Location, location…apparition? Exclusive residence hides a dark past?
It was only upon discovering that the house had been rebuilt that I felt the need to write to you. I am not even sure why this is significant. Following the renovations, the place is almost completely unrecognizable as the derelict ruin that still haunts my memories, and my dreams. Now the house exhibits an air of opulence: an array of expensive cars parked up on the driveway; the whitewashed stonework of the Georgian facade boasting sculpted pillars and elegant balconies. It even has a new name: Hillcrest Villa. Yet it was all very different in my day. I am not even sure the building had a name back then, not a real one. People called it all sorts of things: Hill House, Tower Lodge, Yews Court. But to the children who attended nearby Lethmachen Primary School it was known simply as ‘The Haunted House’. I remember we used to talk about it all the time, especially during the summer, when the teachers would march us up the hill on a nature trail. Our route would typically skirt around the back of the property, and every child would take turns peeking nervously over the crumbled stone wall, pinching and kicking at each other whilst inventing terrible stories.
As for me, these days it is the familiar story. Trying to balance work and family life occupies most of my time, so I rarely have the inclination to venture across town and visit the neighbourhood where I grew up. In fact, I only happened to be crossing Lethmachen Hill that day because I was attending a meeting out of town and had been diverted by the latest set of roadworks. As my car struggled to the peak of that steep incline I happened to glance off road to my right. And that was when I saw Hillcrest Villa. You know how it is when you return to somewhere you once knew. You immediately notice if anything looks different, even if you can’t exactly remember how it looked before. It almost feels like a personal insult that changes have been made in your absence! Well, my first reaction on sighting Hillcrest Villa was ‘Ooh, that’s new!’ Only the next moment I realised it wasn’t. In fact it was very old, and I knew it. You see, in spite of the shiny new facelift, in spite of the gentrification with the chandeliers and works of art I glimpsed in passing, nothing had really changed. I still felt this horrible, oppressive sense of fear when looking at that building, even though it had attempted a disguise. That afternoon I gave a terrible presentation at the executive meeting. All I could think about was The Haunted House, and what had happened there so long ago. I mean, what had happened to me. When my eldest daughter mentioned your website, I thought that perhaps by sharing my story it would become just another story, and no longer belong to me. I am tired of keeping it all to myself.
We’re going back twenty years now. That morning everyone in my year had received their GCSE results. That evening, as we were all still too young to get into any pubs or clubs, a party had been arranged on Lethmachen Hill. I don’t remember much about the actual party, partly because of the alcohol, partly because I imagine it was pretty dull. There were probably stories circulating for a few weeks afterwards, exaggerated tales of who had been sick and who had had sex, but by then I had already decided I was too old for such gossip. Instead of returning to school for A levels, I had made up my mind I wanted a job. This party would be my last experience of school life, of my childhood. Tomorrow my life was going to change. At some point in the evening, about half way down a bottle of vodka, I realised that I needed to mark this momentous occasion in some way. There needed to be a significant ending that I would be able look back on and recognise in years to come. Drunken logic dictated that Chris would fulfil this function. He was a boy in my class who had liked me for ages. The other girls were always winding me up about ‘the chemistry’ between us, although in truth I only really saw him as a friend. Still, I kept flirting with him on and off throughout the party and we ended up walking off alone and stumbling down the hill together in the dark. He was showing off in front of me, little suspecting I did not intend to see him again after this night was over. For me this was an ending, not a beginning.
Straying from the path, we soon lost our bearings and found we were approaching ‘The Haunted House’. When I was able to focus, I could just pick out its low silhouette crouched amongst the surrounding trees. In the dark the place looked even more desolate, as if it were the remnants of some stone age dwelling, rather than the shell of some Victorian town house, gutted by fire, as was told in most of the stories. Of course the stories were what we immediately started talking about, the conversation suddenly steering away from how short my dress was or how it would be fun if we went to explore what was behind those bushes. By our age, nobody really believed those stories about ‘The Haunted House’ anymore. Even at primary school they had become so contradictory and confused that you had your doubts. Tales of drowned witches, phantom highwaymen and headless horsemen had somehow all got mixed up in the legend, and even I recognised the latter had just been drafted in from ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The version of the story I knew best was that there had been a murder in Victorian times. A father had murdered his wife in an upstairs bedroom and then waited for his children to get home from school. On their return he had stormed downstairs, picked up the boy in one hand and the girl in the other, and thrown them on to the roaring flames of an open fire. Oh, and another thing. When the father stormed down the stairs he had been wearing a mask cut from the face of the dead mother. No, no, no, argued Chris, quite animatedly. That was not the version he knew. His story was at once more plausible and more sordid: something to do with an illegal abortion racket and police corruption. But seriously, between us we had heard dozens of variants, ranging from fairy realms to flying saucers.
The result of this conversation is that Chris and I became convinced that we had to break into ‘The Haunted House’. We couldn’t believe that, as far as we were aware, nobody had ever attempted this in the past. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. We had a purpose in life, we would make history. Predictably, Chris insisted on trying to impress me by dramatically wrenching away the rotten boards nailed across the nearest window. There was no glass, just a gaping hole that yawned an even deeper darkness than the night outside. The two of us slithered clumsily through the jagged space and dropped to the floor. As you would expect, once inside there was nothing to see. Not only was the hull pitch black but it smelt dank and there was no furniture, no carpet, no character. We loitered awkwardly for a few seconds, trying to think of something funny to say and trying to imagine what we could do next. I certainly wasn’t having sex in here, no matter how drunk I was. ‘OK…right. I think it’s time to go home…’ I began to slur when Chris abruptly hushed me. Yes, now I could hear it too. A dull, muffled vibration of sound rising from somewhere up ahead. As if summoned, we took simultaneous steps forward. Could I also now make out a frame of pale light in the far corner, as if a door had been left ajar?
We opened the door and walked in. The living room was brightly lit and cosy, neatly arranged with a chintz sofa and an ornamental table piled high with board games and books. An open fire raged in the hearth – this was the sound we had heard. Fascinated, I stared deep into the fire, watching the tongues of flame spit and surge higher. Chris touched me gently on the arm. On the mantelpiece stood a gallery of family portraits: two parents and two children stared out from the sepia tinted photographs. The mother’s smile always appeared strained, as if she felt uncomfortable in her own skin. Everything about the room felt impossibly warm and homely, just for a moment. Then I realised it all felt impossible. My sensation of content had been broken by the sound of heavy footsteps above us, pacing the upstairs room. Did this house even have an upstairs anymore? No, I couldn’t recall seeing one from the outside, the roof had sunken in. This couldn’t be. But there in front of us was a flight of stairs, ascending. Suddenly, a savage, unseen voice rang out from the top of the stairs – threatening, not welcoming.
‘Children, is that you? Are you home?’
I can’t remember exactly what happened next; I didn’t drink alcohol for a while afterwards. When I heard those footsteps slowly begin to descend the stairs I must have instinctively turned to run. There was something wrong with the way they sounded: heartless, lifeless, weighted with a burden. I think they even had this weird echo. Anyway, I swear I grabbed Chris by the arm and tried to drag him with me. But he refused to move. He was frozen to the spot, staring blankly towards the stairs with this horrible expression – a mask of disbelief and yet undeniable belief. In that split second, he looked to me almost as if he had suddenly realised that this place was his home, that he had been stupid to have ignored the stories, or been unlucky to have heard the wrong ones. He had been part of the myth all along and it had come back to claim him. I guess I just panicked. I fled the room and scrambled through the dark next door until I reached the window. Outside, I must have dashed blindly down the hill for a distance, careering through hedgerows and undergrowth (my body was covered in cuts and bruises when I woke late the next morning). Then a sudden wave of guilt had swamped me and I stopped running. How could I have left Chris there on his own? I turned and sprinted back up the hill as fast as I could. But when I reached ‘The Haunted House’ there was nothing there. Once again it was just a dark, dismal, empty shell of a building: holes in the roof, damp in the walls. I couldn’t find that brightly lit, inhabited room and I couldn’t find Chris. In fact, I never saw him again after that night. Of course I had never intended to see him again but that didn’t stop me feeling guilty. Later I heard rumours that he and his family had relocated, left town during that summer. I hope this is the truth.
Most of the time, when I think about what happened at that house, I can convince myself it was all a dream. Even today, if I ever drink too much, I often have dreams where the night continues as if I had never gone to bed, and then in the morning I have to pick apart dreams and reality. Perhaps this is what occurred? Perhaps Chris and I just parted ways after the party, yet because we had been talking about the legends of ‘The Haunted House’, I then went home and dreamt about one of them? I mean, it couldn’t be that out of that jumbled mess of stories that have been told over the years, one of the stories was actually true? And so that particular story returns every now and again to assert its truth? As I said at the beginning, I thought I had buried the memory, the guilt years ago. But for some reason seeing that house rebuilt, renewed….well, it brought it all back again. Sometimes I worry I will open the wrong door and find myself back in that warm, cosy room, as if I now too belong to the myth. I suppose that was one reason why I wanted to give the story to you?