WARNING: the following story contains subjects that some readers may find distressing.
“Do you remember, Kenneth?” they would ask. Therapists, police. “Do you remember what happened that night?”
I was six. Six years old. How, at six years old, do you say that you remember so clearly – as clearly as if I could see it play in front of my eyes now – but that they wouldn’t believe me?
I had seen the monster before that night. He used to stand in my wardrobe, waiting. I assumed that it was he, and not her, in the way that you make these assumptions at the age of six, on little more than guesswork. I assumed also that the wide smile he gave me, revealing long, sharp teeth, was not a pleasant one.
I knew little of monsters then, and what monsters are. I know better now, of course.
“Are you having trouble sleeping, Kenneth?” mother asked. She was wearing one of her “posh” dresses – a long blue one, knee length. It looks old fashioned now, in the photograph I have. She doesn’t even remember it any more; Alzheimer’s is a cruel thing.
I wasn’t sleeping, I was quiet. I was watching. The monster was looking at me, grinning that same big grin, sharp teeth glinting off the light from the corridor. I pointed, and Mother looked at the wardrobe.
“What is it love?” she sighed.
“It’s looking at me,” I said. “The monster.”
She laughed. I remember that laugh. “Rainy days and rainbows, butterflies and buttercups,” she used to sing, and laugh. I always wondered where it came from, that song, I’ve never been able to find that phrase online; maybe she made it up herself.
Mother turned and walked over to the wardrobe. She peered in, then flung the door wide.
“There’s nothing, Kenny,” she said. “Look.”
The wardrobe was empty. At least, it was when she went to look. But I knew that as soon as she couldn’t see, the monster would be back. Back to taunt me, to scare me, to threaten me.
She closed the door of the wardrobe, and walked back to the bed. She leaned over, kissing me on the forehead.
“You try and go to sleep now, baby,” she soothed. “Just lie down and sleep.”
I did lie down, but I didn’t sleep. She went downstairs, her blue shoes making the floorboards creak outside the bedroom. Creaking floorboards frighten most children, especially at the age of six. They comforted me, at that time, if I knew someone was coming. Now, they were just a sign of impending danger.
The door of the wardrobe creaked, and I looked up. He was back. One eye peeped out at me, and one solitary gleaming fang twinkled in the light from the landing. A click, and the light disappeared. The eye did not.
I sat up a little, and adjusted the pillow. It was clear to me what was going to happen. It was going to wait until I was asleep, and then come out, pounce, and eat me. So there was one solution. Not to fall asleep. Do not fall asleep. I must remain awake until morning.
I woke up again with a start. How long had I been asleep? There was no face in the wardrobe. Maybe he had already climbed out, hairy feet stealthily padding across the floor, soundlessly advancing on the bed ready to pounce. I looked around the bed, panicking, considered standing up, and then noticed the wardrobe. The face was back again.
I must have screamed at this point, although I don’t remember being aware that I had, because I heard chairs scraping and people talking downstairs.
“I’ll go,” muffled voices floated up.
“No I’ll go,” came a muffled reply.
“Really, I can -”
“Don’t, look, it’s fine. You go have coffee, I’ll -”
“If you want, I can go, read a story or something. Y’know, just uncle-nephew time”
“Ok, let me… if he asks…”
And then Father came in the room. I remember my Father well. A short man, round, red faced. He drank too much, smoked too much, never exercised, and somehow stayed healthier than I have ever been in my life. He died ten years ago, when he fell off the roof, trying to fix the aerial so he could watch the football match. It was a dull game, and our team lost.
“What’s the matter, kiddo?” he asked, bursting into the room and turning the light on. I squinted as the light hit my eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, turning the light off again. “What’s the screaming all about?”
I pointed at the wardrobe. “There’s a monster.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “That again. I was hoping for a nice, juicy nightmare at least. Something with aliens in it, maybe. Or the headmaster.”
I must have at least smiled at that.
“That’s better,” he said, his face brightening. He knelt down to the bed and turned on the lamp. “Now come on, what’s really the matter, hmm? We both know that there isn’t a monster in the wardrobe.”
“But there is,” I insisted, wide-eyed. “I saw it looking at me, just peeping out, one eye and all hairy and it had really big teeth and they’re all sharp and -”
“All right,” he laughed. “Calm down. One word at a time, that’s all I can cope with. Now, what sort of monster was it? Prehistoric monster? Space monster? Did it ask you to take you to the leader? Because, you know, what with the miner’s strike, they’ll have it working down the pits by morning if it isn’t careful.”
“Oh Dad,” I whined. “You’re not taking it seriously! There’s a really real monster in there, and it’s going to eat me, I know it. It’s just waiting until I fall asleep.”
He sighed, a big deep intake of breath, closed his eyes, and then let it out again.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take a look.”
He walked over to the wardrobe, looked at the door, and paused. He looked around, opened the door slowly, and then looked inside.
He turned around, looked at me and said “there’s nothing in here, son, absolutely noth-”
A hand shot out from the wardrobe, grabbed his throat and he started choking. Then he grinned, opened the door and I saw it was his own hand. I probably sighed; it was an old joke by now.
“Nothing,” he said, grinning. “Not a sausage. Just the phantom strangler.”
“All right, Dad,” I said.
He walked back over to the bed, and tucked me into the sheets.
“Good night, son,” he said.
“Good night, dad.”
“Do you want uncle Gordon to come up and read you a story?”
“Yeah.” Dad smiled. “He volunteered.”
“OK then,” I said.
I was actually starting to feel sleepy now. I mean, maybe there was nothing in the wardrobe. And even if there was, maybe it wouldn’t eat me just yet, maybe I could get a little bit of sleep first…
Uncle Gordon was a tall man, much thinner than Dad, with wispy blonde hair, and a thin, reedy voice. He sounded a little like a church organ made flesh.
“Hello Kenneth,” he said.
“Can’t sleep, eh? I do that all the time,” he smiled. “Maybe we can help you with a story. What do you want me to read?”
“I don’t mind.”
“Well then,” he said. “Maybe I will have to choose.”
He picked something. A short book, easy enough for me to read even at that age. But he started, and read quickly. I only half-listened, sleep starting to take hold of me again.
“Now,” he said, the smile becoming more… more what? I can’t pin it down, put my finger on it. Maybe more like the monster? Perhaps. “Shall we play a little game?”
I heard the door of the wardrobe creak, and an eye peeked out. There were no teeth visible. No smile now.
“Let’s play Doctors, shall we?” he smiled. “That’s a fun game.”
I wasn’t paying much attention; I just nodded.
“I’m Doctor Fog,” he said. “And I’ve come to examine you.”
The door of the wardrobe opened, just a little more. I could see a small hand, or paw, complete with long razor claws. I felt myself go cold.
“Doctor Fog has come to look at your wee wee.”
The head of the monster was out of the wardrobe, and it looked at me. I tried to break the gaze but I couldn’t.
Uncle Gordon’s hand started to move under the duvet. “Is it all nice and neat and clean and tidy?” he continued.
The monster held up a hand/paw and put one finger to its lips, shushing me.
“Doctor Fog needs to know,” he said. “Because Doctor Fog likes good boys like you.”
The monster crawled, silently, across the floor.
Uncle Gordon’s hand clutched at the top of my pyjama trousers.
“Because Doctor Fog likes to look and to…”
He stopped, and turned to his right. His face froze, drained of colour.
The monster hissed. It said something, but I don’t know what.
I closed my eyes. I remember a crunch, and a scream. But nothing else.
Maybe I fainted. Maybe I finally fell asleep. I remember waking in the hospital, with two policemen there. They didn’t believe what I had to say, so I stopped talking. Stopped talking much for years, as it happens. I learned that when there are questions you don’t want to answer, you can simply draw down a mask, and don’t answer them. Just deflect.
I fainted, I said. I saw something, but I don’t know what. Maybe I didn’t see anything. Maybe he escaped out of the window. No I don’t remember hearing a scream at all, all night. No, not even my own, officer.
Monsters in the wardrobe? No officer, I don’t remember. Did I say that? Maybe I had a nightmare.
And therapists. No, I don’t remember. I didn’t hate him, I barely knew him. I don’t know why he would disappear. Maybe someone was out to get him. Perhaps he was a spy. Or he might have been abducted by aliens. I could keep this up for hours, it seemed, making up fanciful ideas until the session was over.
I heard them though, discussing me, sometimes, afterwards.
“I can’t seem to find any sort of cause, Mrs Cantrell.”
And mother would shake her head. “I don’t know what’s the matter with the boy.”
And then one time, she said something significant, although she didn’t know it.
“He always gets me to check the wardrobe for monsters,” she said.
“That’s fairly normal,” the therapist said.
“But it’s not,” she replied. “Not his way. If I say there’s nothing, he can’t sleep. The bigger the monster, the larger the fangs, well… the more reassured he seems to be.”
I imagine the therapist shrugged; I didn’t see it. “Maybe he knows more about monsters than we do, Mrs Cantrell.”
If they only knew.
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