Today, I got a call from the vet. Herb hasn’t been claimed and he’s mine if I want him, so I’m going to pick him up tomorrow after work. Already this little warm flat feels like a better place, like a home. I’ve got a friend to share it with. I’ve laid his blanket in front of the fire, ready.
Now I’ve reached the part of my story that I’ve been dreading. Even now as I type in a room miles away the thought of crawling through that tunnel, and the thought of what lay at the end of it, makes me shudder with horror.
I’m safe here in my small, overheated room, looking out at the autumn leaves below. They’re starting to drop now. The streets are colder and wetter, the sky greyer. This time of year always used to make me feel warm and secure; it made me think of Mum reading Meg and Mog to me, of Halloween, of walking to Brownies in the dark and rain with my hand in Mum’s, of the smell of frying onions and the feeling of pyjamas that have been warmed on a radiator. Now those things are still there in my mind, but it’s different – it’s like seeing a ghost in the place of a warm, solid, living person. It’s faded away.
I opened the hatch and I peered inside. A dark space with a low ceiling. Too low to be a proper corridor – you’d have to stoop to walk – too big to be a tunnel. It was choked with cobwebs. I pulled myself up into it and, with a quick glance behind me, crawled forward. It felt like the air itself was alive with watchful eyes.
I inched along the floorboards. Every now and then my finger brushed against an old iron nail or slipped in the narrow, furred gap between boards. Behind me, the patch of grey light that lead back to the stairs and from there to the pool and up to the normal, everyday world. Ahead of me darkness, cobwebs, dust; thicker, richer darkness than I remembered seeing before. There was a subtly putrid smell, as though someone had left a packet of bacon here months ago. Decay. My stomach turned.
I’d pulled myself along on my hands and knees for a short distance – just a couple of metres, maybe – when I bumped into something. A rolled up carpet, or perhaps another bag of rubbish. I explored it with my hand – narrow, hard, covered with fabric. A curtain pole maybe, wrapped in its curtain. It occurred to me that it could be handy – a better way to fix the hanging over my door to the cellar. Still the unseen eyes everywhere. My skin crawled.
I pulled the torch out of my pocket and switched it on.
I saw grey fabric, like flannel – almost like school trousers. A thin pole down the centre. I moved the torch back me. On the end of the pole, a shoe.
I flashed the torch back up and to the side. Two poles. Two trouser legs. A belt.
Heart thumping, I shone the torch higher up. An old fashioned, grey tweed jacket, hanging over what would be so sunken if it were a body that it was impossible to imagine it had ever lived. Maybe a Guy Fawkes dummy, I tried to tell myself. I flashed the light higher up still and saw something that made my stomach turn. A twisted, leathery, mummified face, its mouth forever curled into a bitter smile. Tendrils of wispy, light brown hair in tufts on top of the head. One hand against its chest, palm facing outwards, almost as if it were feebly trying to fight off an assailant.
A cold sheet of sweat fell down my back and my brain curled away from what it had seen.
A leather, grinning face.
I couldn’t to turn my back on that thing, have it watching me. I crawled backwards. Was it moving? Did that leg twitch? My heart was in my mouth.
I reached the end of the passage, dropped down onto the stairs with relief and pushed the panel back into place. Still the sense of eyes all over my body.
Was Clive watching? I looked nervously up the stair. I saw nothing.
I ran back down the stairs, through the sparkling hall, past my darkroom and back up the stairs to my room, trembling.
I pushed the sofa against the door. I sat in the arm chair, my fingers trembling, my brain prodding away at what I’d just seen, forcing me to grasp that bony, mummified leg again; to stare at that twisted face, smell the scent of old, dry, dead flesh.
Eventually, I stood up, picked up my purse and keys and made my way out into the warm, still-light streets. I just wanted to see street lamps and cars and hear voices chatter and shout. It was like switching the big light on and trying to find a sit com on another channel after watching a horror film.
The road was quiet and peaceful. A young couple were walking a few steps ahead of me, his hand resting lightly on her waist, a rucksack bumping on his back. Her amber coloured hair swayed as she walked, her calves were as rounded and dainty and shell-pink as a doll’s.
I need to tell the police, I thought. I need to go to the nearest police station and tell them what I’ve seen. I need to bring them back to the house and take them through the cellars, up the stairs and show them.
You’ll sound mad, I said.
The police pushing through my sparkling hall, splashing their big feet in the pool room, dragging all my house mates through the rooms, inspecting the gym and the smoking room, upturning it all and taking things away as evidence.
It won’t be yours any more, I said.
My house mates traipsing through the rooms, looking at all those secret spaces – loving them or hating them; either was bad. Looking at me askance and asking why I’d not mentioned these places, why I’d kept them a secret. Commenting on what a strange thing it was to do. Looking at me as if I was odd, different, not one of them.
You won’t belong any more, I said.
He’d been there for years. I’d not put him there; I’d not been in the house when it happened. Was it really so bad for him to stay where he was? I could easily not have found him and then the police wouldn’t have come and messed everything up. Maybe, in a way, it was more respectful to leave him to rest in peace.
I don’t want to talk to strangers, I said.
That leathery face. Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes and a sob of pity and horror tried to force its way out of my chest like a sneeze.
If I passed a policeman or saw a police car while I was out, I’d go to the police station and tell them everything. That was fair.
I pushed my knuckles into the corners of my eyes and I tried to force the thoughts back into the far corners of my mind, tried to shut the door on them as they jammed their backs against it.
I turned onto Kensington High Street and fell into a busier crowd of people with shopping bags, walking and texting, darting in front of cars. The shops were still brightly lit – jewels of hot pink and sunflower yellow against the grey pavements. I realised that it was still early – not yet eight. That sat strangely alongside the truth of the mummified body in the passageway. Both existing together in my mind made neither seem quite real. One was a dream, one was a nightmare, but I was stuck in between both of them.
The clawed hand reached forward, tried to push the door open.
I pressed the sob back down again, rubbed my eyes, bit my lip.
I wandered up the street, clutching my purse inside my pocket, looking for something to shop for, a purpose to my trip. I saw the Tesco Metro ahead of me and darted into it, a haven of cool air, bright lighting and purpose. There was always something to buy in a supermarket. But I wandered around, pausing for too long in front of the tinned custard or packets of blueberries.
A bottle of red wine. That would do. I took two and paid with the card for my savings account, where what remained of Mum’s money was. Treating it as an emergency fund, would have to wait another day.
My bag heavy in my hand, my brain veering between numbness and horror, I made my way back through Kensington’s smooth faced, wealthy pedestrians and up the quieter, darker hill towards my bed. The wine would make my brain settle on numb, I hoped, and then help it slip quickly into sleep. I turned the key in the lock, scuttled quickly down the corridor before anyone could see me and had poured a measure of wine into a chipped tea cup before I’d taken my jacket off. Then I sat on the sofa and drank the first cupful quickly, trying to erase that twisted, leathery grin from my head.
I hadn’t seen any policemen or police cars. That was decided then. I took a deep gulp and the tears started to drip towards my chin.
Halfway down the mug. What thoughts had given his face that livid leer, just seconds before he died – or even at the moment that he died? What feeling had been preserved there in that awful grimace? What moment was he caught in forever?
And who did it to him? The building wasn’t safe anymore. The walls were watching me. I looked over my shoulder nervously and wrapped my cardigan more tightly around me.
I stood up to pour myself a second mug of wine. Just as I moved to sit back down there was a gentle tap at the door. I froze. The tap again – gentle but insistent. My heart pushed against my chest. That clawed hand knocking. That leering face waiting for me to open the door. A louder knock.
‘Rose, are you there?’
I put the mug down, wiped my face and walked slowly to the door.
‘Great, you’ve got a bottle open.’ John slipped past me, pulled a mug out of the kitchen cupboard and tipped wine into it. He looked at me. ‘Have you been crying?’
‘Of course not.’ I wiped my face again.
I sat down next to him on the shabby sofa. There were about twenty centimetres between our knees.
‘So, what have you been up to?’ The leering face of the mummified man swung at me. ‘How’s the photography going?’
‘I’ve got,’ I was about to say, a darkroom, but I stopped myself. That was a long thread that led to a crumpled face in a dark passageway. I looked over my shoulder again. The walls were boring into my back, staring at me.
He raised an eyebrow.
‘I’ve got started,’ I said, ‘on a project.’
‘And how’s it going?’
‘I can’t tell,’ I said, ‘until I start developing them. Well – I think.’ I thought of the magical, timeless hours in the cellars before that day. Those times were so peaceful yet so completely awake. If my photos captured only a tiny proportion of that, only a glimmer of it, I’d have succeeded. But what if I developed them to find grizzled, leathered face peering at me from every single one?
‘When are you going to show me?’ He glanced at me, a sidelong, unmistakeably flirtatious glance. ‘Are you ever going to show me?’
‘Of course.’ The exhibition. ‘I’ll show you when they’re ready.’
He leaned back into the sofa. ‘Get the wine,’ he said.
I put the bottle down on the floor, a small, purple dribble landing on the carpet.
The face wouldn’t be pushed back, wanted to be talked about. ‘Would a house like this have secret passages?’ I said.
‘There were back staircases for the models to come and go,’ he said. ‘So they didn’t have to see anyone. Back when it was a shameful business, taking your clothes off for cash.’
‘I thought you didn’t know anything about the history of the building?’
‘Oh, I don’t really. Must have just absorbed some. Dad would talk about it when I was a kid. He thought about it all the time. Obsessively, almost. Mum did some research on its history, but that just annoyed him. Like she didn’t have a right because she wasn’t one of the chosen ones.’
‘Your dad lived here, then?’
‘Of course. That’s why I’m here. Inheritance, like the rest of us. Probably a poisoned chalice, though. It’s destroyed Dad, I think. The way he goes over and over it in his mind. Or at least, I think that’s what he’s doing. Won’t leave it alone. Like a beetle, gnawing away at the wood.’
‘Did he feel like the building was watching him?’
He glanced at me.
People always seem to question your sanity. It made me want to snap at him to mind his own business, keep his nose out. What if the walls were watching, though? I’d better be careful, keep quiet, stay well behaved.
‘Does he ever come back?’ I said.
He looked surprised. ‘All the time. That’s why we let him have that room upstairs. Pity really. Mum left him when I was ten and now he’s got no-one. Just this house to obsess over and wander around. She got a lot of the money, too. The houses.’
I was readjusting my assumptions. ‘The caretaker?’ I said.
He looked confused. ‘Clive,’ he said. ‘My dad’s Clive.’
Clive’s red face emerging from the wooden panel. Clive’s breath on the back of my neck. Rosie. Rhymes with nosy. I edged away from John’s leg slightly.
‘Who else,’ I said, ‘was here then? A generation back?’
‘Just the four of them, I think. Clive, Ralph, Annie and Jenny. It was empty for a while, though. They had a big falling out in the seventies and until the next generation was ready there was no-one to stay.’
‘Except the caretaker.’
He glanced at me. ‘The caretaker,’ he said slowly, making the word sound like yes and no at the same time. ‘Let’s have some more wine. Rosie Posie.’
I poured a tiny amount into each of our mugs. ‘I’ve actually got to do some work tonight,’ I said. ‘After this.’ I edged away a little bit further. The leathery fingers tapped me on the back. Don’t forget me.
‘Okay. Well, I won’t keep you from your work.’ He looked put out and drained his mug. ‘I’ll see you later, Rosie Posie.’ I looked at his face intently for a second, trying to remove traces of Clive from it in my mind.
The door slammed behind him. I rinsed out our mugs and unpinned my wall hanging. I wouldn’t go as far as the staircase up, but I needed some time down there to clear my head. A bit of time away from the real world. Somewhere no-one would be looking at me askance. Somewhere the walls weren’t watching me.
I mixed chemicals with water and filled four gallon jugs, sitting them in a warm water bath, then I took a reel of film, one of at least twenty, and turned off the lights. The black of the small cellar was so thick, you could pull handfuls of it into your mouth and eat them. These walls had their eyes shut.
I spooled the film onto a reel and placed it into the developing tank. I hadn’t done this for years, but I remembered the feeling of working in the pure blackness, the comfort and safety of silent, slow movements. I poured the developer into the tank and tapped it onto the counter to remove any bubbles, then counted to thirty and swirled the developer around the tank. Counted to thirty and repeated. Counted to thirty and repeated. I felt soothed, focussed. After I’d counted to thirty twenty times, I poured more chemicals into my tank and tapped it on the surface again. I counted to ninety slowly. Then I tipped the liquid out. I replaced it with chemicals from another container and started to count again. I counted to thirty six times, tapping the tank every thirty seconds. The fourth batch of chemicals. I counted to ninety and turned the light on.
I washed the film in warm water and then pulled it out of the spool. I could already see tiny images on the film, windows into an Alice in Wonderland world. I shook off the water and hung the film up on a clip. I’d make the prints in the morning.
I tiptoed upstairs to bed. The calm, the quiet, the dark and the counting had numbed my brain, soothed it into quiet. I kept the light off in my room, stepping quietly to avoid dislodging the peace. I crawled into bed, staring at the street lamp-lit green of the trees, before letting my eyes close.
The last thing I saw before I went to sleep was a twisted, leathery mouth, somehow merged with Clive so that it was breathing heavily on my neck and whispering my name. Nosy Rosie Posie. My dreams were not quiet.