"Then I heard the sound that I should not have heard on the ground. A sound that seemed to tie so many of my recent experiences together, but that made no sense at all, no sense. A sound that should not have fallen out of the skies, or out of some myth, or out of some fanciful story made up by an ex-boyfriend in a darkened bedroom"
This house knows how it feels to be me; it has seen everything I’ve seen. It feels me out with ever so tiny hands and barely noticeable fingers that walk across my body, ever finding new ways to slip inside me, taking note of me as it begins to take ownership. And as the house makes its home in me, I’ve felt it grip my lungs and my mind, then squeeze my lungs and my mind, day after day. But now it’s tightening its grip. Tightening, tightening.
Mordan House saw me as I stood at the top of the flight of stairs that led down to the basement. It no doubt sensed my trepidation as I stood there. That part of the house was so unforgivably cold that every breath bloomed out of me like flowers from a magician’s sleeve, and I wonder if the house tasted each visible bouquet of breath, searching for the scent of fear? If so, when it watched me quickly descend the ill-lit stairway, did it sense my fear growing when I began to I hesitate the closer I got to the two blue doors at the bottom? My feelings weren’t helped by the fact that the light diminished the further down the stairs I went. But when I arrived at the bottom and stood before the two doors that stood at right angles to each other, I knew in the half-light that the house saw more than I did, and knew if these actions were sensible or insane.
Then, as if from nowhere at all, there was a voice whispering in my ear: “Cold as a dead monk’s arse, if you ask me!”
I jumped and felt my hand move up to my chest where I felt the pain of instant, full-grown shock. “God’s sake, Kidman!” I whispered angrily. “You did that on purpose!”
She brought a long, exotic finger up to her face and wagged it in my direction, slowly up and down, saying: “Kidman wouldn’t do that. Kidman just wouldn’t.”
I suppressed another angry response, though the reproachful glare in my eyes remained as I said, “Just let me try these keys.”
“Don’t drop them,” Kidman said. I dropped them. “Now you’ll never find them.” I quickly found them. “So there, Kidman!” She rolled her eyes. “Bet it’ll be the last key you try, if it’s any of them at all.”
"What kind of house is Mordan House? When it sees me, does it feel love for me, despise me, or just dispassionately feast upon me?"
Did the house nod its approval or cover its eyes as I brought the first of the three keys up to the lock? I don’t know. After all, what kind of house is Mordan House? When it sees me, does it feel love for me, despise me, or just dispassionately feast upon me? Oh, Mordan House and I are like an old married couple who have long since lost touch with how the other thinks or feels! The key went in. Fine. Promising start. But would it turn? It turned! I’d found it! First time, too!
I looked round at the shadowy Kidman beside me, just in time to hear her say with a half-heartedness surely reduced down to at least quarter-heartedness: “Oh, good for you, Steph.”
But was it good for me? There was no turning back now. It seemed that every nerve in my body was sick, convulsing, frothing, even as something else inside me took delight in the dusty, creaky opening of something physical, but also of something inside. Yes, I was capable of fruitful investigation. Take that, Philip! See what I’m capable of? But if that part of me was correct in seeing this as a victory, why, oh why, did I feel so nauseous with fear?
The door was heavier than I’d expected. When I turned the key in the lock I felt that the door unlocked in several places inside its frame and realised that it was incredibly sturdy. I felt around on the wall just inside the door and came up against a light-switch – thankfully, it worked.
Gingerly I took a couple of steps inside the door and looked around at the contents of the room. Filing cabinets. Just countless shelves and filing cabinets. All of them so bulging with paperwork that the drawers couldn’t shut properly and some were left completely open.
Kidman, meanwhile, was looking at the frame of the door. “What a strong door!” she said, no longer whispering. “But look at all these marks! Someone’s tried to force it open at some point. Perhaps, when they were all leaving, they couldn’t find the key and tried to force the lock to get access to the contents. Well, they failed, of course!”
There was also a computer. I switched it on, and once it had booted up it automatically prompted me for a password. Kidman had started looking in the filing cabinets, leafing through the files and mumbling to herself.
“This wasn’t exactly a commune, Steph! It was a refuge! For battered women, of all things!"
The room also contained a tall upright lamp with an orangey floral pattern on the shade and with tassels. It was another source to bring light to the room and Kidman switched it on to look more closely at the contents of the files. When she did so, I realised how dusty the room was! Dust might as well be asbestos or plutonium to me – I’m the Karen Silkwood of Dust! Hose me down and scrub me raw if that stuff gets anywhere near me! If you’ve been keeping up with this story then you’ll know that my chest attempts to fly out of my body like a frightened bird at the first contact with a dust particle. I breathed in and out deeply a couple of times to feel and hear if there was any change to my breathing, but it all seemed fine so far.
Looking at the room, I was both relieved at the contents being so perfunctory, but also a tad disappointed that I hadn’t discovered something more exciting.
Kidman suddenly let out a little yelp. “This wasn’t exactly a commune, Steph! It was a refuge! For battered women, of all things! A commune wouldn’t keep files like these! These are case files detailing background and progress. Look, there are drawings of people’s experiences and little stories that people have written. What’s that called? Art therapy? A refuge – who would’ve guessed it, eh!”
I grunted a reply. Tiny grunt, really. Ever so, ever so small. I think my hand went up to my face and self-consciously touched a small mark that was there. I could have told her that I seemed to recall that it was a refuge of some kind, but I didn’t feel like saying it. Instead I decided that, rather than stay within the room's dust for too long, I’d try the keys in the lock of the room next door.
“Their methods don’t exactly look orthodox, but maybe that’s why it was also a kind of commune? Perhaps both were true – it was a commune for battered women, but where they would get some New Age therapy to help rediscover themselves.”
The second blue door looked as sturdy as the other one. The first key didn’t work. The second failed also. I heard the sound of Kidman rustling papers.
“I wonder why they fell out with each other? Why the group disintegrated?”
So, the third and last key on the chain would be the one to open it. I pushed it in, tried to turn it and met with resistance.
“But why have such a formidable lock on a door that just contains files? I can understand the need to keep them safe and private, but … Or maybe in the past the room was like a wine cellar or something and the hippies decided to use it as an archive! Yes, that makes more sense.”
I tried all the keys again a few times more, but none of them worked. Frustrated, I looked at the door as if it would give me some idea how I might get in without a key. All the while I could feel my breathing changing, partly due to the dust, but partly also due to how I was feeling.
“They don’t work, Kidman. None of these keys open this door.”
Kidman, probably preoccupied with something in one of the files, didn’t reply.
“We may need to continue looking for the key to this one, Kidman. Kidman?”
Still no reply and no sound of rustling papers either.
I stepped back into the room and saw nothing and no-one there. The papers she had been looking at were on the floor. Then I saw her. She was standing on a chair and looking through a small rectangular window, high up on the wall, that neither of us had noticed before. The window was grimy and dark. I realised that it looked into the locked room next door.
“Kidman. Can you see anything?”
Still she didn’t reply. Her face was right up close to the glass and I could tell she was trying to make out any shapes on the other side. But without any light in that room, the likelihood was that she would be able to see absolutely nothing of the room's contents; she wouldn't even be able to tell its size.
Then she leaned back from the glass, her eyes still staring at the window. It was then that I could see the look on her face and realised that the colour had drained from her.
“Nicole? What is it?”
“There’s something dead in there. I can feel it.” Her voice was quiet and stripped of any inflexion. Still she refused to look at me. I saw her hands come together and she started to gently, nervously wring them.
“Dead? What do you mean? Don't say that!” She was worrying me now. The room and the corridor beyond felt instantly darker and it was as if some atmosphere had fallen from up high. But how high? Space? Was it possible that the atmosphere had fallen from such a height? My breathing, I noticed, had grown more difficult and I could feel my chest having to work harder to get the air in and out. “I think I need to get out of here. I can’t breathe so well in this room now. It’s all the dust. I’m going to have to leave, I think.”
“'There’s something dead in there. I can feel it.' Her voice was quiet and stripped of any inflexion. Still she refused to look at me. I saw her hands come together and she started to gently, nervously wring them"
Suddenly the room was shocked by a loud gasp and I thought that Kidman was going to fall from the chair.
“Kidman!” I shouted out, “What is it? What’s going on?”
She’d put her hands up to her chest and I could see that she was still transfixed by the small black window. But it was just a darkened window! It was way too dark to see anything on the other side! I was getting scared. That nausea in every nerve of my body had returned and I felt my chest clamming up as if itself fearful. Squeezing and tightening, tightening.
At last she looked at me, but the look in her eyes was horrible. “Don’t look at me like that! I need you to be strong for me! Don’t look like that!” My words were pleading, desperate. The last thing in the world that I needed was Kidman broken, defeated and drained, transformed into something way too similar to me, something too much like how I felt. Her features were fixed and aghast as if there were invisible fingers tightening, tightening round her throat.
Then she spoke, her voice a mere constricted rasp. Like her eyes, they were haunted, lifeless words, but I could see her heart pounding through the tightness of her dress, some fast-moving pulse of terror almost calling out for help: “I just saw it move. There’s something dead in there and I just saw it move.”
Did something just touch my hair? I jumped and screamed out loud as my hands darted up to clutch the top of my head. My eyes shot all around me, into the growing shadows, the tight corridor, the cold, still walls. “What was that?” Nothing, the basement seemed to say in reply.
Then I heard the sound that I should not have heard on the ground. A sound that seemed to tie so many of my recent experiences together, but that made no sense at all, no sense. A sound that should not have fallen out of the skies, or out of some myth, or out of some fanciful story made up by an ex-boyfriend in a darkened bedroom. It should have stayed in its fantastical place. It should have stayed in space. Coming from the wall, coming from the other side of the locked room, came the long, slow sound of deliberate, insistent scraping.
"No," I said in disbelief. I hadn’t thought it before, but perhaps this was the sound that I’d dreaded the most; the sound that brought Philip’s story directly into my own experiences. The scraping that the astronauts had heard on the side of the spacecraft all those years ago while in orbit around Earth was now coming from the other side of a wall, from a locked room in the basement of an old house on the ground.
"Then I heard the sound that I should not have heard on the ground. A sound that seemed to tie so many of my recent experiences together, but that made no sense at all, no sense. A sound that should not have fallen out of the skies, or out of some myth, or some fanciful story made up by an ex-boyfriend in a darkened bedroom"
“No!” This time I shouted the word, as if I could use forcefulness to stop the events unfolding before me. My chest was being bludgeoned every time I tried to breathe in, and I felt the tightening, tightening fingers of Mordan House increasing its grip inside of me. “This is not possible on the ground! It makes absolutely no sense on the ground! It cannot be happening!” As I screamed out these words, I was aware of taking steps backwards, though not sure where I was walking. I could no longer see the face of Kidman on the chair in the room. When I felt the bottom stair against the back of my foot I immediately looked above me in case something was there, hovering.
But in a flash my mind told me that things couldn’t end like this. I’d found the keys, I’d travelled down to the basement, I’d opened the door – only to turn and run away now?
“No,” I said to myself firmly, this time uttering the word with a vague defiance, and I sensed that a narrow passage of courage had opened up inside, like a weak bridge that could tumble to the ground at any second. As quickly as possible I ran forward, back into the room, and grabbed the bundle of files that were sitting on the floor where Kidman had left them. I didn’t even look for Kidman, although I saw the material of her dress from the corner of my eye and knew that she was still standing in exactly the same place on the chair. All I could hear was that slow, gruesome scraping sound and a horrible gurgling sound from Kidman as if she was being strangled where she stood.
But she was imaginary! She wasn’t real! And even as I thought this, I felt tears of fear and confusion start to course down my cheeks. I didn't dare look up. I didn't dare look at any more apparitions, any more ghosts, tormenting, tightening, tightening. As I ran up the stairs, there appeared in my head to be a cacophonous din of rasping from my chest and from the throat of Kidman, woven into the interminable scraping sound coming from the wall of the locked room. What could possibly be locked in that room? What dead thing was the cause of that terrible, persistent scraping sound?
Daylight. Dim but honest. Back in the hallway of the ground floor of the house I felt instantly relieved, although the tears wouldn’t stop, nor would the hammering of sounds and notions in my head.
Clutching the files to my chest, I briefly dashed into my suite of rooms to grab my inhaler, then hurried outside and into the still present snow. How long did I stay outside, crunching through the snow that lay deep all round the house, with no intention other than to stay where there was air and light? Until the crunching finally stopped sounding like short scrapes under my foot. Until my own breathing eased and no longer reminded me of the sound of Kidman’s throat rasping. Until I could again look back at the house, my breath curling forth a bouquet in the cold, wondering, hoping that I might see Kidman at one of the windows. If only because I needed to lay my head on her lap and cry, at the same time asking for forgiveness for every daft folly of my life before and after arriving in Mordan House, to tell her how much I wanted to be happy and content and to just give people love, and to hopefully feel her hand on my hair, soothing, as her voice told me that it was all going to be alright.