The woman who I take to be my grandmother takes a long time to come to the door. I can see her moving about in the hallway, inching closer but taking her sweet time about it, stooping to do god knows what. The wobbly pane of glass in the door distorts her movements, so she looks like she’s swaying.
I’m disappointed. I would have liked to come and see my father in a house that I knew, perhaps even had a key to. I would have liked to let myself in and surprise him in the kitchen, busy with whatever we would eat later, delighted to see me two hours earlier than expected, apologising for the mess but there not really being any.
The woman who is supposed to be my grandmother makes me feel like a giant when I step over her threshold. Everything in her house is small and low, and when she pulls me down to kiss me on both cheeks I have to bend almost in half. I feel flustered at this immediate, forceful affection. Her lips leave little cloying damp patches on my face, and I feel that I have done something wrong somehow; that there was a fault with the embrace and the fault was mine. I stand there for a moment feeling ashamed – too hot in my massive coat with my massive suitcase, staring at the chunks of mud I’ve already trampled into the pale green carpet with my massive boots. I look around for Dad.
“The bed’s made up for you in the nursery, dear,” she says. “Could you take your things upstairs?”
She expects me to know where I’m going, so I pretend I do. There is only one upstairs door ajar, and so I push that open and I put my suitcase and my coat and my boots in the neatest arrangement I can manage, just inside it.
The bed is a single one, and very narrow. It’s made up the old-fashioned way with tightly tucked layers of blankets instead of a duvet – one corner turned down to expose the yellowing bedsheet – and an ancient hot water bottle, which is already lukewarm. I wait and listen for Dad’s voice calling me or his footsteps bounding up the stairs but the house sounds like the end of a breath: the barest whisper of life left in it. When I go back down, the woman who must be my grandmother is still waiting in the hallway. She doesn’t look at me, but fiddles with a fussy little clock on a fussy little side table. She lifts it up and straightens the doily beneath it and sets it down again. I scan her face for anything familiar; a jaw like my sister’s, or my aunt Emma’s nose, or that shape of the eyes that make people say my
dad and I are so alike sometimes. But her features are vague. It’s like my mind can’t fix on them. Like I’m forgetting what she looks like even while I’m looking at her.
“You’ll be wanting your tea now,” she says to the fussy little clock. I look at it; it’s just gone five pm. I had a late lunch on the train about an hour ago, but I follow her as she shuffles off towards the kitchen, trying and failing to say that I’m in no hurry, raising my voice down the dingy corridor for other ears. Only when we reach the cramped, linoleum- floored room, there’s nobody there either.
“Is he still at work?” I ask her, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. On the tiny kitchen table she has set one side plate, and on it is a piece of cold ham, one slice of bread and butter, and two leaves of gem lettuce.
“Is this for me?”
“Oh yes,” she says.
There’s only one dining chair. I squeeze myself into it, and she sits herself in an old, winged armchair in the corner to watch me.
“Aren’t you having anything?” I ask.
“Eat up now,” she says. “Your dad will want to know you’ve cleared your plate.” At the mention of Dad, I’m so relieved I decide not to challenge her, and apply myself to my miniscule meal, wondering how many minutes I can possibly make it last, even on a full stomach.
At seven o’clock, which was chimed daintily from at least five different rooms of the house, the woman who is my grandmother turns to me and says, “Right then. Up to bed you go.” I stare at her. She is serious; I have not yet seen her smile. I say: “I’m twenty-seven.” She nods, and tuts, and gets up from her chair and switches off the kitchen light.
“There we go,” she says. “You’re not missing out on anything down here.” In the sudden darkness she seems bigger somehow. Her voice sounds harder, and I can imagine her angry now, angry in the way that women are only angry with children when the door is closed. She says, “I hope you’re not going to cause me any trouble.”
“Where’s my dad?” I say. “Is he coming soon?” I hear how very young I sound, how small in the strange, dark house. She clicks her fingers at me, so close to my face it makes me jump, and I go meekly upstairs, back to the little nursery room where the hot water bottle is now stone cold, but I don’t take it out of the bed in case she sees.
I undress quickly, and when I’m done I hear her slippered footsteps on the stairs. I scramble into bed, fighting my way beneath the covers with my cold feet, and when she comes in I am strapped in tightly up to my armpits.
“There,” she says, and goes over to the window. She turns a key in the lock on the latch and puts it in her pocket. “All tucked up.” She draws the curtains. “Nice and safe.” She switches out the lamp so I can barely make her out; there is only the faint orange glow coming from the hallway underneath the door. “All locked up and tucked away.” She lifts a little nursery chair and sets it at the foot of my bed. “Safe and sound asleep in no time.”
The woman who must be my grandmother sits in the chair. She is absolutely quiet, but with every hair on my exposed arms I can feel the intensity with which she watches me, her old face unreadable, her eyes deep-set and shining. I try to lie still and breathe as naturally as possible, praying she will go, never so far from sleep in all my life. I don’t know how many minutes go by like this. All the time I am listening, listening, listening for him coming, for his car in the driveway, his key in the door.
And then I hear his voice. He’s laughing; his laugh is unmistakeable, even after all this time. From beneath us, I can hear the chink of glasses and plates and the faint noise of the radio. He’s been here all along and I’ve missed him! He must be eating now, the dinner that he had meant to eat with me, drinking the wine he’d chosen specially. He must be wondering where I am and why I’m so late, looking out of the window to see me arrive at any moment, perhaps even starting to worry about me.
I don’t let on that I’ve heard a thing. My grandmother is shifting in her chair, peering at me, and the sounds from downstairs are getting louder. There must be other people down there with my father, more people than could cram themselves into that awkward little kitchen, talking and laughing and eating. I take some silent, shallow breaths. I feel too exposed here, lying on my back. I wish I’d turned to face the wall, but it’s too late for that. She gets up, and she shuffles her feet over the carpet towards me. I keep my eyes closed, but I feel the air shift as she leans over me, close, too close, only inches away.
My stomach rumbles. There’s no helping it. I clench my muscles around the noise but my indignant body is unbiddable, and it seems to have no idea of the danger we’re in. My eyes snap open.
“You naughty girl,” she hisses in my ear. “But you can’t fool me. I know a fake sleeper when I see one.” She turns as if to sit back down.
“Dad!” I call out, my voice so high and quiet it barely carries. “Dad! Dad – I’m up here!”
She twists the other way. Though I can barely make out the murky shape of her, I know the movement is weird. There’s something wet about it, like the way that hair moves underwater, and it’s too fast. And then she is across the room and closing the door behind her and turning the key in the lock with an awful ‘click’.
“No!” I force my body out of bed, my limbs numb with pins and needles, and I hammer on the door, but this too sounds muffled, and the laughter and the talk downstairs is so loud I know they’ll never hear me. I shake the door handle. I kick at it. I am crying hot, powerless tears and I know she is still standing there, silently guarding me from the other side.
The phone rings. It’s not my iPhone, but an old-style landline, and I grope my way towards the sound and find it, vibrating slightly on the bedside table. I lift the receiver to my ear. “Dad?” I say? “Dad is that you?” “It’s alright, sweetheart,” he says, and I know his voice so well that I cry harder. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “She won’t let me come and see you, Dad,” I sob, and I’m holding the phone so tightly it is hurting my hand.
“Don’t worry, Sophie,” he says, and behind him I can still hear the other voices, and there’s music, like a party now in full swing. “I’ve got my eye on you. I’ve always kept an eye on you.”
The line crackles. His voice is distorting, and then the crackle is so loud that I can’t hear him anymore, and the crackle is coming not from the phone, but from the door. I walk towards it. There is still a glow of light beneath it, but the keyhole is completely dark. I kneel, and here the crackle is almost deafening. It’s like a radio tuned between stations, or the blank sound of a walkie- talkie, or the hiss of a baby monitor. I can hardly bear to, but I look through it, braced for the horror of the glinting eye I know must still be watching me, but though there is something dark and gleaming, I realise it is not an eye. It is a wide open mouth, and from it again comes my father’s voice.
“Sleep tight,” he says, just audible through the static. “I’ll see you very soon.”