Alison Littlewood’s latest novel, THE UNQUIET HOUSE, is due to be published in the UK by Jo Fletcher Books on April 24, 2014. Here, for your reading pleasure, is an excerpt…
Emma didn’t know when the house had changed. She had been sleeping, but when she awoke she had a sense that she had been listening to it all along, or if not listening, sensing it with her body, finding its rhythm, attuning herself to its ways.
She pushed the covers away, feeling too hot under them, but outside, the air was bitter. There was a sharp barrier between the two and once she’d crossed it, it was too late; the chill delved inside, embracing her skin, furrowing along her body, finding her spine, her legs, her feet. The room was dark, everything grainy and silver. The ceiling looked a long way off and the corners were dark, as if a child had sketched the room in stark black lines. She sat up and realised that the cupboard door was hanging open once more. How ridiculous, she thought. Monsters in the cupboard, like in a story. And then she saw the man standing quietly next to it.
He was half-dressed. He had hunched shoulders and a stocky body and slightly bowed legs, and she opened her mouth but the only sound she could make was a dry gasp. He didn’t move but she knew that he was watching her. She couldn’t see his eyes but she could just make out his rumpled vest and then she knew: the suit was his – he had come looking for it but he wouldn’t find it because she had thrown it away. Now he’d come to see where it was and instead, he had found her.
Her hands flexed. She could feel the tainted material on her skin, that shiny-musty fabric. She could see again the way she’d thrown it down in disgust, just as if it wasn’t wanted, wasn’t needed any longer.
You’re being fanciful, Emma.
She took a deep breath. She was in a strange house and there was nothing there, only an unfamiliar room full of shadows. But he was there. He didn’t move but continued to stand there, and she could feel his gaze on her, though she still couldn’t see his eyes. She could sense the hostility in his look. She became conscious of the cold on her own face, a bone-deep cold. She was alone, and for a moment that was the worst thing of all. She didn’t know why she had come here, but then she remembered Charlie, sleeping at the other end of the house. He would banish this thing. He’d grin at her and laugh, his very presence denying the possibility of its existence.
Panic took her and she pushed herself to her feet and ran, hoping – hoping – that the man wouldn’t stretch out his arm and grasp her shoulder as she passed. Then she was in the corridor and heading for Charlie’s room. The worn carpet was no protection from the hard boards beneath and her steps rang out loudly. She banged on the door, and the moment she did, she felt ridiculous. If she was so scared, why didn’t she just go in? There were no locks on the doors, nothing to stop her. And if she wasn’t, why was she at his door?
He opened it, his face full of concern. She reached for his arm and started to cry. She wanted to be held and yet a part of her didn’t want to touch him, this stranger in a strange house – in her house. Then he opened the door wider and put a hand on her arm and brought her out of the corridor, drawing her inside.
Charlie didn’t switch on the light but a slanting glow lit the room anyway and she realised his room didn’t have any curtains. There was nothing to shut out the moon which shone down, silvering the ancient carpet and the mound of his makeshift bed. She hugged herself. What must he think of her?
But he didn’t touch her. He took a step back and waited. She no longer knew what she was going to say. She was no longer sure she’d seen anything at all.
‘What is it?’ he asked at last. ‘A bad dream?’
‘No. I woke up. I thought – I thought I saw someone in my room.’
He turned towards the door. ‘There’s someone in the house? Now? All right, I’ll go and check. Have you heard him moving about – do you think he’s still in your room? Should we call someone?’
Instinctively she grabbed his arm. She felt cool skin, the roughness of his hair, and she realised he was wearing only T-shirt and shorts. He must be freezing. ‘No, don’t – I don’t think— that wasn’t it, Charlie. No one’s broken in. At least, I don’t think they have. I— it’s hard to explain, but it didn’t feel like that.’
He frowned. ‘What do you mean? Did you dream it, Emma, or should I go looking?’
She paused. ‘No, I didn’t dream it.’ Her voice faltered. ‘He was real. I saw someone. I felt him looking back at me. I had to go straight past him to get out of the room. I was scared he’d touch me when I went past.’
‘And did he? Did he try to grab you?’
She shook her head. It hadn’t been like that, not someone who could grab and hold on. But someone trying to touch her would have been bad enough. She just wasn’t sure if she’d have felt it as a physical thing, a real thing. Now she didn’t know which would be worse, her feeling it or not feeling it. She reached out for him again. This time it felt more intimate, chosen rather than a reflex. She closed her fingers over his arm. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t a dream – or I don’t think it was – but it wasn’t real either. I knew he wasn’t real even while he was looking straight at me. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I just knew. He wasn’t there, not like we are, but he was still real.’
He looked at her and she replayed her words in her head, realising how stupid it sounded.
But Charlie didn’t tell her she was being fanciful. He didn’t tell her there was nothing there and he didn’t try to reason with her or name her fear. He simply twisted around so that he was standing at her side and he put his arm around her. After a while he squeezed her shoulders and he said, ‘I’ll go and take a look.’
She couldn’t see his expression as he walked out of the room. His footsteps receded, steady and sure, and there came the faint creak of a door opening and then silence. Emma listened to the sound of her own breathing. She tried to remember if she’d heard him breathing, the man in her room; she didn’t think so. She wasn’t sure what it would mean if she had. She still didn’t think he had been a real person.
After a time she heard footsteps again but they didn’t come back to this room. Instead they faded into another, and then came louder on the landing and then rhythmic on the stairs. After a time the same rhythm sounded, getting louder this time, and before the thought had fully formed in her mind that it might not be Charlie, it might be him, the door swung wide and she saw the outline of Charlie’s hair. He walked in and smiled reassuringly. ‘There’s no one there,’ he said. ‘I had a good look around – I even looked under the bed and in the cupboard, and in the other rooms and downstairs. Unless someone kept slipping into a different room while my back was turned, we’re on our own.’
She took a deep breath. ‘No, I— I didn’t think there would be. Sorry, Charlie.’
He frowned as the words sank in, and he tensed. Now he would say it: There’s nothing there, Emma. You’re just being fanciful. She could already hear the note of contempt that would be in his voice when he said it.
But he didn’t say that. Instead, she heard a low chuckle. ‘Well, you know what this means.’
I’m crazy, she thought. That’s what it means.
‘This house is even more interesting than you thought. It looks as if you’ve got a real live ghost.’
She turned the word over in her mind. Ghost. Had she really thought of it that way? She had only known that the person
in her room had come from somewhere else, that it belonged somewhere else. She hadn’t thought of it as a ghost – she hadn’t thought to name it – but now she couldn’t get the word out of her mind. It didn’t fit with the way she thought of herself. She wasn’t the sort of person who saw ghosts, or even believed in them. She pushed the idea away, something to think about later, and she forced herself to nod at Charlie. She really didn’t want to go back to her room, not now, but she couldn’t stay here.
‘Thank you, Charlie,’ she started. She found she wanted to say something else, to explain the whole thing away perhaps, but tiredness had overtaken her. She didn’t want to think about it, not now. Later maybe, when she couldn’t sleep or when she was alone. Charlie showed her out and she stood in the hallway, looking at the door to her room.
She knew her room was empty even before she flicked on the light and it flooded across the dingy floor and into the dusty corners. The cupboard door was open, though she couldn’t see inside. The sense of presence which had been so strong when she’d awakened was gone.
She went to the door, reaching out to push it closed once more, and froze. The suit was back again. It was hanging on its yellowing padded hanger, not pulled awry but straight and neat, the trousers sharply creased around the white shine of the bulked-out knees, the jacket hanging squarely over the top. At once she thought of grabbing the thing and taking it downstairs and throwing it out of the door, but she stopped herself even before the movement began. She didn’t want to feel that fabric on her fingers. Would the owner of the thing still be looking for it? Perhaps she’d feel his hand on her shoulder after all.
But maybe he’d already found it – she had thrown it out, hadn’t she? She’d put it in the bin outside or left it in the drawing room, she wasn’t sure which. It hadn’t been something she’d wanted in the house. He must have come looking for it, and he’d found it and placed it in here. If she was to move it again, she might make everything worse. It might even call him back.
Then a thought struck her and she flushed with heat. Charlie had come in here, hadn’t he? He’d been checking the place, being helpful. And he knew about the suit. More Savile Row, the old man.
He’d been downstairs too, while she hid in his room. Had he found the suit down there and brought it back up with him? The whole thing might have been some kind of joke. Heat spread through her. She’d thought he was helping, that he was being kind, and all the time he’d just been pulling some kind of trick. She frowned. Had she really seen a stranger in her room or had that been only another kind of trick? The kind that meant standing and watching her, in the dark – watching her sleep, maybe?
She shook her head. The suit was still there, in front of her eyes. Tomorrow she would take it outside and banish it forever; it would be gone and so would Charlie and she would get on with all the things she’d planned to do. For now, though, she had no intention of touching it. Let it stay there. She backed away and closed the door, making sure it snicked into place. It wouldn’t open on her again; she didn’t even have to think about it until morning.
She turned, still not liking to have her back to that door, just as if she were a child again, afraid of the monster in the wardrobe, and she got back into bed. The sheets had grown cold and she pulled them up to her shoulders, watching the door as she nestled her head into her pillow. Charlie had comforted her. He had been kind to her, had gone to see what was wrong, looking around the house in the dark and the cold. It couldn’t have been him. She had seen a ghost, for God’s sake. If she accepted that, it wasn’t too much of a step to suppose it could have found its suit and put it back. And that was enough to worry about, without inventing trickery of another kind: without souring the kindness of the one person in her life who appeared to be intent on helping her.