The Latch - A Ghost Story
So there I was swaying in the breeze contemplating the growing pile of fag butts in the plant pot and how I really ought to dispose of them for the sake of my karma when I realised that the click I had heard was the front door closing itself. I had no key. “I have no key’ I thought. I am ill and standing in the garden locked out feeling nauseous from the guilt of not being able to give up smoking. I knew for a fact that I had left the door on the latch. But this was no Victorian manor house I found myself suddenly exiled from – this was a late sixties purpose built ex local authority brutal semi. I still had my slippers on and my phone was inside. I remembered that I had seen the magnificent Tania sauntering home after the school run and wondered about walking around the block to her house in order to phone my wife. Oh the times I had fantasised about such an occurrence but in these reveries I did not have slippers on my feet and an eye of what I speculatively presumed to be suppurating head-lice bites. I was not looking my best. Still Tania worked with the homeless she would understand. And so I shuffled out of the gate making doubly sure that I left it on the latch. Not that this was any guarantee of my being able to rely on the sanctuary of my garden in the face of the devilish activity in my home that had just then come to light.
One often saw people in their slippers on the forgotten estate. The only problem is I had never counted myself amongst their number. And so I resolved to walk boldly as if slipper wearing on a rain sodden day was the most natural thing in the world. I knew that there was a moderate to high chance of happening upon another parent returning from the school run so I fixed my gaze ahead and set a gentle smile about my lips. As the gate closed behind me I’m sure I heard my mobile phone ringing. The cat stared down at me from the top of the outhouse as if to say “well aren’t you going to answer that?” now that I came to think of it the cats had been running madly around the house just prior to my morning cigarette. I sometimes thought of myself as a sailor on a round the world yacht as I stood on the deck smoking. Staring at the sky wondering what the day had in store. And like another dreamer my yacht was permanently anchored on an island half the world away from where I regularly reported myself to be.
I made it through the residents’ car park without bumping into anyone and now stood at the side of the road where the estate ends and the proper Victorian streets begin. These are the really covetable streets I thought. These are the houses that bring parents to the area. I stood at the top of Tania's street. I had actually forgotten the name of the street. We used to see a lot of each other prior to our children attending school. Once she had been round our house and set the kitchen on fire by placing the kettle on the hob and leaving it while we played out the front with the children. I remember her clutching her youngest daughter in a blanket whilst I tried to fling dampened towels onto the blaze. It had all struck me as being like a scene from a melodramatic engraving. We got a new cooker and redecoration out of this misfortunate episode but somehow our friendship was nerver put back the way it had been before. It had somehow illuminated the class divide between us. She in her Victorian Aga styled town house and us in our functional cube.
I stopped at the window with the wooden blinds. That was always how I recognised Tania's house. I couldn't tell you now what the number is. I could see the flicker of movement through the slats and went up to the door. I decided to knock on the window. Hello” said an unfamiliar voice. “Oh its Mikey” I replied nervously. I was always replying nervously. “It’s who?” said the voice. “It’s Mikey I’m a friend of Tania's from church.’ Quite why I had said this I don’t know. It seemed to conjure up an idea of a friendship on a secure footing but equally if someone had said it to me I would have found it deeply suspicious. But I wasn’t like other people and so frequently found myself trying to second guess what the best thing to say would be and invariably when it came time to speak picked the oddest statement from the hastily complied multiple choice.
The door opened and revealed a small pretty young woman. “Hello” I said again “is Tania Home?”
Oh she’s just about to leave I think, what do you want?”
“Erm oh it’s nothing important it can wait.”
Tania's impressive frame emerged into the light from the kitchen at the back of the hallway
“Hi Mikey are you okay? How are you all?”
“Oh Hi we’re fine I just thought I’d pop round on my way to the shops to see if you had thought any more about the... the.. “
“Really sorry I’ve got to head off. We really must get a date in the diary for a dinner round ours. I still owe you one.”
“Okay that would be lovely,” I said shuffling trying not to show my slippered feet, which was clearly impossible. Tania strode past me and touched my arm. The power touch. I stood there momentarily between her and the woman I calculated to be the cleaner. “Thanks” I said to the young woman and raised my hand to say goodbye.
Back in the garden the space under the trampoline was at least dry. From time to time the cats would come out and sniff my hand. I curled up and tried to keep warm. My new coat would be a mess was all I kept thinking to myself. I could remember when this decking was pristine and now here I lay in the middle of gently rotting leaves and algae. This is the hardest part of having time to think. You can, if you are not careful, become rapidly aware of the tendency of everything to decay. If I wash my hands today they will be dirty tomorrow kind of thing. The boys scooters were next to me both missing various screws that had fallen off and rusting around the wheel arches – the football was peeling and under inflated. The log I had positioned to stop the trampoline moving was askew and now just another piece of mouldering detritus.
I somehow slept and woke to a faint click. At least I had remembered to put my hearing aids in. I looked out from my new cave like abode and caught sight of movement behind the garden door. We had chosen to have half glazed doors on the front door that opened onto the garden. “It’s nice to have a view,” I had suggested utopianly. Was the click the cat flap? I asked myself. The cat flaps that portal between the animal world and human consciousness. The cat flap – a conversation between man and beast. I crawled out trying not to catch my new coat on the decking as I did so. I gazed in shock as the front door gently opened a half-inch. My wife was right to constantly complain about what a bad job they had done of installing the new doors. We had had them back countless times to readjust them. Initially this had been to simply stop the rain from literally flooding underneath them but after several bodged attempts they needed frequent further adjustment. Finally I suggested they turn the drip bar the other way around and this did the trick. Now the doors were all ours and negotiations with the company Doors by Dores had unofficially ceased.
I pushed the door open and sniffed. Everyone smells a house on entering. It’s the fastest way of assessing if all is well. That time T had burnt down the kitchen I had smelt burning plastic but felt safe in the knowledge that there was nothing plastic in our home that could catch light. I hadn’t accounted for someone mistakenly putting a plastic based kettle on a hob though had I? The house smelt familiar with a very faint under note of dampness. This was not a nuance I had ever detected before. Our house was well built with no mysterious areas that could evade practical maintenance. This is what had attracted us to it but now we found ourselves longing for a home with uncharted corners. I winced as I remembered how on viewing the house I had met the son of the deceased owner. We had a pleasant conversation and I had held my own as an adult house buyer. He had been keen to show me the outhouse and indeed it was a surprisingly practical space in a small block outside the street side front door. “We put everything in there” he chuckled. And I, with my brain racing ahead to visions of myself installed in there on a woodwork project had chuckled back “yeah Dad!” Now this is not the most delicate of jokes I could have chosen to make to the son of a dead man endeavouring to sell his fathers house to a flimsy excuse of a grown up. Still he did laugh and I found myself wondering if this had been a conspiratorial reflex.
The cat was pawing the cupboard doors making a swish swish noise as she did so. Nothing unusual in that I thought. She’s always wanting to get in the cupboard under the stairs. The cupboard under the stairs was not your usual kind of low level design, being more of a walk in coat cupboard at the front then curving around under the stairs where we kept the boxes of more delicate objects that had seemed better suited to our Victorian childfree high ceiling flat in a conservation area. I opened the door to let the cat in. It sometimes worried me that the cat would get crushed under a box that I had not packed away scientifically enough but still I pushed such thoughts away as I watched her tail disappear behind the bag for life of summer footwear at the back. This space was then without doubt the last mystery of the house for although I had many time unpacked and repacked it in search of some suddenly indispensable item, it always reverted to a state of unfathomable depth once the door was closed. Not knowing what was in there was a constant potential source of irritation I was reminded of this as I placed my new coat on the peg. The cat mewed somewhere from within the mound of boxes and heaped up layers of living. “Okay puss” I called instinctively feeling an urge to crawl in and make sure she was okay. My phone was still on the side in the dining room and so I pushed on in the darkness. It sounds silly but the space was cramped and yet big enough to feel like I was scrabbling into the heart of the house. I caught a glimpse of Lilly’s eyes in the far corner where I packed the Christmas tree away. It would soon be time to dig it out again so why not now.” I mean I’ve come this far so why not?” I asked myself inwardly dreading the process of packing and unpacking the various bags and boxes.
Suddenly the cat yowled and I saw a flash of red. There were no lights under here so what did I see. I thought of the antique lamp stand with the ancient wiring. This had always struck me as a hazard and now it sat in a box where it had been packed on the day of our move. A faint rustling caught my ear and from the corner of my eye deeper shadows danced in the farthest corner right under the stairs. I ploughed on past the box of cheap toys and long since abandoned games consoles. This was the one part of the under stairs cupboard I had never been into and if I was honest I had always been too frightened of even reaching a hand into that space. The cat brushed past my face and in seconds I heard the swish swish of her pawing at the doors. She wanted to get back in. Swish swish. Swish swish like someone cleaning at a step with an incriminating stain. Outside the leaves stirred in the breeze as I found myself entering the darkest part of the house. On and on I went down and down into the darkness of the mystery. The dampness was stronger here. The earth under my hands told me why. A frog, a newt, a slow worm all gently moved aside as I crawled. A small Mercedes matchbox car sat beneath my hand and I lifted it to my face to smell. Soon there was grass under my knees and the sound of small chattering voices. You may think I was going mad but I lived this. I scrabbled beyond the realm of either or and felt dimensions expand and contract around me. Fear had passed and tears streamed down my cheeks as I lay on the green grass of the traffic island outside my first love's house. Nicky’s dad choked on his own vomit. We moved away from house to house each time the dimensions a little more generous and the address just that bit more respectable. Here I lay again now with Nicky beside me on the grass. Our toy cars spread out around us. This was the heaven I had longed for but now found myself wondering if there was any way back to the place from which I had crawled. I panicked and tried to scramble to my feet catching Nicky on the side of the face as I did so. Confusion flashed across her features as I ran. I ran and without looking found myself in front of an oncoming beautiful Mercedes coupe. The pain was all enveloping but strangely gentle. I’m all right I thought as I glanced across at Nicky on the grass. She was now smiling again. Cursing as I did so I shoved the various boxes and bags haphazardly out of my way until I could here the swish swish of the cats paws on the door. Pushing them open from within I emerged back into the house. I picked the cat up and held her on her back like a child. She looked around the room and purred. I set her down and she sprang off through the cat flap into the front garden. It as about time I got on with some work and I padded into the kitchen and picked up the kettle.