Violet pushed the key into the lock, wrestled with it for a minute, got the door open, and walked inside. Carefully setting her backpack and suitcase down on the cold stone floor she unwound her scarf and switched on the light. Three of the eight bulbs in the modern chandelier of wrought iron vines and flowers struggled into a half hearted glow, illuminating the smooth wooden furniture, desperately in need of a polish, and the off-white sofas with brightly coloured buttons that were surprisingly comfortable for something so stylish.
Violet stepped into the large, open plan, entrance hall slash living room and hung her dark blue school coat on the old fashioned coat stand which was one of the few antiques dotted around the otherwise fairly modern house. She leaned forwards to reach into its pocket and fish out large, flat, mobile phone, flip in the right way around in her hand in the quick, adept way of one who has performed the same task countless times a day, and nudge the lock button with a satisfyingly crisp click. There was a text from her housekeeper: ‘Running a little late. Your parents forgot to inform me of your school’s half term closure but their PA found the letter this morning and emailed me. If you’re hungry order a takeaway or warm up some beans. I’ll pick up food on the way.’
“Welcome home,” Violet muttered to herself and then shouldered her backpack and dragged her suitcase up the stairs, the wheels thumping petulantly against each step as she went.
She had expected little different and it had stopped hurting a long time ago but there was still something a little anticlimactic about arriving in an empty quiet house after a five hour journey in the backseat of her friend’s car with the other girl’s mother casting her infuriatingly sympathetic looks through the rear view mirror.
Her parents had important jobs, always dealing with business abroad or in a distant part of the country. Since she was little she had always been told by her nanny, Mrs Thompson (who was renamed her housekeeper when she became too old for such things) that her parents loved her very much and that they had to work away all the time so that they could give her all of the best things in life. Sure enough, when her birthday rolled around every year she would wake up to magnificent gifts and those gifts were always exactly what she wanted. During her obsession with the books of her childhood she had received a bespoke dollhouse depicting the home of one of her favourite characters. When she started school and discovered that the other children all had iPhone 3s and laughed at the chunky Samsung that she still owned she was given an iPhone 3G the day they were released. However it was the perfection of these presents that led her to realise, as she got older, that these may have been bought with her parents’ money, but they were chosen by her nanny.
When she was younger Violet had tagged along with Mrs Thompson’s earnest efforts to give her as much time with her parents as possible. She would wake up excited on the days that one of them was going to be back in England for work and would clutch the Christmas cards and hand drawn pictures of the three of them together to her chest as they drove to London to meet her mother or father during their lunchbreak.
However she soon learned that it wasn’t worth the effort and disappointment to sit with a distracted adult that she barely recognised, who thought that she was two years older or younger than she really was, didn’t know what sort of foods she liked and spent more time on their phone than off. Before long her nanny was dragging her along to these meetings and she would clutch her hand and hide her face from the parent who didn’t know her to save herself the disappointment of seeing glazed over eyes as they looked at a face that their brains hadn’t learnt to connect the essence of a person that they were at least fond of.
This was the reason why, for the past eight years, the now sixteen year old Violet had only seen her parents on the screen of a video call, once a year, to pretend to care how their day went on Christmas morning.
When she got her luggage all the way up the stairs and to the end of the corridor Violet flopped on the bed of a master bedroom that she had defiantly turned into her own as soon as she was old enough to realise that her parents were never going to come back and sleep in it. Heaving a huge sigh she decided that unpacking could wait. In fact, if she got things out only when she needed them and then when she was done with them put them away in their proper place she wouldn’t have to go to the effort of unpacking at all. This tactic would only work until Mrs Thompson got fed up of nagging her and put the contents of the bag away herself.
The phone, still in Violet’s hand, sung out a melodic text tone and she lifted it in front of her face without moving off her back. It was from a girl at school: ‘Me and Bella thought we’d do some research and see if we could figure out what your problem is but we’ve realised we don’t need to. Weird things just like you because you’re weird. There must be some sort of smell.’
She probably thought she was being witty and cutting but it was basically the teenage version of a child saying, “You smell” Violet just rolled her eyes and didn’t reply.
She decided to get up and have a shower. She wanted to wash of school.
As she grabbed a towel and dumped her uniform in the wash basket just outside her bedroom door the sound of footsteps started making its way up the stairs at the other end of the corridor. She ignored them, choosing instead to duck back into her room and close the door. Briefly considering pulling something heavy against the door she decided against it. If Mrs Thompson got home and found it like that she’d worry again and Violet had been careful to convince her that she had put all of that behind her.
She recognised the footsteps the same way you can always tell who is approaching from the sound of the familiar way someone walks up the stairs. Her invisible stalker had returned.
Telling herself the same thing she and everyone else always had: that it was just her imagination interpreting the sounds of a large house, she pulled the string to turn on the fan in the bathroom adjoined to her bedroom. The distant footsteps were drowned out. She shivered, the heating had been on low while she was away at boarding school and she had forgotten to turn it back up as she had been fully clothed when she arrived. The thermostat was at the bottom of the stairs and, real stalker or not, she felt nervous and exposed and decided against walking all the way down there without her clothes on so she just turned the shower up nice and hot and pulled the lever.
Water rained down from the bulbous metal head hanging from the ceiling while Violet wrapped her arms around her body, shivering more violently than before, as she waiting for the shower to warm up before she got in. It was a few seconds before she realised she had also forgotten to switch the hot water on. She reached through the column of cold water to push the lever back into the ‘off’ position and realised that the fan was no longer loud enough to cover the sound of advancing feet. They were now thudding dully, muffled slightly by the soft carpet of her bedroom.
Although it couldn’t possibly be loud enough to be heard over the humming extractor fan Violet imagined she could hear breathing on the other side of the door. She stared at the keyhole, skin crawling, the horrible idea of an eye peering through making her wrap her arms around her breasts in a protective pose. She was used to how this worked though. She would feel a presence and it would watch her until it got bored, then it would disappear. No harm done really.
It was with this in mind that she defiantly ignored it, turned away (discretely watching the door out of the corner of her eye), turned the shower back on and stepped into the cold water. She shied away from the freezing flow, goose bumps making her skin rough as she washed as quickly as she could, one eye always on the door, watching for the handle turning.
It wasn’t until she massaged shampoo into her scalp, bubbles foaming under her hands and slipping down over her face, that she was forced to close her eyes. She began to rinse the foam out of her hair and off her face as fast as she could but, as they always do, the bubbles multiplied with her vigorous rubbing, slowing her progress and obscuring her vision. Her ears became hyperaware, hampered as they were by the roaring of the water on her head. Pattering of water was the creaking of the door opening, splattering on the shower walls was footsteps getting closer.
Finally, only clear water ran over her face and she would soon be able to open her eyes against the irrational fear that another face would be right in front of hers.
A cold gust of air chilled her skin further and her heart thudded, sent frantic by both the cold shower and the fear that she was being watched. She opened her eyes. The door was open and her heart stopped as her stomach jolted.
The bathroom appeared empty though and so she switched the shower off suddenly enough for the pipes to thud, so she could listen. Nothing other than the fan could be heard this time though.
She stepped out of the shower and wrapped a soft large towel around herself, helping to still her shivering and restore some warmth. She was just beginning to calm down when she her bedroom door was flung open and she spun around, alarmed.
“This house is bloody freezing and the hot water isn’t even on. Have you had a shower in the cold?”
Mrs Thomas saw Violet’s stricken expression and her face softened.
“I’m sorry, did I make you jump, I suppose you didn’t hear me coming with the shower on,” she apologised, “you’re not getting nervous again though are you?”
She was referring to Violet’s invisible stalker as what it really was, paranoia, irrational nerves.
“No Mrs Thompson, you just made me jump because I’m not dressed,” Violet made herself smile which wasn’t too hard now the stalker was gone and the woman who had attended to her needs since she was a baby had appeared.
“I’ll go get the heating on.” Mrs Thompson walked away.
A little while later, Violet had finished her shower in the warmth, got some comfortable clothes on and was settling in nicely to her usual place on the sofa in the more pleasant of the two living rooms. The fright had settled down and she was bored. This was normal. There was nothing for her to do at home and at school she was surrounded by petty idiots. She only had one friend and that friend only put up with her because she was as much an outcast as she was after she had been involved in a scandal including rumours of what she may or may not have done with her boyfriend of only a few days. Amy had befriended Violet as she had seemed to be the only one that didn’t care and, receiving little warmth from anyone else, even Violet’s unpredictable and often moody temperament hadn’t been able to scare her off. However Amy couldn’t come over during the school holidays as her parents believed strongly in family time when she wasn’t at school.
So, as always, Violet had nothing to do. Life was a boring thing, always the same day after day, year after year. She had been going through the same cycle of feeling lonely at school and lonely at home and no one every acknowledging or encouraging her achievements.
Mrs Thompson leaned around the kitchen door. “Dinner will be ready soon,” she announced.
Violet nodded her head in an absent minded way. “I want a cat.”
Mrs Thompson recognised that her mind was elsewhere and laughed. “Well who will look after it while you’re at school, you can’t take it there?”
Violet thought for a moment. “Amy’s parents will take it.” She knew how they felt sorry for her and she had already heard too much talk about how much Amy loves the three cats she already owns so they probably wouldn’t even notice one more.
Mrs Thompson sighed and decided, “Fine, I’ll take you to the pet shop tomorrow.”
This was the difference between parents and staff. Parents would have seen buying a pet as a big decision but for someone who was just doing their job the cat wasn’t anything to do with their day to day life, only Violet’s. It was hard to put her finger on what exactly it was but this sort of indifference made Violet feel like no one was really fully invested in her the way family should be. She sighed and switched on the TV. She had a lot to catch up after putting up with a whole half term of watching TV shows dictated by the other girls at school.
Violet woke up to the sound of a whispered conversation. Seeing that she lived alone with Mrs Thompson this was unusual so she stayed still and kept her breathing even in order to listen.
The first one was a woman’s and she seemed to be in charge but the second voice was young and unsure.
“Soon, be patient. How would we explain it away if we did something now?”
“I just thought. . .I just thought. Well - it is dark.”
“And broad daylight makes it seem less suspicious. You’ve spent too much time skulking around in the shadows. Just keep your eyes open and I should be able to sort it out tomorrow.”
“Okay. . .okay.” The voice sounded disappointed and tense.
Violet listened hard in the silence for a while but heard nothing after that as though they had just vanished into thin air. Maybe they had; it wasn’t like they could be real after all. Exciting things never happened to her.
She dragged herself off the sofa upstairs to bed and dreamt of the shadowy figure of a girl stood at the end of her bed watching. It didn’t frighten her. These dreams never did. It was only what it happened in real life that it felt threatening. Maybe that was just her own perception.