The House in the Woods, by Emily Cleaver
artwork by Graham Dean

'What did your mum think of me?' said Dave. They skirted a puddle criss-crossed with bike tracks. Min held his arm, their coats scuffing, the smell of the waterproof fabric blocking out the smell of wet leaves. The main road rumbled in the distance.

'That bad, was it?' said Dave.

Min swallowed. 'She told me what she thought. Of course she did.'

Min had found a tea towel in the bin after her mum had left. She wondered if her mum had waited until she was out of the room before throwing it away. It had been clean enough. She imagined going into someone else's house and throwing away their tea towel while they weren't looking.

'Can I be party to this information?'

'She said you were very tall.'

After lunch, when her mum was leaving, Min had caught her sniffing the air in the hall. She'd sniffed too, not able to stop herself.

'Nice to see I made an impression with my conversation.'

Min felt along the split where her lips were chapped, pushing at it with her tongue.

'She said it was obvious you liked me.'

Dave made an unpleasant noise, like a snort. 'Did she think I wouldn't like you?'

'No.' Min wondered, though.

'Did she think I'd go out with you and not like you?'

Min sometimes thought of Dave as younger than her, even though he wasn't.

'I hate you, please go out with me.' He was using that voice. 'I want to kill you, please marry me and have my children.'

Min clenched her teeth. 'She likes you.' She rubbed her tongue over her dry lips again. 'Look,' she said, pointing ahead. 'It's my house in the woods.'

A red-brick wall was visible through the trees. Whenever she walked this way, she imagined living in the house in the woods. There were sometimes lights in the windows at dusk, sometimes a car outside, but she had never seen the inhabitants. This made it seem vacant, waiting for her.

The house had a slate roof bordered by an ornate wooden decoration. The window frames were painted yellow and the door a faded rose-pink like cake icing. It looked edible. There was a picket fence and a strip of garden. The trees pressed in on it at the back, and leaned over the track at the front.

Min always looked inside as she passed. The rooms were next to each other in a row, like the front of a doll's house. There was a sitting room with a dark red vase on the sill, leather armchairs, patterned rugs and bookshelves in a pale wood, then a dining room with a long table, and a kitchen with copper pans hung from a rack over a large gleaming oven. Min pictured sleeping in the house, the branches tapping on the windows.

'Imagine living out here,' said Min.

'You'd have to like your own company.' Dave stopped to look back.

'Not if you lived with someone,' said Min.

Dave raised his eyebrows. They were blonde, pale as his skin. 'You'd be car-dependant. Nowhere would deliver.'

'But with two people,' she said.

'Drive each other mad, stuck out here.'

Min thought of being inside the house, looking out at the dusk. How far would the light reach through the trees? If someone was looking in, would you even see them?

'Am I missing a subtext here?' said Dave.

'There's no subtext.'

'That means there is.'

She turned away and walked past him. If she agreed, he was triumphant. If she disagreed, he was triumphant anyway.

'Dropping a hint?' he called. She kept walking. 'Min? You and me in your house in the woods?' She heard him begin to walk after her.

She thought about her mother. Are you two not planning on taking the next step? She had never imagined Dave in the house in the woods. The thought of him here shocked her. She saw him walking round those clean, warm rooms with no top on, as he sometimes did, his stomach smooth, his pale chest protruding, almost feminine. She wished she could push him out of the house in her head, but he was rooted there, holding the maroon vase, turning it critically in his hands.

'What's got at you? He caught up with her.

'Don't worry about it.' She stomped on, kicking up puffs of old leaves.

They walked on in silence. The afternoon was sinking into dusk. High above the trees, the sky was still china blue, blushing orange at the edges like a painted bowl, plane trails cracking across the pale glaze. The colours were fading, and down among the trees it was dusk.

'Is this about moving in together?'

'You're such a - ' She broke off the sentence. 'It's not about anything.'

'Your mum, is that it?'

'She's nothing to do with it.'

'So there is an 'it'. Did she say we should move in together?'

She turned on him. 'Did she say that to you?'

'Why would she say it to me?'

'You two seemed to get on.'

He grinned. 'She's a nice lady.'

Min had come in with the potatoes and seen her mother's hand on Dave's knee as she leaned towards him to speak. Dave had insisted on calling her mum. Min's done a good job on the spuds, eh mum? Little glass of something for you, mum? While she was drying up her mother had said, You've got a good one there.

'She looks young for her age,' said Dave, interrupting her thoughts.

'For god's sake.' Min felt her lip split open along the dry cracks.

'Hey, hey. What did I say?' Dave stopped and turned her by her arm. Min fought the urge to blink, to stop the tears breaking loose. She stared at his hand on her coat sleeve, blonde hairs on white.

'She always does this.'


When Min was eleven, she'd had a birthday party. All of her class were invited to the scout hall. There were sandwiches and sausage rolls. Her mother wore a fluffy pink top with a low-cut neckline, and as she served the food she leant forwards over the trestle table, her breasts hanging like pizza dough. Min had seen the boys looking, little boys with sharp faces and hard knuckles, looking, smiling at each other. And her mother smiling back.

'Shall we head back then?' Dave let go of her arm. 'Your programme's on.'

She looked down the path, where the dusk was pushing up from the ground under the lid of the sky.

'You go.' She broke away from him and cut sideways on a track though the low undergrowth.

She wondered if he would follow, but when she finally turned to look he had gone. That brought her to a stop, peering back through the trees trying to make out the blue of his coat. There was nothing, only the wind picking up slightly and moving the branches. The path ahead was much darker now. It turned in the direction of the main road, but the traffic was just a distant hum. She started off again. The path skirted trees and bushes, then broke out onto a more open piece of ground.

She thought of her mother, saw her for a moment under the trees, her pink jumper catching the last of the light. Min turned away, walking further into the gloom, finding the curving path again. She was lost now, although the wood was no more than a thin strip. She wasn't sure which way she was facing. She kept going, letting the dark swallow up her mother behind her. Something crackled in the undergrowth and Min felt panic clench her stomach. She ran.

There was a light to her right now, and she turned towards it, catching her ankles on brambles, swishing up leaves. It was the house in the woods, come upon from a strange angle. She was behind it, a side she hadn't seen before. The windows were lit, no curtains drawn. She thought that if she lived there, she would draw the curtains when it was dark. She walked towards the light, her feet on grass now. She could skirt it and be back on the main path, then soon back on the road.

There was someone in the front room of the house. She stopped just short of where the square of light from the window lay on the grass, nervous of being seen. It was a man with dark, sleek hair that curled over the collar of a red shirt. He had a wide nose, nostrils flared, and a stubbly short beard, flecked with grey. He was standing by a bookcase, an open book in one hand, a large bell-shaped glass of red wine in the other. He raised the glass to his mouth and Min could see the stain of the wine on his lips.

Then the man glanced up and looked straight at her. He was older than she'd first thought, really quite an old man, his face wrinkled and startlingly dark in colour, sunburnt. She felt fear run through her, and a tannic taste in her mouth, as if she'd sipped the wine herself. But his gaze was steady, his face blank. Her heart subsided. He couldn't see her; she was beyond where the light fell. She felt insubstantial, as if she could go right up to the window and he would still stare through her.

The man closed the book and slid it back onto the shelf, then raised the glass again and drank the wine down in one motion, his head back, the flush of his throat visible below the line of his beard. Then he stepped into the centre of the room and unbuttoned his shirt. Min was rooted to the lawn, her feet numb. He undid the last button and slipped off the shirt, dropping it on the floor. His chest was covered in a mat of black hair that ran over his shoulders and down to his stomach.

He stood for a moment, looking out at her as if they were complicit in his actions. Then he undid the belt of his trousers and let them fall to the floor. The black hair continued down his legs, which were thick and muscular at the thighs and calves. He slipped his fingers inside the waistband of his underpants and pulled them off too. The hair was chaotic at his groin, and Min saw his penis, the same ruddy colour as his face.

She felt her cheeks throb in the dark. She looked down at his feet, expecting them to be strange, hooves perhaps, not feet at all. But they were hidden by the crumpled mound of his trousers. His face was expressionless, open, like a statue.

The man turned then, a flash of paler flesh showing on his buttocks. He moved away across the room with a delicate plucking step, like a deer picking through undergrowth. He refilled his wine glass from a bottle on the table, and drank again.

Min heard the sound of someone coming towards her through the trees. She wanted to hide, to cover herself in leaves, to crouch until the danger passed. She thought of her mother, pink and white among the trunks.

She saw a gleam of blonde hair as a torch bobbed past her and she held her breath. When the light swung round again, she ran forward to the window of the house in the woods and pressed her palms to the glass, transparent, calling to be let inside.


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