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Nobody lived in flat number six. As far as we were aware, it was empty. The date was October 1992 and my wife and I had moved in almost two months ago. We had bought flat number five, and were quite content to live in it – it was a neat, cosy little apartment with a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom, and one room which merged the living and dining spaces.
Not to mention, it came cheap and was only a ten minute walk from the train station. Sure, the wallpaper was a little fuddy-duddy, and the kitchen designing was a little seventies, but with a bit of paintwork and a few trips to the furniture store, we would hopefully make it work.
The little outer London neighbourhood was appealing, too. It was the kind of idyllic suburban places where there is enough traffic on the streets to reassure you that you aren’t in the middle of nowhere, and there is little enough traffic to let you get to sleep soundly. The high street had everything, too – a doctor’s surgery, an optician’s, a dentist, and a Tesco supermarket.
At any rate, we were feeling nicely settled in by the end of two months, and had high expectations of our new life in England. You see, we came over from the States, and in spite of the fact that the English speak the same language as Americans, there were aspects of living over there that were entirely alien to us. It was home, but yet it wasn’t quite home.
The weather was also something of an issue – not a disappointment, though, as we had had a great deal of forewarning about the clouds and the rain that fill England’s skies in the autumn and most times of the year.
Perhaps now I should turn the focus back to our new home. Ours was number five out of six flats which belonged to a tidy apartment block with the name ‘Gretel Cottage.’ It was situated midway along a street which held a mix of detached houses, blocks of flats, and even a few guesthouses.
Gretel Cottage had three levels to it: on the ground floor the hallway led to flat 1 on one side and flat 2 on the other, on the first floor flat 3 shared the landing with flat 4, and likewise flat 5 shared the second floor’s landing with, well – with flat 6. There were no other levels.
In our first week there, we had taken time to get to know the residents of the other flats – rather, they had taken their time to come upstairs and greet us. They were a friendly lot, for the most part.
There was a Ms. Miggins in number 4, a Mr. Smith in number 3, a Frenchwoman in number 1, and one other fellow in number 2. Remarkably, not one of them could have been younger than sixty-five. I was twenty-four and my wife twenty-five. Yes, I guess we did feel a little out of key with our neighbours. They never seemed to go out unless for groceries, and that seldom. We went out daily.
More remarkably yet, not one of them didn’t live alone – widowed or divorced. I suppose it’s a lonely time, old age – you get the feeling that nobody wants to talk to you, you feel detached from your loved ones.
Back in our apartment in Ohio, literally all of our neighbours had been young couples or families. There had been a great deal of noise over there: we heard children’s shoes bumping along down hallways and a great deal of both grown-up and children’s laughter. Sometimes we even heard quarrels, and parents scolding their children – and of course that meant very loud crying. But we had been surrounded by life and youth, and the place had seemed brighter and cheerier.
Gretel Cottage was different. It was nice and quiet – so quiet that sometimes it felt lifeless. Perhaps the dreary weather added to it, but the lack of sound gave the building a subtle lonesome feel about it. It was sad, in a way. Actually it was a bit eerie.
The good thing was that we spent less time at home than we did outside. We both worked the standard nine-to-five office jobs in the inner city, and returned home at about seven. As for weekends, we went out pretty much all day, both days, and came back at times ranging from six thirty to beyond midnight. When home, we were either watching the telly, making dinner, or simply unwinding. Sometimes we went to the gym. Sometimes to the cinema. Sometimes we just sat and talked and talked and talked. We had a good time, I’ll admit.
And then there was flat six. There was nothing immediately remarkable about it – it had an oaken door and front porch identical to all the others, with a knocker and a bell and a bristly brown doormat. A brass ‘six’ was fixed into the middle with nails. Nobody had opened that door to greet us on our arrival, and after a week of seeing not a thing go in or out, we assumed that the flat was empty. And what could be wrong with that? Nothing, right? Well – I know it sounds childish coming from a man of my age, but there’s something very slightly unnerving about an empty house. I’m sure you’ve all had a house on your street with no dwellers in it, and I’d bet many of you sometimes got the chills when you walked by it in the evening. Come on – admit it, empty, abandoned houses are creepy.
Well, with flat six, it was like that but… different – worse. All day and all night the empty flat was literally on the doorstep of our home. When we opened our front door to leave in the morning, that ominous door stood in wait for us, looming. When we returned home, we would turn the key in the lock and know that the dreaded door was behind us. Imagination would make us wonder ‘what’s in that flat?’ and ‘what if it opens right now and comes out?’
Alright, fair enough – that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It wasn’t really that bad – just a little weird, that’s all. And I’m ashamed to tell you this, but when I said ‘we’ and ‘us,’ I ought to have said ‘I and ‘me’ because to be honest with you, my wife didn’t feel in the least put off by flat six.
Yes – yes, I know. It’s shameful, I’m a jumpy, nervous sissy – I admit it. We had different teenage years: she went out and saw all the horror films she could, while I saw few enough as to get the creepy side of my mind working but not enough to dampen my imagination. We still went out for a scary one now and again, but I was never the one who suggested it.
Now that I’ve given you more than enough background knowledge on myself and my life at the time, and now that you have an idea of how brave a man I am, I should probably hurry up and tell you about some of the things that happened in late October 1992.
Nothing truly weird took place until the postman came one Monday. I remember I was sitting at the table with a plate of half-finished scrambled eggs, a cup of tea, and watching the BBC News. There was a scuffling of paper being shoved through the letterbox, and the damp clank as it fell shut. My wife was back in a moment with two letters. One of them, she explained, was an advert from some insurance company, and the other was a bill. She left them on the table and we returned to breakfast and the news. So far, so good.
Then a few minutes later we tidied up, switched off the television, and stepped outside. Something struck me as off as soon as we locked the door behind us. It hit me in a second – there was an envelope lying on the doormat of flat number six. My eyes searched the door and I noticed that there was no letterbox – or, rather, that the letterbox had been boarded up. I didn’t need to point out the envelope to my wife – you couldn’t miss it; a neat white rectangle, yellowish at the edges, sitting unobtrusively on the doormat. She gave a puzzled frown, looked curiously at it for a while, and then made a start as if to go and look at it. I caught her by the arm immediately, for some reason.
“What’s up?” she asked, even more surprised by my reaction than by the envelope.
“Don’t –“I began, clearing my throat and not letting go of her nor letting the envelope out of my sight, “Leave it.”
She looked at me with a kind of pitying smile, shook her head, and told me that I was being silly – but she listened, thankfully, she listened. I sighed and thanked her; I just didn’t want her to go anywhere near the letter, it didn’t feel right.
I got a strange call that day at work, during my lunch hour. I had just finished my smoked salmon sandwich, and was about to tuck in to a cookie when my phone began to ring. It wasn’t unexpected or anything, because I get calls all the time when I’m at work from colleagues. It wasn’t a colleague – I could tell as much.
“Hello? Who’s this?” I asked quite clearly, but all I could hear was the crackly hiss that you hear in the background of a call.
“Hello? Hello?” I asked.
Then I can swear I heard laughter – a kind of gleeful snigger, as if it might be some teenager prank-calling me. But I was not sure if it was a teenager; it sounded old – kind of weird. I was a little weirded out, so I hung up and checked the number. Strangely enough, the number was very similar to the number of our flat, but two digits were different. “I guess it’s a neighbour or something – maybe the estate agent.” I told myself that, but I wasn’t so sure. The estate agent wouldn’t have laughed at me like that.
Then something else weird happened. I got home before my wife, and was just turning the key in the lock when something made me look back. The envelope on the doorstep of number 6 – it was gone. I stared hard at the door for a while, and it seemed to stare back at me. My imagination threatened to scare me, so I opened the door to my own flat as quick as I could, and shut it behind me. I remember I felt a little anxious for my wife to get back soon. Something about the letter being gone had me creeped out – somebody was living in flat number six, and they had come out to pick up the envelope while I had been away.
I turned on the TV and made myself a quick cup of tea, sitting, brooding, and not really watching the screen as I waited for my wife’s return. When she came back, I told her to wait in the flat while I checked something outside. It was pretty abrupt and unexplained, but she waited while I ran down the stairs and out of the building to check the windows of flat number six. I saw that the curtains were drawn, and the panes had been in need of a clean for ages. When I got back to the flat, my wife had also noticed the absence of the letter. She was standing just at our doorway, and pointing at the doormat of flat six. “Have you seen-?” “Yeah I know,” I butted in, “there’s somebody there – I’m pretty sure there is.”
She strode up to the door of number six, and was about to ring the bell when I cried out to her, “Don’t do it!” “What’s up with you, Matt?” she looked at me in a slightly concerned way, and then raised a hand to ring the doorbell. “Please don’t – I don’t like it!” I protested like a child. “I seriously don’t get you sometimes,” she shook her head, “this is stupid – I’m going to ring it.” And she did. We listened, her calm and ready to greet whomever it was, and me tense and not sure if I wanted to meet them. As I had half-expected, nobody answered or even seemed to move inside the house. If the whole envelope incident hadn’t taken place, then we would have been convinced it was empty.
“What the hell? There’s nobody there – I suppose they’re out.” My wife assumed that in her realistic, matter-of-fact way. “Out?” I protested, “They’ve never been out as long as we’ve been here. There’s somebody there, alright, but it’s some kind of antisocial weirdo. Either that, or they just died a while after they picked up the letter!” I don’t know why I said the last bit, but it got me even more freaked out.
“Maybe, Matt,” my wife began, as we made our way back into our own flat, and as she turned the living-room light on, “maybe there’s nobody there, and the caretaker simply picked up the letter as it hadn’t been taken.” I wasn’t a hundred percent convinced, but that was fine with me – I liked that explanation a lot more, so we stuck with it and ate dinner. “Oh, and by the way,” my wife asked me later, as we got into bed, “did you get a call today at about two o’clock?” “Yeah – a weird one, with some guy laughing?” “Yeah… I got something like that too.” “You did? Who do you reckon it was – not many people here have our numbers, you know.” “I’m not sure. I expect it was the estate agent’s kids playing pranks – maybe got our numbers off their dad’s phone.” I agreed, but I didn’t stop thinking about that until I fell asleep. I dreamt about flat six, that night. I dreamt that I opened the door to it, and could only see pitch darkness inside. I dreamt that I listened in, and heard that same sniggering laughter coming from somewhere in the darkness.
On Tuesday night, I came home to find that I had forgotten my keys, and that my phone had run out of battery. You can imagine how frustrated I was when I found that my wife was not home, and that I had to wait on the landing for her to get back and open the door. You can imagine how anxious I grew when she wasn’t back an hour after the usual time, and I couldn’t get through to her. And I bet you can imagine how uneasy I got as I sat on the landing, within three yards of the door to flat number six. You know when you’re alone and vulnerable to getting spooked, you seem to think of the last things you would like to spring to mind when you’re feeling tense. Last night’s dream, for instance, kept playing upon my mind and I thought that at any moment the door to number six would burst open and something would come out and see me, and I would see it. Clearly, my wife was trying to get through to me, as I could hear the telephone ringing inside our apartment – she expected that I had got home. I was glad that she was alright, and able to ring me, but it made me nervous to think that she was probably getting anxious about me as well.
Then I looked at flat number six’s door again, and I could swear I heard a ‘click’, a tiny noise, come from somewhere inside that apartment. I frowned and listened closely, but didn’t hear anything else.
After that, I went outside to escape that dreaded landing for a while – she still wasn’t back and it was nine-thirty. Heavy rain started, and forced me back inside and up to the landing. I was almost considering asking a neighbour for a phone to call her (yes, at that time of night), but to my great relief, at a little after ten o’clock, she came up the steps to the landing and was startled to see me slumped on the floor outside the door. “Thank goodness, I was getting worried about you, where have you been?” I got up and spoke rapidly, catching my breath. “My colleague offered to drive me home – but the traffic was horrendous out there. I tried to call your mobile, but it’s out of battery, isn’t it? What about you? Why aren’t you inside?” I explained apologetically that I must have forgotten the keys inside the apartment in the morning.
She sighed, unlocked the door, and we stepped in. While I searched for my keys (they were strangely not on the key hook), my wife turned on the lights and I heard her gasp a little at the answer machine. “Look how many missed calls there are on the telephone!” “Yeah – you must have been calling me non-stop,” I told her, “I only called you twice on the home phone – there are like six missed calls, and – hang on. Come over here.” “What is it?” I hurried to see what had put the worried expression on her face. I looked at the numbers for the missed calls: two of them were my wife’s mobile phone number, and the other four numbers were the same number. “It’s the same number as those weird prank-calls we got yesterday,” she seemed now more irritated than nervous, “goddamn kids!” She deleted the missed calls, and we went to bed without dinner (it was a bit late, and we were both exhausted). I never found those missing keys.
Wednesday was worse. I got more calls from that number, but the hoarse, unfriendly voice at the other end was saying things now. I was shocked – intimidated, even – by what I was hearing. The voice was saying the vilest things, talking about rape, murder, and using pretty much every swearword in the book. The thing that really got me scared about the calls were how much the person at the other end seemed to know about us – he knew my name, my wife’s name, and that we were from the states, as he referred to us as ‘filthy yanks’ more than once. I made up my mind to report this fellow at some point, and as I was on my bus home, I blocked his number. There was peace for a while. And then – just when I thought I wouldn’t hear any more from that nasty, irritating sonofabitch, my phone rang again. I was amazed to see what I thought was the same goddamn number calling, but then I realised that it was not that number. It was OUR number. Somebody was calling me from my own home. I picked up and asked frantically if it was my wife at the other end. That ominous crackling sound followed, then that same mocking, sniggering laughter. It took me a few seconds to register how serious the situation was, and when I did, I almost vomited with anxiety.
I jumped off the bus, sprinted home, burst up the flights of stairs, and came up to the landing where I collapsed with sheer, utter terror. The door to number five was open.
“Oh my God!” I cried aloud, and staggered to my feet, rushing into my flat to catch the intruder. There was nobody there when I looked, so I rushed out of number five, and broke the door to number six open with by force. Hell – I would have gone in there and showed that thing what happens to people who mess with me, but when I saw that bare, empty, dimly-lit hallway beyond the door, I could not force myself to enter that place. I was a coward, and I collapsed and I fainted.
The police searched flat number six very thoroughly when they arrived, and also looked around our flat, as me and my wife stood on the landing in between and just stared into space. We felt violated – as if somebody was deliberately trying to make us feel unwelcome in our own home. She even suggested moving out, which was drastic – I don’t blame her; she had received a few of those calls lately as well. We were reassured, if not a little frustrated when the police claimed that they had found nobody in either of the flats. Interestingly, flat six had been empty after all – we ourselves even took a look around in there and found absolutely no traces of anybody living there. There wasn’t a phone in flat six either, so whoever was calling us couldn’t have been living there. Further investigation showed that the envelope had actually been meant for Ms. Miggins in number 4 downstairs, and she had checked upstairs, because her son who had sent the letter had in the past mistakenly addressed his letters to number six. My fears about flat six had obviously been sheer paranoia – there was nothing to worry about, so it seemed, in flat six.
As for my keys, they were found lying on the landing outside the flat – the intruder had obviously dropped them there before he had made his getaway.
We gave the police the number that had been troubling us, and they told us sincerely that they’d look into it and arrest the perpetrator for breaking and entering, as well as for going against the 1988 Malicious Communications Act.
More or less as reassured as a person can be after having their home broken into, we both thanked the ruddy faced inspector and the four constables before bidding them Good Night and closing our front door. We sighed and fell wearily onto the sofa and watched the TV for a while – it was some kind of sitcom, ‘Fawlty Towers’ I think it was called. We fixed ourselves a small dinner and watched in front of the telly, laughing at the bits we found funny, and laughing anyway at the bits that weren’t too funny. At about 11:30 we turned off the TV, washed the dishes, and turned in for the night.
Settled into bed, I was about to turn off the bedside lamp when my wife told me to wait a little. She had her mobile phone in her hand and a kind of smirk on her face.
“Why don’t we give the prank-caller a little taste of his own medicine?” she suggested, “He won’t like being called up at this time of night!”
“Sure do it,” I said, liking the idea as soon as I heard it, “what are you going to say to him?”
“I don’t know – suppose I’ll just make creepy noises or something. Anything to get back at him.”
“Sure, go ahead!”
She dialled the number and we were chuckling to ourselves gleefully as she called. We were quiet for a while, grinning stupidly while the phone connected. Then a noise from our living-room wiped the smiles right off our faces.
A phone had started to ring in the living-room.