‘Mixed feelings: When you’re working at your desk in the dead of night and you suddenly hear your 4-year-old giggling in his sleep.’
This comment inspired the story, but I hope the actual event had a happier ending.
Even though my own kids were grown up and living away from home, I could still remember that feeling of trying to settle them at 3 a.m. when they wanted to play and I was in desperate need of sleep.
This was the third night in a row I had become aware of the sound of a child giggling in the early hours. The dividing wall between my house and my neighbour’s was quite thick, and I had never been disturbed by sounds from next door before. The new owners were quite elderly but perhaps they had grandchildren staying, and my natural parental instincts had kicked in. Maybe if it had been the TV or music playing I wouldn’t even have noticed it.
It was odd though that I hadn’t heard a sound during the day, only when I was working late at night on my manuscript. With a deadline looming I needed to get my latest novel finished and off to the publishers by the end of the week. Stretching, I stood up from my desk and wandered into the kitchen to make a hot drink.
The only noise in here was the tick-tock of the clock and the hiss of boiling water from the kettle. Going back into my office I realised the giggling had stopped. I worked steadily for a couple of hours, finally typed The End and with a sigh of relief took myself off to bed just as the birds started singing their little heads off to greet the new day.
With my manuscript winging its way to my editor, I was able to resort to normal hours and even start tackling the garden, which had begun to look like a wild-life sanctuary.
‘Good Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?’
I looked up to find an elderly lady, secateurs in hand, and a basket full of weeds and dead flowers hanging over her arm.
‘Yes, perfect,’ I replied. ‘I’m Jackie, and you must be my new neighbours.’
‘Lovely to meet you Jackie. I’m Amy, and my husband George is skiving somewhere in his shed, pretending to be doing something useful to get out of the gardening.’
‘Typical man,’ I laughed. ‘Are you settling in OK?’
‘Yes, it’s a lovely house. We were very lucky to find it, and at such a reasonable price too. Our old place was getting too big for us and only had a scrap of ground. I do love a garden and it’s a lot closer to our grandchildren. I know we’re going to be happy seeing out our days here.’
‘I hope so. How many grandchildren have you got?’
‘Four, and another on the way from our youngest. As soon as we get settled we’re going to invite them over for a house-warming. Obviously, you and your husband will be welcome. I’ll let you know the details but we’re thinking of having a barbecue in a couple of weeks’ time, once the weather settles.’
‘I’m a widow but that would be lovely; I’ll look forward to it. Are any of your family staying with you at the moment? I thought I heard a baby laughing in the early hours this morning.’
Amy’s face seemed to cloud over. ‘No,’ she said abruptly. ‘Must get on,’ and grabbing her basket she scurried away indoors.
Puzzled, I carried on attacking the weeds for a while until an elderly gentleman emerged from his shed and gave me a cheerful wave.
‘Morning Love,’ he called. ‘Fancy tackling my weeds when you’ve finished with yours?’
‘I thought that was Amy’s domain, while you do important shed stuff,’ I smiled.
‘Shush, don’t let her know I’m chatting up a lovely young woman instead of repairing the lawn mower or she’ll have my guts for garters’ he laughed.
‘George,’ the voice came from the kitchen. ‘Came you come in for a minute, please?’
‘Too late, I’ve been rumbled. Catch you later love.’
I heard his voice asking cheerfully if the kettle was on before the back door was hastily slammed shut behind him.
Maybe it was my imagination, but on the rare occasions I saw them over the next few days they seemed to be checking I wasn’t in sight before scuttling quickly out of the house.
A week later I was just getting out of the car, laden down with shopping bags as they were returning home. George looked as if he was coming over to help when Amy noticed me and with a quick ‘Good Afternoon’ took his arm and almost dragged him indoors.
It was very odd as they had seemed so friendly at first, and I wondered if I had inadvertently done anything to upset them. The next day my manuscript came back from my editor and I resumed my late-night habits whilst proof-reading and amending. The first night was quiet and I got a lot done. Around 3 a.m. the following morning I stopped work to make myself a drink and heard it again, the distinctive sound of a toddler giggling. Feeling like a snoop I pressed my ear against the wall of the box room, and was sure the sound was coming from the similar room on the other side. The houses were semi-detached so I assumed it was the child’s room I remembered from when I visited the previous inhabitants.
Although we hadn’t been particularly close they had showed me round their home, and their four-year-old had dragged me off to her bedroom to meet her dollies. Mandy was a sweet, cheerful child, always chatting and giggling and full of questions. I thought it strange she hadn’t been in to say goodbye when they left. although her parents were rather an odd couple. One day I had seen her in the garden playing tea-parties with her teddy, the next day the house was empty and the For Sale post had gone up.
There had often been furtive visitors to the house in the early hours, and I wondered if there were drugs involved, or perhaps they had just stopped paying the mortgage and done a moon-light flit. Shortly after their hasty departure I was away for a two-month book promotion tour, and when I returned the For Sale sign was gone, and there was evidence of new people moving in.
After our initial friendly meeting, I was disappointed Amy and George had been avoiding me, and was determined to find some way to restore harmonious relations between us. The opportunity presented itself when I finally completed my book and arranged a launch party and book signing in the community hall. The event had been well publicised in the local paper, and everywhere I went in the village I was faced with posters advertising the event. Still, a personal invitation wouldn’t hurt, and it would give me an opportunity to find out what had gone wrong.
‘Hello. It’s me, Jackie,’ I called as I knocked on their door, flyer in hand. ‘Anyone at home?’
No answer. Perhaps they were out or maybe just avoiding me. I knocked again and was just turning away when I thought I heard a faint shout ‘Help.’
‘Where are you? Are you alright?’
Silence, then almost a scream ‘Up here, but for God’s sake be careful.’
I recognised it as George’s voice but he sounded scared out of his wits. Perhaps he had fallen and was lying helpless, unable to move. The front door was locked but then I heard another cry, ‘Please, somebody help me.’
Rushing back into my own house I climbed the adjoining fence and pushed at their back door. It was open. It felt strange to be in a house so like my own but as a mirror image. A resounding cry from upstairs made me forget all thoughts of intruding, and had me dashing up the stairs towards the source of the noise.
Another scream, followed by a childish giggle had me heading towards the spare bedroom. Throwing open the door I stopped dead at the sight before me. George was strapped to a chair, covered in blood.
My gasp of horror attracted the attention of the small child methodically stabbing him with a knife almost as big as she was. She turned as I approached and I recognised her as Mandy, but not the sweet little girl I knew before. Pure evil glared from her glazed eyes as I stood routed to the spot.
‘Run.’ The weak shout from George brought me back to my senses as I fled down the stairs, and garbled a message to the emergency services asking for help.
The story made front-page news for a few weeks, but the police refused to release any details. Local papers eventually settled on an elderly resident having a fall, and he and his wife moving into a retirement home as they were no longer able to cope on their own. The house went up for sale but remained empty.
My book was a great success and I was pressurised by my editor to get the follow-up out as soon as possible.
It’s now 3.30 a.m. I yawn as I type The End on the first draft of my new novel. It’s gone well and I’m looking forward to tackling the garden and clearing the long-neglected autumn leaves.
That’s when I hear the giggling again.