I’m not certain when the Rift in the Space/Time Continuum opened in our house - it must have been some weeks before it first came to my notice - but I was there when it closed.
There had been an unpleasant, sweet/sour, musky smell in Jack’s bedroom for a week or two, and after he had assured me that he had returned all his dirty dishes to the kitchen, I decided to turn the room out a bit early for its end of school holiday clean, hoping to reveal the source of the smell. The bedrooms of teenage boys are notoriously smelly, anyway: socks, sports gear, shoes, sweatshirts, even the bedding are the usual suspects. Compound that with greasy pizza boxes and half-eaten hamburgers, and you have a recipe for olfactory disaster.
I found the usual piles of clothes kicked under the bed, cleared out the food packaging, washed the bedding, and left the windows wide open to air the room. Teenage foot odour can linger in curtains and carpeting for weeks. It took four loads of laundry to process all his holiday clothes, and I had still had the ironing to do by the time he left for boarding school. He did condescend to pack his own bags, for once.
Once Jack had gone and I had the house to myself during the day, I busied myself with the garden, some baking, re-joined the book club, and relaxed back into the life of a childless wife. My husband works long hours, and I had my own blissful hours of “me time” to enjoy, and enjoy them I did.
It was about a week later that I finally finished Jack’s ironing, and I took it to his room to hang in the wardrobe for the next time he was home. Not that he used the wardrobe much – everything he wanted was on the floor within 48 hours and the doors were never opened after that. I hoped his clothes would still fit him by then: he was growing at such a rate, and costing us a fortune in shoes. I didn’t want to have to buy larger sizes in anything else for a while. At least onesies are not the fashion! They do not allow for growth. I was smiling at the thought of Jack in an enormous bunny suit, as I opened the bedroom door.
I noticed that the smell, that strange, sweet/sour, musty smell of his latest occupation, had returned. I sniffed around and couldn’t locate the source. I was certain I had done a thorough clean, so where was it coming from? It obviously needed a keener sense of smell than mine.
I called the dog. The lollopy Labrador was delighted to be invited upstairs, and rushed down the hall and into the room, a hairy streak of enthusiasm. But that keen appreciation of a new privilege stopped abruptly and he backed up with a strange growl mixed with a whine coming from his greying muzzle.
“Come on Bonzer, you should be used to Jack’s smell by now.” I reached down to pet him and found that the hair along his back was raised and bristling. He flinched from my hand, turned, and ran back downstairs and I heard the slap of the dog flap as he hurtled into the yard. From the window, I could see him making for his dog house.
I knew the smell was bad, but not THAT bad. I laughed ruefully and opened the wardrobe door to hang the ironed shirts and shorts on the rail.
The smell hit me in the pit of the stomach, taking my breath away, which was a blessing for a few seconds. How on earth had Jack managed to cause such a stink in a wardrobe?
I started to remove the contents of the wardrobe. Winter clothes, tracksuits, sports gear he had outgrown, shoe boxes of mementoes, books, magazines, broken toys, bags of Lego, all came out onto the floor in a heap as I dug deeper and further back into the mess. At last, I had the whole cupboard clear, and I turned to sort through the miscellaneous junk.
I sorted into piles of keep, archive, what-the-hell-is-this, and rubbish. There seemed to be an inordinately large amount of empty food wrappers, a few representing some of his favourite snacks, and a lot I’d not seen before. These were of crinkly, noisy foil, labelled in a language I didn’t know. It looked like Jack had access to some sort of Asian or Indian food. The writing was curly, and the pictures on the labels were oddly drawn, showing strange fruit and even stranger animals. Decidedly Japanese, I decided. I sniffed a packet and recoiled from the aroma, which seemed to wrap around my face and force its way up my nose and down into my lungs.
Well, I’d found the source of the stench: it was this strange foreign food he’d been eating. I nipped to the laundry and returned with some large black plastic rubbish bags. I scooped up all the food wrappers and sealed them in the heavy plastic, then opened the window and turned the ceiling fan on.
The next step was to spray that wardrobe to within an inch of its life. Glen 20 is reputed to kill all odours, let’s see what it could do with this. It didn’t do much. Perhaps a good scrub with Dettol would do it.
I started by giving the interior of the wardrobe a good wipe out. The structure had been built against an existing wall, and the back panel was not integral to the cabinet. It was covered in the last remaining area of wallpaper from Jack’s primary school days: a busy scene of battling space ships, aliens, cosmic clouds, galaxies and stars against an improbable bright blue background. We’d both been relieved when Jack outgrew it and we painted the room with several coats of emulsion paint in a neutral sand colour. However, wallpaper is not the easiest surface for washing down with disinfectant. Indeed, it already had a rip in it, just off-centre and 2 feet above the floor. I carefully swabbed, probing into the corners, then settled down to wait for the interior to dry out.
To pass the time I leafed through the books and magazines I’d pulled out onto the floor. Several battered old children’s classics, a maths textbook he swore had been stolen at school, nothing remarkable. The magazines were strange, though. They appeared to be some sort of cartoons or picture stories, with speech bubbles in the same curly script as was on the empty foil packets. The stories were all about aliens, it seemed, not a human to be seen. Perhaps Jack was some kind of Trekkie for a series I had not heard of? It took a minute or two to get the gist of the story, as they were written from top to bottom and the pages flipped upwards. The drawings were detailed, the colours vivid, and the main protagonists appeared to be grey, scaly, almost birdlike creatures with three-fingered hands with long claws. They had beaks with teeth, feet made for perching, and eyes with horizontal pupils like a goat. Their knees were backwards bending, and they sat like birds, too, on poles instead of chairs, but they had no wings, just short arms with long-fingered hands. What imagination!
I settled in for a good read. The plots seemed to revolve around one particular small alien, who got into and out of scrapes, avoided authority and gave a lot of cheek to the larger beings in his world. I couldn’t read the curly text, of course, but the pictures were self-explanatory.
The afternoon wore on, and it was twilight. I was on my second volume of alien comic books when I heard something behind me in the wardrobe: a faint scrabbling sound. The hair on the back of my neck rose, not unlike Bonzer’s had earlier, and I slowly turned to see what was causing the sound.
There was a brilliant green light shining from the rip in the wallpaper, and through the rip, a hand appeared – a grey, scaly, three-fingered hand with long claws. It reached confidently for something that wasn’t there because I had cleared the whole wardrobe out. The hand felt round, covering the floor of the wardrobe, then up and out to test the air, which must now appear unaccountably empty. A bit more arm emerged, and it felt in a larger circumference, long, bony fingers grasping and snapping at the air. The fingers stopped exploring and the arm and hand slowly retracted. The intensely bright green light still shone from the rip in the wallpaper. It seemed right at home amongst the spaceships and the aliens and the strangely bright blue sky.
I started breathing again, but I was too startled to do more than shuffle backwards until my spine was pressed against the opposite wall.
The green light was obscured by the three-fingered hand, which again emerged, but this time holding something. One by one it dropped several sealed foil packets and rearranged them against the wall below the rip, then retracted and returned with some comic books and neatly stacked them next to the foil packets. Having checked that everything was easily within reach, the hand carefully withdrew through the small aperture and the light in the rip in the wallpaper went out. As Mr Spock would say, “Fascinating!”
I looked into Jack’s room several times over the next few days but didn’t manage to coincide with the alien’s visits. The comic books beneath the rip in the wallpaper had been moved and shuffled in order, and a couple of the foil packets had been opened and the contents were not to be seen. The stench was back. All that cleaning was for nothing, but I was curious as to what was happening.
By the end of a fortnight, the floor of the wardrobe was littered with empty, stinking, torn foil, and a new stack of comic books had appeared. I hadn’t seen the hand again, but it had been obviously busy.
I had had enough. This alien was stinking my house out. I had read the comic books – all of them – and having seen the hand I knew what the rest of it would look like. I envisaged it as a twelve-year-old boy, like the hero of his comic books, who had discovered a secret hidey-hole to keep his forbidden pleasures in. I imagined him sitting in his wardrobe, eating foul-smelling potato chips, or the alien equivalent in snacks, happily reading his forbidden tales of an ill-mannered boy who flouts authority and cheeks his elders and poking his smelly rubbish through a Rift in the Space/Time Continuum. No thought for others. I bet his mother didn’t approve of his reading material, nor his snacking habits. I didn’t approve of someone else’s son, albeit from another planet, turning Jack’s newly cleaned wardrobe into a stinking hole. I already had a son who did that. I didn’t need another one. This had to stop.
That afternoon I armed myself with a wooden spoon, a tin tea-tray and a cordless drill and associated fixings, and settled down to wait. I moved the comic books and foil snack wrappers out of reach of the rip in the wallpaper, and the wardrobe was again empty. I closed the curtains and sat in the increasing gloom.
It was not long before the intense green light again shone from the rip, and the three-fingered, grey, scaly hand made its appearance. It felt for a snack in the accustomed place and found – nothing. Checked out the comic books – again nothing. It flailed around wildly trying to connect with anything at all. I had everything well out of reach, and the pile of empty, smelly foil packets conveniently to hand. I struck out with my wooden spoon and caught it a good smack across the knuckles. There was a faint screech and the hand withdrew. I grabbed a handful of those disgusting, odiferous, empty foil packages and forced them through the aperture, followed by another and another until all his rubbish had been returned from whence it came. Then I grabbed the tin tea-tray and, with some difficulty, I managed to screw it to the wall, covering the rip in the wallpaper. I put the comic books back into the wardrobe and closed the door. I was keeping those.
That night, before he took Bonzer for his walk, I told my husband about the strange books and snack foods in Jack’s bedroom. He said that Jack must have made friends with some Asian students at school, and brought some goodies home. There is no accounting for what foreigners will eat.
I didn’t mention the hand. I wonder if he would have believed me if I had told him about a grey, scaly, three-fingered hand, reaching and clawing at empty space in a room upstairs. Probably not.
Joy Saker Australia 22 April 2020
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