Frostbite

Winter calls to mind postcard scenes of billowing white skies and trees artfully laden with snow, with the odd robin and perhaps some holly thrown in for good measure.  Yet despite glossy berries and decorative foliage, it is the longstanding theme of glistening ivory fields which captures the imagination most, the heavens providing an immaculate blanket with which to conceal our messy footprints.

Whilst the wheels of industry continue to turn, nature does its utmost to thwart progress, commandeering a more sedate pace. 

House number 6 however, needs no such nudge in this respect, for it already operates in a stately manner under the meticulous hand of its singular and most peculiar occupant Ms Joy Ollivant, who, if one felt inclined to converse with, would soon discover, was as far removed from the temperament that her forename would suggest, as was possible to be.

Some adults upon entering retirement, languish in their twilight years, the transition from security pass to bus pass derailing their sense of self.  Indeed, many flounder in indecision, squandering their hard-earned liberty until the last stop left is the undertakers.  But Ms Ollivant embraced her retreat from working life, in fact, if you dared to ask her yourself, she would probably inform you, she was busier than ever…that is to say, if she saw fit to speak to you at all.

Number 6 Broadchurch Lane was a detached property of traditional brick and mortar construction situated on a generous corner plot of a sleepy village and, like its owner, did not court the eye to earn a second glance.  However, it was lovingly maintained and in summer, when the meadow garden and hanging baskets were in full bloom, was a site to behold, a spectacular bouquet of colour to mask the putrid stench of decay that nibbled at its core.

For now, such bursts of life were nothing but a hazy cotton dream, as bulbs snuggled down in their soil beds, ready to miraculously emerge come spring and empty wicker baskets swung on their chain leashes in the crisp breeze.

Regarded as the village pariah, unofficially of course (no one of sound mind being reckless enough to voice their opinion out loud let alone have it committed in ink for the town record) the villagers were quick enough to swallow their distaste and come calling once the weather thawed.  Desperation seeing fit to waver their aversion in a voyeuristic bid to glean a morsel of knowledge which might help them steal the coveted ‘best dressed’ title, an accolade Joy’s vivacious beds and borders had won in two consecutive years, putting her on course for the elusive hat trick, which was a feat none of the keen gardening  enthusiasts the tiny populace boasted of, could lay claim to.  Green fingers and green with envy, they would inevitably turn green at the gills if they really knew the secret behind her success.

Ms Ollivant mused upon this herself whilst sipping a scorching cup of treacle thick black coffee, using her free hand to elegantly write the names of her neighbours upon the suitably generic cards she had picked up from her trip to town earlier that afternoon, returning the cup to its matching saucer as she sealed them within spotlessly creamy envelopes.  Thank goodness there were only a handful to deliver. 

“Less is most definitely more” she confided to the saccharine tokens of seasonal goodwill, an unnecessary gesture in Joy’s opinion, but an undoubtedly necessary exercise nonetheless, if only to keep up appearances.

A quick glance at her slim rectangular watch face confirmed the hour to be suitably late enough to ensure she did not suffer anyone on her travels.  After draining the remaining coffee, Joy put on her double-breasted wool coat, slid supple leather gloves over her liver spotted hands, collected the cards, and stepped out into the night, leaving Dusty, her eight year old cat, who had been feigning sleep, to breathe a sigh of relief.

——————

Dusty stretched elaborately, taking a few moments to groom herself before cautiously stepping out of her basket onto the parquet floor.  Softly she crept over to the door through which her master had exited and knew with certainty that it would be locked.  The house did not boast of any cat flaps and in a lapse of judgement many years ago, which Dusty blamed on youthful exuberance, she had swung on the handle and opened the door causing all manner of debris to blow in, it being a blustery day at the time. 

Even now, the soft flesh of her paws receded a little at the painful memory of her punishment, but her claws did not retract, for master had taken them, pressing her face so hard into her own urine as fear overwhelmed her, that many times she had thought her eyes would not open again. 

No further mistakes had been made.  For she better understood their relationship now, theirs was a marriage of convenience.  She was a show-cat, a token article master could display so as not to arouse suspicion. 

It was a half-moon tonight, Dusty could make out the fractured shape through the frosted windowpane, there was no mistaking the primitive lure of cosmic spotlight.  For a moment she considered venturing into the living room, the large quarters possessed an open fire and her keen ears registered the familiar spit and cackle as the flames devoured the generous chunks of wood in the grate.  Yet it was a place she frequented the least, despite the lure of the warm hearth.  For at the far end of the room hung an elaborate tapestry that masked a door beyond which, despite the crude home-made attempts at noise insulation, Dusty could detect the pained wails of her fellow kin.

Instead she sat proud, eyes beseeching that magical lamp in the sky, and she wished for someone, anyone, to put an end to their suffering. 

——————

Joy did not travel far initially, choosing to remain on her doorstep and soak up the evening, eyes adjusting to the dark as her lungs filled with a slipstream of cool glacial air.  Dusk is not for the infirm; a vista of carpet silence and hushed screams promising a twilight propensity for lethality.  It calls to like minds, to solitary creatures that hunt, to predators that wear a human face, to her kind; providing a window of shade where dark hearts might be free to roam.

Yet for all her knowledge, her closeted rage and painstaking precision, arrogance blinded her to the truth, that she was not alone this evening…for a pair of pitted eyes observed her with keen interest.

“Oooff”.

A patch of black ice nearly curtails Joy’s plans for the evening but thankfully the treads she had fastened over her boots combined with quick reflexes just about keep her upright.  Still, she seethes at the inconvenience, stabbing the ground with her toe and staring at it with such rage, it appears to thaw a little under her relentless glare.

Those big grit lorries were incapable of reaching some of the tiny dirt roads which cut through the fields and so often it was up to the residents to make them safe. 

“A through village” Joy accused, her apathy and distaste for the place rising at the back of her throat. 

The whole place reeked of nothing more than a half-hearted afterthought, but it served her purposes well.  Featuring no less than one meagre convenience store, which doubled up as a makeshift post-office, and a fledgling off-license, it was a place you passed rather than visited.  The only resident under 40 was a male named Michael who possessed a terminal receding hairline, lived with his mother, and wore a varying uniform of army fatigues despite never having been in active military service.

It was a patchwork community, a scattering of buildings dotted amongst an agricultural quilt that served as the main lure for the slim volume of traffic that frequented its diminishing common folk and that suited Joy perfectly well.  The fewer prying eyes the better.

In the housing goldrush of the 90s Joy had fully expected major developers to start sniffing about, but thankfully her misgivings had been in vain.  Many nights she had suffered nightmares of glass fronted showrooms and men with large white teeth and garish tans parading about, carrying hot beverages in cheap polystyrene cups, cultivating an influx of fresh meat, which meant more eyes, more talk, more questions.  She could only assume as an investment, they were too lackluster to be worthy of such gargantuan monetary sums, and so life here had trickled on in much the same irksome manner as it had before, with the steady stream of familiarity allowing Joy to indulge in certain proclivities the planning department would fail to comprehend.

Snow compacted beneath her boots, emitting the barest muffled protest as it did so, reminding Joy of the satisfying sound elicited from tearing cotton wool; for as long as she could remember, Joy had relished pulling things apart.  Ever since a child she had been fascinated with the inner workings of objects.  An only child, her parents had indulged her, sourcing old telephones and clocks for imminent demolition.  Indeed, many hours, even days of her youth, had passed by as she lie in her room, enthralled by the composition of miniscule innards spread upon her bedroom floor, a sandwich idling by the doorway, long since forgotten in her rapture.  However, it had not taken long before her hands hunted for more pliable components, something she could play with and manipulate how she saw fit.  At the tender age of 8 Joy stumbled upon what her lips could not speak, an injured bird beneath the pear tree at the far end of the garden. 

The fondness with which Joy recounts the memory draws a rare smile upon her face.  It was a moment of discovery, of understanding, as something dormant, a primitive yearning, stirred within the hollow cavity of her flat chest.  Maybe if she had carried on with her tree rubbings, hadn’t abandoned her crayons and tracing paper on the grass to go in search of that sweet sound, what came to be could have been undone, but in truth, Joy knew just as she did then, as her small soft hands scooped up the tiny winged creature, her thirst was always waiting to be quenched, it was just a matter of time, and opportunity.

Even its distress was a pleasing song to the ear, the only music to best it being the acoustic percussion that filled her senses as she began to snap the delicate bones which lined its wings.

Many times, Joy had tried and failed to replicate that sweet music, whether it be breaking a wishbone over roast dinner, or the crisp snap of twigs underfoot, but nothing could eclipse that macabre birdsong.

It was a glimpse of the divine, holding something so magical, that spent its life amongst the clouds, in her sweaty palms, only to deny its journey, to deny its very existence.

Some moments pass us by, sometimes whole months or years slip away with only a brief ripple upon the surface of our consciousness, whilst others define us.  That day had been Joy’s moment in the sun.  It had not been pre-meditated as the cop shows were fond of coining, but when the chance arose, she had ceased it with both hands.

Unfortunately, as Joy had quickly discovered to her cost, matters of the heart were best given some forethought.  For in her fevered state, her bladder had relieved itself in the crescendo of her excitement and so she had furtively buried the dying creature amongst her mother’s prize borders, where the soil was more forgiving, folding swathes of earth upon its crippled form before rushing back to the house to change her soiled clothes.

For many summers she would sit under the shade of the pear tree, a book in hand, and gaze out to the spot where its tiny body was swallowed by a ravenous mouth which ultimately consumes every heart to beat its last.   

The flowers were always at their most vibrant upon that unmarked grave, as though the ground were richer for the feast, but Joy never strayed toward them, preferring to keep them at a remove, for fear they may turn a hostile witness to her crime.  It would be much later before they became complicit in her misdeeds.

It was her former vocation which allowed her to indulge in such insatiable dark desires.  For while Joy had no fear of death, a necessary conclusion to life’s theatrics when every soul is reduced to the same value as the other, she had no intention of dwelling within the confines of a prison cell. 

After taking several art classes in her adolescence, a few tutors expressing interest and often concern at her compulsion to depict her own death (as others sketched fruit and lifeforms she found herself desperately lavishing the canvass with a shadowland of darkness) it was a chance conversation eavesdropped between her mother and her neighbour which had steered her toward her path.  The neighbour, clearly in distress at the loss of her beloved Tabitha, an overweight ginger tabby cat whom she saw fit to ‘dress’ in demoralizing outfits, which was when her mother had suggesting speaking to the local taxidermist so she would always have Tabitha near. 

At the time Joy did not even know what a taxidermist was, but it did not take long to establish that their local professional was only a short drive away. 

It was an awakening.  Joy had crept down the remainder of the stairs and quietly rapt on the living room door and, in her most Oscar worthy performance to date, openly wept at the sad loss of Tabitha as if she too bore this terrible grief.  So concerned was she that she had travelled with her neighbour for morale support on the number 18 bus, Tabitha’s frozen body wrapped in a plastic bag and laid to rest in the pet carrier seated between them.

At appropriate moments she had made sure to give her neighbour’s hand a reassuring squeeze, but in truth, the moment they arrived at the jaded building she had wanted to be done with her tears and ridiculous wails and search the premises top to bottom exploring every detail, cataloging every morsel of information she was able to prize out. 

Names never particularly meant much to Joy, although Leonard Arrowsmith had been the exception and had proved in the many years following their first meeting, to be “as straight as a die” even if Joy herself found his overcooked phrase perplexing.  The sole practitioner of the premises, he had initially mistaken Joy for her neighbour’s daughter, praising her empathy, and welcoming her calculated questioning. 

It seemed fortune truly did favour the bold, after establishing that he was overrun with jobs due to a backlog caused by a decrease of reputable tanners to whom he could outsource carcasses to, Joy had offered her services for free under the guise of gaining some work experience.  Initially it had only been a Saturday job, a way of earning a little pocket money, but she had more than proved her aptitude and made herself indispensable, progressing from a mundane clerical role, to an apprenticeship. 

In her late-20s Leonard had made her an equal partner, her natural flair creating an influx of custom and before long the roles had been reversed and it had been the protégé dispensing advice. 

She really had been fond of him.  Very rarely could she conjure him without one of his garish bow ties vying for attention and a half-eaten pork pie sat upon its wrapper on his desk, but his heart attack had come as a blessing.  For one, he had bequeathed his share of the business and the freehold title of the premises themselves to her, with the remainder of his estate being squandered on an undeserving and estranged sister, but it further provided that she could do the tanning herself from now on.

Leonard had never been keen on the idea whenever she had tentatively broached it under the guise of ‘cost-cutting’, he didn’t have the stomach for it he had confessed once, but Joy however, had seized the chance to get her hands dirty.

It was all above board out in the shop front, it was all smiles for the cameras.  She dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’, molly coddling every bereft pet owner with all the sugary inspirational quotes she was able to source from Google as she could muster, until she was gripped by the need to walk into traffic. 

Naturally reclusive, she became god like in the eyes of her customers.  Bringing their deceased pets back to them in all their splendor, eternally frozen in a moment that captured their character.  Often, they were so relieved to be reunited, their grubby little palms would often overpay her, in their haste to take their treasured love one home.  Never once in all her hushed talks of the deceased, where she would obediently endure every detail from their diet and bowel habits to a favourite toy, had anyone asked what happened to the carcass.

Though it was never enough to placate her thirst, those frenzied anatomical explorations merely serving to what her appetite further. 

Inspiration struck from the most obscure source, for whilst Joy failed to watch much television save for keeping abreast of the news, she had a weakness for Homes Under the Hammer.  Overlooking her repulsion for the gregarious presenters, she was captivated by some of the transformations.  It was the simplest form of magic, papering over the cracks.  But no amount of gloss, dimmer switches and hand drawn tiles could truly cover the dark underbelly of a building.

It was this notion that kept her hostage to the screen.  For Joy was already adept in the virtues of concealment, and so each episode she would wait, pausing to admire the purposefully subdued and grainy ‘before’ shots before moving onto the big reveal and somewhere within her dark little heart, a light shone and she too began her own renovation.

Tirelessly she had worked for months, grasping every spare hour, until the light faded and her arms ached to near exhaustion.  Until she birthed her own revelation.

Every room in the house was kept spotless with her ‘play’ room being the exception, although she took oodles of pleasure in mopping up the blood and excrement afterward, ensuring she began and finished with a sterile environment.  One had to exercise discipline in such pursuits, and she was equally fastidious in her personal hygiene, although sometimes the smell clung to the fine hairs within her nostrils, which was always a pleasant surprise, a welcome aperitif.

Lately, the usual thrill seemed to dwindle, as though she had hit a plateau of sorts.  She still became aroused when separating the creatures from life, delving into their broken bodies and admiring the origins of such humble beginnings, but it had failed to sate her hunger as it once had and that same cold place inside Joy prompted her to think big, to journey further.

As Joy approached the Hudson’s house she wondered if their heralded grandson Christopher would be making an appearance for the holidays. 

“Such a delight.  Such a delight!” Audrey would exclaim to all who would listen whenever she was dumped with him for the weekend, but Joy was far from convinced.  He had podgy hands and a smart mouth for a five-year-old, which Joy wanted to seal shut every time he called her “Mrs Elephant”.  It did not help that his parents seemed strangely inclined to dress senior and junior in matching outfits as though they were auditioning for a remake of Rain Man.  If it came down to IQ, Joy backed the minor.

By society’s standards Joy was big enough to concede that he was aesthetically agreeable, but there was something about that kid which made her want to wrap a belt around his throat and give it a quick firm yank.

From a thudding chamber within Joy a carnivorous mouth began to yawn, whispering curses in blood.  It hankered for the child’s doughy body and Joy would not deny it, for the heart wants what it wants.  There would be much planning involved, it would have to be an immaculate crime,

Once the last envelope had been delivered Joy made her way back home, walking upon depressions in the ground from tractors for extra grip in order to avoid the more treacherous patches of ice and snow, all the while pondering the delicious proposition of the boy, unaware she was running her tongue over her thin lips.

She turned 68 next and what really was there to look forward to beyond further joint degeneration and obscurity?  All paths eventually led to the same bed in the end, surely it would be better to go out on a high.

The bigger the risk the bigger the reward Joy mused.  Although only a fool would misjudge the scale of strategy it merited, the boy would not just fall into her lap, he was too canny to fall for a simple bribe, but a sedative would most assuredly quieten that smart mouth. 

Kids go missing all the time, this one was no different than the rest.  Of course, there would be the usual hysterics and public outcry.  The do-gooders would be out in their droves, no doubt rallying the troops and organising search parties, but once the initial furor died down, the case would idle.  After all it was difficult to press charges with no body.  And for every summer Audrey mourned him, torturing herself over the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ her flowers would continue to bloom.  It did have a certain charm to it, causing her mouth to salivate, serendipitous no less. 

When Joy unlocked the door and stepped into the kitchen it was with a spring in her step, which was short lived.  Quickly she threw the keys on the table and stalked into the living room which presented exactly how she had left it, the tapestry hanging undisturbed.  Yet her instincts told her someone was near; it took a predator to sense another.

It was only on her return to the kitchen that Joy noticed the degrees by which the temperature inside the house had plummeted despite the fire being lit.

Before she could reach the keys Dusty, who appeared to have slept through her absenteeism, sprang from her basket, snaked through her legs, jumped on the handle and opened the door, before bolting to the far end of the kitchen, clambering up the oak paneled units until she was out of reach. 

“Well well well, it looks like you’ve just used all nine lives doesn’t it Dusty?” Joy taunts.

In her haste to grab her walking stick which she reluctantly used at her most desperate when the cold aggravated her hips, Joy fails to notice the submissive bow of the head Dusty gives to the form which enters the room, until it is standing directly behind her. 

Dusty watches the snowman as it follows her master, flurries of soft white powder falling from it with every step and lithely descends the cupboards, silently following in pursuit.

By the time they reach the living room he was more man, than snow, his coat of white having been scattered upon the thick carpet.  Dusty observes spellbound the man grow more defined with every step, emerging from the glass, pausing only for a few seconds by the fire, where his blue tinge begins to dissolve.

“How very rude of me, my name’s Jack.  And you are?” Jack enquires in a gentlemanly manner, only to have his extended hand rebuffed.

The ground conspires against Joy and the wall refuses to provide any further room with which to manoeuvre. 

“What’s the matter Joy…cat got your tongue?”, Jack’s voice drips with irony as he moves closer.

Joy had never truly experienced fear before, nothing in her life occurring to warrant such a poor emotional reaction.  Admittedly in the past 10 years or so, as her feeble joints had begun to betray her, she had grown wary of the cold and uneven surfaces, but fear, that wasn’t for her, it was for someone else, for the weak, for the lesser. 

Yet as the distance between her and the stranger diminished, she began to know fear, her repugnant distress presenting itself in her scent, open pores excreting the dread which grew with every footstep this snowman, who seemed to have crawled straight out of a child’s nightmare, took towards her. 

Despite shedding his ivory overcoat, the features beneath offered no warmth, shards of glass sculpted to a man’s form.  A mannequin of apathy with a void that could consume another and still have room for dessert. 

His wintry breath scolded Joy’s aged skin, lips sealing together where she had tried to wet them as she began to detect eyes, not in front of her, but beneath, in the ground, lighting up the dark and sensed a gaping mouth testing the earth, waiting for a donation.

When he was close enough to kiss Joy looked into the eyes of an empty vase.  One might fall into their abyss and never tread ground, as his breath spread chills through her body, setting her teeth chattering. 

No warmth visited Joy in her final moments of life, nothing comforted her as ice spread through her veins, causing delicate strings to pull so taut across her chest as to render her mute.  Only glimpses, snatches of moments, painted red, reeled across her mind as her own blood began to congeal, brittle bones hardening, piercing through flesh as her body at last gave up its ghosts, collapsing upon itself.

“You reap what you sow” Jack warns with a jaunty wag of the finger, before returning his attention to his feline audience who waited patiently by the gloriously roaring fire. 

It had been too long since Jack had enjoyed another’s company, too long cut adrift, out in the cold.  He decided to commemorate his fortuitous luck, sauntering over to the well-stocked bookshelves which filled the alcoves either side of the fireplace like a well-cut suit.

After selecting a title befitting the time of year, Jack settles into the high-backed chair which feels woefully unused and puts his feet up, toes wriggling as his body adjusts to the splendid climb in core temperature.

“Come” Jack advises, patting the upholstery with a tilt of the head.

Dusty takes a long look at her old master before returning her attention to this new pretender and quickly decides she prefers the latter, especially when he gets up and drags the former in front of the fire, using her folded body as a makeshift footstool.

Timidly she creeps towards Jack as he makes himself comfortable, and watches as her old master, and her old life vanish into flame.

It was the oddest thing, but as his crossed legged feet rested atop the recently departed proprietor of number 6 Broadchurch Lane, Dusty witnessed ice made flesh as their guest seemingly absorbed every morsel of tissue, every inch of skin, until old Mrs Ollivant was of no further use and he kicked her now depleted corpse into the fire, flames lapping up the discarded bones.

An open hand hangs invitingly over the arm rest, palm facing toward her.  Dusty watches carefully for any subtle signs of malice, any clenching of the fingers and decides perhaps it is after all, better the devil you know, and, closing her eyes, steps into the path of the waiting limb.

Rather extraordinarily she feels neither pain nor cold, instead she is rewarded with a generous amount of fuss that makes her purr in satisfaction and nimbly jumps onto Jack’s lap, circling for a few seconds before finding just the right spot to curl up, a most licentious indulgence Ms Ollivant certainly would not have allowed.

Dusty quickly looks from her new friend to the flames, half expecting them to deliver a deathly echo of Ms Ollivant that she can never escape, but thankfully no such phantom emerges, and she settles her gaze back to Jack who, on having the rapt attention of his new acquaintance, opens the book, and in a salacious voice begins to read aloud:

“The Marleys were dead….to begin with”.

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