Shirley Day is honoured to be counted as a dangerous woman. She is a writer, director and producer of film and theatre. She also writes prose. Last year, Shirley was selected for BAFTA Breakthrough Brit (this year she is hoping to win it!). She has had one feature optioned this year, and made two last year. Shirley has children of all ages. She lives in Suffolk in a house surrounded by trees. She smiles a lot. Shirley says: I hope you like this short story about Sarah. She has been haunting me for awhile. I am just about to develop a play on her. Please see my website for more details on my work.
Sarah didn’t bake cakes or hand out sausages at the Fireworks, and her face was notably absent when manning the school tuck-shop. She claimed she worked, but not one of the PTA had seen her leave the village during daylight hours. She school-dropped Barney, a scrawny Year Three, whose jumpers were too tight, and whose nails too long, then headed back over the common to her rented cottage by the deep pond.
“She says she’s a journalist.” Announced Helen Stubbs, chair of the PTA, as she attached a strip of pink toile to a leotard for the annual school Carnival.
“Anyone can say they’re a journalist,” Evie Cummings (Minutes and Meetings) informed the gathering. Evie was a woman of the world, having moved up from London a couple of years back. She had proved a great asset to the quiz team Who, in having the poetry and literature seat sorted, had managed to slaughter the men’s bowls team and wipe the smug smiles from the WI. Evie glued the cat’s tail to the costume she was making for Jack Henderson, a boy nobody liked. The costume was certainly going to be a squeeze for a lad of his size, but Evie had no sympathy.
The PTA had no fundamental problem with Barney. Unlike Jack, Barney had managed to get most of his features in the right place. True – the women didn’t approve of how he was turned out, but a child of Barney’s age could not be held responsible for a parent’s sins.
“I mean, for goodness sake! How long does it take to iron a jumper that size!” Was all Event Coordinator, Maude Kendal, had to offer on the subject.
It was a tight knit community. You were either in or out, and being out had consequences; come Carnival, Barney would be wearing the evacuee costume, an item that should have been relegated to the Halloween box. The shorts were fine, the tank top still holding together. But the gas mask was a problem – a dropping dirty green cloth, melting into a collection of thick plastic tubes. It resembled a decaying octopus, rather than something to be worn on the face.
Elloise Madget fainted the previous year when instructed to don the item. But then, as Helen Stubbs had said, “When you can tell from a girl’s perfume that her father owns a chip shop, fainting is only to be expected.
There had been a terrible fuss from the history society when their evacuee failed to materialize; every year since 1943 someone had worn the mask. The women of the PTA conferred and came up with the solution – this year that someone would be Barney.
Sarah, in her cottage on the green, knew nothing of the machinations brewing. Barney however, had heard talk: the mask was haunted. Anyone wearing it would be dead within a year. Elloise had disappeared after the Carnival. Parent’s claimed she had moved. But proof was thin on the ground. Mr Jannson, the old caretaker, he’d put it on as a joke. A day later his heart stopped.
With the Carnival only a week away, under the capable hands of Maude Kendall, the school library transformed into a vast wardrobe, costumes hanging neatly on rails and colourful card cutouts curling over walls. So when Sarah forgot to pack Barney’s book, and the nice lady-who-reads suggested Barney drop along to the library, he was happy.
It had been fun, wandering through the oversized paper garlands. He felt like Alice thrown into a garden of wonder. He loved the costumes, in particular the superman bright red cape. It could do no harm, he thought, to try it on. But no sooner had the cape been pulled from its hook than he saw, hidden behind it, the mask.
Barney stared at the dead dark eyes. The mask stared back. The entrail like tubes that slipped from the nose to the great clam like breathing pouch appeared to be moving, swaying slightly as if waiting to digest the boy. Cold dread gripped his spine. The door was only meters away. He could be safely back with the lady-who-reads in a few moments. He turned and walked quickly towards the exit. It wasn’t pleasant – the laugh. His mother’s laugh was small and sweet. The lady-who-reads, had a booming warmth in her tones. This laugh, the laugh that came from the mask, was cold as the grave.
The day of the Carnival arrived. Barney told his mother he did not want to wear the mask, so Sarah had written a note, placed it in his bag and dropped him at the school gates.
Jessica Stubbs, while her mother barked orders, had been searching for ribbons. It was true she had been searching in other people’s bags, but since her mother was matriarch of the PTA Jessica had begun to think of most items on school property as crying out to be shared. The events were unclear, but Sarah’s letter may have dropped from Barney’s bag as Jessica rummaged.
The risk assessment should have stated that the child had asthma. Evie Cummings explained to the police that the PTA took their duties very seriously, and Barney’s asthma had never been mentioned. Sarah said quietly that it was not something he suffered from before, but her comments fell on deaf ears.
Maude Kendall, who had been overseeing wardrobe, summarized the events accurately enough – the women of the PTA had been busy. Time was short and fuss not tolerated. Barney had been instructed to put the mask on. He was reminded that children who do not join in are a disappointment to their peers, parents and potential. Barney put the mask on. With a sigh of relief the PTA turned their attentions to make-up and mop-ups. There were a lot of children, and as usual – not enough hands!
Helen Stubbs was shocked that a child could slip away like that. All the women agreed with Helen that surely if you were having a massive asthma attack, you really should make a bit more noise.
It was only when the children lined up at the door, that the ladies realized Barney was absent; slumped in the corner, mask over his face, no air left in his lungs.
The rain started the very next day. It rained so hard the villagers were sure “Poor Sarah” would be swamped by the deep dark pond outside her cottage doors. The PTA turned their cookery skills to the preparation of comfort foods involving mash potato, butter, and cheap cuts of meat prepared with imagination and flare. The pots remained uneaten on Sarah’s doorstep.
Ten day of rain. The pots remained. The PTA performed a risk assessment on rodents, and retrieved their crockery. Helen Stubbs voiced the general concern that, in a world containing starving children, leaving delicacies to rot uneaten was bordering on criminal.
The rain continued. Mr Coleman, head teacher, took it upon himself to visit. He strode out across the common, skirting the pond which lay open to the sky like a gaping black hole.
Sarah was pleasant enough. Mr Coleman was pleased to see that she appeared to be coping, resigned almost to the situation.
“I understand you’re a writer?” he said over a mint brew.
Sarah explained she was researching folklore.
Mr Coleman smiled ironically as he sipped his hot drink and asked, did she know that the pond in front of her very cottage had been used to drown witches?
When Sarah said that the village still appeared to have its fair share, Mr Coleman made no comment.
The dark began to come over the common. They sat in silence till Sarah let out a great sigh, and said something he never forgot.
“Sometimes I despair of humanity. We never seem to be ready to take that next step; never seem to evolve. ”
He wished he had asked her then and there what that next step might be? But the moment was lost. The rain continued, and Sarah, thoughtfully, said he should go; the watery path was no longer safe at night.
He cut back across the common, the events of the past few weeks weighing as heavy as the mud coating his gum boots. He felt that somehow he was missing something. Glancing back through the drizzle he saw that the door was still open, the light still on. He vowed to himself that things would change. There were surely lessons to be learnt? and then he slipped.
He thrashed for a while as chaotic thoughts crowded his brain. Primarily, he wished he had learnt to swim. There should have been enough time, surely? He was 45. He stopped thrashing when his limbs ran out of oxygen, and he began to sink. When he tried to piece the events of that evening together, he would swear that he never heard the splash. He never heard her enter the water. He would swear till his dying day that Sarah came up from the bottom, pushed him to the side then slipped back down into the depths.
The next day saw Coleman and the villagers standing beside the pond as police teams dived. He tried to instruct: to the left, maybe the right? Probably deeper.” It went on for hours, until Danny Bridstock drove past in his taxi and informed the gathering that he’d taken Sarah to the train station that morning.
It was twenty-five years before the chimney started spewing out smoke again. Most people in the village didn’t notice. The cottage had been empty that long, the gossip had died down. But Jack Henderson had been waiting. Jack – the kid in the cat suit the year of the Carnival.
Sarah was making tea in the kitchen when he arrived. He was surprised; she was younger than him now. He had to admit, he kind of fancied her, all that dark hair and those soulful eyes.
“I can read minds,” she said. Which is always a disconcerting thought. He thought of cold showers, then of the rain, then of that fateful summer.
Over tea they talked. Jack said he’d realized pretty early on; he had a thing about witches. In fact that year, he’d been happy to be the cat. He knew the deep pond was where the witches were ducked, and the stories of the witch drowned with her young son.
When people started to get ill, after Sarah left, he noted their maladies. Helen Stubbs’ emergency tracheotomy left her speechless. The barking or orders ceased. The local doctor tried to trace the mysterious virus causing the problem. When Evie Cummings’ shockingly early dementia set in, the quiz team was disbanded. The same viral strain appeared to be present. The doctors thought perhaps it was environmental. The locals blamed something in the water. When Maude Kendall fell from her shoes on the steps of the town hall, and was confined to a wheelchair, the carnival costumes were dispersed to charity shops. Jack had watched the mask burn on top of a bonfire one dark November.
When Jack put his teacup down on the saucer, the china rattled like bones picked clean.
“I’ve been waiting all this time … ” he said “to say sorry. When Barney came in to the library and saw the mask, I made some stupid laugh. I just wanted to fit in.”
Sarah took the cup away. She went to the sink, and washed it under the water as she stared out over the common and the pond.
“And do you still want to fit in Jack?” she asked, wiping her wet hands on her apron. “My son … he never makes it past his seventh year.”
Jack hung his head in shame.
“But … no one has ever shouldered any blame before.”
And when she smiled it was as if summer came flooding over him in a great warm embrace.
“We can not fit in together, if you like?”