A few days ago I submitted two nightmarish accounts from my childhood, perhaps you best read them to truly comprehend what has befallen me. I had been compelled to silence, gripped by the irrational fear that somehow even after all of these years, should I speak of it, that those things would seek me out and once again wreak havoc on my life.
In the name of science and reason I confronted those fears and set out to vanquish those tormented memories once and for all by sharing them with others, exposing them for what I believed they were; the delusions of a troubled child. I have held on to my scepticism and rationality for dear life, I have allowed them to define me, but this morning I was presented with verifiable, physical evidence. Evidence of what I do not know, but it cannot be ignored, and it seems strange to me that the last few days have been so tainted by apprehension and misfortune after finally breaking my silence, that I can no longer rely upon entirely conventional explanations.
In the wake of sharing those traumatic experiences I had as a child, I have been plagued by an overwhelming sense of unease. Initially, I attributed this to the fear I had experienced in simply recounting and reliving those terrible events in my mind, but as the days past it felt like so much more; a feeling of impending doom consumed my every thought.
While sleep came to me, rest did not. Each morning I awoke, my nerves on edge, as if deprived of sleep for an age. Nothing overtly frightening happened during the first few nights, no visitation, no unwelcome bedfellows, no wheezing breaths reaching out from deep within my bedroom walls, but I had that distantly familiar feeling of not being alone.
Do not misunderstand, I did not sense someone in the room with me. I did not hear, smell, or feel anything remotely supernatural, but throughout my days and nights I have sensed something subtle, almost on the periphery of my awareness; the feeling that something is on its way, something is coming, like the first few stagnant blasts of air from a subway tunnel, heralding the arrival of a lurching, unstoppable monstrosity; surprising, yet expected.
My sense of unease grew with each passing day, pushing its way under my skin, deep into my mind like some form of cancerous infection. I tried to focus my attention on various writing projects in a vain attempt to fill my mind up to the brim with other thoughts, hopefully leaving no room for those contaminated memories, but those thoughts came to me nonetheless.
My anxiety gained momentum until I could think of nothing else. I had to do something! I had studied Psychology for years at university, with this I knew that anxiety is often the result of a loss of control, and that one of the most effective ways to combat it is to empower oneself; this is what I intended to do. Call it foolhardy, but I was going to go back to that place, that house where those terrible events took place. I was going to confront those memories and expose them for what they were; nonsense.
It was an hours drive to my old home, but it was one filled with elation. I was confident, at ease, happy; I was in control now and nothing was going to get in my way from showing that the place I had feared my entire life was nothing but an average, humdrum, harmless little suburban house.
Gleefully negotiating the country roads and then motorway, finally I made it to the city. Gradually the streets began to take on a familiar appearance. Memories of playing in that neighbourhood came flooding back to me; a play park with my favourite slide, an ash pitch where we used to play football, my school yard filled with hide and seek and friendships long since abandoned, but never forgotten.
My mind wandered through those memories like a prodigal son walking home; wandered so much so that before I realised it, I was pulling into the street where I had once lived. The road was long and disappeared far into the distance finally entering into a sharp, blind turn. It was an old neighbourhood, and had been planned and built long before the advent of the car; this was evident by the narrowness of its roads creating a strangely claustrophobic feeling, as if the houses on each side rose up, leering at passers by.
I slowed my speed and cast my eye over each house that I passed. It was a uniform place, with every house looking not dissimilar. My heart suddenly began to beat faster as a cold chill crawled up my spine; there it was, there was the house! It was late afternoon and the street was quiet, almost lonely. I stared at that little place wondering how such an ordinary home could have instilled so much fear in me.
I had initially intended to only look at the house from afar, confirming it to me as a material construction, entirely explicable, and removed from anything uncanny. But as I parked I took a deep breath, and before I knew it I was out of my car, walking towards that old, metallic gate, its once bright floral shapes now darkened by aged, flaking deep green paint, revealing nothing but rust beneath. I ran my fingers over its uneven top, and with a subtle gasp, I pushed it open.
Walking along the path I was shocked at how disused the garden was. I thought to myself how much of a waste of a good lawn it was, which was all but obscured by a thick mosaic of weeds and other invasive species, but as I neared the house, I realised why: It was unoccupied. Once again a shudder crept through me, but as my anxiety rose up, I crushed it with my rational mantra:
“The simplest of explanations is usually the correct one”.
I assumed that due to the current economic climate that the house had probably just been on the market for some time, and that the owner wasn’t too aware of the old sentiment that the first bite is with the eye, but as I looked around I could see no “For Sale” sign, nor one “To Let”. It genuinely seemed as though this house had been forgotten, abandoned, and left to rot.
The windows at the front of the house were filthy and, as such, almost impossible to see through, but as I wandered around to the back of the building, I could see more clearly inside. I would have imagined that a house such as this one would be empty, but on the contrary, it was entirely occupied , occupied by the trappings of a modern life. I could see a television sitting in the living room corner, a coffee table with magazines strewn across it, various pieces of furniture sitting as if ready to be used, and a couple of coffee cups sitting on the windowsill still full, covered in mould. I would have thought the house was lived in if it was not for a thick layer of dust lying over everything, accompanied by the occasional spider’s web.
It seemed as though the most recent occupants had left in a hurry, and never returned.
Clambering through a sea of waist-high grass and bushes, I eventually arrived at that innocuous little window at the back of the house. The very sight of it frightened me, but this was mere memory and not the strange feeling of being watched from within as I had experienced as a child. Peering in, the room looked eerily familiar. I suppose there is little that can be done with a room so small, so oddly narrow, but through the dirt covered glass the room looked almost unchanged from when I had slept in it. A bed, a set of drawers, and what looked like an assortment of toys on the floor.
A profound sense of anger washed over me momentarily, but I shook it quickly from my mind. The room was clearly that of a child’s and the thought of that thing harming another innocent filled me with contempt for such a thought, and within me swelled the desire to protect any child from such an abomination.
As I gazed at that wall, of which a bed lay alongside it, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. For a moment (and it was for only the slightest) I thought I saw the blanket on top of the bed move. More than that, through that window pane I could have sworn I heard a wheezing gasp. Closing my eyes tightly I repeated another scientific mantra:
“Science does not owe its debts to imagination.”
Opening my eyes I saw nothing but an empty bedroom. No foul spirits, no unearthly things; just a room, no more, no less. I breathed a sigh of relief as it that all was well with world for the first time in many days. You may think that it was wishful thinking, but I genuinely felt that I had shown myself that there was nothing to be scared of, other than my over-active imagination.
It was starting to get dark and I wanted to be home before the night. Filled with confidence now that my anxieties were behind me, there was one last thing I needed to do. When we had left that house we did so in a hurry. As a child it was disorientating, even frightening to leave everything I knew behind, but there was one thing left which I always wondered about.
At the bottom of the garden stood a sycamore tree which looked to be even older than the house. I was amazed at how unchanged it was. I had grown up, gone on to pastures new, but the old sycamore still stood, wise, warm, almost friendly in its appearance.
I think it’s a rites of passage for any child to have a place to hide things. It’s often their first experience with independence, something removed from any authority figure. For me, my ‘stash’ was half way up the old sycamore. I’m sure I must have looked like a fool, but I happily and gleefully climbed the tree with abandon. The configuration of the branches had changed in places, but overall the happy memories of playing amongst the limbs of the old sycamore, of having a little piece of the world to myself away from everyone else, seemed vivid as it was remarkable how much remained unchanged.
Half way up I caught my breath and smiled to myself. In the central trunk of the tree lay a hollow. Whether it had been created by an animal, or perhaps the tug of a gale on a weakened branch long ago, I do not know, but it was where I kept things. If I found something which I was sure would be taken from me for being ‘inappropriate’, into the hollow it would go. The truth is though, that the majority of the items inside were not very interesting, mostly just toys and rarely exotic pieces of contraband like a slingshot or some smoke bombs. I had no reason to hide the toys, but when I was young it felt adventurous to have a secret.
The hollow was dark and filled halfway with rotting leaves, no doubt deposited there from countless autumns, nevertheless I reached deep inside to see what remained. I couldn’t believe it! I had found a toy that I had hidden there before we moved, all those years ago! I could feel the plastic in my hand, it’s sharp edges unmistakable, but the leaves and darkness of the hollow obscured its view from me as I struggled to remove it from the thick,wet mixture of rotting leaves and rain water. It seemed to be caught amongst a collection of small twigs.
The reason I was so excited was that I knew when we moved that I had left one of my favourite toys behind; a small plastic First World War British Soldier. It may not sound like much, but I had grown up on my family’s stories of my Grandfather’s adventures during both wars, and while he had passed away before I was born, I would often act out exaggerated versions of the stories with this small soldier in the role of the hero: My intrepid Grandfather. At the time I thought a hollow the perfect hiding place for a soldier.
My delight, however, quickly turned to horror. I felt sick to my stomach, for as I pulled the soldier out, I realised it was not my toy, but something else entirely. Stuffed into the back of the hollow amongst the sludge, and now in my hand, was the skeletal remains of a small animal. The bones crunched together in my grip as the few small flakes of hair and flesh left on it putrefied between my fingers. I almost lost my balance as the rotten and potent smell of death escaped through my moist grasp, invading my senses.
I climbed back down carefully, dejected. There was nothing else in the hollow, my toy was gone, probably taken by another child during the subsequent years. What remained of the poor animal, I buried under some loose earth in the garden.
I left that place immediately.
Despite my unfortunate encounter in the hollow I still felt empowered’. That I had actually plucked up the courage to revisit that place, to see how ordinary it really was, made me feel in control once more of my faculties. I did not at that time require anything other than a conventional explanation.
I said goodbye to the old neighbourhood, to that bad memory once and for all, and began to make my way home. By the time I had driven onto the motorway, something had begun to filter through from the back of my subconscious. At first I disregarded it, dismissing it as my imagination, but as the sun shone its last and dipped below the horizon, I sensed the growing of a compulsion in me. An idea which seemed to have been born and nurtured for no good reason. No rationale, no sound causal footing, but one which had to be followed, at all cost…
I must get home!
I increased my speed, zipping sporadically between the slower cars on the motorway, looking in the rear view mirror, keeping an eye on what might be following.
I had to get home!
Again, I drove faster constantly looking behind as if racing some unseen pursuer: 70, 80, 100 miles per hour! I tore along the road, I beeped, I yelled, the sweat lashed off of me. What was happening to me!?
Please, just let me go home!
White knuckled, I finally made it off of the motorway and onto the country roads which would lead directly to my town. The roads were narrow and wound around the now bleak and ominous countryside. Darkness seemed to blanket the road in front of me. I turned my full beam on and breathed a sigh of relief to see a bright light again, even if artificial. The manic anxiety which had seemed to grip me on the motorway appeared to have diminished, however, I still glared into the rear view mirror more often than I should have, just to make sure that there was nothing following me.
What a ridiculous thought! To think of something chasing my car! To put myself and others in danger by speeding down a busy motorway… Madness!
Still, madness or not, I had felt compelled to get away as quickly as possible and even though I had managed to collect my nerves, the loneliness of the road I was on fuelled my yearning for my own town, my own street, my own bed!
Nervously, I traversed the web-like winding roads which seared through the countryside, feeling relieved at the first sign of a lamp post, of civilisation, and of the boundaries of my town. I pulled up outside of my house, switching the engine off, and sat for a moment in silence. I had to stop all of this nonsense! Things coming out of walls, watchers smothering me at night, looking into someone’s window like a prowler, all of this was lunacy!
Tomorrow, I would start afresh, no more writing about my childhood experiences, no more reliving of dread filled nights. Just getting back to normal, carrying out my work, spending time with my girlfriend, and most of all reaffirming my belief, faith, and confidence in science and rationality.
Then the thing in the back seat leant over, grabbed me by the shoulder and breathed a foul, rancid breath from deep inside its lungs down the back of my neck.
I scrambled for the door, my arms flailing around looking for the lock. Fear possessed me, shook me; a fear I remembered all too well, a fear from all those years ago, lying awake at night in that sickening room. The inside of the car had grown much colder, but that was nothing compared to the icy fingers burrowing into my shoulder.
I honestly thought I was going to die, that this thing would finally get its way after all this time.
The door handle popped in my panicked grip and I fell out of the driver’s seat onto the pavement. For the briefest of moments I thought I caught a glimpse of something in the back seat; vague, the form of an old man, yet twisted and distorted grinning from ear to ear. Luckily there was no one around, as had there been I would have appeared a mad fool, for the car was empty. I grabbed the keys from the ignition and booted the door shut with my foot, locking it for the night.
I staggered down the path and into my house. I’m not going to lie to you but I drank myself to sleep last night. You may recall that I said I had evidence, actual physical evidence of something unnatural. You might be wondering what that evidence is. Well, I could say that it was the marks on my shoulder that made me shudder with fear, or I could tell you that my bedroom window lying prised open this morning, by what looked like claw marks, has left me dreading tonight, or any other. But no, none of that scared me as much as what I saw today upon waking.
Sometimes the most frightening of messages are the most simple, for lying on my chest as I awoke this morning, was a toy soldier, the soldier I had hidden in that hollow all those years ago; returned to me as an adult, bitten in half.