I thought I would have been offered a cup of tea. I mean, we're British. It's a mandatory requirement for social interaction, isn't it? I find a nice cup of tea steadies the nerves in a job like this. And they looked like the sort of couple that would have drunk a lot of it and would have had people around to visit their home where it would have been consumed in vast quantities. But, no. No sooner had I got into their house than they wanted to get straight down to it without any nice social preamble. A guy could feel used.
"It started about a week or so ago," said Matthew Taylor, with an embarrassed cough. "We were asleep in bed, late at night, and we started to hear this faint, little tapping sound like something was rapping on the walls." He swallowed hard and gave me a kind of sheepish grin. His face flushed red a little.
I get this a lot. People get embarrassed talking about the supernatural. I expect people from his world, with their neatly trimmed front lawns and house prices, to worry about making fools of themselves. That's never really been an option for me. If I were to worry about what people thought about me, I would probably be dead by now.
"Go on," I said. I thought I better say something. This part of the job always makes me uncomfortable. I'm not really a people person. And small talk feels me with nervous dread. I find going up against a werewolf or a vampire easier. (I suppose that says a lot about me, really...)
"Um...well...That first night, after a few hours, it got on our nerves, and we couldn't get to sleep. We couldn't really pinpoint where it seemed to be coming from, either. So I actually got up and went all over the house to investigate, even put my ears to the walls, but couldn't find anything that could be causing the noise. We thought it might be, you know, mice or something. I mean, at first, it was just annoying. You know what it's like when you're trying to get to sleep and something is making a racket?" He gave a kind of embarrassed laugh, probably to try to win my sympathy. The offer of a cup of tea would have done that. "But, well, after the first couple of nights, it started to really freak us out. I mean, you're lying there, in bed, it's dark and quiet, and you start hearing this faint little tapping. It might have been an overactive imagination at three in the morning, but...it felt odd. Strange. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap". He actually tapped the air with one of his fingers as he spoke, then realised he was doing it, got embarrassed, coughed again, and swallowed hard. He then gave me an expectant look. It was the sort of look that was begging for me to believe him. Like a child pleading with a parent.
"What are your neighbours like? Do you get noise problems from them?" I asked.
"Oh, no. No, it's a semi-detached," he said as if that was explanation enough. "And the couple next door are elderly."
"So not the type to hold all-night raves or be into DIY during the middle of the night?" I gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I find that this, and a little joke or two, helps to put people at their ease. Especially if they're about to face some sort of mind-buggering horror.
"No," he said with a little laugh.
"This is a respectable neighbourhood," qualified his wife, Alison Taylor, with a pointed stare. I realised it was the first time she had spoken to me since I had been in the house.
I just nodded. "Just considering any possibilities. Although I'm sure you probably already ruled it out, I like to double-check". I gave her a pointed stare back. "I want to reassure you that you're dealing with a professional."
We eyeballed one another for a bit. Alison Taylor's face was an impassive look of disgruntlement. She'd been like that since I'd been in the house, as well. It was enough to make a person think they weren't wanted.
Matthew Taylor gave another of his embarrassed coughs. "Well, um, it got worse. The tapping, I mean. Louder. More distinct. As the days went on, it got even worse. And creepier. It turned into a real hard knocking as if someone was hammering their fists against the walls. Knock, knock, knock. Knock, knock, knock". He closed his eyes, as if in pain, as he repeated those last few words. When he opened them again, he sighed. "It weirded me out. It sounded, oh, I can't describe it or put it right, but it sounded...hollow. Went right through you. The knocks, I mean". He looked at his wife, as if for confirmation, but she just kept staring directly at me. "Well, they certainly sent a shiver through me anyway," he said with another embarrassed laugh. He looked like he was about to shiver right then and there in front of me, to be honest. "It almost felt like, and I know it sounds silly..." His face went redder. He coughed yet again. "But ...it almost felt like whatever it was, was angry at us for some reason". He scoffed, almost in amusement at the idea, but I noticed the amusement didn't reach his eyes.
"Like something having a tantrum?" I suggested. Just to be helpful. I like to consider myself a helpful guy.
"Er…" He seemed to hover over his words then, for some reason. I was about to say "Go on" again, but because his response had intrigued me, I decided to let the awkwardness play out for a bit. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I suppose you could say that," he said. Then he gave another of his embarrassed laughs to alleviate the social awkwardness. Because his response had been so interesting, I decided to mentally file it away for future reference. You should never let your guard down for a minute in this business. Not if you want to stay alive. "Anyway, it just got worse and worse because the knocking got louder and louder. We started to dread going to bed, to be honest with you. We've hardly been getting any sleep. Knock, knock, knock it goes. Knock, knock, knock. Over and over. And over". He closed his eyes again and sighed. "There's something about those knocks...Like I say, they have a...hollowness...to them. And the knocking is really insistent. Like I say, it's almost like it's directed right at us. It just..." He sighed again. "We lie there, night after night, and it just goes on and on, and each knock feels like it's shuddering its way right into you..." And he actually did shiver now, a real small convulsion of fear. "And the worst bloody thing is, we can't figure out what the hell is causing it. I mean, we don't live near anywhere where noise could be made, and it sounds like it's coming from within the walls itself". He sighed. "But, I've managed to finally get a fix on where it seems to be mainly coming from." He paused yet again. I was beginning to suspect he was doing it for dramatic effect. It's funny, but I've been in this game so long that I often forget the impact something like this can have on ordinary laypeople.
I resisted the urge to sigh. "And?" I said.
"Well, it seemed to be loudest coming from the…" and he stopped and briefly winced, as if what he was about to say was going to going to hurt him, "er….spare room," he said.
I clocked a flash of alarm, with a trace of anger thrown in for good measure, flit across Alison Taylor's eyes and face for the briefest of seconds when he said that. It was then gone again when she caught me looking at her. She turned her face away and nonchalantly looked at her hands.
I found myself arching my eyebrow in response. Yes, this was getting interesting.
"Um...because it seemed to sound loudest there, I, er, well I knocked on the wall. And, um, straightaway, it, um..." He stopped again.
Sometimes I feel like one of those doctors in a Sexual Health Clinic when some guy comes in to discuss his "little problem." "It's alright, go on," I said, feeling, like always, that I should have added 'I won't judge you on to the end of it.
"Well, it...it knocked really loudly back. And ever since, the noise has started to really centre on the wall between the spare room and our bedroom. Before, it had been all over the shop. Or at least it seemed like it. I don't know...It was almost like it knew I was on to it if that doesn't sound mad. So we discussed if we should get someone in. Pest control, type thing, thinking it still might be rats or something, but then...well, that's when it got really weird". He gave another one of his dramatic pauses. "Then the mask moved." He gulped a dry gulp.
I arched another eyebrow. "Mask?"
He indicated the far wall of the sitting room with his head, and I glanced over. A mask was pinned to the wall behind the sofa. It was made of clay, coloured blue, and resembled one of those dramatic masks, the one with the sad expression, with the mouth turned down.
"There used to be two, a happy and a sad one. The happy one was coloured orange with this beaming smile on it. It's a shame. They were a little trinket we picked up as a sentimental souvenir. On our honeymoon in Venice," he said.
I narrowed my eyes at the remaining mask and the forlorn space next to it. "What exactly happened to it? How did it 'move'"? I asked. Then I started to mentally salivate at what might be coming next.
Matthew gave yet another of his embarrassed coughs. Alison avoided any kind of eye contact with me whatsoever. "Well, we were sat here on Friday night, settling in for the night in front of the TV. You know how it is, right?" he said.
I shook my head. "Not really. What happened?"
"Well, er, look, this sounds crazy, I know, but…"
I interrupted him and gave him what I hoped was a genial smile. "Believe me, nothing you can say will surprise me."
They looked at one another, mulling that one over. He looked back at me and continued. "Well, we were just sat here, like I say and…the mask, the happy one, it...it just...it flew off the wall, threw itself completely off the wall, and then...then it flew right across the room and smashed into the other side, right against the opposite wall".
Oh yes, I thought. This is a good one. It's days like these that remind me of why I got started in this business.
He pointed to the opposite wall to emphasise his point. My eyes could see a little bit of a mark there. I rose and walked over to it, getting up from the comfy, green, felt armchair I was sat in. The mark was just a little dent in the wall where it had been struck hard. I touched it with my finger and closed my eyes. Focused, like I've trained myself to do. And I felt it. It was just a minor twinge, really, but it was there. My fingertip went very cold. It was very quick, but I definitely felt it, like I was briefly prodding a piece of ice. I removed my finger and nodded to myself. That was all the evidence I needed to know what I was dealing with. Poltergeists can be tricky, and this was a very restless one from the sound of things. And to think I thought a trip out to the suburbs of rural Berkshire would be a welcome break from London's terrors. I mean, Newbury isn't exactly a hotbed of supernatural activity. Me and my silly ideas.
Still, even though I knew what I was dealing with, there were other questions I needed answers to.
"Excuse me," I said and, without taking any notice of the pair of them, I wandered over to the other side of the room. While I walked over, I found my thoughts musing on my surroundings. My job, such as it is, doesn't take me out to the leafy suburbs very much, and this sitting room had Suburbia written all over it. Pastel painted light mauve walls. Chintzy throws over the green felt armchair and green felt sofa. The latest model television resting in a corner on a glass stand. A bookcase containing paperback thrillers in another corner. Tufted cream coloured carpet. Decorative mahogany coffee table. All very nice and lovely. Completely different from my surroundings, but then I wasn't jealous, just more, well, curious. I never wanted a life like this. The fact others do always puzzles me but then each to their own. I gave up on a so-called "normal" life years ago.
Of course, musing on my surrounding made me muse a little about them, too.
He'd said he was a teacher. I got the impression that she didn't work. The house was too neat and tidy for people that both went out to work. And if he was working, then it had to be her that kept the place spick and span. (Meticulously spick and span. I doubt there was a microbe in the place). And yet, I thought she seemed a professional type from the way she came across. There was a picture of her in graduation robes on the wall, and he had one up as well. I doubted very much that they could have afforded the house on just his income, so she must have worked at some stage. But now, she obviously didn't. Their domestic arrangement intrigued me, causing this little spark of an idea to flare off in my imagination, but I told it to calm down for the time being as I looked at the remaining mask.
An empty hook stood a few inches away from it in blatant awkward emptiness where the other mask had rested before it was unceremoniously ripped from the wall. (Where it had unceremoniously ripped itself from the wall...) I didn't like the way the remaining one was looking at me, though. There was something mocking about it.
Still, that wasn't what interested me. I'd spotted something else that was making the idea that had sparked off in my head start to coalesce into something tangible. It was a large scuff mark on the wall, a few inches below where the happy mask would have hung, which meant that something else had hung there at one time. Whatever it was, they'd taken it down and decided to put the masks up in its place. I touched the mark with my hand, but it didn't rub away.
"Has something else hung here in the past?" I asked.
"Um…" began Matthew Taylor.
"No. Is it important?" asked Alison.
"No special reason," I said. Then, filing the obvious lie away for future reference with the previous stuff, I narrowed my eyes and stared at the mark for a minute.
I turned and noticed they were both staring at me. I nodded my head in the direction of the sad-faced mask. "You're right, it is a shame. If it had been the happy one left, it wouldn't be so bad, but there's something very depressing having that hanging there on its own. It almost feels like it's sighing at you, doesn't it? It almost makes you think whatever is doing this is trying to make a point of some kind". I raised my eyebrows at them both in what I hoped was a meaningful look. They gave one another a brief, uncomfortable, furtive glance. I can be a bit of a wind-up merchant and a tease sometimes, still it had paid off. The idea in my head, though still embryonic, was growing. I still needed more evidence, though.
"Would I be able to examine the mask or the remains of it? Do you still have it?"
Matthew Taylor shook his head. There was a distinct vehemence to it, I noticed. "It smashed to bits. We threw it away".
Did you now? "Any reason why?"
Matthew shrugged. "Well, it was broken." He rubbed at his arm in an awkward manner.
"Didn't you want to glue it back together? You said it had sentimental value?"
Matthew shivered again. "It...weirded us out too much. We binned it".
I nodded. Suppose that did make sense.
I noticed Alison Taylor was looking at me through derisive narrowed eyes. "Anything else you want to know?" Her tone was arctic. She definitely didn't want me there.
"What did it feel like when the mask flew across the room? Did you get any strange feelings or sensations?"
"Um...Now you mention it, it did feel a little...chilly," said Matthew Taylor. Alison Taylor just gave a dismissive shrug and shake of the head as if I'd asked her something beyond ridiculous.
"Have you noticed it getting chilly during the night, during the knocking as well?" I asked.
He thought about it again. Again, there was another dismissive shrug from Alison Taylor, followed this time by a heavy scoff.
"Um...Now you come to mention it...Mind you, it is only April," he said.
"Hmm." I nodded. Obviously still building up its power, I thought. They'd notice it otherwise. "And it sounds louder coming from your spare room?"
Matthew made a stumbling, choking noise and looked at his wife, almost for permission. That brief flash of annoyance flared across her face again, which even burned a little scarlet. "Yes. As my husband said". She folded her arms across her chest.
I nodded and smiled inwardly. "And what happened after the mask incident on Friday?" I asked.
"We didn't know what to do or to think about it all..." said Matthew. "I mean, we hadn't left the window open, so it couldn't have been a wind blowing in or anything."
"It'd have to be a major gust to do something like that," I said.
"Well, exactly. It was like it had a mind of its own. We were, well, we were scared. We just went to bed. To discuss it in the morning with a clearer head. Not that we got any sleep. The knocking started up again and went on all that night". He closed his eyes and shuddered again. "I'm surprised the neighbours haven't complained,." He sighed. "The knocking was one thing, but if household objects can just spring to life..." He shook his head. "That's why we called you this morning. You're supposed to be an expert. That's what our friend, Brian, told us. What do you think we should do about it?" he asked.
I gave a casual sniff. "What were you both doing before the mask incident?"
"Just watching television, as I said," replied Matthew Taylor. I noticed a defensive tone had crept into his voice now, too.
"What were you watching on television?" I persevered.
"I think it was just the news, yeah, it was the news. Just the news".
"Well, yes, that can be very distressing. I try to avoid it where possible. What particular news item? Can you remember?"
"Why is that important?" asked his wife, cutting Matthew off before he could answer.
I shrugged. "Humour me." I gave them a toothy grin.
She snorted with brutal contempt.
"It was about…oh, I can't really remember," he said.
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? I think I would. Something strange like that happens, I'd remember exactly what I was doing"."
"Well, we're all different," said Alison.
"Hmm" was all I said in response. An awkward atmosphere drew up a chair and joined us for a few minutes, which gave me time to take a closer look at them because I was more than curious about them. With his slight frame and chestnut hair, Matthew Taylor seemed dejected, and there was something almost "washed out" about him. His face, in particular, had a weary look to it. His body language was telling, slumped back like somebody in a fit of depression. It was like he'd been through the wringer and was just about holding it together. I recognised that look. I've seen it in myself often enough. On the other hand, Alison Taylor cut quite a contrast. She had flame-red ginger hair, and with her blue, steely determined eyes, pugnacious chin, and cynical aggression, I think she'd get on well in my line of work. I also noticed they both had very careworn faces for people with their lifestyle. Something was clearly up here, and I doubted very much it had to do with the haunting. I think I knew then, in that moment, that I really was on the right track.
"What we're dealing with here is a poltergeist. It's a German word which means "noisy ghost," I said.
"We've heard of poltergeists," said Alison Taylor with another dismissive scoff. Her husband just let out a little breath of air, almost like a little gasp. "Supposing that you are on the level and genuine, what do we do about it?" she said, abject derision in her eyes.
"Hold an exorcism or something?" said Matthew with a helpful look on his face. She shot him a look of rage-filled annoyance, and he looked down at the floor.
"Not exactly," I said. "Exorcisms are what you do to ghosts, not poltergeists. There's a difference, you see".
"Oh, is there?" said Alison with yet another scoff.
I ignored it. "Yes. Ghosts are the restless spirits of those that have died, the incorporeal soul of a dead person who cannot pass on because they feel they have unfinished business or have died in violent circumstances and demand justice". I could see the incredulous, and sarcastic, look on Alison Taylor's face but ploughed on regardless. "Poltergeists are a different entity entirely. They're not the spirit of a dead person; they're more like a memory that's left behind of someone who died violently or of something that happened, usually something horrible or traumatic. Like the psychic equivalent of a shoe print. They're psychic energy, shiftless and formless with a kind of...intelligence...behind it. They haunt, usually to provoke a response, let the world know that they, or some small part of them, are still around".
The two of them looked at me but didn't say anything. Matthew frowned and I think was taking on board what I was saying, but Alison just laughed, like I'd said something funny.
"I don't think I've heard such a load of old tosh in all my life!" she said, once more followed by one of her trademark derisive scoffs.
I didn't say anything and just kept looking at them.
"Allie!" said Matthew.
"Well, I'm sorry, but it is. It's a load of rubbish," she said, chortling. "Psychic energy, indeed!"
"Let's hear him out, Allie. He has come all the way over," said Matthew to his wife, with a pleading smile.
"Mrs. Taylor," I said, and she looked at me. "Do you have a rational explanation for the phenomena that your husband has described to me?" I raised my eyebrows at her.
She narrowed her eyes at me. "Well, no, but..."
I leaned forward. "Look, you find it hard to believe all this stuff. I get that. Actually, I get it an awful lot on a constant daily basis. That's fine, but I have come a long way, so please could you do me the courtesy of at least listening to me?"
She just gave a shrug. I took it that it meant I could carry on.
"So, what do you do to stop something like this?" asked Matthew before I could.
"Well, you can't exorcise them. You can only exorcise something that has a soul. Poltergeists don't. What you need to do is lay them to rest. That involves finding out what's causing the phenomena and see if you can find some sort of resolution which will allow it to".
"And you can do that?" said Matthew. Hope sprang up in his eyes which made me feel twitchy. Sometimes there's a penalty to pay for being the smartest person in the room. People assume you always know what you're doing.
"Well, yes and no. First, I need to understand why it's haunting you. Understand it. I can't lay something to rest without knowing that. Poltergeists attach themselves to people who are very low or in a state of depression or to a household that has suffered some sort of personal tragedy. I'm sorry to ask this but has anything like that happened to either of you?"
"No," said Alison Taylor, straightaway. Matthew Taylor just gave a limp shake of the head and stared down at the floor again.
"Okay," I said and suppressed a smile. Of course there isn't, I thought. I let an uncomfortable silence hang in the air, just for the sheer hell of it, then. Then I got to my feet. They both looked straight up at me. I decided to clap my hands together for effect. "Well, then, I suppose I better take a look at your spare room, hadn't I?"
Alison Taylor shot straight to her feet. "What do you need to look in there for?" It was almost a scream.
Matthew got to his feet, as well.
"You told me it's where the knocking is loudest. That would suggest to me that it was the source of things, where the haunting was emanating from".
"You're just making this up as you go along," she said.
"Allie…" said Matthew.
I shrugged. "I'm not sure I understand what the problem is, Mrs. Taylor?" I arched an eyebrow, again for effect.
"Um…" said Matthew.
"It's our house. I don't want a stranger prying around it. Now, are you going to do something practical like hold a séance or an exorcism or whatever it is you do, or are you just going to have a nose about?" Fire was in her eyes, yet I thought I detected the presence of a tear.
"Allie's just upset. It's a difficult situation. We would prefer it if you stayed here, Mr. Cane. We're freaked out enough without having a stranger going through our house".
I nodded. I didn't believe a word of it, though. I have a highly developed bullshit antennae. You need one in this life. It was twanging away like mad now. This wasn't about privacy. They weren't worried because they thought I'd stumble on their secret sex dungeon or something. This was something else entirely.
The awkward atmosphere had pulled up a chair again and, this time, had put its feet up, too.
"So, what are you going to do?" asked Matthew, eventually.
I walked over to the living room door, opened it, and stepped into their small hallway, taking my black overcoat from one of the series of coat hooks that hung on one wall and putting it on. I also took down my black fedora and placed it with a firm shove on my head. "I'm going to say goodbye, Mr. Taylor. I'll let myself out". I turned to head towards their front door.
"What?" shouted Matthew. "But you said you'd help us! You can't just leave!"
I turned around and faced them and shrugged my shoulders. "Sorry. Can't help you if you won't help me". I turned to go again.
"What do you mean by that?" said Alison Taylor.
I shrugged again. "You won't let me look at your spare room despite the fact that you believe the knocking noises may be coming from there. Without that, I can't properly investigate. Like I said, I can only lay this thing to rest if I have as much information about it as possible. This thing, this entity, didn't just attach itself to you on a whim. Something drew it here". I let that sink in and just stared at them.
Alison Taylor folded her arms again. "Our spare room is our business, and it has nothing to do with this."
I shrugged my shoulders again in case they hadn't got the point earlier. "Fine." I turned to go again.
"Wait…please…" pleaded Matthew.
"Oh, let him go, Matty. Guy's a complete nutter, anyway. Where did Brian even find him? Did an exorcism on their back bedroom, my eye. Brian's always been gullible. Should never have listened to him". Alison Taylor did one of her scoffs for added effect.
I narrowed my eyes as I tried to locate the memory. It does tend to blur into one in the end. "Brian Meacher, right? That was a poltergeist, too," I said. I don't know why I bothered. I'm used to this sort of attitude, and it's blood off a vampire's fang, after all this time. It's just her scepticism was really starting to grate on me like sandpaper.
"He said the walls were dripping with blood or some-such rubbish," she continued.
I ignored it and carried on walking and let my hand hover over the front door handle when I reached it.
"Wait!" screamed Matthew.
I turned to face them, just raising a sardonic eyebrow their way.
The couple looked at one another. Matthew's face looked like an injured puppy. Alison shook her head.
"Please, Allie…I can't take this anymore. What if more things start moving about? What if the house comes down around us?" Ah, he's getting the point. Good, I thought. He needs to. They both do.
Alison sighed a sigh of pure exasperation but folded under his puppy dog eyes and gave a small nod.
Matthew turned to face me. "Please, Mr. Cane. We're at the end of our tether with all this. If we agree to let you look at the room, will you stay and help us?" The schoolteacher in him was coming out because it sounded like he was trying to placate an unruly child rather than talking to an adult. Mind you, I had no intention of actually leaving. It was just another little wind-up to provoke the right response. If left unchecked, poltergeists are dangerous. Deadly, even. And, besides, the whole thing was too bloody fascinating anyway.
I proffered my hand out. "I'll see what I can do. Lead the way".
A weak smile passed his lips. He gestured for me to follow him up the stairs. Within seconds I could hear the footsteps of Alison behind me. I only imagined the dirty look she was shooting me, but I could feel it was there. Not that I cared. I was like a kid at Christmas waiting to see that spare room.
The landing consisted of three white painted doors. One was set apart on one wall while the other two were stood adjacent to one another on another wall. I assumed they led to their bedroom and the other to the bathroom because Alison brushed past me and opened the door that was on its own. It swung open, and she stood to one side. "There you go. Hope it makes you feel happy".
Ignoring that, I walked past her into the room.
I don't know what I had imagined after the performance it had taken me to get there, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting.
The room was completely empty.
It just consisted of four bare wallpapered walls, done out in a neutral grey colour, and a window with a windowsill that looked dusty. The floor was completely bare of anything and just consisted of exposed floorboards. A thin layer of dust had also been allowed to accumulate on them as well.
To say I was really disappointed is like saying ghosts are dead.
"Satisfied?" said Alison Taylor. A smug expression had crept on to her features.
I still went in and surveyed the room, though. I sniffed because the lingering acrid, nostril tickling, chemical smell of wallpaper paste was in the air. I smiled. It explained a lot. "You've recently put new wallpaper up?"
Alison folded her arms across her chest yet again. She'll get repetitive strain if she keeps doing that, I thought. "What of it?"
I didn't bother to answer her question. "How long ago? A week or so?" It had to be if the smell was still there.
She narrowed her eyes. "About that. Why?"
"Shortly before the knocking?" I said, unperturbed. I kept my tone deliberately light and breezy.
She continued to stare at me with narrowed eyes when Matthew answered. "Yes. It was. About a day or so".
I nodded as if that answered everything. Which it kind of did but not all. That was merely the what. The why still needed to be revealed, but, as I say, I thought I already had that sussed.
"Making something of it, are you?" Alison said, but I ignored her.
"The news item, the one you were watching on the day the mask flew across the room; will you now tell me what it was?"
Alison Taylor opened her mouth to say something (probably another negative rebuttal) when Matthew cut across her. "We already told you we don't remember".
I tutted and shook my head. "You see, I don't believe that. I think that's a load of old cobblers".
Alison grimaced. Matthew's face flushed red, but I don't think with anger.
"Right, that's it. I've had just about enough of this shit!" said Alison. "Fuck off out of my house!" She moved out of the doorway and pointed to the stairs.
"Allie..." said Matthew.
"No, I'm sorry, Matty, but I've had enough. The guy's obviously mental, and I'm not having him in here, standing judgement over us. It's all a load of bollocks anyway. He can just bloody well leave!"
I shook my head. "I can't do that, I'm afraid, Mrs. Taylor."
"What? I'm sorry?" The rage coming off from her was impressive, but I had a job to do.
"This has gone way beyond you guys being my customer and hiring me to do a job." I looked around me at the room and then turned back to stare at them. "There is a poltergeist loose in this house. A very, very restless one. If left unchecked, they can be very, very dangerous. Not just to you but to the general population. I can't leave here until I've laid it to rest, and I'll do that with or without your help if need be".
She gave me an angry nod. "Fine. I'll call the police on you".
What a middle-class response, I thought. I sighed and gave both of them what I hoped was the hardest, most determined stare I could muster. "Look, the thing about poltergeists, if they're not laid to rest, they go on, getting nastier and nastier. And they can leak out to the surrounding area, too. Sometimes they can even kill people or drive people into killing themselves. Now, I think you unleashed this thing when you wallpapered and redecorated this room. Something didn't like it. So thanks to you, it's manifest, and it's getting stronger. First the tapping, then the knocking, then moving objects about. Then what? Think about how your lives have been turned upside down already. You can't sleep at night, you live in dread, household objects are coming to life...Do you want somebody else to go through all that?"
Alison Taylor just gave me a baleful stare and curled her lip. I had to admire her, I really did.
Matthew, however, cracked. I could see from his wide eyes and sweaty features that the guy had just had enough. "It was a report about some children who had died. Some sort of accident. The parents had left bleach out, and…well…they'd drunk it, thinking it was some sort of drink. You know what kids are like with things like that". He choked on the next words. "It was a terrible tragedy."
A deafening banging decided to start up and reverberate around the room as if on cue. The sound was not only uncomfortable to hear, but you could feel the noise actually vibrate within you. And he was right. It did make me feel...hollow...all over.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
The two of them darted their heads around like frightened rabbits. The hollowness took my mind to bad places, and I found myself shivering. In fact, my teeth chattered away nine, ten to the dozen. The air in the room suddenly felt like I'd stepped into a fridge.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Still, I turned and fixed them with a smug grin. I think, in the circumstances, I'd earned it. "You seem to have struck a chord with our poltergeist, Mr. Taylor."
He made a whispering choking sound, like someone about to fall into a dead faint. Even Alison Taylor had gone deathly pale at the sound of the banging.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
There really was something horrible about that knocking. The hollowness didn't just go right through you. It felt like it went right into your head like whatever was hammering was hammering its way into your mind, into your very thoughts.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
Still, this is all par for the course for me. Been there, done that, bought the crucifix.
Alison Taylor bolted from the room, then. I heard her feet run along the landing. Then I heard a piercing scream.
"Allie!" hollered Matthew, and we both went running from the room.
We darted into the room the furthest along the landing, which led into their bathroom, where the scream was coming from. It was a delightfully clinical suburban affair: blue porcelain tiles, blue linoleum floor with a shower unit over a bath, and a toilet (both kept scrupulously clean).
Alison was stood with her hands over her mouth, staring at a mirror that hung above the bathroom sink. The shower was on. Presumably, it had come on by itself. It was one of those jobbies where you fix it to the bath taps so you can have it over the bath. The water gushed out of it in a thick, wet torrent. The air in the bathroom was freezing, and the mixture of the cold and heat from the gushing shower water, which was creating a thick, viscous steam, had caused the mirror to mist up with condensation.
Someone had drawn a shape in the moisture on the mirror. It was a smiley face with dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. Except the mouth wasn't smiling. It was upside down and formed a perfect rainbow shape. A sad face.
Matthew hugged his wife to him. I just found myself sniffing the air because my nose had started to detect a thick scent that had suddenly descended like an unwelcome guest. It was sweet and cloying, so much so I could almost taste it. It smelt like strawberries but synthetic strawberry, the kind of strawberry taste they put in things like sweets that doesn't actually taste like a real strawberry does. There was something else to it as well...The rich taste of cream.
"Ice cream," I said, and I actually dabbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth because it was so thick it was like I was eating it. "Strawberry ice cream. Can't you smell it?"
Matthew Taylor let out an embarrassed gasp as if I'd just caught him masturbating. Alison Taylor whimpered.
I'll take that as a "yes." And, I'll also take it from your response that it holds some sort of significance for you.
Ignoring them, I went over to the bath and turned the taps off. Then, I went over to the mirror and touched the surface of it with my fingers. A shiver went down my spine. It was absolutely freezing to the touch. "I take it you didn't do this?" I said.
"Of course not!" spluttered Alison, her face dead white.
"Hmm," I said and stared at the sad face again.
"Is that all you've got to say? You're making things worse, not better," she said. The beginnings of tears watered her eyes. Matthew went to hug her again, but she shrugged him off.
I wiped the face and the moisture away. I thought it for the best as it was freaking the two of them out. Actually, it was freaking me out, too. I turned back around and looked at the Taylors, sniffing the air with a pointed sniff. "You know what that smell signifies, don't you?"
"Of course I don't," Alison snarled.
I sighed. I'd had a bit of gutful now, to be honest. "Let's stop buggering about, shall we? What's so important about the smell of strawberry ice cream?"
She didn't answer and turned to stare at the shower. Matthew stared at the floor.
I sighed. "Right, that's it!" I shouted and stormed back into the spare room, my dander well and truly up.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! started up again as soon as I entered. It was almost like a greeting.
I stared around the room in annoyed desperation to see if I could fasten on something that could help me. After all, I'd already figured out that it was the redecoration that had caused this thing to become seriously pissed off and come into being in the first place. There had to be something there I could use...
A smile crept over my face.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
A small, tiny flap of wallpaper was hanging down from one of the top corners, nearest the window. Something was beneath it. This had obviously been a very rushed job. And if the reason for the redecoration were what I thought it was, then it would make sense the job had been done in a hurry. They wouldn't want to have stayed in there very long.
"Bingo," I whispered to myself and walked over to it, my arm outstretched.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! It was like a gesture of encouragement.
I clocked the others had followed me into the room, but neither was making a move. He looked grey, like he was about to be sick. She just kept rocking up and down on her feet.
I gripped the flap between my thumb and forefinger and pulled hard, ripping away as much as I could in one tug, letting what I pulled off drift to the floor.
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
"No…" said Alison.
You couldn't go the whole hog, could you, I thought? You had to leave it behind. It would have been sacrilege to have taken it off.
Papered behind the wallpaper was another piece of wallpaper, the original covering. It was bright yellow, and on it, a myriad of pink coloured elephants was performing various circus feats. One was swinging on a trapeze, another was walking a tightrope, another was throwing a custard pie, you get the idea.
I turned and faced them. I noticed the noise quietened down to a faint tapping.
"You had a child, didn't you? And you lost them. The poltergeist is them, isn't it?" I said.
It was etched on their faces. It had been there all along, really. The grief. Real and raw, like a bleeding wound. Matthew burst into tears and clutched his hand to his face and nose to stem the tears and snot bubble that formed. Alison clamped her eyes shut and, with her arms wrapped tight around herself, she knelt on the floor while plenteous tears streamed down her cheeks.
Like I say, I'd figured it out. Alison Taylor was a tough-minded, strong-willed person. There had to be a reason why someone like her wasn't working. If she'd had a child, say? She would take off time from work for that. Maybe, with her husband's earnings, she may not have had to go back. Of course, she could have taken time off for illness or some other reason, but then there was the spare room that had been recently redecorated. What had it originally been used for? It had to have been used for something, otherwise, why redecorate it? And why go to the trouble of redecorating a room you're not using anyway? Most people probably wouldn't bother. Something else had been hanging where those masks were. The scuff mark it had left told me that. And what sort of things do couples put up on the wall? Photos. Especially, photos of their kids. The news item, though, had been the real clincher.
Repression. Denial. Bottled-up grief. Catnip to a poltergeist. Some things shouldn't be bottled up. Some things are too potent. Some things scream to be heard.
Neither of them was speaking, just crying.
Feeling a bit of a shit, I had to unravel it all out. It needed to be done. "You had a little girl, I'm assuming, stereotypically judging by the colour of the elephants on the zany wallpaper. She died. And you couldn't cope. You couldn't deal with it. You couldn't handle the pain and the loss, so you ran from it. You said it yourself, Mrs. Taylor, we all deal with things differently. In your case, you hid her away. Hid the memory of her away. That way, you wouldn't have to deal with it and wouldn't have to face up to it. Pretending she never existed was your coping mechanism. I imagine you wouldn't talk about her, wouldn't acknowledge her or what had happened, wouldn't speak about it, removed her pictures from the walls so you wouldn't have to be reminded of her, wallpapered and stripped this room, her room, tried to get on with your daily lives as best as possible, pretending nothing had happened. Better than facing the pain of reality, I suppose". I stared at them both, but neither of them looked at me. "No wonder she's making so much noise."
Alison just shook her head.
"It hurt so much…if we didn't talk about it…if we…tried to move on…pretend things were normal...then...then...it wouldn't hurt so bad...Oh God..." said Matthew.
"That's not want she wants. She wants to know her parents loved her and miss her," I said. "That's what all this is about." I'm not usually good at the emotional side of things, but I understand pain and loss. I knew where they were all coming from there.
Matthew sniffed. "But it hurts...so much…"
Alison wailed. I walked over to her, knelt down, looked her in the eye, and tried to speak as gently as possible. "All she wants is for you to acknowledge her. She thinks her mummy and daddy have forgotten her. Just say her name, that's a start," I said.
Alison just shook her head and whimpered.
I stared up at Matthew. "What was her name?"
Matthew sniffed again. "Hannah. Our little angel," he choked out.
"No," Alison gave a defiant shake of her head.
I turned back to Matthew as I was making more headway there. "What happened to her, Mr. Taylor?" They needed to go through it. They needed to say it.
"She...she loved…oh God...she loved ice cream…strawberry ice cream...I used to give it to her as a special treat…that bloody ice cream van with its jingles…the bloke did this special Devonshire stuff, all different flavours...you know what it's like with kids…she had to go and have some…she could talk me into anything…I gave her the m-m-money and..." He choked.
Alison Taylor took a sharp intake of breath.
"She...she went out and…and...she got...someone..." He closed his eyes.
"Please, Mr. Taylor. She wants you to". I just hoped what I was doing was right.
Alison Taylor moaned after taking another sharp intake of breath.
Matthew swallowed hard. "S-someone...r-r-r...ran her over…" He gasped as he choked out that last bit. I think it must have been cathartic for him because he gritted his teeth, then. "And left her...left her lying in the gutter with all the rubbish and the shit!" He wailed, in anger and grief, and slid down to the floor. He reached over to his wife, who had started to rock up and down on the balls of her feet.
I lowered my voice. "Mrs. Taylor, I know it's painful, but she wants you to do this. She wants to be remembered. She wants to know that she mattered. Isn't that what any of us would want? Isn't that what you'd want her to do if the same thing had happened to you?"
The knocking started up again. Please, Mummy...
Matthew Taylor hugged his wife. "Go on, Allie. Please. For her," he said.
She took a heavy sniff. What followed was a scream of anguish. "HANNAH!"
And then it was like being in pain and the pain suddenly going away. The tapping, which had been going non-stop, finally stopped. I noticed that the temperature had gone up slightly, too. And my head felt a little easier.
"She's gone, I think…" I whispered, more to myself than to them.
And then I left them with their grief, each sobbing and hugging the other, and walked back downstairs and sat on their sofa. Like I say, I'm not very good at this emotional stuff. I waited for the Taylors to sort themselves out and come back downstairs, resisting the strong urge to skedaddle to avoid any awkward conversations.
When it was mercifully time to say my goodbyes, Alison Taylor walked me out the door. Her face was red and puffy from the tears, but there was a lightness in it now that hadn't been there before. She smiled at me and held out her hand to me. Surprised, I took it. "Thanks," she said.
I nodded but didn't say anything. I looked over Alison's shoulder and could see, through the hallway, Matthew fitting a picture of the kid to the wall, at the place where the masks had been. She looked a darling little thing. Brown hair and pigtails. Life was cruel. Like I say, I know that, better than most.
I turned to go.
"Mr. Cane! Don't you want paying or anything?" Alison shouted after me.
I looked back and thought about it. "No." I probably did need the money, but it didn't feel right. "Have this on me." And I looked at her, and for the first time since we'd met, I saw something new in her eyes as she looked back at me. I think I saw understanding. She nodded. And she smiled.
You're smiling now, I thought, because the immediate crisis is over, but you won't be for long when you realise you've lost your daughter for a second time. Still, it had to be done. If she had been left unchecked, she could have caused untold trouble. I tried telling myself that, but it didn't really help.
I smiled back at her, but it was paper-thin. I tipped my hat to her. "Goodbye, Mrs. Taylor."
"Goodbye, Mr. Cane."
I turned and walked away and didn't look back.
Not sure if this is a happy ending or not. I'll leave that for you to decide.