Ben Cheetham

The Society of Dirty Hearts



When Christine and Julian arrived at Grandma Alice’s house, the dining-room had been made ready for communing with the dead. A blind had been lowered and thick curtains drawn, shutting out the early evening light. Six candles were lined like a fence around a bowl of steaming tomato soup in the centre of the oval dining-table. Six chairs were arranged at equal distances from one another around the table. In front of one was a slate and a piece of chalk. The house was bathed in the smell of fresh-baked bread. Grandma Alice was busy in the kitchen, removing a loaf from the oven, tapping its golden-brown crust.

“What are you doing, Grandma?” asked Julian.

Alice smiled down at him, her heavily made-up face wrinkling like an overripe peach. “Checking to see if it’s baked through, darling. If it’s not, it’ll make a sound like tapping on a hollow box.” A mischievous gleam came into her piercingly blue eyes, which seemed to shine out of her face as if gazing at something beyond Julian. “Or like the echo of a ghost’s voice.”

“Mum,” Christine said, in a rebuking tone.

“What? Well, it’s true.” Satisfied by what she heard, Alice took the bread into the dining-room and placed it on the table beside the soup.

“What’s the food for?” asked Julian.

“It’s to help attract the spirit we’re going to try to contact. You see, darling, the spirits of the dead still hunger after their favourite foods.”

“Mum,” Christine snapped again. “I’ve told you before, I don’t want you talking about this stuff to him.”

“Oh for God’s sake, Christine, he’s ten-years old. You knew everything there was to know about my business by the time you were his age, and it didn’t do you any harm.”

“I had nightmares for years.”

Alice waved her hand dismissively. “You shouldn’t coddle the child, Christine. He’ll end up a sissy.”

Lips compressing into a tight line, Christine grabbed Julian’s hand and pulled him towards the front door. “Where are you going?” asked Alice.

“Home. If you’d told us you were holding a seance today, we’d never have come in the first place.”

“Oh come on, Christine, there’s no need for that. Please, I’ve been looking forward to your visit all week. I hardly ever get to see you and Julian anymore,” Alice said, suddenly contrite.

Christine hesitated, puckers of uncertainty forming around her eyes. “Okay,” she sighed. “But you’ve got to promise me, Mum, that you won’t go filling Julian’s head up with all your mumbo-jumbo.”

A twitch of irritation passed over Alice’s face at the word mumbo-jumbo, then her smile returned. “Whatever you say, darling.” She made a mouth-zipped gesture.

Christine closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead. “Are you getting one of your headaches?” asked Alice.

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look it, you look wiped out. Why don’t you go lie down? I’ll keep an eye on Julian.” As Christine’s brow contracted, Alice added, “Don’t worry, I’ll send him up to you as soon as things get under way.”

“Aw, do I have to go upstairs?” Julian groaned. “There’s no telly up there.”

“You’ll do as you’re told, young man, or your father will hear about it,” Christine warned him. “Do you hear?”

Julian nodded sullenly.

“Don’t worry, darling, the seance won’t last more than an hour,” said Alice. “Then you can watch whatever you want all evening.”

Christine made her way upstairs. Near the top, she turned and called down to Julian, “And stay out of the dining-room. I don’t want you fooling around in there.”

Alice put her arm around his shoulder. “Come on, you can help me in the kitchen. I’m making your favourite. Chocolate cake.”

His face brightening, Julian followed her into the kitchen. She handed him a whisk and a bowl of cake mixture. “Give that a good whisk.”

He did so until his wrist ached, while Alice lined two cake moulds with well-buttered paper. “That looks just about perfect,” she said, taking the bowl back and spooning its contents into the moulds. When she was done, she handed him the spoon to lick clean, which he did with relish.

Julian watched Alice with big curious eyes as she buzzed around the kitchen, humming to herself. Once or twice he opened his mouth, but snapped it shut again with a click. “Grandma,” he began sheepishly at last, then fell silent, chewing his lip, as if he’d been about to say something he shouldn’t.

She looked askance at him with a knowing, amused glance. “Yes, darling, what is it?”

“I was wondering,” Julian chewed his lip a little more, working up the nerve to continue, “who’s the ghost you’re going to speak to today?”

“You know we’re not supposed to talk about that, Julian.”

“I won’t get scared.”

“I know you won’t, but I promised your mum.” Smiling, Alice reached to stroke Julian’s cheek. “Someday, sweetheart, you’ll find out that there’s a great big world beyond this speck of a town, but not today. Now go on, go watch the telly.”

Seeing that he wasn’t going to get anything out of his grandma, Julian mooched into the living-room and switched on the cartoons. A short time later, there was a knock at the front door. Alice poked her head into the room. “They’re here, you’d better go upstairs.”

Julian gave out a groan, but did as he was told. His mum was asleep in the back bedroom, which was above the dining-room. In the chilly grey light that filtered around the edges of the curtains, she looked washed-out, faded, like a sun-bleached photograph of herself. Lately she always seemed to be tired, and she was losing weight too. Julian had asked her if she was ill. She’d assured him she wasn’t, but looking at her now, at the dark smudges under her eyes, the shadows under her cheekbones, he found himself wondering if she’d lied. He just couldn’t believe she’d do that, though. She’d always told him, lying is the worst thing in the world, Julian. I can forgive almost anything, but not a lie.

He took a comic out of his bag and lay down beside his mum to read it. After a while, he became aware of a murmur of voices from below. He heard his grandma’s voice and a man’s voice, but they were too indistinct to make out what was being said. His grandma sounded strange, a little shrill and strained, almost scared. The man’s voice came in short, jerky spurts, as if he were being forced to speak. Suddenly there was a burst of laughter. It wasn’t pleasant to hear. It was discordant, harsh, more like a threat than a laugh. It sent a crawling feeling across Julian’s shoulders and down his back. His mum stirred, but didn’t wake. He lay perfectly still, holding his breath, listening. A powerful urge, almost a compulsion, was growing in him. He had to know what that awful voice was saying, and more than that, he had to see who it belonged to.

Quietly as he could, Julian rose and padded from the room. His heart beating so that he felt every pulse, he crept downstairs to the dining-room door. His grandma’s voice was clearly audible now. “Give them the closure they seek, give them peace,” she said.

There was a pause, then the voice snarled with such acid fury that Julian flinched, “What fucking peace?”

“Tell them where to find Susan.”

Another pause, then, “Fuck you…Fucking whore-bitch…Fucking slut…Dried up old cunt…”

As the voice ranted off a string of staccato insults the likes of which Julian had never heard before, he reached for the door-handle. It felt greasy and cold in his hand as he slowly depressed it. He opened the door a

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