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The Cellar

by Tybalt 

Posted: 17 August 2003
Word Count: 896
Summary: This is the start of a short fantasy/mystery story for children aged 9-12. Tom finds a retreat from his aunt's pretentiousness in the cellar of her old house. There he hears voices, old voices from generations before, and slowly unravels the mystery of house.

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The bolt on the cellar door was stiff. It wouldn’t budge. Tom wiggled it viciously, up and down. It screeched angrily, metal on metal. It loosened slightly and then suddenly slammed back. As it did, it nipped the flesh on the side of his hand. He yelped sharply. Jamming his hand into his mouth, he sucked the pinched ridge that formed a white welt. His other hand hovered uncertainly over the tarnished brass knob, and then pulled away. Nobody had told him he couldn’t go into the cellar, but he knew how much Maggie hated his curiosity.

Maggie – she claimed she was too young to be called aunt - was his mother’s sister but they were unlike each other in every way. Tom was convinced one of them must have been adopted. His mum was soft and pretty, a little worn looking, and a brilliant teacher. Maggie was pretty too, but in a different, harder way. She had buckets of money and kept telling him how successful she was. It seemed to Tom that was all that bothered her, being rich and successful and making sure that everyone knew it.

He glanced around the boot room which led to the cellar. There was a row of designer jackets and coats. A pair of wellies sat at the far end of the boot rack with not a smudge of mud on them. Beside them, several pairs of riding boots gleamed, all of them immaculate. He reached for one, smelling the leather before turning it over. He grinned. Just as he thought; no scuffs or scratches. They’d never been worn, but they looked good. Like the grand piano which was never played. There was a husband too. Alex. He also seemed to be more of an ornament than anything else. Tall, imposing and cold. Whenever he spoke, which was not very often, he was patronising, almost mocking. Tom didn’t like him.

The boy jerked himself away from his thoughts. Time was trickling by and, if he wasn’t quick, Maggie would be back. He grasped the door knob with determination. He twisted it. Unlike the bolt, it slipped round easily and the door swung in over the cellar stairs. In the gloom, he could only make out the top three or four steps. Below them it was pitch black, alarmingly black, and the air crept up towards him, cool and damp. It smelt of mushrooms and rotting leaves. He sniffed. It smelt exciting; new territory where Maggie’s interior designers had not dared to go.

His eyes darted along the wall by the door; there must be a light down here. He ran his fingers up the wooden door frame, but there was nothing. Puzzled, he stepped down into the dim stairwell, still fumbling along the chill bricks feeling for a switch. In the dark, his feet shuffled their way, step by step. Two more steps, another, then another. He was in total darkness now. Suddenly, the stairway curled to the right, the steps narrowing at one side. The boy slipped and he clung to a centre pillar which seemed to be supporting the staircase. As he did, his hands plunged into a thick morass of clinging cobwebs. He gasped in revulsion and pulled back. Standing still for a moment, he listened, hesitant. There was still no sign of a light and he could see nothing. Maybe he’d better come back another time. With a torch. The blackness frightened him and his throat tightened. For all he knew there might be a hundred rats watching him, waiting for him.

The door above him thudded softly against the wall in a draft and then slammed shut. In that split second, the boy’s courage evaporated. Turning, he scrabbled up the stairs, half on his hands and knees, scraping his shoulder on the rough brick wall. His mouth was clogged and dry as he reached the door. He groped for a knob, a latch, anything that would let him out. But all he could feel was peeling paint under his hands. There was nothing. He screamed, panic rising out of control.

He banged his fists wildly against the wood, bellowing and sobbing, “Let me out! Please! Let me out!”

Under the attack, the door bounced rhythmically against the frame. It was only when Tom stopped hammering for a moment that he saw a sliver of light by the frame. The door wasn’t latched at all. Heart still pounding, he slid his finger-tips in the gap, dug his nails into the wood and pulled the door towards him. He stumbled into the light of the boot room.

His legs were trembling; they felt like separate things, shivering beneath him. He glared at his hands out in front of him, willing them to stop shaking. He was a boy for God’s sake. Boys didn’t get that scared about nothing.

“Stop it!” he muttered angrily through clenched teeth. “Stop it! You’re being a girl!” He forced himself to breathe more slowly. In then out; in then out. Gradually, his heart stopped crashing in his chest. He started towards the hallway and then paused. He’d left the door unbolted. Maggie mustn’t find out.

The bolt was still stiff, reluctant to move into its channel. Patiently, he jiggled it until it was half in. That was enough, he thought. It would be easier to open next time.

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Comments by other Members

dryyzz at 12:52 on 18 August 2003  Report this post

I did like the tight visual prose, it's of a
similar 'voice' to my own. The boy going into the cellar worked well for me. For some reason I can't quite identify, the jump to background work in the second and third pragraph seemd a little clunky. Maybe it was a little early.

Personally I feel the prose and references are a little sophisticated for a 9-12 market. Though I may be wrong. For me, the unused clothing and Grand piano said something quite specific about Maggie. I'm not sure a 9-12 would pick up on that.

In a word, seems almost too good to aim at children, as awefull as that sounds.

Of course all of the above is purely subjective. I'll be interested to see if anyone concurs.

Nice work


Barney at 20:49 on 18 August 2003  Report this post
I really enjoyed this; the right amount of detail to draw out the tension and enough bite towards the end to liven everything up. I think it would suit 11-13, although as an opening it might not work as successfully with children as it would with adults. I often feel that children like to know a bit about the character before he/she gets themself into an unusual scrape! Maybe chapter 2? Maybe have chapter 1 with Maggie and the upper level of the house?
Thanks for a good read,


Tybalt at 09:09 on 19 August 2003  Report this post
Thanks Darryl and Barney... all good advice. On the question of background, I have to agree; too early and perhaps too obtuse for the age-group. My consistent problem with writing is I come up with a plot for age-group A. and use a style for age-group B. It's something I have to resolve.

ChrisCharlton at 19:54 on 20 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Tybalt, unlike Darryl, I wasn't so keen on the short sentences - at least, not all through it. In the middle (in the panic sections and just after) I think it works very well - it hightens tension tremendously. But at the beginning and end I found it a bit stilted. There was less flow than I would have liked. More prosey sentences, switching to short stocatto sentences would have been a good mechanism for heightening tension I thought, which you carried quite excellently in the middle.

Content wise, I thought it was well structured and put together. I'd be interested in reading the buildup to this piece. I feel we need more explanation.

Looking forward to reading more.


Anj at 14:29 on 23 August 2003  Report this post

Actually - first, Darryl, too good for children? Yes, that does sound awful - which were the books that got you started reading & writing? Children's I would imagine - and they were pretty hot, no? Or you wouldn't have got into this whole thing to begin with ... but don't worry, I'm not spitting with rage here, just an observation from a would-be-children's author

I thought there was a great element of tension and menace here. I liked the tight style, but there was a paragraph (including The Husband) in which the sentences did suddenly get a bit short.

I'm not sure if the switch from "Tom" to "the boy" was deliberate, but it did jar a bit - distanced me from Tom.

Re the observations, I think a 12 year old would get them, but probably not a 9 year old; but I liked them as concise windows into worlds ...

Look forward to reading more


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