The Mooney woman taught him how to do it. She was forbidden to be on the premises, but she called Alfie over one day when he was playing near the fence that bordered the lane. The call was a high fluttering whistle, dancing like a mountain stream. He had been building a den from old branches and bracken when he heard, and though he knew from whence came the sound, he was drawn there as though to a trove of sweets.
Alfie knew that if his parents found out he’d been talking to her he’d be given a ‘bloody good hiding’, but his father was at work and his mother was in the living room drinking gin with her friends. He wouldn’t see her until he was called in to dinner when his father came home.
Mrs Mooney’s eyes sparkled green through the hedgerow. Alfie hadn’t seen her since the day his father had yelled at her and thrashed her yelping terrier with his stick. Alfie had no idea what caused the uproar though there were mutterings later about dog dirt in the rose beds. Things had been cordial up until then. Mrs Mooney used to do the gardening and from what Alfie could gather, did a good job, but even then his parents told him to keep away from her. She used to leave him little presents on the porch, bird’s eggs, peculiarly shaped stones or bits of wood, once a carving of a little man. If his parents found them before Alfie got to them they hurled them into the bushes so he was always on the lookout when Mrs Mooney left for the day. She’d always give him a little wave and a wink as she departed, the little terrier in tow, and if his parents weren’t there he’d wave back.
Mr Mooney’s eyes were unblinking through the foliage. There was a rustle and Alfie felt a tug. He looked down and saw a scrawny brown hand with a fistful of his jumper.
“Would you like to learn a trick my boy?” she whispered through the hedge. Without hesitation he nodded, smiling, her eyes drawing him in and on, unblinking, aglitter.
“There is a toad”, she said, “who lives under your house. I shall teach you to call him. There is a secret noise you can make.” She paused a moment as though gathering her energies. “It is passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, but I have no daughter, or no son, so you will have to do, my lad.”
When she started to chuckle he found himself laughing too.
That night he stood out on the porch and made the sound as she had taught him. Nothing happened and he wondered if he’d got it wrong, but she’d told him to persevere, that it may take some time before the magic began to work.
Sure enough, on the fourth night, as he stood there intoning he heard a flopping noise by his feet and looked down. Staring up, blank and unblinking, eyes glowing orangey red, was the toad who lived under the house. Its body pulsed as it breathed, the lumps and yellow lines that ran down its body swelling and contracting. Alfie stared at it, fascinated and repulsed. The toad stared back, unfeeling but somehow intelligent, intent.
Each night Alfie performed the ritual and each night the toad returned, growing familiar. Alfie named it after his headmaster, Jones, and caught worms during the day to feed to his visitor. Twelve days after its first appearance, the toad failed to respond to the summons. Disappointed, worried perhaps that something had happened to Jones, Alfie went up to bed.
As he was brushing his teeth he heard his mother’s voice, high and alarmed, calling from the porch. He heard his father’s footsteps moving through the house, the sound of him opening the back door and then, after a moment’s silence, Alfie heard his father use a word he had never heard him use before.
Alfie rinsed his mouth and went into his parents’ bedroom and over to the window. There in the darkness, motionless and unblinking on the lawn, come from many miles around, were hundreds, maybe thousands of burning red eyes, all of them staring with a blank and malevolent intent.
Alfie heard a low chuckle from the lane, and without knowing why he found himself laughing too.
Downstairs, his mother began to cry.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com