The Room Upstairs


The Room Upstairs

‘Joe, I've found somewhere to live!' The tousled red hair was if anything more vibrant than usual.

Joe looked up from his books at the whirlwind hovering by his desk in the library, her arms full of files and notes, canvas bag dangling from her shoulder.  He shrugged a weary hello. ‘Can we afford it?'

Getting kicked out of their digs ten days before the end of their first term at university had been the last straw in a pretty foul week.

Jill nodded vigorously.  ‘Big attic room.  A bit far out of town, but walking distance.  Just.' She grinned.  She held out  two large keys.  ‘Coming to see it?'

‘Now?' He glanced down at his desk with regret.  It was warm and secure in the library.  Outside there was a gale blowing, sleet hit the windows like machine gun fire and the thought of a long hike through the dark filled him with about as much enthusiasm as facing a firing squad.  Still, it had to be done.  Out at the end of the week their landlord had said and Joe knew why.  The bastard had found someone who would pay more, no questions asked about leases and things.

Jill walked fast, head down, her face screwed up against the cold, her collar high around her ears.  He wondered what she would do if he put his arm round her shoulders and pulled her close.  Just for warmth of course.  They were room mates out of necessity. Or fate. Not lovers.  He had met her on the doorstep of the digs back in October, and they had viewed the double room together as rivals.  Both were seeking someone to share with.  They tossed for the room.  He won.  He chose her.  Simple as that. No sex.  No dirty socks on  public view.  Her rules.  Fine by him.

He glanced around him as they walked. The streets were empty in the rain, viscous puddles reflecting the street lights.  From time to time he could see a Christmas tree in a window.  Otherwise the houses had withdrawn behind their curtains.  He half wished  he could reach for Jill's hand.  Just for company.  In a lonely world. But that would  be against the rules too.

As though half sensing his thought she grinned at him from the shelter of the collar. ‘I did say it was a long way.'

‘How did you hear about it?'

‘Chap I met at the Union.' She was vague about the detail. ‘Said he'd been going to stay there himself but he'd found somewhere better.' She shrugged.

‘Sounds as though it's not much cop.'

‘Cheap though.' She fished a piece of paper out of her pocket and stopped for a minute under one of the street lights.  A rain drop hit the paper and smudged the ink.  ‘Next left.  Then about half a mile.'

‘Half a mile!' He was appalled.

She caught his eye and shrugged again.   ‘Cheap!' They said it together and laughed.

It was hard to find.  The number had fallen off the gate and the front path was overgrown.  They worked it out by the numbers on the other houses on either side.  They were small and neat, with well-manicured gardens.  Number 40 was overgrown, the paint on the door blistered.  And it was huge.

‘There's no one in.'  They stood side by side in the gateway looking at the darkened windows. ‘Shit!' Joe was shivering with cold.  ‘Now what?'

‘We've got the key. The chap I spoke to said the room was at the top.  He said he never saw the people who live here at all.' Jill looked down uncertainly at the keys in her hand.  They were tied together by a piece of stringy red ribbon.  ‘Come on, let's check it out, then we'll go and get some fish and chips at that place we passed about ten miles back.' She was trying to jolly him along. And herself.  ‘ It's not as though we've much choice. This end of term there's nothing left in town.'

The gate was stiff.  The hinges creaked loudly as she pushed it open and walked quickly up the path.  They knocked and rang the bell, reluctant to go in uninvited, but there was no answer.

The hall was long and narrow and smelled faintly of cooking.  They sniffed.  ‘Cabbage.' Jill was groping for the light switch. ‘Why is it always cabbage?'  The single bulb with its pleated orange shade showed a narrow strip of flowered carpet and an ornate mahogany hall stand with a built in mirror.  On it was a rumpled lace mat the colour of cold tea.

‘Hello!' Jill raised her hand to knock at the only door leading off the hallway, on their left. It's brown paint was badly scuffed and it looked as though it had been forced open at some point in the past.  There was no reply and gingerly she turned the knob.  It was locked.

They stood looking up the staircase.  ‘The top you said?' Joe put his hand on the huge wooden swirl at the bottom of the banister rail.  It seemed too large and imposing for the narrowness of the hall.  ‘Come on then.'

The landing on the first floor revealed five more doors.  One was a bathroom, basic, old fashioned, without towels or mats or even - Jill noticed at once - lavatory paper.  The other four doors were locked.

On up and they found three more doors.  One, a small loo ( also without paper) the other two locked, then a small uncarpeted staircase led  even higher.  They stood looking up into the darkness. ‘Chez nous?'  Joe raised an eyebrow.

Jill shrugged.  ‘I suppose so.' She grimaced. ‘It's pretty quiet isn't it.'

‘As the grave!' He put on a hollow voice, and then rather wished he hadn't.  ‘Here, let me have the key. I'll go first.' 

She hadn't said anything but he could sense she was uncomfortable.  So to be honest was he.  The house was too bloody quiet by half.

The key slipped into the lock easily and the door swung back.  It revealed, once they had found the light switch, in the orange glow of another pleated shade, a long low-ceilinged room with four mansard windows. Two looked one way over the street, the others looked presumably over the garden.  When he knelt on a window seat to stare out at the back Joe could see nothing.

The room was furnished with two beds, two chests of drawers, two cupboards and a table.  The floor was bare linoleum. In the corner behind a blue flowered curtain they found a small scruffy sink, a gas cooker and another cupboard.

‘Paradise!' Joe sat down experimentally on one of the beds and gave a cautious bounce.  He glanced up at her.  ‘You OK?' She was awfully pale.

‘Sure.' She said it too quickly.  ‘It's fine.  So, who do we tell?'

He shrugged. Standing up he went over to the window. ‘I thought I heard a car.'

They ran downstairs to find an elderly man on the threshold, opening and shutting his umbrella to throw off the rain.  He looked up at them, a puzzled frown on his face.

‘We came to see the room.'

‘Are you the landlord?'

The simultaneous  explanation and question seemed to confuse him.  He put his umbrella carefully in the square compartment clearly intended for that very use at the end of the stand, then, slowly he began to unbutton his overcoat. 

‘Is it all right if we bring our things over later?' Jill smiled at him, not above wheedling when she had to.  He reminded her a little of her grandfather and it had always worked with him.

He  hung his coat on the stand and stood for a moment adjusting his tie, seemingly lost in thought, staring at the speckled mirror.

‘Is it your house, mate?' Joe thought a man to man approach with a touch of familiarity might be appropriate.

The old man smiled to himself gently.  He tweaked his jacket straight and stood back, turning towards the door behind him which Joe had tried earlier.  They watched in silence as it opened and he walked into the room.  As it closed behind him Joe gave a soft whistle.  ‘Did he even see us?'

Jill shrugged.  ‘Not very sociable, was he.'  She tiptoed towards the closed door and put her ear to the panelling.

‘Jill!' Joe was shocked.

‘It's so bloody quiet.  Too bloody quiet!'  She turned to face him. ‘I don't like it here, Joe.'

Secretly he agreed  with her.  ‘What choice have we? We're not going to find anywhere else by tomorrow.' He shrugged.  ‘He looked pretty harmless.  Quite nice in fact.'

She smiled at him in fond exasperation..  ‘Optimist. OK. Here goes.'  She raised her fist and rapped on the door.  ‘At least he must know who we should contact.' She knocked again.

‘Or, again, he won't.'  After a pause Joe grimaced.  ‘As I said, not the world's most sociable.'

‘Oh, come on!' Jill took a deep breath and smacked the door with the flat of her hand.

‘Steady.'  Joe put his hand on her arm.  ‘Perhaps he just doesn't want to talk to us.'

‘Well I want to talk to him!'  She shook him off and to Joe's surprise he saw that she was close to tears.  ‘I only want a word.  I want to get it sorted, Joe.  I want to move in and have somewhere to stay! Come on, you silly old fool  Answer.'  She grabbed the door handle and shook it hard.

 ‘ Jill, don't - '

‘Wait! Listen!  I can hear him.' Jill held up her hand. ‘He's coming.'  Her relief was palpable.

Joe had heard it too now.  Footsteps were approaching them on the far side of the door. He glanced at Jill, then he stepped forward and knocked again, politely this time.  It opened almost at once.

‘Yes?' The old man stared at them from mild, pale blue eyes.

‘I'm sorry to bother you - ‘ Joe found himself staring past the man's shoulder into the room. It was softly lit and from where he was standing he could see the fire crackling brightly in the grate,  the corner of a blue sofa, a table with on it a vase of red anemones. He took a deep breath.  ‘We were  wondering if we could rent the top room - ' For some reason he was finding it hard to collect his wits.

The old man smiled.  ‘Of course.'

‘You are the landlord?'  Joe's glance shot back into the room as he heard a woman's cough.

‘I am.' The old man inclined his head. ‘You are very welcome to rent the room, young man.'

‘What about references and things?'

‘Tomorrow.'  With another bow he stepped back from the door and pushed it gently  shut in Joe's face .

For a moment he stood staring at the brown wood then he turned to Jill. ‘Well. What do you think?' He was speaking in a whisper.

‘I suppose it will do.  Temporarily.  We could always look for somewhere closer in next term - '  She broke off as behind them suddenly they heard the sound of raised voices from behind the closed door.

‘Joe -'

‘Wait.' He was listening again.  ‘They are having an awful row.  I can hear someone crying - '

Suddenly the sound of raised voices was reverberating around the hall.  They could hear a woman shouting, then there was a scream. There was a loud crash from behind the door and then silence.

Joe and Jill stared at each other.  ‘Should I see if they're all right?' Joe was frowning.

‘I don't know.' Jill  was backing away towards the front door.  ‘Joe, I really think we should go.

He glanced at her.  Her face was white.  He bit his lip. ‘Look we've got to check.  It's gone awfully quiet in there.' He raised his hand and knocked softly . There was no reply. He looked over his shoulder at Jill and knocked again.  ‘Hello. Is everything OK?  Can we help?'

With a slight click the door swung slowly inwards under his hand. Joe took a step back, surprised. He took a deep breath.  ‘Hello!  Excuse me, are you all right in there?'

With a quick glance at her Joe moved forward and pushed the door open.  ‘Hello - ‘  He called again. He stopped abruptly. 

‘What is it?'

‘It's empty! ‘ He stepped into the room and stood staring round.  It was large and high-ceilinged with an  ornate fireplace. There was nothing but cold ashes in the grate. The room was  empty and dark, the windows shuttered, the floor uncarpeted.

‘It can't be!  We both saw him.' Jill was hovering in the doorway.  ‘There must be another door.  He must have come through here and gone somewhere else.'

He swallowed.  ‘I saw him.  You saw him. The fire was lit.  The room was warm.  There were lights - ‘

‘I want to go.' Jill's voice was suddenly very urgent.  ‘I don't like this.  Come on.' She was pulling at his sleeve.

‘But it doesn't make sense - ‘

‘I don't care!' Jill's voice rose an octave.  ‘I'm going.' She turned and ran out into the hall again and reached for the front door latch.  Fumbling she dragged it open and pulled at the handle.  ‘Joe, come on!'

‘Wait, Jill.  Wait for me - ‘ Joe was still standing in the middle of the room, staring round.

Jill didn't hear him.  She dragged open the front door and ran out onto the path.  Two cars had drawn up at the kerb and there were a group of men standing on the pavement. She couldn't see them properly in the darkness and she paused.  ‘Run, love.  Get away from the house!' A voice came at her out of the dark.  ‘Quickly.  You're safe now - '

‘Joe, what about Joe?'  She could feel the icy rain streaming into her face. The wind was lashing her hair.  She looked up  at the house, then she glanced back at the gate.  ‘Joe, my friend.  He's in there -'

The street was deserted. The car and the men had gone.

She stared.  Then she turned back to the house.

In the darkness all she could see were trees.  On either side the neat small modern houses with their lighted windows stood square against the rain.  In front of her the weeds grew shoulder high and rank.  She could smell nettles and dead leaves.

‘Joe?'   Ice cold, her stomach churning with fear, she stepped forward. ‘Joe, where are you?'

There was no answer.  The only sound she could hear was the patter of rain on the shiny wet laurel leaves of the hedge along the road.  In the house next door,  behind the fence, someone flicked a switch and in the window she dimly saw the lights of a Christmas tree shining through the dark.

All short stories »