Friday, 21 December 2012

Not a creature was stirring

People are always asking, but I’ve never actually told the whole story before.

I’d moved up to London the autumn after university when I got my first job at the agency, and I was living in a flat in East Finchley. I say flat, it was a bedsit, but that makes it sound really small and grotty, and it was actually quite big – I think it must have been the original sitting room of the house, which was Victorian, or at least old anyway. It had a big bay window with room for a table and chairs in it so it wasn’t what you think of when people say bedsit. The advert called it a “Studio Apartment”, but that makes it sound like it was all New York and bare bricks, which it definitely wasn’t. I was really chuffed with it though. It had its own toilet and proper kitchen units and a worktop against the back wall, even if you did have to clean your teeth at the kitchen sink and spit round the washing up when you couldn’t be bothered to do it. The bath was in an alcove with a curtain you could pull across it, which my mum thought was hilarious.

It was cheaper than you’d think, because people are funny about living on the ground floor but it didn’t bother me (I always took my laptop to work with me and dad had managed to get all my stuff on their insurance). When it got to December I even bought some Christmas lights from Tesco’s and strung them up across the window so people in the street could see them. My friend Sian got all excited when she came to visit and was trying to make me get a tree, but there didn’t seem much point because I knew I’d be at mum and dad’s for actual Christmas and besides when we looked at the ones they were selling in the pub car park they turned out to cost a bloody fortune, who knew?

The hallway was a bit grim – the carpet was all scuffed up, and there were piles of post sitting out there, mostly for tenants who were long-gone. There were four or five different names on the ones addressed to my flat alone. I don’t know why no one had thrown them away; they were probably mostly junk mail anyway. They made the hallway look really messy and kind of sad. Although the horrible light didn’t exactly help. It had no shade on, and someone had put in an eco-bulb which didn’t even have time to warm up properly before the timer switched it off again. I said to Sian that I was thinking about chucking all the old letters in a bin bag but she said she thought it might be against the law. And then she said I should look through them and see if there were any credit cards or anything valuable in them, and I told her that would definitely be illegal, the daft moo.

The one bad thing about the flat was the noise. Not from the street – that was quiet, because it didn’t really go anywhere, just looped round from the end of the High Road and joined onto another road with nothing but houses on it. But because it was just a house that had been divided up the floors and the walls weren’t exactly designed for keeping the noise out. I was lucky because the person upstairs didn’t play music loud or anything but quite often I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear them moving around. To be fair it did sound like they were trying to keep the noise down and creeping about on tiptoes. I thought maybe they were foreign and making phone calls home at that time because of the time difference, because I’d heard someone talking – just one voice – and it definitely wasn’t English.

I’d never actually seen the person who lived there – I figured they must work funny hours, because I’d never bumped into them going in or out. In fact the only one of my neighbours I had met was the guy in the room opposite, and we hadn’t got any further than saying hello as we passed in the hallway. He had a floppy fringe and a really cute smile, and one time I’d seen him he was wearing the same Christmas jumper that I was going to get from Urban Outfitters only they’d sold out in my size. And I was pretty sure I’d heard the Pet Shop Boys through his door one night – I wasn’t listening or anything, you can’t help it when you’re in the hallway – which I know doesn’t actually prove anything but still. 

Sian got really excited and said I should have a party – she went off on one about mulled wine and mince pies – and invite everyone in the building so as to meet him properly, but I thought knowing my luck he’d be the only one that didn’t turn up, or he’d bring along his girlfriend, or turn out to be a born-again Christian who wanted to talk about the real meaning of Christmas. And I couldn’t exactly picture myself hosting a proper grown-up party anyway. How does everyone know when to leave?

Besides, everyone knows no one in London knows their neighbours. It’s like a point of pride, same as banging on about not crossing the river. Sian made a really big deal about how difficult it was to get to North London and visit me even though she’d only been in Peckham for about three months.

But I did keep trying to leave the flat at the same time as him in the morning, just so we could say hello in the hallway. And – this is really tragic – I’d got in the habit of not switching the light on in the hallway when I came in at night, so as I could see if there was light coming out from under his door. How sad is that?

So that’s what I did after the work Christmas party. It was pretty late when I got back – the tubes had finished, and I’d shared a taxi with Becky from accounts, who said she could put it on expenses, but I made sure to get in the front because she can be a bit touchy and but-how-do-you-know-if-you’ve-never-tried when she’s drunk. I tried to be really quiet opening and closing the front door so as not to disturb anyone, and like I say I’d left the light off (and no, there were no signs of life from his room). I hadn’t even got as far as my door – I remember I had my keys out and I was sorting through to find the right one – when I heard someone crying.

I must have jumped about a foot. You could tell by the sound it wasn’t coming from any of the rooms – it was someone actually on the staircase, or one of the landings. In fact it sounded so close by I thought there might be someone sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Except that I figured I would have seen them when I opened the front door, because of the light from the street lights coming in. There was a glass panel in the front door, but when it was shut you only got a rectangle of orange that stretched about as far as the end of the doormat, and everything beyond that was in total darkness.

I’d stopped dead in the middle of the hallway, half way between the light switch and my own front door. Should I go backwards, or forwards? If I got my door open and the light on I knew I’d at least be able to make sure there wasn’t anyone down there with me. You can see about ten steps before the staircase turns, and really I knew whoever it was must be further up and the sound of them sobbing was just echoing down from upstairs, but the other thing I kept thinking was that the stairs start just beyond the entrance to my flat, and if someone was sitting on the bottom steps they would be able to reach out and grab my leg while I was trying to get the door open.

So even though I knew it was silly, I went backwards instead. I mean literally backwards, stepping back and reaching behind me to guide my way along the wall. Only I must have not been quite where I thought I was because when I stretched my arm out I was just grabbing at air, and then I panicked and turned round and ran the few steps to the front door and punched at the light switch and of course when it came on there was no one in the hallway and no one on the stairs and everything just looked normal. 

And I couldn’t hear the crying any more either. Only I’d thought I heard a sort of gasp when the light came on, and now it had been replaced by that special kind of silence you get when someone is trying really hard not to be heard. Which, come to think of it, was exactly what I was doing.

I knew I ought to say something. Call up the stairs, see if whoever it was was alright. Only it was getting on for one in the morning, on a school night, and I didn’t want to piss off any of my neighbours by waking them up. Plus I figured that whoever it was was probably embarrassed at being heard, and the last thing they would want was for me to go thumping upstairs to ask them if they were ok when obviously they weren’t, so the best thing was probably for us both to be terribly British about it and for me to pretend I hadn’t heard them and for them to pretend they weren’t crying and for me to just get inside my room and get the door locked as soon as possible.

Which is exactly what I did. And I put the chain on as well. And I lay in bed for quite a long time listening and trying to stop shaking, and although I heard what sounded like someone creeping down the stairs at one point, I definitely didn’t hear the front door opening or closing.

I had a stinking hangover the next morning, and when I got back it was already night time and all I wanted to do was crash out and watch The Apprentice, and the next night I was out with friends from Uni and stayed on Sian’s sofa, so it was only when I got back at Saturday lunchtime and found the hallway full of low winter sunlight that I decided to have a look upstairs. I’m not quite sure why, because obviously whoever it was would be long gone, but it seemed ridiculous that I’d been living in the building for months now but I’d never actually been upstairs. There had never been any reason to. So I put down the bags I’d got with me – I’d done some Christmas shopping on the way back from Sian’s – and ran up the first flight to the half-landing. The floor above was a lot darker – there were no windows on this level, because it looked like the landlord had built out partition walls across the original landing – you could tell because the fancy plasterwork around the top of the wall stopped, and then started again on the next flight of stairs – and there were just a couple of doors with C and D painted on them. That made sense because I was in B and the fit guy opposite, who I noticed had put up fairy lights in his own window by the way, was A. I carried on past them and up to where the stairs turned again, and I could see another even smaller landing with, you’ve guessed it, E and F coming off it, but I didn’t go any further because I figured if anyone opened their door I couldn’t really pretend I was on my way anywhere if I was on the top floor – so I came back down again. I did stop for a few seconds outside room D, the one above mine, to see if I could hear anything, but it was all silent.

I was just coming down the stairs when the front door opened and he came in wearing a really nice blue coat I hadn’t seen before and a hat with earflaps on it. He looked slightly surprised to see me, and I blushed bright red, which was ridiculous, and felt I had to explain what I’d been doing.

“I was just having a look upstairs,” I blurted. “I realised I’d never seen what was up there.”

He just stood there and smiled at me, taking his gloves off.

“And it turns out – more stairs!” I grinned inanely. God I was stupid. Why had I even said anything? I didn’t need to say anything. “Only I heard something weird the other night and I –”

“Yeah – what was all that about?” he interrupted me, nodding. “I thought they were going to come through the ceiling at one point.”

“When?” I asked, gormlessly.

“About three o’clockish?”

“Oh – you mean last night? I wasn’t here last night, I was staying at my friend’s.” As soon as I said it I wondered if he would think I meant the wrong sort of friend, and wanted to kick myself. “No, I meant Wednesday night. Why, what happened last night?”

He shook his head. “God knows. I nearly went up to tell them to keep it down, only… I don’t actually know who lives up there, do you?”

“No, I’ve never seen them.” He was probably going to wonder what I was doing wandering around upstairs in that case. Better convince him I wasn’t a weirdo. I’d got to the bottom of the stairs by now and I held out my hand. “I’m Callum, by the way.”

He had to transfer his gloves into the other hand to shake it. “I know, I’ve, er, seen it on your letters. Robbie.”

“Nice to meet you. I like your Christmas lights, by the way.”

“Oh!” Now he was blushing. “Well, your ones looked really cool, so I thought…”

Later on, when I went out to get a takeaway before X Factor, I stood in the street and looked at the two sets of illuminations twinkling on either side of the front door. They were the only lights showing in the building.

He looked at my letters, I thought.

The X Factor final was the worst one yet, and I spent most of the evening slagging it off on Twitter and fielding messages from friends from home about when I was coming back for Christmas and when we might to be able to meet up. I was sat in the window seat with the curtains not properly closed, partly so that everyone could see the fairy lights – spread the cheer, man! – and partly so that I would be able to see anyone coming in or out. I was pretty intrigued about the people upstairs now and I wanted to at least know what they looked like. Plus – and even I’ll admit this is pretty tragic – I wanted to know if Robbie was going out or not. But it looked like he wasn’t. I’d heard what sounded like Strictly Come Dancing through his door when I came back with my Chinese, so I knew he was at least as cheesy as I was. Which was good, obviously.

I went to bed not long after 11 – I was still feeling the effects of sleeping on Sian’s couch the night before – and apart from some drunks walking down the other side of the street singing Mistletoe and Wine at kicking-out time everything was quiet.

At least it was until was until something woke me up a few hours later. I lay there trying to work out what it was. There were muffled footsteps in the room upstairs, like someone was pacing around. But there was a weird scraping noise as well, as if they were dragging something along the floor with them.

The room had got freezing too, although I could see from the red light on the electric heater that it was still on. Eventually I was shivering so much that I got out of bed to put on a hoodie over my t-shirt and pyjamas, but I couldn’t find it until I remembered I’d taken it off along with my coat when I came in and it was still hanging on the back of the door.

I’d just worked if off the peg and was scrambling into it when I heard the crying again. It was muffled by the door but it definitely sounded the same as before. Someone upstairs was sobbing their heart out.

I didn’t know what to do. What if it was someone being abused, beaten up by their partner or something? On the other hand, what if it was some nutter who would go off on one or attack anyone that disturbed them? Should I get involved? If I did, whoever it was would know exactly where I lived. And if it was just someone who’d locked themselves out of their flat it wasn’t like there was much I could do. The letting agents had spare keys, but they wouldn’t be open until Monday morning. I really didn’t want to have to invite a complete stranger to stay the night in mine. Could I really just go back to sleep and ignore it?

At that point, the noise from above started up again. I’d never heard anything like it before. It sounded just like something being hauled across the floor, round and round. Not like someone shifting furniture. More like – and this was a really weird thing to come into my head – an animal pacing around in its cage in the zoo. I went across the room to get my phone. It was 2:58.

And at exactly that moment I heard something else – the sound of Robbie’s door opening and him calling out “hello?” in a shaky, nervous voice. Which decided it. I went over to the door, unlocked it and peered out.

He only had his door open a crack too, with the chain across, although it was enough to see that he was only wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts. He stared across at me, his eyes wide. I tried to keep mine at face level.

“What do you think’s going on?” he whispered. There wasn’t really any reason for him to be keeping quiet, given the noise that was now coming from upstairs. The sobbing had got louder – they’d started moaning too, like they were in pain – and as well as the scraping noise from the room above mine I could hear a loud banging, like someone throwing themselves against a door trying to get out.

“I don’t know.” I was shaking even more than before I’d put my hoodie on. I felt the need to be brave for both our sakes and, before I’d really thought about it, yelled “HEY!” in the direction of the staircase.

The crying stopped. But the banging didn’t. If anything, it got louder.

“It’s been going on for ages,” he said. “The light in my room’s actually shaking.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. His room looked nice.

I couldn’t think what to do. Are you allowed to phone the police just because someone’s making noise?

“I’ll come up with you if you want to say something,” I said, kind of hoping he wouldn’t. But he just nodded, slipped the chain off his door and stepped out into the hallway, crossing over to the front door to switch the light on. “Don’t lock yourself out,” he warned me, and by the time I’d sorted the latch on the Yale out, he’d already started up the stairs ahead of me, which I was quite glad of. And not just for the obvious pervy reason. Believe it or not, the whole situation had freaked me out so much that wasn’t even on my mind.

You couldn’t see beyond the half-turn in the stairs because of the way Robbie’s flat was built out right up to the banisters, so it was only when I’d made it round the corner and saw him heading straight on up the next flight that I thought I must have made a mistake, because ahead there was nothing but a blank wall where I’d expected to see the doors to the upstairs flats. The banging noise was even louder here – it seemed to be coming from behind the wall, which was an obvious modern partition – but when I started following Robbie up the next flight of stairs it sounded like it was coming from the wall to the side of the stairs, and I swear I saw some powdery dust actually shake out of the fancy plaster bit and come snowing down onto the stair carpet. It caught my eye and I was looking down at it which meant I nearly crashed into Robbie’s back, because he’d stopped dead on the next landing and was saying “that can’t be right.”

“What?” I peered round him. There were no doors on this level either. Just another turn in the staircase. And then the light went out.

Bloody timer switches. It was pitch black. I was holding on to the banister with one hand but without thinking about it I grabbed for Robbie with the other and found the top of his arm and he reached back and held on to my arm too, which was lovely until I realised he was probably just trying to make sure I didn’t fall backwards down the stairs. “Steady,” he said, in a voice that didn’t sound it. “There’ll be another light switch somewhere, I’ll try to find it. Are you ok?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied, and felt him let go of me and start groping along the wall ahead. “Be careful.”

I could hear him breathing in the darkness, and it took me a second to realise why it was so clear.

“The noises have stopped!” I said, my voice sounding weirdly loud.

“I know,” he muttered from somewhere off to my left. “There’s got to be a switch on every floor, right?”

“Must be.” I stepped forward gingerly, feeling to make sure there wasn’t another step to surprise me. Holding on to the banister, I stretched out to find the wall with my other hand and try and help, but I couldn’t feel anything but thin air. I let go of the rail and inched forwards, groping ahead of me, but somehow the wall wasn’t where I thought it would be.

“Where are you?” I asked him.

“Over here.” His voice sounded further away than I expected. “I’ve got to the next lot of stairs. I don’t think there’s a switch on this floor. I’ll go up one more and see if there’s one up there.”

“Robbie?” I called out, and I could hear the panic in my own voice.


“How many floors does this house have?”

“Three, I think.” He had to think about it, and I could tell he was picturing the same view as I was, from the street, with our twin Christmas lights twinkling away on the ground floor and the windows on the first floor that never seemed to have any lights on, and the one above that on the top floor with the ragged, yellowing curtain that never seemed to be drawn back.

“And – ha!” my voice was coming out all high and weird, I didn’t sound like me at all – “where are the rooms?”

He didn’t reply. Suddenly terrified, I whipped round towards where I thought he must be, and cried out as my hand made painful contact with something hard.

“Callum? Are you ok? What happened?” I could hear Robbie stumbling towards me in the darkness. My knuckles hurt like hell. I reached out to feel what I had hit, and made out the shape of a doorframe, tracing it upwards hand over hand until I found the top above my head. I was already half way through. I could feel an icy cold draft washing out over me, and with it there was a smell like damp linen and mould and things that had been left locked up for a long, long time. Something seemed to be drawing me in. Robbie’s voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. I took a step forward.

Then suddenly Robbie had grabbed me and wrapped his arms around my chest and pulled me back, and I could feel him breathing sharp and hot against me and that meant that we were both alive.

Which is when we heard the stairs above us creaking and the sound of footsteps slowly – stealthily – descending.

We were both gabbling and to this day I’ve no idea what either of us was saying. Robbie was clutching on to me almost crushingly tight – he says it was to keep me safe; I like to tease him that he was trying to hide behind me – and I grabbed at his arms too and that’s when I felt the lump in my hoodie pocket and realised I had put my phone in there when I opened the flat door. Somehow I managed to scramble it out and punch the right buttons to unlock it and bring it blazing into life and throwing out cold white light on a figure that was just turning the corner of the stairs. We didn’t get full sight of him, and all Robbie remembers is a thin black leg, poised as it came down on to the next step, but what sticks in my mind was the gaunt hand resting on the banister rail. It had the longest fingers I have ever seen.

But right that second there was the deafening crash of a door slamming shut right next to us, and a great gust of freezing, foul smelling air rushing out and I instinctively swerved round to face it. It was just an ordinary door, painted white like all the others in the building, only where they had letters painted on them it just had a symbol that I’d never seen before, and I hope I never see again.

I don’t know how we made it back down the stairs without breaking our necks. I couldn’t tell you how many flights there were, or how many or how few doors we passed while we were coming down them, because I was trying very hard not to look. And when we got back to the ground floor it seemed the only natural thing to do for us both to go into the same room and to lock the door behind us and put the chain on and the chest of drawers up against it, and stay in there together that night, and then do the same the next night and the next after that right up until each of us headed off to our parents’ for Christmas.

In the New Year, much against both sets of parents’ advice, we both kissed goodbye to our deposits and clubbed together to rent a two-bedroom place. We’d stopped using one of them after a few weeks. And after a year we got another, nicer place even further up the Northern Line, and now there’s proper scary grown-up talk about mortgages and cats going on.

That probably wasn’t the sort of story you were expecting when you asked how we met, was it?

Adam Macqueen Christmas 2012