At 3.05 the Cuckoo Ceased to Chime

Submitted into Contest #160 in response to: Start your story with the whistle of a kettle.... view prompt

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Contemporary Sad Drama

Maggie's whistling kettle reminded her of the steam engines her father once drove. He loved his tea too, strong, with one sugar. Pot topped up with builder’s brew, she gazed out of the kitchen window, admiring the garden he diligently tended to, the pride and joy of his retirement. 


His allotment thrived; sweet peas, potatoes, and marrows as giant as World War two subs; well not quite that big, but they'd won awards at the county show. His sunny, smiling sunflowers towered over the greenhouse to the admiration and envy of their green-fingered neighbours. But what Maggie loved best were the perfectly pink petalled roses, ballgowns for faeries from bedtime storybooks. Even from the kitchen, she knew their sweet perfume. 


She popped the lid on the teapot. "Perfect."


From the sitting room wireless, Terry Wogan spun popular tunes from the hit parade.

Handmade paper chains hung from the ceiling rose into each corner, and a Happy Birthday Father banner dangled from the antique mirror. She placed the tea tray on the melamine coffee table, next to the sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and pork pies and smoothed her apron.


Cuckoo! Cuckoo!


The tiny wooden doors sprung apart, and the bird popped out of the clock five minutes slow. It was 3.05pm. Maggie scoured; everyone was late. But Father always said there's a silver lining to every dark cloud, and with everyone failing to attend on schedule, it allowed time to double check arrangements, and there was no milk in the jug! How could she have been so stupid? 


She rushed to the hall, but it was too late; his familiar silhouette with flat cap and pipe lingered behind the mottled glass of the front door. He'd arrived, golly gosh darn it! She untied the apron, hung it on the back of the kitchen door, and then rushed back to greet him.


"Father!"


"Maggie! What a beautiful dress."


She curtsied and did a twirl. "Well, it is a very special day."


“I suppose it is.” He said, swivelling his left boot, then the right, four times each on the mat before entering the property; always a gent was Father. 


Flat cap on the hatstand, she ushered him into their sitting room, “Happy birthday Father." She grinned.


He gave the nod, pipe hanging from one corner of his mouth, "Thank you. What a lovely spread." He padded his trouser pockets, "I can't believe it. I've left me matches in the pub."


"No trouble, I have some in the kitchen, back in a tickety boo."


Maggie opened the drawer that held all the little things anyone could need; nick-nacks from when Mother was alive. Thimbles, string, postcards from Margate, meat raffle tokens, recipes cut from the pages of magazines, elastic bands, screwdrivers for spectacles, a keyring with a tiny Tupperware bowl attached, and at the front, as always, a box of matches, for lighting the gas on the stovetop, or for the consumption of birthday tobacco. 


He admired the banner, "You went to all this trouble for me?"


"No trouble. I don't know where the others have got to?"


He settled into his comfy chair, crossing his legs in a cloud of smoke, "Oh, you know what they're like!" He said, producing a tobacco tin from his trouser pocket. "Let's have a brew, shall we?" 


She poured the tea, and they sat and talked, and laughed, and talked some more and ate Victoria sponge cake on cake plates with tiny cake forks as was traditional until the phone rang from the table in the hall, "I'll get it." she said.  


"Hello? Barker residence, 361824." 


"It's Auntie Maud dear. I'm terribly sorry, Ivy's been in the lavatory all afternoon. I shall be calling out the doctor."


"Oh dear, please send her my love."


"Say happy birthday to your father won't you?"


But when Maggie returned to the sitting room, he had already retired to bed. His last cup of tea was still warm. She sighed; birthdays at his age must be awfully exhausting. 


Cuckoo! Cuckoo!


"Hello little bird, you again!" she chuckled. "I supposed I had better change out of my dress?"


Climbing the stairs in slippers… Slippers! She snorted at how funny she must have looked eating cake in her Sunday best and fluffy slippers. Father hadn't mentioned it, he was too polite, of course, but she wasn't usually so forgetful.


She laid her hand on his bedroom door, fighting a strange urge to check on him. The image of him laying helplessly between the foot of the bed and the dressing table had been implanted into her mind's eye. She couldn't shake it, didn't understand what strangeness had put it there - other than the overactive imagination she had been forever cursed with. She pulled her hand away. He was the love of her life but an ogre if woken from slumber, and she was just being silly. 


It was only teatime, but winter was closing in; shadows were playing on her bedroom walls. Paranoid someone was watching, she glanced under the bed, behind the curtains, atop the wardrobe, berating herself for forgetting to change the lightbulb; she'd meant to do it all year. 


In front of the wardrobe mirror, she removed her dress. There was no need to undo the zip. She hated the skeleton woman looking back at her. The spectre with a sunken face, knitting needles for legs, and ribcage protruding - was not her. She opened the mirrored door to hang the dress away, but the boy with black eyes and bleeding mouth flew out from the hanging clothes and screamed, "Die!"


She jumped backwards, tripping onto her bed, shielding her eyes from his horror. Even in the darkness, her eyes squeezed shut tight; she could feel his energy, the hollowness of his eyes drilling into her very soul. 


She fled to the back of the door where her dressing gown hung, grabbed it, and escaped the room onto the landing where the only bulb that worked swung from its cord making shapes on the stairs and walls. She covered herself, barely able to catch a breath, limbs trembling, clutching the bannister, then the handrail, carefully, one step at a time in slippers. One slip would mean hospital again, somewhere she was unprepared to go. 


In the sitting room, she sat in the darkness in her father's chair; the way the moonlight illuminated his pipe smoke, floating on the dust in the air, was strangely relaxing. The doorbell shook her, sending two rattling teacups and saucers from the armrest, crashing down onto the carpet.


*** 


Becky peered through the letterbox into the hallway. Visibility was low, and she wished she'd called during daylight, but as always, her banana and ham sandwich sat cling-wrapped in a plastic tub in the passenger footwell of her car. Her stomach groaned, but Maggie had been on her mind all day. 


Light shone from the upstairs hall. 


"Maggie? It's me, Becky."


The first spits of rain landed on her nose; she pulled her tartan poncho tighter around her shoulders. Finally, a key twisted in the lock, and Maggie's little face appeared in the gap, "Hello?"


"I've got some shopping for you, Maggie. Can I come in?"


On top of the coffee table, she placed the least wonky of the dining chairs, and she climbed, reaching up, energy-saving bulb in hand, wondering why people insist on having such bloody high ceilings. Her heart beat fast; heights weren't her thing, and neither were dark, creepy, mouldy old houses. "That should do it," she said, climbing down, "Let's switch it on."


Room illuminated and feet firmly on sticky carpet, Becky clutched the hem of her shawl, preventing her urge to place her hand over her mouth. Whilst delivering Maggie's shopping to the kitchen, she'd noticed things were bad, but in true 50-watt glare, the true horror of Maggie's situation was now apparent. 


Dust lay on every surface like a blanket. A spider had taken residence in one corner. The wastepaper bin was piled high with what looked like cake; dainty china cups and saucers sat on every surface, all filled with mould, and on the other surfaces, stale sandwiches and scones, rotten strawberries', everything mushed into the carpet. Flies buzzing everywhere, graveyards of them on the window ledge. It looked like forty toddler zombies had afternoon tea every day for forty years and nobody ever cleaned. The curtains were threadbare, and the nets black with years of cigarette smoke. 


But the house was not her only concern. A few days previous, when stopping by to collect the debit card for shopping, she had insisted on showing her father's allotment. It was a mass of weeds, broken down appliances, and stacks of rotting rubbish – a playground for rats.


All Maggie could see were imaginary roses and sunflowers. 


Becky rummaged in her backpack, "I-" she was momentarily struck by the old woman, her drawn features, the way her dirty clothes hung on her so loosely, "I got you some essentials. Do you remember your bank card got declined the other day?"


"Did it? I'd tell Father, but it's his birthday today."


It was always awkward to know how to respond. "Oh. Well, I couldn't afford to buy your shopping, but I've been paid now so I've got you some tea bags, milk, and ready meals, porridge, just to keep you going a few days until you get it sorted. I'll put it in the kitchen.


In the dark kitchen, the hissing neon blue ring ignited Becky's fury. She felt her way around the front of the oven and twisted the knob, ceasing the flames. "Maggie, your gas ring was on?"


"Oh." 


"Maggie?" she said, putting milk into the warm light of the fridge, "What year is it?"


"1978 of course silly," the old woman chuckled, "the 12th of June 1978, Father's birthday."


***


The dear girl shopping girl toddled off down the path; so lovely of her to pop by on a cold winter's eve. Clicking the door closed quietly so as not to wake Father, Maggie returned to the kitchen, placed the kettle on the hob, turned on the gas, and heard a bag from upstairs. 


The gas hissed out from underneath the kettle, seeped into the kitchen, and out into the hall, following Maggie as she plodded, one step at a time, hand on the balustrade, up the stairs, "Father, you haven't fallen out of bed again have you?"


She pushed the door ajar, peeking into the darkness, "Father?" 


But the room was full of junk. The carpet was gone, and the floorboards were dusty. She brushed her fingertips over the cardboard stacked from floor to ceiling, boxes labelled Father's paperwork, and Father's hats, and Father's books. She fled to the window ledge clutching it to steady herself, looking down at a wild wasteland of weeds, no sunflowers, no roses, no... "W-w-what's happening?"


Sitting atop the grimy mantel was a rusty metal box engraved with the words, Dearest Father, Happy Birthday, all my love Margaret. She opened it, brought it close to her face, inhaled the woodiness of the lingering tobacco, and something familiar, something gassy, like… 


Gas? 


Her eyes widened, and she plodded past decades of memories stuffed boxes to the top of the dimly lit stairwell. Grasping the bannister, she edged a trembling slipper towards the first drop. The bulb swung overhead, flickered, and then plunged her into darkness. 


Her knuckles were white on the handrail as she teetered at the top of the towering flight. Her eyes acclimatised, but only enough to see his baby-faced death mask between the bars of the balustrade, whispering, "Don't let go." 


Discombobulated with terror, her ankle slipped, and she tumbled. Wrist snapping, face colliding with the wall, arms over legs, legs over arms, the taste of blood, carpet scraping, thin skin tearing, banging, crashing, screaming, and finally silence. Hot salt tears dripped into both ears as she lay contorted in the dappled glow of the front door. 


"Father?" she whimpered, "Father, I'm hurt. Where are you?" 


She closed her eyes. 


Somewhere, from beyond the black void of darkness, a strange voice said, "Maggie?" 


Then banging… bang, bang, BANG!


***


Becky curled up in her warm armchair, twisting a cold glass of cheap wine between her fingers, scrunched tissues in her lap, the TV silently playing the Prime Minister's debate, the children upstairs, sleeping peacefully. She hoped her babies were dreaming, far, far away from the realities of this world. 


Maggie was in love with her reality. She was at home with her daddy and her beautiful garden. Becky knew she did the right thing calling an ambulance, but for some reason, the guilt was eating away at her; like, who was she to put Maggie in a hospital she'd probably never come out of? She wondered if she was frightened.


Her daughter's Humpy Dumpty picture book lay on the rug next to a pile of plastic bricks she didn't have the energy to pick up; the poor egg man on the cover in pieces, the King's guards gathered round, befuddled by his brokenness. They couldn't put Humpy together; he was broken beyond repair. So many of us are. 


Becky took a large gulp of wine.


***


One arm was in a white cast, but the other was free, and she used it to hold on tight to the juddering wheelchair that careered towards the bright white light at the end of the corridor. "Are we going to meet Father?"


The boy in the pale blue uniform unlocked the door with his magnetic fob, and the automatic doors swung open. "We are going to sit by your favourite rose bush, the one by the lake." 


The trees rustled in the cool breeze, and the afternoon sun settled like diamonds on the lake where swans drifted without care. Father loved swans, but he was nowhere to be seen. With head lowered, she said, "He isn't coming, is he?"


The young man applied her breaks. He sat on the bench in front of the rose bush, "I don't think he is. I'm sorry." 


"I must get home. He's getting old; who will care for him if I'm not there?"


He turned to the roses, took one in the palm of his hand, "Aren't they beautiful?"


There was no beauty in that place. Just a tangle of thorns, a lake to drown in, and a once stately home, a 'home for the state', a soulless pile of bricks with windows that don't open and electric doors, a place to lock up the misunderstood, a prison for the innocents. Only you get released from prison… rehabilitated… She was told they'd review her section, review it… how many times can they review it? 


Last week two patients went home: in urns.


"Come on," he said, "Let's get inside and make a nice cuppa."


***


She had driven by every week for a year. But it was the big yellow skip that made her pull over. 


As she crossed the road, a man in jeans and hi-vis came out of the house with a box that said Father's books and tossed it into the skip. He took a moment, hands on hips, to arch his back.


"Are you family?" she said.


"Nah, we're just doing the house clearance. Did you know them?"


"Her. Maggie, yeah, a little bit, is she?" 


"No. Her son's selling up. He'll have a job on his hands. What a dump!" 


She faked a laugh, "Yeah." She knew it was true, but the comment was disrespectful.


He walked back into the house, "I'd better get back…" 


She looked at the pile of old books, broken tea set, smashed up coffee table, drawers full of junk, and, is that a cuckoo clock? 


It was stuck at five past three. She opened the little door, and saw the tiny bird inside. How much happiness must it have given Maggie to see it pop out and slink back inside? She ran her fingers over the intricate wooden carvings. When was that blissfully ignorant final time that Maggie looked so lovingly at the precious object - not knowing she'd never see it again. 


The urge to cuddle her children, study every pore of their skin and inhale every strand of their hair became overwhelming. Maggie had a child too. A son who allowed her to live like that, cashing in on her debility. How dare he. 


She put her key into the ignition and looked back up at the house one last time. It was time to move on, to stop wondering what happened, driving by slowly, to stop obsessing. But something in the top window sent shivers up and down her spine. He materialised from nowhere, small white hands flat on the glass, black, hollow eyes staring down.


He vanished as quickly as he appeared, chilling her to the bone.


***


That night, she sat at her laptop and penned her first piece of non-fiction, 'Maggie's Ghost Child'. She already had a long list of prospective publications; it was her first weapon in the war against ungrateful children.



THE END



















August 24, 2022 17:02

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7 comments

Lane Bloom
11:52 Sep 02, 2022

So spooky! Enjoyed this one!

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Lisbeth Tull
18:58 Sep 02, 2022

I love a spooky tale - thanks for reading, so happy you enjoyed it!

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S. E. Mary
19:38 Aug 29, 2022

I chose to read your story because of the fun title. I am so glad I did. Great read and good job!

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Lisbeth Tull
19:48 Aug 29, 2022

Thank you so much, I really appreciate it!

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Ds Gilrea
14:49 Aug 29, 2022

Beautiful story, really enjoyed it.

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Lisbeth Tull
18:44 Aug 29, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read my first Reedsy story. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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Andrea Doig
04:49 Sep 10, 2022

Ahhh Lisbeth! You had me hooked (as usual!). Took me a while to get there… but I just read it over a Saturday early morning coffee… and it was a spookily awesome ride. Love it. Poor Maggie. Well crafted and loved the atmosphere created and the inner workings of her mind.

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