“You threw it over; you get it back!” Sally put her hands on her hips in defiance. Toby knew better than to argue. She should have swung the bat a little earlier and then the ball wouldn’t have gone over the fence into Old Mother Skullface’s garden. Sally was his big sister. Her age was in double figures – just – and she used this fact to assert her seniority over him at every possible opportunity.
“We should be going in now anyway,” he said, looking at his watch.
“When you get the ball back!” Sally pouted. “What’s the matter? You scared?”
Toby did his best to look scandalised but the truth was he would rather kiss a girl with a runny nose than set foot in that garden.
“Scaredy cat!” Sally mocked him.
“I’ll buy you a new ball,” Toby offered.
“I want that one!” Sally gave him a shove. For a split second he was more afraid of her than he was of some empty house, so he agreed to go.
The garden gate squealed in protest at being disturbed. He pushed it open, brushing aside some of the weeds that had colonised the neglected path. Wiping rust on his shorts, Toby scanned the garden for the bright yellow of the wayward tennis ball. He looked at the fence that divided his garden and this one and tried to calculate the ball’s trajectory. Would it have bounced? Would it have rolled away?
Movement in an upstairs window caught his eye. He froze. The house was dark; its painted surfaces were cracked and peeling. The front door was faded and dull. Weeds were sprouting everywhere like the hair in an old man’s ears and nostrils. No one had lived in the house for years. Not within Toby’s lifetime at least.
But the twitch of an upstairs curtain made him think there was someone in there now.
Old Mother Skullface!
Every kid in town knew the story of the crazy old woman who had lived there alone. The crazy old woman who was tormented by the local children. The crazy old woman who had died there alone. The crazy old woman who had not been found until an angry newsagent had called around in person, demanding that she pay her bill. He had found newspapers stacked up on the doorstep and when he’d peered through the letterbox the stench of rotting corpse had made him vomit.
The police said it had taken them a while to identify the body. The crazy old woman had no known relatives and – this was the part that always made Toby sick – the crazy old woman’s cat had eaten her face off. Right down to the skull.
“And now,” Sally would delight in concluding, “Old Mother Skullface is on the hunt for a new face. She will rip yours off and wear it if she catches you, then when she’s finished with it, she’ll feed it to her cat and go looking for a new one.”
Whenever Sally told the tale, nightmares and a wet bed would inevitably follow. Every time there was a report on the news about a child gone missing, Sally would nod significantly and mutter, “Old Mother Skullface.”
Toby’s shorts darkened and urine flowed down his leg. Something else for Sally to mock him about! But there – there it was! The unnatural vividness of the tennis ball. Toby laughed with relief and snatched it from the long grass.
Before he could straighten up, he was knocked to the ground, bowled over by the weight of the cat that had sprung on his back.
“Patience, Tiddles!” a cracked voice snapped. Toby saw the shadowy figure of an old woman, silhouetted against the sunny sky. He froze in terror as he heard her click her lipless jaws together. “It’s my turn first.”