Monday, 28 March 2016
Nearby | A Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
The street I lived on at the time was like any other. Not an affluent place, nor one mired in poverty; a mix of kind, selfish, nosey, and apathetic neighbours, some taking interest in those around them, others not. It was a relatively quiet area, but I had a fondness for it, as the large birch trees which occasionally drooped over hedges and fences from both cared for and neglected lawns, reminded me of my childhood. Only the occasional car came plodding through to disturb the peace, joined at times by sporadic domestic arguments which resonated from home to house, unhindered by the quiet; and so children played outside in the summer sun, some more pleasantly than others. Anyone would have described the street from top to bottom as quite, quite, ordinary. I’m sure you can imagine then how shocked I was to find something so utterly terrifying, surrounded by the mundane.
I should correct myself here; it was not what I found, but rather what my neighbour initially discovered which chilled me to the bone. His name was Bill, and he had moved into the house next door only a few months previous. In that short time we had grown to be firm friends; neighbourhood barbecues, Friday nights at the local pub, a shared fondness for classic films - we got on well. One Saturday night I invited him over for a game of cards with a few of my colleagues. I’ve never been particularly brilliant at poker, but I’ve always enjoyed the well-intended banter when placing bets against a good crowd. That night, neither luck nor skill was on my side and I found myself out of the game fairly quickly, so I sat back, had a few drinks, and just enjoyed the good natured name-calling.
The night flew in, and before long the first suggestion of daylight whispered across the sky outside. Everyone else had stumbled home drunkenly by then, with the exception of Bill, so both of us sat in my living room and drank a few more beers - something I was sure to regret in the morning. We talked about many things, his job as a nurse in a local old folks home, and our favourite Alfred Hitchcock films, particularly what we thought he would be making at the time if he were still alive.
When a lull crept into the conversation, I noticed a marked change in Bill’s expression. His eyes focused intently on a bookshelf which stood behind me, and for a moment there was silence until I asked if he was feeling okay. I assumed of course that he had probably just drank too much, but the quiet spoke of more than a simple oncoming hangover. After a measured pause of contemplation, he altered the focus of our discussion, enquiring about my interests and hobbies.
Glancing over my shoulder to the books which seemed to be the catalyst of this change, the oncoming topic was now revealed to me. I laughed at the observation, knowing full well that some would mock me, but when I told him that much of my book collection pertained to the study of the paranormal and the bizarre, his disposition altered once more from one of casual conversation to embarrassment. Yet still, he proceeded.
You see, Bill believed that there was something living in his house. What that something was, he could not entirely be sure of, but nonetheless it was there, physical, and manifest - though there was the suggestion that its existence might not have relied on a purely conventional explanation alone.
From the very first night that he spent there, he had experienced a variety of unsettling phenomena. Initially it was nothing more than a faint knocking sound which seemed muffled but nearby; however, he could not determine the origin, for its source was indistinct. Indeed, at times the sound travelled as if moving, even sliding, through the walls, under floorboards, and creeping around in the hollow of the attic above.
The unusual noises continued for many weeks, and to Bill it felt as though, with the passage of time, they were increasing in intensity. Frustrated by lack of sleep, for the sounds became faint or ceased altogether during the day, he concluded that the house was infested by a mass of nocturnal rodents; scratching between wood and squeezing their fouled bodies between any gaps which they could find in the house’s structure.
Of course his first approach was to lay down traps to catch them, but while the thought of their fur, blackened with dirt and faeces, and their hairless claws and coiled tails, crawling over his face while he slept provoked disgust, he hoped to avoid blood on his hands, for Bill was a kindhearted individual. At first he procured a large number of humane traps which would entice the little pests into a metallic tube with bait, holding them there during the night to be released into a nearby field the next day, alive and well; at least that was the plan. A little research online revealed that chocolate was an exceptionally effective lure for most rodents, so he bought a substantial amount from a local newsagent, with the owner jokingly asking Bill if he were setting up his own shop to sell it.
A garage clung to the side of the house, cluttered by boxes and loose belongings which he had yet to sort through, and he considered it the prime mode of entry into his property for any mice. But on placing the traps around the damp corners of the interior, trying to avoid getting hit on the head by some of his tools which hung precariously from the ceiling, he found no trace of unwelcome visitors. No droppings, no scratch marks, in fact there was no evidence of anything living there at all. It seemed odd to him that he saw not one single spider or insect, since it was clearly a place where both would thrive, and the garage itself had seen better days with several small holes in the wall allowing easy entry to unwanted vermin.
Once back inside he placed the rest of the traps, baiting them carefully with the chocolate around the house - under the bath, in the kitchen, and even in his bedroom. After an hour or so, he felt confident that he would verify what type of animal was causing all the noise by morning. Yet that night the knocking came, faintly at first, and then more pronounced, travelling through unseen spaces and amongst hidden cavities. Lying awake for several hours, sleep was a struggle, as Bill tried to block out the banging, scratching, and moving sounds which made the very structure of his home seem to pulsate and shudder as if alive. When sleep finally took him, his last conscious thoughts of the night were for a hopeful catch in the morning.
Before going to work the following day, each trap was checked carefully. Dejected, he found that none within the house had been touched, each metallic tube still housing a slab of chocolate. But those in the garage were a different proposition. They were not only empty of bait, but two of them had been broken open, the metal container cracked and bent as if crushed under a substantial weight.
All day at work, Bill contemplated the force required to break those traps. He concluded that he must surely have been dealing with something bigger than he had hoped, perhaps an infestation of rats rather than some local wood mice. While he did not wish any animal harm, he shuddered at the thought of something larger writhing around his house while he slept. Knowing that he might have to concede defeat and call in pest control to poison the creatures, he stopped by a hardware store for one last attempt of his own.
That night, Bill lay in the darkness as the shuffling and knocking sounds continued once more, confident that the two large metallic rat-cage traps he had baited in the garage would produce a catch. But all was not well. For in the morning he pulled up the garage door, climbed over some junk towards the rear wall, and found both cages torn apart, the thick metal, which should have contained even the most powerful of rodents, bent backwards and the chocolate removed from inside. The thought began to cross his mind: what was living in his house?
Reluctantly, he conceded, placing an abrupt call to a local pest control company. Within hours three men pulled up outside in a white van, sporting a vulgar and distasteful depiction of a dead rat on its side. They efficiently baited the entire house with traps and poison, and before long were almost ready to leave. One of the men, a slightly overweight individual with a clear loathing for his job, looked at the rat cages Bill had placed the day before, and enquired as to whether he lived alone - quite clearly implying that he held doubts that an animal could have broken the traps open by themselves. The implication was not welcomed.
Several weeks passed and the traps continued to be torn apart recklessly and with apparent brute force; chocolate missing but the poison inside (designed to be irresistible to rats) remaining untouched - something which puzzled the pest control workers. Indeed, after a series of destroyed traps, they accused Bill himself of breaking their equipment. This ended in a shouting match outside, with the men retrieving their broken rat-cages and expecting Bill to pay for the damage. A few of the nosier neighbours popped their heads out of windows to see what the disturbance was as the men packed their belongings back into their van. Even the children ceased playing in the sun for a moment, staring at Bill and the others as they argued in the street.
While he was a little relieved that no animal had been killed, he was disturbed by the obvious presence of something living in his house which even pest control could not deal with. Each night when he went to bed, the noises would continue, and when Bill himself replaced any traps, the chocolate once more would be removed and the rat cages left in tatters. The strange knocking occurred, as it had always done, at the end of each day as sleep approached, week after week, moving and shuffling between walls and under floorboards. Yet, one night, a change took place. As he lay there in the bedroom bathed in darkness, a strange atmosphere began to pervade the house. Slight at first, then more apparent, each breath filled with a tangible consistency. In the preceding weeks he had learnt to block the sounds out to a degree and at least attain a sleeping pattern of sorts, but on that night a change of routine had been forced upon him; one which provoked an uncomfortable sensation, not unlike the stifled air before a storm.
He waited, for what he knew not. Yet, anxious anticipation of something in the dark coursed through his veins. Then the noises appeared as usual: scratching, moving, tunnelling, but now they were no longer hindered by plaster, nor wood, nor brick. Each thump, every bang was no longer dull, no longer distant or removed. Change had come, for now the knocks and scratches in the night gave the impression of something quite free, unshackled, and unimpeded.
At first, the thumping sounds rattled around in the living room across the hallway. Then, an occasional and intermittent high-pitched squeal, accompanied by loud thudding on the walls, slowly progressed throughout the house. The sound grew loud and brash as it approached Bill’s room, and while part of him desired to see what had been causing him so many sleepless nights, the thought of something there which had the force to tear apart a metal cage was not to be taken likely.
The knocking now rose to a fierce boom, growing ever closer to where he lay. As it crashed against the walls in the hallway, a picture frame fell to the ground. It smashed into pieces on the floor, while an alarm clock shuddered across a nearby nightstand, threatening to follow suit. The thumping, scratching, and high-pitched shrill grew so loud, so violent, that he imagined the vibrations from it shaking the bed in which he lay. He clutched his ears in pain as the noise swelled upward into a cacophony of gratuitous and enraged strikes against the very structure of his new home, piercing his eardrums. Then, just as it reached the bedroom door, and as Bill grabbed a nearby lamp for protection against what would soon be upon him, the noises ceased. No knocks, no scratching, no high-pitched squeak, nothing.
Yet the silence was not welcome, nor was it empty. He gasped loudly as a shadow fell from outside, moving quietly in the hall, blocking the light which crept under the door onto the bedroom floor. Sitting there in the throes of terror amongst the disarrayed bed covers, he stared at the door, waiting for it to burst open at any moment to reveal something hideous on the other side. The floorboards in the hallway creaked slightly as something substantial shifted its weight.
Bill gripped the bedside lamp tighter, ready to hurl it at whatever waited nearby. A familiar noise then sounded. Quiet, yet suggestive of a movement, and while he could not be certain of what it was, his mind interpreted it as something gliding slowly back and forward over the wooden surface of the door. Feeling, sensing, touching. Perhaps even looking.
The handle on the door juddered briefly as something pawed at it from the other side. Bill winced, envisaging an overgrown rat stretching up onto its hind legs, biting and clawing at the brass metal. Then, just as abruptly as it had appeared, the intruder moved back down the hall, away from the bedroom towards the front door - its squeaking call following as it did so.
Yes, Bill was terrified, but possessed by curiosity he hoped he could sneak a glimpse of what now sat at the end of the hallway. At least it was a distance from his bedroom door by then. If he had to react quickly, he could leap back into his room and block the entrance with a dresser or wardrobe, barricading himself inside.
Creeping towards the door, he took a deep breath and then slowly opened it, letting the light flood towards him, careful not to make a sound. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light, but as they did so he saw something large moving at the end of the hallway. It was indistinct, but although he saw it only for a moment, he was certain that someone - something - had turned at the front door, scuttling off just out of sight, disappearing into the bathroom.
Silence once more, and with each pocket of nothing the hairs rose up on the back of his neck, one by one. Then suddenly a quick succession of loud bangs escaped from the bathroom. Fight - or rather, flight - took over and without any hesitation or thought, he rushed down the hallway, passed the open bathroom door, and with a swift turn of a key he was outside, running at speed from his home.
Standing in the middle of his street on a cool summer night, fear was quickly replaced by embarrassment as he looked down at the pyjamas he was wearing, which had seen better days, nodding in acknowledgement towards a group of twenty somethings leaving a party a few doors down. All he could think to say was: ‘A bit brisk isn’t it?’
Bill apparently knocked on my door that night to ask for assistance, but unfortunately I was out of town and only returned in time for our poker game the following evening. Another of my neighbours - an awkward man by the name of Harold who owed Bill a favour for helping fix his car a few weeks earlier - agreed in sleepy and grumping fashion to help search the house. Of course nothing was found except for the smashed picture frame, which led to Harold regarding his neighbour with suspicion, voicing his opinion that the entire fiasco was a waste of time.
And so that was his account of the troubling experience he had the previous night. He seemed relieved to have spoken of it, and now it made sense to me why he was so reluctant to leave for his own house next door. I sympathised with my friend and told him that we would tackle the problem together. I have to confess that the thought of identifying the animal, of solving the mystery, appealed greatly to me. In the meantime I offered him the spare room in hope that he would get a good rest for the day’s work ahead; one which I did not relish facing with a hangover; and so after drinking what felt like several gallons of water, I turned in for the night.
The next day - after we both shook off the previous night’s excess with a large cooked breakfast - we went over Bill’s account once more. I was relishing my task as makeshift detective, sure that there might be a clue as to the creature’s identity that we had overlooked. But when I saw the toll which the events had taken on my friend, I became resolute in my desire to provide a solution to the puzzle, hoping that he would find some relief.
While he said that he felt rested, it was clear that he was worried about his home, wondering if it was badly infested with something a little more exotic than a colony of rats. But most of all there was a fear in his eyes. An unspoken and anxious contemplation etched in his face. The thought of spending another night in that house seemed to provoke revulsion within him.
Trying my best to relieve his concerns, I set out in front of him a plan of action which I was confident would solve the mystery once and for all: we would carry out a vigil in the house overnight; however, preparations had to be made. First of all we contacted the estate agent who had sold the property to Bill. Our task was to speak with previous tenants - of which I remembered at least three others - and enquire as to whether they had experienced any strange phenomena, or animal infestation. I did not wish to alarm my friend, but since I had moved into the street the realisation came to me that most had lived in that house for only a few months at a time. This had never particularly affected me as I did not know any of them very well, but the question of why they left so quickly did now enter my mind.
While we were waiting to hear back from previous residents, we set about preparing the house for the night, using what we already knew about the animal to track, identify, and trap it. First, it had already been established that whatever was smashing the traps open was interested solely in the chocolate, having left the poison and other foods behind, so we used it as bait. Second, most of the physical evidence for something living in the house had been in the garage. With this in mind, we emptied all of its contents, placing the boxes, furniture, and other assorted items in one of Bill’s spare rooms. Third, with permission, I covered the floor of the house in flour to try and catch an impression of the intruder, sealing each door shut with masking tape to help identify which room the disturbance originated in. Lastly, we purchased some fishing wire which I used to create a snare trap in the garage. This was attached to a wide basin weighted down with a concrete slab on the floor. I assumed that the animal was not strong enough to drag a piece of concrete around. Inside the noose of wire I placed a large pile of chocolate, angling the snare so that if a substantial animal attempted to eat it, the wire would tighten around its body or an appendage, trapping it in the process. Next to this we placed a large cat cage which we would use to store the animal safely after cutting it free from the snare.
We closed the garage door and then sat outside, chatting quietly in the summer night over a couple of beers, waiting. Called from the street, the local children reluctantly ceased their playing and trundled back to their homes to sleep for school the next day, and as time past and the skies blackened, an occasional neighbour would look out of their window wondering what we were doing sitting in the garden that late at night, during the week; some of them obviously annoyed, others merely curious.
It was actually fun, and as we talked and laughed about anything and everything, torches in hand like two children camping out. I was glad to see the tension slowly fade from Bill’s shoulders. There we sat until after two in the morning, at which juncture we decided to take turns listening so that the other could get some sleep.
It was around two hours later during Bill’s watch that I awoke to an almighty crashing sound. The noise both startled and disturbed me, for while I knew that it was brought about by my snare trap inside the garage, I shuddered for a moment, certain that I heard a cry, a wild shriek accompanying the clatter. Quickly I leapt to my feet as Bill stared across at me, and I at him. It was quite clear that we were both unsure about opening the garage door with such a violent and unsettling noise echoing out from within. Just what we would find we did not know.
After a pause, and the last fleeting remnants of Dutch courage, we both grabbed the door and slid it upwards to reveal what was inside. Our hesitation had cost us. The chocolate was gone, the snare wire broken and the concrete slab which had weighed it down, broken into pieces and cast around the room in haphazard fashion. We were too late.
Yet Bill believed that he had seen something which I had not: a panel on the rear wall moving slightly. He swore that it was not his imagination and was certain that something was behind it. We approached the back of the garage cautiously and found that the panel was indeed loose. The bottom of it was not fastened, and I instantly remarked that a nimble rodent could easily have slipped under, disappearing into the walls of the garage, and possibly even into the house. I felt confident that we had at least identified its mode of movement.
I could see now the overwhelming sense of anxiety in my friend’s expression, and I must admit that I too felt strangely afraid. Nevertheless, we agreed to pull the panel up and look inside. As Bill wrenched it open I cast the glare of my torch inward. Yet there was no rodent, but there was a cavity which clearly ran along the interior of the wall and, I suspected, eventually into the house.
I did not wish to place my hand inside for fear of being bitten by whatever had crawled in there, instead I pressed my ear gently against the wall to listen for any movement. It was subtle, but it was most certainly there; an unseen animal slowly sliding its body along the cavity of the rear wall, deeper into the building. Bill whispered, asking what I could hear, but just as the scuttling sound reached the corner, a loud booming noise thrashed from inside the wall. Startled, I fell backwards, landing awkwardly on the floor. I looked up to once again see apprehension on his face.
The booming continued, followed by scratching noises and further distant knocks and bangs. Then a distinct sound, one which spread a chill through the air. A door slammed from within. Bill gasped: ‘it’s in the house.’ Grabbing our torches once more, shaking the dread from our minds as best we could, we raced out of the garage and around the corner.
Bill’s hands shook as he unlocked the front door to his now invaded home. The hall light was on and the ground covered in a white powder, as I had left it. Yet there in the flour was a set of distinct tracks. Two long lines parallel to one another, as if something had slithered over the ground, crawling out from the bathroom and down the hall and into the lounge. From our vantage point it was clear that the living room door was open, the masking tape seal broken.
The house lay eerily quiet, and I’m ashamed to say that we debated for a moment whether we should enter at all. Bill had described the thumping and scratching sounds to me, but I had no idea how ferocious they were, how angered, how violent they sounded until I had heard them for myself from the garage, and while the house was now silent, the impact of those noises was still fresh in my mind.
Following several minutes of debate, anxiety, and a few nervous jokes, we decided that we should go in, closing the door behind us to ensure that the animal could not escape outside, only to reenter the property at a later date.
The hallway felt cold, although I ascribed this merely to the heating having been off, despite it being a warm summer night. I looked to my right and could see that the bathroom door was closed, yet the elongated tracks on the floor of the hall appeared to lead away from it. Opening the door slowly, I peered inside. Flicking the light switch on, the room appeared empty, yet the shower curtain obscured my view of the bath. I sat my torch down in the sink and put my finger to my mouth, intimating that Bill should remain silent, pointing to the shower curtain and revealing my belief: something was in the bath. My miming must have appeared comical at the time, but Bill nodded in acknowledgement, the apprehension as clear on his face as it must have been on mine. It was apparent that he understood my quiet motions - he would pull the shower curtain back and I would try to grab what was there, or knock it out with my torch, should I absolutely have had to.
Slowly, Bill moved to the side of the curtain, wrapping his hands around its edge; for a moment I felt as though something stirred in the bath. A potent sense of dread once again rattled my nerves. I nodded quickly and Bill tugged the curtain with force. I imagined a mass of writhing rats festering in the bath, their bodies wriggling around, pulsing in unison, but I saw nothing so dramatic. It appeared that my anxiety was getting the better of me: the bath was empty.
Suddenly a wild thud vibrated through the house, with little doubt that it had come from the living room. We exited the bathroom and began to reluctantly move down the hallway. Each step felt like a prison sentence, and I could hear, not just my own perturbed breath, but the nervousness of Bill’s.
We stepped cautiously down the hallway, careful not to disturb the elongated tracks which slid through the flour on the ground in front of us. Twice we hesitated at the sound of a creaking floorboard coming from the living room. As we progressed, I could not help but find my gaze drawn to the front door, glimpsing at it from over my shoulder. I calmed myself as best I could, persuading my own neurosis that paranoia was the cause - yet still I felt something was there at the front door behind us, obscured from view yet watchful.
Reaching the living room door - which lay wide open, the taped seals torn in two - we peered in, yet could see very little. The room was dark, as we had left most of the lights off in the house to entice the nocturnal animal out into the open. I cannot speak for Bill at that moment, but as I stood staring into the darkness of that room, glancing sporadically back towards the front door, the air felt stifled somehow, and I had to inhale deeper than usual to stem a feeling of agitated breathlessness.
Bill reached his hand around to turn the light on, and with a sigh of relieved disappointment saw that the room lay empty - a couch and armchair, table, television, but no creature anywhere to be seen. My eyes once more turned to the end of the hallway and to the front door, and for a brief second I imagined that an outline of something sat there. Bill entered the living room, yet I stayed transfixed, almost waiting for something to appear. Of course I recognised this to be nonsense, but what I failed to notice was the living room door slowly and quietly closing between us.
As I turned my attention back to my friend standing in the room, the door shut leaving me alone in the hallway. While I found the sight a little alarming, I initially explained the event away - doors often close under the pressure of air currents and drafts. But as I touched the handle to enter into the room where my neighbour now stood, Bill let out a terrifying yell. I pushed and pulled and turned the handle of the door, but with each effort I was parried, the door itself feeling jammed and unwilling to yield.
I called out for Bill to respond, but all he could muster was: ‘something is in here. Get me out!’
I thrust my shoulder against the door time after time, but it would not give in to my efforts. Then, a chill whispered through the hallway, and I suddenly felt that perhaps I would have been safer on the other side of that door: the lights above me flickered twice, and then nothing. Pitch black.
Bill now whispered from the room, claiming that he could hear breathing nearby. I told him to remain calm and that I would go and find something to break the door in with, which must have jammed due to a broken handle - yet even I was a little unsure of that explanation. He protested, begging me not to leave him locked in that room, with whatever he believed was there with him. But I offered the reassurance that I would be gone for less than a minute. I joked that he was in a better situation than myself, at least having a torch, as I had idiotically left mine in the bathroom sink, but I could tell that my friend was wracked by fear, hoping for nothing else but escape.
As I turned to make my way to the front door, a chill hung in the air. Whether imagined or not I cannot tell, but as my eyes struggled in vain to penetrate the dark, I became aware that I was no longer alone in that hallway. I could barely see, nor be sure of what I perceived, for at the end of the hall facing me, there appeared to be a large black mass crouched in front of the door. I closed my eyes, my breathing erratic, and opened them once more. I could not be sure! There was so little light that there could have been nothing, yet every fibre of my being told me that something large lay there curled up, blocking my exit from the house.
Then, a loud bang, followed by a scream. Bill pounded and scratched and kicked at the living room door; his yells tore through me. They portrayed utter terror in a man who sounded feral, trapped, preyed upon. I tried to speak with him through the jammed door, but he cried and shrieked like a child facing nightmares in the dark. My heart raced at the sound of my friend’s obvious terror. Yet I too was now in the grip of fear. For I was certain that something was now moving down the hallway towards me. It was as if I could almost see it, but not quite, the pitch black obscuring my vision, my mind filling in what blanks it could. Then I heard something which chilled me to my core, more terrifying than even Bill’s lunatic screams - the sound of a living thing shuffling towards me, accompanied by an intermittent high-pitched squeal which almost sounded alive, but not quite.
Closer and closer it drew - that black mass - a shuffle, a movement, a creak of the floorboards. Then, it touched my leg. I let out a scream and, absent of thought, darted across the hallway into another room, slamming the door shut behind me, pushing a dresser against it. Bill’s pleading intensified and I felt paralysed between my own fear and the wish to help him. But as I waited for the black mass in the hallway to follow me, I heard a click. I gasped. Something had opened the living room door and went inside. Then a yell, an agonising shriek, followed by the pounding of footsteps, the front door opening and Bill shouting my name from outside.
He may have escaped, but I was not alone. Something moved once more in the hallway, but how had my friend passed it? Yet there it was, manifest, shifting its weight, creaking the old floorboards as it did so. Loud thuds, bangs, and scratches now echoed throughout the house; an unseen force rampant and angered. Then, another sound. Closer to me. In the dark I could not be sure, but to me it was as if something was pushing against the door from the other side.
My heart raced, and fear swamped my mind as I cowered at the possibility of what was about to come crashing through that closed doorway, looking for me. The wooden panels of the door bent and heaved in the darkness under an immense pressure, as the sound of nail and claw reached out through the air, piercing my ears. In a moment it would be with me. But just as I looked around for a makeshift weapon to defend myself, a garden chair came hurtling through the window, shards of glass shattering across the room - it was Bill. He reached out his hand, shouting, commanding me desperately to get out of there. As I cut my hand on the broken window frame, grasping it for dear life to aid my escape, I heard what sounded like a door giving in and a wardrobe being thrust to the side, scraping across the floor. I dared not look behind me, for some things should remain unseen.
Both Bill and I staggered away from the house onto the road. By then, several neighbours joined us, disgruntled at having their sleep disturbed, yet fuelled by an opportunity for gossip. When they asked what had happened, all we could do was shake our heads in disbelief and be happy to be outside, the night sky limitless above, and the street, solid beneath our feet.
The next day we entered the house, along with some of my friends from the poker game a few nights before - safety in numbers. Except for the smashed window, there was little out of place. I took a few pictures of what was left of the long-lined tracks on the floor, while retrieving my torch from the bathroom, attempting to document each room as best I could.
I must admit that I was hesitant to go back inside at first, but the place felt different during the day; warm, even happy. Bill was acutely more reluctant, especially when it came to entering the living room which he had been trapped in the night before. He could not bring himself to describe what had happened in detail, but claimed that in the dark he stumbled over something on the ground, falling and dazing himself in the process. Whether this was true or not I can never know. Perhaps he could not face what he saw lying there on top of his favourite rug, needing a rational explanation - a head injury was as good as any. Imagination, concussion, or the unknown, its origin did not really matter when the experience of finding a corpse, rotten, discoloured, and bloated lying inexplicably on his living room floor, was a memory he would always have to contend with.
And it was a memory that Bill was determined never to add to. He put the house up for sale immediately and went to live with his brother until a new home could be found. I did offer my spare room, but he simply laughed and said that sleeping even in the same street as that place was an inconceivable notion to him. I rarely saw him after that. Living next door had made Bill a friend, and living further away once more a stranger.
Several weeks passed, but the night when both of us had been trapped in that house remained prevalent in my thoughts, and I felt compelled to investigate a little further. A rational explanation could easily be given, and it was one I preferred to cling to, but I felt curious about the history of the place. The makeshift detective in me once more went to work.
I will not bore you with my methods, but after reading an article in the local newspaper archives about the house, I was led to a retired social worker by the name of Charlotte L----- who seemed eager to speak on the subject; still enraged by the entire episode after all those years.
You see, eleven years previous a man by the name of Thomas Kelly died in that house. He was 73 years old and was a full-time carer for his son, Joseph, himself in his 40s, and who was wheelchair bound as well as suffering from severe learning difficulties. They had no other family to help, nor friends to rely upon, and as Thomas grew evermore elderly and frail, the toll of doing everything for his son became apparent: clothing him each day, cleaning him, feeding him, taking him to the toilet, and most importantly stopping him from coming to harm - an unimaginable weight of stress to be placed upon anyone’s shoulders.
Charlotte was their social worker and did everything she could to make life easier for both of them. However, not long after she retired, she discovered that social benefits and care allowances had been severely reduced for the Kellys due to Draconian financial cuts by the government at that time. Instead of a care worker coming in to help around the house a few times a week, they now were left with one solitary visit a month.
Disgusted by this news, Charlotte decided to see Thomas and his son to make sure they were coping. There was perhaps not a great deal she could do, but even someone to talk to would make a difference. She just wanted to help; not as a social worker, but as a friend, as she was very fond of them.
Thomas had been dead for weeks. He had died of a heart attack and was found decomposing on the floor of his house. Joseph, with no understanding of death, no concept of phoning for help, simply stayed by his father’s side. He was found next to the body, slumped over in his wheelchair. He had died of thirst. Charlotte had alerted the police when Thomas did not answer the door. She thumped and banged, hoping that they simply did not hear her, but the house lay silent in reply.
I was upset by the tragic account, but she spoke fondly of them; of Thomas as a kind and loving father; of Joseph as a sweet boy with a caring nature, and in an unusual way, as she did so, my anxiety about that terrifying night in Bill’s house diminished, replaced only by remorse and anger at the thought of a family, forgotten and lost.
We spoke on the phone for almost an hour, and when I told her of the strange events which had taken place in the house, she was not surprised, as she had heard whispers about strange goings on occurring there after the deaths. She said that there had been such love in that home, and that it was her belief that the kind of bond Thomas and Joseph had could never die, not truly; adding that wherever one was, the other always remained nearby.
I cannot verify what I saw that night, for in essence I saw nothing, nor can I vouch for what Bill claimed to have stumbled across in his living room. It would be simple for me to speak of knocking, and scratching; of wheels turning, even occasionally squeaking over the wooden floor. I am simply not that superstitious, and cannot discount a mixture of paranoia, anxiety, and a large rodent crawling around the house at night as an explanation. At times it is certainly a more reasonable one to me, and it is not unusual to find a tragic story attached to a house, for all homes are touched by death and, indeed, all death is tragic.
Yet the end of that conversation still bothers me to this day. The words spoken, lodged in my mind. Enough perhaps to give me doubt for such a cold, unimaginative, and conventional conclusion. When I described the knocking and banging to Charlotte, she simply said: ‘Joseph used to thump on the walls if he woke up at night and was scared. Thomas would quickly answer with a few knocks of his own from the bedroom through the wall, letting the boy know his dad was always nearby. That little routine was Joseph’s second favourite thing in the world.’
‘What was his favourite?’, I asked.
‘Why, chocolate, of course.’