Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
They said not to go alone. It was stupid saying that, of course; nobody wanted to go by themselves anyway. But parents insisted on reminding their children. The Little Ealing Ghost Society had a standing offer of £50 for anyone willing to stay an hour in the place. But mothers shook their heads and said to each other, ‘Remember that nice Mr. Barrlow.’
Olive didn’t remember Mr. Barrlow. Most people didn’t. He’d come to the village almost twenty years ago to see the old cliff house for a piece on forgotten places of the past. Everybody recalled him differently, especially after what happened, until the only thing people could say for sure was that he smoked. He hadn’t left; at least not that anybody could be sure of. That was why they spoke of him. The last anybody ever saw of nice Mr. Barrlow was when Ms. Gillwater, driving by on her way to church, glimpsed him opening the front door.
Olive didn’t want to go alone any more than anyone else, so she made Ben go with her, and if Ben was going so was Caleb. They complained. ‘Why would anybody want to wander around a giant ruin?’ But they went along. Ben would always go — he’d had a tiny crush on her for years — and Caleb was too conscious of his 15-year-old dignity to admit he was scared. As for Olive, she was going because she was bored, tired of the same pebbly beach and gray stone houses and damp patches of fields.
They dumped their bicycles on the grass and pushed against the wind up a green hill. Olive led the way; she was the one who’d dragged them there, after all. The two boys unconsciously bunched themselves behind her as they crested the hill and saw the old pile for the first time.
The house leaned ominously toward the cliffs, buffeted by wind and a smatter of raindrops. Members of the council had proposed restoring it and charging admission, but no tourists came to a tired little village without a single decent beach and it had proved too expensive to tear down, so there it stood, quietly turning into stone chips and rot.
Once, it had been magnificent; a large manor that still retained its medieval austerity under the many layers of improvements made by a long line of inhabitants. The last of these, a wealthy gentleman in the mining business, had gone bankrupt in the 19th century, but not before adding a conservatory and a modern east wing that looked not so much out of place as decidedly garish. The house seemed to close in over it as though attempting to hide a deformity.
When the gentleman had packed up and left for his family home in Scotland, the place stood empty. Furniture slowly crumbling, paint and plaster peeling off stone walls.
The house watched the three figures from its empty windows. It tried to shift itself on its foundations, but it was so old now, the stones went deep into the earth.
Why did they come here? They never stayed. Not even the thin one, black-haired, sallow, full of ideas. A gentleman, that was what he said. With a pocket watch. He’d liked it; open and shut, click, click while he waited. They’d ripped up floorboards, torn down walls, scraped plaster across raw boards. The house remembered pain.
Was there a pipe? The house thought. No, that was a different one. He’d smoked apple and hickory tobacco that smelled like neither. He hadn’t wanted to stay.
The house felt itself becoming angry. That wasn’t any good. They wouldn’t come in if it was angry.
A sharp wind rattled round the front lawn like old bones shaking. Ben had his hands in his pockets, head drawn into his windbreaker like a turtle. “Jesus, it’s creepy, Ollie.”
Olive flicked her black hair and shrugged. “I don’t see it. It’s just old, like everything else in Little Ealing.”
“Old and dangerous. I heard one guy dropped through the ceiling of some old house and broke his leg. I don’t think we should go in.” Caleb said this with as much casual disinterest as he could manage.
Neither of the other two said anything for a minute, staring at the blank windows and rough walls stained with runoff from the roof. Then Olive said, “It’s fifty pounds! You don’t even get an allowance.”
Caleb looked uncertain. “Why is there even a reward?”
Olive shrugged. “It’s stupid, there’s nothing in there but damp and an old sleeping bag this homeless guy left behind. My brother told me.”
Ben scoffed. “No way has he been in there.”
“His friend has!”
“Nuh-uh. Why do you think nobody’s claimed the £50? Dad said it’s been empty for almost a century and nobody goes in there anymore, not even the historical society.”
“Well then, I’ll be the first! I want a new pair of earbuds, and if you guys don’t want your £16, then fine.” Olive turned and marched across the weedy lawn to the front door and twisted the handle.
The two boys let her go all the way in before slowly following.
The house remembered children. Nasty little beasts that carved their names into the walls. But what did that matter now? The walls were scarred by more than that. And these three didn’t look like children. Maybe they would be kind.
The door only opened halfway, Olive had to shove it with her whole body before it would budge. Once through, she saw it had been blocked by thick, dead vines like traveler’s joy that must have wormed their way in and died. The outdoors had certainly made itself comfortable inside. Fungus, too, had crept up the walls and across the rotting floorboards, blooming in a sick kind of beauty on a squashy mound that must have once been a rug. Some kind of tiny ivy had come down the chimney and was happily growing along the drooping mantelpiece, across the wall and over the big, glass-less windows.
She heard the boys pushing their way in behind her and waited for them to catch her up. Caleb looked freaked; he was trying to hide it and almost succeeding, but Ben only wrinkled his nose and kicked at a fat mushroom.
“Gross in here,” he said. The mushroom lost its cap in a little shower of spores and spongy nastiness. “Eww, it’s on my shoes.”
Olive rolled her eyes. But she was glad they’d decided to come with her. It was too quiet in there. She led the way again through the main foyer to what used to be an airy drawing room. They could still see traces of the pale blue plaster and fine white molding along the ceiling, but most of it lay in chunks on the floor, showing the dull gray medieval walls underneath. A bird had nested in the big chandelier some time in the past.
The place had an eerie kind of beauty; a strange, almost insidious fascination about it. They could hear the wind whining round the corners, moaning down the chimney. But inside it was so still, so still. Somewhere, in a deeper part of the house, a door slammed. Caleb jumped and swore.
Olive would’ve laughed, but she felt unaccountably nervous herself. It was bright enough; there was plenty of filtered, gray light coming in through the windows to illuminate every dusty corner, but she felt suffocated by something undefined. She wanted to keep moving.
“Come on, lets see if the stairs are still safe.”
This time Ben took the lead. He was the tallest, and if the rotting wood could take his weight it could take the other’s. The sweeping staircase was a more recent addition and looked relatively sound. All went well until they reached the top and found a gaping hole in the hallway floor. After some debate, which Ben settled on his part by jumping across, Olive dragged a long board into place for her and Caleb to inch along. It bent dangerously in the middle, but held.
Upstairs, the damage was more from damp and mold. The long corridor had once been delicately arched and painted in pastoral or hunting scenes. Black smears of mildew obscured all but the edge of a spreading tree and a little seated dog. Olive had an urge to wipe her hands across the rest of the paintings, but she didn’t fancy getting that gunk all over herself.
The rooms appeared to be bedrooms, though it was difficult to tell since they weren’t all furnished, or even enterable. In one case, the door had been splintered at the bottom and the room itself filled with mud, broken wood and branches from a hole in the roof.
The house groaned in the wind. It was so lonely. Nothing but cliff and sea for miles. It was so looking forward to her staying. The little one, with the black hair and the eyes like chips of glass.
Ben wandered a little way off from the other two, looking into rooms and over the carved bannister. He was a little bored and more than a little tired of the oppressive atmosphere. Down a few wide steps, he realized he’d crossed into an unimproved part of the house. No plaster covered the old stone, no painted ceilings. He picked his way more carefully, since the floor was uneven after all those centuries. The room was bare, not even a single mushroom-covered chair leg remaining. It looked uninteresting, until he noticed an opening low on the wall.
Muted light filtered out of what looked like a short tunnel, perhaps only the distance through the thick medieval wall, but sloping downward so that from his vantage point Ben couldn’t see what was on the other end. He turned and shouted.
Olive joined him first; Caleb following, his nervousness momentarily forgotten.
“What is it?” Caleb put his head down the hole as far as he could lean.
“Dunno. But there’s light on the other end. One of us should go through.” Ben looked at Olive. She was smallest.
“No way! I’m not going down there unless you can get me back out!” She said, adopting a defensive attitude as though she thought they might try to lift her in bodily.
“You could climb back up, it’s not that steep,” Ben pointed out. He looked at the stone again. It was rough and full of handholds, easy.
“No way,” she repeated.
“What about using your belt as a rope?” Caleb had an idea at last. Ben considered this, then whipped off his belt and put one end through the buckle to make a loop. It was sturdy leather, it should take Olive’s weight no problem.
“Fine. But I swear, if you guys pull anything like a prank, I’ll tell your parents you came here with me.”
Caleb threw up his hands and shook his head. “I wouldn’t, I promise.”
The house watched them decide. It could barely contain its creaks and wheezes. They were going in. The big one, curly hair, was wrapping the belt around his hand. She was sitting on the lip, sliding down, one hand gripping the loop. The house waited.
Olive couldn’t see where she was going, because the tunnel was so narrow. She had to lean her head back and slide and it was making her more uncomfortable than she’d anticipated.
Ben shouted from above her, “That’s as far as I can reach.”
So she let go. But nothing very bad happened. The tunnel was only about as long as she was tall, though it looked longer from above. Ducking, Olive slid the last few inches and stepped into a small room. The only light came from a small hole in the wall, about eye level, where a few stones had fallen out. On the floor…
She shrieked and leaped backward. The floor was littered with bones. Not mice or even larger animals, but human skeletons. Stretched out, reaching toward the light, or huddled on top of each other.
“Oh my god! Ben! I’m coming back up.”
There was no reply from above. Turning around, Olive tried to see out the opening. Neither boy’s face looked back at her. Instead, she saw something else. A rusty iron grate covering the hole. Anger replaced her fear and she began to pull herself up, using the broken stone for assistance. Ben had been right, it was an easy climb.
“I’m not kidding Caleb! You promised you wouldn’t do this to…” Olive stopped, trailing off into silence as she looked at the grate in front of her. It wasn’t propped against the opening, it was bolted there. With thick, rusted iron bolts drilled deep into the stone.
There was no way Ben and Caleb had done this.
For a while, she called. Until her throat got sore, and then she slid back down and put her back against the wall, staring at the skeletons. They were dead. She wasn’t dead. The word ‘yet’ drifted on the cold breeze through the hole in the wall. Olive shivered.
Where had they gone? They would never leave her here. It was all some joke she didn’t get yet. Gingerly, stifling her extreme distaste, she lifted what looked like an arm bone and took it with her up to the opening. Wedging it securely, she bore down. A soggy snap and the bone broke in two; one end rolling back down to rest against its companions.
She wasn’t going to be able to get that grate off. Even if she could somehow maneuver her legs around to kick it, it was too securely fixed in place. That was done for safety, she could see that. Well, it wasn’t keeping her safe now.
She considered crying, but decided that when the boys came back she didn’t want to be all tear streaked and scared. It would be better to have an interesting story to tell them. She looked at the skeletons. Some of them had died more recently than others. A few had their clothes still rotting on them. Had they all come down here to explore and been shut in? But not all of them would’ve brought friends with them. Who had shut them in, then?
It came back to her, her mom telling her not to go up to the old house on the cliffs by herself. Fat lot of good it had done her to take her friends.
Something shining in a little patch of light caught her attention. Picking up a piece of stick, she fished into a ribcage trying to knock it onto the floor. It was dirty and tarnished, but, once she’d picked it up, unmistakably a pocket watch.
Strange. The man who’d died here, he might have engraved his name into the lid. Olive rubbed her shirt across the top. Nothing. She pressed the latch and the watch popped open with a satisfying click.
Campbell…wasn’t that the name of the last owners? Olive couldn’t remember. History had never been her strong subject. Idly, she shut the watch, opened it again. Click, click. It almost echoed in the heavy silence. Even the wind seemed to have died.
It was so dark. Olive had never known darkness like that before. Little Ealing seemed comforting now, where before it had only been stifling. What she wouldn’t give to be back there. She had cried. She was scared. She’d screamed for the boys to come back a thousand times until she had no voice left.
It was so dark. Cold wind whispered through the hole in the wall. She could hear the surf, far away and faint, but she could hear it. That made it worse, so much worse than she’d ever thought, to see and hear freedom and space but be unable to get out. And she was hungry now, too. Her stomach felt like it was eating its way out of her body. She’d only skipped one meal; that didn’t bode well for her if she couldn’t even take that little sacrifice.
In the darkness, she smelled something new. A warm, woody scent, mixed with something sweet, fruity almost. It reminded her of her uncle, who smoked vanilla tobacco.
Something scraped against the stone.
Olive felt her heart begin to beat faster. It was probably just a rat, or even a bird. But something told her it wasn’t.
More scraping. Then a rasping sound and a delicate creak, creak. Pressing her back against the wall, Olive prayed for moonlight. If she could just see what it was, she wouldn’t be so scared.
As if in answer, a thin little moon clawed its way over the horizon, illuminating the space in front of her.
She thought she died as the long white shapes raised themselves off the floor and crawled toward her, empty puppets on the house’s strings.
Desperately, she tried to run, but there was nowhere to go. At last, cornered, Olive wrapped her hands around her knees, sobbing as their cold bone fingers touched her face, insisted she stay.
Welcome, the house thought. It was so lonely. So hungry.
Credit: Rosemary Hamend