The house leaned out over a corner of the sea almost as if the cliffs were a church wall and the house was a gargoyle stuck to the wall. When we reached our room the first thing I noticed was a portrait of the devil hanging opposite the beds. The devil looked slick and smug in this illustration, like a man you were told to trust by someone who prized cleanliness above all other qualities, apart perhaps from the alleged quality of personal wealth. I would have been less disturbed by the devil if he had had red eyes and a pointier nose and a tail and looked more traditionally devil-like. I turned the portrait to the wall and we went off to watch my friends get married. I danced for several hours, then, joined by an accomplice, harangued the DJ when he ceased playing songs that people liked and began to play songs that he thought would make people impressed by his esoteric knowledge. By this point the bride’s aunt Cynthia had gone to bed and been woken again by a knock on the door of her room and opened it to find nobody there. By the time we went to bed I had drunk a lot of wine and I fell asleep quickly. I did not notice the three drawing pins in the bed and the other four stuck in my bare thighs until the next morning, when I was sober.
I moved into the house in a snowstorm and spent my first night there awake, listening to the weather and all the house’s unfamiliar noises, which ranged from the comically eerie to the scientifically impossible. The following night I slept in my parents’ spare bedroom, seventy five minutes away, only because I badly needed a decent night’s sleep and absolutely not because I was frightened by my new house, its remoteness or its instantly hostile aura of eternal winter. Back at the house I noticed that the black paint in the bathroom had been employed to cover up rampant black mould and opened the cistern to find more black mould and 23 slugs, although in all fairness I did not count them and there could have been 22, or 24, or even 27, at a push. I woke abruptly at 3.45am every morning from nightmares which often featured violence being inflicted on me, although the worst of these did not quite involve violence; it involved me walking down an impossibly black corridor, reaching out hopefully for a wall to get my balance, and having my ribs frantically tickled by three fleshless hands. I decided that something very bad had once happened in the house, or in the place where this house now stood, at 3.45am. One of my cats loved the house, or maybe just the freedom its outdoor space provided, which was something she had not experienced before. The other two loathed it, and repeatedly stared wide-eyed at invisible creatures crawling up the walls. I did not see a ghost in the house, nor even turn and expect to see one, but I keenly felt a collection of wretched events stored there. Maybe they were stored in the higher part of the rooms, where there was space for a whole other floor, and which has partly dissuaded me from a long-held belief that high-ceilinged houses create an atmosphere of lightness and positivity. The whiteness of the days always seemed deeply dark and the blackness of the nights seemed barbed and on the only three windless days during my tenancy the tyre swing in the garden still rocked from side to side, as if comforting itself after a traumatic experience. In the house I kept a beloved plant, a Clivia, that had lived in five previous houses in many different positions – near windows, away from windows – and had always flowered explosively without fail between late January and early February. It was mid March when, with immense relief, I left the house, with the Clivia, which had still not flowered.
I drove to the house for the first time in the billowy dark of a country night by the jagged steep coast and it felt like driving down a chasm into a place that belonged only to itself. The next morning after waking everyone up by shouting in excitement at the sea in the way that only the natively landlocked do, I cooked three terrible eggs on an old electric oven, probably similar to the electric oven the band who’d recorded there in the 70s had cooked terrible eggs on. I was still wearing my coat at the time, having gone to bed with it on. Before bed there had been a collective scramble for firewood to make the big rooms warmer and I later remembered someone breaking an old chair and putting it on the fire but have realised this probably didn’t happen and is in fact a memory of a scene from one of my favourite films, and that has also made me question all sorts of things about memory, and by extension about history itself, which is often written by overimaginative people, and by wise people whose memories are failing. The house was dusty and as yet unpacked but the beds were perfectly made. The morning was cold as we drove back up the chasm listening to the record made in the house. The record still sounds like billowy cold and dust and terrible eggs to me, in the best way possible.
Jenny lived across the track from the house and I liked her a lot. Her main interests included dogs, books, cats, UFOs, fossils and bones. Before she’d left her husband, her cottage had been burgled and he’d shown the police into the porch. The policeman had asked what was in the trunk in the porch and if anything had been taken from it. “No, that’s just my wife’s bones in there,” he had replied. From her position across the track, with her small dog and large cat, Jenny had watched the various tenants fall in love with the house then experience various troubles. The river ran partly under the house and later when I dreamed of the rooms they were very damp and overrun with lizardlike swimming creatures that appeared to come from prehistory. A few years after I’d left, Jenny told me the details of the stabbing that happened in the house which she said were different to those reported in the local media. She said she had taken a photo that I might want to see which was of a ghost standing beside the gate to the field next to the house. I said I’d very much like to see it and we arranged to go for a walk a fortnight later, on the north coast, where she hoped to show me some bones. A week later I received a phone call to tell me she had died of an undetected brain tumour. I stumbled across her email address a couple of years after that and a steamroller of sadness hit me, more acute than the sadness I might have felt if I had stumbled across her physical address instead.
The house is made of wood and as I stretch out in bed at night I hear the planks crack as they contract in the weather. You might call it a cabin, although it is less a cabin than the building which was here before, which had just one room and no running water, and where an Italian man lived for a year, and wrote a book of poetry. I was just thinking how safe the house felt to live in, last Tuesday night, when, as if in punishment for my satisfaction, I heard an almighty creaking, scraping sound, as if the house was being violently attacked by people with tools. I looked outside to find out who was attacking the house, but it was just my cat, Roscoe, who has discovered its excellent second use as a giant scratching post.
We went to bed and about five minutes later we heard a loud slamming sound downstairs. I leapt out of bed and ran downstairs to find the kitchen door open to the silent late summer night. I had checked the kitchen door was locked, even though we hadn’t used that kitchen door; we had used the other kitchen door. This kitchen door had definitely been locked, with a key turned on the inside. Now it was wide open. What it opened onto was a garden, a sloping field of messy geriatric August wildflowers and moorland: a space of around half a mile, before you reached the neighbour’s house. There was not much sound save for that of the stream that ran beneath the house, and my breathing. The next day the air in the garden was thick and sparkly. Swallows dived under the eaves. We decided not to stay a third night. I didn’t tell my friend, who owned the house, about the door. I felt it would have been somehow ungrateful. We didn’t talk about it until years later. By that time she had left the house. She said it had been creeping her out; her boyfriend particularly didn’t like the ghost of the old woman, dragging her leg along the upstairs corridor every night.
I always remembered it as the best holiday house. Everyone had been there, the time we went. All the best people. There had been a big central room, a bit like a medieval banqueting hall, and the bedrooms were all off that, a perfect circle of them, with the exception of the crow’s nest bedroom where my aunt and uncle slept. A wicker chair hung from the ceiling and Pete sat in it and it crashed to the floor, which was surprising because everything about Pete was very skinny apart from his beard, which still probably didn’t weigh all that much. These memories were so vivid and important that almost three decades later when I realised I lived near the house, I went to see it, and its new owners, who did not run it as a holiday home like their predecessors, very kindly showed me around. I wandered through the rooms, exclaiming at how small they all seemed compared to my memory of them. I thanked the current owners, thinking it best not to confess to the realisation I had had two minutes after walking over the threshold, which was that I had got the wrong house.
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