YOU see what you look for.
Learning this lesson took decades. It nearly destroyed me.
It started with a bewildering failure. As a student in a West Midlands university, I flunked an exam in a subject I had excelled in. My choice was stark: pass my resit, or be expelled and… do what? I had no idea.
Everything had gone wrong that summer. I came down with chicken pox, and felt ridiculously ill for weeks. I had to leave my hard-won holiday job after three days. Then Anna called me to explain we were over. Trapped at home, broke, and covered in scabs, I began to detest my parents, who clearly could not wait to be rid of me too.
Most of all, however, I excoriated myself. I was ugly — literally poxy — and clearly unlovable. As a fresher, I had briefly seen myself as a whip-smart denizen of a parallel universe of books, music, sex and drugs. It had all been a bubble of nothing. Having to resit proved I was as stupid as mud.
I moved in on a Tuesday afternoon early in September, weeks before any of my five housemates were due to arrive. I hefted my arm-wrenching suitcase from my parent’s London suburb on the bus, and tube and train until I reached the property management office in Leamington run by Mr Singh. He handed me a set of keys, with an almost apologetic smile. We both knew the place needed work, as he called it, but business was business. The address was a mere hundred yards away from the S & K Property office, but he did not offer to accompany me.
‘Take care of it,’ he said.
The Victorian terrace must once have been impressive. Now, however, every third or fourth house was rotten, little more than a slum fit only for students.
The housemates had drawn lots for our rooms in June. The largest of them, on the ground floor, had fallen to me. As soon as I stepped in, all its drawbacks were evident. Even taking into account the rain-soaked summer, the damp coldness of the room was extraordinary. In one corner the wallpaper had come detached from the sodden, crumbling plaster. Following a glistening trail above the bed frame, I found a large, tan-coloured slug high on the wall.
The sash window, which had recently been painted shut, opened with difficulty. The slimy gastropod shrank in the heat of my hand as I leant out to drop it outside. It was a dismal view. The neighbour’s wall was immediately on my right, and ahead of me, the brick floor was strewn with junk. Among the empty paint tins and plastic sacks, lurked a rusted oven, a buckled child’s bicycle, and a rain-sodden tailor’s dummy. At the end of the yard, a leaning tower of terracotta flowerpots had been wedged in the corner. Proof, perhaps, that someone had once tried to love this yard.
My new home projected into the garden, and from here I could see into the kitchen.
I had brought bed sheets, and so I made up the bed. The mattress felt damp, but I had no choice. Moving the bed frame to tuck in the bedsheet, I discovered a paperback open face down on the floor. As I picked it up an orange centipede slid out from its pages.
I jumped as the thing landed on the back of my hand. Seeing the novel was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, made me laugh as I coaxed the creature onto the paperback and then flicked it outside.
Enough of wildlife, I thought, dragging the sash window shut. I grabbed my mug, plate, saucepan and few bits of cutlery and went to explore the kitchen.
Turning left in the hallway, I came to four or five stairs descending into a dimly-lit sitting room. Pointing at a space where a TV should be, was a dysfunctional family of a repulsive sofa and two charity shop chairs. Crossing this room, I came to a galley kitchen which, compared to the rest of the place, was almost pleasant. There were white tiles on the wall, only a few of which were missing, and a newish electric cooker and a small unplugged fridge left with its door open.
Whoever had been cleaning the sink and worktops had abandoned the task midway, but I found Ajax scouring powder under the sink. After twenty minutes I managed to erase all but the most ingrained dirt, and thankfully found that the cupboards were fairly clean. In one I was delighted to discover an opened bag of rice, a carton of Oxo stock cubes and a jar of Marmite.
I spent most of my remaining money in a shop two minutes away. I bought cigarettes (I had begun smoking in the Spring term), coffee, tea, milk, bread, baked beans, bacon and a few fresh vegetables and some apples.
I heated a tin of beans and toasted sliced bread smeared with Marmite. As I ate, the cosiness of the kitchen persuaded me to study there rather than in my freezing room.
I returned with my books and a pad and pen. The table, I noticed, blocked the entrance into the yard. It was clear few former inhabitants had bothered to go outside. From where I sat I could see the black square of my bedroom window through the door’s glass panel.
I needed to get down to some revision: tonight it was Milton and Dante.
I cannot say why the idea that someone’s face would appear in that window began to nag at me. Could it have been a premonition? Looking back, I may have been suppressing the realisation that for the first time in my life I was entirely alone. My future housemates were dispersed across the country. The house had no phone, and the red phone box I noticed on my way back from the shop was out of order.
Not that there was anyone to phone. Certainly not my parents. This morning, after a bitter argument about money, I vowed that – whatever happened with the resit – I would never live with those idiots again. On the train north this morning, this decision flooded me with steely happiness. Now, alone in the kitchen, my imagination was letting me down, trying to compensate by populating the emptiness.
I needed to focus on passing the exam. I lit another cigarette, and rubbed my eyes. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven I wrote on my pad. Milton’s Satan was a hero to me. A wronged rebel…
Breathing in the blue smoke of my cigarette, I felt the abrupt onset of gloom. Everything that led to finding myself looking out into this God-forsaken yard had taken its toll. As the daylight faded, I could barely see the print of the book. As some kind of pathetic incentive, I was postponing the moment I turned on the light until I had reached the end of the section.
I sighed, glancing up from Paradise Lost.
Something was gazing across at me from my new room.
At no point did I suspect one of my housemates had arrived early to surprise me. Even then I knew that what I was looking at was not a person at all.
At first I felt no fear. Somehow I knew the figure had as much right to be there as me.
I saw a man or, more accurately, a man-like shape. Since then, of course, I have become so horribly familiar with this being it is hard to remember my very first impression of it. I know that only slowly did I make sense of the shape. I will describe it this way: I saw a body perfectly cast in finely-detailed glass, which appeared to contain a dense, white-ish smoke.
Then its head moved. And we – I and this thing – looked at each other through the two panes of glass and the distance across the yard that separated us. What I felt then is barely describable: that in its eyes was a forbidden door that now burst open. Through it I glimpsed a world far more intense than our own, alive with textures and colours, where even black would have a thousand names. The thing’s gaze transfixed me for perhaps as long as ten seconds, until, very deliberately, it extended its hand and pointed twice. The finger pointed not quite at me, but to a place just over my left shoulder.
The apparition slid sideways out of the window frame. I could no longer see it.
‘Jesus!’ Only then, my mind racing, did fear kick in. My heart stumbled with ectopic beats, and a kind of tingling numbness flooded into my arms. I ran over to the light switch. The strip light flickered icily, then held.
I grabbed my vegetable knife, the only weapon I possessed, and ran to the bedroom. Groping my hand through the door, I turned on the naked, low-wattage bulb. In the sepia light I stared at my open case, and the bed, and the desk and lamp in the corner. Nothing betrayed an intruder. Explanations forked through my head. Maybe it was all just tiredness. Maybe I had imagined it. Maybe… the more rational my explanations became, however, the less convincing I found them.
I shivered. What I would have done if this thing had shouted? I found the thought of it being able to make noise triggered another wave of panic. I ran about wildly, turning on every light downstairs, and straining to hear.
I retreated to the kitchen, turned on a ring of the electric oven and lit another cigarette from it. Through the window two oblong patches were illuminated on the red brick opposite. Superimposed on this were the reflections of the kitchen, and my grey face.
I felt safer here than anywhere. Even though I wished for curtains or blinds to pull over the glass. A sudden scuffling noise from outside was followed immediately by a hiss and caterwauling. I breathed again. Stupid cats.
I owned a small portable radio. The island of tinny sound it created only emphasised the greater silence, so I turned it off. Right now the prospect of sleep was laughable, so I made more coffee and opened the second carton of Silk Cut cigarettes, which were supposed to last me all week—
What was it pointing at?
The thought kept intruding. I could not ignore it. I turned around in the chair to look at the door behind me. It led to another door opening into a bathroom. Earlier I had been astonished to find the toilet bowl and seat were brand new. The ancient bath had a grimy ring around it, but that was a job for tomorrow.
What was it pointing at?
Okay. The figure — the thing? the delusion? — had been pointing over my left shoulder. It occurred to me that, if I followed the line of its finger, it would lead to the cupboard outside the bathroom. I had not yet opened this, as I had lazily assumed this contained a boiler for the bath.
I stood up and stepped through to pull at the handle. The cupboard door seemed jammed shut.
‘The secret of the universe…’ I said aloud, just for the comfort in hearing my own voice. ‘Okay. The secret of the universe is inside—’
I yanked at the door. This time it gave.
I don’t know what I had expected to see. Perhaps a boiler or some kind of shelving.
I had revealed a cold black nothingness. As my pupils expanded in the dark, I found I was facing an endless Miltonic void, the sort of vast abyss Satan would brood over.
With a weird detachment, I noticed the hair on my forearms bristling.
I looked back into the cupboard and the darkness began to coalesce into movement; a great river flowing through the dark. A sudden reek of sewage made me choke for breath. The surface of the water was boiling with bodies. They thrashed violently and rained punches on one another, plunging each other’s heads into the corrupt ooze. I could not seem to look away, even as this vision receded into invisibility.
Incongruously, there came the sound of approaching footsteps from inside the cupboard.
Then, stepping into the opening from the side, he was there. The apparition, framed in black, no more than a metre away.
‘We meet again.’ A dry rasp of words. It could project sound. It could–
I slammed the cupboard.
‘No!’ I whimpered, among a string of wordless noises.
With the panel shut, my entire body began trembling. The panel trembled too, whether caused by the uncontrollable reaction of my body, or from something it contained. I could not run away. I had nowhere safe to run to.
Gradually, I regained a measure of control.
I released the door handle. Nothing happened.
What gave me the courage to pull open the door again, I will never know.
I forced myself to see what I looked for.
I saw shelves lined with old wallpaper, and an ascot water heater.
In the following years, I would not always be so successful. For this thing was not some spirit of the building I had disturbed. It was for me. Me alone.