No one ever passed Ettie Budu’s house without crossing the street first. It was an unwritten rule, a fact of our childhood. And you didn’t just pass it, you ran.
Ettie Budu’s house was a place to be feared, where malevolence resided, as heavy as a sack of ditchwater. It hung in the air and clung to the building like a ball of flies.
Get too close and who knew what would become of you? It was well known that she was a witch and that, behind that rotten brown door and those filthy windows, she concocted spells.
The house had become the personification of evil long before our lives had begun.
Everyone knew of it; there was no need to point it out. Find the worst house on the street and you had found Ettie Budu’s dwelling-place. Her hovel.
Unlike the other semis, Ettie’s had no front wall at the end of the garden. The grass grew high – an enchanted forest – and would, no doubt, shackle any child that dared to wade through. The windows, thick with grime, were as still as the eyes of the dead, but we knew we were being watched. It was impossible to see in from across the road – and no one was ever brave enough to peer in at close range. It seemed that dirty nets had been draped at the edges, but they may well have been cobwebs.
Day after day, at the end of school, groups of children would take a deliberate diversion in order to pass the house. None of us ever had permission to walk home that back way; it was a ‘lonely’ place where bad men hung out, but no one was willing to lose face and refuse the route. We’d climb a gate which took us to a narrow, grassy pathway along a little river, a ‘reen’. Gardens backed on to the side where we walked, and there was wasteland on the other. The gate we had to climb at the other end was just opposite Ettie’s.
Our status moved up a notch if we stopped and stared at it for a moment or two. It was a way of asserting bravery.
Sometimes a chant would begin: ‘Ett-ie, Ett-ie, Ett-ie.’
We’d adopt a stance: feet splayed, knees bent, hands on thighs. Quick glances would be exchanged, but we had to watch the door. Always.
It never lasted long. No one had the guts to see what would happen if she came out.
In the winter months, when grey afternoons sheathed the village in darkness, we would linger – not for long – on the opposite side of the street and watch the upstairs window as it flickered with candlelight. It was a scene far removed from our experiences of modern living; it had the intrigue and bygone age-ness of a grotesque fairytale. We knew she’d be stirring a cauldron in that upstairs room. An imagined face at the glass, hollowed by the light, would send us squealing and running.
Then, one day, I felt big and brave. Omnipotent. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, like fire bowling through a tunnel.
In an instant, I took off from the safety of the opposite pavement, leaping onto the road from the kerb and hurtling towards the unkempt lawn, seeing the house closer than I had ever seen it before – the parched windowsills, the gouged brickwork and the cracked glass of a dying building.
The ground was unexpectedly uneven beneath my feet as I ran in difficult circles through the long grass, lifting my feet high and holding my arms up for safety. I felt glorious and daring, and looked for approval as I curved around for the second time to face my awestruck onlookers.
I was a hero. I, the unnoticed one, was suddenly visible – the eye of the storm.
Then, chop. Everything changed.
Like the jerk of a reversing second hand, their gaze shifted from me one notch to their left.
As one, their smiles fell.
Their jaws dropped.
Their bodies flinched.
I heard a sound behind me.
I saw my friends run.
Should I look? Or run?
I recall the instant as if it all happened in slow-motion. As my chin passed my right shoulder, I saw a wiry, old man who had stepped out of the front door and was now feet away from me. His face was scrunched up in anger. His left arm was raised, and when I looked up at it, I saw that he was holding a cleaver. In a beat, he ran at me and I stumbled out of his garden, my legs taking great unwieldy strides.
I didn’t look back. I sprinted right to the end of the long, long road where the other children were hiding around the bend, fizzing with excitement and terror.
‘That was Ettie’s brother. The madman,’ I heard someone say. My heart was beating like a caught bird, and my chest prickled and burned as I panted.
This was news to everyone. There were two of them living there?
Our whispers filled the evening air like frenzied bats before we dispersed to the light and safety of our own homes, each a little more afraid than we had been up until that day.
The challenge had taken on a whole new dimension. The danger was real. We had been right to fear the sinister embodiments of depravity which dwelled inside that house.
I avoided any route that would take me past Ettie Budu’s after that. Maybe she didn’t exist at all, and it was just a vicious old man who lived there.
I wasn’t convinced.
At the age of fourteen, I took a Saturday job at the local supermarket, weighing out the fruit and veg for customers and pricing the brown paper bags. I was positioned right at the entrance.
Even though the incident had been years before, my breath caught like a wedged pebble when a hunched figure shuffled in just as we were closing, late afternoon, one dark November.
It was Ettie.
I experienced a cold thrill. I wanted my friends to see how close she was.
The stench was putrid. She was wearing a headscarf and a huge overcoat, and was dragging a battered trolley. She bypassed me and went straight to the tins just next to my fresh produce.
I could see her filthy face, whiskered and warty, the very image we’d concocted when we were ten. Her mouth hung open as she rasped and wheezed; I imagined beetles and spiders being exhaled with each whispering breath. She had only a few black teeth.
I shuddered. Even now I was a teenager, she still had the power to unnerve me. I dreaded a direct look from her; her eyes would turn red and she would throw a curse upon me as though netting a fish.
She really did have witches’ hands, too. Her nails were long, thick and brown and when her sleeve rose, I could see that the skin on her arm was impregnated with dirt.
I watched her steal a few tins of peaches.
As soon as the manager had locked the main door and was switching off the lights, I grabbed my coat and left by the back entrance. It would take her a while to get home. I could catch her up.
I had no idea why I wanted to be in proximity to someone who could strike me down with black magic. Perhaps I had been charmed.
I could see her shape, rounded, no head, shuffling along ahead of me. She looked like a dark toad under the streetlights. Because of the peaches, or the brother, or the state of her house, I felt immense anger towards her. She moved steadily through the night.
I stopped trailing her within a safe distance of her house.
She still scared me.
All through the winter she came for peaches.
She never paid. I never said.
She was always dirty. She always wore a man’s coat. I began to wonder if she might have been thin underneath. What else did they eat, she and her brother? Though I must have stared, she never looked at me. Her gaze seemed fixed on her dirty boots. She was bent like a bridge.
On the last Saturday of February, Ettie didn’t come. I had moved the last few tins of peaches to the front of the shelf for her. I left through the back door as the manager flicked off all the strip lights. There was a frost on the bins and the air was sharp. I wrapped my scarf around my mouth and headed for The Hovel.
Apart from a stutter of candlelight in one upstairs window, the house was in darkness. I imagined how cold they must be without electricity. Ettie – was that even her real name? – probably kept on her coat indoors. Her brother’s cast off maybe. Or did she ever have a husband?
Over the next few evenings, I walked by again. The house seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep, every window full of night. I no longer felt watched.
Sunday morning was crisp and cold. The sky was a dirty white, and as I made my way to Ettie Budu’s, it began to snow. Frozen flakes melted on my cheeks and caught in my eyelashes, and by the time I had got there, the blades of grass were tipped with white. It was almost pretty.
I crunched across the garden, older and braver than I had been the first time. Years of neglect had made the windows opaque, so I crouched down and pushed in the letterbox.
The humming seemed to come from everywhere: an incessant drone from an orchestra where violinists bowed the same monotonous note. Every inch of space was inhabited by moving black specks.
I was reminded of shaking a snow globe, but in negative.
Layer by layer, my senses became drunk with excess, and I covered my nose and mouth with my free hand as the putrefaction seeped out of the letterbox and into my air space. The blood smell at the supermarket meat counter always made me gag, but the intensity of rotting flesh that was now spewing out of the rectangular aperture made me reel. Desperately, I scanned the hallway, but only had a sense of dark brown through the cloud of flies, nothing more.
Catching sight of movement in my periphery, I let the letterbox go with a snap. Three maggots were pulsating across my left glove. I shook them off on to the ground and ran.
The day they took the bodies away, there was a small crowd outside.
‘The mad brother chopped off Ettie Budu’s head with his axe,’ I heard a boy report as he swung an imaginary weapon towards his friend, ‘and he survived by eating bits of her until she was all gone.’
But I think that their ending was far from dramatic. We had made it that way. In truth, they lived together in the only way they knew how, an older sister caring for her brother, and surviving by whatever means were at their disposal. They were poor, cold and hungry, and society had shunned them.
We were to blame.
When Ettie had gone, the peaches had stopped coming. And, without peaches, her brother had dwindled, along with the melting candles.
The house had been dying all along.
HELEN LAYCOCK, previously a lead writer at Visual Verse, features in several editions of The Best of CafeLit. Recently longlisted by Mslexia, pieces are showcased in Popshot, Poems for Grenfell, Full Moon and Foxglove, The Caterpillar, Cabinet of Heed, Reflex Fiction and Lucent Dreaming, whose inaugural flash competition she won.
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