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This version, March 2019
A short story - Here Nor There
by Jeff Drummond
Here Nor There won the Henshaw Press, December 2015 short story competition and is published in their second anthology.
So, make a brew, put your feet up for ten, and imagine you are moving into the house of your dreams.
Here Nor There
The rush of a warm summer breeze enters the house through the open front door. From over the banister, I watch her flounce in.
My senses are displaced momentarily, the sound of her heels on the laminate floor and the vision of her navy-skirted suit undulate through my essence like waves stroking a beach; her jovial laugh and inconsequential prattle echo as a ball would rattle around in a bin-ball machine.
She has two people in tow – two more prospective buyers and I wonder, not for the first time, who will gain financially from the sale of my house.
The air settles and I see the young couple clearly. The girl is holding the man’s hand and smiling, her green summer dress shimmers like rising warm air. And he – he is taking in everything; his nose quivers like a rodent sensing the morning air. Most people did that on entering, and those who did rarely stayed long.
I enter the loft through the broken trap door; I do not want to be around when the couple are shown the bedrooms. Some detect my scent and turn their snouts to the heavens. They ask what it is. Flouncy-pants chirpily recites the same answer; the house has been empty too long, it needs the windows open to let in the fresh air. ‘Why is it so cheap?’ they ask. ‘The owner wants a quick sale,’ is the reply. The owner – that’s a laugh. I want to tell them I am the owner, but I can’t.
A few people have asked for a peek in the loft and the steps in the back bedroom make it easy for them. I wish the confounded things weren’t there. All ask why there is no trap door. Again, I could tell them.
I listen from my hiding place behind the old water tank – a tank now empty since I had the combination boiler installed. I hear the steps being hauled into place and watch as heads stretch into the darkness like meerkats. But with no floorboards they never venture inside. I imagine they are looking for any sign of light through the old slate roof. I would like them to explore further, but I want them to buy the house, not flee it like the crew of a sinking ship.
They leave, and once again the house and I are at one in solitude.
Time passes swiftly as I drift in and out of consciousness. I never go out – not any more. Sometimes I settle in the front bedroom and watch the world go by through a grubby bay window. I see neighbours washing their cars – children playing in the close. They never see me. I watch for hours or is it days? I really don’t know. Time is like the drifting sand on the surface of a vast desert, random and rebellious.
The key turns in the front door and once again I wait for flouncy-pant’s spiel. But no heels perpetrate an attack on my weakening senses. Intrigued, I move out of the room and peer over the banister.
It’s hard to describe the thrill I feel at seeing the last happy couple who viewed the house. I have no fluttering heart; no belly to fill with butterflies. But I do have an urge – an overpowering desire to have someone live with me, someone other than the murderous whore I married.
The couple are unescorted. The girl has a tape measure; the man strokes his chin thoughtfully. “We could turn one of the bedrooms into a music room.”
His words come to my ears distantly dream-like. My hearing has never been good since the fall. Again I retreat to the attic. I don’t want my presence felt – not yet.
Time flies in the blink of an imaginary eye. I remain in my spot behind the tank and hear the sound of work in the rooms below. The trap door has been fixed but it is not a problem, I can still get out.
Sometimes, I watch the new owners sleeping in the back bedroom. The man always becomes restless in my presence. His eyes twitch rapidly, and I can only wonder what effect I am having on his dreams.
All my furniture and possessions are gone – all the things bought in a happier life. Now the house doesn’t feel like mine anymore. Now it belongs to Jamie and Emma.
The front bedroom where my treacherous wife and I made love is now Jamie’s beloved music room, and I watch with interest as he builds and plays his acoustic guitars. His evocative voice reminds me of so many good years. His music would bring a tear to my eye – if I had one.
Emma is so pretty; she dances into the room like porcelain on air while he plays. She sings beautifully, and I watch the flame of love intertwine. But with it comes a pang of envy to my restless soul. They have what I should have had, but I bear no malice – not for them.
Sometimes he would stop working if I filled his space. I would see his nostrils flare and sniff the air – his face crinkling in repulsion. He would march out of the room and breathe in the air on the landing, then he would press his nose to the air vent set into the blocked up fireplace. But he would always return to stand in front of me – peering into my space.
Today, he spoke whilst taking delicate shavings off the stem of a new guitar. He stopped working and spun in his chair, eyes wide with puzzled trepidation.
“Hello again,” he said.
I desperately want to say ‘hello’ back, but my existence is merely an echo of my former self.
I move away. He follows.
We are on the landing now – below the trap door. I effortlessly rise and watch him turn through three-sixty. His nostrils flutter like paper on a breeze. Slowly, he returns to the bedroom.
My descent is swift. He stops, turns, and once again he detects my presence.
“What are you?” Tramlines grace his forehead, his head lies to one side. A hand passes through me and I momentarily loose consciousness.
“Are you a ghost? Whatever you are I can’t see you, but you smell really bad.”
Again he follows my stinking scent to the landing. I rise again – slowly this time. He lifts his head and his eyes narrow. The hairs on the back of his neck bristle.
He bolts for the stairs. I want to shout. I want to follow him but I can’t go down to the ground floor. I have willed myself to do so on many an occasion but I never get any further than the half-landing. It is out of bounds. I don’t know why.
I retreat to my water tank disgruntled and frustrated. I was so close that time. They would leave now. No one wants to live in a haunted house.
Time drifts, and light penetrates the darkness of my sanctuary – one beam of light followed by another, both flashing randomly into nooks and crannies. Jamie places planks of wood across the joists and climbs in.
“This is ridiculous,” Emma grumbles, her head and shoulders over the rim of the hatch.
“You could well be right, Em, but this is something I have to do. Something is up here – the recurring dreams I have of climbing up here and waking with a chill down my spine must mean something.”
“But they’re just dreams, Jamie. The more you think that the house is haunted the more you will dream about it. You just have to get it out of your mind!”
“No. It’s more than that. Today I could feel a presence. And it stank, boy it stank so bad. A presence was definitely there – localised – right at my side. If I moved away into fresh air it followed me. I’m amazed you can’t smell anything.”
She rested her arms on the rim of the hatch and giggled. “Are you sure you hadn’t farted?”
“Ha-ha, very funny.”
I emerge from behind the tank and wait as the dust rises from the insulation crammed in between the joists as he places the planks randomly to serve as stepping points. I will him not to fall though the ceiling – he is so close now.
He reaches the tank and shines the beam into the dry and rusty interior. I move toward him. His head jerks upright.
“It’s here now, Emma!”
“I’m sorry, I can’t smell anything.”
“You won’t from there; you’ll have to come here!”
Her expression is pained. “I can’t, I’m scared of falling through the ceiling. And I’ve never smelt anything before so I’m not going to now. I’ve told you, it’s all in your head.”
Her words enter my consciousness like a virus only serving to weaken my link to the other side, the side I would still be on if I hadn’t been pushed through the open trap door. I have tried so many times to make contact with her but I always fail to brake down the barrier. She just continues with what she is doing, oblivious to my plight.
I move closer to Jamie.
“Please, Emma. It’s here now, stronger than ever!”
She sighed. “Oh… all right.”
Now at his side she sniffs the air. “I can’t smell anything but a rusty old tank. You’re going nuts.”
She moved out of my presence and stopped.
“That’s odd.” She shone the beam of her torch against the chimney. “Look at this, the mortar is a different colour on this part. And it’s harder too; the rest is all crumbly and white. And look at the bricks at the bottom; they don’t continue down through the floor like the bits each side of it.”
My vision blurs as they move through me. Time shifts once again.
Many people are in the house now. The trap door to my sanctuary is open and a festoon of electric light fills every nook and cranny. Planks have been replaced with large boards and I remain well away in the lowest of spaces in fear of losing my hook on the real world to yet another disturbance of my being.
Every brick removed from the fake chimney by men in white overalls evokes more memories – dreadful images of my demise from the hollow depths of my mind.
I see myself falling – reaching for purchase. The memory plays back in slow motion; limbs flaying, the ladder toppling, the trap door ripping from its hinges, my best man gazing from the hatch above, his face impassive, his eyes cold.
Again I feel the blood run down my face after the impact with the banister. My wife towers over me. Something in her hand – something heavy.
“Oh, my God – it’s a wrapped up body!” I don’t know who said it. My memory and consciousness shatter.
More people are in the house now. Images are obscure; clothes are dark. I can just make out the shape of a lump hammer as it is placed in a bag and sealed up. Everyone is talking but I can’t make out what is said; the words are as hollow as my mind.
The vision dissipates, and time takes me away once again. But this time my world turns white. Calmness overwhelms me and a vision of traumatised faces form within a milky haze – best man and wife silently implore for forgiveness. Then they are gone.
White fades to grey, and grey to black.
If you enjoyed that, perhaps you would like to read White Feather, a front line World War 1 story.