Louis was an ordinary sort of young man, nothing special or remarkable. Just average with all the desires and needs of anyone else his age.
It came as quite a surprise to him when a barely known old uncle died and remembered him in his will. Louis found himself the heir to a country house
and all its contents.
His mother was delighted for him and regaled him with stories of an eccentric old man who was known to be a hoarder. She was sure that Louis would
find enough of value amongst the junk to set himself up for life.
So, full of hopes for a better future, Louis went off to the estate with a rather bright, obnoxious solicitor’s clerk who obviously felt he had
better things to do than deal with an heir to a fortune that day.
Together they drove along a quiet country lane with Louis’ hopes of a great fortune becoming smaller and smaller as the lane narrowed and started to
lose its promise of leading to a large, stately pile.
Sure enough, the lane came to a rather shoddy end and there, before a disappointed Louis, stood a drab and run-down house that could only just escape
the label of ‘cottage’. He started to realise why the clerk had shown no enthusiasm for this jaunt. Louis wasn’t the rich client he had hoped
himself to be.
Resigned to his seemingly less than opulent new status, he got out of the car and headed up the path. The clerk followed with a snooty expression on
his face that suggested he had something unsavoury under his nose. ‘The rest of his supercilious body’ thought Louis unkindly.
More of his shattered dreams lay on the floor after he had entered the crammed-to-the-gills living room. So much bric-a-brac piled to the ceiling and
in every nook and cranny. All of it hideous and pointless. None of it less than about forty years old. His heart sank as he thought how much he’d
have to pay someone to take it all away. He couldn’t imagine Arthur Negus beating a path to his door for this lot.
With a heavy sigh he looked into the cold and old-fashioned kitchen. He saw signs of mice. Oh well, they might cheer him up a bit with their silly
Upstairs was next on the agenda and Louis found a study full of artefacts from around the world. Most of them gruesome in the extreme. He sighed, of
all the wondrous cultures his uncle could have taken an interest in, he seemed to have a penchant for shrunken heads and mummified
Two of the bedrooms were no better, boasting heavy old furniture and ugly paintings. About to give up on finding anything halfway decent in this
horrible place Louis went into a small back bedroom – and stopped in his tracks.
There, in a room empty except for a lone chair, hung a portrait of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She gazed back at him with her dark
liquid eyes and he saw the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
He dropped into the chair, which was placed right in front of the picture, and looked at her. As he looked he could imagine his uncle sitting in this
very position wrapped in this woman and her world, which consisted of a darkened room with heavy drapes and a lone oil lamp. The light from the lamp
illuminated her red dress and reflected in her eyes. He forgot the rest of his world and all its clutter as he stared at her in something that went
He heard a small shuffle behind him and decided to venture a few words with the clerk who was showing all the signs of wanting to escape. Before
speaking, he wondered if the clock was running and tried to phrase his question as a suggestion to try and save money on any advice the clerk might
deign to offer.
Reluctantly, he left the small bedroom and smiled nervously at the clerk. ‘I think I’ll just sell this lot’ he said, indicating the junk piled
in the hall. ‘Perhaps I’ll use the house as a weekend retreat’. He smirked inside as he said that. Surely that made him sound terribly posh and
might ingratiate him with the clerk. Then trying to sound as if he knew what he was talking about ‘Of course, I’ll keep that painting’.
The clerk could hardly contain himself and just failed to keep the smirk of glee from his irritating, too-well-fed face. ‘Oh no, sir’ he said with
a nasty emphasis on the ‘sir’. ‘The will stipulates quite clearly that the collection cannot be broken up’ he tripped on the word
‘collection’ but regained his composure and carried on ‘If you sell it, it will all have to go.’
Louis nearly choked and cursed himself for not having read the will beyond the part that left all the estate to him. The thought of living here with
all this junk appalled him, but he couldn’t give up that painting. Already it had a hold on him. Unable to bear the clerk any longer, he dismissed
him and went off to snoop around the tangled garden.
As dusk descended he went back into the house and made straight for the portrait. How lovely she looked in the gloom of the early evening. Louis sat
and looked at her until only the light from her eyes could be seen.
He went off to the kitchen and found enough food to make a non-too-appetising supper, then went to try and find a TV. Surely there must be one under
the piles of books and mouldering magazines? Unsuccessful in his search, Louis decided to read a book instead.
‘What a selection’ he thought to himself as he browsed one of the many large and ugly bookshelves. ‘Necromancy for Beginners’, The History
of Cannibalism’ – no thanks. Finally he settled on the fairly innocuous ‘Witchcraft for Dummies’ until it was time to go to sleep.
Tiredly, he went upstairs and found himself drawn to the back bedroom. Off he went to look at her, but found no electric light in the room. He stared
into the darkness and, frustrated, went to rummage around in the kitchen for a candle.
The mice heard him coming and scampered away. Louis heard them and smiled. With any luck they’d breed and over-run the house and start chewing
enough of the junk that he would have no option but to throw it out.
Finding his candle, he went back upstairs and sat in front of the portrait. After some time, he felt himself falling asleep and got up to go to bed.
As he headed for the door, he thought he heard her voice: ‘Stay’. He looked back and saw the smile – how it invited him to stay there with her
Summoning his strength, he resisted and went to the least unappealing of the other two bedrooms. And thought of her as he lay in a lumpy, cold bed.
Thought how if she had been real, she would be there beside him, warm and supple. The thoughts went on towards their logical conclusion. As he lost
himself in the fantasy Louis thought of his Mum.
How she would disapprove of his behaviour on his first night away from home. The first night there was no chance of her passing his door and hearing
anything untoward. Louis felt himself blush and suppressed his thoughts. In an agony of thwarted ambition he went to sleep, resenting every slumber.
How he wished for her, her in the portrait.
He awoke the next morning with the sun streaming through the window and thoughts of his mother preying on his mind. He hardly knew what to do with
himself, mixing her up with the woman in the portrait. Guilt overtook him and he slunk down to a breakfast of soggy cornflakes and water. Part of him
reckoned he deserved this punishment and felt better for having paid some sort of penance.
Being without a job or prospects Louis found it easy to phone his Mum and tell her he wasn’t coming home for a while. He could collect his benefits
locally and get used to living in the old house. The upside of getting her son out of the house wasn’t lost on his Mum and she was starting to plan
how to rent out his room even before the telephone had a chance to grow cold after their conversation.
Louis went back to look at the portrait and spent the afternoon communing with it until his limbs felt stiff and the darkness fell. He dragged himself
off to supper and promised himself a trip to the village shop in the morning.
He shunned the books that evening and went to bed early. Somehow, having cut the apron strings he felt that he might have more success thinking of
'her' – especially since he’d spent at least an hour gazing at her by candlelight before he headed for the bedroom.
Louis’ Mum had made a far better job of bringing him up than even she thought she had and Louis fought down his thoughts again and went to sleep,
determined to hound his mother through her dreams and make her suffer.
His nightly fight with his urges and emotions went on for weeks but he felt he was winning. He steeled his resolve and tried to go to sleep with no
thoughts of the portrait on his mind. Still, he couldn’t sleep. If he didn’t think of her, he had to think of all the awful old stuff in his
bedroom. He hadn’t dared to move anything in case doing so breached the terms of the will. He lived in a permanent state of fear of that clerk
marching up the garden path to ensure that everything was, indeed, intact.
He figured that leaving food in the living room to attract the mice in there, whilst technically cheating, wasn’t something that could be proven to
have been done with any malice. He drifted off to sleep comforting himself with thoughts of nibbled old books that he could have no choice but to
After some nights of not thinking of ‘her’ Louis awoke to find something in his room with him. He heard a chittering and thought it must be the
mice or, if he was lucky, a squirrel. He didn’t sleep with that window open for nothing. He listened closely and it gradually dawned on him that the
chittering sounded like words. And it was too deep for chittering. He half buried his head under the threadbare old blankets and tried not to look,
but the noise wouldn’t go away.
He felt movement in the room and gradually, as he listened, he became aware of a dull drum beat, emanating from the study, he was sure. The chittering
turned to chanting, slow and rhythmic and in time to the drum. It wouldn’t go away and became more insistent. Louis thought he felt something at the
foot of the bed and had to look. He couldn’t help it; he had to know what was making the noise.
Fearing for his wits, he peeped over the edge of the blanket and dived straight back under it. He heard a small, deep laugh – followed by another.
They were laughing at him. Trying to be brave, he looked again. And there they were – all his uncle’s shrunken heads bobbing up and down at the
foot of his bed, but for the one who was hovering just above his toes. ‘Oh god, they don’t nibble, do they?’ he thought.
He watched in mounting horror as their dance went on, the beat of the drum becoming faster the chanting getting more frenzied. He didn’t know how
it could end but imagined how he would look with his tiny, shrunken head manoeuvring his body should they have their evil way with him.
Just as he felt he could take no more, he felt another presence in the room. 'Her' presence, calm and safe. There to save him, he was sure.
He heard an awful groan from the heads as they all fell to the floor, as lifeless as they ought to have been. He looked for her, wanting to thank her
but she was gone.
The next morning, he gathered up the heads and locked them in an old cabinet, even though it meant moving out a few jars of entrails to make way for
them. The whole day was spent re-living the night’s events in his mind. How had he got up this morning to find those heads on the floor without
having a breakdown? After all, there was the evidence that he hadn’t just been dreaming.
He spent more time that day in the back bedroom looking at her. Her warm smile comforted him and he imagined that his old uncle must have thought of
her as his guardian angel, although why he hadn’t got rid of the shrunken heads Louis couldn’t imagine.
He felt even worse now for having those lustful thoughts about her and resolved to never think of her in that way again. He smiled reassuringly at her
and imagined what sort of conversations they might have if only she could step out and talk to him. His thoughts went to the surrounding countryside
and how they might enjoy chaste walks and cloud watching.
He went to bed happily that night and drifted off with his thoughts of her taking them to a moonlit beach with a beautiful full moon shining over deep
waters and evoking all the longings that only a midnight beach could conjure up.
Sadly, his thoughts started to go along their familiar path and he stopped himself and tried to sleep, more ashamed than ever.
And again, just as he was drifting off, he heard a sound. A drum again, but this one so close. And tinny. He heard a small voice chittering. No, not
chittering – singing. Sort of. He risked peeking over the blankets, determined to look properly this time, and was rewarded with the sight of a
Victorian clockwork monkey beating its little drum and trying to sing. The eyes swivelling in its head in a way that must have frightened the bejasus
out of Victorian children. No wonder they had grown up so stern and humourless. If you could survive that in your childhood, going off to win an
Empire must have been child’s play.
Louis shuddered uncontrollably, listening to the tinny little voice, watching the rolling, dull eyes and wished with all his might that she would come
and save him again. Eventually, she did but she seemed to take her time about it, Louis thought. Still, her calm, soothing presence was enough to
knock the monkey off the edge of the bed and onto the floor where it made a horrible whirring sound as it wound itself down.
Louis sank into sleep, his gratitude to her knowing no bounds and the next morning the monkey got locked into the cabinet with the heads who, to
Louis’ great relief, showed no sign of life whatsoever.
He spent another day with the portrait, forgetting to eat until quite late that night. As he munched a stale cheese sandwich he cursed himself for a
fool. Surely the cheese would give him nightmares?
Unhappily, he put the little that was left into the living room for the mice. Mice who were not doing their job at all well, Louis thought. Ungrateful
He plodded off to bed but not without spending half an hour or so gazing at the portrait. Tentatively, he asked her to look out for him tonight and,
if she wouldn’t mind, to come quickly to his rescue should anything untoward happen.
She gazed back inscrutably, he fancied that the small smile was absent from her lips. Sadly, he left the room and headed for his bed. Then he had an
idea, he wouldn’t go to that bed tonight. He’d used the other bedroom – make himself hard to find.
Off he went to a bedroom that was even more unappetising than the one he had been using. The clutter included a large china jug and bowl harking back
to the days before plumbing as did the object under the bed. Louis tried not to think about it.
Instead, he thought of her. She filled his mind edging out the thoughts of the sanitary arrangements from earlier days. Louis felt a bit disrespectful
to use her like that but, still, she was never far from his thoughts anyway.
He drifted off trying not to think of the horrors that might await him tonight and was surprised when a mummified baby, bandages trailing behind it as
it did the sand dance failed to frighten him.
He didn’t need her that night; he survived the late show all by himself. But she came anyway, and he felt her disappointment as he watched the
dancing baby with fascination rather than fear.
Maybe it was his own fault for becoming too complacent, but the next night’s horrors were even worse than before and included a howling toy clown
and a very macabre old china doll with half of its wig hanging off the back of its head. And its cracked china face housing big brown, rattling
Watching them do a rather sombre duet, made all the worse by the huge grin on the face of the clown, Louis nearly found himself in need of the
under-bed facilities. How relieved he was when 'she' came and the ghastly combo fell lifeless to the floor.
As he cowered and sweated under the coverlet, he fancied that he felt her cool, soothing hand on his brow. Now he knew he must be going mad – bad
enough that he thought she watched him from her portrait, worse that he thought he could feel here presence in his room. But now, now he felt her
More thoughts raced through his head – if he could feel her, actually feel her then..... Louis thought of his Mum as quickly as he could to help
dispel the thoughts.
He lived in this way until he entered middle-age. All his waking time was taken up looking at her portrait and most of his nights were spent trying to
fend off lustful thoughts of her and the procession of fiendish old tat that his uncle had collected.
He never got a job and, as his health began to suffer, he realised that he had spent his life in awe of a portrait of a woman who he knew nothing
about. Nothing, except that she saved him every night and allowed him to sleep.
When he got news that his Mum had died, it hardly affected him. She had become a distant memory to Louis, only invoked on the nights when he had
trouble controlling his thoughts. He remembered dimly the days when they had lived together and she had done little but feed him, clothe him and
wonder when he might get a job.
He rather hoped that she would leave him some of the money she had amassed through renting his room, but instead she left it to the dogs’ home.
Probably the right decision considering how Louis had thought of her.
With his Mum being on the other side, Louis began to fear that she might haunt him. His nights became even more unbearable than they had been. He
tried to sleep whilst fighting of his thoughts of the woman in the portrait, sleep through the racket of the nasty little figures who haunted him and
all the while hoping that his Mum wouldn’t find out.
Tortured by all this, Louis finally found himself in a lonely and crazy old age. He started to become forgetful and gradually his Mum faded from his
thoughts altogether. He only thought of her when his estranged sister telephoned to prompt him to make a will. He wouldn’t forget his nephew, would
he, and leave all his money to the dogs’ home like his dear old Mum had done?
At that point, Louis had become unnaturally attached to his home and all of its contents and it hurt to think of leaving it all, even though he knew
he must one day. He sat in the back bedroom in front of the portrait, and started to draft his will, all the while aware of 'her' gazing down at
him. Whatever happened, he must make sure that she was safe. The thought took hold and gnawed at him. He found himself making a will with the same
stipulations as his old uncles’.
At peace with himself after making what he hoped would be a watertight will, Louis sank back into his regular ways and habits.
Thoughts of his Mum faded again and he started to drift off to sleep thinking only of the portrait. Seeing her, in his mind’s eye, still young and
beautiful. Trying to remember what it was that he had so long suppressed wanting to do to her. And ignoring the cacophony of ever more insistent
figurines that she would have to come and save him from.
One night, well into his dotage, Louis finally lost control of himself when he thought of her. Ashamed he withered under the covers and asked
forgiveness and was astonished to find her actually there beside him. Close and warm and supple, just as he had imagined all those years before. He
felt her lips against his ear; he felt her urgently pressing his body.
That night there were no disturbances – finally all was quiet. Finally, Louis realised after all those years, who had been responsible for them. Who
had been trying to get his attention when he had been fighting with his urges. Who had shown the fury of a woman ‘scorned’ – at least ‘scorned
‘in her own eyes.
Who had influenced him to make exactly the same will as his uncle so she would have the whole array of ‘toys’ with which to frighten the next heir
into seeing her as a guardian angel rather than the predator she actually was – should he prove to be unwilling.
How late it dawned on him – when as an old man he had the capacity to act on those urges only the once before he died. Much to the frustration of
His nephew came to view the house some time later with the same sense of disappointment that Louis had felt himself as a young man.
Once inside the house, his nephew was immediately captivated by the portrait as he had been. His nephew didn’t have the same inhibitions and strict
upbringing that Louis had. As the woman in the portrait gazed down at him, Louis’s nephew saw the lust in her smile and answered it with a smile of