A Short Story
A whiff of something unexplained, alien, reaches me through the half-open trapdoor. I fumble for the light switch just inside on the floor, find it and flip it on. Nothing happens. The bulb has gone. Something crawls across my hand and I draw it back instinctively. The ladder creaks and wobbles underneath my feet.
Just a spider. The attic is probably full of them. I heave upwards, slide the trapdoor back and thrust my head and shoulders into the attic space. A blast of icy air meets my face. The skylight window, encrusted with God-knows how many years of dust and grime, has cracked and a triangle of glass is missing.
I cough on the dust and damp. How long has it been like this, I wonder. Thirty-five years have gone by since my sister and I played in this room. My memories, cloudy now, are of freshly-emulsioned walls and the smell of pine disinfectant. I remember the sound of hammering – and the occasional expletive echoing round the roof space – as my father worked on the flooring and the insulation. The cross-beams were too low to accommodate a fully-grown man. Moreover, wearing safety goggles instead of his customary spectacles, he was dangerously short-sighted. My mother too, before arthritis claimed her hips and knees, would scamper up the pull-down ladder we had then to clean and vacuum for us. She could work standing with an inch or two to spare.
I grip the frame of the trapdoor, allow it to take my weight, and lever myself over the edge. The old wooden ladder, borrowed from a neighbour, stops short of the gap by a good three feet. No pull-down now. The fastenings had loosened and my father had deemed it unsafe.
On the window side, there is just enough light for me to see the hazards – a missing floorboard, a brick, splinters of glass everywhere. Crouching, I brush the strands of cobweb from the nearest rafters and stand up between them. A soggy heap of moss, grit and leaves has collected under the broken pane. The insulating panels that form the makeshift walls bulge and run with green slime. I smell the decay. The remaining pieces of furniture, my school desk minus lid, a wicker chair and our old holiday trunk are thick with decades of dust.
A sports car screams past in the street outside, the Doppler effect intensified by the hollow stillness of my surroundings. Why did I come, I ask myself? The house has too many ghosts: grandparents and parents have gone, and now my sister … I suppose I want to see where it happened, want to have a last look at the old place, my inheritance, before I sell.
The alien smell is stronger now but I cannot locate the source. Then I see them, grotesque shapes, shadows thrown by the failing daylight in the far corner. Hanging, dead or alive I cannot tell, from one of the crossbeams. I cough again, reacting to both dust and stench. There is a flutter of wings and one skims past my nose. Another narrowly avoids my hair, panicking, squeaking.
Protected, claiming territory that was once mine.