THE SPARE ROOM
Posted July 9, 2011on:
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“I can show you it after work if you like”, said Julie, and at that moment Marcus had his first sense of foreboding. He suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to back out of the arrangement.
“Well I’m not …” he began.
“Honestly, you know how expensive rented accommodation is these days”, she said “I mean, you won’t get anything else like it round here. This is an expensive town! It won’t do any harm just to have a look at it”.
“No I suppose not”, said Marcus, more from a desire not to hurt her feelings than anything else.
He couldn’t shake off the feeling though that he was getting himself into something that he didn’t want. It didn’t help that he seemed to be seeing her properly for the first time, standing there under the harsh, unsympathetic light of the office’s tiny kitchen. Today she looked tired and extremely pale. Her bony face and the dark rings under her eyes gave her a look of somebody ill-nourished. But then again, so many people look like that these days, he thought. Comes of trying to do too much, not enough sleep, and not eating properly. Welcome to the 21st century!
“Good!” she said, smiling “I’ll drive you there after work”.
“It’s a Victorian end-of-terrace”, she explained, as she deftly negotiated the town’s main square at 6 o’clock on a Friday evening. For Marcus, in the passenger seat, the pedestrians constantly looming out of nowhere and trying to throw themselves under the wheels of the car was a hair-raising experience.
“It sounds very nice”, he said, gulping as one man strode across in front of them, completely oblivious to everything going on around him.
“It’s just way too big for me on my own”, she said “I seem to rattle around in it like a bean in a can”.
When she said Victorian end-of-terrace, Marcus had envisaged a neat little 2 or 3 bed roomed effort, with a small concrete front garden, just big enough to park a bicycle in, and at the back a kitchen jutting out into a walled back yard, “Coronation Street“-style. He wasn’t expecting the enormous house that she now parked in front of.
“It must be 4 storeys!” he said, gazing up at it.
“Five”, she said “It has a basement as well. They certainly built on a grand scale in those days. Come on, let me show you round”.
She bounded up the steep concrete steps to the front door, and let him in. The hallway was dark and chilly.
“It’s hardly been touched in decades”, she said, gesturing all around her “Apart from being redecorated of course. But the layout is practically still the same as it was when it was built. The kitchen’s in the basement, the dining-room’s to the right here, and the living-room’s on the first floor. It’s huge!”
It certainly was. It stretched the length of the house, with a bay window at one end, and French windows onto a small balcony at the other. Julie’s few sticks of furniture looked like small islands stranded in a large ocean.
“I’m amazed it’s never been turned into flats or bedsits”, said Marcus “These sort of old houses usually have been long ago, or else a business would take it over”.
“Nope”, she said, matter-of-factly “I expect you’re wondering how I can afford it. I can’t. It belongs to my parents. It got too much for them, so they bought a cottage in one of the villages nearby. They let me have it, because it’s convenient for work. I think really they’d like to sell it and be shot of it”.
“Why don’t they then?” he said “They could get a fortune for a house this size!”
“Let me show you your room”, she said, and she was off again, bounding up another flight of stairs.
Well living here would certainly help to keep me fit, thought Marcus, as he followed her up to the second floor, all these bloody stairs, and I haven’t even been down to the kitchen yet! He was a bit disappointed when he saw his room. It seemed pokey compared to the rest of the house, and rather bleak and old-fashioned. It also had a single bed, and Marcus hated single beds as a rule. They always reminded him of prison cells.
“It’ll be much cosier when you’ve got all your own things in here”, she said, apologetically, as though reading his mind “And it’s not a big room, so it should be easy to keep warm “And you can make as much noise as you want. The neighbours are hardly ever here, and these walls are pretty thick anyway, so you can play your music and have your telly on at all hours. That would be quite nice”.
She added this last bit so wistfully that Marcus felt sorry for her. God knows, it couldn’t be much fun living in this great old mausoleum all by yourself. No wonder she was desperate for him to take the room. Before he knew it they were coming to arrangements. She even bribed him with the car-sharing scheme, saying it would be good for the environment.
His sense of misgiving didn’t go away though, not even when he had moved all his stuff into his new room. It made the place look more familiar, but the whole house still gave him the creeps. Even the garden at the back had a sinister air, but he suspected that was largely down to the fact that nobody seemed to have done any work on it in an age. It was dank and overgrown, and now, in the depths of winter, it was looking particularly sorry for itself.
He found himself making excuses to go out a lot, and fortunately the house was close to the town centre, where there were plenty of pubs and decent eateries. Which was just as well as having to go down three flights of stairs every time he wanted to use the kitchen was rapidly becoming very annoying. And when he was down there he had an unsettling feeling of being watched all the time, as though there was somebody staring at him from the doorway which led down into the old coal-hole.
It was several nights after he had moved in that he first heard the groaning sound. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning, and it was significantly loud to wake him out of a deep sleep. At first he thought it was one of the neighbours, but Julie had been right when she said that they were hardly ever there, and even when he knew they were in, the only sound he had heard had been their front door slamming. So far as he could tell the party wall was sufficiently thick to block out human voices.
The groaning persisted. Marcus put his dressing-gown on and stepped out onto the landing. The groaning sound appeared to be coming from the floor above, which Julie had told him was the attic, and only had a few old odds and ends in it. She hadn’t been up there in ages, she said. It wasn’t as though somebody could be squatting up there against their knowledge though, as Julie had said she kept it locked up. He walked down the landing, and stood at the bottom of the attic steps, peering upwards through the gloom.
Perhaps she’s some female Bluebeard, he thought, half-jokingly. Perhaps she’s got a secret store of men up there, like the milkmen scene in an old ’Monty Python’ sketch.
“Are you alright, Marcus?”
“Christ, you made me jump!” he said, turning to where she was standing in her bedroom doorway.
“I heard you get up”, she said.
“Listen”, he said, but the groaning sound had stopped “I heard something! Sounded like a man groaning”.
“Probably some drunk out in the street”, she said.
“At 4 o’clock on a Wednesday morning?” he exclaimed.
“We get them at all times now, since they changed the drinking laws”, said Julie “There’s a guy in Human Resources who lives in one of the old almshouses down Mill Street. He said he once opened his front door about 6 o’clock in the morning, and found one propped up on his doorstep!”
“It was not a drunk outside”, Marcus insisted “It came from within this house, I know it did. From up there. This house isn’t haunted is it?”
“No”, Julie gave a soft laugh “It’s not haunted. There are no ghosties here”.
This made Marcus feel rather daft.
“I’m sure I heard something”, he mumbled.
“You might just have been dreaming”, she said.
“I might”, he said, and he went back to bed.
Soon after, Julie announced that she had to go to her parents’ house for the weekend. Her mother was very ill, and her father was having trouble coping on his own. This news dismayed Marcus considerably. He simply didn’t want to be in that bloody awful house all by himself. But he could hardly try and stop her from going, particularly when she said what a load off her mind it would be, knowing that he was here to keep an eye on the place.
That weekend felt endless . Marcus tried to spend as little time in the house as possible. He went to one of the nearby pubs and spent hours in there, watching football he wasn’t particularly interested in on Sky Sports. Eventually sheer tiredness drove him home, and he hoped he would be drunk enough to fall asleep the minute he got into bed. He was. Unfortunately, alcohol has a nasty habit of wearing off at inconvenient times, and Marcus was wide awake in the small hours of the morning again.
The groaning was louder this time, and there seemed to be more of it. It sounded like several people, instead of just one. Marcus was absolutely certain by now that it was coming from the top floor, and he became determined that Julie was going to show him inside that attic when she got back. He prayed for daylight to come, things always seemed easier to cope with in daylight. But it was the worst time of the year for that. It would be nearly 8 o’clock in the morning before the sun (if any) put in an appearance.
He put the radio on for the rest of the night, and cursed every time a quiet song came on. He knew he simply wouldn’t be able to face another night alone in that house, and the following day he booked himself into a nearby Travelodge.
He didn’t see Julie again until they were both back at work on the following Monday morning. She had seen his overnight bag, where he had dumped it in the staff tea-room, and had come to seek him out.
“You could have told me you weren’t going to be at home at the weekend”, she said, accusingly.
“What difference does it make whether I’m there or not?” he said. He was tired of the whole situation. Mysteries weren’t his thing, and Julie and her gloomy house were too full of them.
“I-I would just like to have known, that’s all”, she said, clearly taken aback by his surly attitude.
“How’s your Mum?” he asked, trying to get the conversation back onto a more civilised footing.
“Oh … um … not too bad, all things considering”, said Julie “She’s tough, she’ll pull through”.
She seemed evasive, as though she was hiding something. Marcus got the feeling that there was nothing wrong with her mother at all, that she had simply come up with an excuse to get away for the weekend. This angered him. So it appeared that she didn’t want to be in the house either, yet she got annoyed when he also decided to bottle out.!
“When we get home, after work”, he said, dropping his voice to a whisper “I want you to show me inside the attic”.
“Marcus”, she sighed.
“It’s either that”, he said “Or I spend another night in the Travelodge, and you’ll be there on your own!”
This threat worked. Julie got a bunch of keys out of the drawer in the hall, practically as soon as they had got through the front door.
“OK”, she said, as though she was squaring up to a firing-squad “Come with me”.
The last flight of stairs leading up to the attic floor was steeper and narrower than the others. When they finally got to the top, Marcus almost had an attack of vertigo. They were right up under the rafters of the house. Julie unlocked the door, and flicked an antiquated light-switch just inside.
“Here’s what you wanted to see”, she said, gesturing in at the room.
It was exactly as she had said it was. A dusty, unused room, with some sad bits of furniture lying abandoned in it. Nobody had been up here in quite some time.
“This is it”, said Julie, and her voice had a blithe, slightly hysterical edge to it “I can’t imagine you want to swap your room for this!”
Marcus stepped cautiously into the room, as though it was mined. It was bitingly cold up here, and his breath hung in the air.
“I swear I can hear things from up here”, he said.
“Big old houses like this often have strange acoustics”, said Julie “Sometimes we get noises from way down the street that sound like they’re inside”.
“That could be it I suppose”, said Marcus.
“Are you coming out now?” she asked.
He nodded, and returned to the top of the steps. Julie locked the door behind him.
He was far from satisfied with all this though. If anything, he was more convinced than ever that Julie was hiding something. Why did she insist on keeping an empty attic locked up for one thing? There was no chance of anyone breaking into it. The room only had a tiny skylight in the roof, and you’d have to be Spiderman to climb in through that! It wasn’t just that though.
There was something wrong with the whole logistics of that floor. The attic was simply too small for the size of the house. Most attics/lofts cover almost the whole of the top floor of a house. This one occupied about a quarter of it. He had heard that in some old Victorian terraced houses like this, the attics had been all communal (he remembered that from reading ‘The Magician‘s Nephew’ when he was a kid). But this plainly wasn’t the case here. He had looked all around that room, and there was brick wall on all four sides. Exposed brick wall too, with no chance of a second doorway lurking there undetected.
But still he was convinced that the groaning noises he had heard had come from up there.
He cornered Julie late one afternoon when she was putting the rubbish out, ready for collection by the bin-men early the next morning.
“That attic floor’s all wrong”, he said.
“Oh not now, Marcus”, Julie sighed.
“Yes now”, he said “Come up with me and I’ll show you what I mean”.
“I’m too tired”, said Julie, going back into the kitchen, closely followed by Marcus “I can’t be bothered to go up all those stairs”.
“Alright, I’ll tell you then”, he said “The proportions are all out. Part of that floor has been sealed off, and I want to know why”.
“What makes you think I know!” Julie exclaimed “It’s been like that for as long as I can remember! It was done even before my grand-dad bought this place. Nobody knows why”.
“I don’t believe that”, said Marcus, his self-confidence rising in the face of her vehement denials. He had her on the run “I think you do know. The way you’ve acted ever since I’ve come to live here suggests you know. Is there someone locked in up there?”
“Don’t be silly”, she said, wearily.
Marcus’ patience snapped.
“There is somebody up there!” he said “I’ve heard them for chrissakes! If you don’t tell me what’s going on I’ll get the police in, tell them there’s someone imprisoned in this house, and get them to knock the fucking wall down!”
“Don’t do that”, she said, quietly “I wouldn’t advise it”.
“You tell me what’s going on”, said Marcus, in a threatening voice he scarcely recognised as his own “Or I’ll go up there right now!”
“I genuinely don’t know what’s in there”, said Julie “Please believe me, I’m telling you the truth. That … noise you hear has been going on ever since my family bought this house”.
“They weren’t told about it when they bought it?” said Marcus, sitting down at the kitchen table.
“Hardly!” said Julie “It’s not the sort of thing you say to a prospective buyer is it, ‘oh by the way you’ll hear a ghostly groaning noise coming from the attic sometimes. Not to worry’”.
“And your family didn’t get that wall down and find out for themselves?” said Marcus.
“After my grand-dad had been here a while he got talking to one of the neighbours”, said Julie, sitting down opposite him “It was a bit of a rundown neighbourhood in those days, back in the 50s. A lot of these houses had been converted into bedsits. It was long before this area had become yuppy-fied in the 80s. But one of the neighbours was an old lady who had been here all her life. Anyway, my grand-dad said to her, in a joke-y sort of way, you know I’m beginning to think our house is haunted, all these odd noises we keep getting from upstairs”.
“And?” said Marcus, as Julie seemed to have come to a lengthy pause.
“He didn’t really believe it was haunted of course”, said Julie “Grand-dad was a very practical man. He thought it was probably all down to weird acoustics”.
“What you tried to fob me off with when I moved in”, said Marcus.
Julie looked mildly offended at the fobbing-off remark, but she continued.
“The old lady said she had remembered hearing some tales from when she was a little girl”, said Julie “This would have been late Victorian times we’re talking about now. An old man lived here then, he was a recluse, a bit of an eccentric. People didn’t see him from one year’s end to the next. He must have gone off his nut, living in this house all on his own all that time. The rumour was that he only went out after dark, so people never got a really good look at him. I don’t know where this story started, but it was said that one day somebody … or some THING … broke into this house through the cellar”.
Marcus looked behind him nervously, to the doorway that led into the old coal-cellar.
“Through there?” he whispered.
“Through the hatch in the floor”, said Julie “It’s been bolted down ever since. Whatever this Thing was, it attacked him. He fought back, so the story goes, and managed to knock it out. He then dragged it all the way upstairs to the attic. Some later tenants claimed they heard ghostly dragging sounds on the stairs. He got it all the way to the top, and walled it up alive”.
“Why didn’t he just report it to the appropriate authorities?” said Marcus “It had broken into his house after all”.
“Who knows why eccentric recluses act the way they do sometimes”, said Julie “I suspect it was because he didn’t want the exposure. Didn’t want complete strangers intruding on his private space”.
“So he walled this … whatever it was up alive?” said Marcus.
“What happened after he died?” said Marcus “The old man I mean?”
“He was found to have been living in just two rooms on the ground floor”, said Julie “The rest of the house had been left empty and abandoned. All sorts of romantic tales sprang up about him. That he had been spurned in love as a young man, and so he had become a recluse. Very Victorian gothic stuff. But they missed the biggest gothic touch of the lot”.
“That he had something walled up in his attic?” said Marcus “So what I hear is the ghost of this Thing?” he gave a nervous chuckle “We should contact Yvette Fielding and the ’Most Haunted’ team!”
“No, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick”, said Julie “The old lady believed, and my grand-dad came to believe, that this Thing never died”.
“It’s still ALIVE up there?!” said Marcus.
“They believed that”, said Julie “I wonder though if it’s more that it was dead to start with, like a zombie. So of course it wouldn’t perish in the sense that we mean”.
“No”, said Marcus, who had watched ‘28 Days Later’ “Zombies perish in the end if they don’t get fresh sustenance. They need victims, or they starve”.
“What if they don’t though?” said Julie “What if they just keep on? After all, something that’s already dead can’t exactly die can it?”
In the fading light of the January afternoon, in that dim and gloomy subterranean kitchen, Marcus saw Julie’s eyes light up, like a woman who was sexually aroused.
“I hear it sometimes too”, she said, breathlessly “Not just the groaning noise, but a soft thudding, as though it’s banging its head against the wall. Bump … bump … bump”.
The following day Marcus moved out of the house once and for all. He applied for a transfer to a department in another town, and he never saw Julie, or her house, again.