The cuckoo clock on the wall sounds its hourly alarm, despite being three-quarters past the given time. No one knows whether the lifeless plastic bird with startled eyes is fifteen minutes early or if the clock is behind. Sometimes it is silent for days on end, though the residents swear they still hear it singing.
‘Good morning, sister,’ calls Agnes, descending the stairs and humming as she goes; her hand gliding gracefully down the old banister, pale alabaster skin against the dark wood. She is burgeoning on seventy, but the lithe figure beneath her knee-length floral dress is that of a younger woman.
‘We’re just having breakfast,’ comes a sing-song reply from a room off the hall.
The house is clean and modestly decorated, yet dated. A traditional-looking, round rug sits perfectly centred on the polished parquet floor. Wide double doors open into a vestibule, the stained glass casting distorted coloured shapes across the Anaglypta papered walls.
Mabel, in her dotty apron that’s a touch too small, is already tending to their residents. She’s older and somewhat stouter than Agnes, although they share the same crop of curly blonde hair–Agnes’s resembles a bird’s nest, whereas Mabel’s is neatly combed and set; her powdered face is chubby in comparison to her sister, made more evident by the heavy rouge smudges on her cheeks.
‘Come now, Deborah, eat up. You’re looking a little sallow. Don’t you like your breakfast?’ she queries, trying to feed a spoonful of grey porridge to the inert resident, but it dribbles back out of her dry mouth. Mabel quickly swaps the spoon for a napkin and wipes away the rogue oats as they reach Deborah’s chin. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ she tuts. ‘Now we’re going to have to redo your makeup.’
Agnes joins her sister, sweeping past the dining residents and greeting them as she goes. ‘Good morning, George, finished already?’
But George doesn’t answer. His slightly sunken, cloudy eyes stare blankly into the distance, arms folded in his lap, the buttons on his blue cardigan done up incorrectly.
‘I see the Bowmans are still sulking.’
‘Yes,’ agrees Mabel, turning her attention from Deborah to peer across the room. In the corner, a plainly dressed man and woman appear glum and about as active as their dull attire; the man looks down at a pamphlet while the woman clutches a book of Holy Scriptures. ‘They didn’t understand. We couldn’t let them go running off to that church.’
‘No, it wouldn’t do. I told them it’s not as the Lord planned.’
‘Never mind, Agnes, they’ll soon adjust to being part of our little family,’ reassures Mabel.
Having settled the residents in for a mid-morning nap, the sisters are sitting in their front room. In a chair by the window, Agnes is knitting; her steel needles making a steady rhythmic clack. Mabel sits on the saggy three-seater settee, squinting through her reading glasses at a paperback book. The doorbell rings. Mabel looks over the rim of her specs at Agnes, who suddenly sits up straight and accidentally kicks her ball of wool, sending it bumbling across the carpet. The sisters smile like excited school girls and speak in unison.
They scrabble to get up. Mabel fights against gravity to rise from the soft, low sofa, whilst Agnes collects the stray ball of wool and quickly stows her knitting. They reach the door at the same time, smoothing their dresses before ceremoniously opening the door.
‘Good morning, ladies,’ says a tall, young man in a charcoal grey suit with navy tie, laminated ID hanging around his neck and a clipboard in his hand.
The sisters jostle each other in the doorway, patting their hair as they look the man up and down.
‘I’m from Bright Electric Company, may I ask who your supplier is?’
‘Come in, come in.’ Agnes reaches out a delicate hand and takes the salesman by the arm, pulling him inside, her surprisingly firm grip belying her age.
Mabel’s smile grows as she closes the door then places a sturdy hand on the young man’s shoulder, gently shoving him forward while gesturing toward the living room. ‘Won’t you sit down?’
‘Err, yes, alright, thank you. My name’s Steve.’
There was an unpleasant mix of odours in the air, something chemical masking the faint smell of baked cakes and musty perfume. Steve rubs his nose as if to wipe away the smell and then looks at his blank sales sheet before mustering a smile.
‘We’re Mabel and Agnes Delaney.’
‘Together we’re M.A.D,’ laughs Mabel.
‘With two D’s,’ adds Agnes.
‘We rarely get visitors, but we do so love the company.’
Steve takes in his surroundings and looks at the sisters with raised brows. ‘I see. It’s a lovely house, I bet it costs a lot to run, which supplier do you use?’
Mabel shoos away the question with her hand. ‘Oh, I’m not sure, Father used to take care of all that. Would you like some tea, I’ve just made a pot?’
Before he has the chance to answer, Agnes chimes in, ‘Our father was a mortician. This used to be a funeral home.’ As if that explained everything.
Steve swallows and clears his throat. ‘Tea. Yes, that would be great, thanks.’
The sisters begin pushing each other towards the kitchen and talking quickly yet quietly. Mabel’s size wins out; Agnes exhales sharply as she leaves to fetch the tea. Mabel turns and beams at Steve, then does her best to place herself daintily on the sunken sofa, which protests slightly.
‘So, have you lived here all your life?’ Steve asks.
‘Yes, Father bought the house many years ago and set up his business. Mother used to do the flowers, until she passed.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. At least you have each other.’
‘And our brother, George, we take care of him now, since Father passed. But it’s not so bad, Mother is always with us.’
‘Ahh, in spirit you mean?’
‘Umm,’ says Mabel, her head tilted.
Agnes quickly returns with a silver tea tray. The china cups rattle as she places it down on the coffee table. She passes Steve a plate with a plump fruit scone; he willingly accepts and takes a large bite.
‘I make them fresh every morning,’ says Mabel.
Agnes sets-to pouring the tea.
‘I do enjoy making my sweet little treats.’
‘They’re lovely. What sort of berries are these?’
‘Ah, those are my special ingredient, a family secret.’ She taps the side of her nose.
‘You like cooking then?’
‘I like baking,’ corrects Mabel. ‘Cakes and biscuits; Agnes deals with preserves.’
The sisters share a look.
‘Umm,’ offers Mabel.
‘My mother made chutney once, except the whole lot stuck to the pan… bit of a disaster really. Still, she’s gone now too. It’s just me.’
‘Oh, you’re not married dear?’
‘No. I’m new to the area. I haven’t met many people yet.’
‘That’s a shame, nice young man like you.’ The sisters glance at each other.
Steve looks down at his cup and takes another mouthful of tea. He quickly changes the subject. ‘It must have been a bit scary growing up here, what with the dead bodies?’
‘Oh no, we always enjoyed watching Father work in the morgue, didn’t we Agnes?’
‘Lord yes, we spent hours down in that cellar.’
‘Agnes in particular liked to see how things were done,’ explains Mable.
Steve’s attention was being shifted from one sister to the next, the back and forth between them was making him dizzy.
‘Embalming is a fascinating process,’ says Agnes.
‘And I used to help out with making up the corpses. You know, doing their faces so they looked alive.’
Steve’s scone got temporarily stuck in his throat, making him reach for his tea to help wash it down.
‘After Father died, well, the funeral home closed.’
Steve shifts in his seat and pulls at his shirt collar to loosen his tie.
‘Are you alright dear? You’re looking a little flushed.’
‘I, uh, think I need some air.’
‘Perhaps the bathroom,’ suggests Agnes. ‘Splash a little water on your face. I find that always helps.’
‘Which way?’ he asks.
‘Just down the hall, first door you come to.’
They watch blank faced as Steve staggers out the room and stumbles on the rug before making his way along the hall. He paws at the first door he finds, hoping it’s the bathroom; his sweaty palms slip on the round doorknob before it finally opens and he practically falls into the room, but his relief is short-lived. Standing in the room is a woman; she is poised in front of a table as if arranging the vase of flowers before her, except Steve notices something odd. The woman doesn’t acknowledge his intrusion, just stands fixed, almost frozen, posed like a mannequin. He moves closer and touches her cold face, realises with horror that the woman is made of flesh, albeit a sickly, artificial shade of peach over grey. Agnes and Mabel appear in the doorway.
‘Good, you’ve met Grace, our mother.’ Agnes smiles.
‘Your mother?’ Steve takes in the whole horrific scene. Grace’s legs are crudely attached to metal poles on a square, carpeted floorplate. He shakes his head and blinks. ‘What? Why…why would you keep your dead mother stuffed in your house?’
‘She’s not stuffed,’ Agnes huffs. ‘We’re not taxidermists!’
‘Father preserved Mother after she died, so she’d always be with us.’ Mabel explains.
Steve struggles to remain upright, clinging to a sideboard he realises his limbs are becoming weaker. ‘What have you done to me?’
‘Oh, it’s quite painless. My powerful little berries have a paralytic agent. Soon you won’t be able to move or speak.’
‘But it’s alright, you’ll still be conscious, well…until your heart stops.’ Agnes says the words with clinical detachment.
‘Not to worry though, then you’ll join our little family.’
‘We’re getting quite the collection, aren’t we Mabel?’
They grab an arm each and drag Steve through another door, legs trailing uselessly behind him. His eyes grow wide as he is met with a room full of human statues. Agnes proudly does the rounds, starting with the man in the blue cardigan, his mouth forming an ‘O’ like Munch’s The Scream.
‘This is our brother, George. He didn’t take Father’s passing well and wanted to leave us, but we couldn’t have that, could we Mabel?’
‘Dearie me, no. We needed to keep him with us. Family is important you know.’
‘So you killed him and…’
‘No, no. We loved him, we’re protecting him.’
Agnes proceeds to a younger woman with dark hair, presenting her as if she’s a gameshow prize. ‘Our resident beauty, Deborah.’
‘Deborah used to be an Avon lady. She brought me my lovely makeup.’
‘Nice lady, but lonely and depressed since her divorce.’
‘No family of her own, you see,’ Mabel clarifies.
Agnes moves over to a couple in the corner. ‘Then we have Mr and Mrs Bowman, or Edmund and Susan if you prefer. Jehovah’s Witnesses. So thrilled to be invited in for tea and cake, weren’t they, Mabel?’
‘Delighted. A touch misguided, but now they’re part of our little Kingdom,’ Mabel chuckles.
‘Last, though not for long, is Jim.’
‘We found Jim outside the corner shop, poor fellow was homeless. He did a bit of work for us.’
‘Except Mabel caught him pilfering and we don’t abide thievery.’
Steve tries to move, but can barely talk. ‘You’re m-mad. You can’t k-ill people and em-balm them, keeping them h-ere for your a-muse-ment,’ he manages to mumble and stutter.
‘It’s not for that. We preserve people. We’re saving them.’
‘Sav-ing them?’ Steve spits.
‘A bit like Madame Tussauds isn’t it, Mabel? Except we don’t get the visitor numbers.’
‘You’re ab-so-lutely bar-king the p-air of you.’
With that, the sisters advance on Steve’s prone body.
Down in the cellar, Agnes is at work. ‘What do you think Father? A fine specimen if I do say so myself.’
Old Mr Delaney’s corpse stands at the end of the embalming table, a drunken half-smile on his static face. Tools of his trade in hand.
‘Good. I’m glad you approve,’ she says.
A week later, Mabel is prying open Steve’s jaw to jam a slice of toast between his lips.
‘You really must eat something young man,’ she scolds.
The toast falls from his rigid mouth onto the floor. Mabel sighs and places her hands on her hips. Agnes sniggers from the other side of the room where she is brushing Deborah’s hair.
The doorbell rings and the sister’s eyes light up.
KC Bailey is a writer/poet from the UK. When not writing, reading or walking her dog, she practices Tai Chi and drinks Earl Grey tea, though hasn’t yet mastered the art of doing both at the same time. Publication credits for poetry, fiction and non-fiction include Black Bough Poetry, Monkey Kettle, The Ekphrastic Review, CaféLit and the BBC. She has recently completed her MA in Creative Writing and can be found on Twitter @KCBailey_Writer.