We used to live in an old house. One of those European old houses that didn’t make it to the New World. Built back in the days when Europeans were still busy destroying Europe. Before they had turned to other continents. Europeans were a lot smaller back then. I know this because my father, a staunchly 20th-century man, didn’t really fit into the house. Father had seemed big before, but after the move he became much bigger. Sideways, bent double through doorways, all-fours up stairs, head lowered below the ceiling in constant reverence and supplication. A contemplative monk in the temple of period real estate. So that, despite the British weather, he spent as much time as possible outdoors.
Inside, everything sloped and slanted. Everything moved and slid and rocked. Bowed and bent. Crooked angles, gradient surfaces. Everything warped and wooden, everything creaking and crying. The house was alive, it had ideas, opinions about stuff. It remembered things.
My mother, my brother, and myself, who were on the other hand, evidently more appropriately sized for the 15th century, spent more time indoors. We were all monsters. Mom was Mars the Bringer of War—a giant, Mom-shaped monster with tentacles that would chase my brother and I around the house to the music of Holst—a monstrosity that would send us kids into even louder, ever more ecstatic screams, somewhere between terror, frenzy, and hysterical laughter. I was the Phantom Toe Crusher on Sunday mornings at the foot of my parents’ bed and my brother, well, he was just a monster. I’m not sure if he could really speak of it, he just growled, spat, yelled, and threw things, food, toys, underwear.
History has since taught me that for most other people, including my parents, this was the 1970s. Years of rain, power cuts, and garbage strikes. Elton John and Kiki Dee. The Bay City Rollers. Football hooligans. Sandal shoes. Flared trousers and soccer haircuts. But for some reason to me the days were always long and bright and warm. Grass stains and ladybirds. Cartoons and rug burn. Pretty idyllic for a phantom monster.
But there were real monsters in that house, too.
Bed-time—light on. Charged with electricity and dread. Please, please, please, just one more story. We would shout and play and fight furiously. Unmake our beds, make our beds, pull out more books, more toys. We needed light, we prayed and begged for light.
Eventually, inevitably, the switch was flipped that dropped us into a deep pool of darkness. Liquid darkness. Submerged in thick, viscous, syrupy darkness. This is how it went.
The darkness was black ink. It obscured everything so that I couldn’t see my hand, even at the tip of my nose. Then, slowly the ink would become suffused with a giant, pale liquid that entered through the single window over the foot of my brother’s bed. For some reason my brother was always sound asleep.
This translucent liquid would gradually bubble and cauliflower throughout the room, changing the consistency of the ink. A kind of thinner that made the black ink silvery. This compound fluid was a democratic substance. Moonlight doesn’t actually light things, it just makes them visible. Just because something is visible, though, doesn’t mean you can see it. Everything looks the same bathed in moonlight. Bookshelf, upholstered chair, stand-up lamp, wicker basket, wooden chest. All monsters.
The compound complete, the monsters revealed, my eyes would snap shut. But with nothing to look at, my ears became instruments of imagination. The sounds started. To begin with, random, odd, isolated sounds. For example, the evening symphony might start with a tick of a clock. Singular, abstract. Then the ting of a pipe, the tang of a radiator, the tock of a wood beam. Fortunately, these early sounds, after long, paternal lessons in early elementary house noises, were identifiable and familiar. From downstairs, the inadvertent band-slam of a door, the cling-cling of crockery, the ha-ha of a conversation, the blah-blah of the TV breaking into prime-time applause at the end of the first nocturnal movement.
The second movement opened with less whimsy, less adagio, more dissonant, grave. The sounds, the frequency, started to expand. Tap-tap-tap, knock-knock-knock, tat-tat-tat, various muffled and less muffled sounds beginning to introduce wood creaks. The creaks made sounds like rear, why?, way, aaah, joined too by the plumbing, ting-ting-ting, tam-tam-tam, tong, tong, tong. The dissonant concerto was often accompanied by a wind drone and a clatter of twigs on glass and the chorus would be in full swing. Cut-clang-but-why-jar-heave-tap-tock. Momentum building with pounding heart beats which provoked pictures that formed behind my eyelids in my solitary dark world. Amoebic monsters that morphed relentlessly. Clung-dot-pop-boom-sigh-rang. The sounds would crescendo in a savage, bacchanalian wildness, with all the spirits of the house, all the moonlight monsters joining together in the same orgiastic rite. A ceremony that would finally summon. Would finally bring to life the man. The creeping man. The corridor man. The final personification of the darkness. The footstep man.
One after another. Slowly. Slow enough so I knew that he was creeping. Yet fast enough so I knew it was footsteps. Slowly, evenly. One after another after another. Here he comes. Studied relentlessness. Still afraid to open my eyes, I reasoned that one slight movement, one sound would attract his attention and the footsteps would change their pace, faster towards me.
The way the footsteps worked was this. They moved up the corridor outside our room. With every step they drew closer. Yet they never reached the room. This was because I kept still. Quiet. Silent. The speed, intonation, attitude, accent of the footsteps indicated clearly that they belonged to someone who was malign. Unfriendly. Evil. This man would be merciless if he ever caught me opening my eyes. Would be horrifying if he ever heard me breathe or rustle my blankets or move my hair. He would be cruel and unusual if he ever heard my heart beating. My heartbeat was too loud and I couldn’t control it. How unfortunate. To be betrayed by your own heart.
Suspended in terror for hours. Through several stages of fear. Frantic, resigned, panicked, relaxed, rigid, reposed, horrified, hounded. I would either scare myself to sleep or, in a sudden blast of heroism, I would bravely run screaming down the stairs each step further that the last, to the living room where my parents would console me with logic, science, and television.
In the cold light of adulthood, of course, experience taught me certain truths about all of this. You see, houses are like people. They get up and do things during the day and go to sleep at night. During the day an old house warms up, expanding and shifting. At sundown the wooden beams and floorboards go to sleep. They cool down and contract. When they do this they move again, slowly, at the speed of wood, they shift and scrape. They tap and crack against themselves and each other. The plumbing, the pipes, containing hot and cold water, much the same. And so you see. Quad Errata Demonstrandum. In a nutshell. Bob’s your uncle. There you have it. The creaking and tapping sounds that happened to resemble certain visitors from beyond the grave.
Obvious, really, when you think about it.
A strong explanation. A solid explanation. Armed with this wisdom I held forth, able to raise my head proud, eyes wide open in the most dangerously haunted houses. I was a heroic figure, full of common sense and courage. Able to effortlessly cut down any claim of hauntings with a crisp swipe of cynicism and scholarship. A bold, rapier wit. Indeed, my reputation for pithiness, my ability to calmly employ a rigorous and unassailable logic, a veritable arsenal of physics at the faintest whiff of ectoplasm.
Which brings me to the present day.
Why do certain noises sound only after the light is switched off? Just a single, solitary, nagging doubt. That’s all.
I vaguely remember leaving that house. Staying at school one day, waiting for my parents to collect me. I stood late in the playground with my brother. Spring breezes, evening sun. The new house had a smell of recent paint and the solid, regular, box quality of modernity. We staked out our new playing territory and soon forgot the old house. No sadness, just childhood’s reasoning. This house had even stairs and mud instead of grass. The other houses looked like ours and kids appeared on the street outside.
Why only after dark?
“Well, your parents should be able to explain that.”
This at a family celebration, some decades later, at the beginning of the 21st century. Extended clan, distended, over coffee. Discussing an absent tarpaulin.
“We just left it there.” Father’s matter-of-fact austerity.
“Couldn’t you have just gone back to get ?” I didn’t really need to know, this was just for the sake of continuity. What the hell did I care about a tarpaulin?
“I’m sure you can imagine, your parents didn’t want to.” An interjecting uncle’s pointless diplomacy.
“Why no? You just left it there?” The wine and gastric discomfort forcing me to beg my parents to end uncle’s deliberate obscurity.
“You know. They did leave in a bit of a hurry.” The same uncle. Forcing me to flounder in my turkey and wine mire for scraps of reason.
“Is this a tax thing?”
“Didn’t you know?” The uncle, looking amused.
“Apparently not.” Attempting to match my uncle’s amused condescension with irony.
“Your parents—your mom was concerned.”
“Concerned? Mom? Were you worried?”
“Well.” My mother unwillingly stepping into the conversation.
“Doesn’t he know?” God I wished he would shut up.
“Well, we never.”
“Dad? What’s this? Why the hurry?” I knew he would put an end to this idiocy.
“Well, your mother.”
“Oh come on, you can tell him, can’t you? I think he’s probably old enough.” Suddenly that sinking feeling that I was going to be told something. That I was going to learn something that maybe I didn’t want to learn.
“I saw something.”
“Something what?” Grasping for language.
“A few times wasn’t it?” Uncle now less diplomat than director.
“What did you see, Mom?”
“I’m not sure. There was a…”
“Oh come on. He’s not going to think anything.” Put a sock in it, uncle.
“What mom? What did you see?”
“It sounds silly but. It wasn’t just us. Living there.”
Funny how time can throw things into relief. Offer new angles. Imagine. You go to bed wise. You wake up a child.
Patrick Oliver is a writer born and raised in the suburbs of London. He now lives in Manhattan.