Being alone at night is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the sudden knowledge that you are not alone. Someone breathes by my ear. He wears white.
I start awake to a series of short, high beeps, like a lorry reversing. Then it stops. The house is full of its slight, familiar night noise. The floorboards sigh to one another, releasing the heat of the day. From the attic comes a sound like handfuls of gravel landing on the ceiling. Old houses are never free of mice.
The beeping resumes. It has a nasal, piercing quality. I climb out of bed, protecting my injured arm. The batteries in the smoke alarm must have run down again.
I fetch the stepladder and find new batteries (in the knife drawer. Why?). The packet half torn open, neon pink price sticker peeling away. They’re the last ones. I hope they still work. I throw the packet in the bin.
When I’ve finished screwing the cover back onto the smoke alarm, night is running out and there’s pink through the window to the east. I sit at the kitchen table. I must get different stuff to clean the floor. This is too strong. Everything smells of disinfectant.
I eat apple pie from the fridge, handling the fork awkwardly with one hand. It is comforting. The sugar, the tartness, the pastry. I make a good apple pie, Robert always says so. I put the empty dish in the sink.
The accident unspools across my mind. The grey road, the plosive strike of rain on the windshield. The lorry, suddenly at our side, then in us, somehow. Everything went slow. Robert’s hand on mine. Mary. I heard him, even above the scream of metal and tyres. I was so afraid, not just for me but for him. Horrible, the chasms of fear that love opens up in you.
The dawn-lit kitchen is filled with birdsong. I open the garden door. Sun falls in, the scent of cut meadows and honeysuckle. I should go out. The grass would be dewy under my bare feet.
Something brushes my elbow. I turn and glimpse a figure in white fluttering cloth. It disappears down the cellar stairs. My heart pounds. I find a torch (in the china cabinet. Why?) and follow. The sweeping beam of light shows nothing but the detritus of family life in piles against the walls. Old board games, gardening tools. No white figure.
From upstairs, a sharp beeping. Those batteries must have been dead, after all. I curse and go up.
I check the cutlery drawer, just in case. There is a packet of batteries, half torn open, pink price label peeling away. I don’t understand. I check the bin. It’s empty. So is the sink. No empty pie dish. I go to the fridge. The apple pie is there, whole and inviting. “What is happening?” I whisper. Time shudders. I am in another place. Something is wrong with my body. It will not move. Robert’s hand is on mine, machines beep, and everywhere is the scent of disinfectant. “Mary,” Robert says. “Come back to us. Please try. I know you’re in there.”
Someone breathes by my ear. He lifts my eyelid. He wears white. I’m sorry, the doctor says to Robert.
Warm early sun falls into the kitchen, the scent of honeysuckle fills the air. The light in the doorway grows brighter, blazes up. I can’t see Robert but I feel his sadness. “It’s all right darling,” I say. “Shh. I’m just going into the garden. It’s a beautiful day. Back in a bit.”
Catriona Ward lives in London and Devon. Her debut novel, Rawblood, won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards; her equally chilling new novel, Little Eve (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), is about war, winter and secrets. Her Simple Pleasure is “holding my newborn nephew’s hand”.