House Cleaning by Ian Creasey

It’s magical when kids help out around the house.

There was a dead mouse in Mum’s bedroom.

Simon gently pushed the door open and crept in. He smelled his mother’s perfume, almost overwhelmed by the odour of sweat and cigarettes and sour alcohol. A ray of morning sunlight shone through the curtains like a spotlight, illuminating a snoring shape under the covers. Simon was always surprised by how small Matt looked when he wasn’t shouting. His feet didn’t even reach the end of the bed, but fell short by—well, a foot.

Navigating the minefield of socks and cigarette papers and empty glasses, Simon stole round the bed to the other side. The cat always presented her gifts to Mum. This side of the bed lay in shadow and Simon had to peer hard at the carpet, but there was less debris here, and he soon spotted the mouse.

Simon put on the yellow rubber gloves he had brought. They were too big for him, and he had to splay his fingers to pull them on. The left glove snagged, then gave with a pop. Simon froze, his heart jack-hammering. Matt mustn’t wake up. If he did, he would yell at Simon for creeping round the bedroom, then he’d shout for Mum to find his clothes and make his breakfast and bring him the paper and clear up the room because it was a damned mess. Normally Matt slept in ’til about eleven or twelve, and the quiet morning hours were the best part of the day.

He should have put the gloves on in the hall. Ninety per cent of magic—of anything—is preparation.

The snores continued their slow rhythm. Relieved, Simon scooped up the broken scrap of fur and needle-thin bones. He carefully retraced his steps, walking silently as Squeak the mouse-killer. When he reached the safety of the door, he turned towards Matt’s sleeping body and stuck out his tongue. It was all Matt’s fault. If he hadn’t left the door ajar when he finally went to bed, the cat’s night-time harvest wouldn’t have given Mum such a fright when she woke up.

Simon closed the bedroom door behind him as he left, shutting in the snores and Matt, leaving the rest of the house free—for the next couple of hours.

He went out by the front door, so that Mum wouldn’t have to see the dead mouse again. A warm breeze caressed his skin: summer was coming. Simon dropped the mouse in the outside bin and covered it with yesterday’s tea-bags. The bin’s aroma attracted a fly, and Simon put the lid back on, trapping it inside.

The sun shone over the tall hedges that surrounded the garden. In its light the roses glowed yellow and orange and red, saturated with colour. The grass needed cutting. Out by the pool a long-haired tortoise-shell cat rested on a sun-lounger. Simon envied Squeak’s easy life, her ability to walk away at will and come back when she liked.

He walked through the back door into the kitchen, where Mum sat eating grapefruit. She didn’t even put any sugar on. He rinsed the gloves under the tap, then left them dangling over the edge of the sink to dry.

His mother got up and held out her hands. She shifted slightly as if about to hug him, and he braced himself. But instead a coin appeared in her palm. Misdirection! He hadn’t seen the move—he wasn’t good enough yet.

A pound coin was the going rate for disposing of a dead mouse. Simon wished it had been a rat, not a mouse. He found it harder to manipulate the big two-pound coins, but last winter’s slug problem had helped him master fifty-pence pieces, which were nearly as large.

Simon accepted the coin with his right hand, then ostentatiously transferred it to his left. He opened his right hand to show that it no longer held the coin. After a dramatic pause—which he timed as an imaginary drum roll—he opened his left, which was empty too. All the while he watched his mother’s reactions, knowing she knew where the coin had gone.

Her eyes widened in pretend amazement, and he knew that this time he had passed. He put his hands in his pockets and deposited the coin, which he had clasped between his fingers so that it protruded unseen behind his left hand.

“How do you do that?” he asked. “Misdirect without even moving.”

She raised her eyebrows.

He knew the answer anyway. “Practice.”



“Body language is like any other language—you can lie with it. Now, eat your breakfast.”

She always said that. Simon got himself a bowl of corn flakes and said, “Why don’t you ever eat breakfast?”

“I’ve had half a grapefruit—the other half’s in the fridge if you want it.”

“I mean real food,” he said. Grapefruit was more punishment than food.

She laughed. “If I ate too much I’d get fat, wouldn’t I? But you’re a growing lad—you need a proper breakfast.”

“I suppose if you got too fat, you wouldn’t be able to get into your outfit,” he said.

Mum had been a magician’s assistant once, with a spangly red costume that looked good under spotlights. Every few months she’d wait until Matt wasn’t around, then get it out and put it on again. It looked a lot sadder now—many of the sequins had fallen off, and the rest were dulled, but Simon had seen pictures of his mother in her touring days. She looked like a tiny fairy that had stepped off the top of a Christmas tree. All the best magician’s assistants were small, because that helped with the illusions. She was even smaller than Matt. Simon’s height stood between the two.

After breakfast, Simon went into the living room to watch the morning cartoons, but the smell put him off. How many cigarettes and joints and cigars had been smoked last night? The ashtrays overflowed with butts and roaches. The floor was full of pizza boxes and foil trays with scummy residues—curry rather than Chinese, judging by the whiff. A sharp stink of alcohol came from the dozens of empty glasses and bottles and lager cans, and sprinklings of cigarette ash surrounded the cans used as supplementary ashtrays. The carpet felt sticky under his trainers. Playing cards lay scattered under the coffee table, many of them soaked with lager and stained red by the colouring in the spicy chicken.

It wouldn’t take an archaeologist to figure that Matt and his mates had been playing poker last night, even if Simon hadn’t heard them arguing over whether five of a kind beat a straight flush. They shouldn’t play with two decks if they couldn’t agree the rules, he thought, but then there were lots of things Matt shouldn’t do.

He was surprised Mum hadn’t cleared up yet, but she probably thought there was plenty of time before Matt woke up. She’d opened a window, which so far hadn’t had much effect. The fug lay heavy upon the room, coiling about the furniture like dry ice shrouding a stage. It would take all day to dissipate, and in the evening it would regenerate again.

Simon walked back into the kitchen, which had a much nicer smell of peppermint tea and fresh air through the back door. Mum looked tired, he noticed.

“I got rid of the mouse. Why don’t you go back to bed for a bit?” He paused. “I’ll clear up down here.”

His mother shook her head. “I’m all right. You go outside and play.”

“Maybe later,” said Simon. The cloudless sky promised fine weather all day. “I guess I need to put in some practice, though. Can I use the garage?”

She nodded, and touched his arm as he passed her on the way out.

Matt occasionally complained about the junk in the garage, but since he’d lost his licence Mum did the driving, and she always just left the car in the drive. The garage held all sorts of stuff. Simon’s old toys and teddy bears rested here, and when things were really bad in the house he used to come and sit in the boxes, hugging Big Koala, heedless of the cracked yellow patches where the fur had long since fallen off. Some ugly furniture—wardrobes, cabinets, a table—had been exiled to the garage when Mum redid the whole house a couple of years ago. And, right at the back, there was the equipment from Mum’s magic days.

Simon had long since transferred the portable items to his own room. He had the hoops, he had the handcuffs, he had the hats and the cards and the multi-coloured scarves. The garage held only the bigger apparatus, such as the long trolley, the trunk for escape tricks, and the Severed Lady kit. Simon had wondered how they managed with it all on tour, until Mum said that they didn’t do every illusion in every show. The first tricks would be simple—hoops and cards and the like—and the show would build to one big illusion at the end.

“We didn’t have any of this bigger stuff early on—we had to work our way up to that. The escape trunk was first, and we had to buy a van to put it in. Before that we just had an old Ford Escort with all the kit on the back seat, Gareth’s suit and my red outfit hanging up in the windows to stop them creasing. We’d sit in the front in our T-shirts, driving to the next show, me with the map on my knee….”

Whenever she spoke of the touring days, his mother always had a wistful smile. She loved travelling, loved being in show-business. But it had all ended one night in Blackpool, while she was being sawn in half.

The trick relied on her squeezing into a narrow compartment in the apparatus, hidden from the audience by cunning angles and shadows blending with the black lining of the innards. That night she found invaders in the secret compartment: spiders crawling over her flesh, moths fluttering in her face and hair. And she heard a buzzing…. She couldn’t move in the narrow prison. She couldn’t scream, or Gareth would be angry with her for spoiling the trick. She could hardly breathe for fear of swallowing something. She could only endure the aeons of Gareth’s patter.

She emerged to the usual applause, and tried to stand without trembling or being sick. Seeing her pallor, Gareth signalled for the curtain. He helped her back to the dressing room—

— Where his girlfriend smiled sweetly and said, “Good show?”

Mum collapsed on a chair, while Gareth opened the window and got her a glass of water, fussing about until she said she felt better. Then he and Sylvia went down to the bar.

She knew Sylvia must have been behind it. Gareth’s girlfriend had always hated her, and she knew Mum was squeamish. She was sick of Gareth’s touring, his long absences with Mum. Sylvia wanted him to settle down and stay at home with her.

The sabotage was perfect. No matter how often Mum checked the apparatus and scoured it beforehand, she couldn’t bring herself to climb inside. They didn’t have a closing spectacular for the show. Gareth suggested that he drive home and pick up one of the other kits, but Mum didn’t want him to go—she thought Sylvia wouldn’t let him come back.

“She put those bugs in the box, you know. She hates me. She hates the show.”

Gareth shook his head. “Sylvia wouldn’t do anything like that. One moth probably got in accidentally, and you imagined there were more. I don’t blame you, it must have been horrible—”

“It was horrible! That’s why Sylvia did it! You know she wants you to stop touring, so she’s trying to kill the show. What will she do next?”

“Nothing,” Gareth soothed. Yet he wouldn’t look her in the eye.

“She’s got to you, hasn’t she? What has she said?”

“I was going to wait till the end of the run to tell you…. But Sylvia’s right. I can’t keep travelling the length of the country to these flea-pit venues, not when the money’s so bad. Not when we’re starting a family—”

Mum screamed. The scream had been building up since the spiders, and it came out loud enough to shake spotlights off the gantry.

Gareth stepped back. “I know it’s a shock. We’ll do the final shows, and I’ll pay you for a month afterward—”

“What with? What are you and Sylvia going to do when you’re not making babies?”

“I’m going to manage that place in Margate. It’s a lot more secure booking the acts than being one of them.”

“Well, go to bloody Margate and rot, then! Fester in that shit-hole for the rest of your life and see if I care. You won’t be needing the kit, so I’ll have that off you. I’ll finish the run myself. Pay me for a month, will you? No need, I’ll carry on and play every theatre in the country—except for Margate.”

That was one of the few times Mum ever stood up for herself. And it didn’t work out. She knew all the tricks, but couldn’t carry the show. “Magic is a man’s world,” she told Simon. “A woman’s place is to fetch and carry and be sawn in half. The audiences heckled me. They wouldn’t accept a woman running the act.”

But Simon knew it wasn’t just that. Mum couldn’t project authority: she wasn’t assertive at all. She was like those girls at school who panicked over their maths homework and blushed whenever a boy looked at them.

Simon wasn’t like that. He knew the importance of showmanship. He knew it was vital to have a commanding presence, to master the audience, to dominate them.

Still, whenever he looked inside the big apparatus, he couldn’t help checking for moths.

The garage had no windows. Simon liked that. It gave the space the enclosed feel of a theatre, and he could pretend that the fluorescent strips were stage lights. He’d asked Mum to get them wired up for remote control. When he was ready to perform to the public—well, to friends at school—he would bring them here. Magic needs the right setting. When the audience sits in the dark, watching the spotlit performer, that’s half the atmosphere already.

He wondered which of the big tricks to practise. Some needed an assistant, so he couldn’t do those properly, but he could still rehearse the moves.

But first, preparation. And half of preparation is maintenance. Simon oiled all the hinges and sliders in every piece of equipment. Then he got a rag and wiped down the surfaces, cleaning off the dust and checking for moisture damage. Before his performance, he’d have to get furniture polish and buff the apparatus to a deep gleaming shine. No-one respects a magician with mildewed kit and a dirty wand. He needed a costume, too—he could rely on Mum for that.

The sound of voices interrupted his thoughts. Tension wafted out of the back door and polluted the morning. Simon could hear it from inside the garage. Even when the words were muffled, he could always hear the tone of it, the rhythm of it, the long harangue punctuated by protests, or worse, by silence. What was it this time? Simon checked his watch: it was only a quarter past ten. Matt was up earlier than usual, and Mum probably didn’t have the house ready.

If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

Heels clattered on the concrete, and Simon heard the car door opening. Were they both going out, or—?

Matt’s voice was loud outside the garage. “Get the money from Frankie first. Then go to Joe’s: he’ll have it ready for you. Don’t let him pull one of his last-minute price hikes—we agreed on five. He’s a devious bastard, but if he mucks you about, tell him it’s off.”

Mum said something from inside the car.

“Whatever. Just don’t spend it on bloody useless tat this time. We’re practically out of beer.”

The engine started, and the car purred down the drive. He heard his mother get out to open the gate. Then she drove into the street and away.

Simon waited. There was no sound outside. Oh, he heard a crow on the roof and an ice-cream van two streets away, but nothing useful. Matt’s trainers were much quieter than Mum’s heels. Simon couldn’t pick out what Matt was doing, and he was left with the same old guessing game. Should he dare the back door, or go round to the front? Or should he remain here where it was safe?

It would be easiest to stay in the garage, but Simon didn’t want to cede the whole house to Matt. It was his house too. Besides, he needed the bathroom.

He opened the garage door, looked around, and saw Matt walking down the lawn to the pool. In one hand he held a plastic ring dangling three cans; the other hand dropped a Twix wrapper. Matt left a mess wherever he went, like a slug oozing a trail of slime. He put the cans down by the poolside, dislodged the cat, and flopped onto the sun-lounger.

Simon had the house to himself. He raced inside, enjoying the freedom. It was even better than when Matt hadn’t got up yet, because he didn’t have to worry about making too much noise and waking him up.

The living room still smelled—it hadn’t been cleaned yet. Simon knew it would be a long time before his mother returned. Matt’s errands might sound simple but they always involved delays and complications. She’d probably phone in the afternoon, and Matt would shout as if it were her fault. So Simon dealt with the worst of the mess: he took all the bottles and foil trays and pizza boxes to the outside bin, and he put the glasses in the dishwasher. That was enough. Simon didn’t mind cleaning up mice and slugs for Mum—he’d do it even if she didn’t pay him—but he hated clearing up after Matt.

At first he ignored the cards under the table. If Matt wanted them, he could pick them up himself. But then Simon noticed that there were two decks of cards: one advertised whiskey, and the other had a blue checkerboard pattern. The promotional pack was Matt’s, but the other…. Simon examined the cards, which were very slightly narrower at one end.

He scowled. This was his special deck. It made the old “pick a card, any card” trick easy—he rotated the pack before the punter returned his card, which was then easily found by its protruding edge. Another trick had the punter sorting the pack into black and red, which rarely took less than a minute; but by turning the reds opposite to the blacks before shuffling them back together, Simon could separate the colours in five seconds, blindfold.

Matt always jeered at his magic, saying he should be out playing with girls, not playing with cards. Well, Simon wouldn’t be playing with these cards any more, not after they’d been covered with gunk from last night’s take-away. Magic needs a slick deck—Matt had stolen this pack, and ruined it.

Simon ran upstairs to see if anything else had vanished. His room still contained his other equipment: the hats, the cuffs, the hoops and wands. But no doubt if Matt wanted any of this, he’d take it and break it, just like he ruined everything.

Through the bedroom window Simon could see Matt on the sun-lounger, surrounded by cans and cigarette butts. An empty can rattled on the tiles, as Squeak batted it with her paws. Matt was asleep. He’d stripped down to his shorts, his body an unhealthy-looking splodge on the lounger’s white mattress. How was it possible for someone so small and wasted to have such a blobby belly? If Mum were here, she’d have to go out and slather sun-screen on the red face and hairy torso. But Simon took a secret pleasure in the thought of Matt waking up with sunburn, the more painful the better.

Of course, they’d all suffer for it. He knew how it would go, tonight as always. There had once been a time—he hardly remembered it—when Matt was kind to Mum and even friendly to Simon. But over the years the shouting had grown louder, the storms of rage breaking ever more often until they became the normal climate of the house.

Matt had been growing worse for years, and surely he would keep on doing so. New torments would arrive tomorrow, next month, next year, each more dreadful than the last… unless he was stopped. And as Mum would do nothing, it was up to Simon to stop him.

Again he stared at Matt, who was still asleep. Simon selected the necessary equipment, then left the house and walked down to the end of the garden, where the sun cast ephemeral jewels of light on the pool’s breeze-ruffled water. Squeak slipped away through the hedge. Matt was asleep, his mouth open, a dribble of saliva smearing the chocolate stains at the corner of his bottom lip.

His left arm lay on the arm of the sun-lounger, almost begging to be cuffed. The right arm was harder, as it lay across his belly. Simon didn’t want to touch Matt’s flesh, but he had no choice. With delicate care, he picked up the slack limb and placed it on the sun-lounger’s armrest. Quickly, he applied the other handcuff. With each set of cuffs he left one dangling and wrapped the other around both the armrest and Matt’s thin pockmarked wrist. The sun-lounger’s arms curved back into the metal frame, so the shackles couldn’t slide off.

Matt muttered in his sleep. “Oh baby, yeah.”

Reflexively, Simon stepped back, almost tripping over one of the discarded cans. But Matt didn’t wake up.

Simon backed up further. He looked around and saw no-one. It took him a few seconds to steel himself, a few seconds in which a starling landed on the lawn and eyed him warily. It flew away when Simon ran down the garden and launched himself at the sun-lounger.

It slid across the tiles and fell into the pool with a huge, slurping splash. A few drops of backwash caught him and Simon ducked back, but then he stepped forward again to get a good look. The sun-lounger rested on its side at the bottom of the pool. Simon could only see Matt’s legs, frantically kicking without breaking the surface. He walked round the pool for a better view of Matt’s bulging eyes and panicky writhing. Matt frantically tugged at the restraining cuffs, but he didn’t know the trick of undoing them.

“Not so scornful now, eh?” said Simon, smiling. It gave him an idea for a stunt: maybe he could escape from the bottom of the swimming pool as part of his first show. Mum would disapprove, but he didn’t need to tell her in advance.

Simon contemplated the details, while watching Matt’s contorted face suck in a final, fatal gasp of water. Matt’s pale body twisted and kicked once, twitched for a few moments, then fell still. The pool’s surface waves slumped into calm.

The garden sounded eerily quiet, as if with Matt gone the world was at peace. He’d left a faint smell of alcohol and cigarettes. Simon picked up the cigarette butts and put them into one of the empty cans, then carried all the cans to the bin. He went back for Matt’s shirt and took it up to the laundry basket. All these tasks were necessary, but they were also just a way of putting off the next, most distasteful, job.

He removed his trainers, and stripped down to his underpants. Then he went back out to the pool. It took him longer to nerve himself for this task than it had for the initial shove. After a minute or so Simon dived into the pool and swam down to the sun-lounger. He unlocked one cuff and surged down, wanting to undo both on the same dive. But the left armrest lay on the bottom of the pool, and it took him long moments to release the cuff. He floated to the surface and gasped for breath. As he turned to swim to the side, he recoiled when he saw Matt’s body drifting next to him. The swollen tongue, the agonised face—

Matt shouldn’t have dished it out if he couldn’t take it.

It was harder to drag the body out than he’d anticipated. In the end Simon got the garden hose and topped up the pool so that the body floated up to the level of the tiles. Then he pulled Matt out onto the side. The corpse’s skin was wrinkly. Well, it was probably the longest bath he’d ever had.

As Simon already had the hose out, he used it as a rope to pull up the sun-lounger. Then he put the hose back in the shed and contemplated the final task—clearing away the vermin. If he just left the body by the pool, Mum would get a dreadful fright when she came back. No, it was Simon’s job to dispose of it, just as he got rid of slugs and spiders and mice. He went into the garage and brought out the appropriate apparatus.

This time, Simon didn’t bother checking the secret compartment for moths. He hoped there were spiders in there. He heaved Matt’s body into the Severed Lady kit. Water dripped off the corpse and puddled on the black lining. It was hard to manoeuvre the body into the narrow compartment, and Simon had to shove and shove to get the beer-gut in. But at last Matt disappeared.

Simon wheeled the apparatus back to the garage and put it in a corner out of the way. He wiped down the surfaces with a dry cloth. Then he found a dust-sheet and draped it over the kit.

Back in the garden, the sun-lounger was already beginning to dry out. Now everything was clean and quiet. Simon smiled and went inside to wait for his mother.

If the going rate for disposing of dead mice was a pound, this had to be worth at least a fiver.

Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England. He began writing when rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls; since then he has sold fifty-odd short stories, mainly science fiction and fantasy. His debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011. Ian’s spare time interests include hiking and gardening — anything to get him outdoors and away from the computer screen. For more information, please visit his website at

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