The room was big and white and dusty and filled with fear.

There was no reason for the fear. It was just something she felt as she entered the room. She’d felt it the first time that she’d walked through the door. She’d turned the round, loose, rattly old doorknob, and rested her hand on the much-painted door frame, and put her head into the room, and she’d been scared and she didn’t know why.

It was the top room of the house, a big attic room, empty and bare of any furniture, just dusty floorboards and white-painted wood-chip covering the walls. A large dormer window had been installed at some time, its un-curtained panes streaked with grime on the inside and a splatter of birdlime on the outside. Two great, thick timber purlins ran along the length of the room, one on each side, the ends embedded in the brickwork of the walls that supported the roof. It was a light, bright room, almost too bright; when the sun shone from the west, it poured in through the window and bounced off every surface, each reflection accumulating and magnifying the light until it became almost painful to the eye.

Her husband squeezed past her and walked through the door. The sound of his leather-soled shoes on the bare floorboards echoed around the room and made her feel uncomfortable, as if he was somehow intruding. She followed him in, her rubber-soled sneakers making no sound at all.

“Yeah, this could be great, Jo,” he said. “Nice and bright. Bags of room. Wall space for hanging your work, and that area under the dormer would be ideal for your desk and easel and whatnot. A fair old view, too, although a titch like you’d need a step up to see it, and these windows will want cleaning, but it all looks good to me. Just what you said you wanted, really. Don’t you think, Jo?”

He turned to her and saw that she wasn’t looking at the room. She was looking at him. She was a petite red-head, with blue eyes and high cheekbones, and lips that were usually formed into an easy smile. Her lips were pressed tight together right now, though. He saw something in her eyes too, something he didn’t recognise, that he’d never seen before.

He saw that she was scared.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

She stood in the centre of the room, hugging herself, her shoulders hunched up. It was a warm spring day but she looked like she was cold. She shrugged.

“I don’t know,” she said.

He walked over to her and put an arm round her shoulders and kissed her cheek. He made an assumption. It was wrong.

“Bit too late for second thoughts now, love. We’re in. This is it. Day one of life in our forever home.”

He kissed her again, smiling. She didn’t respond. A frown spread over his face.

“Come on, Jo. What’s up?”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know, Mark.”

“Is it just because it needs cleaning and decorating? We can sort that out, can’t we? A lick of paint and it’ll be fine. Won’t it?”

Jo slipped out of his arms and began walking around the room. She ran a hand along one of the timber purlins and then rubbed the acquired dust off with her other hand. She paused at the window, standing on tiptoe to see out through it. At the end of the room she stopped in front of the wall. Mark walked up to stand beside her.

“Wood-chip,” he said, running his hand over the heavily painted surface of the wallpaper. “Hate the bloody stuff. Reminds me of when I was young and we lived in that godawful terraced house. Tiny little place it was, too small for a family as big as ours. I hated it. I suppose that’s why I’ve always wanted somewhere like this; a big, old house, with lots of rooms and nooks and crannies, lots of space to spread out in. Lots to love.”

He reached out to a small piece of torn wallpaper that had been left trailing down. He tugged at it and the tear became bigger.

“Well, that’s handy,” he said. “Whoever put this paper on was a bit stingy with the paste. Looks like it’s only held on by the paint now.”

He tugged again. The paper peeled easily away from the wall. Long strips of it dropped to the floor, the layers of paint that had covered the paper crumbling to dust as they fell.

“We could have this lot all off in an couple of hours, Jo. Put something nice up instead. Or we could get the walls skimmed and paint them some bright, happy colours, yellow or orange or…”

“Mark,” said Jo.

Mark looked at his wife. She was staring at the bare plaster that had been hidden beneath the wallpaper and was now revealed to them for the first time. He stepped back and stood alongside her and tried to see what she was looking at. He couldn’t see anything except for scraps of wallpaper and a few scratches on the wall.

“What is it, love?”

“Look,” she said. “Can’t you see?”

Mark looked again at the area of the wall that Jo was pointing towards. He saw that the scratches in the plaster weren’t random. They had been scribed into the surface with a fine pointed tool of some kind, the point of a knife, perhaps, or a nail. He could see that the lines were part of a drawing. The style looked like something scratched out by a childish hand; odd-angled lines and curves had been formed from multiple passes with the tool, scratching and re-scratching, so that the resulting shapes had an indeterminate, feathered appearance. The shapes were of children, of boys and girls of different ages and sizes and shapes.

They were naked.

The two of them stood together in silence looking at the figures. The detail was enough for them to know that they were drawn from life, by someone who had seen these figures unclothed and had who had observed them closely. They could see three figures, two girls and a boy. The feet of each figure almost rested on the skirting board. They appeared to be drawn to scale; life-size.

The tallest figure was that of a girl. She stood in profile. The boy stood with his back to this figure, and a smaller girl stood on the other side of him, facing into the room. No emotion could be seen on any of the faces. None of them were smiling.

“We can’t stay here,” said Jo.


Get the full story in Mortality Tales.

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