“Fabulous Beasts” by Priya Sharma is a horror novelette about a strange woman living in luxury with her lover, but irrevocably tied to her childhood of deprivation and dark secrets in northwest England. The woman recalls the unravelling of the family upon her uncle’s release from prison.
Please be warned that this story deals with difficult content and themes, including child abuse, incest, and rape.
“Eliza, tell me your secret.”
Sometimes I’m cornered at parties by someone who’s been watching me from across the room as they drain their glass. They think I don’t know what’s been said about me.
Eliza’s odd looking but she has something, don’t you think? Une jolie laide. A French term meaning ugly-beautiful. Only the intelligentsia can insult you with panache.
I always know when they’re about to come over. It’s in the pause before they walk, as though they’re ordering their thoughts. Then they stride over, purposeful, through the throng of actors, journalists, and politicians, ignoring anyone who tries to engage them for fear of losing their nerve.
“Eliza, tell me your secret.”
“I’m a princess.”
Such a ridiculous thing to say and I surprise myself by using Kenny’s term for us, even though I am now forty-something and Kenny was twenty-four years ago. I edge past, scanning the crowd for Georgia, so I can tell her that I’ve had enough and am going home. Maybe she’ll come with me.
My interrogator doesn’t look convinced. Nor should they be. I’m not even called Eliza. My real name is Lola and I’m no princess. I’m a monster.
We, Kenny’s princesses, lived in a tower.
Kath, my mum, had a flat on the thirteenth floor of Laird Tower, in a northern town long past its prime. Two hundred and seventeen miles from London and twenty-four years ago. A whole world away, or it might as well be.
Ami, Kath’s younger sister, lived two floors down. Kath and I went round to see her the day that she came home from the hospital. She answered the door wearing a black velour tracksuit, the bottoms slung low on her hips. The top rose up to reveal the wrinkled skin that had been taut over her baby bump the day before.
“Hiya,” she opened the door wide to let us in.
Ami only spoke to Kath, never to me. She had a way of ignoring people that fascinated men and infuriated women.
Kath and I leant over the Moses basket.
“What a diamond,” Kath cooed.
She was right. Some new babies are wizened, but not Tallulah. She looked like something from the front of one of Kath’s knitting patterns. Perfect. I knew, even at that age, that I didn’t look like everyone else; flat nose with too much nostril exposed, small eyelids and small ears that were squashed against my skull. I felt a pang of jealousy.
“What’s her name, Ami?”
“Tallulah Rose.” Ami laid her head on Kath’s shoulder. “I wish you’d been there.”
“I wanted to be there too. I’m sorry, darling. There was nobody to mind Lola. And Mikey was with you.” Kath must have been genuinely sorry because normally she said Mikey’s name like she was sniffing sour milk. “Where is he now?”
“Out, wetting the baby’s head.”
Kath’s expression suggested that she thought he was doing more than toasting his newborn. He was always hanging around Ami. Just looking after you, like Kenny wants, he’d say, as if he was only doing his duty. Except now that there were shitty nappies to change and formula milk to prepare he was off, getting his end away.
Ami wasn’t quite ready to let Kath’s absence go.
“You could’ve left Lola with one of my friends.”
Ami knew better. Kath never let anyone look after me, not even her.
“Let’s not fight now, pet. You’re tired.”
Ami’s gaze was like being doused in ice water. It contained everything she couldn’t say to me. Fucking ugly, little runt. You’re always in the way.
“You must be starvin’. Let me get you a cuppa and a sandwich and then you can get some sleep.”
We stood and looked at the baby when Ami had gone to bed.
“Don’t get any ideas. You don’t want to be like your aunt, with a baby at sixteen. You don’t want to be like either of us.”
Kathy always spoke to me like I was twenty-four, not four.
Tallulah stirred and stretched, arms jerking outwards as if she was in freefall. She opened her eyes. There was no squinting or screaming.
“The little scrap’s going to need our help.”
Kath lifted her out and laid her on her knee for inspection. I put my nose against the soft spot on her skull. I fell in love with her right then.
“What do you wish for her?” Kath asked, smiling.
Chocolate. Barbies. A bike. A pet snake. Everything my childish heart could bestow.
Saturdays were for shopping. Kathy and I walked down Cathcart Street towards town. We’d pass a row of grimy Victorian mansions on our way that served as a reminder of once great wealth, now carved up into flats for social housing or filled with squatters who lay in their damp dens with needles in their arms.
After these were the terraces, joined by a network of alleyways that made for easy assaults and getaways. This model of housing was for the civic minded when everyone here had a trade, due to our proximity to the city of Liverpool. The ship-building yards lay empty, and the 1980s brought container ships that did away with the demand for dockers. The life inside spilled out into the sun; women sat on their steps in pyjama bottoms and vest tops, even though it was lunchtime. Fags in hand, they’d whisper to one another as Kathy passed, afraid to meet her gaze. A man wore just shorts, his pale beer belly pinking up in the sun. He saluted when he saw Kathy. She ignored him.
I followed Kathy, her trolley wheels squeaking. The sound got worse as it was filled with vegetables, cheap meat shrink wrapped on Styrofoam trays, and bags of broken biscuits.
Kathy stopped to talk to a woman with rotten, tea stained teeth. I was bored. We were at the outskirts of town, where the shops were most shabby. House clearance stores and a refurbished washing machine outlet. I wandered along the pavement a way until something stopped me. The peeling sign over the shop window read “Ricky’s Reptiles”. The display was full of tanks. Most were empty, but the one at the front contained a pile of terrapins struggling to climb over one another in a dish of water.
The shop door was open, revealing the lino floor that curled up at the corners. It was a shade of blue that verged on grey, or maybe it was just dirty. I could see the lights from the tanks. The fish were darting flashes of wild colour or else they drifted on gossamer fins. I was drawn in. The man behind the counter looked up and smiled, but to his credit he didn’t try and talk to me, otherwise I would’ve run.
Then I saw it, a long tank along the back wall. I went closer. The snake was magnificent, from the pale skin on her belly to the brown scales on her back.
She slithered closer, eyeing me and then raised her head and the front third of her body lifted up as if suspended on invisible thread. I put my forehead against the glass.
“She likes you,” the man murmured.
She moved up the side of the tank. I realised that I was swaying in time with her, feeling unity in the motion. I was aware of her body, each muscle moving beneath her skin, her very skeleton. I looked into the snake’s black eyes and could see out of them into my own. The world was on the tip of her forked tongue; my curiosity, the shopkeeper’s sweat and kindness, the soft flavour of the mice in the tank behind the counter.
A hand gripped my shoulder, hard, jerking me back to myself. It was Kathy.
“Get away from that thing.” Her fingers were digging into me. “Don’t you ever come in here again, understand?”
She looked at the snake, shuddering. “God, it’s disgusting. What’s wrong with you?”
She shouted at me all the way home, for putting the wind up her, letting her think some pervert had taken me. I didn’t realise just how afraid she was. That she was looking at me like she didn’t know what she’d birthed.
The novelty of motherhood soon wore off. Ami sat in the armchair of our flat, her toenails painted in the same tangerine shade as her maxi dress. She was sunbed fresh and her lips were demarcated in an unflatteringly pale shade of pink. Her hair was in fat rollers ready for her evening out.
“Guess where I went today?” she asked, her voice bright and brittle.
“Where, doll?” Kath puffed on her cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke away from us.
If Ami was slim, Kath was scrawny. The skin on her neck and chest was wrinkled from the lack of padding and twenty-five cigarettes a day. She wore a series of gold chains and her hands were rough and red from perpetual cleaning. Her face was unbalanced: nose too small and large ears that stuck out. Round eyes that never saw make-up. I forget sometimes, that she was only twenty-four then.
“To see Kenny.”
Tallulah got up and I thought she was leaving me for Ami but she was just fetching her teddy. When she sat back down next to me, she wriggled against me to get comfortable. Ami bought Tallulah’s clothes. Ridiculous, expensive things to dress a toddler in, old fashioned and frilly.
“Kenny always asks after you.” Ami filled the silence.
“Does he?” Kath tipped the ash from her cigarette into the empty packet. God love her, she didn’t have many vices.
“He never says but he’s hurt. It’s all over his face when I walk in and you’re not with me. You’re not showing him much respect or loyalty. All he wants to do is look after you and Lola, like he looks after me and Tallulah.”
“I don’t want Kenny’s money. He’s not Robin Hood. He beat a man to death.”
“He’s our brother.”
Which was funny, because I didn’t know that I had an uncle.
Kath’s face was a shutter slamming shut.
“He loves to see pictures of Lola.”
“Photos? You showed him photos?” Kath was blowing herself for a fight.
“I only showed him some pictures. He wanted to see her. What’s up with you?”
“Lola’s my business. No one else’s.”
“Well, I’m taking Tallulah for him to see next time.”
“No, you’re not. Not to a prison.”
“She’s mine. I’ll take her where the fuck I want.”
“You’ve done well to remember you’ve got a daughter.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You’re always out with your bloody mates. You treat me like an unpaid baby sitter. She spends more time here than with you and then you’ve got the cheek to tell me to mind my own.”
“So it’s about money?”
“No,” Kath threw up her hands, “it’s about you being a selfish, spoilt brat. I’m your sister, not your mum. And it’s about how you treat Tallulah.”
“At least I know who her dad is.”
Kath slapped her face. A sudden bolt that silenced them both. It left a red flush on Ami’s cheek. Whenever I asked about my dad, Kath told me that she’d found me in a skip.
“I’m sorry, Ami…” Kath put out her hands. “I didn’t mean to. I mean…”
“Tallulah,” Ami snapped, holding out her hand.
Tallulah looked from me to Kath, her eyes wide. Ami pulled her up by the arm. She screamed.
“Be careful with her.”
“Or what, Kath?” Ami lifted Tallulah up, putting her under one arm like she was a parcel. “Are you going to call Social Services? Fuck off.”
Calling Social Services was a crime akin to calling the police.
Tallulah was in a full on tantrum by then, back arched and legs kicking. Fierce for her size, she proved too much for Ami who threw her down on the sofa. She lay there, tear stained and rigid. Ami had started to cry too. “Stay here then, see if I sodding care.”
There are times when I feel lost, even to myself, and that what looks out from behind my eyes isn’t human.
I’m reminded of it each day as I go to work at the School of Tropical Medicine.
Peter, one of the biochemists from the lab downstairs has come up for a batch of venom. He watches me milk the snakes when he can overcome his revulsion.
Michael, my assistant, tips the green mamba out of her box. I pin her down with a forked metal stick, while Michael does the same, further along her body. I clamp a hand just beneath her neck, thanking her silently for enduring the indignity of this charade. If it were just the two of us, she’d come to me without all this manhandling. I’ll make it up to her later with mice and kisses. She’s gorgeous in an intense shade of green, her head pointed.
“You have to stop that work when you get too old,” says Peter, “you know, reflexes getting slow and all that.”
The deaths of herpetologist are as fabled as snakes are touchy. There’s no room for lax habits or slowness. Handled safely for years, a snake can turn on you, resulting in a blackened, withered limb, blood pouring from every orifice, paralysis and blindness, if not death.
Peter’s a predator. He’s been a swine to me since I knocked him back. I turn to him with the snake still in my hand. She hisses at him and he shrinks away.
I hook the mamba’s mouth over the edge of the glass and apply gentle pressure. The venom runs down the side and collects in a pool.
What Peter doesn’t know is that when my darlings and I are alone I hold them in my arms and let them wind around my neck. Our adoration is mutual. They’re the easy part of my job.
“They like Eliza,” Michael is offended on my behalf. There’s not been a bite since I’ve been here.
“Concentrate.” I snap at him as he brings the mamba’s box to me. I regret my churlishness straight away. Michael is always pleasant with me. He never takes offence at my lack of social graces but someday he will.
Snakes are easy. It’s people that I don’t know how to charm.
Tallulah trailed along beside me. She looked like a doll in her school uniform; pleated skirt and leather buckled shoes. I didn’t begrudge her the lovely clothes that Ami bought her. She jumped, a kittenish leap, and then she took my hand. We swung arms as we walked.
We turned onto Cathcart Street. Laird Tower was ahead of us, dwarfing the bungalows opposite. Those used by the elderly or infirm were marked out by white grab handles and key safes.
A pair of girls sat on a wall. They jumped down when they saw us. School celebrities, these playground queens, who knew how to bruise you with a word. They’d hurt you for not being like them, or not wanting to be like them.
“Is she your sister?” Jade, the shorter one asked Tallulah.
“No,” Tallulah began, “she’s…”
“Of course not,” Jade cut across her, keen to get out the rehearsed speech. Jade didn’t like my prowess in lessons. I tried to hide it, but it occasionally burst out of me. I liked the teacher. I liked homework. I even liked the school, built in red brick, that managed to still look like a Victorian poorhouse.
Jade was sly enough not to goad me for that, going for my weakness, not my strength. “You’re too pretty to be Lola’s sister. Look at her ugly mug.”
It was true. I remained resolutely strange; my features had failed to rearrange themselves into something that would pass for normal. Also, my sight had rapidly deteriorated in the last few months and my thick lenses magnified my eyes.
“Be careful.” Jade leant down into Tallulah’s face. “You’ll catch her ugliness.”
Tallulah pushed her, hard, both of her small hands on her chest. Jade fell backwards a few steps, surprised by the attack. She raised a fist to hit Tallulah.
My blood was set alight, venom rising. Water brash filled my mouth as if I were about to be sick. I snatched at Jade’s hand and sunk my teeth into her meaty forearm, drawing blood. I could taste her shock and fear. If she was screaming, I couldn’t hear her. I only let go when her friend punched me on the ear.
After I’d apologised I sat in the corner of the room while Kath and Pauline, Jade’s mum, talked.
“I thought it would be good if we sorted it out between us, like grown ups,” Pauline said.
Social Services had already been round to confirm that I was the culprit.
Has she ever done anything like this before?
No, Kathy was calm and firm, Lola wasn’t brought up that way.
“I’m so sorry about what happened.” Pauline lifted her mug of tea, her hand trembling a fraction. She took a sip and set it down, not picking it up again.
“Why?” Kath sat up straighter. “Lola bit Jade. I’m sorry and I’ll make sure that she is too by the time I’m done with her.”
“Yes, but Jade was picking on her.”
“That’s no excuse for what Lola did. She should’ve just walked away.”
“It’s time that someone cut Jade down to size.”
“My daughter bit yours.” Exasperation raised Kathy’s voice a full octave.
“She was asking for it.”
Kathy shook her head. Then, “How is she?”
Jade had lain on the pavement, twitching. Red marks streaked up her arm, marking the veins.
“She’s doing okay,” Pauline swallowed. “She’s on antibiotics. She’s a bit off colour, that’s all.”
“The police and Social Services came round earlier.”
“I’ve not complained. I’m not a nark. I’d never do that.”
“I didn’t say you had.”
“You’ll tell Kenny, won’t you? We’re not grasses. We won’t cause you any bother. I’ll skin Jade if she comes near your girls again.” We were known as Kathy’s girls.
“Kenny?” Kathy repeated dully.
“Please. Will you talk to him?”
Kath was about to say something but then deflated in the chair.
“Ami’s says she’s visiting him soon, so I’ll make sure he gets the message.”
Kathy closed the door after Pauline had gone.
“What did you do to her?” It was the first time she’d looked at me properly since it had happened.
“It wasn’t her fault.” Tallulah stood between us. “She was going to hit me.”
“What did you do to her?” Kathy pushed her aside. “Her arm swelled up and she’s got blood poisoning.”
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “It just happened.”
She slapped me. I put my hands out to stop her but she carried on, backing me into the bedroom. She pushed me down on the floor. I curled my hands over my head.
“I didn’t bring you up to be like that.” Her strength now was focused in a fist. Kathy had hit me before, but never like that. “I swear I’ll kill you if you ever do anything like that again. You fucking little monster.”
She was sobbing and shrieking. Tallulah was crying and trying to pull her off. Kathy continued to punch me until her arm grew tired. “You’re a monster, just like your father.”
We stayed in our bedroom that night, Tallulah and I. We could hear Kathy banging about the flat. First, the vacuum hitting the skirting boards as she pulled it around. A neighbour thumped on the wall and she shouted back, but turned it off and took to the bathroom. She’d be at it all night, until her hands were raw. The smell of bleach was a signal of her distress. There were times when I thought I’d choke on the stench.
The skin on my face felt tight and sore, as if shrunken by tears. Tallulah rolled up my t-shirt to inspect the bruises on my back. There was a change coming, fast, as the shock of Kathy’s onslaught wore off.
It hurt when Tallulah touched me. It wasn’t just the skin on my face that felt wrong. It was all over. I rubbed my head against the carpet, an instinctual movement as I felt I’d got a cowl covering my face. The skin ripped.
“I’ll get Kathy.”
“No, wait.” I grabbed her wrist. “Stay with me.” My skin had become a fibrous sheath, my very bones remoulding. My ribs shrank and my slim pelvis and limbs became vestigial. My paired organs rearranged themselves, one pushed below the other except my lungs. I gasped as one of those collapsed. I could feel my diaphragm tearing; the wrenching of it doubled me over.
I writhed on the floor. There was no blood. What came away in the harsh lamplight was translucent. Tallulah held me as I sloughed off my skin which fell away to reveal scales. She gathered the coils of me into her lap. We lay down and I curled around her.
I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. When I put out my forked tongue I could taste Tallulah’s every molecule in the air.
The morning light came through the thin curtain. Tallulah was beside me. I had legs again. I put a hand to my mouth. My tongue was whole. My flesh felt new. More than that, I could see. When I put my glasses on the world became blurred. I didn’t need them anymore. The very surface of my eyes had been reborn.
My shed skin felt fibrous and hard. I bundled it up into a plastic bag and stuffed it in my wardrobe. Tallulah stretched as she watched me, her hands and feet splayed.
“Tallulah, what am I? Am I a monster?”
She sat up and leant against me, her chin on my shoulder.
“Yes, you’re my monster.”
I ache for the splendid shabbiness of my former life, when it was just Kath, Tallulah, and me in the flat, the curtains drawn against the world and the telly droning on in the background. Tallulah and I would dance around Kath, while she swatted us away. The smell of bleach and furniture polish is forever home. Kath complaining when I kept turning the heating up. Being cold made me sluggish.
Endless, innocuous days and nights that I should’ve savoured more.
“How was your test?”
“Crap.” Tallulah threw down her bag. “Hi, Kath.”
“Hi, love,” Kathy shouted back from the kitchen.
Tallulah, school uniformed, big diva hair so blonde that it was almost white, a flick of kohl expertly applied at the corner of her eyes.
“I’m thick, not like you.” She kicked off her shoes.
“You’re not thick. Just lazy.”
She laughed and lay on her belly beside me, in front of the TV. She smelt of candy floss scent that she’d stolen from her mum. Tallulah was the sweetest thing.
There was the sound of the key in the door. I looked at Tallulah. Only her mum had a key. We could hear Ami’s voice, followed by a man’s laugh. A foreign sound in the flat. Kathy came out of the kitchen, tea towel in hand.
Ami stood in the doorway, flushed and excited, as if she was about to present a visiting dignitary.
“Kath, there’s someone here to see you.”
She stood aside. I didn’t recognise the man. He was bald and scarred. Kathy sat down on the sofa arm, looking the colour of a dirty dishrag.
“Oh, God,” he said, “aren’t you a bunch of princesses?”
“Kenny, when did you get out?” Kath asked.
“A little while ago.” He took off his jacket and threw it down. A snake tattoo coiled up his arm and disappeared under the sleeve of his t-shirt. It wasn’t the kind of body art I was used to. This hadn’t been driven into the skin in a fit of self loathing or by a ham fisted amateur. It was faded but beautiful. It rippled as Kenny moved, invigorated by his muscles.
“Come and hug me, Kath.”
She got up, robotic, and went to him, tolerating his embrace, her arms stiff by her sides.
“I’ve brought us something to celebrate.”
He handed her a plastic bag and she pulled out a bottle of vodka and a packet of Jammy Dodgers.
“Just like when we were kids, eh?” he grinned.
“See, Kenny’s got no hard feelings about you staying away.” Ami was keen to be involved. “He’s just glad to be home.”
They both ignored her.
“Now, girls, come and kiss your uncle. You first, Tallulah.”
“Well, go on.” Ami gave her a shove.
She pecked his cheek and then shot away, which seemed to amuse him. Then it was my turn. Kath stood close to us while Kenny held me at arm’s length.
“How old are you now, girl?”
“You were born after I went inside.” He sighed. “You’ve got the family’s ugly gene like me and your mum but you’ll do.”
For what? I thought.
Kenny put his fleshy hand around Kath’s neck and pressed his forehead against hers. Kathy, who didn’t like kisses or cuddles from anyone, flinched. I’d never seen her touched so much.
“I’m home now. We’ll not talk about these past, dark years. It’ll be how it was before. Better. You’ll see. Us taking care of each other.”
Georgia’s unusual for a photographer in that she’s more beautiful than her models. They’re gap toothed, gawky things that only find luminosity through the lens. Georgia’s arresting in the flesh.
I hover beside our host who’s introducing me to everyone as though I’m a curio. We approach a group who talk too loudly, as if they’re the epicentre of the party.
“I find Georgia distant. And ambitious.”
“She lives on Martin’s Heath. In one of the old houses.”
“Bloody hell, is that family money?”
“Rosie, you’ve modelled for Georgia. Have you been there?”
Rosie sounds so quiet and reflective that the pain of her unrequited love is palpable. At least I hope it’s unrequited.
“Have you seen her girlfriend?”
“Everyone, meet Eliza,” our host steps in before they have a chance to pronounce judgement on me within my earshot, “Georgia’s partner.”
I shake hands with each of them.
“Georgia’s last shoot made waves. And I didn’t realise that she was such a stunner.”
We all look over at Georgia. Among all the overdressed butterflies, she wears black trousers, a white shirt, and oxblood brogues.
“Don’t tell her that,” I smile. “She doesn’t like it.”
“Why? Doesn’t every woman want that?” The man falters, as if he’s just remembered that I’m a woman too.
These people with their interminable words. I came from a place where a slap sufficed.
“Don’t be dull,” I put him down. “She’s much more than her face.”
“What do you do, Eliza?” another one of them asks, unperturbed by my rudeness.
“I’m a herpetologist.”
They shudder with delicious revulsion.
I glance back to Georgia. A man with long blonde hair reaches out to touch her forearm and he shows her something on his tablet.
I’m a pretender in my own life, in this relationship. I know how my jealousy will play out when we get home. I’ll struggle to circumnavigate all the gentility and civility that makes me want to scream.
Eventually Georgia will say, What’s the matter? Just tell me instead of trying to pick a fight.
She’ll never be provoked, this gracious woman, to display any savagery of feeling. I should know better than to try and measure the breadth and depth of love by its noise and dramas but there are times that I crave it, as if it’s proof that love is alive.
Ami took Tallulah away with her the first night that Kenny came to the flat.
“But it’s a school night. And all my stuff’s here.”
“You’re not going to school tomorrow.” Ami picked up her handbag. “We’re going out with Kenny.”
Tallulah didn’t move.
“Mind your mum, there’s a good girl.” Kenny didn’t even look up.
After the front door closed, Kathy locked and chained it.
“Get your rucksack. Put some clothes in a bag. Don’t pack anything you don’t need.”
“Why?” I followed her into her bedroom.
“Just get your stuff.”
“What about college?”
Kathy tipped out drawers, rifling through the untidy piles that she’d made on the floor.
“What about Tallulah?”
She sank down on the bed.
“There’s always someone that I have to stay for. Mum. Ami. Tallulah.” She slammed her fist down on the duvet. “If it had been just us, we’d have been gone long ago.”
She wasn’t listening to me anymore.
“I waited too long. I should’ve run when I had the chance. Fuck everyone.”
She lay down, her face to the wall. I tried to put my arms around her but she shrunk from me, which she always did when I touched her and which never failed to hurt me.
If we were his princesses then Kenny considered himself king.
“Kath, stop fussing and come and sit down. It’s good to be back among women. Without women, men are uncivilised creatures.” He winked at me. “Tell me about Ma’s funeral again, Kath.”
Ami sat beside him, looking up at him.
“There were black horses with plumes and brasses. Her casket was in a glass carriage.” Kath’s delivery was wooden.
“And all the boys were there?”
“Yes, Kenny. All the men, in their suits, gold sovereign rings, and tattoos.”
“Good,” he said, “I would’ve been offended otherwise. Those boys owe me and they know it. I did time for them. Do you know the story?”
“Bits,” Tallulah said.
“I told her, Kenny.” Ami was keen to show her allegiance.
“You were what, twelve?” He snorted. “You remember nothing. We did a job in Liverpool. A jeweller who lived in one of those massive houses around Sefton Park. We heard he was dealing in stolen diamonds. I went in first,” he thumped his chest. “At twenty-three I was much thinner back then, could get into all sorts of tight spots. I let the others in afterwards. We found his money but he kept insisting the diamonds were hidden in the fireplace, but his hidey hole was empty. He kept acting all surprised. He wouldn’t tell, no matter what.” Kenny shrugged. “Someone grassed. A copper picked me up near home. Under my coat, my shirt was covered in his blood. I kept my trap shut and did the time. The others were safe. Eighteen years inside. My only regret is what happened to Ma. And missing her funeral.”
“There were white flowers, everywhere, spelling out her name.” Ami said. He patted her arm in an absent way, like she was a cat mithering for strokes.
“I wish they’d let me out for it. Ma was a proper princess, girls. She was touched, God bless her, but she was a princess.”
Kath sat with her hands folded on her knees.
“Do you remember what Dad said when he was dying?”
Kath stayed quiet.
“He said, You’re the man of the house, Kenny. And you’re the mother, Kathy. Kenny, you have to look after these girls. Poor Ma, so fragile. When I heard about her stroke, I was beside myself. It was the shock of me being sent down that did it. Whoever grassed me up has to pay for that, too. I should’ve been here, taking care of you all.”
“I managed,” Kathy squeezed the words out.
“I know. I hate to think of you, nursing Ma when you also had a baby to look after. You were meant for better things. We didn’t always live in this shithole, girls. We grew up in a big rambling house. You won’t remember much of it, Ami. Dad bred snakes. He was a specialist. And Ma, she was a real lady. They were educated people, not like ‘round here.”
The words stuck in my gut. ‘Round here was all I knew.
“Happy days, weren’t they, Mouse?” Kenny looked directly at Kathy, waiting.
“Mouse,” Ami laughed like she’d only just noticed Kathy’s big eyes and protruding ears, “I’d forgotten that.”
Mouse. A nickname that diminished her.
“What’s my pet name?” Ami pouted.
“You’re just Ami.” He said it like she was something flat and dead, not shifting his gaze from Kathy.
There it was. Even then, I could see that Kathy was at the centre of everything and Ami was just the means to reach her.
There’s a photograph in our bedroom that Georgia took of me while we were travelling around South America. It embarrasses me because of its dimensions and scares me, because Georgia has managed to make me look like some kind of modern Eve, desirable in a way that I’ll never be again. My hair is loose and uncombed and the python around my shoulders is handsome in dappled, autumnal shades. My expression is of unguarded pleasure.
“Let’s stay here, forever,” I said to her when she put the lens cap back on, “It’s paradise.”
What I was really thinking was What would it be like to change, forever, and have the whole jungle as my domain?
“Do you love it that much?” Georgia replied in a way that suggested she didn’t. “And put him down. Poor thing. If he’s caught he’ll end up as a handbag.”
So it is that serpents are reviled when it’s man that is repulsive.
I got off the bus at the end of Argyll Street and walked towards home. Kenny sat on a plastic chair outside The Saddle pub, drinking a pint. He was waiting for me.
“What have you been doing today?” He abandoned his drink and followed me.
“Biology.” I was at college, in town.
“Clever girl. That’s from your grandparents. I used to be smart like that. You wouldn’t think it to look at me.”
There was an odd, puppyish eagerness to Kenny as he bounced along beside me. I darted across the road when there was a gap in the traffic. The railway line was on the other side of the fence, down a steep bank. Part way down the embankment was a rolled up carpet, wet and rotted, and the shopping trolley that it had been transported in.
“Let me carry your bag. It looks heavy.”
“I can manage.”
“I wasn’t always like this. I had to change for us to survive. Fighting and stealing,” he shook his head, embarrassed. “I only became brutal to stop us being brutalised. Do you understand?”
The sky had darkened. Rain was on its way.
“We lost everything when Dad died. The house. The money. Your grandma lost her mind. It was the shock of having to live here. We were posh and we paid for that. On our first day at school a lad was picking on Kathy. Do you know what I did? I bit him, Lola. Right on the face. He swelled up like a red balloon. He nearly choked. Nobody picks on my princesses.”
Nobody except him.
“Are you special, Lola?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
I dodged him as he tried to block my path. Tallulah wouldn’t have told him anything. Ami though, she had told him to prevent Pauline and Jade getting a battering.
“I can wait,” he didn’t pursue me, just stood there in the drizzle. “We have lots of time now.”
“We’re going for a ride today.” Kenny followed Kath into the kitchen. He’d started turning up at the flat every day.
“I can’t, Kenny, I’ve got loads to do.”
“It can all wait.”
Kenny had the last word.
“Where are we going?” Tallulah asked.
“You’re not going anywhere except to Ami’s. She needs to get her house in order. A girl needs her mum. She’s sorting your bedroom, so you’re going to live with her. Properly.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Want’s not in it.”
Kathy stood between them. He pushed her aside.
“I live here.” Tallulah wouldn’t be moved.
“You live where I tell you.” He had this way of standing close to you, to make himself seem more imposing, and lowering his voice. “You act like you’re something with that pretty little face of yours. Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re not special. You’re fucking Mikey Flynn’s daughter. And he’s a piece of dead scum.”
Poor Mikey Flynn, rumoured to have done a runner. I wondered where Kenny had him buried.
“Go home, Tallulah.” Kathy raised her chin. “Kenny’s right. You’re not my girl. You should be with your own mother.”
Tallulah’s eyes widened. I could see the tears starting to pool there.
“Go on, then,” Kathy carried on, “you don’t belong here.”
“Mum,” I opened my mouth.
“Shut it.” Kathy turned on me. “I’ve been soft on you pair for too long. Now help Tallulah take her stuff to Ami’s.”
“No,” Kenny put a hand on my arm, “Lola stays with us.”
As Kenny drove, the terraces changed to semis and then detached houses. Finally there were open fields. It felt like he’d taken us hours away but it wasn’t more than thirty minutes. We turned up an overgrown drive. Branches whipped the windscreen as Kenny drove.
“Kenny.” Kath’s voice was ripped from her throat. He patted her hand.
The drive ended at a large house, dark bricked with tall windows. It might as well have been a castle for all its unfamiliar grandeur. Overgrown rhododendrons crowded around it, shedding pink and red blossoms that were long past their best.
Kenny got out, not looking back to see if we were following.
Kath stood at the bottom of the steps, looking up at the open front door. There were plenty of window bars and metal shutters where I grew up, but the windows here were protected by wrought iron foliage in which metal snakes were entwined. The interior was dim. I could hear Kenny’s footsteps as he walked inside.
“This is where we used to live.” Kathy’s face was blank. She went in, a sleep walker in her own life. I followed her.
“Welcome home.” Kenny was behind the door. He locked it and put the key on a chain around his neck.
Kenny showed us from room to room as if we were prospective buyers, not prisoners. Every door had a lock and every window was decorated in the same metal lattice work.
I stopped at a set of double doors but Kenny steered me away from it. “Later. Look through here, Kathy. Do you remember the old Aga? Shame they ripped it out. I thought we could get a new one.”
He led us on to the lounge, waving his arm with a flourish.
“I couldn’t bring you here without buying some new furniture.” He kept glancing at Kathy. “What do you think?”
The room smelt of new carpet. It was a dusky pink, to match the sofa, and the curtains were heavy cream with rose buds on them. Things an old woman might have picked.
“I bought it for us.” He slung his arm around her neck. It looked like a noose. “You and me, here again, no interference.” His face was soft. “I’ve plenty of money. I can get more.”
“Go and play,” Kath said to me.
It’ll shame me forever that I was angry at her for talking to me like I was a child when all she was trying to do was get me out of his way.
I went, then crawled back on my belly to watch them through the gap in the door.
Kath broke away from him and sat down. Kenny followed her, sinking down to lay his head on her knee. Her hand hovered over him, the muscles in her throat moving as she swallowed hard. Then she stroked his head. He buried his face in her lap, moaning.
“What happened to us, Mouse?”
Mouse. He’d swallow her whole. He’d crush her.
“You said you can get more money. Do you mean the money from the job in Liverpool?”
He moved quickly, sitting beside Kathy with his thigh wedged against the length of hers.
“Yes.” He interlaced their fingers, making their hands a single fist. “I want you to know that I didn’t kill anyone.”
“You didn’t? You were covered in blood.”
“It was Barry’s son, Carl. He always had a screw loose. The man wouldn’t tell us where the diamonds were and Carl just freaked. He kept on beating him.”
“But you admitted it.”
“Who would believe me if I denied it? I did the time. Barry was very grateful. I knew it would set us up for life. I hated waiting for you. I imagined slipping out between the bars to come to you. I was tempted so many times. I hated the parole board. There were diamonds, Kath. I took them before I let the others in. I stopped here and buried them under the wall at the bottom of the garden. I nearly got caught doing it. Then the police picked me up, on my way back to you. That’s why I had to do the stretch, so nobody would suspect. They’re safe, now. Shankly’s looking after what’s left of them.” He laughed at his own cryptic comment. Every Merseysider knew the deceased Bill Shankly, iconic once-manager of Liverpool Football Club. “Did I do right, Kath?”
Then she did something surprising. She kissed him. He writhed under her touch.
“Mouse, was there anyone else while I was inside?”
“No, Kenny. There’s never been anybody else.”
He basked in that.
“It’ll be just like I said.”
I sensed her hesitation. So did he.
“It won’t be like we said though, will it?”
“It should be just us two.” She leant closer to him. “Lola’s grown up now. She can look after herself.”
“Lola’s just a kid.”
“I was a mother at her age.” She put her hand on his arm.
“No, she stays.”
Her hand dropped.
“Lola,” Kenny called out. “Never let me catch you eavesdropping again. Understand?”
“I’ll just say goodnight to Lola.” Kath stood in the doorway to my new bedroom, as if this game of fucked-up families was natural.
“Don’t be long.”
I sat on the bed. The new quilt cover and pillow case smelt funny. Kenny had put them on straight out of the packaging without washing them first. They still bore the sharp creases of their confinement.
“Lola,” Kathy pulled me up and whispered to me. “He said to me, when we were kids, ‘I’m going to put a baby in you and it’s going to be special, like me and Dad,’ as if I had nothing to do with it. I can’t stand him touching me. When I felt you moving inside me, I was terrified you’d be a squirming snake, but you were mine. I’d do anything to get him away from us and Ami. I was the one who told the police.”
Uncle. Father. Any wonder that I’m monstrous?
“Kenny’s always been wrong. He thought it was from Dad, although he never saw him do it. It’s from Mum. It drove her mad, holding it in. She nearly turned when she had her stroke. I have to know, can you do it too?”
“We can’t waste time. Can you turn into,” she hesitated, “a snake?”
“Yes.” I couldn’t meet her gaze.
“Good. Do it as soon as I leave.” She opened the window. “Go out through the bars. Will you fit?”
“I don’t know if I can. I’m not sure that I can do it at will.”
“Try. Get out of here.”
Panic rose in my chest. “What about you?”
“I’m going to do what I should’ve done a long time ago.” She showed me the paring knife in her back pocket and then pulled her baggy sweater back over it. It must’ve been all she had time to grab. “I won’t be far behind you.”
“What if you’re not?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” she paused, “I’m sorry for not being stronger. I’m sorry for not getting you away from here.”
“Kathy,” Kenny’s voice boomed from the corridor, “time for bed.”
After she left I heard the key turn in the lock.
I went through the drawers and wardrobe. Kenny had filled them with clothes. I didn’t want to touch anything that had come from him. There was nothing that I could use as a weapon or to help me escape.
I’d not changed since the time I’d bitten Jade. I lay down, trying to slow my breathing and concentrate. Nothing happened. The silence filled my mind along with all the things he would be doing to Kathy.
I dozed, somewhere towards early morning, wakening frequently in the unfamiliar room. I missed Tallulah beside me in the bed we’d shared since childhood. I missed her warmth and tangle of hair.
When Kenny let me out it was late afternoon.
“Where’s my mum?”
There was a chest freezer in the basement. Kenny lifted the lid. Kathy was inside, frozen in a slumped position, arms crossed over her middle. Frozen blood glittered on the gash in her head and frosted one side of her face.
Kenny put his hand on my shoulder like we were mourners at a wake. I should’ve been kicking and screaming, but I was as frozen as she was.
One of Kathy’s wrists was contorted at an unnatural angle.
“She betrayed me. I always knew it, in my heart.” He shut the lid. “Now it’s just you and me, kid.”
He took me up through the house, to the room at the back with the double doors. There were dozens of tanks that cast a glow. Some contained a single serpent, others several that were coiled together like heaps of intestines.
“My beauties. I’ll start breeding them.”
There were corn snakes, ball pythons, ribbon snakes, though I had no names for them back then, all of which make good pets. I stopped at one tank. He had a broad head with a blunted snout.
“Ah, meet Shankly.” Kenny put his hand against the glass. “He was hard to come by. They’re called cottonmouths because they open their mouths so wide to show their fangs that you see all the white lining inside.”
The cottonmouth must have been young. I remember his olive green colour and the clear banded pattern on his back, which he would lose as he got older.
“Are you special, Kathy?”
“Yes, of course you are. Are you like me?”
“I’m nothing like you. Leave me alone.”
“I’ll look after you. Like you’re a princess. You’ll want for nothing. And you’ll look after me because that’s how it works.”
“Don’t fucking touch me.”
Kenny pressed my face against the tank. Shankly showed me his pale underbelly as he slid towards me.
“Be afraid of him,” Kenny nodded at the snake, “he still has his fangs. I’ll make a mint from his venom.”
Shankly climbed up a branch in his tank and settled there.
Kenny pushed me down with one hand and undid his belt buckle with the other.
“I’m your daughter.” It was my last defence.
Then he put his forked tongue in my mouth.
I couldn’t move. The place between my legs was numb. I’d already tried sex with a boy from college. I knew what it was about. We’d fumbled and fallen in a heap in the bushes by the old boating lake one afternoon. It wasn’t an experience to set the world alight but it was satisfactory enough.
This wasn’t just a sex crime, it was a power crime. Kenny wanted my fear. I shrunk into the distant corners of myself trying to retreat where he couldn’t follow. His orgasm was grudging, delivered with a short, gratified moan.
Afterwards he sat with his trousers open, watching me like he was waiting for me to do something. I was frozen. I’m not sure I even blinked. That was how Kathy must have felt, forever stuck in that single moment of inertia and shock that kept her in the same spot for a lifetime. She was right. She should have run while she had the chance. Fuck her mother. And Ami, for all the good she’d done her.
Kenny stood up. I thought, It’s going to happen again and then he’s going to dump me in the freezer. Instead, he went upstairs, his tread heavy with disappointment.
“Don’t stay up too late, pet.”
I think I was waiting for something too, when I should’ve been searching for something sharp to stick between his ribs. I couldn’t summon anything; I was still too deep inside myself.
I was colder than I’d ever been before, even though the summer night was stifling. The room felt airless despite the window being wide open and butting up against the grille. Sometimes, when Georgia’s away, I feel that cold.
Get up, get up before he remembers you and comes back down for more.
“Lola.” A voice carried through the window.
It was Tallulah, a pale ghost beyond the glass. Her mouth was moving as she clutched at the bars.
I turned my face away, in the childish way of if I can’t see her, then she can’t see me. I didn’t want her to see me like this. It occurred to me that she might have been a witness to the whole thing. I turned back but she’d gone, so I closed my eyes.
I should’ve known that Tallulah would never leave me. The snakes swayed in their tanks, enraptured. Tallulah was long and white, with pale yellow markings. Slender and magnificent. She glided over me and lay on my chest, rearing up. I couldn’t breathe because she took my breath away. I could feel her muscles contracting and her smooth belly scales against my bare chest.
Get up, get up, or he’ll come down and find her like this.
Are you special?
Her tongue flicked out and touched my lips. I had no choice. I had to do it, for her. There was the rush of lubricant that loosened the top layer of my skin. The change was fast, my boyish body, with its flat chest and narrow hips perfectly suited to the transformation.
I crawled out of my human mantle. Moulting was good. I shed every cell of myself that Kenny had touched.
Both Tallulah and I are unidentifiable among my extensive research of snakes, bearing properties of several species at once. We made a perfect pair for hunting. The pits on my face were heat sensitive, able to detect a variation of a thousandth of a degree, feeding information into my optic nerves. I saw the world in thermal. Kenny’s heart was luminous in the dark. I slid up the side of his bed and hovered over his pillow. Tallulah lay beside him on the mattress, waiting.
Look at your princesses, Kenny. See how special we are.
Kenny snored, a gentle, almost purring noise.
It’s a myth that snakes dislocate their jaws.
I opened my mouth as wide as I could, stretching the flexible ligament that joined my lower jaw to my skull. I covered his crown in slow increments. He snorted and twitched. I slipped down over his eyes, his lashes tickling the inside of my throat. He reached up to touch his head.
Tallulah struck him, sinking her fangs into his neck. He started and tried to sit up, limbs flailing, which was a mistake as his accelerating heartbeat sent the venom further around his circulation.
Trying to cover his nose was the hardest part, despite my reconfigured mouth. I thought my head would split open. I wasn’t sure how much more I could stomach. Not that it mattered. I wasn’t trying to swallow him whole. A fraction more and I was over his nostrils completely.
There was only one way to save himself. I recognised the undulations he was making. I could feel the change on my tongue, his skin becoming fibrous. I had to stop him. I couldn’t imagine what he’d become.
He was weakening with Tallulah’s neurotoxins, slumping back on the bed, shaking in an exquisite fit. He’d wet himself. I stretched my flesh further and covered his mouth and waited until long after he was still.
I woke up on the floor beside Tallulah. We were naked. My throat and neck were sore. The corners of my mouth were crusted with dried blood. We lay on our sides, looking at one another without speaking. We were the same, after all.
“How did you find me?” I was hoarse.
“I had to wait until Ami went out. I found the house details in her bedroom drawer. I didn’t have any money so I had to get a bus and walk the rest of the way. I’m sorry that I didn’t get here sooner.”
“It doesn’t matter now.”
Tallulah picked up our clothes and then our skins which lay like shrouds. It was disconcerting to see how they were moulds of us, even down to the contours of our faces.
“I’ll take these with us. We can burn them later.”
I went upstairs. I edged into the darkened room as if Kenny might sit up at any moment. He was a purple, bloated corpse with fang marks in his neck. I fumbled with the chain around his neck, not wanting to touch him.
“Where’s Kathy?” Tallulah asked.
I told her.
“No, I don’t want you to remember her like that.” I seized Tallulah’s face in my hands. “You do know that she didn’t mean what she said, about you not belonging with us? She was trying to protect you.”
Tallulah nodded, her mouth a line. She didn’t cry.
“We have to bury her.”
“We can’t. Tallulah, we have to get out of here. Do you understand? Ami will come for you when she realises you’ve gone. There’s something else.”
I put my hand in the cottonmouth’s tank. It curled up my arm and I lifted it out, holding it up to my cheek. He nudged my face.
“Lift out the bottom.”
Tallulah pulled out bits of twisted branch and foliage, then pulled up the false base. She gasped. Out came bundles of notes and cloth bags. She tipped the contents out on her palm. More diamonds than I could hold in my cupped hands.
We loaded the money into Kenny’s rucksack and tucked the diamonds in our pockets.
“What about the snakes?”
We opened the tanks and carried them outside. I watched them disappear into the undergrowth. Except for Shankly. I put him in a carrier bag and took him with us.
There are days when I wake and I can’t remember who I am, like a disorientated traveller who can’t recall which hotel room of which country they’re in.
I’m hurt that Georgia didn’t want me to collect her from the airport.
There’s been a delay. I won’t get in until late. Go to bed, I’ll get a cab.
I wished now that I’d ignored her and gone anyway instead of lying here in the dark. The harsh fluorescent lights and the near empty corridors of the airport are preferable to the vast darkness of our empty bed.
Not going is a stupid test with which I’ve only hurt myself. I’ve resolutely taken her consideration for indifference. I want her to be upset that I wasn’t there, as if she secretly wanted me there all along.
See, I confuse even myself.
The front door opens and closes. I should get up and go to her. She comes in, marked by the unzipping of her boots and the soft sound of her shedding clothes.
Love isn’t just what you feel for someone when you look at them. It’s how they make you feel about yourself when they look back at you.
Georgia is the coolest, most poised woman that I know. We’re older now and our hearts and flesh aren’t so easily moved but I still wonder what she sees when she looks at me.
“Do you love me?” It’s easier to ask it with the lights off and my head turned away from her.
Everything about us is wrong. We’re lovers, sisters, freaks.
She answers in a way that I have to respond to. I glide across the floor towards her and we become a writhing knot. We hunt mice in our grandiose pile and in the morning we are back here in our bed, entwined together in our nest.
When we wake again as human beings she says, “Of course I love you, monster.”
When we shed the disguises that are Georgia and Eliza, and then the skins that are Lola and Tallulah, we are monsters. Fabulous beasts.
“Fabulous Beasts” copyright © 2015 by Priya Sharma
Art copyright © 2015 by Jeffery Alan Love