All the odd things started to happen when Damon Ludwig moved in next door. Things at home had withered away into stagnancy. Nobody celebrated birthdays properly anymore, and Father was constantly in his study or making important phone calls. So when the Ludwigs moved in, and there was all that commotion outside, Laura darted out of her cold and empty house to investigate.
Everything was a façade. Their smiles were a façade, every time they opened the door to greet the outside world. Their speech was a façade, in its bizarre normality.
‘Pass the butter.’
‘Did you finish your homework, Tristan?’
‘Laura, let the cats out please. They’re doing my head in.’
‘Father says to please shut up, he’s trying to work.’
Such normal sentences, Laura thought to herself, in such an abnormal situation. Does life dissolve into normalcy after an integral piece of it has been painfully removed? And yet she carried on buttering her toast, and everybody else around the table carried on getting on with their days. What else would they do, though, really?
‘I don’t have a mother,’ was the first thing Laura said, the moment she clapped eyes on Damon. She sat calmly on the low stone wall that separated their front gardens. He stumbled up the front garden path to his front door, sweating under the weight of a massive crate, red-faced, only just noticing the small child with the wild chestnut curls and distinct little voice.
‘You what?’ he blew through his teeth, and dropped the crate onto the porch with a loud thump.
‘I don’t have a mother,’ she repeated, then offered to help him with the crate.
‘Nah, you’re alright.’ He waved her off, then bent to push it forward over the wooden floorboards of the porch until it was just inside the front door.
‘So what this about your mum then?’ he said, seating himself next to Lemara outside, as they both watched the moving men carrying in a grandfather clock between them.
‘She’s dead.’ Laura said, matter of factly.
‘Do you always introduce yourself by talking about your dead mother?’ Damon asked bluntly. Then he held out a brown paw, his fingers were dirty and dotted with tiny scabs and scratches.
‘Damon Ludwig.’ He said. She shook his hand.
‘Laura,’ said Laura, ‘I’m ten.’
‘Well hullo Laura who’s ten.’ Damon laughed, jumping off the wall and walking down to the lorry, where a man who looked very like him was emerging with a cardboard box.
‘Sorry about your mother,’ he threw over his shoulder. The sun threw dappled rays over Damon’s shock of black hair; he was wild and brown, an exclamation mark of a human. Laura watched him darting in and out of the lorry, lugging things to and fro, leaping down the porch steps and cartwheeling back to the lorry to get more things. She wanted to get up and dance around too. But she sat quietly and watched them slowly turn the empty house next door into a home. Men came in and out, carrying chests and mattresses and rugs. Curtains went up in the empty windows as the sun sunk lower and lower in the horizon, a great big orange orb, its edges wavy as it hung between the hills in the distance. Warm golden lights lit up the house next door one by one, a golden palace next to the drab darkness looming up behind Laura’s back. A cold breeze made the roses Mother planted in their front garden nod at her, as though they were telling her to go indoors. She wasn’t ready yet, to go indoors.
Everybody cried at the funeral. Alex with her black dress that was too tight around her blooming chest, her arms halfway out of the full length sleeves. Laura secretly thought she looked stupid, but so pathetically stupid with her puffed up face and tear stained cheeks that she felt sorry for her. Tristan blond curls had been attacked with a wet comb, by Aunty Nora no doubt, and he sat demurely in a corner in his little black suit, sniffling over a sausage roll, his fat cheeks soaked with tears. George stood with Father by the door, almost as tall as Father now, hugging people and nodding sadly at their quiet condolences, his eyes wet and desperate. He was looking into their faces as though they would resurrect her with their sympathy. Laura knew better. What did they know, any of them? What did they know about the gaping hole in her chest that she tried to fill with pastries and devilled eggs. They hugged her and told her she was a poor thing to lose her mother at only eight years old. She ate and ate and ate until she felt quite ill, then fell asleep in a corner, her hole still as wide as before, a gaping abyss in her chest. And not once did she cry.
The first odd thing that happened, of course, was that Laura stopped growing. It didn’t happen right away, though. The Ludwigs settled in first. Damon and Mr Ludwig built a shed at the bottom of the back garden for Damon’s workshop. He made the beautiful wooden patio rocking chair that Mrs Ludwig put outside her back garden French windows. Mrs Ludwig called it her ‘forty winks chair’, and brought it inside when it rained. It sat in her warm and cosy kitchen throughout winter, and Laura spent many an evening in it as she watched Mrs Ludwig potter about her kitchen preparing dinner for her family. She never stayed for dinner when they asked her, though. She always said,
‘No thank you, Mrs Ludwig. George will be looking out for me.’
That was a lie, though. George stopped looking out for her a long time ago. Sometimes Alex would look out for her and give her a scolding for staying at the Ludwigs’ for too long. She would shove her down at the table and dump a cold plate of something congealed on the table in front of her. George, however, was generally nowhere to be seen. Mind you, he was working double shifts at the shoelace factory in the next town. He had to catch early buses, and generally left the house while it was still dark and everybody was fast asleep. He returned home long after sunset, and quite often missed his bus and had to catch a cab home. He started smelling of cigarettes and sweat, and on his late-missed-the-last-bus days Laura steered well clear of him because his mood was appallingly sour.
Extract from the book I am writing.