Shadows, by Tanya Abbott

My family moved house when I was seven years old and so did the devil. He blended into the darkest corners during the day and into the darkness at night.  

We moved into the four-bedroom terraced house late one evening. Exhausted from the drive and from unloading the hired van, we slept on a mattress in the living room. My baby brother was the most comfortable, lying on his back with his thumb in his mouth, in the middle of his little white wooden cot with the blue animals printed on the outside. The day after, my parents set to work moving things, reorganising and decorating.

There was one other black family on our street and my parents made friends with them. They visited each other’s houses and we played with their children. Their father was a carpenter, so he would often come over to help with repairs and decorating. A short, stout, quiet man; his wife was small, very vocal and scary. Our other neighbours either ignored us or were politely distant, acknowledging us with a nod of the head, or a greeting. 

My mother was like a sergeant major. She ran the house with great organisation and skill. My father was a busy man; he worked on the buses as a conductor and was often out with his friends. He also controlled the purse strings. My mother was great with money, so the little she was given she managed well. She would make some of our clothing, buying cheap material at Petticoat Lane or Ridley Road, often bartering with the stall holders. She would bake and cook and was very creative with leftovers. No edible food was ever thrown away.  

We discovered the haunted house a few weeks after moving. It was six doors down, painted black, and gave off an air of eeriness. The lights were never switched on and the net curtains were black, dusty and moth-eaten. All the neighbours whispered about it. 

“We ain’t ‘ad anyone live there fer years,” said the lady who lived next door when our superstitious mother asked about it. From then, she forbade us to go anywhere near it. 

“Who do you think lives there?” my younger brother would ask.

“It could be… the big bad wolf!” I shouted, making him jump. We imagined the house was filled with cobwebs, just like in the horror movies we watched, starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. We investigated the house for weeks and concluded that there were definitely no residents, but we were filled with terror every time we walked past, convinced that we could see eyes at the window or the curtains flickering. We would often be sent to the shops when it was dark and run past the haunted house at speed. The devil would go with us, hiding in the bushes or under the cars.

The first week at the new house was an adventure. “Go round de block to see what shops are there,” my mother said to us in her thick Lucian accent, “And come right back!” she shouted.

I walked, skipped and ran, memorising each shop we came across. A launderette, a grocery shop, a sweetshop and a shoe mender’s. I recalled what I had seen and told my mother when I got home, panting trying to catch my breath.

“A grocery shop?” my mother asked?

“They sell everything: bread, milk, eggs, bacon, sugar, everything!”

“That’s good,” she replied.

She would give me a pound note to go and buy groceries, always writing the long number from the note onto a piece of paper which she would fold neatly and place it in her apron until I returned. I could never understand why, until one day she had entrusted me with a five pound note and the grocer insisted I had given him a pound. My mother marched me back to the shop.

“I just sent my daughter here with five pounds and you didn’t give her the right change.”

“She gave me a pound,” Said the stout man, looking my mother in the eyes.

“It was five pounds,” My mother replied, standing her ground.

She removed a piece of paper from her purse. “Open the till and take out your five pound notes,” she demanded.

He did as he was told and she read out the long number. He reluctantly handed her the correct change. She kissed her teeth as she walked out of the shop. “Volè,” she said under her breath.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means thief in Patois.”

“Oh.”

My mother was young, in her early thirties, and I always marvelled at how beautiful and smart she was. Her hair was thick and shoulder-length. She was always dressed well, often in a headscarf with bold prints and pretty dresses with the bodice pinched at the waist. She had a collection of pretty shoes which I always tried on when I went to her bedroom on an errand. My favourite was her pair of cream coloured stiletto heels. She had worn them on her wedding day. 

Life in a new area and a new house soon became routine. School could be tough at times with name-calling, “rubber lips” or “Where did ya live before? In the jungle?” We soon grew thick skins and learned to fight back. Home was a routine of chores, discipline and play. Our school holidays in the summer were a myriad of hot sunny days, playing games in our long garden, filled with a selection of sweet smelling roses, lavender, bluebells, snapdragons and more, or the local park. We played made up games while the fire-breathing devil watched in the shadows, rubbing his long, scaly, gnarly hands together.

In the hot sticky summer of 1973 the area was invaded by an influx of ants which grew wings and filled the skies in little pockets of black clouds. It was like the Hitchcock film, The Birds: terrifying. We noticed the black-winged creatures crawling on the melting tarmac at first. The soles of our feet were hot and burning in the cheap black rubber soled plimsolls bought on the high street. The little creatures would flap their clear wings, hovering and then dispersing, or be blown by the odd warm gust of wind and land in your hair. They did not discriminate: they landed on everyone and everywhere. We would run into the house screaming and my mother would pull them out of our soft fluffy afros, from inside our shirts or our socks. The little critters were everywhere. Even hours after they were removed, you would still be brushing your hair, scratching your head or body, convinced they were still crawling all over you. Even when they fell off they were pulled from your hair or body, they seemed to spring back to life again. On closer inspection, their eyes were red like fireballs and they had little fangs which, if they nipped at you, drew blood. 

The devil lingered and blended in the shadowy corners, controlling the little creatures like a conductor, his long talons pointing and twirling as his fiery eyes made contact with theirs. As dusk came, they all disappeared in a strange grey mist.  

It was my thirteenth birthday that year, and I was excited. We had a small celebration with just a few friends and family, a huge homemade cake, stationery, books, a Parker pen set. I began to notice the changes in my body and wished them away. My flat chest was beginning to burgeon and push itself against my already tight dresses, but I ignored it, convinced it would disappear.

The winters were torturous, bitter and snow was always guaranteed. We would be wrapped up in thick gloves, woolly hats, hand knitted scarves, thick socks and Wellington boots. The coal fires in the bedrooms baled smoke and fumes and did a poor job of keeping us warm.

At night, the devil would sneak around the darkness of the house, listening to our conversations or our whispers as we chatted before bedtime. I would lay under the yellow candlewick spread which had holes, from where I had picked at it, quivering, afraid to fall asleep. I would hold my breath, trapped in fear.

I was changing and very aware of my new body 

trying not to expose it.

The devil watched me with lust in his burning eyes, but I never noticed.

I would often be buried in a book. My parents would bid me goodnight and turn off the light, leaving me in a darkness that made me shiver.

The devil snuck in to bid me goodnight too.

He beckoned me to him and held me fast

Like a boa holds its prey

He made to kiss my cheek

Then forced his wet raspy tongue into my young innocent mouth

Long flickering, lizard like tongue, exploring deep within me

Frozen. Confused and emotionless.

A claw had pulled the blanket back, trying to make its way up my nightdress and to my white cotton underwear. Suddenly, there was movement: someone was coming up the stairs. He pulled the covers back and disappeared slithering into the cracks in the floorboards. 

The devil made for me again 

 On several other occasions

Trying to squeeze my young flesh

Explore my new body

His hot lustful breath on me

No one knew how to vanquish the devil. 

I was forbidden to tell.

At bedtime, I would slide the bolt at the top of my door, the lock in the middle and the bolt lower down.

I was changed. 

Quiet, withdrawn.

Angry. 

Dying inside
Untrusting, insecure, unconfident, 

Self-hatred, 

Self-loathing 

Afraid to look in the mirror

Sad and broken.
The devil lived in my house

and 

the decades of nightmares began.

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