Bystander: A Horror Story.
As Megan opened the back door, her mother’s voice boomed out from the lounge, “Don’t blame me, blame the cat.”
Negotiating the minefield of saucers of souring milk, Megan mumbled to herself that the damn cat had been dead for years. Stepping into the back room, she looked around at the fading floral wallpaper, marked out with bright squares where pictures had once made the place a home. Back then Lilly had been very keen to present to the world a well maintained home, with everything in its place. However, that was a long time ago, now the house was practically an empty shell. The front room was the only place in the house that was barely hanging on to its former memories.
Megan had had the room converted into a bed-sit after her mother had suffered a small stroke and could no longer manage the stairs. That day had been a test of everyone’s patience; with her younger sister, Gloria complaining that she had little time to spare, as she still hadn’t found the perfect outfit for Charle’s and Di’s wedding. The fact that she would be sitting at home watching the event on the television did not seem absurd to her at all. In the end, Gloria got her husband Nigel to help shift the furniture around downstairs to accommodate a single bed. Lilly had wanted her double bed, but even she had to agree it would leave little room for her wing-backed armchair and precious sideboard. In the end the single bed was wedged against the front door, allowing Lilly to see through the middle room and the kitchen at the back. Her armchair was placed by the window while the sideboard took pride of place against the far wall.
In the centre of the sideboard stood a faded black and white snapshot of Lilly and her husband Joe on their wedding day, to the left, a photo of Gloria, aged fifteen wearing a light pink sash declaring her, ‘Little Miss Brighton, Seaside Queen 1969’. A year later Gloria had married Nigel, a man seven years her senior. Their collection of brightly coloured nuptials dominated the other side of the sideboard alongside a stash of memorabilia from Gloria and Nigel’s various holidays abroad, including: a conk shell from the Maldives, a ship in the bottle from the Caribbean and a Micky Mouse letter rack declaring Florida, ‘The Sunshine State’. Megan had thought her sister had married too young, but now she saw that her sister had been more than canny in getting away with caring for their mother.
The only photo Lilly had of Megan had been tucked behind the other memories. It had been taken the year before she had left school. She hated the face that stared from the frame, all teeth and hair; harking back to the time when she was openly known as the ugly sister; a label Megan had never quite been able to let go off. On numerous occasions Megan had asked her mother to get rid of it, only for Lilly to snap back, “If you’d got someone to marry you, or done something important with your life, then I would have had that framed instead.”
With a deep breath, Megan stepped into the front room and once again the stale smell of her mother and the state of the room reminded her that things could not carry on like this for much longer.
“Is that you Meg?” boomed Lilly.
“Yes Mum, replied Megan, “you’ve lost your teeth again?”
Poking her head from around the chair, Lilly scowled, “Don’t have a go Megan; Gloria and Nigel wouldn’t treat me the way you do.”
Clenching her teeth, Megan replied, “When did you have them last?”
“This morning, when I fed the cat; not that he seems to be hungry at the moment.”
Megan was about to explain for the umpteenth time that the cat was dead, but knew it would lead to her mother contradicting her for the rest of the afternoon. Instead, she took her coat off and made her way back into the kitchen. “I’ll have a look by the sink Mum; maybe you put them down when you made a cup of tea this morning?”
“Oh I haven’t had a drink all day, snapped Lilly, “I ran out of milk.”
Wearily pulling her coat back on, Megan asked her mum if there was anything else she needed. Lilly’s voice almost sparkled as she rattled of a list,
“Ohh, a pound of tripe, a new ironing board cover, some starch for your dad’s collars, some red step polish…”
Megan could hear her mother continue with her useless requests as she went to close the kitchen door. Throughout her life, Megan had tried to love her mum but Lilly had never made it easy. In the last year things had gone really downhill with Megan finding it difficult to spend more then a couple of hours in her mother’s company. On a good day she knew that this was just a factor of her mother getting old; however, on days like these, she honestly believed that Lilly was going out of her way to drive her crazy.
As she walked down the road towards the corner shop the familiar resentment rose up. A few streets away lived Gloria and Nigel, who despite living so near had managed to pass all responsibility on to Megan. All that was required of them were their biannual visits on Lilly’s birthday, a quick visit after their holidays and lunch the week before Christmas. On these occasions all three would witness the miraculous transformation of Lilly from cantankerous old woman to sweet old lady. If the truth be known, it was Nigel who Lilly had a soft spot for as it was him who would always make a point of giving Lilly a holiday gift. Each time Nigel and Gloria had returned from a break away, Nigel would say, ‘I like to give you present’s Lilly as you gave me the gift of my beautiful wife.’ Gloria in turn would cringe, but being a good wife she just smiled, keeping the bile from shooting no further then the back of her throat.
Megan was so fuming right now that she had half a mind to go round and visit Nigel and to get him to come back and see Lilly at her worse, but knew their would be no point. Nigel would gently tut about the saucers of sour milk, pat Lily’s hand and charm the old woman. By the time she’s got back to the house, she had calmed herself down and decided to tackle the kitchen sink and just try to spend some time with her mum.
She began by picking up one of the saucers from the floor and watched in horror as the curdled milk slid off the willow pattern and onto the floor, splashing up her bare legs.
“Yuk,” Yelped Megan.
“You’re not making a mess in there are you Megan?” Scolded Lilly.
Ignoring her mother, she grabbed hold of a tea towel from the draining board, and tried to find a clean part to wipe the curdled mess off her legs .
“Did you hear me Megan? Megan!”
As Lilly’s voice cut through the air, Megan contemplated stomping into the front room and suffocating her mother with a pillow. Just lately she had become unnerved by these sudden violent thoughts. The real fear she had was to wake up to find she had actually gone through with the deed.
Megan shuddered as she carefully folded the tea towel, counted to ten, then replied, “Yes Mother.” She then threw the rest of the saucers into the stinking grey dishwater.
“I hope you’re being careful with my tea-set; Nigel bought that back from their honeymoon in Devon you know.”
‘Oh, how could she ever forget,’ thought Megan. Darling Nigel, he who could do no wrong, Brighton’s very own male Pollyanna. Megan wondered what her sister had seen in her Nigel, he was older then Gloria, no looker and quite dull. Megan had thought that Gloria must have been pregnant, but it later transpired that Gloria had little interest in having any children of her own. The way Gloria had been so keen to leave the family home anyone would have thought Gloria had had a horrible childhood, but nothing could have been further from the truth, particularly when her upbringing was compared to their neighbour, Sybil.
Poor Sybil, it wasn’t her fault who her mother had shacked up with but no one in the street gave them a chance, except for Megan. Megan had wanted a friend, while Sybil longed to be liked or at the most acknowledged. But snooty Gloria and their mother had put a stop to that. How Megan wished Gloria was here right now. She would love to grab hold of her perfectly groomed blond hair and ram her immaculate face right in the greasy dishwater; then she would finish off her mother.
“No, no, of course not,” said Megan to herself, emptying the grey swill from the bowl with its collection of discarded ‘boil in the bag’ meals. As she did so, she saw her mother’s dentures slipping through the sludgy dishwater. Retrieving the teeth from the bowl, Megan turned on the cold water tap, slid the grey muck off the dentures with her fingers then placed them on the window sill. Looking at her mother’s teeth, she gave them a huge forced smile, knowing this was the only time she would see them smiling back.
With the kitchen back together again, she put the kettle on the stove for her mother’s cup of tea and another saucepan of water for the boil-in-a-bag dinner. Megan stared at the old stove and remembered a time when she would come home to the most delicious aromas. Her mother had loved to cook, everything from full roast dinners to all kinds of desserts. Despite Megan loving all things sweet, their father Joe would always give a portion of his dessert to Gloria. Although it was never said, Gloria was quite clearly his favourite. Gloria had always lapped up the attention but everything changed the day she had won Little Miss Brighton Seaside Queen. She had come home filled with excitement, but the next day she changed. Everyone put it down to growing pains. But from then on she grew distant; Megan was almost relived when she said she had met Nigel and announced that she was moving in with him.
Now all the empty kitchen smelt of was curdled milk and boiled fish. While she waited for the fish to cook, she set about refilling her mother’s pill box. After her stroke, Lilly had become less confident about venturing outdoors on her own. At the time she had been walking down the street when she collapsed into the road. Although not badly hurt, Lilly was kept in hospital for a couple of nights before being discharged back to her own home with the understanding that her daughters would take care of her. Gloria had made many promises to both her sister and her mother, but over time she managed to pass all of the reasonability’s back to Megan. “You’re better at dealing with all those domestic chores Megan. Besides, I have Nigel to care for, you only have yourself.”
The depressing thing for Megan was that her sister was right, but what else could she do but be her mother’s carer. Even so, thirteen months down the line, playing nurse had taken its toll with Megan having increasingly dark thoughts. Again Megan shook such thoughts from her mind and pulled on her best smile as she handed over her mother’s dinner tray and dentures and said, “I was wondering mum, you must get quite lonely.”
Megan was surprised when Lilly’s face lit up, “No, not so much now your father has taken upon himself to come and visit.”
Megan stared at her mother, things were a lot worse then she first thought. Seeing the cat was one thing, she could even believe that a stray was popping round, however, the idea that her mother was now at such a delusional stage was too much.
“Mum, you know dad couldn’t have been round, you know he’s been dea…”
Before Megan could finish, Lilly buttered in, “He was here Megan, as clear as you are standing there.”
Lilly paused, waiting for her daughter to contradict her, but the last thing Megan wanted was to bring up her father’s death, it had been horrible. Her father had always had a secret stash of home made booze in his shed, but somehow he had mixed up the weedkiller with his beer. The worse part it had taken him three days to die with nothing the medical team could do little to help alleviate his pain. Megan was brought back to reality by her mother giving out a victorious huff as her daughter waved any confrontation away.
“Oh he did look thin, but it was your father all right, it was my Joe. He seemed quite happy to stand just in the doorway and listen. He didn’t speak, but he never was big on conversations was he. I told him all about Gloria’s visit to Floria, which I know pleased him. I didn’t tell him much about you, but then there’s little to tell is there?”
The familiar hatred was brewing up inside Megan; why did her mother have to take a stab at her at every opportunity? Megan thought about grabbing hold of her mother’s dressing gown cord and wrapping it tightly around her mother’s throat.
“Megan, Megan? Have you listened to a word I’ve said?”
“Yes, I mean no. I mean… Sorry mum, it’s been a long day. I’ve had a lot of people on my case.”
Lilly took a stab at her fish dinner and said, “Well, aren’t you the lucky one. The only person who ever really cares for me is Nigel and your father.”
“You took your pills?”
Megan didn’t mean to sound so sharp, but her mother snapped, “I don’t want them, they get caught in my throat, I don’t know what you’re giving me Megan but I don’t want them.”
“Don’t be silly, just take them and I can get out of here.”
Megan wished she could grab her words and make them unsaid, but she knew it was too late. Lilly didn’t bother looking up at her daughter as she picked up the tablets off the tray and swallowed them one by one followed by a loud slurp of her tea. Feeling the familiar throb on the side of her head, Megan knew it was definitely time to leave.
“Look Mum, I’m really sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ve got one of my migraines coming on…I’ll come over again tomorrow? Maybe even stop the night?”
Ignoring her daughter’s olive branch, Lilly pushed the slab of fish and opaque sauce around her plate with as much contempt as she could muster. “Oh, don’t you worry yourself Megan, believe me I’m quite happy for you to leave.”
Megan waited for a moment longer, daring herself to kiss her mother on the cheek, but the increasing pain in her head pulled her away as much as the fear of rejection. As she made her way through the house, she grabbed her coat from the dining chair, determined that she would not let her mother see her cry. As she stood in the back yard, Megan shuddered as she stared at the neighbouring bedroom window. She almost convinced herself that she saw Sybil as a child staring down at her. Past memories washed over her, good god, how she had begged her mother to allow her to go to Sybil’s aid:
“She’s crying mummy, I want to help.”
“It’s not our place to interfere. What goes on behind other people’s closed doors is no business of ours”
Gazing up at the empty windows Megan let go of her tears, “Worse for who mother, worse for who?”
* * *
Eventually Lilly stopped seething over how badly she thought her daughter had treated her. After listening to the ‘Ten O’ Clock News’, she pulled herself out of her chair and flopped into the single bed. No sooner had she felt sleep begin to steal her away, she heard a noise coming from the kitchen. Pulling herself up onto her elbow, Lilly peered through to the back room and once again saw a tall silhouette.
“Joe, Is that you?”
The silhouette stood perfectly still, grinning.
“I told Meg you’d come to see me. You should come round when she’s here. She might treat me with a bit more respect.”
The silhouette kept perfectly still, listening to the old woman whittle on.
“If you want a cup of tea, there’s milk in the fridge. Don’t use it all though, I need some for the cat. There are some biscuits too, help yourself to as many as you like Joe, you need feeding up.”
Lilly snuggled down in her bed and murmured, “If you’re staying the night, you’ll have to make do with the bed upstairs. I’d love a cuddle with you Joe but there’s no room.”
Lilly smiled to herself as she heard the rattling of the biscuit tin.
Halfway through the night, she woke to find the room was freezing cold; the kitchen door was wide open.
“Oh Joe, you always were so forgetful.”
Pulling herself out of her bed, she made her way to the kitchen, not noticing the upturned dinning room chair that lay in her path. Lilly’s foot became caught, sending her crashing to the floor. As she tried to get up, she let out a harrowing cry as a rush of pain shot up towards her groin. Once the initial shock had passed, she was able to pull herself to the side of the room were she gently rocked herself back and forth, willing the pain to go away. With her breathing returning to normal, she crawled across the floor towards the dinning room table and sat down at one of the upright chairs. As she stared at the upturned chair, she realised it must have fallen over when Megan had left in such a huff.
She then wondered why Joe hadn’t up-righted it when he had come round to see her. Lilly called out from her chair, praying Joe was upstairs. If she had the strength to walk over to the stairwell she would have seen the culprit sitting on the middle stair, delighted that at last it was Lilly feeling some pain. Eventually, Lilly felt able to hobble to the kitchen, shut the back door before making her way back to bed where she forced the horrible experience to the very back of her mind.
The next morning she had forgotten all about the night’s events, until she swung her legs out of bed and a pain shot up her leg. As she lifted her nightdress she couldn’t help but let out a gasp of horror. The majority of her upper leg was a deep purple, but it was the sight of the large blood blister hanging from her thigh like a deflated balloon that distressed her the most. Throwing her nightdress back over her legs she reasoned to herself that if she ignored it, it would hopefully sort itself out. Easing herself off the bed, she hobbled into the back room, wishing Joe had stayed the night. She stood at the foot of the stairwell and called out his name, until disappointment pulled her away. It was then that Lilly realise just what a vulnerable state she was in. Sinking down to the foot of the stairs Lilly held her head in her hands and really cried, just as she had the day Joe had died.
Eventually she got a pot of Aspirin from the kitchen cupboard, made a cup of tea and managed to calm herself down, after all it was just an accident; besides, she had been through worse and survived. However, she had never had to deal with such things on her own. How she longed for the days when she would stand on her doorstep and gossip with whoever was passing. Lilly thought back to when Megan and Gloria were young, playing in the street with the other children without a single care in the world. Then Lilly suddenly remembered the creepy child who appeared on her doorstep with Megan gripping her hand.
“Her name is Sybil, and she’s my new best friend.”
Hearing Megan’s words brought an unknown feeling of joy to Sybil, up until that day she had not known what having a friend felt like. However, Lilly, like the other children, found the child to be somewhat unnerving and was quite relieved when Sybil’s mother, Pauline, came and picked her up.
“There you are Sybil, I’ve been worried sick. You better come in before Peter gets home.”
Later that night Lilly told Joe about Pauline and Sybil. “You know me Joe, I’ll speak to any one. But there was something not quite right about that girl Sybil. She’s not right, I’ll tell you that much. And as for her mother, quite rude, she didn’t even stop to say hello.”
Lilly’s view of the family didn’t improve when the next day she was in the back yard at the same time as Pauline. Lilly tried to say hello, only to watch her new neighbour scurry off back indoors. The same performance was played out a week later when Pauline came into the local shop. With her head down she gathered up her goods, paid and scurried out while the local fishwives watched on with crossed arms and pursed lips. No sooner was the poor woman out of the shop then the other women started to chatter amongst themselves. Kitty Thompson, the local gossip monger was the most vocal in her damnation of the new family.
“That child isn’t right, just this morning I saw her staring down from the back bedroom window and as for the state of her house, I walked past the other day and saw inside…the room was in disarray, that woman should be ashamed.”
The next morning Lilly stepped out of her house to pick the milk off the doorstep when a very handsome man came walking up the road toward her. As she stood up holding the milk to her chest the man smiled. Lilly smiled back and was most surprised when he stopped outside Pauline and Sybil’s house. She was further taken aback when he got his key out to open the door.
Lilly stared in disbelieve, Pauline was plain, hair suited for a headscarf and yet here was this handsome man looking so pleased with his lot. Lilly was about to step back inside when Pauline opened the front door with Sybil by her side. Lilly noticed that Pauline had a small suitcase in her hand. Within a split moment the man revealed a different side of himself, the winning smile switched to an angry glare. Sybil looked up anxiously at Lilly, who in turn hurried herself back indoors.
In an instant Lilly heard her neighbours door slam shut followed by Pauline’s pleas for help. Lilly in turn did what she always did, she switched on the radio and lost herself in her knitting.
When Megan and Gloria came home from playing in the park, Lilly sat them both down and told them they were to have nothing more to do with Sybil.
“But why?” cried Megan.
“I just don’t want you to. Now that is the end of it.”
After than Lilly went out of her way to avoid the family next door, she had Joe erect a six foot fence in the back yard. If she was on her doorstep gossiping she would make an immediate excuse to go back inside if she heard her neighbour’s door open. Despite her promises, Megan still tried to be friends with Sybil. Whenever she saw her in the playground at school she would walk over to her, only to spy Sylvia from across the playground, scowling. Eventually Sybil learnt to keep out of both the girls’ way, till finally she practically stopped going to school all together. On very rare occasions, Lilly would catch Sybil’s haunted face looking down into the back yard from her bedroom window; on these occasions Lilly would hurry up her chores and go back inside.
One Sunday morning cries came flooding from next door. Joe nodded at Lilly to turn the radio up, only for Megan to come running down stairs and pleaded for her parents to call the police. “Sylvia needs help!”
Lilly didn’t even look up from her knitting, “I’ve told you before Megan, what goes on between other people’s closed doors is none of our business.”
With that Lilly turned the radio up as screams continued, and despite the continuous calls for help, no one came.
Later that night two police cars and an ambulance pulled up outside Lilly’s house.
Lilly opened her bedroom curtains just as two body bags were being removed from her neighbours and placed in the back of the waiting ambulance. Pulling on her nightgown she slipped down the stairs and stood on her doorstep anticipating the moment for when the police would take Sylvia’s murderous partner away. Lilly was shocked when she saw young Sybil, whose nightdress was covered in blood, being guided towards the waiting police car. The next day Lilly sent the girls to her sisters for the rest of the day. The street buzzed with gossip, while Lilly expressed how upset she was. “You should have seen the look that girl gave me, anyone would think it was I who’d killed her mother.” As the day unfolded, whispers contradicted each other on what had gone on behind the closed doors. It transpired that the man had been Sylvia’s partner who she had tried to escape from but once again he had tracked her down and moved back in with her with fatal consequences.
The next day the papers had been filled with their usual mixture of lurid headlines and lies. ‘Devil Child Slays Werewolf Father’ screamed one paper, while another had the more sobering ‘Are We Failing Our Children?’ Now with the horror making the news, more clichéd comments came flooding out of the street’s residents’. “He was such a quiet man, you wouldn’t think he would change like that.”
“He was always polite to me, I don’t think he could have been all to blame.”
“That child was a bad egg from the start.”
As the weeks passed, the residents of the little back street in Brighton moved on to another ruined life to pick over, leaving Sybil to quietly rot away in Jupiter Hills Hospital.
* * *
Now all alone, Lilly wished the memories of Sybil would slip away as readily as most of her other precious memories had. Only the other day she was looking out of her window when she saw a taxi pull up outside her neighbour’s house; she could have sworn it was Sybil, all grown up, stepping out onto the pavement. When she looked again she saw a young woman who was now living next door. It was on times like these that she cursed the high fence in the back garden that kept her locked away from her neighbours. What Lilly needed was a distraction from these memories creeping up on her, so she decided to make herself a cup of tea and settle down to ‘The Archers’. If she had glanced up to the top of the stairwell she would have caught a glimpse of the figure hiding at the top of the stairwell, waiting.
With her cup and saucer in hand, she made her way back to her chair, only for her to spill most of the tea in the saucer. Stopping at the table she poured her tea back in the cup, were she saw someone had drawn in the dust. On closer inspection she saw the word “BYSTANDER” written across the table.
Wiping away the dust with the sleeve of her cardigan, Lilly muttered to herself, “That girl of mine gets more and more childish, if it bothers her so much, she should clean it up herself.”
For the rest of the afternoon she watched the window as if it was a television, until twilight prompted the street lights to come on and for Lilly to pull the curtains shut. For the rest of the evening she listened to the radio. By the time the ‘Late Love Hour’ show came on she was beginning to nod off in her chair.
Half asleep she heard the bed springs move. Without opening her eyes she mumbled, “Drink your milk, you little bugger,” believing her cat had returned for another one of its visits, unaware of the figure sitting on her bed with Lilly’s medicine pot in their hand.
Lilly woke with a start, the curtains were open and the sun shone through. She watched as the dust danced amongst the rays, wondering how long she had been asleep. It was then she saw young Sybil tapping at the window, calling out to her, “Lilly, Lilly, Lilly.”
Lilly woke with a start to find herself more alone then she had ever felt before. She longed for Sylvia to come and see her, she would even be pleased to see Megan, not that she would ever tell her that.
Lilly went to stand up, but her leg buckled making her promptly sit back down on the chair. She tried again to stand up an reach for her pills but gain the pain in he leg made he sit down sharply. on the third attempt, Lilly managed to grab the bottle, only to find it empty. Confused and very upset, Lilly stood upright but the excruciating pain shot up the whole of right side of her body causing Lilly to fall to the floor.
Unable to pick herself up, Lilly managed to turn on her side; as she did so she saw a pair of feet step out from the stairwell walk and towards the doorway of the lounge. Lilly lifted her head and let out a thankful gasp, “Oh Gloria, am I pleased to see you.”
Lilly held up her hand, waiting for her daughter to help her back into bed, only to watch with some confusion as Gloria ignored her mother’s request walked over to the sideboard and turned the picture of her dressed as Little Miss Brighton, Seaside Queen 1969, face down, looked down at her mother and turned the radio up full blast.