Sunday, 8 January 2012

Devil in the Rafters

Hazel led Alice to the cupboard under the stairs.

‘Come on,’ said Hazel, ‘Mum says we have to stay in here for a bit.’

‘But I don’t want to!’ said Alice, tugging her sister’s skirt away from the cupboard door. ‘It’s dark in there!’

‘We have to!’ said Hazel, grabbing Alice and pulling her in after her. She flicked the switch that lit up the bare bulb, illuminating the old boxes, the carpet sweeper and the dust. ‘Look, it’s not dark: there’s a light.’

‘But why do we have to stay in here?’ cried Alice. Hazel backed herself into the tiny space, placing her sister on her lap.

‘I can’t tell you, it’s a secret. Look, I don’t want to be in here either. I was watching Kojak.’

‘I want to get out!’ Alice started to scream and reached for the door.

Hazel shushed her and held her back. Alice screamed and struggled all the more.

‘All right, Alice, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you!’ said Hazel. ‘Be quiet now! I can’t tell you if you’re screaming. Stop it, it’s cheeky.’

Alice quieted down.

‘What does cheeky mean?’ she asked.

‘It means… being a bit naughty but not so naughty you’re bad.’

‘I was asleep in my bed. You woke me up, that was cheeky.’

‘No, it wasn’t. Now do you want to know why we’re in here or not?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘It’s the prowler,’ Hazel said in a near whisper, ‘he’s in the loft.’

‘What’s a prowler?’ asked Alice.

‘He’s the man who frightened Auntie Julie the other day. You know, he went tap, tap, tap on her window.’

‘Oh, him. What’s he up in our loft for?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Hazel.

‘Do you think he wants some tea?’ said Alice.

‘He doesn’t deserve any tea, breaking into people’s lofts like that!’

‘I think he’d like some tea.’

‘He’s not having tea, because he’s a naughty man!’

‘He’s not a naughty man. He’s a cheeky man,’ said Alice to herself. ‘Who’s that cheeky man? Cheeky, cheeky, cheeky man.’

‘Stop saying that,’ said Hazel. ‘It’s annoying.’

‘You said it first.’

‘Yes, but it’s annoying when you say it.’

Alice started to push the carpet sweeper back and forth with her foot. Hazel slapped her leg.

‘Don’t!’ said Hazel. ‘He’ll hear!’

‘Who will?’

‘The prowler, then he’ll come and get us.’

Alice looked thoughtful.

‘How do Mum and Dad know he’s up there?’ she said.

‘Have you ever been in the loft, Alice?’ said Hazel.

Alice shook her head.

‘Well, because our house is old –’

‘How old is it?’

‘A hundred years old!’

‘That’s very, very old isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it is. And our type of house is called a terraced, which means they’re all joined together. We learned that in school, and that means –’

‘Will I learn it in school too?’

‘When you go to big school. But I’m trying to tell you something, so stop interrupting. Now, because all the houses in our road are from olden times, they don’t have a loft all to themselves like new houses.’

‘Susan lives in a new house.’

‘Bully for her. So anyway, there’s just one big loft, and you can get to it from all the houses. That’s why they want us all to move out, I guess: to knock them all down and put up something more modern. So everybody who lives here all have to agree not to mess about above someone else’s house. Now, Mum said some of the folks from a few doors down, the Doyle’s and the Warner’s, heard someone up in the loft above their houses, running about and laughing. So they went up, and there he was: the prowler. They tried to catch him, but he was too fast. Then Mrs Doyle went down the Anchor and got everybody. Now they’re all up there, even Dad. They’ve been up there for such a long time, and they still haven’t got him, listen!’

Alice listened. The sound of thundering feet filtered through the barrier of the staircase. Then there was an awful loud boom, followed by deep male voices calling a name.

‘Oh my,’ said Hazel, ‘I think Mr Doyle’s falling through our ceiling!’

‘Cheeky Mr Doyle,’ said Alice.

‘Cheeky skip! Skipping cheeky!’

Alice was playing in the patio garden, jumping a skipping rope. Every so often, as well as exploring the possibilities of her new word, she would let out a little girl laugh, amused by something evident to her alone. The little space had no greenery, other than a row of plants in pots lined up against the back fence where the sun could catch them, the ground covered by eight paving stones. Alice would stand on one, then another, and skip a certain number of times, following patterns and rules she never shared with anybody, until each stone had been incorporated into her ritual. She had begun it that summer, and had carried it on into autumn. Most days, it would take less than quarter of an hour to perform, but that morning, she had been out for much longer, the ritual more elaborate, and seemingly more pleasurable to her than usual.

Hazel appeared in the doorway eating an apple, shifting her weight impatiently from one leg to another.

‘Guess what I’ve been doing?’

Alice did not have time to answer.

‘I’ve been listening to Dad and Mr Warner talking while they were repairing the hole in the bathroom ceiling that Mr Doyle made when he fell through the roof. They didn’t know I was there, but guess what they said? They said, the prowler, well, he ain’t no normal prowler. He ain’t normal at all. I mean, it’s unbelievable. Amazing! If one of the boys at school had said it I’d say they were divvy but Dad and Mr Warner said it so it must be true. You see, the thing is, when they were chasing him, he could move faster than anyone, I mean, faster than the fastest runner at the Olympics. And he can jump too. He can jump right over people’s heads and halfway down the loft. That’s why they couldn’t catch him last night. And not only that, he don’t weigh anything. When Mr Doyle accidentally slipped off a beam in the loft and landed on the insulation, he fell right through. He’s going to have his foot in plaster for weeks. But the prowler, he was running anywhere and everywhere, and he didn’t fall. All the time he was laughing. But the really weird thing was, once he’d run around the lofts all evening, he just disappeared into thin air! One minute he was there, the next minute – poof - gone! Everybody saw him just go.

‘Supernatural, Dad called it, which I think means like a ghost, or a goblin! But a real one, not like a fairy story; probably an alien. And he looks really strange too, they were saying. He’s all long and thin, every bit of him. Even his chin is long and pointy! And he was wearing a cape, like in olden times. And his eyes are big and red and glow in the dark! Even when you can’t see him, you can always see his eyes.

‘Then Mr Warner said it’s not the first time this has happened, that his granddad who’s dead now remembered him from when he was a boy. He’s been around these parts for years, and not just for tens of years, but hundreds! He’s got a name, ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, because he can jump about so much, like he’s got springs in his shoes. But Mr Warner reckons… he reckons he’s the Devil!’

Alice stopped skipping. ‘He’s not the Devil,’ she said.

‘Why not?’ said Hazel.

‘Because the Devil does very naughty things,’ said Alice, ‘and the man in the loft wasn’t doing bad things, just cheeky ones.’

‘He was too! He was where he shouldn’t have been, and made Mr Doyle fall through the roof!’

‘Well, you are naughty. You listened to Dad and Mr Warner talking. I’m telling on you.’

‘That’s not naughty,’ said Hazel. ‘It’s just… well, you know. Anyway, Mr Doyle reckons he has cloven hooves instead of feet, and that’s what the Devil has! They found his footprints on some rafters, like he’d run on them upside down. Burnt on to them, they were!’

Alice picked up her rope and began to skip again.

‘And guess what else?’ said Hazel.

Alice said nothing.

‘It’s not just Aunt Julie’s window he’s been tapping on. He’s been tapping on other peoples too. But get this. On their bedroom windows! And they’ve been seeing him jump about on the rooftops, going from one side of the road to the other! You know, I bet you a million pounds he is the Devil.’

Alice skipped several more times, before coming to a rest.

‘I don’t think he is the Devil, you know,’ she said. ‘He’s just a bit cheeky.’

‘And how would you know?’ snapped Hazel.

Alice said nothing.

‘You shouldn’t say anything at all if you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Hazel, throwing her apple-core onto the ground and stomping back inside. Alice stared at the apple core, then walked towards it.

‘Cheeky Hazel. Cheeky apple. Who’s that cheeky? I’m not cheeky. You are cheeky! Everybody’s cheeky. Cheeky. Cheeky. Cheeky man.’

She babbled as she picked up the core and threw it in a plant pot, before returning to her skipping, laughing again at something in the barren garden that amused her.

‘They’re definitely going to catch him,’ said Hazel, as she and Alice walked home from school, the grey sky darkening as autumn slipped into winter. ‘Everybody’s looking for him, even the police; though they have to keep quiet about it so people don’t get too scared, but haven’t you noticed there’s been a copper round here every day this week?’

‘They’re not going to catch him,’ said Alice, her voice a playful singsong.

‘Of course they will,’ said Hazel. ‘They’ll shoot him down with guns and helicopters and aeroplanes, kaboom! before he can disappear. They’re going to catch the Devil, right here in our street.’

‘Naughty planes. Can’t catch cheeky man!’ said Alice, shaking her head and smiling to herself.

Alice was standing by her bedroom window, looking out on the tiny patio divided into squares of stone; itself one of many little squares stretching out to the left and right, sandwiched between the back of one row of terraced houses and another. If observed, she would have appeared once again lost in her own little girl world, talking to herself, giggling at nothing. ‘Cheeky gardens and cheeky houses with naughty people all inside. Who’s that cheeky? Cheeky man.’ She did not seem to hear her sister as Hazel flung open the front door and ran up the stairs calling her name.

‘Alice,’ she cried, running into the bedroom. ‘Mrs Warner’s just ran down the road saying they’ve got him! They’ve caught Spring-Heeled Jack!’

‘No they haven’t,’ said Alice.

‘They have!’ said Hazel. ‘They’ve cornered him in the tyre place next to the petrol station. He was on a roof and someone saw him and so the coppers and everyone from the street chased him, and he ran off, and down the side of a building! Loads of people saw it! Then he jumped over some walls and ran into the tyre place and into the workshop. And that’s where he is now, in a corner behind a big pile of truck tyres. He can’t get out. Everybody’s there, come on!’

Alice just carried on looking out the window.

‘He’s not there,’ she said.

‘He is!’ said Hazel. ‘Mrs Warner says he looks frightened, like he wants to disappear but he can’t. They’re really going to catch him!’

‘No, he’s not there.’

Hazel grabbed Alice by the shoulders. ‘Come on, Mum said I can’t leave you –’

She did not finish her sentence. For she found herself looking into a pair of red eyes, as a slender finger emerged from out of the folds of a black cape and tap, tap, tapped at the window pane; while another finger went to meet a pair of shushing lips that broke into a hideous grin as a long, pointed chin rocked back and forth with laughter.

Hazel screamed and fainted, crumpling on the floor of the bedroom. Alice watched her fall, then turned back to the window, and waved. ‘Bye bye, cheeky man!’ she said. He was already away, jumping over the roofs of houses many streets in the distance and over the horizon, his laughter lingering behind him, until it too was gone.

Alice turned to the heap of her sister by her feet.

‘See,’ she said, ‘I told you they wouldn’t catch him.’

She picked up her skipping rope, and went to play in the little grey square of the garden, a pair of cloven hooves scorched in a merry skipping motion on each and every paving stone.

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