|GLOOM by George Aitch|
He was broken and I wanted to fix him. We’d been seeing each other a while, on and off, before the issue was laid out for me. I remembered my first brush with depression. I had watched a toddler flung from a drunk-driver car wreck and felt nothing. Boredom is not the normal response to tragedy. After getting help, I’d recovered. It was the empathy I’d won through this experience which made it easier to forgive Ian for the way he behaved.
Not to forgive him for his low mood; there was nothing to forgive there. How could I hold such a thing against him? However, depression is airbrushed as this tragic ennui, a grey gothy filter towards everything. They don’t tell you how self-centred and selfish it can make a man. Maybe that was my trouble, I let him get away with too much. I could have been more forceful but to see the desperation behind his blank expression was enough to pack me into retreat. A glance like that and I’d be happy to leave an evening on the sofa in front of the TV.
In effect, I became his live-in carer. The dependence was very real. I suppose as well it gave me a sense of purpose to look after Ian in that way. We planned things carefully based on his therapist’s advice so as not to overwhelm him. Getting up in the morning and other basic functions were broken down into a series of tasks: lift the covers, get out of bed, walk to the bathroom, turn the shower on and so on. Being a list-oriented person, I found this easy to do. Fitting these needs around work was also easy; Ian struggled to leave the house or make a decision without this forethought.
Our friends whispered that it had become parasitic, the relationship between us. They respected that Ian needed someone to help him, just that it should be someone other than his boyfriend. We withdrew further into ourselves. Most nights were spent at home, just the two of us. We’d cuddle up together and sometimes I might get a response hinting of happiness. Those golden moments made it all worth it. Not all of the time I spent with Ian was bad.
Festering in the house can’t have helped. It was an old building on the outskirts of the city. Ian had rented there for about a year before his problems started and the other tenant moved out. I didn’t like the idea of him being alone there all the time by himself, so it wasn’t long before I moved in.
It had been a nice place to live once. If it were properly cleaned and renovated, it might still. This became my second project, rehabilitating the house after Ian. The floors were grubby and the poor heating gave us cold spots when we least expected it. At night, the creaking floorboards of the settling attic and clanging rusty basement pipes drove sleep away from us. At first, I was happy to chalk these occurrences up to the antique nature of the property, or to put them aside from our chaotic lives. When these crescendoed into stranger things, it became harder to ignore.
It is easy, I’d suggest, to draw too much on a co-incidence. The human mind is simple to trick. When hypnagogic hallucinations or sleep paralysis occur close to a death of a loved one or moving into a new house, we might cross the threshold and mentally label these a haunting. Grief fools us into thinking the pitter-patter of our recently deceased dog’s footsteps on the landing are a visitation when actually we’re longing for something which isn’t there. It is only human to mark intention and significance to these odd parts of nature. It’s what we do to comfort ourselves with the unknown. We’d call a house haunted. Here is my story about my unknown. He was a haunted man.
The first issue was with Ian’s fridge. The stainless white cube was a receptacle for all sorts of unidentifiable organic matter, a trawler for everything past its sell by date. At the time, he wasn’t great at feeding himself. I’d never been a fantastic cook, but I could scratch out a few square meals. First thing I did when I moved in was to clear it out spotless and stock it with greens, juices and other goodies. ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ could have been etched on my mother’s tomb.
Not long after I’d done this and I’d notice that the salad leaves had wilted, the milk had spoilt et cetera. Once or twice I chastised Ian for leaving the door open and he’d sigh, resuming his favourite spot on the couch. I was having to wipe away sludge from the crisper drawer weekly at the height of this and it wasn’t just the fridge. Anything we brought into the house faded—bread went stale, wine turned to vinegar, TV remote batteries went dead and all of it much faster than normal. Whenever I brought it up, Ian didn’t seem bothered.
“We need to get a new fridge,” I’d say.
“Well, I can do it. I’ll have someone come over and check it out, or I could drive it into town after my shift.”
“It’s fine. Leave it alone. I don’t mind.”
“It’s no trouble for me, there’s a shop around the corner from the hospital.”
“Could you stop picking and interfering for one goddamn second?”
I left that alone, I didn’t want an argument. He stooped in the doorframe and scowled at me like a truculent teenager, then shuffled back to the front room. I heard the daytime chat show volume being turned up to max.
I ignored most of these strange rules of the house as it seemed for another month before something happened which triggered me to the sense of unease I felt emanating from the walls. My job meant that I often had to work night shifts, which wasn’t bad in itself as I was still young then. After the last one in a run of nocturnal hours, I tried to stay up as late as I could to reset my sleep cycle. On that morning, it was a rare occasion when Ian had left the house to visit the therapist which we agreed was a good idea. I’m not sure he entered into this wholeheartedly, more to get me off his back about it. It was a step in the right direction, so I encouraged these appointments gently.
I was sat on the porch outside in the sunshine, smoking a cigarette. The smoking was a habit I’d picked up then. I knew it was bad, but those little five minute breaks were an excuse to escape from everything. The garden was a heap—I didn’t have the spirit for yard work. Overgrown weeds and accumulated rubbish were strewn everywhere. The house was too cold to stay in, even at that time of year, so I hunched myself on the wooden steps and watched the world go by.
A low key sense of dread pool on the spot where I was sat. It was like a miasma seeping up through the floorboards which took hold of me. All birdsong stopped. Up ahead, the bushes rustled and a white cat leapt through the brush. It looked like an ordinary white cat, padding across the grass and paying no attention to me. I froze, staring at it.
The longer I watched the cat, the deeper terror I felt. Goosebumps rose on my arms and I started to sense a migraine coming on. The cat stopped in the centre of the lawn to lick itself, then proceeded to scuttle behind a water butt and out of view. I didn’t feel comfortable until it had left. The tension evaporated as soon as it disappeared. I gasped, realising that a pressure on my chest had been lifted away.
Though it resembled and acted like any other cat, the feeling I had was that I was actually looking at something else much more horrible and my mind substituted it for a deer to avoid having to deal with whatever dreadful thing I saw. It was like I’d had an unnatural experience, something my brain couldn’t process. I staggered back inside and took a nap, sleeping fitfully until I heard Ian’s car rolling in the gravel driveway out front. I didn’t mention the cat. I didn’t need to put that on him.
After that, I twigged that something was strange about the house. I started paying attention to the smallest things going wrong. Hanging pictures slipping from their nails, missing objects, late night creaks and shuffles. I held these inside me, not telling my boyfriend as not to cause him panic. Already I was walking on eggshells whenever we spoke, in my head I could imagine dismissive conversations where I tried to bring any of it up. Instead I made mental lists to try and gauge the character of what I now thought of as a haunting.
One afternoon, I was tidying upstairs when I heard a series of loud bangs from the kitchen. Knowing better, I still ran to that room at the back of the house. All of the drawers and cupboards were open, some still swinging on their hinges. Worse, our collection of kitchen knives was scattered across the table. Some of their blades were embedded in the wood. That hair-raising dread crept up my back again. I found Ian snoozing in our bedroom. I shook him awake.
“What’s wrong with you?” I yelled, tears prickling the edges of my vision, “Why did you do that? You scared me and it isn’t funny!”
Half asleep still, he peered at me from under the covers. He shuffled awake and rubbed the sleep away.
“What are you talking about?”
“All that crap in the kitchen. It’s twisted.” Self-righteous, I stomped from the room but he followed. Back downstairs, the cupboards had closed themselves though the knives were still lodged in the table. Ian didn’t seem fazed. He went back to bed and slept for the rest of the day.
Where Ian was spending most of his time asleep, I was suffering from the worst insomnia of my life. When I did manage to dream, it was disturbed with vaguely remembered nightmares. It sucks to feel unsafe in your own home, a primal fear of vulnerability while you sleep. Having a partner in the bed helped that for me at first. Though I had the growing sense that Ian acknowledged that he was living in a bad situation but wasn’t prepared to do anything about it.
The final straw came late one night. Though I’d become used to sleeping badly and waking up to bumps in the night, voices were a first. It was just the two of us in the house, it had always only been the two of us. I awoke with a start and lay beside Ian’s sleeping form. I shuffled into his warmth and tried to nod off. But then I heard a woman speaking from somewhere downstairs.
Its voice was a vile whisper, just audible over the silence. I started. You have no idea how badly I wanted it to be someone breaking in. In the pit of my stomach I knew that it wasn’t. Straining my ears, I could hear whatever it was spewing insults at us from somewhere in the house. I rolled over and threw the covers back.
“Don’t. I deserve this.” Ian wasn’t asleep.
“Who is it?” I whispered.
“Leave it alone. You’ll regret it.” He turned his face away from me and pulled the duvet over his head.
In the darkness, the voice kept whispering ‘disgusting’ and ‘awful’ mixed with jibes and threats. I threw a dressing gown on and slunk into my slippers. Seizing all of the courage I was given, I peeled back the door. The landing was still. Only that woman’s voice criticising us pierced the silence. I snuck down the stairs, avoiding the steps that I knew creaked. At the bottom, the stream of insults was louder. I kept turning my head, expecting to see an apparition. Tiptoeing around the house, I checked that the television and radio were switched off. There was nothing but the whispers, no-one else around.
The only place I hadn’t looked was in the basement. Of course it would be in the basement. Without me touching it, the door swung open. The voice grew louder still. It changed. She began revealing things about me, secrets I’d never told anyone. Those awful things you’ve done which keep you awake at night. I peered around the doorframe and into the cellar.
At the bottom, I expected to see a face. Whatever it was could see me now—commenting on my appearance, how loathsome I was. There was nothing at the bottom but a black shape, like a cloud. That same sense of my hackles rising came about me just like that white cat in the garden. The dread rooted me to the floor. Though the black cloud had no features, I knew it was looking at me. All the while the voice continued, almost shouting now.
I stood at that spot, unable to move until the dark form began to climb the steps. As it moved towards me, the primal fear spurred me to action. That was enough. Yelling at Ian, I slammed the door and leapt across the room. Still only in my pyjamas, I grabbed my shoes and keys and fled out into the yard. It was dark, though not as dark as in there.
Wrenching the car door open, I pulled out of the driveway. There was an awful second when I knew I should have waited for Ian. I felt a terrible tug at my breast. But my fear surged over it. I put the car in gear and drove to a diner in the next town. The rest of the nigh was eased away looing up cute cat pictures on my phone and drinking super strong coffee.
In the morning, I moved out. I returned armed with cardboard boxes. I checked in on Ian. Typically, he didn’t want to talk about last night. With all my stuff in my trunk, I moved in with a friend before I found another apartment. I didn’t see Ian for a year, we bumped into each other at a bar. He seemed happier, better dressed. He’d long since moved out of that house by then. We didn’t talk about the voice coming from the basement. The house went up for sale and changed hands quickly. I try not to think about it.