Disclaimer: All characters depicted are the property of their owner and creator, Michelle Magorian.
The Black Hole by CryoNeptune
“Now you just stay right quiet, my lad, or you’ll be in for a hidin’, d’ya understand?” William’s mother screeched tremulously, her eyes wide and manic. She turned away, slamming the cupboard door without a backward glance. He heard scratching and rattling on the other side of the door followed by soft thuds as the bindings were tested. William was locked in.
William looked around but could see nothing through the pressing darkness. This was his most hated place, a small, dark hole full of nasty things and evilness. He knew there were spiders and crawling, scratching insects littering the back wall. The soft tickling of cobwebs fell across his nose and cheek as he cast his eyes around blindly. An uncontrollable shivering wracked his body and his forehead and chest prickled as beads of sweat formed, bleeding into his shirt and hair. Deafened by the thundering of his heartbeat in his ears, he blinked hard, trying to sharpen his other senses. He pulled against the bindings around his left wrist. The more he pulled, the more they pinched painfully against his skin. The knot had been expertly tied by a practiced hand; there was no hope of escape.
For the first time, William’s attention was drawn to the wriggling in his lap. The baby, swaddled in a damp, sour-smelling blanket was kicking out and screaming with all the energy her feeble body could muster. William rocked her in his lap and fumbled around on the threadbare carpet to his right with tender fingers until they found a cold, glass baby’s bottle. He pushed open the cap weakly with his thumb and eased it towards the baby’s mouth blindly.
“Shh. Sh- sh...” William whispered through chattering teeth, trying as best as he knew how to comfort her but she whined, turned her head away from his hand and then continued to wail. He rocked her more firmly, feeling the bindings on his wrist beginning to cut in. William didn’t know how long the baby cried but to him it felt as though time had stretched beyond all intelligible comprehension. His mind was clouded by panic, terror and helplessness. How long was he going to be in here this time, he didn’t even dare to think. The last time had been three days and nights, leaving him weak, sickly and terrified. But this time, his wickedness had reached deeper than he could have imagined. He was in for it this time. He had truly done it. He would never be let out.
“I promise to be good. Mum, I promise. I promise!” He pleaded into the blackness. His voice shook with fear, anger and frustration. It was no good.
William once again took up the bottle in his hand as boiling panic reached a crescendo in his stomach. He threw it will all his might towards the direction of the door, where his mother had stood, to where her cold, crazed eyes had stained him with shame. With a tinkling thud the glass broke and large shards fell around his crossed ankles. Milk seeped slowly into his singlet. As silence drowned his ears again, guilt settled heavily in the depths of his stomach.
Hours rolled by in waves of dull despair. No noise reached his ears except the rattling breathing of his baby sister. Soon, she was crying again and William was powerless to help. “Stop it. Stop it,” he begged. “It’ll be alrigh’,” he whispered tearfully into her bonnet. There it was again, his wickedness. His lying, sinful soul was leaking out of his mouth again. Why can’t I just be good, he thought desperately. This was why he was in this dire situation to begin with; he just couldn’t seem to keep his sins from surfacing.
His mother’s words were still reverberating in his mind from that morning. William supposed it was still the same day; perhaps it wasn’t. “Spyin’ on your own mother?” she had screamed as she snatched a biscuit tin of titbits out of William’s hands. “I knew evil had corrupted you long ago, William Beech, yet sneakin’ and snoopin’ on your own flesh and blood? I would never ‘ave believed it!”
William had sat frozen, gaping up at his mother. Was he such a wretched person that he committed sin without even realising it? Was his maliciousness so deep-seated that all his attempts to do good were corrupted by it? He was certain of it; he would die a sinner. “But I was looking for a pencil so’s I can writes to Mister T-“ he started, before she struck him hard and a blackness took him.
That was why he was here this time. It was true; he had been sticking his nose where it didn’t belong again. He would rot for it this time. The site on his temple where his mother had struck him was still sticky with thick, old blood but it no longer hurt, or at least it didn’t register compared with the stabbing pains in his stomach. He thought of Mister Tom. A flood of nausea washed over him. “Where are you?” whimpered William.
Many days must have passed since William and Trudy, as he had named her, had been locked in the cupboard under the stairs. He was woken by soft sirens in the distance. Bombs, he thought. His breathing quickened and he pulled with all his might against the bindings on his wrist. Using his teeth, he tore at the knot, hoping against hope that this time he could overcome the integrity of the cord. After a scrambling few minutes, he fell back panting and clutched the bundle to his chest, his energy completely spent. His ears and eyes strained as he looked around wildly for help, for any hope of escape. None came. Waiting in horror for the shell to hit, William’s eyes darted vaguely in the dark and air vanished from his small lungs.
Fear crippled him as a muffled boom shook the whole house. Wet warmth seeped under him, burning his frigid skin, bringing along with it lingering pangs of shame and relief. The house was still standing. A rain of dust and debris drifted softly down onto his head and shoulders from the stairs above him accompanied by a clear, fresh breath of air as the cupboard door bounced on its hinges. William inhaled deeply, feeling relieved and somewhat renewed. He took another breath, coughed and gagged. For the first time in many days he noticed the terrible reek of stale urine and excrement. The skin of his ankles, feet and rear were burned and blistered by his own urine, though he no longer felt pain as he did. He had slowly grown accustomed to the hollow ache that gripped his frail body. As long as he stayed as still as he could manage, he could sit for long hours without thought or feeling.
Sleep drifted over him in bouts. He both loved and loathed the times when sleep would take him back to rolling hills and sleepy cottages of Little Weirwold. Those times would offer him a brief reprieve until crying dragged him sluggishly back to this hell, feeling worse than he did before.
In those first few days, the door to the cupboard would open for a few seconds every so often, long enough for a hand to set a cup of cold water at his feet. The blinding light burned Williams eyes and forced him to shy away, leaving him to plead and appeal in the direction of the door once the blackness had returned. His desperate shouts for forgiveness soon diminished to hopeless silence.
“Mister Tom,” croaked William.
Weeks passed in this fashion until William was numb to the sensation of little, sharp feet crawling over his legs. Squeaking and snuffling had become a familiar accompaniment to the echoing drip drip drip from the pipes overhead. William’s eyes were now so sensitive to even the smallest chink of light he could make out the faint outline around the cupboard door. This at least acted as a sort of clock, giving some insignificant distinction between day and night.
Trudy now lay still, cold and quiet in his arms, but he kept her close hoping that what little warmth his body now gave was some sort of comfort to her and might stir her from her sleep. In the darkest hours, William had wished for Trudy to stay still and quiet, but now the silence seemed more torturous than screaming. Trudy’s quietness haunted him in such a way that his soul slowly decayed and began to crumble under its influence. He wished she would wake.
“Get away!” he cried when warm fur brushed against his feet, making him start. Out of the darkness he could almost see red eyes and sharp whiskers shining up at him. Scratching feet raked lightly up his thighs and William felt soft, persistent tugging on Trudy’s shawl. “Leave us alone!” shrieked William, kicking out blindly with his stiff limbs.
William heard the soft clinking of heels on wood out in the hallway growing louder. The light around the cupboard door flickered and fell into darkness. Smart rapping on the door made him start and recoil.
“Quiet in there! Haven’t I warned ya about makin’ a fuss? Lucky to have a roof over your ‘ead at all, you are. One more peep out of ya, and I’ll be fetchin’ a policeman, ya hear?” His mother’s voice sounded high, alien and cold. A policeman? William paled and brought Trudy closer to his chest.
A soft tinkling of a bell rang in William’s ears, bringing his lethargic mind into sharper focus. The clicking of his mother’s shoes marched off in the direction of the front door accompanied by irate muttering. William heard the front door creak open on its rusty hinges a few yards from where he was sitting. Was this it? Had Mister Tom finally come?
William’s desperation peaked in his chest like an explosion. He took a deep breath and tried to shout, but he gasped and choked. Amid his retching and blinding tears William heard a deep, gruff voice grumble “Mrs Beech, is it?” William tried with all his might to scramble towards the cupboard door, but was held back by his bindings, which were now crusted and reeking.
“Mister Tom,” coughed William, his voice was rasping and broken. “Mister Tom. Mister Tom. Mister Tom!” Each time he called out, his voice became stronger. Finding strength in his limp, damaged body, he pulled harder against his bindings. “Mister Tom, I’m here! I’m here! Mister Tom!” William cried desperately between shaking sobs.
A stony expression fell over Mrs Beech’s face as she heard high, muffled cries from the back cupboard behind her. She looked hard into her visitor’s face. The postman stood at the door with bits of rubble and refuse littered around his feet, sorting envelopes between his gloved hands.
“That’s righ’,” said Mrs Beech briskly. “Get on wiv it if you will, sir. I ‘ave a busy house to run.”
“I’m well aware, madam,” said the postman gravely, scowling up from his letters. He handed a small collection of envelopes over to Mrs Beech but remained at the door, peering over her shoulder. “What’s ‘at noise?”
“Er – wh- what noise?” she said falteringly, closing the door a fraction further as inconspicuously as she could. Her heart was beating hard and a pale flush seeped into her pallid cheeks.
“Don’tcha hear it? Yelpin’ or summit,” he stepped nearer to the door, placing his hand on the wood panelling.
“Don’t you dare!” she snapped, wedging her foot against the back of the door. The man stepped back, alarmed. “It’s the dog, is all. She’s in labour.”
The postman’s eyes narrowed and burned into Mrs Beech’s for a moment. She held his gaze resolutely; her fingers gripped the door handle painfully hard. She too could hear high-pitched, muffled whining and soft bumps behind her. The boy would pay for this and a punishment beyond all punishments too.
“A dog, you say? Right you are, Mrs Beech,” he said finally, shouldering his bag and turning away. She could see him shaking his head as he walked towards Mrs Everything's-her-business's house next door.
Mrs Beech slammed the door shut and settled her weight against it. Drawing out a handkerchief from her left sleeve she patted away perspiration from her neck, breathing heavily. She approached the door and attacked the knotted string jamming the latch with her fingernails. Such a rage was bubbling in her stomach that dexterous manipulation of the knot was beyond her. She thundered into the kitchen, drew out a long carving knife and rushed back to the door. The string frayed quickly and gave way under the blade. Sliding the latch back noisily, she hoisted open the door.
“You will regret –“ she started, pulling William towards her by his singlet. The sound of ripping issued from the garment as a few stitches gave way under her fingers. William cowered with his eyes shut tight waiting for the blow to fall.
Grey-tinged skin met Mrs Beech’s eyes as the shawl in Williams arms fell away and stole the words from her mouth. Horror struck he as she moved the filthy rag with trembling fingers and revealed wisps of dirty blond hair. William’s body became limp in her hands as his eyes too focused on the baby’s face. He was unconscious. With a bark of disgust, she thrust both bodies back into the cupboard's darkness and slammed the door shut.
Passed the cupboard Mrs Beech darted back and forth in a crazed-manner, gathering bits and pieces from the front room, the kitchen and her bedroom. She haphazardly crumpled an assortment of garments into a large, canvas handbag. Gathering up her keys, she straightened the collar of her coat, took a steadying breath and fastened the button with gloved hands in the hallway mirror.
Slowly, darkness swam back into William’s vision. He noticed with frozen horror that his free arm was empty for the first time in long weeks. With restricted, creaking joints he searched the floor around him, found the bundle and pulled it clumsily back into his lap.
“I’ll look after ya,” whimpered William. Following a jangling of keys and three purposeful clacks across the floorboards, the front door banged loudly on its frame.
They were alone.
Wriggling his toes, William felt warmth wash over him as though he had been lowered into Mister Tom’s metal bathtub in front of the fire. The perfume from the soap wafted pleasantly in the air and the fire crackled and spat in a friendly way in the background. He tried to open his eyes and found that he couldn’t, but he didn’t mind, he was far too comfortable to be concerned with that at the moment. Stretching out his legs fully was neither painful nor unpleasant; in fact he felt the satisfying release of stiffness as though he had merely had a long lie-in on a Saturday morning.
William carelessly registered the sound of sturdy boots making their way over. Mentally, he hoped that it was Mister Tom carrying over a cup of sweet tea and a clean, laundered towel. He looked forward to pulling on his fresh pyjamas and drifting off to sleep in the armchair in front of the fire with Sammy licking his feet and Mister Tom reciting stories in his usual gruff manner. Perhaps he could convince Mister Tom to read Wind in the Willows to him again, though William knew he was sick to death of the story by now.
In the deep vagueness of his thoughts, William became aware of a light scratching nearby accompanied by whining. Typical Sammy, William thought. Sammy was never content to be ignored, not even for the short time it took for William to have a bath. “Quiet Sam-” he started, before he coughed dryly and retched.
William opened his eyes and became aware of his surroundings once more. The same blackness hung before his eyes as had done so for weeks now. The bundle was still in his aching arm, now stained with vomit and urine. But the sound of scratching was real. Or was it? He forced his eyes to focus in the direction of the door. The small sliver of light at the bottom was flickering and dancing. He recoiled weakly and gripped Trudy with his small fingers, whimpering with agony. New waves of nausea passed over him and he vomited sticky, foul-smelling bile over his ankles. A sharp bark and whining on the far side of the cupboard door made him jump. He didn’t dare believe it.
The cupboard door was heaved open and light flooded the small hole, followed by indiscernible whispering. William couldn’t find the strength to lift his head enough to look into the faces belonging to the voices he heard distantly. In his blurred field of vision, he saw a pair of sturdy, well-oiled boots.
“I’d like to talk to the boy. E’ knows me, like,” said a familiar voice.
:: END ::