by Vanessa Horn
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! The Ladies are here again. And it’s different today; I’m down in the hall and Mother’s upstairs. It’s the first time I’ve been this close to them, but I had a feeling they were around our area and my feeling was right – they’re just behind the door.
The Ladies come every few weeks or so. Not regularly enough to guess exactly which day, though. I’ve never seen them in person, but I always know it’s them at the door; their rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat is different from any other knock I’ve heard. But even when I hear them, I’m never near enough to answer. Until today.
Two ladies. Older than Mother; I can tell from their voices. Smiley voices, with colours floating high at the ends of their sentences. Uppity, Mother would say, after they’d gone, with her voice sounding very different from when she talked to them. I wouldn’t say this to her, but I don’t agree. I think their voices sound like the radio music that I listen to when Mother goes to work. Calm. Peaceful. Gentle. It makes me feel I’d be safe with The Ladies – there’d be no sudden slaps making my head spin.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! I reach my hand out then freeze as I realise I’m being watched…
“Don’t bloody answer it – get back up here!” Mother hisses from the top of the stairs. I glance at her but then turn my gaze back to neat hats bobbing through opaque glass. My heart beats quickly and my breath comes in short, spiky gasps as I stand there.
The Ladies. I’ve never seen them but I know what they look like – they come to me often in my dreams. They have round, rosy-cheeked faces and dress in colourful, happy clothes: long, chunky home-knitted scarves and the little black hats on their carefully-hair-doed heads. They have huge handbags full of helpfulness: notebooks to draw in, little packets of tissues, Lego pieces and bars of Turkish Delight. They have soft hands, and huge squishy laps that you can hide in and never have to come out again. I read about ladies like them in the old books that Mother has from when she was a girl: the type of ladies who never shout and who love their children, no matter what they do. Even bad children like me.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! I expect The Ladies are wondering why Mother hasn’t answered straight away, like she normally does. Perhaps they think she’s out. I sigh, longing to reach out and open the door.
“I’m warning you, Mikey!” Her voice is louder now, but nowhere near her usual volume. I think she’s scared they’ll hear her. But I know what’s coming, whatever I choose. So now I have to decide. Open the door to the Ladies, or ignore the knocking and go back upstairs to my room. Smiley voices, kind faces and soft hands against harsh words, stinging legs and the certainty of being bedroom-locked all day. No choice then. And Mother can’t stop me now; I’m so close to the door. If I open it – when I open it – I’ll see The Ladies. They’ll talk to me. They’ll smile at me. That’s worth any amount of walloping, surely? It’s all I want; just a few seconds of them. It’ll be enough to keep, I’m pretty sure.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! So close. Yet… years of minding Mother are stopping me from making the final step.
“Mikey!” I turn again to look at her, still glaring from the top of the stairs. I’d read the word looming once and it seems that it’s exactly what she’s doing. Her face is pinched, her eyes narrow as she frowns down at me. But there’s something else: she doesn’t look as as… confident as she normally does. I suppose she can’t be certain what I’ll do; after all, if she comes downstairs to grab me, then the Ladies would hear us scuffling. Then they’d probably ask her questions when she eventually answers the door. Like is there anything wrong. She can’t risk that. I blink hard as I realise that this time – the one and only time – I have the upper hand. She has to wait to see what I’ll do before she can do anything herself.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! I don’t have long; if the door isn’t opened soon, they’ll definitely think Mother’s out. They’ll go. My heart beats so madly that I’m surprised The Ladies can’t hear it bouncing through the wooden door. I can almost smell the mints and talcum powder – can feel the softness of their bodies as The Ladies hug me and tell me that everything will be alright. But… will they? Will it? Or am I just tricking myself? Are all ladies just like Mother – showing kind faces to other people but really having scary monsters in their hearts? Not for the first time, I wonder how you’d ever know…
When I was little, I wondered why Mother even answered the door to The Ladies; she hardly ever opened it to anyone else, after all. And it wasn’t so’s she could take the leaflets I’d heard them try to give her. Which was a shame because I would have liked them myself; something I could read and look at – a connection with The Ladies. But she didn’t. I thought maybe the reason Mother talked to them was that she did actually believe in some sort of God and didn’t want to risk her chances by upsetting them. It made sense; after all, she was always shouting about evil, and me getting my ‘come-uppance’. Not that she ever said what the ‘come-uppance’ was, or what I’d done to deserve it.
When I was a bit older, though, I changed my mind, deciding that Mother made an effort to show her yes-everything’s-fine-here face so that The Ladies would go about their way happily. Without knowing anything about me being here. After all, I knew that life in our house wasn’t quite right: that it wasn’t how other children lived. It’s funny, but it was in the books Mother gave me to keep me quiet that I read about happy children running around outdoors and having fun. Loving parents calling you in for dinner. That was how I found out that our life together wasn’t natural.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! They haven’t given up yet; it’s almost as though they know I’m just the other side of the door, waiting for them. I’m waiting for me too – waiting to be brave enough. Right. If I’m going to do this, it has to be now; Mother won’t ever risk me being near to the door again. And… even if The Ladies aren’t who I think they are, at least I’ll know. I’ll have tried.
My mind finally made up, I take a step forward, starting to push the handle down. I hear Mother snarl a further warning from upstairs but I still keep pushing: slowly, slowly. And, as the door begins to open, I shut my eyes tight and make a wish: a wish that I’m unlocking a different world. A world with The Ladies in it.
Vanessa Horn is a junior school teacher from Havant, who began writing in 2013. She has had many short stories placed in competitions and published in book anthologies. Her collection of short stories – Eclectic Moments – was published in 2015 – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eclectic-Moments-Vanessa-J-Horn/dp/1909894273/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=eclectic+moments+by+Vanessa+Horn&qid=1570001396&s=books&sr=1-1. She has a compilation of flash fiction stories – as yet untitled – due to be published next year. Her first picture book – ‘Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!’ – will be published January 16th 2020 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Waaaaaa-Vanessa-Horn/dp/1910265780/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Waaa+by+Vanessa+Horn&qid=1570001140&s=books&sr=1-1