It was a dark place, a terrible, dark place of wooden planks, mould and metal bars. It stood, as older houses often do, staring defiantly down on the street with an angular scowl, menacing in its antique fury despite its scaled paint and drooping fly screens. This was not the exact description I offered to Miss Ratcliff, my teacher in the sixth grade, my gift with words still sopping with infancy, but the idea behind it was the same and the clodding wench hated it immediately anyway.
Miss Ratcliff was a brunette of diminutive stature with thin, stiff lips like two nails. I remember looking up her nostrils as she hovered over me and read my story. “So, this house is next door to Pizza Palace? In the middle of the city? ” she asked.
“Yes,” I said offering her an illustration. Looking through one of the windows was a stick figure I had drawn, which had a blank face and straight lines of ink for hair.
“And a witch lives there, you say. In this house.”
“Yes, I saw her. I mean, she seemed like a witch. I just looked through the window and saw her and-”
“You went on someone else’s property?”
“I didn’t mean to! She called me from the street. I was waiting for my dad to pick me up and then I heard her calling me from the window. She said she would show me some magic if I just opened the gate.”
“And from what you’ve written, I see she did show you some magic. Very imaginative. Here you say ‘The old lady had a grey face and pale, green eyes. When I opened the rusty gate, she laughed at me and pointed at my feet. It was then that I saw that the concrete I had been standing on was changing to grass’.”
“I think it was grass, it was soft and green, but it was dark, so I-”
“It’s not the fact that you are writing fantasy, Miles, when you’re supposed to be telling a true story from your holidays, I just don’t like what you’re writing about. It is quite frankly very disturbing. Especially what happens next.” Miss Ratcliff began reading:
“‘I tried to run but the gate shut behind me and I couldn’t see the street anymore. When I turned around I saw that the house had been transformed into a huge castle of black stone and the lady was standing right in front me. But she looked different, her skin was tinted and darker and her eyes brighter. I didn’t think she was old at all anymore. She was wearing a long back cape and looked like a witch’. I mean, really, Miles.”
“But it’s a true story, Miss, I-”
She cut me off with her hand. “No more, Miles. Now, either you write about something that happened in your school holidays, or I allow Mr Hogan to read your story. Do you think he is going to like it?”
Mr Hogan was the principal and was, among other nasty things, notoriously unsympathetic towards students. “No.”
“Well, let’s hear about what you really did during the summer break. Maraming Salamat!” I knew maraming salamat meant thank you because Miss Ratcliff had already written it on the board that day. She often mentioned to the class that she had earned her PhD studying the history of the Tagalog language in South East Asia, although she never offered an explanation of what a PhD was and seemed indifferent to the fact that a class of twenty or so twelve year olds were not at all interested.
So I resigned myself once more to pen a fabricated tale of when I went to the beach with my parents and had a picnic. I got a C and a comment from Miss Ratcliff in her scratchy hand – “A well-written but unoriginal essay. Overuse of the passive.”
That is when I stopped writing stories. I still recorded my ideas and the peculiar things I noticed, but never dedicated my full consciousness to the task and kept within the parameters of that which would not betray me as insane.
However the more my literary outlet became stifled the more my world became stranger. I began to see incredible and frightening things almost every day – things that seemed in their nature alien but yet somehow willfully annexed to the world around me, as if they’d always been there and until now no-one had noticed them. I tried to tell my dad about it, and, as you know, Miss Rattcliff, but I could tell they thought I was mad. I was not mad. I know it because I have seen mad people and they run through the streets naked and screaming or talk to themselves at busstops. I do not do this at all. So I soon learned that it was best if I kept my mouth shut about my experiences and told people what they wanted to hear. “Yes, it is a sunny day, Mrs Henderson,” never mind the multi-coloured spheres, which have been hovering over the town the past week. “Yes, dad, I’ll take out the garbage,” but only after the giant earth-worm-like monsters who are drinking from our swimming pool decide to move on.
It was a long time before I had the courage to return to the house next to the Pizza Palace. To be honest I don’t even know that I would have gone at all if dad hadn’t told me that he’d seen a for sale sign out the front. It looked the same as I remembered with the exception of the red and white for sale placard, which was nailed to a wooden stake and propped against the verandah wall; that and the old woman was nowhere to be seen. But I knew it was right to have come back, for somehow I had the feeling that everything had started there. Not just the strange things that I myself had seen, but everything.