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 The Bone Garden
a short story by Conrad Williams

Much of that final day was taken up with placating my family, a surprisingly difficult task which left me more drained than the hot work of transferring furniture to my new house. Grandma cried most. Not that mum and dad or Pol, my sister, weren't getting maudlin, it's just that none of us had ever seen Gran cry before and her tears made everyone else feel worse. I suppose it was because I was moving to the house she'd shared with Granddad for so long before coming to live with us when the loneliness and strain became too much for her. At one point I had to take myself down to the concrete football pitch to escape the clotted feeling I was making a mistake. I wasn't, of course, and I had only to focus on my reasons for this move to guarantee its execution: all of them somehow wheeling back to the old woman who occupied the attic room above my own.

Down here, where I'd scored more goals in one day than Pele in a season, I allowed myself to weep, for the people I was leaving behind, the uncertainty of my future and for me. After a while, I grew angry at my self-indulgence and stalked back, eager to get the last of my stuff out. A housewarming for my friends had been arranged that evening; I'd not let it be spoilt.

I kissed everyone goodbye. Gran held me close for a beat or two longer than I felt comfortable with before whispering a few words that I couldn't quite recognize. Rather than ask her to repeat them I left, as calmly as possible, the smile on my face as I drove away threatening to crease into something awful and dead.

That first night after the wine and music I lay awake for hours listening to the alien murmur of the house and the trees beyond its window. My mind's eye framed the four of them in my rear view mirror, waving by the gate; pink stick figures punctured by slashes and dots where their features gaped at me. Either my memory wouldn't allow me a clear view of Gran or she was shaded by the reach of our cherry tree. There'd be a glitter there somewhere, in the blackness of her eyes. Her words to me, what had they been? I visualised the shaping of her lips as she mouthed them; thin flat lines blooming to a great wet thickness, pursed as though ready to kiss me.

I cleared up the mess and opened all the windows, hoping vainly to rid the house of its smoky, beery reek. I took in the strange new view outside, this fresh configuration of roofs, roads and tree tops. I wondered if I would pine for the simple picture I'd grown up with at home; how little that had changed as I altered a lot. I used to think the glass as part of a time tank in which I was doomed to wither and die while everything outside remained young and beautiful.

I looked down at my shadow, the vague M shape it made in the block of light on my garden. Perhaps I should have been worried when I realised something other than that was moving in the overgrown grass but I was still drifting with my thought. It would take me a long time to straighten things down there. I wondered if I should just clear the lawn of litter and then leave it; let it sprawl. The garden at home was too clinical and angular - I needed some chaos in my life.

Something black and sinuous worked itself through a bramble patch like a thin flow of oil.

The light was too great. I would have to kill it to gain a better view. When I came back to the window I was thinking of snakes and foxes. There was nothing now of course, save for the grass breathing and a sudden, far away clamour of sirens. Once I'd grown accustomed to the sounds of my new home I slept, knowing that before long I wouldn't be able to relax without them.

At dawn I took coffee into the garden, mildly surprised to find this was my first visit. It was disorienting, seeing everything from this new angle when previously, all had been observed from the window up there. The grass was much longer than I'd believed; it stung my hands as I tried to wade through it. I wondered what I might unearth should I change my mind and choose to raze the lot but I didn't much care for the chatter of my imagination as it tried to offer me answers. I drank my coffee and went up to take a bath. Once I'd brought the water to a heat I could just about bear I submerged myself completely, surfacing only to drape a sodden, steaming flannel over my face. I sucked some of its scalding air into my lungs and thought of Gran again. Recent memories were of her smothering me in a way that everyone but me perceived as generosity and helpless love. She'd lost her husband twice; once to a coma after a bus mashed him against a wall and again when death finally caught up after ten years of unsleep. She must have thought it natural for her to transfer her attention to me, born in the year of his demise, as if she were hoping to grasp some aspect of his character in the development of mine. Recent nights I'd bore a hole into the ceiling with my eyes as her slippered feet scraped in circles. A little after midnight (or sometimes as the first bird greeted the dawn) I'd hear the creak of bedsprings as she finally settled down but that sorrowful shuffling remained, a spiral of ghosts in my mind. I never went up to her room to see what she was doing on those long nights though I had plenty of ideas, many of them morbid. I envisioned her dancing a toe-to-smooch with one of her husband's old jackets or performing a meditative pattern of footsteps designed to suck him back from the grave. Maybe it was as innocent as cramp or insomnia. And though they were the more rational, I found myself believing otherwise.

For some reason I couldn't fathom, possibly connected to the way all women seem to possess a sensitivity for such moods, mum asked me why I shunned Gran so. It wasn't something I did effusively; wary as I was of her I didn't want to hurt her feelings. That mum had noticed my rejection of her, however subtle, and mentioned it specifically, I found myself discussing it where otherwise I might have shrugged off the allegations as ludicrous.

'She worships you, Daniel,' she said, once we'd established that my coolness towards her was in no way malicious.

'Why?' I didn't wait for an answer. 'I don't like her. She makes me feel, I don't know...invaded.' That was true enough; even in my dreams I'd sometimes see her bending over me, her face dipping in and out of shadow, till she was able to thieve the breath from my lips and the colour from my skin. Close enough to peel me open and tuck herself safely inside.

'Humour her. You'd like to see her go to the grave miserable?'

'No. Of course not.' I suppose in that moment, my need to leave home grew to the point where I could no longer let it simmer as just another fancy of mine.

The water was getting cold.

I spent the day sorting out boxes in the kind of resigned melancholy that only people who've experienced a large scale move can understand. I was sure these boxes and the crap they contained had multiplied overnight. Once I'd established a pile in each room I set about cleaning windows. Silly really, when so much hoovering and dusting needed to be done; when I got round to it all the stirred up muck would settle on the windows again but I didn't mind, it's a part of housework I find almost soporific. Maybe it's the rhythm of the task or the squeegee's magic which, since childhood, I've regarded with a kind of awe. It took on a deeper significance now though as I went from room to room because I saw the garden differently each time. It wasn't so much a fresh angle that intrigued me but the misting I caused on the glass with mycloth and polish through which the body of grass took on a novel complexion. Was it my imagination that suggested, beyond the pink scars of Windolene, a twisted frame of bone or was it simply shadows and greenery, coercing the thought? I'm famed for seeing shapes in clouds nobody else can discern; I oughtn't become frantic about a suggestion of rippled grey that looks like a grid of ribs or a softly shaded globe punched with moments of black where eyes might once have cradled.

My squeegee cut through the haze and made everything clear, including my foolishness. The grass was flattened in one area, the well it created pooling with shadows that were so bland and unambiguous I found myself straining to pinpoint the foundations of my unease in their shapes.

Harriet arrived shortly after a meagre dinner of beans, crackers and half a tube of Smarties. She helped me stack my paperbacks on shelves and suggested some colours for the bathroom; she'd be able to get the gear cheap as her father worked in one of the vast home improvement stores that were slowly surrounding the town. I kissed her, not expecting, or particularly wanting it to lead to anything - I was tired - but it did, and she led me out through the back door into the rasping garden.

'Let's christen this pristine lawn of yours,' she whispered into my mouth, pulling me down till the grass became deafening. It didn't last long, partly because I hadn't seen Harriet for a week and needed her warmth but also because I was wondering about the flattened patch of grass and why it should be like that. It could have been eager lovers, like us, stealing in from the main road but my mind was trying to convince me that it was something buried beneath the grass, poisoning its roots and halting any growth. I tried to remember, as I looked into Harriet's liquid eyes, if the shape had resembled a body.

Harriet didn't mention my haste. I hoped it was because she needed me too but I couldn't ask. She stayed with me and I was glad because near midnight I heard the slow shush of footsteps circling above my room.

I checked the attic in the morning while Harriet made French toast. I felt vaguely daft once I'd poked around: what the hell did I expect to find? There was nothing up there but an old wardrobe. Inside, my grandparents' wedding garb draped from coat hangers, the faded blacks and whites clinging together. I thought I could smell a whiff of perfume. They must have had such a close, warm marriage. I tried to imagine how I would feel if Harriet died in such horrifying circumstances but it was a pointless exercise; our lives were beyond comparison. A whole generation of values and ethics had changed. If I couldn't empathise with a system as staid and correct as theirs, what hope did I have of assimilating the lives of two people who were born of that era with Harriet and me?

When Harriet left she took with her any warmth and character the house was starting to accumulate. Angry for no apparent reason, I stormed into the garden shed but I couldn't find anything with which to shave the lawn. By the time I'd dressed and opened the front door, my rage had evaporated and asking a neighbour for his mower seemed unnecessary.

I made a shopping list, trying to imagine how the house might look once I'd imbued it with something of me. Hopefully my character would replaced that of my grandparents despite there being half a century of their community witnessed by these walls. What had they talked about on those still nights it was too cold to go out? But in asking the question, I kind of knew the answer, which unsettled me because it implied an intimacy with them I could never have shared.

I called Harriet that evening but she couldn't come round; she was travelling to Mold to watch a friend perform in a new play. I dropped enough hints about my possibly accompanying her but either she ignored them or this was a 'friend' night and lovers weren't allowed. I rang home, hoping they'd not think I was lonely, and chatted with dad about budgets for a while till the proximity of his voice and the easy way in which he spoke relaxed me. Soon I didn't mind being alone again. I listened to a John Lee Hooker album but that only made me think of Harriet; funny how you can be sad about someone even when a relationship is going well. I suppose it's the self-doubt everyone lingers over from time to time. Wondering how people will react to news of your death, that sort of thing. Tragedy is not completely unattractive.

I didn't want to go to bed in such a solemn mood but it was my own fault. Even the TV couldn't help. Of the stations still broadcasting, one was showing an Ingmar Bergman film dealing with incest, the other a play about a cancer ward. I switched off and took a book upstairs.

I must have dozed because the telephone made me jump and the book slid to the floor. It was mum. She told me Grandma had died; a heart attack apparently, as she was making a cup of tea. I didn't feel sorrow, only fear. I tried to reassure mum and told her I'd be over in the morning. When I replaced the receiver the air had somehow thickened.

Trying to force sleep to claim me only made me restless. The pillow was full of prickles, the blankets hot and itchy. Each time I closed me eyes, Grandma's meaty lips loomed and I smelled naphthalene clinging to that heavy coat she always wore. Something stirred over my head; the muffled creak of weight shifting on floorboards. Her mouth twisted and pursed and tightened, fluting her words into my ear. What had she said to me that day? It seemed critical I remember. I wished Harriet was with me. I wished I'd not left home. I wished I had less of an idea of what lay buried in the garden.

'Thank God you're coming back.' Was that what she'd said? I shifted in bed, feeling too much like something packaged and waiting to be unwrapped. The footsteps above me completed one final circle then began to descend. Outside, the grass wakened with a soft roar and it was then, as a shadow spoilt the thin line of light beneath my door, that I realised Gran hadn't been mourning my departure so much as celebrating my arrival.

© Conrad Williams 1994, 1999

First published in Northern Stories 4, and reprinted in the late great Karl Edward Wagner's final Year's Best Horror anthology.

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