Winner: Jennifer Riddalls - Yaffle
Winner: Kier Hull - Mr Caper's Children (read it below)
Winner: Sarah Alcock - The Manor
Winner: W R Daniel - Sympathy and The Devil
Winner: Louise Taylor - The Thin Places
Runner-up: The Not-so-human Soul - Rick Limentani
Winner: Mary Prior - United
Winner: Doors & Creature - Snickerdoodle
Lucy Underhill - Run
Shaun Baines - To Cheshire, With Love
Winner: Doors & Creature - A Creature
Runner-up: Airen Lang - Andrew
October 2017: Anna Haldane - The Silver Whisper
September 2017: Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
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Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
MR CAPER'S CHILDREN
by Kier Hull
As a child, I always avoided Mr Caper’s house on my way home. It was out of habit, more than anything. Habit and fear. Even now, in the throws of midlife, I could not escape the village whisperings of the uncanny old man.
Watch out for old Mr Caper – loves his children a bit too much, he does.
Something wrong with that house – very wrong if you ask me.
Where did his wife go, then? Anyone ever seen her, or any of those children, out on their own?
Now, I was not one to believe in idle gossip, but whenever I approached Mr Caper’s, there remained a feeling in me that the unhealthy old house, clinging to its corner like a shroud, was best rounded on the opposite side. Its mismatched proportions were disorientating. An absurdly steep and elongated roof, dangling at obscure angles, topped the squat, oblong body. It was a drunken, Germanic nightmare house of wonder, spectral black in its outline against the sky. Its peculiar stature was all the more distinct against the bright uniformity of the village’s other houses – all square windows and pruned gardens.
Mr Caper had been a target of the town’s speculation for a long time. His reclusive, self-sufficient nature, together with his out-of-character (and annoyingly well-placed) home, meant that bitterness and spite from others came easily. It was a disingenuous town of do-ers and join-ers, of catch-ups at the Post Office and horribly invasive questions at the supermarket till. Anyone keeping to themselves was suspect. Guilty until proven innocent, was the accepted mantra. But then, with Mr Caper, there was the unavoidable issue of the children. Apparently, there were seven of them – all under 12 and underfed, at least according to Mae Jones, the Post Office clerk. No one could confirm this, though, as they were never seen outside. None of them went to the local schools; instead it was thought that Mr Caper must have taught them at home. Nor did any of them play with the other local children, preferring, it seemed, to cavort around in secret in the swamping gardens at the side of the house. There were tales of occasional glimpses of a bone-white arm or a frantic eye as they collected their various oddly shaped deliveries. Their mother – named Violet, rumour had it – died giving birth to the seventh child, and was taken away in a private ambulance one murky night. Until then, no one had ever seen her.
I decided, as an adult of seemingly sound mind, that one evening, being one of those ones in early summer where the air seems pungent with possibility, and the open sky invites you to jump and soar into its space, I would, for once, walk alongside Mr Caper’s house; to look deep into its cloaked and warped face and to finally dispel the myths of the bakery-line crones that had haunted my childhood.
Approaching the crooked nook, the blue-black roof and grey bricks seemed to suck the life out of the surround, forming an almost cloudy sheen above the near horizon. Its ungainly stature was enhanced by dilapidation; there were holes at the corners where the walls met the guttering; the window shutters hung from a sinew. The path alongside the house was far enough from the porch and front door, to feel well distanced, but this turned rapidly into an uncomfortable closeness as I approached the fearsome garden fence, sprawling with matted ivy. This darkening sickle rounded the corner of the house, down towards a narrow alleyway that offered a hell-mouth gauntlet to freedom beyond.
I walked with purpose around this oppressive border, the ivy creating a strange coolness despite the time of year, glancing intently with strained eyes for any sign of Mr Caper, or his offspring. The slatted, fading timbers offered staccato glimpses of glittery light in-between a damp green fur. What slowed me, and what I sensed first, was a whispering murmur of voices. A tittering, high and faded to begin with, seemed to come from all around the garden. It was impossible to tell exactly where it began, or how many voices there were, but the increasingly discordant laughter skittered around the serpentine curve of the fence. Just as the pitch of this resonant snickering increased, I was struck by an incredible smell – a saccharine, cloying perfume; one that caused me to blink rapidly and shake, as if to clear, my head. It was unmistakeably the sickly smell of children playing. Disorientated, I clung to the moist leaves beside me – still shaking my head to retrieve my senses – and in a half-dark slit between the overgrowth, there flashed the glistening white-redness – carmine and ivory – of a monstrously wide, childish mouth…
After hanging my head between my knees and taking a few deep breaths, I stood up to clean, silent air. The noise and scent of children was gone. A warm stillness had replaced it, reflecting the soft blue sky of June. In slight disbelief at my own fearful imagination, I walked serenely through the bright door that formed the opening of the alleyway, on towards home.
My lonely routine, which seemed to have been mine now for quite some time, was one that gave me some small comfort. I would whistle in through the door, hang up my keys in a flourish of satisfaction and rasp on the kitchen worktop to call Echo – my ugly, mottled cat – to come home to her master. As I prepared her luxurious unidentified meat selection, I would talk her though my day. We would then sojourn to the living room – ludicrously ironic in name – to take in through the eyes a foetid barrage of colours and misinformation, before wandering, solemnly to rest.
Only this evening’s routine was rudely shaken at the start – for my rhythmic, musical tapping failed to call Echo forth. No doubt the harlot was hooked by some tomcat Narcissus, who offered meat of a far more tempting variety than she would usually expect. Instead, then, I dined alone and listened to a fervent reading of Dante’s inability to climb the Mount of Joy. Feeling the same sort of oppression as the wandering poet, I succumbed to my own beasts and retired to the cold arm of my single bed.
Falling into a fitful sleep, my mind whirred with the unruly, discordant day, which culminated in the most lucid of dreams. I awoke, it seemed, to a room full of spring-like sounds, of chirping and chittering, of the crackling of new leaves, twisting out of buds. But, I was, in fact, still vacuumed in sleep, paralysed in my wakened trance, and frozen with the rapture of fear and thrill of knowledge. The noise of newly sprouting nature quickly became a jungle of sinewy fibres, strung and plucked as if on some monstrous, fleshy lute. I strained to open my eyes amid the din, scraping dryly under the lids to suffuse some sense of life. They opened, heavy and caked, only to be darkened again by a pair of tiny callused hands that slowly covered my face.
Waking, the next morning, in the glimmering sheen of summer, all dense and enveloping, I decided that it was the years of spectral wondering, of imbuing the unknown with ever more monstrous ideas, that had thus transfixed my mind – whilst awake and in slumber – to superimpose the horrors on to Mr Caper and his scuttling children. This feeling of clarity was enhanced when, on my way into the office, I decided to pass close-by Mr Caper’s house once again. Coming up from the alley this time, there was a stillness to the garden, asleep with the morning in the early brightness. The ivy was luminous today and the shafts of light between the fence slats seemed to push through with joy. Such freshness shook away my childish fear. How easy it was after all to dismiss these silly legends!
Turning around the side of the house and onto the broader front path I looked up at the porch, smiling to myself as I saw the empty rocker gently swinging there. Walking on, just past the gate, the sun seemed to fade, as if dipped behind some non-existent cloud, and I looked again at the house. With startled disbelief I saw Mr Caper stood, seemingly frozen, on the front of his porch. His arms were tucked tightly behind his back; he was staring straight ahead, as if seeing nothing – or, perhaps, as if seeing all. Despite his vacant, pallid appearance, I remained emboldened by the morning’s respite from my childish fear.
‘Hello, Mr Caper,’ I said. ‘Glorious new day.’
He did not reply, nor make any sign that he had heard or seen me at all. I walked on and felt a growing pity for this wiry little man, who had been so brutally outcast, largely because of his wan, private visage and reclusive progeny. After travelling a good way from the house, I turned to look back once more. As I did so, moving nothing else, Mr Caper flicked his febrile eyes, arrow-bolt at me. My feet failed and I stopped, dead, trying vainly to pull a friendly smile. Locked in a wide, spasmodic stare, never moving his eyes, Mr Caper raised one of his insect arms and waved, slowly, mechanically, like a fairground clown.
When at work, the daily tedium seeped into my bones and a slow lassitude began to fill me with an uncomfortable dread. I could not shake the vision of the old, waving lunatic from my mind, nor feel any of the usual sense of mild satisfaction that accompanied the ticking off of actionable items. I felt an awkwardness towards my familiar surroundings – my chair, usually so attuned to my body’s lumps, sought to cramp my thighs, or reach bony fingers into my ribs. The coffee was glutinous and tepid, inducing a wave of nausea rather than its usual prick of life. Seeking refuge in the expected order of the room, I noticed, for the first time, that the aspidistra in the corner had been parched – seemingly for weeks – and hung now in crisply brown desperation.
To try and pull myself out of this heavy torpor, I walked briskly around the building, hoping to find solace in a friendly, inane face, or to hear a jocular voice ring out in some obvious hilarity. But I could find no one who was eager to while away the hours – indeed, many acted as if I were not corporeal at all. Solemnity seemed to pervade the very walls, with a heavy veil over all activities and a serious, cloudy demeanour cast over every face. Had no one else basked in the bright white morning? Had I done, or said something amiss, of which I was cryptically unaware?
I feared that my environment would topple me, so vowed to hurry through the syrupy afternoon and get out, once more, into the rejuvenating air. I thought, again, of Mr Caper’s strange look and desperate wave, and more choking pity rose within me – the poor man had probably not seen anyone that close in years. That was it. It was shock that I had seen on his face; shock that humanity still existed outside of his stale walls. His jittery beckoning was a yearning for connection. With this vigorous idea hot in my brain, and what I perceived as a gesture of my sumptuous good will, I decided to call in on him on my way home.
Electrified by the idea of saving Mr Caper from the lascivious clasp of the town’s collective tongue, I found my eager feet rapidly eating into the miles to reach this lonesome patriarch. I was giddy with the kind of sanctimonious energy reserved for those for whom altruism is the very milk of life. The air had a glimmering quality, fusing the sky with indigo wonder. This state of manna seemed out of my control, burning through my fingers and toes that twitched and flickered as I walked – no, ran – to that stunted house on the corner.
I barely noticed the dense fug of the trees as I raced by, nor the black outline of skeletal wires that whipped overhead. The globular, putrid light of the moon – out bafflingly early – gave a gassy lustre to the air. I saw no one else in the charged streets and felt the world was tentatively waiting to see my saviour of Mr Caper’s soul emblazoned on high. Coming close to my journey’s end, however, I felt an exhausted fugue sap me; my manic state had burnt all of my energy in a feverish buzz. It was stifling now, heavy with the day’s heat, and my breath came in thick, chewy rasps. Under this oppressive blanket I beheld, once more, the freakish homestead – all blackened stone and jagged edges in the diffuse light.
Still, I steadied myself, and remained resolved to fight the cowering boy in me, for the good of another. The gate to the house – a sharp nest of roughly hewn and spiked wood – hung loosely from a rusted hinge that cried out, as if in agony, as it bent open. Approaching the desolate porch, through the overgrown front of mossy grass that seemed to suck my feet in a cloying embrace, I began to hear, again, the murmur of voices from the garden behind. Although obscured by the ivy-strewn fence, it was clearly the sound of several children, whispering and laughing to each other in some shadowy game of hide and seek. These hollow voices rang with a rattling quality that struck sharply, joylessly. There was a cruelty to their timbre, and their voices of play were taunts; their squeals of delight more like shrieks of sudden pain.
Walking along the cracked path that leads up the front door, stepping gingerly to avoid the cavernous holes in the splintered slabs, the voices of the children filled the air, quickening into a tremulous whine. I tried, in vain, to push out the frantic sounds, and focused intently on the teak-dark door. It was windowless, with a curved, impish knocker, who appeared to be missing an arm. With the hawkish din close to overwhelming me, I rapped on the door with the mutilated creature. The murmuring stopped suddenly, replaced instead with a suffocating stillness that weighed heavy around the enclosing porch.
There was no answer.
I struck a brittle tattoo a second time.
Sensing a trepid movement behind the entrance, I stepped back. The handle caught and turned an arthritic circle; a black column inched clear of the door’s edge, broken by branchy fingers that hooked around the frame. Mr Caper slid out of the door, opening it just enough to squeeze his frail body out of the partition. He was a painfully thin man, with a greyish hue and almost translucent skin. His clothes – clean, but faded – hung emptily around his limbs. His gaze was fixed on the floor and he moved toward me in somnambulant jerks.
‘G-Good evening, Sir,’ I said, thrusting out my hand.
He did not respond, nor look my way, and instead stood with his arms hanging limply by his side, seemingly entranced by the splintered chaos of the mismatched stone floor.
‘I thought I should, ah, make your acquaintance,’ I continued. ‘About time.’
Sombre hanging baskets swung on either side of the porch, full of charnel pink chrysanthemums, putrid black-eyed vines and fuchsias that were barely more than dust. These perfumed censers cloistered the air and made me feel strangely hazy.
‘Quite a place you have here. Regal almost,’ I said, becoming desperate now.
The sickening bouquet filled my nostrils and clawed at my throat. I reached into my pockets for my handkerchief, but instead pulled out only tufts of mottled fur.
‘I didn’t ask for you.’
Mr Caper’s voice was cracked and uncertain. He continued to gaze in fixed abstraction, but one of his hands began to tremble uncontrollably.
I became aware, underneath and behind his words, once again, of the whispering of many voices, coming from the walls, within the hedgerows, from the very ground itself.
‘No, of course not,’ I said. ‘Sorry. How silly of me to presume.’
‘There is nothing I can do, now.’
It was at this moment that Mr Caper looked at me. His tremulous eyes sought a desperate invocation of remorse from me, which shook my very spirit.
It was he that was afraid.
Not for himself, but for me.
I turned and fled, as the hissing wheeze of the childish voices grew more feverish, chattering and echoing around the perimeter of the house. Running through the long, dead grass of the front garden, my feet slipped on what appeared to be scattered entrails of some rotting animal, shredded and thrown about the floor. I regained my footing and swiped through the straw tendrils, sprinting out of the gate, round the side of the immense fence and into the suffocating alleyway, where the squeals of the children became hysterical. There was a build up of excitement in their throats, of uncontainable pressure that seemed to shake through the dark, leathery leaves. Gasping for breath in the thick, tropical air, the pitched laughter of the children cavorted across the alley’s divide, catching at my heels as I sped through.
Flailing wildly out of the mouth of the passageway, into the strangely cold, silent night, I rested my hands on my knees, panting. Disbelief at my own childish fear ran through me. I shook my head and turned to walk towards home. A sudden razor prickle pierced the back of my neck. My knees crippled and a fog seeped over my mind; I saw those familiar sickly hands as they slowly covered my face and the dark closed around me, echoing with the screeching, demented laughter of children.
Copyright (c) Kier Hull 2018