Strange Neighbours Short Stories

 

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Description:

Strange Neighbours is a collection of ten illustrated fantasy short stories set in Cape Town, South Africa.

Meet a hitch hiking troll with a taste for pepper-spray and a homeless witch with a trolley full of secrets. Discover a book hoarding mermaid and a fridge full of frogs. And learn how to greet a witch ­ politely, of course.

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Strange Neighbours: A Sample

 

witch

Written and illustrated by Masha du Toit

Copyright 2011 Masha du Toit

 

In The Backyard

claw

 

The front door needed a shove to open it. The hallway was empty, without even a carpet to cover the floorboards. No dust either. The aunts had been thorough. Jan walked farther into the house, his footsteps echoing. Not bad. He liked these old houses with their high ceilings. The floors were shabby, but the Oregon pine would glow with new life after a sand and a coat of varnish.

The rooms were all scrupulously clean and quite empty. His aunts had relished telling him about the state the place had been in. His Great Uncle Martin had been a recluse for many years and left behind piles of hoarded possessions and moth eaten furniture shrouded in dust and cobwebs. Now there were no traces left of the former occupant.

Jan made his way upstairs. They creaked but seemed perfectly solid. He looked out of a window in one of the top bedrooms. The backyard was untouched by the aunts, who had not been able get the back door open. They had warned him: “He had it wired up like Fort Knox. You better bring a sledge hammer.”

Tall weeds had forced their way through the cracked cement. It was surrounded by high walls topped with long spikes and draped with coils of barbed wire. Not a friendly place.

He went downstairs again to the kitchen. Overall, he was quite pleased. He had not even known he had a Great Uncle until the old man died and left everything “to his nearest male relative.” An old-fashioned man, Great Uncle Martin. Luckily the aunts did not mind and their help in clearing out the old man’s possessions had been invaluable. There had been no hidden treasures, except, he supposed, the house itself. Quite a valuable property. Woodstock was “going up” and he would not struggle to find a buyer if he did decide to sell.

But he had not made his mind up about that yet. This would be a good place to live. There was plenty of space here to set up a workshop, and he could use one of the front rooms as a showcase for the furniture he made.

It took him a good half hour to open the back door, only to be confronted by the heavy metal grid of the security door. All the windows looking into the backyard were equally secure, covered in sturdy burglar bars. Even the upstairs windows. Uncle Martin seemed to have expected some very determined burglars.

The lock on the security door yielded at last, and the gate creaked and clanged as he opened it. Not much to look at, really. A shed on the opposite wall with some bits of rubbish lying about. It stank rather. A wet dog kind of smell, probably from a blocked drain. He brushed through the knee high weeds, intending to have a closer look at the shed, but halfway there he tripped over something. What the—?

There was a manhole cover set into the concrete. His foot had connected with a metal rod on the cover, fastened down with large metal bolts. Somebody had apparently been very serious about keeping that cover closed. But that must have been some time ago. The bolts were rusty and bent back and the rod lay loose.

Jan was not surprised to see the shed was locked, a security gate fixed over its door. The chances that anyone would be able to get into the backyard at all were slim and why go to all this trouble secure a shed? He had to try several keys, but that lock, too, yielded at last.

The inside of the shed was dark. It was a cupboard, really, with hardly enough room to stand in. And here at last were some traces of Uncle Martin. Tins of paint and engine oil were stacked in a corner and most of the shelves were filled with boxes and bottles. Jan read their labels: Blue Death. Die Roach. Doom. Cutworm Poison. Rattex. Garden Ripcord. Bexadust. Weed Killer.

He shuddered. He would have to dispose of this lot. How did one recycle poison? There was enough here to kill a small village. He was about to close the door again when something caught his eye. A glass bottle, quite old, with a hand written label.

He took it outside to have a closer look at it in the light. The glass was opaque and the neck stopped with a cork. The label was intriguing: Sleeping Draught.

And in smaller letters below that: Two teaspoons in a glass of beer. Effective for a day at least.

What was this? He knew you could use beer as bait in a snail trap, but then the snails simply drowned. Why put them to sleep?

And here was another mystery. In the corner was a heavy metal crate tipped up at one end, held by a short length of plank. Attached to the plank was a long, thin wire. There was a small pile of grass seeds just under the crate. A pigeon trap. Now that he thought about it, there was more than the normal amount of pigeon feathers drifted into the corners. Maybe Uncle Martin used to sit there, wire in hand, waiting for a bird to be lured under that crate. Jan shuddered and went back inside, taking care to lock the kitchen gate and door. He left the bottle on the window sill for later inspection and let himself out the front door.

-oOooOo-

The following morning, Jan was back with some bags for the poison. He looked with dismay around the yard. The shed door was wide open. Cans of engine oil lay scattered around and a can of paint had been upended, white paint pooling over the cement. He must have forgotten to lock the shed door and somebody had broken in during the night. But how had they got into the backyard in the first place with those vicious spikes on the walls?

He picked up one of the oil cans. It was partially crushed and there were several punctures. It reminded him of an orange, sucked dry and cast away.

Oh well. Not too much damage. And the boxes of poison were undisturbed.

Jan put on the gloves and mask and set to work, clearing the shelves of poison. It was several trips to the car before it was all loaded.

He took another look around the yard, his footsteps booming unexpectedly as he stepped on the manhole cover. The walls looked taller than ever. He could not imagine how anyone could have scaled them.

He had a close look at the back door and gate, but there were no signs they had been tampered with. Inside, Jan stood for a while at the bottom of the stairs, listening. The house was silent as always. He shrugged, annoyed with himself. Even if the burglar had got inside the house, he would be long gone by now.

Back in his car, he sat for a while, toying with his keys. There was something about that backyard that made him very uneasy. He looked absently at the neighbour’s wall. A tall wall topped with spikes. Nasty but necessary, he supposed. The spikes leaned outward to make it especially difficult for an intruder to scale.

He felt a shiver of unease. The spikes back there in Uncle Martin’s backyard pointed inward.

Keeping in, not keeping out.

Maybe nobody had climbed over those walls after all.

Jan got out of the car again and stood, looking at the house. Then he walked back up the steps to the front door. He thought about searching the house. Maybe there was somebody hiding in the cupboards, or under the floor. But he knew that would just be putting off the inevitable. Whatever he was looking for, it had to be in the backyard.

He looked out the kitchen window, but there was nothing to see – just weeds and concrete. The security door opened with its usual clang and scrape, and he tensed, ready to run back to the front door, which he left open in case he needed an escape route.

It was hard to walk across to the shed. This time he took care not to go near the manhole cover. It worried him. Why had it been bolted down and who had bent those bolts back to open it? The walls looked menacing, a prison and not a protection. That wet dog smell was stronger too. He reached the shed and unlocked its door. Empty shelves. Dust. And on the floor in the dust... He knelt for a closer look.

A footprint.

The hair on his neck rose and fear prickled down his spine. It was partially obscured by his own prints, but there was no doubt. It was large and whoever made it had not been wearing shoes. He forced himself to get up slowly and lock the shed. Then he circled back to the kitchen door, staying as far as possible from the manhole. The locks were stiff and loud, and when he finally got them closed, he leant against the door for a moment, catching his breath.

As he straightened, the bottle on the windowsill caught his eye. He picked it up and read the label again: Sleeping Draught.

Well, it was worth a try, he supposed.

-oOooOo-

The next day he was back just after dawn. Last night’s fears seemed absurd in the morning sunlight. The backyard had been very dark and full of little noises as the weeds rustled in the wind. He had been too nervous to open the security door, had reached through the bars to place the glass of doctored beer on the back door step. What exactly had he been afraid of? That footprint was probably just a chance pattern in the dust and there must be rational explanations for all the other things that had seemed so portentous last night.

He looked out the back door. The glass of beer was gone.

But maybe it had been blown over and rolled away, although he could not see it anywhere. He opened the security door. Nothing. The yard was just as he had left it. He stepped outside and walked quietly to the manhole cover. Then he crouched, listening.

There was something.

A soft sound, like stone rasping over concrete. A pause, and a soft rumbling purr. Again, the rasping whisper. Then the purr. In. And out. Something was down there.

And it was snoring.

Afterwards he shuddered at the chance he took. It was not that he was brave. Maybe he hoped to prove to himself that there was – after all – nothing down there. He grasped the edge of the cover and heaved. Then he stared at what was revealed below.

The creature was folded tightly into the space beneath the manhole cover, like a baby in its mother’s womb. Its legs were drawn up against its chest and its massive arms jammed against the concrete sides of the hole. Its head was tilted to one side, displaying the jut of its lower jaw and the jagged teeth nestled against its upper lip. Heavy brows twitched in a dream. Whatever this was, it was not human.

It stank too. Rank and heavy, a musty, acrid smell. Jan thought of the creatures from fantasy novels and Dungeons and Dragons games. Goblin. Troll. Ork. There was no doubt that it was real. The skin on its eyelids was delicate, translucent and it had pale, bristly eyelashes. An ancient mildewed jersey strained over the bulky shoulders. One great hand held the beer glass cradled under its chin. It stirred again and he sat back in fright. Okay. That was enough.

Jan lowered the lid softly into place. It was curiously difficult to close it over that sleeping being. How long had it been there, fastened into its concrete hole?

He walked quietly back through the house, locking everything securely behind him.

-oOooOo-

He spent the rest of that day trying to convince himself that the whole thing had been a mistake. It was a dream, a hallucination; there must be some reasonable explanation. He tried to find excuses to stay away, to avoid another trip to the house. But what then? He had to face it somehow. There was nothing for it. He would have to go back.

That night, he waited at the kitchen window, peering through the glass at the backyard. The glow from a nearby street light threw long shadows. The manhole cover was lost in the dark among the weeds. He could just make out the brown paper bag of roast chicken, lying where he had thrown it.

Jan settled down on the windowsill, resting his head against his arm. How long would he have to wait? His eyelids drooped.

Something clanged outside and he sat up with a start. Had he been asleep? He looked through the window. Nothing moved. No sound but the late night traffic on De Waal Drive. And then – just as he was about to relax – the scraping sound of metal on concrete. Something was moving out there. The manhole cover lifted.

Jan flattened himself against the wall. His heart was drumming in his ears, and he clenched his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. Something climbed onto the paving. It seemed very large, a shadow in the darkness of the backyard. There was an intentness, a purposeful intelligence in the way it moved.

Would it notice? Yes. It had its head thrust forward, swinging it from side to side like a sniffing dog. Then it took a loping stride and bent down to pick up the bag.

It stood there, that huge thing, looking down at the bag in its hands. Then the head came up and it stared straight at the window. For a long moment it stood, considering. Then it turned and moved ponderously back to its hole. It climbed in, hugging the bag to itself. A long arm reached for the cover and the creature shut itself back inside.

Jan sat at the window for a long time. He no longer felt the slightest desire to sleep. It was difficult to believe the sun would come up again tomorrow morning, that life could carry on as it always had. The house felt cold and empty and he reminded himself that he still had a home to go to. He got up with an effort and left.

-oOooOo-

He spent the next morning catching up on the work he’d been neglecting. There was a new client to meet and he had to deliver a set of chairs to a home in Newlands. It was a relief to be distracted from the thoughts keeping him awake for most of the night.

What was the creature and where did it come from? How dangerous was it? Its size alone was a threat, and he kept remembering those sharp, carnivorous teeth. How had Uncle Martin trapped it and why? How long had it been there and how had it stayed alive, shut up in that concrete hole, without food? Or had it been fed? What did it eat? And above all – what was he supposed to do now?

By lunchtime Jan had returned to his workshop. It was good to be back in the familiar surroundings, the smell of wood and linseed oil. He relaxed into the routine of his work, the methodical precision of measuring, cutting, fitting and sanding.

As always, the work calmed him. The slight roughness of the wood yielded to the bite of the sandpaper, a little smoother with each stroke. He allowed himself to remember the furtive way the creature had ducked out of view as though it did not want to be watched. The way it had stood clutching its brown paper bag. And how vulnerable it had seemed, curled up in its concrete nest. What would happen to it if it was found wandering on the streets of Woodstock?

He could not keep it captive, and he could not let it go.

Jan swept the wood dust off the long curve of wood he had been sanding. Maybe it was a mistake to think that there was a solution at all. But he could make some improvements. He could extend the shed, or replace it with something more cave-like. That seemed appropriate.

He stood back and wiped his hands on a soft cloth. Would it want to make a fire? And what about some kind of mattress? But it probably preferred to sleep on a hard surface.

Jan put away his tools and locked up his workshop, absorbed in his thoughts. On his way out to the car, he stopped and smiled.

“I bet...I bet he would like a radio.”

-oOooOo-