The Death Cupboard

Why is the cupboard in Janie’s new house painted shut, and why does her flatmate calls it the death cupboard? (12 minute read, 2,342 words).

First nights with new flatmates were always awkward. Janie watched as Genevieve squirmed under her boyfriend’s weight, sitting on the other side of the small kitchen table. The boyfriend didn’t look heavy at least. He was all angles. Even his smile was a big crooked angle, and his head was tilted at one as he watched Janie, like a bird watching a worm.

Finally the boyfriend stood up and reached both hands above his head in an exaggerated stretch. He smiled at Janie and brushed past her without saying anything. The linoleum made a sticking sound as he walked out of the kitchen. He yelled back from the hallway “Welcome to the love shack Janie”.

Genevieve cringed and mouthed “sorry”.

“It’s okay” Janie said, “He’s nice”. As soon as she said it she realised she didn’t mean it. He was horrible.

“Don’t worry, he’s not here all the time. I go to his place. So mostly you’ll have the house to yourself. Or just us two”. 

Genevieve smiled and her face looked genuinely warm, like she wanted Janie to feel at home.

Janie let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. She hated moving. She hated getting used to new houses and people and smells. But Genevieve seemed okay. 

They sat in silence for a minute. Janie enjoying Genevieve’s smile and the quiet of the room. Genevieve enjoying her boyfriend not being there probably, Janie thought.

“What’s behind that door” Janie asked, pointing towards what looked like a broom cupboard next to the sink.

“Ah that. We call it the death cupboard. It doesn’t go anywhere,” she let out a little laugh. 

For some reason, the door was painted over. The handle, the old fashioned keyhole and the crack between the door and it’s frame were all covered with paint. You wouldn’t get that open unless you pried it open. It was the architectural version of one of those frustratingly useless mock pockets on the front of women’s jeans. stitched up to prevent you from actually using them. Janie hated those jeans. And she hated the death cupboard too. She didn’t know why, but she knew she did.

The golden light from the street lamp outside the window cut a beam across Janie’s arms, over her hands that were nervously running over each other in a polite clump on the table, and  just reached the bottom of the lemon coloured door, wedged between the wall and the kitchen sink.

“Tea?” Genevieve asked.

Janie nodded, still gazing at the lemon coloured door to the cupboard that led to nothing, but that was painted over for some reason.

Genevieve sat both her hands over Janie’s fidgeting ones. They were warm, like a blanket.

“The death cupboard thing. That’s just a joke. It’s just a bit creepy is all. There’s no floor in the cupboard. There’s just a drop straight down, all the way down to wherever. The basement probably. That’s how the hot water gets to all the apartments. It’s a cavity that runs down from the heaters on the roof, through all the units.  I don’t know why they put a door there. I think every flat has one. We’re all connected by our death cupboards.”

++++

It took Janie a long time to fall asleep that night.She kept nearly drifting off and then just as she was falling into that never space of unconsciousness she would hear a sound, a rumbling, coming from somewhere in the brick belly of the building, and she would be awake again. 

She couldn’t stop thinking of the column of shadow running down the spine of the unit block. There’d be spiders in there, she knew there would be, big hairy ones probably. Kept warm from the water flowing through the pipes, safe from the spray and thwacking shoes of all the unit residents, locked away behind their death cupboard doors.

If Janie did fall asleep she mustn’t have dreamed anything because the next thing she knew she was awake again. Eyes wide open. Staring up at the single green dot of light of her smoke alarm. With no moon outside and no street lights on her side of the flat she could only see the faintest outline of trees and skyline through her bedroom window.

There was a sound. That’s why she was awake. It took her brain a moment to register what it was. A baby crying. At first it seemed far away, but also perfectly clear. Like it was somehow in the far off distance but also right here beside her in bed at the same time. 

She lay in bed listening to the baby crying and thinking about jeans pockets that didn’t work and cupboard doors that didn’t open and feeling something like a closed door, a constriction, in her chest. 

She slipped out of bed and walked to her window. She opened it, feeling stuffy and claustrophobic in the room. An icy cold draught of winter air filled spilled over her. The crying didn’t get any louder. It must be coming from within the block. She fished a pair of tracksuit pants off the floor, hopped up and down on one foot and then the other as she wriggled into them. She wandered out into the hallway.

Janie followed the sound of the baby into the kitchen and fumbled for the light switch. She closed her eyes as she turned it on. When she opened them, she jumped as Genevieve’s boyfriend appeared in the light, sitting perfectly still, as if he had been waiting for her. 

As soon as she saw the boyfriend she knew she was dreaming. A nightmare. He was sitting in the same chair, in exactly the same position as earlier that night. But Genevieve wasn’t underneath him any more. Instead he was floating a foot above the seat. Awkwardly suspended.

Apart from the impossible levitation, she knew it was a dream because his smile was too big. It was wider at the edges than in real life. It looked like if he opened his mouth too wide that the top of his head would hinge backwards like a jewelry box.

Maybe he knew about the precarious situation his head found itself in which is why he only opened his mouth wide enough for a whisper to come out when he spoke.

“The only way out is in”

A car drove underneath the window and it’s headlights lit up the corner of the room for a moment.

“What?” Janie asked, although she had heard him fine. Nothing was too far away to hear in her dream. All the sounds layered perfectly without crossing each other out. The breeze still rustling into her bedroom, the baby crying, the boyfriend’s whisper.

“The only way out is in” he said again.

He held up his hand and showed her the butter knife he was holding. It had something stuck to it. Bits of paint. Janie looked at the death cupboard door and saw that the paint had been cut away from the edge. There was nothing stopping her from opening it now.

The baby still kept on crying. It was closer in the kitchen. It was coming from inside the death cupboard.

The only way out was in. Cryptic, but she knew what he meant. This dream was like a carnival ride. There was no way off until it finished. She needed to get to the end to wake up. She had to find the baby.

Her heart hammering in her chest Janie reached for the death cupboard door knob. She could hear the baby taking great ragged breaths between each wail. She tried to picture a baby stuck down there in the gloom amongst the bricks and the pipes, cuddled up with spiders and roaches. She started to feel nauseated.

Quickly so she couldn’t think about what she was doing and chicken out, Janey grabbed the door handle and yanked it open. She could see the glint of bronze from the piping against the brick wall at the back of the cupboard. But between her and that glint was a churning blackness. She could hear the child crying now as clear as day, hear its voice echoing up out of the cold pit of the void.

Janie peered down over the edge of the cupboard into the darkness. Her knees felt wobbly and the nausea that had started in her gut now coursed through her body. All of a sudden she felt very tired, and the blackness below her looked strangely inviting.

What would happen if she just let herself lean forward a little bit more, if she just let go of the door frame, if she let herself slip and fall. Janie closed her eyes and at the same time tried to stop thinking about falling down, down, down through a hundred meters of blackness into the chasm, into the sound of the wailing baby. Her mind kept playing it over like a song on repeat. like running her tongue over a blistered gum. And then she stopped imagining and she fell.

Janie’s heart exploded into her mouth. She arched her back and woke up screaming, and shaking. Genevieve was shaking her.

“Wake up. Wake up.”

Genevieve was sitting on the edge of her bed, leaning over Janie, her forehead wrinkled with concern.

“You were having a nightmare, I assume. Unless you usually scream in your sleep” she said, and gave Janie a smile.

Janie’s heart was still racing. Her skin felt clammy. It was warm in her room, the window was shut. There was no cold breeze. There was no baby crying. She’d known it was a dream, but the crossover back into the world of the living was still unsettling.

“I’m okay,” Janie said. She meant to sound casual, but the voice that came out of her was cracked and hoarse.

“You sound great, ” said Genevieve, “Why don’t you come sit up in the kitchen with me for a minute. Have a cup of tea. Clear your head.”

“Your boyfriend was in it,” Janie said.

Genevieve raised her eyebrows.

“Oh not like that!” Janie said quickly,  “Not… like that. It was weird, like things are in dreams.”

“Was he being an idiot,” Genevieve asked?

Janie pressed her lips together, not sure how to respond.

“Yeah” she said and they both laughed.

They walked into the kitchen, which thankfully was empty and quiet. There was no levitating boyfriend. The cupboard door was painted shut. Janie sat down at the kitchen table while Genevieve made the tea.

Janie didn’t want to relieve the details of the dream. Genevieve’s boyfriend had been so creepy in it. She didn’t want her new flatmate to think she was crazy, or that she hated her boyfriend.

“It was about the death cupboard,” Janie said “the dream I mean. I opened the door and… it’s hard to explain. But I ended up falling down into it. That’s when I woke up. When you woke me up.”

“Sounds like a pretty awful dream,” Genevieve said. She placed a mug of tea in front of Janie and sat oppositE her. Janie wrapped her hands around the mug, feeling the warmth permeate through the palms of her hands. Trying to take it inside of her.

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on that warm feeling. She wanted to feel comforted. By her new flatmate who was so kind, and by the tea. But she couldn’t shake the feeling of something not being right. 

“Why is the door painted over anyway?” she asked.

Genevieve was the one to look uncomfortable now.

“There was an accident, a long time ago. After that they painted all of them over like this, in all the flats. That’s what I heard anyway. The owner never did any work on the pipes. There was no real reason for them. It was easier just to paint them over, to stop anyone else from… to keep the doors shut.”

Janie’s stomach muscles clenched involuntarily. She could feel that same nausea from the dream creeping back into her gut.

“What happened.” Janie asked, “what was the accident”

Genevieve sipped  her tea and didn’t respond for a moment. 

“I don’t think you want to know” she said finally “it really creeped me out when I heard. It’s not a nice story.”

“Tell me please” Janie said. She didn’t know why she had to know. But she had to know.

“No one knows exactly what happened. And even people who think they do, I mean, we all just heard it off someone else, so who knows. There’s probably a million different versions of the story. 

The way I heard it, they never looked into it properly. She was just written off as crazy. Hysterical. This woman who lived on the top floor. But she wasn’t crazy. At least not at the start. She probably was after being stuck in that apartment with a violent husband and a new baby that wouldn’t stop crying. He used to beat her. And do other things to her. He was just a bastard. A sick bastard.

She didn’t have anyone else, any family. And in those days it was harder to get a divorce. It was kind of a big deal. She wouldn’t have been able to support herself, or provide a home for the baby. I think she figured that it was the only way out.  She took the baby and jumped into the death cupboard. She tried to kill herself and the baby too.”

“Oh my god” Janie put her tea down on the counter top and steadied herself. She could feel the nausea rising again, feel the ground shifting under her feet.

“The worst part is that it didn’t work. Somehow she lived. She survived the fall, but the baby didn’t. I don’t know what happened to her, or the husband. After that they painted over all the doors. It’s only a thin layer of paint, but it’s enough. A reminder to never open the door.”

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