2017 Short Story Competition Winner

“Baby’s Day Out” by Emma Parfitt

“Let’s go see this one,” said the girl, thrusting her phone into the eyeline of the man in bed next to her. She tapped the gleaming screen with an elegant nail: filed to a narrowly rounded point, a deep burgundy. The man set down his newspaper on the plump bedlinen and refocused through his silver-rimmed glasses.

“This one,” the girl insisted, shaking the phone a little.

“Which one,” he muttered, taking the device and scrolling. “They all look wretched.”

“Kildare Terrace,” she said. “Top floor.”

“It’s auction, Gins. It’ll be bombed out.”

Ginny pushed back the bedcovers and bounced on the mattress, letting the springs launch her into the room. She padded to the bathroom on slender feet. The man, Henry, watched the lace of her violet slip swish around her thighs.

“Where are you going?” he whined, boyish. She tossed her dark hair and kept moving. “It’s our lie-in,” he pleaded.

“There’s a viewing this morning. You have to go when they show these things,” she said, melting into the white-tiled cavern. Her voice floated out in delicate bubbles. “I could get more for my money.” He cocked his brows and returned to an article on the new Mercedes S-type. “I could tart it up,” came another bubble. “It might be fun. And I could get something in a better area.” She emerged, ponytailed.

“Baby,” Henry said, lowering his paper once more, “are you sure you want the hassle?” She crossed her arms. “People can really get screwed at auction.”

“They give you time to check it out,” she said. “If it looks good, I’ll go back with a surveyor.” The polished floorboards creaked as she walked over and settled onto the bed, duvet pouffing round her hips like a wedding gown. “Do you want to come?” she asked, stroking his tufted hair and tucking a lock behind his ear. He pursed his lips and frowned.

*

Outside, spring sun glinted off Chelsea’s gleaming windows. Ginny lifted her face to the bluebird sky and set out in the direction of Hyde Park. It was inevitable, given her budget, that she’d have to do something up, so she may as well go for a deal. If only she had a hundred grand more, or two hundred, ideally. But all she had was what her parents were giving her for now.

It took an hour to reach Kildare Terrace and, despite arriving a little early, she could see loiterers – the competition – eyeing the roofline of the Georgian row, everyone maintaining a discreet distance. Ginny followed their lead, standing back against the railings on the opposite side of the road and appraising the building, number forty-two, as if she knew what she was doing. The houses had good bones, she could see that, but some had grown shabby, white paint flaking off the façades like abandoned stage sets. Still, a good-sized flat on the top floor, in the heart of Westbourne Grove, could make a nice little investment property: a tasty rental, or an acceptable backup pad if things went awry with Henry.

A man with unruly facial hair and a clipboard traipsed down the street and pushed open the gate. Those lingering along the pavement surged after him, and Ginny hurried across the road to plunge with them through the entrance. The man – auction agent, she assumed – jangled a keychain at the head of the stampede and grumbled directions to the top floor, unlocking the door and standing aside.

Three flights with no lift was a bit of a workout, but Ginny supposed it was all good exercise. You’d have to be fit, living at the top. She could tart it up and rent it to a young professional, a city type. Maybe a trendy twenty-something (like herself until recently; no longer in that category as of a few months ago). She smiled ruefully to herself, clutching her handbag a bit closer as the hordes huffed up the stairs.

A chipped green door on the second landing opened to a private stair, narrow and vertical, making Ginny feel as if they were ascending to an attic. She could hear less-than-promising murmurs as people at the top entered the flat, from which drifted a stale, musty odour. The pace slowed at the bottleneck – how were all these people supposed to fit up here? – and Ginny felt a moment of panic as she crested the final stair, stepped into the debris of the hall and sensed the scores of people pressing behind her.

Quickly, she stepped over some piles of clothing – sweatpants and tatty kit, crusted balls of fabric like exhumed artefacts – and darted toward the nearest pocket of space, into a corner of the living room. The place was a bomb site, like something off the news or a film about junkies. Ginny stared at the mounds of clutter, heavy sweaters heaped on the floor like sodden dog carcasses slung alongside little girl’s dresses. Special Brew cans were strewn amid broken furniture, brown-rimmed tumblers and the charred ends of rolled cigarettes. Colouring books, one Sleeping Beauty and one Cinderella, lay open on the floor, their empty black-and-white outlines awaiting crayons. A stray DVD, Baby’s Day Out, goofballed incongruously amid the broken glass.

“This is why your mother always told you to clean your room,” said a man in a cheap suit, catching Ginny’s shocked eye as he picked his way past. She shrugged mutely. She couldn’t begin to comprehend what was behind such a dumping ground, or what had caused it to be abandoned in such a state.

Right, she thought to herself, kicking into gear. Look past the rubble. Although the angled ceilings of the top floor might cause the space to seem cramped, with the debris cleared out it could look cosy, perhaps even gain a bohemian charm. It was a decent size, at least. Picking her way out of the living room, Ginny poked her head into the dank bathroom and tugged at the dangling cord.

“Doesn’t work,” said a man at her shoulder. Despite the dimness, Ginny could see the peeling mastic and speckles of black mould growing around the bath. The floor, bathtub and even sink were littered, only here there was a disturbing amount of medical detritus: paper bags bearing pharmacy stickers, drug cartons, even empty syringes. No way she’d be clearing this lot out herself. She peered at the nearest pharmacy bag: Patrick Grady, she read. Procarbazine. She wrinkled her nose and backed out.

The rest of the flat was no different. Mouse-brown mould furred a plastic tray of crackers in the tiny kitchen. A sunken double mattress occupied most of the bedroom, where wind rushed in through the cracked window. TV aerials waved on the roofs outside. Not quite the rooftops of Paris, Ginny thought wryly.

It was beyond a cosmetic fixer-upper, but even with the need to pay for some help and essential refurbing, Ginny knew she’d never land a flat on the regular market in prime – or very nearly prime – West London at anything like the price. Looking past the chaos, she imagined the flat clean, repainted, airy: a bohemian retreat or an artist’s garrett. Somebody’s home.

“Excuse me,” she said to the milling crowd, turning to push against the tide still flowing into the room. Carefully she made her way back down the steep stairs, then took them two at a time as the stairwell widened, bounding down in search of the agent.

*

“Is all done,” said the burly workman, hoisting up the waistband of his canvas trousers. His colleague, dark-haired and narrow-eyed, lounged against the side of the skip she’d hired, which now brimmed with the last of the flat’s junk. Ginny thumbed through the cash she had ready and handed over a neat stack of notes.

“Thanks so much,” she said, eliciting a grunt. Polish, she supposed. The second one hadn’t spoken at all, but at least they’d done the job swiftly. She was glad to have the flat cleared out so she could finally set foot in the place and get to work on it. Henry had objected to her tackling the job herself but, beneath his protests, she could tell he was quite proud of her for rolling her sleeves up.

Birdsong rippled between the treetops; it really was a pleasant street. Ginny allowed herself to enjoy the chattering for a moment, then shut the door and made her way back up the stairs. What a difference, she thought, stepping into the newly cleared space of the flat. She unpacked and piled tins of paint, brushes and trays in the middle of the living room. The flat sat quiet and still, walls blank canvases. Ginny shook out a drop cloth and draped it over the mute television.

Opening the window took a few firm shoves but she managed to swing it wide, allowing in a cool gust of air. She couldn’t hear the chirping from up here, but she’d brought a radio. Plugging it into the wall, she drew out the slim silver telescope of the antenna and twisted it this way and that, finding only static. Damn, she thought. Rubbish reception.

She gave up fiddling with the dial after a few minutes and turned to the paints, cracking open a fresh tin of Chalk Dust. She broke the creamy surface of the paint with a wooden spatula and slowly stirred, luxuriating in its unblemished glossiness.

Painting was indeed hard work. Ginny’s shoulders ached after coating a single wall and without the distraction of music she quickly felt restless. Deciding she would make some lunch after finishing half the room, once she completed the task she left the paint-clogged roller in its tray and went to wash her hands.

The bathroom light had yet to be fixed. In the dusty light that crept in from the neighbouring rooms, Ginny ran her hands beneath the spitting faucet. It belched rust; she could smell it, faintly metallic. The spitting became a gurgling stream and, just as she turned the water off, it sounded for a second almost human, spluttering out in an echo of a girlish giggle.

Ginny froze for a moment, listening, then shook off the impression. Silly. In the kitchen, she unpacked a plastic tray of sushi and arranged it on a plate, carrying it into the empty bedroom to eat away from the paint fumes. She set herself up on the floor, picnic-style, and dipped a pink-and-white finger of salmon nigiri into a shallow bath of soy.

As she ate, she couldn’t help picturing the room in its previous incarnation: clogged with debris, the filthy mattress, plastic toys gasping from beneath mounds of abandoned clothes like sad sea-life breaking through polluted waters. The air was still dense with motes. What on earth happened here, Ginny wondered, for a place to end up like that? In such a nice street, too. At first she’d thought someone must have died – especially given the medical debris – but Henry had told her that people on benefits, housing assistance and so on, sometimes failed to pay their subsidised rent and were eventually kicked out. That was probably it.

Somewhere across the rooftops, she could hear a child calling, “Mum! Mum!” In fact, it sounded quite close by. Perhaps next door. A girl’s voice. And then, as if right beside her:

“MUM!”

Ginny leapt up in fright and swung round, scattering splinters of rice. The room was empty. But the voice had boomed right in her ear; she hadn’t imagined it. It had been there, in the room, right next to her.

She ran to the window and peered between the cracks, scanning the windows across the peaked roofs for signs of a wailing child. Pushing at the stiff metal handle, she tried to open the window to get a better look at the neighbouring buildings, but it refused to budge.

She turned back to the room. All was silent. She must have imagined it. I’m going mental, she thought, shaking her head. It’s just too quiet. Must sort the radio out.

Cautiously, she gathered up the remains of her lunch and picked rice shards out of the carpet. She took a few slow breaths to calm down but the flat now felt oppressive. It’s just that the place is unfamiliar, she told herself. My brain’s acting up.

Still, she felt shaken. Returning to the living room, she stood near the window to call Henry. Her phone flickered in and out of service; she leaned out and waved the phone in the air to catch a better connection. His number began to ring, but the sound broke into an irregular crackle.

Henry answered. “Hi sweetheart,” he said, voice muffled. Then something about a meeting.

“Hen?” Ginny said. “Babe? Can you hear me? You’re cracking up.”

“… can’t… Dinner? How… men… flat?”

“There’s no connection up here,” Ginny sighed. “Hen? I can’t stop thinking about the state this place was in. It’s messing with my head. Do you think there’s some way I could find out what happened?”

“I… look… get a…”

Beep beep beep

“Damn,” Ginny muttered, staring at the blinking screen. She looked around at the room: half cold white walls, half scuffed and stained. Perhaps white was a mistake. She could have gone with something warmer – Pigeon’s Breath, maybe. Or perhaps doing the place up herself was a mistake. She couldn’t afford the whole thing to go wrong.

Leaving the phone on the windowsill, she returned to the paint tray, crouched over the pot and stirred the pasty gloop once more. She’d finish the room, then maybe later talk to Henry about getting a bit of help. She could still come along to supervise and do a few things, but get some other people to do the heavy lifting, so to speak. What was she trying to prove, anyway? She rolled the ache in her shoulders. Plus, she probably shouldn’t spend too much time away from her studio. She had a jewellery business to maintain after all.

Getting back into the rhythmic stroke of the roller up and down the walls, each glistening swipe erasing the smutty marks and blotches, Ginny fell into state of mindless absorption. By mid-afternoon, the room’s first coat was finished, the tin of paint almost empty. She stood back to survey the work. The room looked cleaner, brighter.

A spot towards the corner, shaded from the light, caught her eye. It looked like she’d missed a bit. She edged round the covered television and bent down to peer at the smudge. Reaching out a finger, she scratched at it lightly. At first it looked pinkish, but then it almost seemed to be darkening the longer she peered at it in the dim light. Looking closer, Ginny saw it wasn’t a smudge, but whorls of thin lines. Little circles. Like a fingerprint.

She frowned and shook her head, straightening up. Stop this. Creeping herself out again. She grabbed the roller and returned to the spot, quickly whiting it out. The thin veil of paint failed to cover it completely; in fact, looking around, she could still see the shadows of the old marks starting to show through as the paint dried. But that was what a second coat was for, she told herself. You can’t do just one coat.

Feeling tired and edgy, she decided to call it a day. As she tidied the remains of the paint, Ginny became aware of a softly crackling sound, an odd static. She straightened up and went to the window. When had she closed it? She couldn’t remember. On the window sill, her phone’s screen remained black. The day outside had dimmed to a dull grey. She could just see, through the gaps between the buildings, the leaves of the treetops in the street rustling, dancing in the breeze.

A noise snapped on in the flat: a cacophony of baby gurgles, men’s voices, raucous surround-sound. Ginny darted from the window. The television was on. She snatched off the cover sheet to see a movie playing on the screen: a baby crawling down a New York street, mafia goons in hapless pursuit. Was that Joe Mantegna? What the hell, Ginny panicked, looking around for the controls. The volume surged to full blast. Then she stopped and stared back at the screen, realising the television was not plugged in.

Fighting rising terror, Ginny reached out to hit the power button on the television frame. The caper played on: Baby’s Day Out. With a sob, she backed away and ran to the kitchen to grab her handbag, then back to the living room to recover her phone. If anything, the volume was getting louder. The walls – the smudges, the marks, the blotches were back, darkening, reappearing through the sheer white. She could hardly breathe; the air was musty again, as it had been before. She ran to the front door.

“Mum, don’t leave me!”

Ginny sobbed, tugging at the door. It was stuck. Again, the girl’s voice, mingled with the noise from the television: “Mum, don’t leave me!” Was it coming from the television? But it sounded different, present. Real.

Get out get out get out, Ginny’s brain raced as she tugged at the door. Where was the key? Where the hell was it? She must have locked herself in. She rummaged wildly through her bag, found the heavy keychain, and, shaking, fit the key in the lock. The lock, though, was already open; the key could turn no further. Yet the door refused to budge.

“MUMMY DON’T LEAVE!”

Ginny whirled around, and screamed.

*

The auction agent scratched his day-old stubble and checked his watch. First showing of the day; better get on with it. He vaguely remembered showing this flat before: a dump, apparently proving hard to shift. He walked to the wrought-iron gate and surveyed the smattering of viewers: cheap suits, sharp-eyed hustlers, a few incongruous young women. The usual mix.

“Ok,” he called out. They hurried towards him from the pavement in a pointless race, keen to be first but stopping just short of shoving. He walked back to the front door and pushed it open, standing aside to allow the hordes to stream past. “Top floor,” he said as they passed. “Straight up.”

The last one entered and the agent shut the door behind him, following up the stairs. The place was a mess, as they often were. Inside the flat, the viewers picked through the rubble. This one was particularly bad, he had to admit.

“Jesus,” he heard one man mutter. “Like a crack den.”

The agent waited by the door, letting the crowd weave round the piles of rubbish: abandoned clothes, furniture, all kinds of junk. Some poor kid’s toys, for christ’s sake. From his post he could even see, in the gloom of the bathroom, needles and empty (he presumed) packets of drugs.

The punters pushed their way through quickly, then made a trickling exit, pausing the ask the usual questions on their way out. No, he didn’t know the history; the particulars were on the website; it was cash only, ten percent on auction day then completion a few weeks later. Probably fetch a tidy rent, round there. After a clear-out.

As the crowd thinned, the agent watched one of the flashier punters pause to peer at the mounds in the living room. “Baby’s Day Out,” murmured the man, indicating the abandoned DVD to a young woman edging past.

“This must be where John Hughes movies go to die,” he joked. The woman grimaced, a look of mock horror. She gave a tinkling laugh and quickly sidled towards the exit, like the others.

One thought on “2017 Short Story Competition Winner

  1. Loved this! Really sucked me in. Esp liked evocative phrases like the “pink and white fingers of salmon nigiri.” Like more literary Stephen King 🙂

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