Sounds of an old house: a haunting memoir
by J. Ashley-Smith
I’ve moved house maybe fifteen, twenty times since I left home, but my parents have never moved. They still live in the house I was born and grew up in, on the outskirts of Cambridge in the UK.
It’s the only detached house on a street of Edwardian terraces and townhouses made of bricks that must once have been a chalky yellow, but are now grey with age and the soot of a hundred years-worth of car exhaust fumes. White and pink rosebushes line the short path from the pavement and trail around the front door, partially obscuring the name etched into the sandstone lintel: Rose Holme. It’s a small, simple, beautiful house. The inside front door has panes of green and red stained glass, and blue glass corner-pieces with white stars. In the afternoon, sunlight shines through them and paints coloured shapes on the walls and floor of the entrance hall. The house smells of books and old wood, of the drying hop vines my mum hangs from the bannisters.
I have fond memories of growing up in that house, but I have not-so-fond ones too. Memories of things I can’t explain that frightened me as a child. I’ll do what I can to set them down here in a way that makes sense, even though I’m looking back on them through a lens of thirty-five years, from a distance of half a planet.
Many of my most vivid memories from childhood are of my bedroom at night, of having woken from some bad dream or other, gasping in the darkness. I can remember the cool feel of the wall beside me. My pounding heart. It was waking from just such a nightmare that the first incident occurred.
I don’t remember the dream, only waking to the stillness of late night. The creak of the old house settling. The tick tick of the grandfather clock reverberating in the emptiness downstairs. I was thirsty and I needed to wee, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I hoped I would fall asleep without needing to go, that I would forget the bad dream I’d woken from. But then someone began to climb the stairs.
There had been no sound before that, no movement anywhere in the house. One moment there was stillness. The next, footsteps on the stairs. They moved slowly, climbing one step at a time. First one foot, then the other to meet it. Between each step there was a pause, just long enough for me to wonder if I’d imagined the sounds before. Then there would be a creak and one thud, then a second, as the footsteps rose another step towards me.
My bedroom was at the top of the first flight of stairs, so those footsteps seemed to be climbing right up towards me. My door was always open a crack, the landing light left on. I lay there sick with terror, waiting for a shadow to pass in front of the door, to cut off the thin seam of light that connected me to the rest of the house, to where my parents lay sleeping. The footsteps drew closer and closer. At last, the floorboards outside my bedroom door creaked and I held my breath, waiting for the rattle of the handle, for that seam of light to widen as the door swung open. But it did not widen, nor did it dim. Whatever was standing outside my room cast no shadow.
After a long pause, the footsteps continued up the next short flight of stairs to the far end of the house. They stopped outside my parents’ bedroom and I remember a flood of relief realising that it was only my mum or dad going up to bed. But there was no sound of their door opening, just the stillness and the ticking from downstairs, as though the house was waiting for something. The long silence was broken by a distant click, then the loud scraping sound of the fold-away aluminium ladder being lowered from the attic. The footsteps climbed the ladder with the same methodical slowness, but a new metallic creak. And then… nothing. There were no more sounds from above, and no one came down from the attic.
The next morning, the door to the attic was closed. I convinced myself I’d imagined it all, or that perhaps what I’d heard was my dad looking for something up in the roof, that I’d just fallen asleep before he came back down. But when I asked him what he’d been doing up there, he looked at me funny and told me he’d not been in the attic for weeks.
Though it frightened me at the time, I soon forgot about those strange night noises, the visitor to the attic who never returned. The bad dreams didn’t stop, though. I developed a morbid obsession with death and the macabre, an emerging interest in ghosts, the supernatural, and horror fiction. By the time I was ten or eleven, I was a voracious reader of entirely unsuitable books. Books about the end of the world; books about haunted children, children with terrible abilities; books about sexual misadventures cut short by flesh-eating rats, or crabs, or slugs. I liked to hide out in the dark to read. I’d made a den in the crawlspace below our house, where I read by torchlight and scratched away at my own first horror stories. It was down there, in the dark of the under-house that the next incident took place.
At the bottom of the stairs, there was a smallish rectangle cut out of the floorboards. I always thought of it as a trapdoor, though it was really only three short lengths of board with a bevelled edge to stop it falling through. My dad had cut the hole when they first moved in, before I was born, so he could trail pipes and wires and whatnot between the rooms. But there was no way he could fit down that hole anymore. It was barely big enough for me to slip through, a tad wider than my shoulders. Around the time I set up the den, my parents had started to use the mouth of the crawlspace for storage—that part of it they could reach without actually climbing down, anyway. The tunnel to the left was choked with plastic storage tubs full of my mum’s craft supplies: textile offcuts, pots of dye, bags and bags of uncarded wool.
I was obsessed by that underground space, by the ‘trapdoor’. Long before I set up my den down there, I would pry back the cover with my fingernails, stare down into the blackness, inhaling the faint damp smell of old brick. There was something magical about a hidden space that mimicked the rooms of the house above: a literal underworld. It was as mysterious to me as the Upside-Down House on the ceiling of which I sometimes imagined myself walking, as I paced the landing on quiet afternoons, staring down into an upward-facing mirror. It gave me the same sense of vertiginous oddness, of places that are but which should not be.
The potential of that hidden world excited me—the possibility of undiscovered treasure, of a mystery to be solved, of a call to adventure. Shuffling on hands and knees through those low tunnels, the floorboard ceiling only inches from my head, I would crawl through the brick dust and stone chips, exploring the ‘rooms’ in the foundations of the house. These rooms had no doorways, only ragged holes where six or seven bricks had been torn out to allow passage. It thrilled me more than is rational to see the light from the rooms above illuminating the cracks between floorboards, to hear the sounds my parents made in the overground world, the looming creak of their footsteps, the muffled drone of their voices.
When you lowered yourself down through the hole in the floor, there was the tunnel to the left, blocked by my mum’s boxes. To the right, there was a wall. In between, below the dining room, was a space just large enough to fit a lumpy old futon mattress. I realise calling this a ‘den’ may be overstating it a little. It was basically just that seedy old mattress, around which I’d gathered my essentials: a flip-top Duracell torch; a small tea flask with a copper and brown tartan design; a hardback notepad and blue biro; and whatever book I was reading at the time. The book was, I believe, Stephen King’s The Stand—though it could easily have been one of his other ‘S’ books: The Shining; or Salem’s Lot; all of them had dark blue covers in the versions I owned. And perhaps it was something I read in one or other of these that set my mind racing, that pushed an already wildly active imagination over the edge into hallucination. I don’t know. Can a hallucination frighten you so much it still makes your heart pound to think of it thirty-five years later?
The last time I ever went down in the den, it was autumn, early afternoon. My mum had gone out for some reason—to the shop maybe—and I was alone in the house. I had brewed a fresh flask of tea, prised open the trapdoor and slipped through, out of the light and into the underworld of the crawlspace. I remember it was so cold I was wearing my outdoor jacket, and to keep warm I’d brought with me one of those thermal polyester blankets, the ones with the silky edges. I lay there with my tea and my torch, turning the pages of The Stand, lost in the end of the world.
The room in which I’d made my den was only a little wider than the mattress, flanked on both sides by brick walls, each with a ragged hole just wide enough to crawl through. From both, a sort of graveyard light filtered through blackberry bushes and weeds in the garden outside, through vents intended to keep damp from blooming in the foundations. This light wasn’t strong enough to illumine the brick-strewn ground or the walls on which strange moulds flourished. It merely lent a spectral eeriness, kept me always half aware of the uncharted spaces beyond the reach of my torch.
It was the sound of bricks shifting in the room behind me that pulled me instantly back to the present, to the cold, to the moist stone smell of the under-house. In that moment, I experienced at once all of the horror fiction clichés. I froze in terror, my heart thumping so hard it made me feel sick. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. My entire body felt as though it were made of electricity, crackling with silent tension. I was too frightened to breathe, didn’t dare move, terrified to make the slightest noise. All the while I was calculating the distance to the trapdoor—just a body’s length beyond my feet, but in this enclosed space it seemed impossibly distant. I suppose I could have dispelled my anxieties simply by shining the torch through the hole of torn-down bricks. And perhaps I would have dared to do that if whatever it was in the next room hadn’t begun to drag itself towards me.
That’s the only way I can describe the sound: a body dragging itself across grit and brick shards. Something heavy. Something… fleshy. Of course, I shrieked, scrambled madly for the trapdoor. I was still clutching the book and the torch when I dragged myself from the hole, slammed down the lid and thundered up the stairs to my bedroom. The mattress is still down there, I expect. And the flask.
It all seems absurd now, writing this all these years later. It’s hard to see this experience as anything other than the wild imaginings of a sensitive boy, too heavily influenced by the scary stories he like to read, writing himself into a scary story of his own. And yet…
Not long after that incident, my mum asked me to get one of her boxes out from below the house. A box of wool for her to card, to spin. I was reluctant, but didn’t want to tell her why, so I did what she asked. It took an enormous effort of will to peel open the trapdoor and peer down inside, to ignore the terror yawning within me. When I leaned in, the boxes were not where I had stacked them, across the tunnel to the left of the cover. They had all been moved—dragged—to the other side, completely blocking the entrance to the ‘room’ in which I’d made my den.
There were other things too, strange sounds or visions I experienced at one time or another in that old house. There was the time I heard whispered voices from downstairs after everyone was asleep. Or the time I woke, unable to move, to find a girl of five- or six-years old standing by my bedside, looking down on me where I slept. There were the recurring fantasies where a girl perched on my bedroom windowsill, pawing to get in. All I was able to rationalise in one way or another. None had the immediacy, the physicality of the footsteps on the stairs or that time below the house.
The writer in me wants to make a narrative of these events, to find connections, to draw them all together neatly and tie them up with a bow. But life is not like that. Even here, writing them down now, these things refuse to tell a coherent story. Yet they also refuse to be explained away.
My parents still live in Rose Holme. It still has the pink and white rose bushes up the short path and trailing around the front door, though the words on the sandstone lintel are faded now, almost illegible. They renovated the old place shortly before I left home, extended out the back, did up the kitchen. My dad even put in a proper trapdoor to the crawlspace big enough for him to lean down, with a hinge and a ring-pull and everything. They use it to keep wine cool, and for things that won’t fit in the pantry. The crawlspace beyond is blocked with clear plastic boxes filled with my old stuff, the things I left behind when I moved to Australia. Vinyl LPs. VHS cassettes of horror movies I taped off the TV.
I’ve not been back to that old house in years.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian author of dark fiction and co-host of the Let The Cat In podcast. His first book, The Attic Tragedy, won the Shirley Jackson Award. Other stories have won the Ditmar Australian Shadows and Aurealis awards. He lives with his wife and two sons beneath an ominous mountain in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires. You can find him at spooktapes.net, performing amazing experiments in electronic communication with the dead. His debut collection, The Measure of Sorrow, is out now from Meerkat Press.