She reached behind her and adjusted the drawstring. Clive couldn’t see what she was doing because it seemed as if she were merely fidgeting. If he knew she was trying to signal to someone in the garden by means of the slightest movement of the curtains, he would have quickly moved her to another chair. As it was, she could barely reach the string and it had never properly worked even with someone standing up and giving it almighty tugs when the shorter evenings drew in. The curtains only worked by pulling them manually along the runners without the use of vertical pulley-systems.
Clive watched the pelmet shake. The girl was evidently creating this effect either by direct physical purchase between her and the curtain-rod or by mind over matter. The mantelpiece clock was shuddering nearer to the edge, threatening to fall off … but it always did this when it struck the hour. Clive had to re-adjust it every thirteen days before it could actually topple off. However, the coal scuttle had never before budged so significantly in the short space of time between him feeding the fire with more coal and the fire again threatening to go out. There must be a coaldust imp in there, he thought. All fairy tale stuff.
The girl had by now slipped her hidden fingers along the length of the drawstring after adjusting it short of obviously tugging upon it – then allowing it to fall back with the clatter of its dangling aglet against the glass of the window. Clive turned sternly towards her. On her lap was the kitchen cat looking plaintively up at him. The girl’s eyes, though, were icy. The cat had just escaped from the coal scuttle, judging by the black smudges all over its white fur.
One of the servants stood in the open lounge door with a tray in his or her hand. Clive couldn’t actually see the servant – other than the shape – because of the shadows thrown by the firelight. The standard lamp cast one slanting beam right over the face. Meanwhile, the wireless at a barely perceptible volume tinkled in the corner, either with music or the high-pitched voices of a Home Service play. The servant , having emerged from the rectangular wreath of the doorway, declared a feminine bosom as the tray was posited squarely on the tea-trolley – which proceeded to roll forward through some hidden momentum.
“Anything else, Sir?” piped the servant as she minced back toward the welcoming folds of shadow by the doorway.
“No, unless you have forgotten the strainer,” said Clive a trifle hesitantly. He did not want to give the game away. The girl had sat unnoticed near the window; the cat was also still on her lap, purring in tune with the wireless in the opposite corner. Whoever the girl had been abortively making signals to in the garden would, by now, be subsumed in the afternoon fog, fog that was fated not to lift until late morning tomorrow. Dusk was earlier every day – ad infinitum it seemed as the evenings continued to draw in – and he went over to pull the curtains together; but they stuck halfway.
“Let me do it, Sir,” called the servant bravely, it appeared, from the hallway, having no doubt heard the throaty catch of the curtain ring upon the rod. It sounded like a different servant from that distance. Clive shook his head absentmindedly, convinced in his own mind that such a gesture was tantamount to an answer for someone out of eyeshot. It worked – for the servant failed to turn up again. The cat scuttled from the girl’s lap and decided to preen itself in front of the dying warmth of the fire.
Something was riffling the inner layer of net curtains as it walked along the window ledge. He shuddered. In the garden with you, he mouthed. And with a flourish, he managed to tug the curtains together upon the grate and grind of a friction that should have swished along upon a coat of linseed oil. He had hated the cod liver sort when he was force-fed it as a child for the good of his health. He sighed as he blotted out the night and whatever haunted the garden. Houses, these days – even old-fashioned ones like this one with lit consoles masquerading as ancient wirelesses – could not countenance being haunted. Ghosts were too far fetched. Only the outside world, Clive believed, could harbour the shudders and fears of yesteryear. And now he had blotted them out with one clumsy curtaincall.
The girl had followed the cat towards the dull embers of the fire that lit the room like one huge crazy-paved eyeball.
He decided that he would have to put the light on in the room if the teatray of goodies were to be shared out upon and into individual items of crockery.
With the fire out now, who was coming down the chimney? Soot falling into the grate like droppings. Or something had been tugged up the other way through the flue. Clive shivered. He felt a chill working round him. It wasn’t just sickness. The girl had left for the kitchen: where she must work as an oven cleaner or cook’s assistant when she wasn’t dusting or acting as chambermaid. Light footsteps from the wireless gave the impression she was still in the room. Clive poured the tea with a gurgle more like oil than a scalding hot infusion of refreshment.
Servants were far and few between in these days of modern living, where both men and women worked all hours God had given simply to earn a crust - or a roof: or at least one slate per week eventually to make a proper roof one day. He could hear far off scrabbling as if workmen were erecting scaffolding above the house itself: to mend his roof. Builders from hell, the TV often claimed. Strange they should still be working during this season when evenings drew in so quickly … upon God’s drawstring.
(published 'Darkness Rising' 2002)