Twelve-year-old Constance Jones knew the house was up to no good the moment she looked at it. It wasn’t the drab pebble dashed walls that matched the dreary day or the small patchy garden flourishing with weeds. It wasn’t the thick square concrete canopy over the cracked and peeling mud green front door or the dirty white sill under the downstairs window. No, it was the pale figure with no face staring at her from one of the two small upstairs windows before it faded away into the shadows.
Some may have thought it unfair to blame the house for having an unsettling occupant, but Constance thought the way the shadows covered the figure so quickly made it complicit to whatever was going on.
The figure was there when she stepped out of the taxi, her size four hobnail boots click-clacking on the paving slabs. She saw it as she opened up her big black umbrella that wasn’t black until she’d coloured it in with fifty-three permanent marker pens. She could have stopped at forty, but it rained a lot on the Antrim coast, and she wanted to make sure it didn’t run. The umbrella had to be black to match her black knee-length dress, thick black tights and black hooded duffle coat. Besides, a bright blue umbrella risked inviting conversation.
Her two brothers, the reason for the hobnail boots which weren’t easy to get in size-four bundled out of the taxi behind her. They were only three years older than her, but both hit a growth spurt over the summer that shot them up past a lot of adults, let alone their twelve-year-old sister. The boys, twins, pushed and shoved to get to the boot of the mini-van first. Since their growth spurt everything had become a competition, good news for Constance, but not so good for their mother, which was also good for Constance.
Michael, never Micky, got the boot open first and Christopher, never ever Chris, dived in, grabbed bags and cases to switch the competition from a race to who could carry the most. Constance judged the amount they’d be carrying, the likelihood of cheating, high to almost certain, and stepped away another few feet to avoid getting caught up. She’d spent an hour polishing her boots last night, and it’d be a shame to scuff them by defending herself.
Her mother stepped out of the taxi, frowned at the sky, popped open her own umbrella, hurried to the front door, and put Izzy, Constance’s younger sister, on the doorstep under the canopy to keep her out of the rain.
“Boys! Will you be careful,” said Mrs Jones.
Weaving like two over-burdened Sherpa, the twins passed their mother as she rushed back to the taxi, and fished out the last of the dwindling notes from the only handbag she’d been allowed to keep. Her mother held out her hand for the change from a scowling cabbie who wasn’t happy at not getting the tip he expected after a thirty-mile fare of fighting children, a snappy woman and a man who talked to himself most of the way.
Constance’s father got out of the taxi and ducked under her umbrella. She held it as high as she could, but he still had to drop one knee onto the ground and pull his long raincoat up so it didn’t get dirty.
“The perfect cover,” he said, “none of my foes will ever think of looking for me here.”
Constance pretended not to hear him, well, only half-pretended because she was looking at the figure in the window while Michael tripped up his brother and sent him crashing to the ground. Christopher, only saved from injury by his armour of luggage, retaliated swiftly and toppled his sibling with a sweeping leg and a cry of triumph.
Mrs Jones slammed the taxi door and glared at the driver. It was more of a dare than a glare. It was a dare that said, ‘you had this for less than an hour. Do you really want to be involved longer than you have to?’ He didn’t. Shaking his head and muttering, the cabbie drove away. Mother’s magic touch.
This was the ‘I’ve had enough’ tone of voice. Constance knew it would work because the boys were smart enough to know that they’d taken this as far as they could before the maternal aftermath took all the fun out of it. They mumbled apologies and reloaded the bags as Mrs Jones walked past her husband and daughter without looking at them.
“Let’s get you inside, Dad,” said Constance.
David Jones stood up, put on a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses, the ones with no lenses, slumped his shoulders and stooped over a little. There was a damp patch on the knee of the three-piece suit the charity shop gave them after all his were taken away. He switched his voice from its deep bass to the higher pitched one he used when he was Donald Dexter.
“Terrible weather, isn’t it?” he said.
Constance’s mother was already at the door, digging in her bag and telling her youngest daughter in a sing-song voice she was looking for the keys. It was intended to soothe Izzy but told Constance her mother was close to cracking. A sure sign to stay out of the way. The key, shiny and new against the drab green door, appeared. The tumblers clicked, Melissa Jones sidestepped from habit, and the twins hurtled in.
“Boys! Now put those…”
Her plea came too late as cases, bags, and brothers fell to the ground scattering with thuds, bangs and laughter.
“Boys! Now please pick those up.”
Constance stood at the door, her father silent beside her. It opened onto a small hallway barely enough to fit two people. Directly in front of them was a staircase leading up to the room with the figure with no face. A door on the left lead into a living room echoing with the twin’s latest scuffle.
A shadow flickered across the back wall at the top of the stairs. Constance let go of her father’s hand and stepped into the house.
“I’m going upstairs.”
Each step of her boots on the wooden stairs, partially covered with old newspapers, made a solid tap. Constance turned left at the top onto a gloomy landing, all of its four doors closed and in shadow. The first door on the right opened into a bathroom with a grimy toilet beside a short claw-footed bathtub with leaves and dirt at the bottom.
A chill blew through the broken corner of the bathroom's frosted window. Back in the upstairs landing, the first of the two doors set into the long wall lead into the back bedroom and the other door opened into the biggest bedroom at the front of the house. Constance made her way to the final door at the end of the hall.
Halfway there and the handle creaked downwards on its own until it clicked and the door swung open. The room was barely big enough to fit a single bed. Its dirty window looked onto the dreary front garden and the surrounding circle of a hundred other identical houses on the council estate. Constance’s shiny boots stopped on the threshold. She shuffled them until they were both exactly halfway on the slightly raised, curved piece of wood separating the landing from the room. The walls, like all the others she’d seen in the house, were a mess of ragged wallpaper strips and bare plaster. A hard white emulsion bought in bulk and liberally applied by painters covered the window frame that looked like it had never opened.
A slow scrawl cleared dust on the window to leave a message.
‘Come inside and close the door’
Constance pursed her lips.
A door banged downstairs, Michael and Christopher clattered up stairs ignoring their mother's pleas to ‘go easy’.
Christopher made it to the landing first but his brother kicked off the back wall, landed high on his sibling's back and brought them both wrestling to the floor. They spent a lot of time doing that these days.
“I’m picking our room, muppet,” said Michael.
Constance stepped over the threshold and turned around to face them. Her brothers stopped their struggles and looked up at her.
“What are you looking at, Constipated?” said Christopher.
Constance held her brothers’ gaze until they blinked and looked away.
“This is my room,” she said and closed the door.