Fantasy short story competition - Runner Up

Catherine Talbot

Runner Up
Nothing Happens to Janet
Fantasy short story competition


Having lived in Japan for two years, Catherine Talbot now lives in Plymouth where she works in project management. This is her second submission to Writing Magazine, so she’s delighted to have placed second as it’s huge encouragement to continue. She’s been writing on and off since she was a teenager and found her passion in writing odd, often dark short stories. In future, she hopes to finish her fantasy novel and publish a short story collection.

Nothing Happens to Janet By Catherine Talbot

Janet was mild as a field of flowers and dreamy as a bird which looks to the horizon, but on one matter she was resolute: nothing exciting could possibly happen to her. She was, after all, in her mid-forties. Too old to be kidnapped by a millionaire overwhelmed by her beauty; too young to find herself rebelling against tyrannical nurses in a retirement home, she was far removed from an adventure story. Children had never quite happened for her, and love, that ‘greatest of all adventures’, had led her into a cul-de-sac five years ago. If you asked Janet to describe herself, she would tell you she was as plain as a cardboard box but in reality, she was more like Tupperware: equally as unassuming, but harder to break.
To Janet, it was as though the music of her life were playing on repeat. Weeknights were blurry with overtime at her office job and weekends fuzzy with reality TV shows. On Sundays she cleaned her house thoroughly while still hazy and aching from the night before: on Saturdays she drank a bottle of wine alone, dropping into bed and sleeping without dreams. On Monday mornings, she would wake to find that her short playlist was inevitably back at the first song.    
One Sunday, having scrubbed the bathroom in a kind of dull daydream, Janet sought out her duster, which was housed within the diagonal slant of her under-the-stairs cupboard. Home to the forgotten, the unused and the neglected, it was a dingy, unlit den of a storage space, with three heavily burdened shelves built into the incline. It smelt of dust and negligence. The shelves were laden with haphazard, half-empty batteries, curious buttons, slapdash screws, battered Christmas decorations and ugly ornaments. On the floor stood a malfunctioning electric fan, a knot of extension cables and a pair of well-loved (or abused) electric blue trainers: once cherished, now tattered.
There was however no duster, which struck Janet as odd because she was – as you might imagine – a person of strict routine, and she distinctly remembered returning it there the week before. She brushed her fingers through the contents of the cupboard as though perusing clothes on a rack; searching without expectation of finding.
The cupboard door swung to with a sigh of exasperation, which should have left Janet in complete darkness. Instead, a vague, crimson light emanated from the gap between the floor and the lowest shelf, glowing like a car’s rear lights. Intrigued and hopeful that this would explain her duster’s disappearance, she lowered herself to her stomach, peering ahead like some curious lizard.
Beyond the boundary of her cupboard, a red mist beckoned.
Wriggling awkwardly on her stomach in crude imitation of a marine at training camp, Janet lugged herself forward into the mist until she was completely through the gap. On the other side, she stood up and gawped at the ceiling: she could not have thrown a rock high enough to hit it now. The space was encased by a light-coloured rock, dyed red by the eery glow. She touched the walls and her fingers came away crusted with gritty residue. Lifting her finger to her nose, she inhaled and, finding it completely odourless, licked. She recognised the familiar fizzle of salt. Before her, a path proceeded in a serpentine wind, as though she were stood in the bottom of a canyon. Behind her, the sheer face of rock towered like some menacing giant, but she noted the gap at its base. Lowering herself back down, she peered through the opening and saw, distantly, the bright blue of her trainers. They looked oddly vulnerable.
‘So, this is where that draft keeps coming from,’ she thought, holding her hand to the cool rock, which drank her heat and gave nothing in return. She was wrong about the draft though: in spite of the high ceilings and insatiable walls, it was distinctly warmer there in that palatial, prehistoric place.
Where the cavern continued, an archway of rock bowed, declaring its message: ‘despere, ye who enter’.
But Janet, who was in the middle of cleaning her house, had come here to find her duster and passed under the disgruntled arch, oblivious as a pheasant. Following the narrow path forward, she found that the temperature was rising with persistence and removed her jumper in response, tying it around her waist. The red light intensified and the air became humid, stuffy, sticking to her skin. Janet’s mood darkened: if she didn’t find her duster soon, she wouldn’t be done with the housework until at least five o’clock, and that would completely throw off the rest of her plans for the evening. She pressed on, undeterred by the odd, animalistic noises echoing from ahead. They were a bizarre combination of baying, scrabbling and slurping.
Finally, Janet turned a corner and the walls fanned out, circling around and kissing one another in greeting, creating a great stone enclosure. The chamber was empty except for the source of the red mist which leaked out from the centre of the floor like a puddle: an immense void, radiating heat, light and noise. Janet could hear shrieks, cries and whimpering, often cut off by snarls and wet, tearing sounds.
‘Janet.’ The noise had no source and yet it was ubiquitous, booming and echoing from wall to wall. ‘I have been waiting for you.’
Perhaps another person would have been more respectful had they been in the same situation. Perhaps they would have greeted the devil and enquired as to why he had been so patiently awaiting their arrival. But Janet was neither humbled by the lord of darkness nor horrified by the sounds stemming from the pit: she had spotted her duster. Pine-handled and banana-feathered, it sat rather oddly on the lip of the abyss. She stepped towards the void.
Resounding, mountainous laughter, like a building that blocks out the light.
‘Most are dragged, slippery and shrieking into my kingdom, yet you would come willingly?’
Janet reached the edge of the precipice, and who can tell what she saw? Certainly not swarms of writhing demons which snapped their necks to gaze up at their prey, nor the broken and torn forms of their victims, limbs knotted at strange angles. She undoubtedly didn’t see beyond that, to the farthest reaches of the pit, and the torturous, misshapen world sprayed in crimson light. She hardly heard the screams, the sucking, the lapping of forked tongues on open wounds. Janet saw and heard none of this, so unfaltering was her belief that she was perfectly ordinary and mundane, as banal as the duster which lay next to her at the gateway to hell. All she felt was very, very warm.
Subsequently, instead of screaming with dismay or stumbling backwards, Janet swooped down and in one smooth motion, she clasped her duster with relieved reproach.
‘There you are!’ She said, ‘I was looking everywhere for you. I’d best be getting on with the cleaning.’
‘What is this?’ The devil hissed, and steam rose out of the ground with his displeasure. ‘You think to ignore me? You dare to turn your back on the pit?’
But Janet had already turned and with utter indifference, started back toward her cupboard with a self-assured stride.
‘Fool!’ the voice thundered. The temperature rose; the earth trembled.
Behind Janet, black creatures slipped from the hole in the earth. They slunk across the floor and, adjusting to the new terrain, they dragged themselves forward, long limbs sucking the floor and heaving their immense frames forwards. Gasping, struggling sounds escaped their tar-like forms, as though each movement cost them physically. They lurched after Janet.
Meanwhile, Janet had looked at her watch and, seeing she had lost too much time, began to jog. Her programme started at six o’clock and if she hurried, she might yet make it. Her thoughts were of the warm comfort of pyjamas and the oak smell of merlot.
The creatures secreted kettle-whistle screams, and charged.
By now, Janet had reached the arch with its melodramatic message, then the end of the ravine-like pathway. She could make out the rectangular slip of darkness leading to her cupboard at the base of the cliff. Shooting the duster ahead like a hockey puck, she began to scramble through. The creatures reached the turn in the path and, seeing her torso disappearing, expelled an inhuman shriek. As her leg passed under the cliff and into the cupboard, a tentacular limb flailed through the gap, tripping her. Janet stumbled forward and, believing herself to have tripped on an extension lead, swore. Pushing open the cupboard door, she near fell through into her home, then thrust the door closed with a decisive, annoyed shove.
For a while odd, swallowing noises persisted. Scrabbles and screeches; yet the door remained shut. After some time, silence fell on the cupboard, then the red light under the bottom shelf faded and the solid wall returned (it was in fact, sturdier than it had ever been before). Janet’s non-adventure had come to an end.
After that, Janet cheerfully dusted the entire house and like a fuzzy, fluorescent-yellow tornado not an inch was left untouched by her work. It was an odd fancy which took her the following day: Janet dropped her weekly routine, took up Taekwondo classes at the local gym and began to spend Saturday nights with company down the local pub. The bungee jump for charity came later, and the haircut she’s definitely not keeping. She’s considering going on holiday somewhere next year: perhaps Papua New Guinea, or Mauritius. In short, she’s beginning to think she might not be as plain as a cardboard box after all.
Janet wouldn’t be able to explain why, but the duster lives in her hallway now, propped up against the wall as though leaning and smoking a casual cigar. She hasn’t been back inside the cupboard under the stairs for weeks. But if she did enter, she might notice that – this time – her battered blue trainers have unaccountably, curiously, mysteriously disappeared.


Judges Comments

Nothing Happens to Janet, the runner up in WM's competition for fantasy fiction, is a comic joy of a short story that made the judges laugh with delight.

The conceit in this off-the-wall story is that central character Janet is too set in her ways and unimaginative to realise that she has journeyed to hell in search of her missing duster. That's the whole gag, but the pleasure of this darkly sparkling tale is in its comic delivery. Determined in pursuit of her missing duster, Janet voyages to the underworld through a portal in her cupboard under the stairs. Hell is fantastically rendered as a medieval-style underworld with Catherine's well-chosen word choices evoking revolting sights and sounds: baying,scrabbling and slurping; writhing demons which snapped their necks.

Although Catherine's story juxtaposes the fantastic and the mundane to great humorous effect, the language she uses make it plain that every element has the potential to be amplified and interesting. The cupboard under the stairs houses curious buttons, slapdash screws. Janet's fate is not to perceive what's under her nose. In Catherine's hands we readers are led to understand that there are worlds of wonder (and horror) in even the most ordinary corner or cul de sac – if only we know how to look.