Cracked (A long short story)

If you like a bit of late summer gothic, this is for you. A few months ago I posted, on Instagram, a picture of me sitting in some long summer grass. For the caption I wrote a few words that seemed like the opening of a short story. Some people were intrigued enough to know what happened next. Well, at the time I didn’t know… but now I do. If you have 15 minutes spare then here it is. 

 

Cracked

Suddenly last summer, one hot June day, a long, deep crack appeared in the baked earth of the meadow behind our back yard. Its cause, some seismic shift deep down, was hidden from us. But that was the day, as we stood on opposite sides of it, staring at the dry crumbling earth, I realised with complete certainty that you didn’t love me anymore.

 

The town council sent an inspector out.

“I’m pretty sure your house is safe,” he said, one hand on his hip, the other rubbing his chin. He was wearing a white short sleeved shirt. It was transparent with sweat and I could see the bones of his spine through it. “It’s sandy soil, all dried up. It’ll sort itself out when it rains. Just don’t run any heavy machinery across here for the time being.”

You grimaced.

“We won’t be using any heavy machinery. It’s not a farm anymore.”

“No. ” The inspector looked slowly along the high brick wall around the back of our garden. “Shame that.”

He started to walk back to his car, then stopped and turned. “You know, I remember when I was a boy and Jeskyns had this place. We used to come up in summer at harvest time and…”

You stopped him by patting him hard on the back.

“You’re not the only one,” you said.

After he’d gone you kicked the gatepost.

“What’s wrong with these people? Give him another minute and he’d have been talking about incomers and upstarts. We’ve lived here for twelve years. The house would be in ruins if we weren’t here.”

“They have long memories,” I said but you’d already walked off.

 

A few years ago you installed one of those cheap above-ground swimming pools, made from a white steel frame and blue plastic lining. Now the steel was streaked with rust and the blue lining lavishly swirled with mould. Penny sat on the top step of the pool ladder, swinging her feet in the warm water.

“There’s a man over there in the trees,” she said.

I went to look. There was no man. As I walked back to her I noticed the long mess of fine brown hair falling across her face.

“I think its hair in your eyes, baby,” I said.

She stared at me with the scorn of a six year old.

“There’s a man. I can see him.”

I climbed up the first rung of the ladder and stood behind her, pulling her damp hair back into a loose plait.

“Is the man still there?” I asked, once her hair was out of her eyes.

“No” she said reluctantly.

“Good. Hopefully he won’t come back.”

“But I like him,” she said. “He’s scary but in a good way. I don’t want him to go.”

 

You went to the city for work. I expected you to be gone for at least a week but you were back after a couple of nights. The atmosphere in the house had been light but as you walked in, Penny and I both took deep breaths as if we knew it was our last chance to breathe easy for a while.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“Damned Mason & Howe,” you muttered, sitting heavily at the kitchen table.

“They didn’t renew your contract?”

You looked away from me.

“They certainly wanted a lot for their money.”

I wiped down the table in silence. Eventually I said,

“Well, no problem.”

I always said no problem.

 

We ignored the crack. It didn’t rain and the meadow got drier. The wildflowers wilted and the grass burned up. The tiny, gnarled trees in the old apple orchard seemed to shrink and twist in on themselves. Then one morning, we woke up to the sound of a low, melodic humming. Three notes repeating, like the start of Moonlight Sonata. They were more vibration than sound and drifting through the trees, up in through our open bedroom window.

“What the hell’s that?” you said, sitting up and pulling on a t-shirt.

The air outside was cool. It felt beautiful. I walked barefoot across the prickly dried grass of the lawn. The sound was quiet but inescapable. It filled our yard. You opened up the back gates and we went out to the meadow. Now I could feel the vibration in the soles of my feet.

“It’s that damned crack.”

We looked down at it. It hadn’t got any longer but seemed a little wider, as the top layer of dried earth crumbled away and fell in. The sound was rising from it, like steam. Three low vibrating notes. You knelt down to peer inside. Then you lay flat on the ground, with your head resting sideways and your eyes closed. You stayed still for a very long time. I watched you, the rise and fall of your back as your breathed, the splay of your legs in striped cotton pyjama bottoms. I wondered if you had fallen asleep.

Eventually I went over put my hand on your arm. My touch made you jump and your eyes opened wide.

“It’s speaking to us,” you whispered.

I let my hand rest on you. Your head twisted slightly and you looked at my fingers, touching your bare skin where the sleeve of the t-shirt gaped. For a moment I thought you might kiss them. Instead you said,

“Damned if I know” and jumped up, brushing the earth off your chest.

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Penny was ready for school in a neat uniform with her hair pulled back into a tight bun. She liked to look perfect at school. Her books were never tattered or the spines broken. She never got ink on her fingers. “I wonder whose daughter she really is,” my mum would say on one of her rare visits. Penny was not like me.

“There’s that man” she said, pointing to the apple orchard.

I looked at the trees. I couldn’t see anything. Then I looked at Penny, her hair brushed shiny and pulled back from here face.

“I can’t see him,” I said.

“But he’s right there. Look!” She was impatient with me. She thought I was being difficult and stupid.

And then, as I followed her finger towards the row of trees on the left I saw a dark shadow that shouldn’t be have been there on a bright, early morning. The trees all cast shadows to the left. But this is on the right. An extra shadow. And it was swaying almost as if it were waving.

I turned to look at Penny. She was shyly waving back.

 

The crack sang louder. People from the town came up the hill to visit it. It’s like a tourist attraction, you said. I should start charging them. I made sure the back gate was bolted shut. There were too many strangers around for me to feel safe. I was used to it being my meadow but suddenly there was always someone else there, someone come to gawp at the crack and marvel at the sweet three notes that rose out of it.

The inspector came back.

“Well, I don’t mind admitting I’m stumped,” he said, pulling on his ear lobe. “I guess it’s some kind of air movement through the ground that makes it vibrate like that.”

“You don’t think you ought to call in an expert from the city?” you asked, pointedly.

The inspector gave a good natured laugh, “Well, I don’t know about that. I mean this phenomenon might be unusual and interesting to us local people,” he put a strange emphasis on the word local, “but is it worth the expense of some so-called expert coming along and poking around, digging up the meadow for tests and all that? It would make your life a living hell.” He nodded at me, “when you want a peaceful day at home with the family.”

I nodded. I agreed. I didn’t want the meadow dug up and hordes of engineers and workmen marching across my meadow. Even though it wasn’t, technically, mine.

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They say that you couldn’t climb into a bath of boiling water for the pain but if you sat in water that gradually heated up, you’d boil to death before realising it.

 

I ran cold baths for us that summer. Penny and I would climb in with Bonjo, the dog from the pound we’d got when she was four. We would scoop water in plastic cups and pour it out, letting Bonjo lap it up. You thought it was disgusting to have the dog in the bath. The pool you’d built had the same water in it from last year. It had a greasy film on the surface and thousands of dead insects floating on top. I wouldn’t let Penny swim in it, even when you picked her up and said “Daddy built you a pool, damn well use it,” and tried to drop her over the side. I pulled on your clothes, dragging you backwards, unbalancing you until you dropped her on the ground instead.

More often than not, when the stuffy heat woke me up at three am, I’d find you gone. After a few nights I went out to look for you. The back gate was open and I saw you lying face down on the ground of the meadow, your face next to the crack, your eyes closed, absorbing the vibrations as they sang to you.

One night, when I found the bed empty and cool next to me, I thought I saw a man by the window, looking at me. Penny’s shadow man. I held my breath and stayed still. The shadows that made up the figure began to move, to sway, like a hand reaching and outwards, fingers motioning. Beckoning.

 

Then you went back to the city. And the music stopped.

 

I missed it more than I ever imagined possible. It had filled my head with a sweetness and a peace. I went to look at the crack. You have abandoned me, I thought, unreasonably, as I stared down into it.

They’d tried to test how deep it was by bringing a small winch and winding some metal line down into it. But they kept running out. After they’d run to the end of the fourth line, the inspector said “Let’s just agree it’s deep, eh?” and that was that.

The meadow itself was a tangle of dried out yellows; long fluffy grasses, and shrivelled flower stalks. At the top of the crack, where the earth was a light brown and had crumbled away, you could see chunks of chalk and plant roots sticking out. But about four foot down there was a ledge and the earth turned darker. Beyond that, the crack was only a sliver wide; a sliver of total darkness.

When the music stopped I laid down, like you used to and put my cheek to the ground.

“Sing for us again,” I said quietly. “Please.”

 

This time, you didn’t come back after a week. Penny and I carried on, bathing and playing with Bonjo, checking the length of the crack in the dried up meadow. School had broken up for summer and we spent every day together, wandering around the garden or lying on the cool, red tiled floor of the hallway reading and colouring.

Penny said,

“What’s that song you keep singing?”

And I realised I’d been humming the notes from the crack, weaving new notes in, embroidering the melody with my own harmonies.  Still you didn’t come back. Or answer your phone. Eventually I rang up Mason & Howe to ask if they’d seen you. Their receptionist was bemused.

“I’m sorry” she said and she sounded as if she really might be “but I don’t know who that is.” She checked for me and called back. Her voice was full of embarrassment, “I don’t have a record of us doing business with anyone of that name.”

 

Still, I had some money of my own. When the joint account ran out, I started to use my savings. It would last until Penny went back to school in September. I didn’t worry. Although I missed the music, I was quite happy.

 

Then, as I was soft boiling some eggs for Penny’s breakfast, she asked “Where did the man go?” For a moment, I was confused. I watched as the bright August sun shone in through the kitchen’s small windows; dust motes floating between us.

“Where did Daddy go?” I asked stupidly.

“No!” she was impatient with me. “Where did the man go? The man from the trees?”

And suddenly I felt bereft. You, the shadow man, the music; we’d been abandoned by you all. There was nothing left except for me and Penny and Bonjo, in this tiny, hot house next to a field with a crack in it.

 

By the end of August, Penny and I were living off tinned beans and jelly from the store cupboard. There was a lone plum tree in the garden that came to fruit early that year. We ate them until our stomachs hurt and then I left the rest to drop and rot. I remembered how last year I’d made jam and chutney but this year I had no interest. I was already abandoning our future.

 

But I had a plan. In ten days, Penny would go back to school and I would call my mother, tell her you had left us and that I needed her. She would come. It would be difficult and I would have to listen to her sly, jibing commentary on my life whilst she helped me put it back together. She would fling open the farmhouse door and let in a rush of cool autumn breeze. She would bring bags of shopping, fresh food and bleach and proper toilet rolls. The crack would close up with the winter rain and life would begin again.

 

I wondered why I didn’t call her now. Because it was too hot. Too much effort to pick up the phone. I needed the stillness of these parched summer days. When I could sing the crack’s song and breathe deeply without you here.

 

On the last day of August there was a banging at the back gate. Bonjo ran around in fast circles, a high pitched bark ensuring the visitor knew someone was here. Penny, who’d been sitting on the edge of the dirty pool, ran up to me and put a finger against her lips. Sshhh. I went up to the top landing and peeked out of the window. It was the inspector in his thin white shirt and a round, sweating policeman.

“It’s the police, Penny, I have to answer the door.”

She shook her head violently and whispered ‘no’, with such fear in her eyes that I just stood there and let them bang and call.  Eventually the policeman took out his notepad and wrote something down, then shoved it between the gap in the splintered, dried out wood of the gate.

We waited until they had disappeared across the field, then went down for the note. It was official county department paper. It read,

“Mrs Quinlan,

Your husband, Karl Quinlan has been reported missing by his father, John. We’ve been unable to contact either him or you by telephone. Could you please call me on the number above to let me know if you believe him to be missing or if you have any information about his whereabouts. I’d also like to confirm that you and your daughter are safe too,

Constable Baker.”

 

I stared at the note. Had the phone been ringing? I’d completely forgotten about your father. You hated him, never rang him except on Christmas and his birthday. It had been his birthday in July. The old bastard must have cared a little after all. I read it again and felt a tiny chill at the back of my neck. I knew I must go back into the house and telephone Constable Baker.

A sudden gust of wind caught the note and ripped it away from me. I was caught off guard because there hadn’t been any wind to disturb the stillness for weeks.  The paper fluttered away and Penny caught it in her tiny hand. She crumpled it up and ran to the pool, throwing it over the edge and into the thick, slime covered water. I held my breath as she did it and as she turned to look at me with a fierce warning in her eyes.

 

The breeze picked up. Soon the long dried grasses in the meadow were blowing wildly, their rustling adding to the unexpected soughing of the wind. It had been silent for so long. The vast blue sky was marred by greying clouds for the first time in months and in the distance I could see a dark wall of storm rolling towards us. The temperature dropped and I began to shiver. I’d worn the same blue cotton dress all summer and now had to go to the wardrobe and pull out a cardigan to wrap over it.

As I walked through the hallway I saw the phone, lying half off its cradle. I could call my mother now, I thought.

Instead, I went out to the meadow to look at the crack. It appeared to have changed, to have narrowed. It seemed less, somehow, almost a nothing. As I walked its length a large, single rain drop plopped onto my foot. I looked up at the sky to see the storm clouds almost above us. A long roll of thunder echoed across the meadow.  I could hear Bonjo barking from behind the garden wall. It was nearly dusk and the storm clouds had darkened the day to night. Another raindrop fell then suddenly, a torrent of them. Not just rain but large white hailstones too, beating down on me. The deluge was so fierce, that in seconds the dry earth underfoot began to turn to mud.

I felt a shiver from the ground, through the soles of my feet, up my shins and thighs, vibrating right into the core of me. It seemed to shake me awake from the longest sleep. I must do something, I understood. Summer has ended, I must do something now.

But as I turned to run back into the house, to telephone my mother and Constable Baker, the crack began to sing once again. A single note, a glorious, choral roar that soared up from its depths and rang across the meadow. It was the sweetest sound and I stopped to listen, to let it draw me in.

I was on the very edge of the crack, the mud slippery and becoming softer, sucking my feet down into it. The clouds were still pelting me with huge rain drops and hailstones, beating on my face, stinging my skin. I felt the ground begin to give way beneath and I stumbled, slipping forewords, into the crack.

Bonjo was still barking from the garden, such a high pitched bark it was almost like a scream but it disappeared into the noise of the driving rain and wind and the sweet, sweet vibration of the music. My feet were being pulled downwards. I reached up to hold onto the long dried grass and pull myself out but it had become too slippery to get a good grasp. One foot plunged fully beneath the earth. It felt as if someone had taken hold of it and was dragging me down.

“Penny!” I shouted, “Penny, I need help” But she couldn’t hear me. She was in the farmhouse. Behind the gate. All alone. My other foot was sucked down violently and I realised I was standing on the lower ledge, in the crack up to my waist.

I turned my face upwards to look at the black, stormy sky. The song was surrounding me, muddling my thoughts. I felt the earth squelch around my thighs and waist, pulling me deeper. My arms reached upwards towards the sky but the crack seemed to be closing in above me.

“Penny! Penny!” but my voice was nothing against the rain and the wind and singing. I felt a few crumbs of mud fall into my mouth and up my nostrils. The sucking, oozing mud was like a man’s grip around my neck, squeezing the breath out of me, like you were doing that night. That night you said to me “You don’t love me anymore” and said it with such misery that I went to hold you but you grabbed me around the neck.

“You don’t love me anymore.”

The earth was choking me, I can’t breathe. Is this what it felt like to drown? To be held under the filthy pool water, breathing in dead insects as you die? Even though I’d got you too drunk to move, did you feel panic and pain as I heaved you up the pool ladder and toppled you over into the water, breaking the slimy film as you fell in. Then I waited on the ladder, for a minute, two minutes, five, ten, before I could be sure you weren’t coming back up again. And the slime closed over the top of you, hiding you from view.

You went to the city.

Suddenly, with a ripping, squelching shriek, I’m fee of the mud. Hands had pulled me up. I saw the sky again, the black clouds rolling by. The rain slowed and the music vanished into light breaths of wind. The storm passed. I lay panting on the wet grass. The council inspector and the sweating policeman stood above me.

“Ma’am you almost had a bad turn there,” the inspector said. “It’s a quagmire, never seen it turn so bad so fast.”

I turned my head, trying not to cry.

“Let’s get you inside, Mrs. Quinlan,” the policeman helped me up, took off his jacket and put it around my shoulders.

My hands were shaking as I unlocked the gate. I was soaked and trembling all over. We walked into the garden where the rain had beaten down the uncut grass, spilled gravel and mud across the pathway. The pool loomed up before us. I stopped and nodded to it.

“In there,” I said.

The policemen looked at me and narrowed his eyes, then went to the pool and climbed up the ladder.  He looked down for a long moment, searching, then turned back to me.

“What am I supposed to be looking for, ma’am? It’s an empty pool.”

“Empty?” I stammered. He glanced over it again, then nodded.

“Yup. Just a bit of rainwater at the bottom. Not enough for a mouse to swim in.”

My knees buckled under me and the inspector hauled me back up.

“Ok there, you need to sit down.”

Penny appeared from the apple orchard. She walked shyly up to the policeman and watched him climb down the pool ladder. Her brown hair was damp and messy again and her bare feet were covered with mud.

“I kept asking Daddy to fill it up for me, but he went away before he did,” she said, looking up at him.

He reached forward and ruffled her hair. “Aw, poor kid and it’s been such a hot summer too. Would have been fun to have to had a pool.”

“Yes,” she said slowly and then turned to me. I watched her face, so young and yet so old at the same time. Then she turned to look back at the twisted stumpy apple trees of the orchard. I followed her gaze, looking past the council inspector and the policeman, past the dirty blue pool and saw that there, in the twilight, was a shadowy figure. Waving to me.

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