1st place short story

 

Time was strange within and without the house of Aunt Krang. My father would drive us two hundred miles down there at least twice a year, never for Christmas, never in the summer, but every so often when there was a long weekend or half-term the obligation would seize him and he would load us into the gun-metal 2001 Civic for the big road south. And once we had reached the house of Aunt Krang it would feel like there had been only seconds or hours since our last visit, and the months that had elapsed, months in which we did our usual things – work, school, football practice, bickering over the TV, console games, chasing girls, camping on Malham Cove and Pately Bridge with my father and my uncles – all this real time seemed a frivolous prelude, gone in a moment, to our next stay at the house of Aunt Krang.

            Aunt Krang lived in a detached three-storey pile in a village of the West Country (for all the times I went there I never knew exactly where it was in terms of geography, somewhere near Yeovil or Weymouth or some shit, I tried to locate the village on google maps recently and could not) and being from the north I’ve forever thought of southern England through the prism of my experiences there when I was fifteen – that lengthy period after we left the motorway and my father drove us through endless sliproads past grain silos and fishery cranes, and the sun was always just beginning to go down, and Bonnie would be playing CandyCrush on her phone, her shoulderblade jarring into my side, my ass would have gone completely numb, and my dad could never quite remember which of these fucking country lanes led to the house, and the engine would be making that tick-tick-tick noise it got after a long time on the road, and a tension would rest and spread itself in the car’s compact atmosphere.

            On family holidays you expect to go for walks and to the zoo and things like that, but Aunt Krang didn’t like to go out: she had retired from the local authority on medical, due to some mysterious complaint of her legs, which she kept hidden under a long shawl thing, tied at the waist. Instead people came to Aunt Krang’s. In my memory it is a stream of vicars, farmers, shepherds, shopkeepers, hauliers, dairymen, handymen, local notables, lesser relatives, in and out of that house. A lot of the time it was impossible to sit down, many of the visitors had disabilities and clumped around on wooden shoes and prosthetics, there were always little kids running about (weird little kids, always very fat but looking somehow malnourished, some pouched weakness around the eyes and the neck, as if there were some unknown and essential nutrient that these children had been systematically denied) and many moments of awkward negotiation at the doorway that led to the hall and the little stoop between her kitchen and the front room.

There were always thick mugs of tea and coffee brought in on trays (the trays, teatowels and mugs were ordered from catalogues, elaborately painted and carved, or else bore messy, slightly creepy pictures by local schoolchildren) and always a great deal of food. The ceremony of the food was a hassle and a pain, it involved a lot of preparation and my sisters and I would hover in the kitchen while Aunt Krang busied herself and banged pots and refused all offers of help: she cooked a great deal, not just for family meals but for local occasions and farmer’s markets, which she never delivered personally to any of these occasions but had picked up by one of half a hundred droprounds. Sitting at the table, I always felt awkward, like I was being watched – to this day, I prefer to eat my meals in front of the TV.

Having said that, the food itself was awesome. Roasts, allotment vegetables, onion gravy, buckets of frothy soup, pigs in blankets, homebrews and Dunckerton’s cider and barley wines, treacle tarts, fruit salads, all manner of ices and compotes. It seems perverse in light of what happened, but if Aunt Krang cooked me a meal today, I’d eat the whole thing. And ask for more.

 

While all this was going on, Aunt Krang would be talking. She was quite close family to my dad, but she never asked how he or the rest of us were doing (and during the years of these visits my mum had a cancer scare, uterinal, my sister Kerri was hit by a car and spent six months on crutches, my dad was made redundant from the steel plant and ended up starting his own business, it’s not like there was nothing going on) instead she just talked about herself. Problems with her old job, problems with her leg treatment, local problems in the village – we must have had every damn detail of Aunt Krang’s bitter battles against GPs, specialists, occupational health therapists, council HR officers, council planning (they were going to put an Aldi in the village, of all things). She was one of these people who just liked to moan: any attempt to empathise with her or relate some similar experience was dismissed as interruption. Although she didn’t have much interest in the wider world – I never saw a book, magazine, smartphone, desktop, laptop, newspaper or a news broadcast in that house – she would extrapolate from her own troubles a conviction that the country was going to hell, that every reason to feel happy to live in this world was either compromised or stone dead. She would relate all this in a high, broken voice, and always at a politician’s volume. In fact that’s why we called her Aunt Krang, because her voice reminded us of the evil disembodied brain character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Bonnie came up with that, I think.

           

I suppose I’ve made our Aunt Krang visits sound absolutely hellish, and indeed I could have done without them. Teenage kids generally don’t like family occasions anyway (I think it’s only as an adult, when we mellow out a little, that we learn to take pleasure in these things) and it was strange, when time moved so fast for me back then, but slowed to near-stasis in that house, with its eerie, ground-in smell of sawdust and birdfeed and wet dog, and the clocks that clicked off the seconds ever so slightly out of time. But we were well behaved, and we had ways of coping. My sisters used to excuse themselves and walk around the village and smoke cigarettes, my mother would lock herself in one of the three spidery bathrooms with a glass of brandy and an Anne Tyler novel, and I had my crush.

 

For over the course of those visits I’d developed a compelling physical affinity for the two cousins that sometimes came round when we were at Aunt Krang’s. The cousins were sixth formers with cropped blonde hair and great legs under those odd, dark, hand-knitted skirts that all the women on that side of the family seemed to wear. Bennath and Bernadette were their names. I was reading Proust at the time – like so many teenage boys I was a terrible snob and compulsive onanist, although I was smart enough to conceal both things and appear the handsome, normal and accepted young man I’d hopefully one day become – and I spent much of these visits in carefully constructed fantasia where I fucked these two beautiful girls while describing aloud their attraction for me in a lengthy reverie styled on the French master. One year my sisters caught me in Aunt Krang’s outhouse, jerking off to a copy of Within a Budding Grove, and ridiculed me relentlessly for some time afterwards.

 

But these diversions didn’t end the feeling you got in Aunt Krang’s house, particularly when it was time to sleep, and the lights went out, and you were very much aware of being alone in the country, nothing to see but blackness and no sound except for my father’s breathing from a bed two feet away and the clocks that chimed off every hour in that slight, nagging discord. I was never afraid of the dark, not even as a very little boy, but Christ, if I ever did fear the darkness, it was then. It took a long time before I got to sleep, it felt for hours like I would never get to sleep, and suddenly I’d be asleep, and there were dreams – extraordinary, rich, clear dreams.

 

I had got out of bed and I was looking for the toilet. I didn’t feel like I wanted to take a piss but it was still very important to find the toilet. Where the fuck was it? I padded across the front room, the floor tiles were cold on my bare feet, and I looked down and realised that I’d never seen the floor before, the room had always been so crowded, and threaded and mortared amongst the pastel tiles were bloodied stumps of fingers, teeth with chunks of gum tissue frayed across the roots, and careless fragments of what looked like animal bone.

           

I left home at eighteen and I didn’t think of Aunt Krang again. Even when the news broke – just after the New Year this was – for me it was just another messy story and talking point, not connected to me or anyone else I knew, even when I found my dad with a whiskey glass in his hand at two pm and staring at some point below the coffee table in the house where I grew up. I did run into one of the twins, at a telecoms awards thing in the South Bank. She had to remind me who she was, she had changed so much – even that West Country accent, which made everything she said mysterious and impenetrable, had been buried or lost. We were very drunk and I don’t know how we got on to Aunt Krang.

‘I know exactly what you mean. When you heard about it’ – by this she meant the mispers from LAC homes, the connection finally stumbled upon, the forensic report on Aunt Krang’s village-fete casserole, leaked onto the Net, particles taken from the foundations, garden and drains that bore traces of human remains, human appendages, internal tissue, quantities of human remains – ‘it was just like a joke. Me and Bonnie were flicking through news feeds and it came on and we were like, wow, but like in a detached way – and then it like hit us, and we looked at each other, and said: Aunt Krang!’

           

           We were walking by the river by then, glasses in hand, me gazing at the billboard displays of colour near the bank – yellow, pink, orange, yellow again, some logo I couldn’t make out – and despite everything I said: ‘How’s Bennath?’

            She looked at me. ‘Oh, you didn’t know? The pasta bake she sent to the agricultural show? The one they had to like freeze and send to Special Branch? That was Bennath.’

Aunt Krang’s House by Max Dunbar

MMCF Writing Competition 2020