I opened the bedroom door. Getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night had become something of a habit recently. I always tried not to completely open my eyes but rather to feel my way along the landing.
Even with eyes half closed I saw the child. He was half way up the stairs, with both hands grasping the banister rails that ran along the landing outside our bedroom. His face was pressed up against the rails and was level with my knees. My first reaction was that I must be sleep-walking; in some kind of dream. Then the boy spoke.
He said, “Don’t go.”
Before I could reply or move he had gone. The whole incident had lasted no more than two or three seconds. The whole of my body shivered, my knees felt weak. I grabbed the banister rail and tried to regain my composure. I stood there in that position unable to move or speak for perhaps a minute. I moved slowly towards the bathroom, checking the stairs as I walked past, eyes now fully open. There was, of course, nobody there. By the time I climbed into bed I had nearly convinced myself that it had all been half a dream, half some kind of hallucination. I smiled to myself, perhaps I was actually missing our own two children who had recently, after several years of persuasion, left home. Of course now the house was too big and we had the excuse and the opportunity we wanted to sell the house.
The house had been built, according to the deeds, in 1921. It was a typical detached house in a street of many more detached and semi-detached homes. We had lived in the house for nearly twenty, happy years. Judging by the same deeds the previous families had also lived happily here because there had been only four families before us all of whom had stayed for well over twenty years. The problem was, and this was a part of our reason for wanting to move, the area was changing. Headingley had always had a high student population but, until the last couple of years, landlords had not bought property in our area. Now the pernicious buying of family homes and turning them into the dreaded ‘houses of multiple occupancy’ otherwise known as HMOs, had begun. Experience elsewhere suggested once the trend began, it was irresistible.
Consequently we had arranged for the hated estate agent to come round this very evening and value our beloved house. He was a little late for his appointment for which he apologised profusely. We told him about the house and let him walk round on his own. About ten minutes later he joined us in the kitchen. He looked thoughtful. Trying, we imagined, to value the property. When he finally spoke what he said left us speechless for a few moments.
“I presume,’ he said in that smooth way estate agents have, “That the people upstairs don’t come with the property.”
My wife and I looked at each other blankly.
“Sorry?” I said. “What people?”
“The couple in your son’s old bedroom. The ones sat on the bed,” he replied, equally confused.
“There’s only us here,” said my wife.
“Well they seemed to be there when they spoke to me,” he said.
“What did they say?” I asked almost not wanting an answer.
“The man said – make sure you get somebody nice.” The estate agent laughed. “I thought they must be elderly parents who didn’t want you to sell the house to just anybody. Like a landlord for instance.”
“Were they elderly?” I asked.
“Yes they were,” he said
Neither I, nor my wife, noticed the emphasis immediately. We looked at each other at the same time, a look of horror on our faces then turned to the estate agent simultaneously. “They? You say that like there were others.”
He peered at me, his dark grey eyes intense with, what I could only interpret as, fear. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it. Whatever he had thought to say died on his lips. He visibly drew back his shoulders and looked from myself to my wife. He paused for barely a second longer then spoke.
“I think it might be better if we just confined ourselves to talking about the value of the house.”
He quoted us a figure which we thought was reasonable even if this meant, as it almost certainly would now, selling to a landlord. Having given us this information he
left immediately. We saw him from our living room standing in the street staring at the house. He was thinking that the house looked bigger, somehow more imposing than the others in the street. He had thought them all exactly the same size. Perhaps he had underestimated the value of this property. Then with another shrug he walked to his car and drove away.
It took us a few days to recover from the shock of that visit. My wife thought it funny after a while. I did not. I still thought of the child on the stairs and each night when I climbed out of bed to go to the bathroom a shiver of apprehension ran down my spine. But he was never there and I gradually came to believe, as my wife insisted, that I had imagined the whole thing including the strangely unsettling conversation with the estate agent.
Even though I loved the house the area was undoubtedly going down the tubes and we were still determined to press ahead with selling the house and we frequently discussed our plans for the future. How we would buy a smaller, terraced house nearer the centre of Leeds. How this would release the considerable amount of equity held in the house even if this meant selling to a hated landlord. The money would finance our retirement which we planned for in four or five years time.
It was three weeks since the estate agent’s visit and I had nearly convinced myself that those events were no more than a figment of my imagination. And then something else happened. We were sitting in our living room and the sun was shining though the window. I loved the house so much that I could quite happily sit and watch the day fade away. The sunlight created patterns on the far wall of the room. I watched them idly as they changed shape with the dropping sun. My wife was reading her novel. I can’t say at what point I realised that the shape I was watching was forming itself into quite a different one to that I had been observing. I watched with casual fascination as the patterns twisted and wriggled each change apparently, as far as I could tell, bearing no relationship to the now irrelevant sun shining through our windows.
“Penny,” I said without taking my eyes off of the ever-changing shapes. “Look at the wall.” Perhaps something in the tone of my voice made her stop reading immediately and look up at my face and then to follow my incredulous look to what had now appeared on our living room wall. As clear as if they had been painted there the words shouted their message. They said “Let her go, you must stay.”
“Did you see it?” I whispered. “It’s the house, it’s speaking to us. It doesn’t want us to go. “Doesn’t want you to go,” my wife said quietly.
“Why me?” I asked just as quietly. “Because you love it like a living thing and that is what it has become,” she replied.
I looked at her not believing what she had said. She continued.
“To me it’s just bricks and mortar. That’s all, just a house, a place to live but to you it means everything. You don’t really want to go and I do and the house knows that.”
“How can you say ‘the house knows’ and in the same sentence say ‘it’s only bricks and mortar’?
I cannot remember how long we half discussed, half argued about what was happening to us and what we should do. It seemed to go on all night. And all the time I felt as if the house was listening to us and deciding what it would do next. I suppose even if my wife had come home and found me talking to the house she wouldn’t have been surprised.
The writing had had far more effect on me than it had on her. Perhaps she would have been surprised had she heard the house speaking back to me.
“Tell me about the people in the house. Why are they here?” I asked as if speaking to another person.
“They lived here before you,” the house said.
“You mean they never leave?”
“People live in me a long time. Nobody’s very surprised when they die shortly afterwards ” Yes, but this is different, I said.
“How?” said the house.
“We don’t really want to move. We just felt we had to. The area is changing. It’s not the same as when you were first built.”
“Don’t worry it will be again,” the house said mysteriously.
I suppose it was on one of these occasions of talking to the house that I looked round to see my wife staring at me through the window. I thought she might have been in tears but I couldn’t be sure. She had come home from her work early and caught me talking to the house. I did not care. The house and I got on well. We understood each other. I had even spoken to the house’s previous inhabitants but they had never appeared to me, not since the child on the stairs. I imagined they were waiting for some kind of signal from the house that it was alright to speak to me. It would happen soon, I was sure of that.
My wife told me that we needed the holiday, needed to get away, completely away, from the house and all the madness surrounding it. I agreed very reluctantly to go with her. I suppose she thought that if we went away, somewhere where we couldn’t be reached, that, on our return, it would all turn out to have been some imagined nightmare. A kind of joint collective hysteria. That’s what she hoped.
Three weeks later and we drove, with some apprehension, back from the airport to our house. We felt better but our, hard come by, optimism did not last long. We were stopped by the police a few hundred yards from home at the point where the street turned off from the main road. We explained that we were returning home after a couple of week’s holiday and we had heard nothing about what had happened. They said they thought it was safe now and that our house was one of the few that had miraculously remained undamaged. Gas leak seemed to be the most likely explanation but as to how some houses had been completely destroyed while others between them remained undamaged was, so far a complete mystery. At the moment, everybody had been evacuated from the area.
Six houses like ours had been destroyed. Fortunately nobody had been killed or even seriously injured. Apparently, the police said, somebody had warned all the occupants before the explosions had occurred. Strange thing was, the policeman said, nobody could remember actually seeing anybody, only hearing their voice. Even stranger, nobody had come forward after the event to claim the credit. Some people are just naturally modest, the policeman supposed.
The policeman thought it would be alright if we quickly went into our house to get some essential items. We drove past the smoking ruins of the six houses to our own house. If my wife noticed that all the destroyed houses were those owned by landlords she did not say so. It did not then surprise me that our house was completely undamaged. We parked the car in the drive and, without thinking to lock it, we stepped into the house. The door closed behind us. Perhaps we knew, even then, that we would never leave.
We smelt the gas after a few more seconds. I suppose we knew that trying to open the doors or windows would prove fruitless. And so it was. The explosion followed three or four minutes later. That was after the house had told us that we shouldn’t have tried to leave.