For Kevin and Gail. I hope you enjoy my story as much as I enjoyed reading yours.
I’ve been afraid of handbags for as long as I can remember, probably even before the incident with my grandma’s bag. But here I am getting ahead of myself, as usual. First let me introduce myself, and tell you the story of my grandma’s bag to give you some context in this larger predicament of things.
My name is Benjamin Ryker, I’m 45 years old. Kind of happily married, but with some recent major issues which I’ll get into later in this story.
When I was maybe eight or nine, my granddad died and my grandma came to live with us. Neither of my parents were happy about it, which made it hard to work out whose mum she actually was. All I can remember is days of hissed arguments, dad drinking more than usual, and mum’s face clenched in anticipation of the ensuing unpleasantness and inconvenience.
Looking back, grandma must have only been in her late fifties, but she seemed terrifyingly big and old to a ten year old. I didn’t enjoy the duty visits to her home, which always smelled in equal parts of dust, furniture polish, stale baking, and mothballs. And I was damn sure I wasn’t going to enjoy living with her!
She arrived about two weeks later, one brown suitcase and one blue suitcase clenched in her large hands. She dropped them in the doorway and looked meaningfully at my father, who immediately grabbed the cases and scurried upstairs with them.
Mum smiled grimly, and offered tea and cake.
I watched in awe as this old woman swept by without even acknowledging the little boy cowering at the bottom of the stairs. She smelled of body odour and perfume, a charmless combination that hung in her wake and surrounded me like a ghostly menace of things to come.
As it turned out, though, life went on pretty much as normal after that inauspicious start. I avoided her, she avoided me, my parents resentfully resigned themselves to her presence and avoided everyone.
And then we had the handbag incident. Such a minor event, really, but one that has impacted me to this day.
My grandma had this dark green vinyl handbag with a snakeskin design and a spring-loaded metal mouth. The idea was that you only had to close the bag to a certain point, then physics would take over and snap the bag shut like an ugly bear trap.
The handbag was gaping open on the kitchen table one afternoon when I got home after school. Mum and dad were still at work, and grandma was nowhere to be seen.
Overwhelmed with curiosity about what women actually kept in those things, I crept over and peeked in. My heart was pounding, and my hearing was made keen with sheer terror. Among wadded up tissues and other general junk, I spied the corner of a ten dollar note poking up like a drowning man holding up an arm in a desperate plea for rescue. I hovered my sweaty, trembling hand over the opening of the bag, fingers already formed into pincers so I could grab the note without touching anything gross. My stomach churned with fear, and I could feel fresh sweat prickling under my armpits.
I watched my hand dip slowly towards the bag, towards those metal jaws. I felt a peculiar sucking sensation, but didn’t have time to ponder it because at that moment, the handbag snapped shut on my fingers! I can’t really say that it hurt that much, but the shock made me scream like a little girl, and I squirted the warm contents of my bladder into my school pants.
The jaws opened slightly, and I pulled my hand out of there so quickly that it nearly flew off the end of my arm. I tucked my hand into my armpit and looked up into my grandma’s angry face. She leaned down until she was nearly eye level with me. Her breath smelled of stale coffee and breath mints as her words blew into my face. “Don’t you ever, ever, EVER go into a woman’s handbag, little boy,” she screamed. “Not for anything, do you hear me? Not for ANYTHING! There’s nothing in there that you would care to see.”
I burst into tears, and she left with her handbag and a satisfied smile on her face. I wondered later if she’d set up the whole scene on purpose, but kind of gave her the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t want to believe that anyone could be that mean!
Fast forward about three decades. Grandma was long gone, God rest her soul. My parents divorced about five minutes after I left home when I was in my twenties. I played the field for a few years before I met Audrey Colliss, the woman who would become my wife. We’ve had our ups and downs, like any other couple, but it has been a mainly agreeable relationship.
Audrey had a much nicer handbag than grandma’s. It was a funky canvas bag covered with pictures of cats, and was usually found sprawling on the floor, its mouth gaping open, the contents exposed for all the world to see. She laughed at me when I exaggeratedly avoided her handbag, and averted my gaze so I didn’t have to look into its shadowy depths. I think she thought I was joking around, but every time I caught sight of the damned thing, I could feel the echo of my grandma’s bag biting my fingers, my terrified screams, my grandma shouting into my face.
Whenever Audrey needed anything, I would fetch her bag, carefully avoiding its mouth. Audrey would take out what she needed, then I would put her bag back.
Luckily, she accepted it as one of my quirks, but I could tell it sometimes annoyed her. “For goodness sake, Bennie!” she would say. “It’s not going to bite you, you loon!” I would laugh weakly, and continue to carry her bag around by its neck when she needed something from it.
She only got genuinely annoyed with me once. The very last time I saw her, in fact. She was having a tall glass of wine on the back veranda, relaxed as could be. Her feet were propped on the balcony rail and she obviously didn’t want to move.
“Bennie, honey. Would you please grab my cigarettes and lighter for me?” There was a certain steely tone in her voice that I should have heeded.
“Of course, Auds. Um, where are they.” Oh, I already knew where they were, I was just hoping against hope that they weren’t there at all. But sure enough …
“They’re in my bag, Bennie. And just for once, please don’t cart the whole damn bag out here, huh? Just grab the ciggies, they’re right on top of everything.”
“Ah, I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with …”
“Okay, let me put it another way. I’m sick of this stupid phobia you have about handbags. You’re a grown man! It used to be kinda cute, but now it’s really damned irritating. Please just grab my damned smokes out of my damned bag and stop behaving like a schoolboy scared of the local haunted house!”
Well, that injured my manly pride, let me tell you. I was already a bit embarrassed about my irrational fear of handbags, but to have my wife belittle me over it was downright humiliating. She was right, though. It was about time I buried my grandma and her petty nastiness for good.
I marched straight up to Audrey’s handbag, and stopped. I stared it down for a little while, aware of my heart thudding in my chest. I could see Audrey’s cigarettes and lighter, not more than a foot from my shaking hand. I broke into a cold sweat as I reached into her bag.
I felt the same dimly-remembered sucking sensation as I reached into the bag, a sensation that got stronger the further it pulled me in. I felt my body and soul elongate and helplessly speed through the bag to come out the other side with a slight pop. I hit the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me, and gripped what felt like rough weeds to anchor myself against any further travel. The only light in that place came from the open handbag above me, filtered slightly through a dark, silky gauze.
As my eyes adjusted to the cool dimness, I noticed similar light patches glowing and shutting down for as far as the eye could see. I wondered, with a sinking heart, how many other people were trapped down here with me, victims of their own curiosity.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been down here for, now. Maybe a week? A year?
You know when you see women in the food courts, cafes, restaurants. Sometimes they will shove a bottle of water and a half-eaten lunch or doggy-bag into their handbags. You think it’s kinda cute, an old-fashioned frugality to take an uneaten meal for later. As the man said, you may be right … But let me tell you now, it is infinitely more likely that they’re feeding family members who are trapped in the darkness.
I’m just grateful that Audrey keeps her handbag open most of the time. At least I have my small circle of light in all that darkness.
I’ve seen and heard some strange things down here. Sometimes I hear the beating of wings, and I wonder what kind of bird is trapped down here with me. Once, to my pitied delight, I saw a white rabbit cross my patch of light. It sucked down a blade of grass while studying me with its pink albino eyes, before hopping away into the darkness.
And sometimes I hear bloodcurdling screams of pain and terror. Human screams, I’m sure. And I wonder with cold dread what else is lurching around down here with me in this eternal twilight.