Congratulations to Carys Bray, whose story is now on the shortlist for the Strictly Writing Award. For more information about the award and how to enter, click here.
The best time to think of hiding places is before you need them. It’s no use hiding things under beds or in mattresses; they’re the first places people look. Unexpected places are best. Sometimes I surprise myself with my ingenuity. Once I discovered my wedding ring in the bread bin. What a marvellous hiding place. Who would think to check there? Certainly not my burglar.
He always comes at night. In the thick of dark. In the solid, black stillness. In the quiet. In the smothering, pitch silence that stifles the house. I hear the pattern of his feet in the wide hush that packs each room. I hear the snap and creak of the floorboards. The whisper of his hands on the banister. The tide of his breath. I smell the stale tang of urine, of sweat, of wide, yawning pores.
I don’t scream. There’s no point. I’m alone. I sit up in bed and push my back to the headboard. I keep still. Sometimes I hold my breath and then let it hiss out of the corner of my mouth in a slither. I strain my eyes as I try to separate the swirling spirals of yellow-black, red-black and blue-black into something static and penetrable. The streetlamp outside has not worked for some time. I must call the council and mention it. I peer into the squid-ink darkness, searching for a partition of shadow and form.
So far he has left me alone, been content with trifles: my Accurist watch, an emerald necklace, a pen, my address book. But I watch television. I know about burglars. A man from Birmingham said he was burgled twenty three times last year. He claimed for twenty three televisions and the insurance company was very angry about it. I saw it on the BBC. Burglars keep coming back.
I am beginning to suspect that my burglar is looking for something. I don’t believe he is creeping about my house on the off chance. I think he is after my locket.
‘Don’t be silly Mum,’ says my daughter Charlotte, on the telephone: very bossy and officious. ‘How on earth would anybody know about your locket?’
But I wear it don’t I? How easy it would be for someone to catch a glimpse of it around my neck in the grocers’. Or see it sparkle in the large print section of the library. How straightforward it would be to wait with me at the bus stop, board with me, alight with me. How simple it would be to follow me down Topsham Road and watch me enter number forty. And how effortless to return later, in the dark, to search for the locket.
‘You are being ridiculous Mum,’ says my daughter, Charlotte, on the telephone: unsympathetic and sceptical. ‘You lost that set of keys, they’ve not been stolen. You keep saying you’ll get the locks changed and you haven’t. I’m going to have to look on the internet; send someone round to do it. There is no burglar.’
Charlotte lives in Ireland. She’s been very rude recently.
Night doesn’t fall in the late autumn, it plunges. It catches me unawares. It crashes around me, throwing itself through the house like an unstoppable, black breaker and I chase after, switching on lights in its wake until the whole house is shining like a warning flare. For all my burglar knows, I have guests, a party, family visiting. I feel like Cinderella, safe until the clock strikes twelve. No-one of my age would be entertaining after twelve. I always turn the lights off and hurry to bed before midnight strikes. The only thing worse than hiding from him in the darkness would be confronting him in the full glare of light.
My television breaks the broad silence of evening. So many channels. Just enough time to make a cup of tea during the adverts, so long as you remember to switch on the kettle after filling it. I like programmes about Americans with obesity. They do these operations on them to stop them from eating. Sometimes they suck the fat out of them with a tube like a vacuum cleaner. Afterwards they all cry and hug each other. It’s very entertaining.
Tonight I am not watching television. Tonight I am looking for a hiding place for my locket.
My locket is silver. It is Victorian, oval-shaped. It belonged to my mother. It is such a long time since I took it off that it was extremely difficult to undo the clasp. But it’s done. Here it hangs, in knotty fingers that I can hardly believe are my own. The locket is worth a lot of money.
‘For God’s sake don’t lose it Mum,’ said my daughter, Charlotte, on the telephone: impatient and brusque. ‘You seem to be losing all sorts at the moment.’ I dare say Charlotte is looking forward to inheriting it.
The kitchen is a good place to hide things. The locket dangles as I examine the worktop: breadbin, biscuit tin, kettle. I plop the locket into the kettle. He will never look there.
The chimes of the dining room clock carry up the stairs. If there had been time I would have changed the bed. There is nothing like sliding into sheets that have been dried on the washing line, soaked in the season, fragrant and fresh. Perhaps tomorrow. The darkness presses me flat to the sheet. I breathe softly. I listen.
Morning perforates the darkness, prickles across the daybreak sky. Morning and the shadows would be relieved if the streetlamp were working. I must call the council about it today.
He has been. He has been and the stench of him fills the space where the darkness was. Fetid urine. The sheet is moist. Perhaps it was still damp when I changed the bed last night.
I clean the teeth that are mine, insert the teeth that aren’t. Stare into the bathroom mirror at the bloodshot eyes and furrowed face reflected there.
I check the bed. Pull off the sheet. Perhaps it came off in the night. But no, the clasp was far too tight. Oh, the smell. He has been here, in my room while I slept. He has fumbled sweaty fingers around my neck, removed my locket and stolen it.
In the kitchen the water tinkles into the kettle. I watch it boil. I make tea and dial my daughter’s number. Her name is Charlotte. She lives in Ireland.