The banshee lives at the end of our road. You’d know her if you saw her; she’s got googly eyes and long, thin hair, and she walks like she needs a wee and is desperate for the toilet, always nervously looking over her shoulder like somebody’s following her. We’re usually following her. I do feel bad about it, but if I don’t do what they do, then I’ll be out of the gang.
“Can’t we just go to the pond?” I ask, watching Grace McGovern’s eyes gleam as the banshee finally comes out of the village store. Heather and Amy glare at me. I feel my cheeks flush. “It’s just that following an old lady around all the time…it‘s a bit, well, boring, isn‘t it?”
“Boring?” Grace repeats, unpeeling herself from the wall she’s slunk up against, walking towards me. I feel her breath on my face. “It’s only boring because we haven’t caught her yet…” She says, nodding at Heather and Amy, who look as confused as me, but who nod back in agreement.
“Duh! Yes, thicko, caught her…” she sneers, rapping at my forehead with her knuckle, to check if there’s anything inside my skull, “…killing children.”
I nearly laugh out loud. But I don’t dare. I know what happens to people who laugh at Grace McGovern. “She even killed her own children, ages ago; everybody knows,” she sniffs, “and once a murderer, always a murderer.”
I watch my mother ironing, the comforting smell of freshly laundered clothes strange in the living room that isn’t ours. She’s frowning, and I know I shouldn’t bother her, but she’s always frowning lately, like she needs glasses, like she’s reading something really simple but she can’t work out the letters on the page. I ask her anyway.
“Did the banshee ... I mean, did Mrs. Kerrigan, did she kill her children?”
“Who told you that?” She snaps, standing the iron up at the end of the board and staring at me. Water droplets fizzle and hiss as she waits for an answer. “That Grace McGovern, no doubt,” she guesses, “her mother’s a big-mouthed so-and-so as well; I told you to keep away from her.”
I should have known I’d get a lecture. She doesn’t get it. She’s safe in the house all day, not the new girl sitting by herself every lunchtime; not the sad loser with nobody to partner up with during games. Grace is my friend.
“This bloody place,” she says, stamping the iron down so hard onto the twin’s cartoon frog bibs that the green transfers melt off and stick to it. “Full of petty-minded, vicious gossips,” she mumbles, flicking off the iron, and folding sheets and duvet covers like she’s fighting with them.
She’s always in a bad mood. My dad told me that it was a very difficult time for her, and that I should be patient, and help her out as much as I can, but sometimes I think she hates me, hates all of us. My gran upstairs for being ill and for making us come back here; my dad for working away; the twins for being born; me for everything else.
She makes me cocoa in a large mug, topped with squirty cream. I think she’s sorry. She’s wearing one of my dad’s old woolly jumpers, and it’s so big it makes her look tiny.
“Mrs. Kerrigan is not a killer, or a lunatic, or whatever else you call her,” she says, putting the cup on my bedside cabinet. “She was sent to a Magdalene asylum, as a teenage girl, a place where unmarried mothers would go, a place run by nuns, where the women would atone for their sins.” She snorts at the idea, but carries on quickly, before I can ask any questions. “She had a baby, and she was forced to give it up for adoption,” she says, playing with the cuff of her jumper. She looks sad. She makes me feel sorry for Mrs. Kerrigan.
“Then why do they say she’s a killer?” I ask
“Because they haven’t got anything better to do,” she sighs, “because she doesn‘t care what they think of her; because she reminds them of things they want to forget, and because she shows them their own hypocrisy.”
I make a mental note of the word: hip-o-crispy.
“You just leave Mrs. Kerrigan alone,” she says, closing my door, and the conversation.
The next day, my mother puts my gran’s Virgin Mary figure in the middle of the mantelpiece. It’s still there a month later when my dad comes to visit.
“Finally found God have you, Anne?” he asks, as if God was an odd sock that she lost years ago and that has just turned up at the bottom of a washing basket. “Or just hedging your bets? Saving yourself from damnation?”
My mom bursts into tears. My dad looks confused. “Anne, I’m only playing with you; you don’t believe in any of it, any of this nonsense. Annie, come on, don’t be silly now.” She stands with her back to us both, staring at the wall. I don’t know what to say. Neither does my dad. He strokes her hair, and tries to put his arm around her but she’s stiff, her elbows stick out like spears, keeping him at bay. “Don’t worry about your mother,” he says softly, “I’ve never known such a pious old boot in my life; she’d be down here beating me with her prayer book if she could get out of bed.”
“It isn’t that,” she whispers, but she stops crying, and lets him take her hand. When he leaves the morning after, I see her playing with her wedding ring, twisting it around and around on her finger.
We sit outside the banshee’s house. She knows we’re there, and she’s pulled the curtains shut so we can’t see in. After an hour of waiting, with numb bums and aching knees, a tiny window opens in the bathroom.
“Aha! She’s letting out the smell…of bodies. That’s where she kills them,” Grace says, catching Amy mid-yawn and scowling at her. “First she drugs the women, then she sucks out their babies, and then she murders them, all in the bath, so she doesn’t get blood on her carpet.”
“What does she suck them out with?” Heather asks, rubbing her stomach and looking queasy.
Grace thinks for a minute. “With a vacuum hose,” she decides. “She slices open their bellies with a huge knife, and then sucks all of their insides out, baby and all.”
“A vacuum?” I say, thinking of trying to push the twin’s heads inside our Hoover, “that’s impossible.”
“I know that dopey,” Grace sneers,” but she’s got a special vacuum, hasn´t she? And she only steals the baby babies, when they’re still soft, like jelly, like tadpoles.” She prods me in the chest, as if in warning. “So there, smartypants.”
My mother keeps being sick. She runs the taps and flushes the toilet in the bathroom, but I can still hear her. She comes out panting with her eyes red.
“Must be something I ate,” she says.
But she isn’t eating. Her mouth’s always so tight now; food can’t get into it. She calls my dad and speaks to him in weird riddles. “I feel it. I know the signs; it can happen,” she says, and then she whispers things like, “It’s a punishment, fate, whatever you want to call it.” I don’t know what my dad says at the other end, but it makes her angry. “I’m not crazy,” she screams at him, like a crazy person, and then hangs up.
We go to church.
“But why?” I moan, as she yanks a hair brush through my tangled locks. “You don’t believe in God, and we‘ve never been before.”
“Just because. And no more questions.”
The church is small and cramped and smells funny, like musty old clothes and cats. The service takes forever and the seats are uncomfortable. The priest rambles on and on and every now and then all the people seem to come alive at exactly the same moment, like magical statues, and mumble along in time but with their lips barely moving. I take the wafer from the priest and I wonder if he’s washed his hands. I saw him picking his nose earlier. My mother won’t speak to me, and looks like she’s really concentrating, straining to hear something that nobody else can. When it’s finished, she takes my hand and drags me through the congregation, almost running, like we’re vampires and the sun’s about to come up. We don’t go back again. She stops being sick.
“We need to follow her at night,” Grace says, after we spend all afternoon watching the banshee clean her windows. “As if she’s going to do it in the day, when it’s light and everybody can see. Baby killers only kill at night, everybody knows that.”
The following evening, we all tell our parents that we’re practicing for the school play, and meet behind the banshee’s neighbour´s hedge at 7.30, sharp. We bring torches, a camera, a notepad, and some biscuits, and wait until she comes out.
“Make a note” Grace hisses, “The police need proof, times, descriptions…”
7.45: suspect leaves house with small, hairy dog, I write, underlining the time, twice.
“I hope you’re taking this seriously,” Grace warns me. “We could save lives, you know. We’ll be on the news and in all the papers. We’ll be famous.” I sharpen my pencil to show her that I am.
We trail her from a distance, all the way to the pond, which is a murky splash of water in a big cup of crumbling earth, with bits of metal thrown into it and overgrown grass and nettles all around the outside. A huge oak tree looks over it, roots creeping down the side like tentacles, a frayed rope dangling from one of its branches.
“I’m not going up Hangman’s Hill,” Amy shivers, staring at the silhouette of the tree.
“It was a swing, wimp,” Grace says, bravely barging past her. “You remember, the Gallaghers hung an old tyre there, but too many people sat on it and it fell off? “
“Yeah, maybe,” Amy mutters, “but what about the ghosts?”
“The ghosts won’t hurt us,” Grace says, but I hear the quiver in her voice. To make up for it she yanks Amy forward by her scarf, choking her. She waits for her to stop coughing. “They’re the ghosts of kids that drowned, aren’t they? So they’ll be on our side; they’ll help us if anything, help us catch her.” She nods towards the banshee, who’s moving through the gap in the trees and into the main field where the horses are. We perch on the slope, huddled together as it starts to get dark, knowing that she’ll have to come back through this way.
She takes ages; so long that I forget how spooky the place is. I walk to the edge of the pond, and shine the torch into the water. Tadpoles. A group of them, flat and black-eyed, bobbing about just beneath the surface. Their tails wiggle as they nibble at the weeds, and I wonder if they’re boys or girls. They all look the same - slimy, creepy. I think of babies. I think of my brothers, bald, and sucking at my mother’s breasts until she looks like she wants to cry. I think of my gran, a scary curled-up thing in a bed, as blind as a fish in black ocean, flapping about with crooked legs that don’t work anymore, just feeding, and sleeping and groaning; all of them waiting, changing.
I poke my finger into the water, and they scatter, but there’s another group, huddled under a pile of leaves. I scoop the leaves out of the water, and see hundreds of tadpoles, quickly darting here, there and everywhere, like shoppers in a sale. I look closely. They’re eating each other. Six of them surround a smaller one, and I can’t tell if it’s dead or alive. They don’t seem to care either way. I jump back, disgusted, and wipe my hands on my coat. I find a rock beside the pond, and throw it in, directly at them, watching the ripples and seeing the mud float up from the bottom.
“What you doing?” Grace shouts, “Here, she’s coming back!”
“I’m going home,” I say.
“You what?” Grace says, slipping down the bank, “The mission’s over when I say it’s over.”
“But it’s silly,” I say.
“You’ll be sorry when a pregnant woman gets stabbed to death,” Grace says, getting angry.
“But there aren’t even any pregnant women around here,” I say, calmly. If anybody was pregnant here, then we’d all know about it, especially if Grace McGovern had anything to do with it.
“She can find them anywhere; she’s a witch, remember?”
“I thought she was a banshee?” I say, “Banshees aren’t witches, according to legend, banshees just turn up and cry when people are about to die-”
“You calling me stupid?” Grace suddenly shouts, taking us all by surprise. “I’m sick of you, little Miss ‘let’s-all-go-to-the-library!’ and your snobby nose-in-the-air mother! You think you’re better than me don’t you?”
“What?-” I splutter, confused.
She pokes her finger at me, millimetres from my face. “Well, you want to know something?,” she says, her face red. “Your precious ma’s a baby killer too; everybody knows, swanning around here like Lady Muck! Ask her why her family kicked her out, ask her what happened with the priest’s brother, ask her why she moved away, why she didn‘t come back.”
I don’t know what to say. I open my mouth, but my lips won’t move. I feel dizzy, like I’m falling; like she’s pushed me off something very, very tall, the top of Hangman’s Hill, and nobody is catching me. I´m drowning in the pond, my feet caught in mud and bedsprings, the sticky tongues of huge frogs wrapping around me, pulling me under the water, keeping me there until the tadpoles are hungry, until they´ve grown teeth big enough to eat me with.
“Not got anything clever to say now, have you?” Grace says.
She’s smirking, but she seems sad too, like she regrets saying anything. She looks at Amy and Heather, wanting them to do or say something, but they’re both pale, and scared, and silent. She looks around to the spot where the drunks normally sit, and to Cupid’s Corner where all the school kids go to kiss. She looks disappointed. And then I get it. She’s known this for ages. She’s been saving it, keeping it for a bigger audience.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but suddenly her hair is in my fingers, her nails scratching at my face. She bucks me off easily and knocks me to the ground, but I jump up and run towards her, trying to slap her stupid face, but she lashes out, punches me in the nose, and I fall back, crying, blood spurting all over my school shirt. She’s crying too, but trying to pretend that she isn’t. I want to tell her that she’s a liar; that she’s wrong, just like she was about the banshee, but the words won’t come out.
“You’re dead,” she says, shaking, smoothing down her hair with trembling hands, doing the buttons up on her coat all wrong, “and you pair, too, if you stay with her.”
Heather slides a tissue that she was just about to hand me back into her pocket. Amy won’t look at me at all.
The three of them walk off, and I can hear Grace telling them how she’s going to tell the whole school how she beat me up, how she taught the baby-killer’s daughter a lesson that she won’t forget. I trail behind them in the drizzle, from a safe distance, piggy-in-the-middle between them and the banshee.
“Where have you been?” my mother asks as I stumble into the hallway. “And what on earth’s happened to you?”
“Practicing the play; I got hit in the face, by accident, it was my fault, really.”
“Oh Chloe, come on, I’m not stupid.” She says, seeing the state of my shirt. “Was it that McGovern girl? I bet it was.”
I clamp my lips shut. I’m not telling her anything. She tries to be sneaky, like the teachers when they want you to grass somebody up. “You can tell me,” she says softly, awkwardly stroking my arm, “you won’t be in trouble, you and me are a team out here, so no lies, no secrets, ok?”
Hip-o-crispy, I think.
“I swear, I swear to God,” I say coldly.
She doesn’t believe me, but I don’t care. She runs me a bath, and leaves my pyjamas on my pillow, like I’m a little girl again, her little princess.
We sit in the front room, and she won’t stop talking. I watch the steam rise from my cup.
She’s eating celery and peanut butter, crunching loudly.
“I haven’t had this for years! I had cravings for this when I was pregnant with you actually,” she says, patting her belly. “Oh no, don’t look so terrified! I was sterilised after the twins, never again, god no,” she laughs, but her laughter sounds fake, and her smile doesn’t touch her eyes. Banshee, I think, killer.
I think of the tadpoles, all with the same face, not boys, not girls, darting around the weeds, the dead ones floating half-eaten on the oily surface on the water. I think of Grace waiting for me tomorrow.
I dab at my nose with a hankie. It’s stopped bleeding but there’s a wiggle of dried blood on the fluffy, pink cuff of my dressing gown. The clock ticks. Tadpoles swim. My brothers sleep. My gran wheezes in her bedroom. My mother goes crunch, crunch, crunch.