, imitating a human heartbeat, to the creepy dolls in the spare bedroom, lined up like miniature corpses, watching me. I dreaded staying there overnight, my imagination working overtime to produce in me a state of frozen fear. I was sure that, once my eyes were closed, they would come to life, slithering off their shelves and approaching me, zombie-like, with outstretched arms.
I may have been scared of their house, but I loved my grandparents. White haired and twinkly-eyed, they embodied everything grandparents should be. Grandma always smelled of baking and bitter almonds; Grandad of Guiness. (The doctor said it was good for him.) I remember sitting with them both for hours, in the safety of my parents’ company, playing Gin Rummy whilst sucking on one of Grandma’s homemade treacle toffees. (She made them with orange juice and claimed they were good for sore throats.)
When Grandad retired, my visits increased – only, this time, without my parents as I found myself being sent there during the school holidays. At first, I quite enjoyed it. They were a happy couple: two old people who had genuinely enjoyed growing old together. Now in their twilight years, they were able to indulge more freely in the pastimes they’d not previously had time for. Grandad was a gardener and loved making things grow: the garden was a blaze of riotous colour, declaring his joyful passion for life. Grandma’s hobby, on the other hand, was the dead opposite – literally. She had spent years obsessed with taxidermy and her living room was now a testimony to this. Perfectly preserved animals sat on tables and filled cabinets: a pair of sporting badgers, glassy eyed, their mouths and bodies twisted unnaturally to suggest playfulness; a moulting eaglewith a mournful expression – I could go on. Their lifeless eyes unsettled me as much as their forced poses. Faced with this menagerie of moth-eaten creatures, is it any wonder that I often ended up siting there as rigid as these anthropomorphic inhabitants, desperately awaiting five o’clock when my mother would arrive to take me home?
I was fifteen when we finally moved Grandma into a nursing home. She didn’t tell anyone when Grandad died – I’m sure it was from natural causes, but there was something unnatural about the way she arranged his stuffed, silent body in an armchair by the fire, looking for all the world as if he’d just dozed off. It was three weeks before anyone noticed the difference.
“Probably better if she’s got someone to keep an eye on her,” my mother said tactfully as she signed the paperwork.
To begin with, Grandma hated the home. “What am I doing with all these old people?” she’d ask fretfully, staring at the walls of her bedroom, tastefully distempered in a pale yellow. And, “It’s like a mausoleum in here – everyone just sits staring at the TV.”
She had a point: the residents’ lounge was a dismal affair, with uncomfortable looking chairs arranged in regimented rows, facing an outsized television set that seemed permanently switched on. Assorted old people dotted the seats, not one of them with even a fraction of my grandmother’s vitality.
“They just sit there knitting,” she told me scornfully on one of my visits. “That Mabel in the pink cardigan – she’s been knitting a pair of bedsocks for five weeks now and she still hasn’t got any further than the heel.”
“Can’t you play cards with some of them?” I suggested. I was sure that all elderly people loved Whist and Bridge.
She rolled her eyes despairingly. “Most of them can’t even remember what day of the week it is, let alone keep track of the cards in everyone’s hands. Frank and Harold sometimes ask me to play ‘Happy Families’, but the games go on for days because they keep forgetting who asked for what.”
A few months later, I visited again. My usual pattern of going to see Grandma every weekend had been disrupted by mock-exams and a short-lived romantic liaison. I felt guilty as I entered the Home, wondering if my poor grandmother had been slowly dying of boredom with no one to talk to. When I knocked on her bedroom door, however, she seemed strangely animated.
“You’re looking well,” I remarked, thinking there might be another budding romance in the family.
A mysterious smile hovered on her lips. “I’ve been keeping myself busy,” was all she would say.
We spent a happy afternoon in her room, looking at old photograph albums and reminiscing about Grandad. Just before I left, something struck me.
“Where are all your stuffed animals?” I asked, secretly relieved that they were gone.
She shrugged dismissively. “I don’t need them anymore.” Then, as I was putting on my jacket, she added, “I’ve had a lovely time decorating the living room.”
A feeling of foreboding slowly made its way through my veins. Surely she couldn’t have …
Quickening my pace, I hurried to the Residents’ Lounge to be faced with Grandma’s handiwork: a roomful of octogenarian corpses, displayed like dolls in a variety of positions. Mabel sat, as before, still knitting her bedsocks; Frank and Harold faced each other, each clutching a handful of cards. Every figure was perfectly posed and a trace of bitter almonds lingered on the air.
My childhood terrors of Grandma’s house paled into insignificance beside the horrors of her Home.