This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.
Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.
July 15, 2010
Learning to Open Doors.
It was published in Ethereal Gazette Issue 3 in 2006.
Reading time: 35-40 minutes.
“There you go, one mug of tea – hot and strong. So, come on then. What’s this mysterious problem all about?”
Lucy put the drink on the table. Jane, her elder sister, sat listlessly looking at the open kitchen window. It was 10 am on a perfect day in early summer. The sun shone brightly on the fresh new growth and a gentle breeze nudged the leaves of the plants on the window sill. Jane’s demeanour did not, however, reflect the energy and optimism of mid June. Her face was pale and her eyes looked tired.
Half an hour earlier she had called Lucy and asked if she could come over. She had a problem, she said. She didn’t know what to make of it and needed to talk to someone who wouldn’t think she was “nuts.” She had sounded distressed, and that was unlike her. Lucy had always regarded her big sister as tough and worldly.
In reality, Lucy was probably the tougher of the two, but she didn’t see it that way. During their childhood she had been the adventurous one, forever throwing herself carelessly, inquisitively or bloody-mindedly into situations that carried potentially disastrous consequences. Jane had been quieter, more studious and more catholic in her tastes. But there were four years between them and it had always fallen to the elder sibling to step in when the younger one had found herself out of her depth. Jane had rescued her from a good many difficult situations ranging from precarious positions on tree branches to potential beatings by aggrieved schoolmates.
They had both done well academically and Jane had used her education to enter the world of commercial finance. She had risen quickly and become a woman of sophistication, developing a taste for foreign travel, expensive clothes and an upwardly mobile lifestyle. Lucy had gone into the grimy, cut and thrust world of local journalism. She had soon learned to be more circumspect in her actions and to fight her own battles when necessary. But the sense of hero worship that had grown strong under the shelter of Jane’s protective wing had never fully left her. The reversal of roles now being enacted around the table in Lucy’s kitchen felt slightly uncomfortable.
Not that it was the first time she had been called upon to help her sister. She had done it before, but it had usually been in some minor matter like writing a fictitious reference or helping to cover for some romantic indiscretion. This seemed rather deeper and more consequential. Jane looked tired, drawn and genuinely troubled. She took a sip of her tea, composed herself and began the story.
“You remember when we were kids, how I always had a thing about checking every nook and cranny before I went to bed?”
Lucy was momentarily taken aback. She had been expecting the problem to be something at least as serious as a financial difficulty or a health worry. Apart from the occasional romantic trauma, they were what most mattered to her. A childhood bedtime ritual was a bit of a surprise. But she remembered that her sister had been the victim of an obsessional neurosis as a child, even though she hadn’t known at the time that it was a recognised psychological condition, much less the medical term for it.
They had slept in the same room and she had grown used to watching anxiously every night as Jane had gone through her routines of checking all the places where some nameless horror might be hiding: under both beds, behind the drawn curtains, in the extra large draw at the bottom of the dresser, behind the armchair in the corner of the room, and in the wardrobe. She had always paid particular attention to the wardrobe, pushing aside the hanging clothes and lifting out the bags and blankets lying in the bottom, before shutting the door, locking it and giving it a good tug to make sure that it was firm. Then she had gone back to it twice more and tugged the door again, just to be certain.
The ritual had gone on for many years until the family moved house and the girls had been able to have a room each. Lucy had never developed the habit. By then she was twelve years old and possessed of an irrepressible and assertive temperament. She had already come to regard Jane’s curious habit as nothing more than amusing nonsense.
“You don’t still check the wardrobe for bogeymen every night, do you?” she asked incredulously.
“No, of course I don’t,” snapped Jane. “Well, that is, I didn’t. Or rather, I did for a while, but then I didn’t. But now... Oh, for God’s sake, what am I talking about?” She was becoming agitated. “Anyway, it isn’t funny.”
Lucy thought it very funny, but fought back the urge to laugh.
“Sorry,” she said. “Calm down and take it slowly.”
Jane composed herself again.
“OK. From the beginning...
“When Alex and I separated two years ago I found it difficult going to bed on my own. We got married when I was nineteen, so for – what’s that – twelve years, I’d been used to having a man in the room at night. When he left I got nervous again, like I was when I was a kid. I slept with the light on for a couple of weeks. I didn’t have the courage to switch it off. And even then I woke up several times in the middle of the night with a horrible feeling that I was being watched.”
“You never told me that,” said Lucy.
“Well, it’s not the sort of thing you admit to when you’re thirty one, is it? You know what my ego’s like. Anyway, I felt really ashamed of it. Kept telling myself that thirty-something businesswomen don’t sleep with the light on, and that the feeling of being watched was just some paranoid reaction to being on my own. So, one night, I gathered all my courage and forced myself to turn the bedside lamp off. I lay staring into the darkness for God knows how long, but I fell asleep eventually and I was OK after that. Except for one thing. I’d been very good about not looking under the bed and all that stuff – I’d grown out of that, obviously - but, I’ve got this wardrobe...”
“I knew it!” said Lucy, only partially restraining her glee. “I knew the wardrobe would come into it.”
Jane was in no mood for triumphant glee, not even from her sister who also happened to be her best friend.
“Look,” she snapped again. “Will you shut up and let me tell the story. It really isn’t funny you know.”
Lucy apologised again and recomposed her expression into one of proper gravity. Jane paused, looking irritated and a little upset, then continued.
“This wardrobe has one of those magnet things on the door – I don’t know what they’re called.”
“A magnetic catch,” offered the more practical Lucy.
“If you insist, a ‘magnetic catch’. The point is, it’s really stiff. Once it’s closed you need the arms of a gorilla to open it again. And that’s if it had a proper handle, which it hasn’t because it snapped off years ago. There’s a bit of a stump, but that’s all. Alex, being the lazy bastard that he was, never got around to fixing it and I had no intention of breaking my nails trying to grip the stump, so we got into the habit of leaving the door ajar. It never got closed for about four years. I must admit, when he left, that door being ajar did bother me a bit. But it would have been such a pain trying to open it again that I didn’t want to shut it, so I allowed myself the one little indulgence of checking the wardrobe before I went to bed. And please don’t snigger again; being frightened isn’t very nice.”
“I know,” said Lucy. “Go on.”
“Well,” continued her sister, “a week or so ago I decided to finally do something about the damn thing, so I called a joiner to come and fix it for me.”
“You called a joiner, just to fix a handle,” said Lucy disparagingly. “You lazy sod; how much did that cost you?”
“I’m not lazy, I’m just not the practical type,” retorted Jane angrily. “Besides, how much it cost is none of your business. Can I finish this story, or should I just go and sit in the corner and have a nervous breakdown?”
“OK, OK,” said Lucy, suitably abashed. “Won’t say another word.”
Jane put her head into her hands for a few seconds, then looked up and continued.
“He came on Monday and did the job. When I went to bed that night I decided, now that the wardrobe door could be closed again, to make this my reason for getting out of my bad habit. No more checking. ‘Grow up,’ I told myself. It was a bit of a struggle, but I did it. That night I put my clothes on the chair, got into bed and turned the light off. I was feeling quite proud of myself actually, but still a bit nervous, and it took me ages to get to sleep. Then, just as I was finally dropping off, I thought I heard a tapping sound. Two taps to be exact, and it sounded as though they’d come from the direction of the wardrobe. I turned the light on and looked at it. The door was shut and there was no more sound, so I thought I must have dreamt it. I looked at the clock, saw that it was 2.30, turned the light off again and went back to sleep. That was that. Until the next night. It happened again, but with a difference.
“I’d actually gone to sleep that time, when I was woken up again by this sound. Strangely enough, it annoyed me. It interrupted a dream I was having, about meeting this dishy guy from the office on a beach in Barbados - Alex and I went to Barbados on our honeymoon, remember? Anyway, I decided that this noise was coming from inside my own head. I was still a bit drowsy and didn’t even bother to turn the light on - just told myself that it was nothing to worry about and settled myself to go back to sleep. But I felt disturbed, irritated; you know what it’s like when something’s woken you up. I turned over to try and get comfortable and then – oh God, it was horrible – I heard it again. Not very loud, but clear enough. I was wide awake that time and the noise definitely came from the direction of the wardrobe. I sat up in bed, tingling from head to foot, and fumbled for the light switch. The clock said half past two again.”
“The darkest hour is just before dawn,” mumbled Lucy, remembering an old song.
“What?” said Jane.
“Nothing,” said Lucy. “So what did you do?”
“What could I do? I certainly wasn’t going to open the damn door. I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. I sat in the living room drinking it, looking up at the ceiling every so often, half expecting to hear footsteps crossing the floor of my bedroom. I didn’t, of course. The place was quiet as the grave.”
Lucy grinned openly at the word ‘grave,’ until Jane shot a glance at her that would have pierced the side of a battleship, and then continued.
“Eventually I persuaded myself that it was just the wood shrinking, or whatever it does at night. I thought it must be something to do with the door not having been closed for such a long time. I forced myself to go back upstairs and climb back into bed. I read for a bit with the light on and fell asleep. I woke up in the morning still sitting up in bed with the book on the duvet in front of me.”
“So have you opened this wardrobe door yet?” asked Lucy.
“Of course. I had to get my clothes out both mornings. And there was something a bit odd about that too. The first morning – Tuesday – everything was where it should have been. But the second morning, one of my blouses was on the floor of the wardrobe. You know how careful I am about putting them securely on hangers. I couldn’t understand how it could have fallen off.”
“I suppose things can fall off hangers.”
“That’s what I told myself,” said Jane. “I had to, didn’t I? But it’s never happened before. Anyway, to continue. On Wednesday – yesterday - I felt a bit off about this business all day. Couldn’t work properly. I was tired and tense, and I kept dreading the thought of going to bed at night. All evening I kept trying to watch the TV, but I couldn’t settle. I kept nodding off too, in the armchair. Kept waking up feeling uncomfortable. By half past one I was really tired and desperate to go to bed properly. So I forced myself to do it.
“I got undressed and lay down on my back. As soon as I did, I felt wide awake again. I was full of tension; I could feel it in my stomach. I’d left the light on of course, and I kept looking at the clock, getting more and more nervous as it crept around to half past two. I kept looking at the wardrobe door as well. It’s got a full length mirror on it and I kept thinking I could see movement there every time I looked away. When the clock got to twenty five past I sat up again, praying that nothing would happen.”
“And did it?” asked Lucy in the brief pause that ensued.
“Yup. Dead on two thirty. Tap Tap. I went cold all over – just sat there, breathing hard. And then it happened again. Another two taps. I nearly jumped out of my skin that time. Then I started to feel this weird urge to open the door. I remember somebody telling me once that people with a fear of heights get the urge to jump from high places if they go too near the edge. I suppose it was the same thing. I actually got out of bed and walked towards the wardrobe. Can you believe that? I stopped in front of it, trembling with fear and fighting this horrible need to open the door. And then there were some more taps, only faster and louder that time – more urgent. I jumped back and stared at the door. There wasn’t a sound, except for my breathing and a thumping in my head. But then another noise started. It wasn’t exactly a growl, more like a gurgling sound, and I swear it came from inside the wardrobe.”
“My God,” said Lucy. “What did you do?”
“Rushed across the room, grabbed my dressing gown and got out of there. I shut the bedroom door very firmly on the way out. I went and sat on the single bed in the spare room feeling terrified. I sat there listening for hours, or at least it felt like hours. But there was nothing, not a peep. I must have dropped off eventually because I woke up at nine o’clock this morning feeling like death warmed up.”
“And then you rang me.”
“Not quite. I thought I was safe in the daytime. The sun was shining through the window and the fear I’d felt during the night had faded a bit. I was still nervous because of what had happened, but it was less intense in the daylight. I went back into my bedroom to collect some things. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The wardrobe door was open.”
By now, Lucy was virtually holding her breath.
“Wish I was. And there was a really heavy smell too – sort of sweet and sour combined. I shut the bedroom door again and then phoned you. What the hell am I going to do? I can’t live with that. Whatever it is, it’s learned to open the wardrobe door. What the hell can it be? Is it a ghost, or what?”
“Hang on, hang on,” said Lucy. “I think you’re jumping the gun a bit. Are you sure you couldn’t have left the wardrobe door open yourself?”
“Absolutely,” protested Jane. “I told you, I was staring at it before I left the bedroom and it was definitely shut tight.”
“OK, but I’m sure there’s some perfectly simple explanation. Well, not simple perhaps, but rational anyway.” She smiled reassuringly. “I doubt very much that there’s any ‘something’ that’s learned to open your wardrobe door. I can imagine how spooky it must have been, but you always were a bit of a scaredy cat at night. I’m sure you’re making more of this than there really is. I think I ought to come and have a look at this wardrobe. I’m not as stressed about it as you are. I might be able to find the reason.”
Jane was unconvinced, but she welcomed the idea of there being somebody else in the house and felt better that some attempt was going to be made to address the mystery.
“OK,” she said, “when do you want to go?”
“How much food have you got in?”
“OK, how about we drive back to your place and you can cook me a nice lunch while I do the Hercule Poirot bit on your wardrobe?”
“Tell you what, though,” continued Lucy, “I’d better put some overnight things and a change of clothes in a bag, just in case I need to stay and witness this weird wardrobe in action. And if it does go through its routine, you’ll need somebody to hold your hand, won’t you?”
“Ah, my hero,” said Jane in mock admiration. She was beginning to feel better already. “You’re better than any man, Lu”.
“Who needs ‘em? Always said they were a waste of space” Lucy replied, and then went off to prepare her overnight bag.
“Whose car shall we take?” asked Jane as they closed the door to Lucy’s flat and entered the glare of the warm June sunshine.
“Yours,” said Lucy. “It’s posher than mine and you can afford the petrol.”
They drove the ten miles through the gentle Oxfordshire countryside to the village where Jane lived. The fields and hedgerows glowed with the fresh light green of early summer, and the height of the sun ensured that the landscape was almost shadowless. The vivid greens, the rich blue of the sky and the occasional white, cottonball cloud sitting high and motionless looked almost unreal, like a picture from a children’s story book. On such a day as that it was impossible to take seriously any suggestion of the supernatural, and Lucy was quite unconcerned. She had no doubt that there was some boringly physical explanation for what had happened. It was simply a matter of finding it.
They drove through the village and turned into one of two adjoining cul-de-sacs that made up a development of modern detached houses. Jane’s was the one at the bottom, facing up the road. As they approached it Lucy scrutinised the modern, red brick house with its PVC window frames and mock antique fittings, and thought how unlike a haunted house it looked.
“No self respecting ghost would be seen dead in a house like that,” she said.
“Wow. Whose joke book did you get that one from?”
They got out of the car and made for the front door. Once inside, Jane put her keys on the hall table and glanced nervously up the stairs.
“What would you like for lunch?” she asked as she walked down the hall towards the kitchen.
“What have you got?”
“How about pasta and a Bolognese sauce?”
Jane’s Bolognese sauces were legendary among her family and friends.
“Mm, scrummy,” came the reply from the hall.
“It’s a bit early yet, though,” said Jane. “Let’s have some coffee first.”
Lucy was impatient to be about her investigations – Lucy had been born impatient – but she decided that they could wait, and joined her sister in the kitchen. The smell of the fresh Columbian in the cafetiere was persuasion enough and the two women spent the next half an hour talking about the “dishy man” in Jane’s office.
“I’m surprised you didn’t get him out to look at your wardrobe,” said Lucy.
“Don’t know him well enough yet,” said Jane with a knowing look in her eye. “I expect he’ll get to see it soon enough.”
Lucy expected so too.
The coffee finished, Lucy decided it was about time she went to see the offending article of furniture.
“OK,” said Jane. “I’ll start the lunch”.
The door to Jane’s bedroom was firmly shut. It had an old fashioned latch fitting and Lucy pressed the lever down noisily. She walked in to find the bed unmade and the wardrobe door open, just as she had expected from her sister’s description. And there was, indeed, an unusual smell in the air. It was hardly what she would have called ‘heavy,’ but it was noticeable enough and not immediately recognisable. She sniffed a couple of times and agreed with Jane’s description of it as “sweet and sour.” It seemed to combine the light, sweet smell of flowers with the pungent odour of leaf mould. She walked over to the wardrobe and looked inside. The smell was at its strongest in there, and then she noticed an air freshener sitting on one of the storage shelves.
“There’s the smell,” she said confidently to herself. “Rising damp and air freshener. No problem with that one.”
Two rails ran front-to-back either side of the door and she rummaged through the items hanging on them, hoping to find something so close to the wardrobe wall that the merest disturbance or shrinkage might cause it to tap. It was a long shot and nothing fitted the bill. She took out the shoes and boxes lying on the wardrobe floor, but found nothing there that could have explained tappings or gurgling sounds. She moved back and pushed the door shut. The magnetic catch snapped together and it took a surprising amount of effort to prise it apart again. But Lucy realised that it wasn’t just the strength of the magnet that made it difficult. The door itself made a very tight fit with the frame and scraped against it slightly.
“Clue number one,” she said.
She stood back and studied the surrounding area. There was a radiator on the wall to one side, with two surface-mounted water pipes running away from it and along the wall behind the wardrobe.
“Clue number two.”
Lucy was feeling pleased with herself, and stood in thought for a few minutes.
“I reckon that’s it,” she said, and went downstairs with a triumphant air.
“That was quick,” said Jane as Lucy entered the kitchen. “The lunch isn’t quite ready yet. Won’t be long though. You’ve got that smug look of yours. I take it you’ve got a theory.”
“You’ve had that radiator moved,” said Lucy with an air of self satisfaction.
“The one at the side of the wardrobe.”
Jane thought for a moment.
“We did actually, yes. It was in the way of Alex’s layout and he got a plumber in to move it to another wall. But that was years ago. How do you know anyway?”
“The water pipes are mounted on the wall. Modern houses have the central heating built in. The original pipes are chased into the brickwork and plastered over.”
“Oh,” said Jane. “Very impressive. And does that explain my ghost?”
“Probably. One more question: is your central heating still on?”
“It is, yes. I put it on again recently when we had that cold spell. But it’s only on briefly, just to take the chill off the bedroom at night. I keep meaning to turn it off, now that it’s turned warm again, but I keep forgetting.”
“What’s the timer setting?”
“Don’t remember. An hour, I think, late at night. There’s the boiler; have a look.”
Lucy went over to the boiler mounted on the kitchen wall and checked the setting.
“Eleven ’till midnight. That’s got to be it”.
“What has?” asked Jane. “Are you going to explain?”
“OK,” said Lucy. “Listen carefully. I’m sure this is what’s happening. Firstly, I’m certain you’ve got a bit of rising damp. That and your air freshener explains the smell.”
“Rising damp!” exclaimed Jane. “The house is nearly new. And wouldn’t I see it on the walls?”
“You probably will soon. And if the house wasn’t built very well, there could be a break in the damp proof course. Anyway, let’s assume you have. The combination of a damp atmosphere and the present warm weather is causing the wood of the wardrobe to swell, and that’s making the door really tight. Now, at eleven o’clock the central heating comes on and the radiator at the side of the wardrobe gets hot for an hour. That makes the wood swell even more but, this is the important bit, it swells more on the side where the radiator is than on the other. That causes the whole thing to warp slightly and sets up tensions in the wood. Then the heating goes off and the radiator cools down. The wardrobe follows suit and starts to straighten out again. It obviously gets to an optimum point when the stresses cause the tapping sound. Wood does that kind of thing. And it obviously happens at the same time every night because the whole process is tied to the timing of the central heating. What’s more, the twisting is putting a strain on the door and that must get to a point where the stress is causing it to burst open. There; how about that?”
Jane was frowning.
“And the gurgling noise?”
“Just an airlock in the piece of exposed pipework behind the wardrobe.”
Jane looked thoughtful and a little quizzical. She wasn’t entirely convinced. But, who knows, the explanation did seem plausible and she admitted as much.
“Let’s put it to the test,” continued Lucy. “Let’s turn off the heating now and I’ll bet it doesn’t happen tonight.”
“OK,” said Jane. “As I said, I keep meaning to turn it off anyway.”
Lucy pressed the switch and looked pleased with herself. Jane looked less certain, but it made her feel better to have some sort of a rational explanation to hold onto.
“Right, now that I’ve laid your ghost, what shall we do with the rest of the day?”
“Lunch first,” said Jane and began to dish out the spaghetti.
The lunch lived up to expectation and the afternoon was spent on a trip into Abingdon for a spot of window shopping. That is, Lucy went window shopping. Jane had what she called the “samurai spirit.” She had read once that the code of the samurai forbade the sheaving of the sword without drawing blood. Jane’s personal code forbade the entering of a shopping area without spending money. She bought a new pair of shoes.
A relaxing couple of hours followed, soaking up the late afternoon sun in the garden, and then they had dinner. They kept themselves occupied through the evening with a video, two games of Scrabble and lots of childhood reminiscences. Lucy made the occasional mischievous reference to ghostly goings on, but changed tack when Jane became irritated. In fact, Jane’s irritation was mostly playful. She was hardly nervous at all. Having someone else in the house made all the difference and she was feeling quite hopeful that Lucy’s explanation would turn out to be correct. At two o’clock they agreed that it was time to retire and put the theory to the test.
By ten past they were sitting side by side in Jane’s king size bed. Lucy had brought a crossword to wile away the remaining twenty minutes and was soon engrossed. Jane was trying to read a romantic novel but was starting to become anxious again.
Suppose nothing happened that night. It wouldn’t prove that it was all over, would it? Whatever it was might have chosen not to manifest itself that night. Lucy would go home in the morning and she would have to face tomorrow night alone. She continued trying to read but the words were mere ink blots on the page. She looked at the clock. Twenty past. She returned the book to the bedside cabinet and looked at the wardrobe.
“How much?” asked Lucy.
“I’ll bet you five pounds that nothing happens.”
Jane wasn’t in the mood for bets and said nothing. Lucy put the crossword aside and removed her reading glasses. They sat in silence until the clock read half past two. Both of them were staring at the wardrobe and the silence remained unbroken. Lucy turned to her sister and smiled. Jane looked back with eyes that were still anxious, but also carried the hope that the mystery had been solved.
And then they heard the faint hint of a rustle. It was hardly discernible, but it was enough to make them turn sharply to look at the wardrobe again. The noise stopped and all went quiet for a minute or so. And then:
They both jerked visibly. Lucy had heard the cracking of shrinking wood often enough and it had never sounded like that. They exchanged nervous glances and looked back at the wardrobe.
Tap Tap Tap.
Jane was the first out of bed and making for the door. Lucy climbed out more slowly and stood in front of the wardrobe. She was intrigued as well as alarmed and wanted to see what would happen next. There was another, louder pair of taps and then a gurgling sound. It started deep, rose in pitch and then fell again. Lucy knew that it was not the sound of an airlock in the pipes. She started to back towards the bedroom door which Jane had already opened.
“Come on Lu,” implored her sister. “Let’s get out.”
But Lucy was still intrigued and continued to stare at the wardrobe as she edged backwards. She stopped when she saw the wardrobe door begin to open. It didn’t burst open as she had predicted, but swung outwards slowly and completely. She had a good view of the interior and was momentarily heartened as she realised that there was nothing inside but the clothes she had seen earlier. And then she heard the scrape of coat hanger hooks moving on metal rails and saw the clothes themselves being moved sideways. That was enough.
Jane was already out of the room and Lucy followed quickly, pulling the bedroom door shut and watching the latch click into position. They crossed the landing and hurried into the spare bedroom. Jane slammed the door as soon as Lucy was safely through, and pushed the bolt across. They backed away and listened. There was total silence. After a few minutes, Lucy broke it with an uncharacteristically hesitant voice.
“So much for theories. Thank God it’ll be light soon. That wardrobe will have to go tomorrow. God knows what’s living in there, but you’ll have to get rid of it.”
They sat on the single bed and held hands for mutual comfort. They said nothing and continued to listen. There was more silence; and then they heard a sharp, metallic click. There was no doubting the sound of the latch being pressed down on the door to Jane’s bedroom. Fresh waves of panic gripped them but they were helpless to do anything. More silence followed but it held no comfort. By now the periods of deathly quiet only carried menace and the agonising expectation that another sound would break it eventually. And each new sound would bring the nameless horror ever closer.
They waited. Several minutes passed and they looked at each other. “Could it be over” was the unspoken question in their eyes. The question was premature. They heard a slow creak that Jane knew only too well. She had heard it every time she opened her bedroom door and stepped on a particular floorboard.
They stared at the door in front of them, knowing that something unimaginable would be crossing the landing and would soon be just the other side of it. They looked at the lever on the latch and prayed that it would remain still. It flicked up, suddenly and with a heart-stopping clatter. They both gasped and felt close to uncontrollable panic. It remained in the open position for some time, but then it fell again. Whatever it was that had learned to open doors, it could do nothing about the bolt on the inside.
An agonising hour passed without further incident. And then the silence was broken again, but this time the sound was welcome. The local birds were beginning their dawn chorus and Lucy realised that it was light outside. Jane was taking longer to come out of her state of shock, but she rallied when Lucy rose from the bed to look out of the window.
“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.
“Probably,” replied her sister.
“We can’t know though, can we?”
“No” said Lucy, “but we can’t sit here for the rest of our lives either.”
“Let’s give it another half hour,” said Jane.
Lucy was still feeling shaken herself and agreed readily. The time passed quickly and both women felt anxious at the prospect of opening the door. But Lucy was also becoming restless. She was ready to take her courage in both hands.
“Come on, let’s get on with it.”
She moved over to the door, rousing herself to her accustomed preference for positive action.
“Fortune favours the brave,” she said, then pulled back the bolt aggressively and threw open the door.
The landing was empty and Jane’s door opposite stood open. So did the wardrobe door when they walked tentatively into the bedroom and looked around. Nothing else had been disturbed.
“Got a decent screwdriver?” asked Lucy.
“Because I think we should dismantle that wardrobe right now, throw it into the garden and get somebody to come and collect it and take it to the tip. Agreed?”
By six o’clock the wardrobe was lying in pieces on Jane’s lawn and, at nine o’clock, Lucy was running down the entries under Waste Disposal Services in Yellow Pages. The first one she tried wanted to leave the job until Monday. Lucy had a knack for getting her own way and, by lunchtime, the remains of the offending wardrobe were loaded on a van and heading for the municipal tip.
“Feel better?” asked Lucy as they watched the van turn the corner and disappear from view. Jane nodded.
“What the hell was it?” she asked, still incredulous at the events of the previous night.
“Haven’t a clue. Fascinating though, wasn’t it?”
“Not the word I would have used!” said Jane.
“No, suppose not. Not at the time anyway. But you do realise, we don’t know that it was actually malevolent. Bloody frightening, yes, but it could’ve been some perfectly friendly soul and we’ve sent its home off to be broken into little pieces.”
“As far as I’m concerned” said Jane with a show of indignation, “anything that wants to creep out of my wardrobe in the middle of the night and watch me is malevolent by definition. It deserves to be homeless.”
And then she had a chilling thought.
“Oh God,” she said. “You don’t think it might find its way back do you?”
Lucy had no idea. She didn’t know what it was or what it might be capable of. She was no expert in such matters. But she decided that a show of confidence was called for.
“No,” she said with an air of conviction, “of course not. Whatever it was, it belonged to the wardrobe. I’m sure of it. Where did you get it from? It was pretty old wasn’t it?”
“Alex saw it in a second hand shop when we first moved here. I don’t know how old it was, or where it came from. What I don’t understand is why nothing like this ever happened before. It only started when I closed the door again after it had been left open all those years.”
“Perhaps it didn’t know there was a way out before you started to leave the door open. Perhaps it was just resigned to spending its existence in the wardrobe, poor thing. Being able to get out must have opened up a whole new world.”
“Well I don’t want it in mine,” said Jane. “Let’s have some lunch.”
Jane prepared the lunch with her usual aplomb, but was clearly still anxious.
“Do you have to go back today?” she asked while they were eating.
“Why?” asked Lucy, knowing full well what was coming.
“Couldn’t you stay another night? I mean, it’s going to be a bit nerve racking isn’t it, going to bed after what happened last night?”
“You’ve got to do it some time,” said Lucy.
“I know,” said Jane. “But just one more night, just to ease me into it.”
“OK,” agreed her sister. “But let’s make it a transitional arrangement. You sleep in your own bed and I’ll use the spare room. We’re both going to be tired out and in need of a proper night’s sleep.”
Jane was happy with that and felt relieved.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll let you off the five pounds you owe me.”
Lucy was right. By nine o’clock that evening they were both stifling yawns and neither had any interest in games, the television or even conversation. Jane was still nervous, however, and Lucy reassured her.
“If anything happens – and, of course, it won’t – I’m just across the landing.”
“I know,” said Jane, rising from her slumped position in the armchair. “Let’s get on with it.”
So exhausted were they that, by nine thirty, both women were settled in the deepest of untroubled sleep. Waking them would have taken something of the magnitude of a bomb going off under the window. Needless to say, there was no bomb. But there was a scratching noise at two thirty in the morning. It came from the area of blank wall where the wardrobe had stood, and went on for about ten minutes. Jane slept through it. She woke up at nine o’clock, blissfully unaware that the night had been anything other than properly quiet. She felt a glow of satisfaction and went about her morning routines with renewed zest. By lunchtime, the events of the previous week were beginning to seem like a distant memory.
“I’m sure you’ll be OK now. Whatever it was has gone,” said Lucy as she stood by the door of her sister’s car.
Jane had driven her back to her flat early in the afternoon and stayed for coffee before heading home.
“If you do get nervous and want to talk,” she continued, “give me a ring. I don’t suppose I’ll be going to bed all that early. I made up my lost sleep last night.”
“I will,” said Jane. “And thanks.”
She drove home, left the car on the drive and went into the empty house. A feeling of anxiety began to creep into her mind again, despite her sister’s assurances. The confidence she had felt earlier was less certain, now that she was alone. She had expected as much and had already resolved to spend the evening doing jobs around the house to stop herself dwelling on her recent experiences. A combination of cleaning, making dinner, catching up on paperwork and clearing rubbish from a number of drawers and cupboards kept her occupied for several hours.
By ten o’clock she was more than ready for sleep and went upstairs to bed. She told herself that there was nothing to fear any more and that she needed to get over this one barrier to prove it. She did, however, allow herself the luxury of keeping the light on.
“Just for one night,” she thought. “Tomorrow, it’ll be back to normal.”
She was truly tired and fell asleep quickly. And then she woke up again. It was one o’clock and she decided that the light must be disturbing her. She got up, made a cup of tea and rummaged through the books in her living room. She was fully awake and in need of something to make her sleepy. But not the romantic novel in her bedroom; she had come to associate that with unpleasant happenings. Instead, she chose a lightweight book of anecdotes by some famous personality and took it back to bed along with the cup of tea.
An hour later she had read enough and her eyelids were feeling heavy. She discarded the book, lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes. But full sleep eluded her. She turned on her side to face away from the glare of the bedside lamp and lay in a half state between waking and sleeping. And then the scratching started.
She sat upright in bed, a sense of panic rising in her stomach, and instinctively glanced at the clock.
“Oh no, please,” she implored in a desperate whisper.
It was two thirty. She sat rigid and stared at the wall as the scratching continued. And then she realised that it was moving towards the far corner of the room. Her eyes followed its apparent position as it turned and moved slowly along the adjoining wall that faced her bed. It reached the next corner and turned that one too, then moved along the wall until it was behind her dressing table. At that point it stopped. She thought she saw a flicker of movement in the mirror and then she heard a faint tapping in the top drawer. She watched in horror as the drawer slowly began to slide open.
Her sense of panic reached bursting point. She leapt out of bed, rushed out of the room and ran down the stairs. She threw a coat around her shoulders, pushed on a pair of shoes and grabbed her keys off the hall table. Within a minute she was driving away from the house.
Twenty minutes later Lucy was woken by a banging on her outside door. She looked out of the window, saw Jane’s car in the driveway, and hurried downstairs. She opened the door to find her sister, wearing only a nightdress and coat, leaning against the door frame in a distressed state.
“It wasn’t in the wardrobe,” she spluttered between sobs. “It was in the bloody wall. It still is.”
It was an hour before Jane was back to something like her normal self. By then Lucy had been given a full account of the latest happenings, and they had both decided that the house would have to be sold. It was either that or engage an exorcist and even Lucy, with all her local knowledge gleaned as a journalist, had no idea knew where to start looking for one of those.
The immediate plan was that Jane would move into Lucy’s flat temporarily. There was a camp bed in the second bedroom that Lucy used as an office, and Jane was happy enough with that. They would both go to the house the next day and collect as much as they could carry in two cars. On Monday the house would be put on the market and Jane would take some time off work to start looking for another one.
The decision made, both of them felt ready for sleep. Lucy went into the office and unfolded the camp bed, preparing it with the bed linen and pillows that she kept in a trunk. She heard Jane’s voice from the beyond the door.
“I’m going down to the car,” she called. “I’ve just remembered that I left the keys in the ignition.”
Lucy had realised the fact for herself, having just noticed through the window that the driver’s door was open.
“OK, I’ve nearly finished here,” she called back.
She unrolled the duvet onto the bed, straightened it neatly and went out into the hallway. Jane was coming back through the door that led onto the landing. There was a look of alarm on her pale face.
“Did you leave the outside door open when I came in?” she asked.
“Definitely not,” said Lucy.
She might not have locked it, but she remembered having shut it firmly.
“Well it’s open now.”
She stood aside as Lucy walked uncertainly past her onto the landing, and then followed her. They both stood looking over the banister at the door at the foot of the stairs. It stood wide open and they could see the first glimmerings of daylight on the path outside.
“It must be the bloke downstairs. He must have come home late,” said Jane hopefully.
“He’s on holiday” came the quiet reply. “In Greece.”
And then they felt themselves engulfed by the heavy, pungent smell of perfume and leaf mould, and saw the door into Lucy’s flat move slightly, as if blown by a light breeze. The night was still; there was not the slightest hint of air movement. They stood in silence, staring into the apparently empty hallway. Jane shuddered as the first implication hit home: her drive to Lucy’s flat had not been made alone. And then there was the longer term problem to consider. She was the first to speak.
“Where the hell do we go from here?” she asked in a low, hopeless tone.
Lucy continued to stare blankly into her flat and said nothing. For the first time in her life she was speechless.
- JJ Beazley
- I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.