When the builder told me he had to move a dead man in the loft, I was taken aback, to say the least. I'd been in the loft several times, and nary a corpse had I seen!
Once he'd explained to me what he meant, I decided that therein lay a story for children, and since one of the modules I'm taking this semester at uni is Writing for Children, this was serendipity, indeed.
This is the first draft of the story that evolved from this chance phrase, I hope you'll enjoy the idea, and bear in mind that it is only a first draft!
There’s a Dead Man in Our Loft
The builders arrived yesterday. Two of them, wearing clothes so scruffy Mum wouldn’t let us be seen dead in them! Tufts of grey wire sprout out of the back bit of Frank’s baseball cap. Paul’s bald. I always thought that your hair turned grey then fell out, but Paul’s much younger than Frank. Maybe he’s had chemo-therapy; Dad’s friend Eric’s hair fell out after he’d had chemo, and he was only 30.
Mum’s going to have a baby, and our house is already full! There’s me, I’m Amy, my sister Brenda, and my brother, Chris. And there’s Mum and Dad too. We’ve got three bedrooms, but one’s only tiny. Chris has that one, and I share a bigger one with Brenda. There’s no room for the new baby. He’s a boy, so the scan says, so we’re having the loft converted into a “Master Suite” for Mum and Dad. Chris and baby Danny will have Mum’s old room, when it’s been decorated, of course. They won’t want a room with roses all over the walls!
* * * * * * *
I was deep into my Nancy Drew mystery, when I heard Frank, the builder, asking Mum if he could have a word with her. He was speaking very quietly, and for some reason, whenever I hear people speaking softly, my ears have this habit of trying extra hard to hear what’s being said.
I wish I hadn’t heard what Frank said to Mum, though! I don’t know what to do about it.
‘Mrs Jenkins, could I have a quick word with you? We’ve uncovered a bit of a problem.’
‘Oh dear! What sort of problem? It isn’t going to hold up the building work, is it? The baby’s due in four months, and I really need to have the bedrooms sorted out before he arrives.’
‘It’s nothing we can’t handle, don’t worry. We’ve come across this problem before. There’s a dead man at the far end of the loft needs moving.’
‘What?’ Mum’s voice went quite high, then she sort of laughed, nervously. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. There isn’t a dead man in my loft!’
I heard them walk upstairs, so couldn’t hear what they were saying any more. I felt like somebody was squeezing my tummy muscles, and I found I was holding my breath. How could there be a dead man in the loft? Was it like when they found the Princes in the Tower? Had a body been shut up to die in the loft space years ago, when the house was new? Or had a burglar broken in and died up there, starving to death with a broken leg, unable to climb back up the chimney?
My mind played all sorts of little film clips really quickly, trying to make sense of it, but couldn’t. What did it mean? Who could I ask? Should I tell someone, or not? Does it count as a secret? Should I phone the police? I decided I’d tell my best friend, Zoë, about it, and see what she thought. I bet she hasn’t got a corpse in her loft!
* * * * * * *
I was sitting, reading, when somebody else’s hand turned the page for me! It was a hairy, withered-looking hand, with long, yellow nails. My own scream woke me up. The thudding in my chest was so loud I though the house would wake up, but nobody moved. I wish they had woken up, my skin was all goosey, and I was scared. I pulled the duvet over my head, and closed my eyes tightly. I must have gone back to sleep, eventually, because next thing I knew Brenda was opening drawers and cupboards with her usual clatter.
‘Zoë, come over here, I want a quick word with you.’ I stopped, I was speaking like Frank! ‘Zo, quick, I need to talk to you before we go in. Let’s go over there for a minute.’
‘Hi, Amy. What’s up? You look a bit flushed! There’s no need to pull me, I’m coming!’
‘There’s a dead man in our loft! I don’t know what to do.’
‘Don’t be silly, Amy, there can’t be a dead man in the loft. Your whole house would be stinking and full of flies. I’ve seen films where they find bodies, and there’s always big bluebottles, and they use the larvae to see how long the body’s been dead.’
‘But I heard Frank tell Mum. He said they had uncovered a problem, there was a dead man and they had to move it.’
‘You must have misheard him. There can’t be a dead man in your loft. There just can’t. How would he have got there?’
‘Maybe he was burgling the house, fell and broke his neck, and just died. Nobody would look for him in our house, because nobody would have known he was there, would they?’
‘Noooo, no, I suppose that’s possible.’
‘Or maybe he was entombed, like the Pharaoh’s slaves were.’
‘That’s not very likely, is it? Though sometimes when old houses were built they used to put a small animal, or child, in the walls for good luck. But that was in really old houses, and yours is only about 200 years old. And I don’t think they did it with grown men, only children.’
‘The thing is, Zo, what do I do? Should I phone the police? Or will that get Mum and Dad into trouble? Even if I make an anonymous call, I’d have to tell them the address. Then when they come to the house they’ll hear my voice and know it was me sneaking on my parents. So that’s no good.’
‘I don’t think you should do anything yet, the bell’s about to go. Let’s go and line up, we can think about it in class, it’s art first lesson.’
‘You don’t think Dad could have killed anybody, do you? He does get very cross sometimes.’
‘Don’t be daft. Your dad wouldn’t kill anyone. Everyone gets angry sometimes, but we don’t go around killing people!’
The whistle silenced us, but my thoughts were still whirling round like Sher Khan’s eyes in the Jungle Book, making me feel dizzy. We muttered to each other while we painted, but Zoë didn’t know what to do, either. I decided that I would look in the loft when I got home, and see what I could discover before I did anything else.
* * * * * * *
Once I got home, I told Mum I had some homework to do, and went upstairs to my room. I could see Brenda and Chris out in the garden, Mum was in the kitchen, so it was all clear. I crept up the new staircase into the loft on tip-toe. I felt like a crime scene investigator, looking for evidence – I love all the CSI series. The afternoon sun through the new roof window made the loft space look golden, not like a crime scene. I sniffed the air deeply, but couldn’t smell anything rotten. Nor could I see any bluebottles, or any other sort of fly. I couldn’t see any little white maggots wriggling around, either, though I was quite glad about that. I can’t look at the TV screen when they show the maggots, and have to wait until Mum or Dad tells me it’s OK to watch again.
There weren’t any cupboards that might have hidden a body, and the chimney was quite narrow up in the loft, so nobody could have got in there. Where could this dead man have been found? Unless he’d hung himself, but I couldn’t see any hooks in the rafters above my head, just a few dusty spider’s webs, long since abandoned. And Frank said he’d uncovered a problem, but Daddy would have found a man just hanging there when he put the Christmas decorations away each year.
* * * * * * *
‘How’re the builders getting on with the loft, Mum?’ I asked when we were having our pizza, later.
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full, sweetheart, you know it’s rude. They’re getting on alright. They’ll be taking up the old boards and laying the new floor joists tomorrow.’
‘It’s odd having another staircase. The new banisters look really pale, like the ghosts of the other ones. Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to mention ghosts.’
‘Why on earth shouldn’t you mention ghosts? You know there’s no such thing, really.’
‘Well, yes, but after this morning …..’
‘After what, this morning? Did someone say something to you about ghosts at school?’
‘No. Sorry, I heard what Frank said to you. I wasn’t listening, I just heard him.’
‘Heard what, sweetheart? You’re not making much sense.’
‘I heard him tell you about the dead man, Mum. Then you went upstairs, and I didn’t hear any more. Was it a very old man? I’ve been thinking about it all day. Where did they find him? Where is he now? Will there be a post-mortem? Are we in trouble?’
‘Whoa, hold on!’ I couldn’t believe my eyes, Mum was laughing! ‘There isn’t a body in the loft, love, it’s not a real dead man.’
‘But Frank said …’
‘I know, I was confused too! Oh, you poor girl, worrying about dead bodies in the loft all day. Oh dear!’
‘Stop laughing, Mum, stop it!’ I was all mixed up. I was angry because Mum was laughing at me, relieved because there was no dead man, and embarrassed because I’d got something wrong, and, what was worse, told Zoe about it. I could feel my cheeks glowing, and my vision blurred. I sniffed, and stood up quickly to leave the room before anyone noticed.
Mum followed me out.
‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, I wasn’t laughing at you.’
‘Seems like it to me.’
‘No, I was laughing because I’d thought exactly the same as you! Who was he, what was he doing in our loft, how did he die?’
‘Well, it’s not funny.’
‘No, it’s not. Except that it is when you know what Frank was talking about.’
‘Why? What did he mean if he didn’t mean a real dead man, what other sort is there? A live dead man?’
‘No, come up to the loft with me and I’ll show you the dead man.’
‘I’ve been up there. There isn’t one.’
‘Oh, yes there is, come on.’ She took me by the hand and squeezed it. ‘Come on.’
At the top of the stairs Mum pointed to the other side. I couldn’t see anything except a couple of dirty cups next to a pile of bricks.
‘What?’ I asked, still a bit cross.
‘Do you see the bricks over there, like a little wall, under the long piece of wood?’
‘Well, that’s what builders call a dead man. A pile of bricks that isn’t actually a wall, it just supports the beam. And the beam supports the roof.’
‘But he said it was a problem.’
‘Yes, it is. He has to take down the bricks and replace them with a huge chunk of wood so that we can have a nice, neat wall across that end, otherwise it would have to have a kink in it. That’s what he meant. Frank had to bring me up to show me, just like I’m showing you, because I’d never heard of it either. So we’ve both learned something new. Now, let’s go and finish that pizza, shall we?’
* * * * * * *
I’m going to have to think very carefully about what I’m going to say to Zoe. Maybe I could pretend I knew all along, and was just teasing her.