by James Bolton
It was approaching the end of the summer, and for Jim Stapleton that presaged the annual week at his grandmother, Gretchen’s cottage. Jim decided that, as this was his last day of work before the ominous week, he would take one last chance to enjoy some peace.
He walked home from work this day, through the park at dusk, attempting to soak up the tranquillity, willing himself not to think of that woman he was forced to spend every last week of August with. Jim lit a cigarette and savoured the searing hit it gave his throat and lungs, shivering gleefully at the brief head rush it gave him. He hoped the drug would burn away gnawing thoughts of Gretchen, and that its smoke would erase any images of her from his mind’s eye.
Despite himself, Jim began to realise he could not keep from his thoughts; the anticipation, the dread.
She was a hard woman, was Gretchen Stapleton. She was barely five feet tall, but her girth gave her a physical bearing that earned her the nickname “Gretchen the Broad” among the villagers, though never within earshot. They had always mocked and disdained her. Her feet were so meaty and callused that she had long since abandoned the convention of the shoe. She had legs like a mammoth, and equally as hairy, haunches that would put a full grown bull hippo to shame, and when she yawned or yelled (more often the latter) it was like staring into the cavernous, dark maw of some savage sea beast perhaps conjured by the mind of Melville or Conrad. Her hands were as big as footballs, and the hard, worn hide of their fingers could strip bark, still young and green, from the trunks of the mightiest pines. Her chins were many, and wobbled heavily when she spoke, as if they were trying to escape the sound of her voice, which, Jim’s father had always said, could carve granite.
All of these images had been simmering in Jim’s mind throughout the train journey the next day. During the taxi journey from the station to her house Jim’s heart was palpitating furiously, his legs were twitching, and his throat had become so arid that the ability to swallow was now but a memory of happier times. Jim felt overwhelmed by these symptoms as the images of her swirled, plunged and raced through his mind.
Jim saw the Gretchen’s cottage as the taxi crested the brow of a hill. Suddenly all seemed calm. Jim felt as though his racing mind and heart had begun to float as the taxi approached the cottage. Maybe the memories were exaggerated, maybe the coming week would be peaceful, maybe Gretchen wasn’t the beast that Jim always imagined, maybe…
The driver suddenly slowed and stopped. “I’m not driving any closer than this mate.” Jim couldn’t be bothered to argue and reached for his wallet. The driver waived the fare and took off through the lanes at a screeching speed, leaves tossed and rolling in the vehicle’s wake.
Jim stood in thought for a moment, about a hundred metres from Gretchen’s gate. The driver’s behaviour was completely unexpected, though somehow Jim had not been remotely surprised by it. This irked him, and as he walked slowly towards the gate it gave him a sense that something in the cosmos was amiss, that all was not quite right in the world.
As Jim approached the gate, he saw that it was hanging open and the lock had been forced. The mingled boot prints of a number of people clustered in the mud at the foot of the gate, before trailing mysteriously towards the cottage. Jim followed the prints and, as he drew closer, he saw that the lintel above the cottage door, the frame, and stones of the wall surrounding it were spattered and streaked with blood. As he looked down, Jim froze and uttered a strange sound, a sound he had never heard before. Half whimper, half shriek.
Two men lay dead in the doorway, their Wellington boots and wax jackets crimson with blood. These two had not made it past the threshold. Perhaps they were the front runners and Gretchen had met them here head on. Teeth and more rivulets of dark blood lead Jim’s eye line to the foot of the wooden stair case.
The bannisters were cracked and snapped, great holes and rents festooned the walls and ceiling around the stair case. More men were piled in a lifeless heap at the foot of the stair. Their carcasses were twisted, their mouths gaped and their limbs, hands or pats of their torsos had been torn away in flurries of blood and splintered bone. Hands and arms stretched desperately up the stairway as the invaders had tried to chase the hard old woman. Perhaps poor Gretchen had made a fighting retreat from the front door to the top of the stairs.
Jim had stepped over the first two corpses at the front door and was now standing over the pile of human wreckage and staring up into the gloom at the top of the stairs. Blueish strands of smoke drifted up there, and the air was tainted with a burnt smell. Jim could hear breathing, heavy and strained, coming from the rank darkness.
“Jim, it is you isn’t it?”
“Yes Grandmother, it’s me.”
“We have work to do.”