What better way to kick off Empowerment Month than with an extract from the debut novella by London-based writer Charlotte Heather? (One day, a horror-film-loving “SheRa Mag” contributor, the next a published fiction author…we couldn’t be prouder.) “Little Visitors” is a dark, quirky tale with a dash of magic realism. It tells the story of Sylva, who works in a cheese shop in suburban Leeds and has just moved in with her boyfriend. Aside from some demanding customers and her alcoholic mother, life seems pretty good. But when she strikes up a friendship with her upstairs neighbor Zachariah Stone, whose flat is filled with peculiar taxidermy, things quickly begin to unravel. For years, she’s managed to suppress her strange, secret talent, but now the little visitors have returned… Intrigued? Read on. And for more, visit the publisher’s website (the pioneering The Pigeonhole, which is revolutionizing the way we consume books) to subscribe to bite-size installments of Charlotte’s novella.
It was a Monday in January, a quiet day for cheese. Sylva unlocked the front door of the shop. She was hit with the cold air that smelled familiarly of must and tang. She moved a grater an inch to the left in the window display. The only sound was the electrical whirring of the fridge. Everything seemed to be in order.
The Big Cheese is a short walk away from suburban woodland where trees scratch at semi-detached houses and roots upheave pavements. Across from the woods is a park that rolls up the hillside, speckled with bushes and empty chip packets, and surrounded by terraced houses. A climbing frame glints in the sun; toddlers are pushed on swings until the light dims and teenagers take their place to practice kissing. In the bushes, sixth graders drink tinnies and roll spliffs by the phone light, ducking down under foliage if a mom walks past, their burning joints blinking through the leaves like warning beacons. Behind the park is a street dotted with shops that camouflage doors to upstairs flats. This is where The Big Cheese is, amid hip bars and trendy gift-shops that shout at passers-by with slick signs. Some lad will take coke in the toilets of a sports bar while their old man nurses a pint of Guinness in The Dancing Quill next door, a pub that still, even post-ban, smells distinctly of stale smoke. The old men wait to be buried in a different plot from their fathers. The graveyard is full. Most of the tombstones are buckled, green, and the names are half worn off by rain. A teddy bear disintegrates beside an angel with a JD Sports bag draped across its wing. Sylva has lived here in Frithton all her life.
Past the graveyard, away from the woods, near the old red-and-white butchers, The Big Cheese is wedged between a lingerie boutique and a squalid barbershop called Dave’s.
It was a Monday in January, and Sylva set up shop. She checked the under-counter fridges for crumbs, the modest wine rack for dust, and beneath the backroom counters for anything else, just in case. The rubber flooring looked all clear. She couldn’t make any mistakes while the business was in her charge.
The shop was pungent. Citrus goat’s cheese scents tripped up earthy ash-rinds; ripe Brie de Meaux fug fought with farmyard whiffs of Cheddar. Sylva was noticing the smell less and less, though. One year was enough to numb the senses. Her only bugbear was going home after fondling the Stinking Bishop for one customer or another. That particular smell lingered, even to her inoculated nostrils.
The clean surfaces were a relief from the jungle of boxes that she had woken up to. Her new home. Moving had seemed thrilling, especially moving in with Joseph, until the packing and unpacking it all over again had begun, the claustrophobic sensation of things not being in their right place. Between them they did not have many belongings, but the task had loomed over her, mammoth and menacing. At least they were halfway there now.
The shop was in a state of calm after Christmas: the usual punters were still nibbling at the gluttonous amounts of cheese they had bought to go with their after-dinner port or wine. It warmed Sylva to think of the customers on Christmas or Boxing Day unwrapping the carefully labeled cheeses she’d put together for them, enjoying her work in retrograde while she was plied with wine by her mother. It wasn’t charity work or anything, but it still felt like a good deed.
She put the kettle on in the back room, keeping the door open so she’d hear the tinkle of the bell that indicated a customer. The sky outside was grey, as grey as it had been the day before. It felt as if the sky above Leeds had always been grey, but that was just the winter feeling talking. She poured the hot water over a Yorkshire Tea bag and stirred.
Twenty-four hours earlier, she had stood with Joseph in front of the wooden door marked 22. She had been holding the key to her new flat so tightly in her fist that the teeth had indented her skin. There were two doorbells: one for A and one for B. B looked as if it had never been pressed.
“Do you want to open it?” she asked Joseph, holding the key out to him.
“You go for it.” He squeezed her hip through the pocket of her duffle coat.
Inside, the floor was littered with post—some junk mail for the previous tenants of 22A and some letters for a Mr Z. Stone at 22B. Dead leaves nestled under the envelopes, and the hallway paint had flaked off the walls, dandruffing the rough carpet. As they climbed up to the first floor, each step creaked at a different pitch.
The key turned a little stiffly in the lock. The sound of it grated against her eardrums. Sylva smiled up at Joseph as she pushed open the door. This was it.
“Are you ready to live with a smelly boy?” he laughed, kissing the back of her head.
“Just don’t leave beard stubble in the sink.”
The open-plan living room and kitchen were tinged with the smell of fresh paint and something like carpet cleaner. Someone, probably the landlord, had painted patches of the walls, and the new squares of rough white, embedded with tiny fibers from the roller, stood out under the glare of the unshaded light bulb. The floor was laminate up until the tiles that signified the beginning of the kitchen area. A blue couch sagged against the adjacent wall, indented with the seating of many bottoms. Sylva tried to subtly bend and glance beneath it, but it was just darkness. The flat was modest, but it would do fine for two people.
“We could put one of your paintings there, and a telly here?” Joseph pointed to various expanses of blank wall.
Sylva frowned. She picked at the dry skin around her nails, peeling it then biting it off. She was supposed to be the one with imagination, but she couldn’t see the flat as anything but empty. Beneath the odor of paint and Dettol there was something stale and dusty. She looked forward to giving the place a good clean and lighting some scented candles once it was done. “Let’s get the boxes in first, eh?”
Joseph’s phone hummed from his pocket. He whipped it out. “Jack’s here with our stuff.” He made his way back out of the flat. “I’ll be one second.”
Alone in the flat, she felt it had no soul. She wondered if anyone had died on the couch. She got on her knees and shone her phone torch underneath it. There was nothing there, no sign of life, human or otherwise. She couldn’t see the flat as hers, as theirs. She ran to the bedroom and checked under the bed then went through the kitchen cabinets. There was nothing left behind. The flat was really, truly empty.
“This place looks great,” Jack said, smiling at the door with Joseph.
“Well, let’s get started,” Sylva said, and they did.
But they didn’t get very far with unpacking once all the boxes were in the flat. They made a slap-dash dinner, found the bedding, and promptly passed out.
Main image illustration by Claudine O’Sullivan.