AUNTIE hated children. Me especially. Although she did get on well with Sis. Probably because they both liked going to chapel. Auntie had been used to hearing her father preach and Sis found formal religion comforting. Auntie’s self-righteousness allowed her to impose her rules on me, regardless of what my parents thought. Lean, upright, flat chested with short hair and small glasses, which she spent more time looking over than through, she never smiled, although on occasion her lips stretched sideways without revealing her teeth. I would be about four or five when she came to live with us after her father died. It didn’t take me long to realize she was a bully.
I never understood what hold she had over Mother, who was gentle and kind and never thought a bad thing about anyone. Sometimes that’s all there is to it; one person’s personality is dominant.
My father was often on business leaving behind an all-female household ruled over by Auntie.
Mealtimes were a nightmare as she invented lots of petty rules, probably just to catch me out.
“You must chew your food eight times before swallowing, child!” she would say.
“Don’t bolt your food!” if she thought it was six, or if nine, “Are you holding that food in your mouth?”
Sis ate everything with a smug expression while humming what was sounded like, “Six, seven, eight and down.”
If I did something ‘wrong’ at mealtimes and my mother was out of the room, Auntie would kick me on the shin under the table. I would burst into tears and run yelling to Mother snuffling,
“Auntie kicked me.”
“Of course, she didn’t. Auntie wouldn’t do that, silly. I expect you were swinging your legs (another crime) and hit the table leg.” At this point Auntie would come in saying, “She is a lying little minx. I’m going to wash her mouth out with soap.” And she would.
If I committed a crime around bedtime, spending too long cleaning my teeth – “You’ll wear your gums away,” or not long enough – “Do you want cavities?”, she would shut me in the bedroom wardrobe, allowing me out just before she went downstairs to fetch Mother, “They’re ready for bedtime stories now.”
When I told Mother she said, “Auntie wouldn’t do that. You’ve been playing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again.”
I loved my mother’s bedtime stories, not least because Sis would come into my bed and mother sat on the end, which heated it up a little. Auntie was fiercely opposed to hot water bottles in case it made us soft. Bed was my sanctuary from Auntie.
When my parents went away together Mother would say, “It’s so nice for us to be able to leave you with Auntie. It gives us a little time to ourselves. Your father is away from me such a lot.”
They would go and Auntie would unleash her reign of terror. Apart from the kicking, the soap in the mouth, being sent to bed without supper, and the casual yanks on my plaits – Auntie did not approve of long hair but Mother had stood up to her on that one – the most terrifying punishment was being locked in the cupboard under the stairs. This happened on Sunday mornings when, however good I thought I had been, fault would be found and I would be declared “. . .too sinful to go to chapel and I can’t have you roaming round getting up to mischief.” Then she would grab me by whatever part was nearest, shove me into the cupboard and lock the door. That was when I saw her smile.
It was a small cupboard full of brooms and old boxes with just room enough for me to be able to stand up. And it was dark. Pitch black. Not a glimmer, unless the light in the corridor was on. I banged and banged on the door and screamed and cried. I could hear Auntie and Sis getting ready to go to chapel and my sister pleading, “Don’t you think she’s been punished enough, Auntie?”
“It’s for her own good and her safety. Come on! Pastor McDonald is preaching on Forgiveness, so we mustn’t be late.” The irony was lost on me, as with sore hands and a snuffly nose I sank to the floor to wait the two hours till they returned.
When I told my mother she said, “’Oh, Auntie wouldn’t do that. I expect the door shut when you were playing hide and seek.” I realized then that there was no point in trying to complain.
At times I wondered whether I might go mad or even die. Once, she pushed me into the cupboard through a curtain of spiders’ webs that had formed since my last incarceration. When I’d cleared them from my mouth, face and hair and sat on the floor, I felt something climbing up my leg. By then there was no-one to hear my screams. Another time I was put in the cupboard after breakfast before I’d been to the toilet. I hung on as long as I could, trying to think of things other than spiders, which is difficult in the dark. I crossed my legs, jiggled up and down but in the end it just came away. I was soaked from the waist down.
When Auntie and Sis came back, I hammered and shouted but before she opened the door, I could hear her making herself a cup of tea. She paused with the door half open, sniffed, peered in and with a look of utter disgust said, “What have you done? You dirty, dirty little girl.” She put me in a cold bath, fully clothed and later I had to scrub the cupboard floor.
After terrible adolescent rages and fights, even with my parents, I left home to get married as soon as I could. Auntie was raging. Not only did she not approve of my marrying so young, she didn’t seem to approve of marriage at all.
“A Catholic! A Catholic.” she shouted. “There will be no Popery in this household.”
There wasn’t. I fell into the arms of my lovely Sean and never went back, unless Auntie was away, which was rarely. Mother frequently bemoaned the fact that we didn’t get on. But there was no forgiveness, no rapprochement and, in the absence of any grandchildren to draw them, I drifted away from my family. After my parents died, Auntie stayed on in the house with Sis, became increasingly infirm and crotchety and, after a number of procedures and operations, died. I felt it would be hypocritical to go to the funeral or go to her grave.
Sean died suddenly of a heart attack not long after, leaving me bereft and lonely. When I received a letter from Sis suggesting we might pool our resources and live together, I was surprised and uncertain. There was now no reason for us to stay apart; we both needed company but my small home held many happy memories. Perhaps I needed to move on. So I agreed to move in with her for a trial period.
At the front door, it was as if we were children again, just the two of us, but I was surprised to see Auntie’s wheelchair was still in the hall.
“Don’t you think you should send it back?”
Sis shrugged and dodged the subject. “I’ve put you in your old room. You know the way.”
“Thank you! It’s such a bright room.”
I opened the door and saw all Auntie’s diabetic pills and painkillers on the bedside table and her crutch in the corner. It unnerved me to realize she had slept in my old bedroom, where I had felt safest. Her smell still pervaded the room; some of her hard resentfulness had seeped into the walls. However, I was happy that it was a double bed and I could sleep on my usual side of the bed away from Auntie’s stuff. I began to unpack but the wardrobe was so full of Auntie’s clothes there was no room for mine.
“You’ve not got rid of any of her things, Sis.”
“No,” she said. “I can’t.”
Can’t or won’t, I thought but I keep one of Sean’s old tweed jackets and a favourite woollen sweater. Just for the smell. But I couldn’t think that was why Sis had done nothing.
It was very much like in the poem, as if Auntie had just stepped into the next room. Perhaps not even that far.
After we said goodnight, I undressed and got into bed on my side, pushing the hot water bottle down to the bottom. After a few hours asleep, without being fully awake, I must have stretched my legs into the other cooler side, where my foot touched something cold. Being half asleep, I just hunched up back into the warm side. Then still barely aware, I did it again. Something cold again but this time I knew what it was. I flinched back, my whole body tingling and shivery. It was a foot. A cold foot in my bed.
I leapt out, put the light on and hit the bottom of the bed with my fist again and again. Nothing to see. Nothing to feel. No lumps. No bumps. I thumped the whole bed then stripped it back. Nothing. Just the hot water bottle on my side. I looked to see if it had leaked. No damp patches, hot or cold. Perhaps a faint sickly smell. I thought it might have been a hypnagogic hallucination.
I got back in bed and lay very straight, my heart pounding. Gradually I relaxed and sleep took over but as God’s my judge, it happened again.
This time I wanted to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. I did what was for me one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. My mouth was dry. I was hot. I was cold and I couldn’t count my heart beat. Gradually I inched my leg into the cold half of the bed. I felt nothing and began to relax. Then a sudden pain in my leg. Something cold and hard had viciously hacked me on my shin.
I jumped out of bed, turned on the light and made for the door, when the wardrobe swung open barring my way. I slammed it shut and made for Sis’s room along the corridor. That was when I heard a squelchy thump behind me and saw on the carpet a footprint minus several toes outlined in a reddish yellow fluid. It was probably then that I started screaming. As I ran, there were more squelches and thumps and as I passed the head of the stairs, something tripped me up. I fell, clutching the bannister, and just managing to get upright by the bottom of the stairs. That thing had purpose. Had feelings against me.
The wheelchair that had been neatly folded now was open and blocking my way to the front door. It may have been a trick of the little light that came from my bedroom but it seemed as if the spokes on the wheels turned. I was by now barely sane and didn’t know where to go, until it struck me with a wave of nausea that I was being driven to the cupboard under the stairs.
The thumps and soggy footprints had followed me downstairs. I yanked the cupboard door open and shot inside, hitting my head on the door frame. I felt as if I were six again but too big to fit easily into the cupboard. I didn’t care. I grabbed the batten and pulled the door shut, putting solid wood between me and the thing that thumped on the outside of the door. I must have fainted because the next thing I remember was coming round as Sis opened the cupboard door and asked, “What on earth is going on?”
“Well, you took your time,” I said emerging cautiously, keeping eye contact with her. She looked embarrassed.
“I came as soon as I was able.”
I tried to explain about the amputated foot kicking me out of bed, pursuing me downstairs and driving me into the cupboard. Sis said, “Auntie wouldn’t do that. You must have had a nightmare and been sleepwalking.”
I couldn’t understand what had happened but then it struck me.
“Sis, I know you believe that burial in consecrated ground prevents the dead from harming the living.” She nodded. “But do you know what happened to Auntie’s amputated foot? Do you?”
She said nothing but surreptitiously shuffled her feet on the carpet to cover up the outline of a foot with missing toes.