A Short Story by Catherine Cavendish
I should have known the house would be trouble. After all, anywhere that is on the market for over £150,000 less than all the neighboring properties must have something wrong with it. Apart from being virtually derelict of course.
Swallow Lodge. The name captivated me. The moment I first laid eyes on the empty dwelling I knew I had to own it. Strange really because in its current state, it certainly wasn’t habitable. In fact, the estate agent wanted me to look at the more suitable house across the road. But no, I had to have this one, and the more she tried to dissuade me, the more determined I became. Eventually she caved in and a couple of months later Swallow Lodge became mine.
Maybe it was the unusual shape that appealed to me. The central section towered upward, tapered to a narrow pinnacle and housed the two upstairs bedrooms. To the right and left of this, the building was single story. Judging by the sorry remnants of peeling paint and ripped wallpaper, Swallow Lodge had once been decorated traditionally, with care and taste. What would poor Miss Frobisher make of it now? I attributed the chill that enveloped me, when I thought of its last owner, to an unseasonal nip in the air.
The house had been empty for ten years following the old lady’s death on Christmas Day. When I asked about her, the estate agent knew very little. A care assistant had found her and been too traumatized to go into detail. Dorothy Frobisher owned the house for sixty years and died in it at the age of ninety.
On the day I took possession of her former home, I took photographs and emailed them to my daughter in Australia. Unfortunately, even the warm summer sun pouring in through the windows could do little to improve the sorry state of the place and Carol didn’t share my enthusiasm. Her face wore an incredulous expression when I Skyped her that night.
“Mum, whatever possessed you? It’ll cost you a fortune to put that place right. Half the roof’s down for a start!”
“I know,” I said, as waves of ecstasy washed over me. “It’s going to be perfect. For the first time in my life, I’ll be able to decorate the way I want to without your father chipping in and insisting on white walls and fitted carpets. I can have hardwood floors, themed rooms—”
“And an overdraft the size of a small African country.”
I sighed, seeing Carol’s lips set in that familiar thin line. Just like her father. But she could say what she wished, I would have my Swallow Lodge and I would have it my way. After all, my daughter lived in Sydney. She could hardly do much about it, even if I decided to paint the walls shocking pink which, of course, I wouldn’t.
With hindsight, I suppose the difficulty I had in finding builders to work on my new pride and joy should also have told me something. They were all perfectly keen at first, until I told them the address. Then, mysteriously, each one of them seemed to discover they had a big job somewhere else that would keep them occupied for the next six months. I was unfamiliar with the area, as I had lived in the city – thirty miles away – until my husband George died. That’s when I decided on a change. My move to Swallow Lodge represented the first step on the path of my new life. How naïve I was. How reckless.
I eventually found a builder. He wasn’t local and gave no reaction when I told him the address. Together we drew up plans and he set to work. Meanwhile, I carried on living in the small flat I’d rented since I sold my house, and dreamed of the day when I could take my furniture out of storage and move into my perfect home.
Derek, my builder, worked long hours all through summer and beyond. Every time I went along to have a look at how he was getting on, I came away more excited than before. With my approval he engaged a gardener to sort out the wilderness at the back of the house, painters, a plumber, a glazier and, of course, a roofer. It took practically all my savings, but I was getting the house I had always wanted and didn’t begrudge one penny.
Finally, two weeks before Christmas, the day came when all their combined efforts were complete. Derek handed over the keys.
“It’s all yours, Mrs. Steadman. I hope you’ll be very happy in your new home.”
“I’m sure I will, Derek. You’ve done a wonderful job. Thank you. It’s exactly how I imagined it would be.”
“What is it?” I asked. “Is something the matter?”
“It’s… well… I suppose it depends how you feel about them, but I think you may have bats under your roof.”
“Bats? Are you sure?”
Derek shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Not entirely, no. I’m only going by the sound, you see. I’ve been up there and saw nothing. Pete, who did the roof, said he couldn’t see any sign of them either. It’s a bit of a mystery how they could have got in really. Mind you, they’re crafty little buggers. Doesn’t take much.”
“You say you’ve heard them?”
Derek nodded. “A few days after I started here, I heard scratching noises. I ruled out rats and mice straightaway. Definitely not those little blighters. No, I’ve heard them before and I’d say you’ve got bats. Trouble is they’re a protected species, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with them. Hope that’s not too much of a nasty surprise.”
“No, no.” I sighed. Did bats do any harm? Hopefully not. “I’ll learn to live with them. I’m sure they’ll keep away from me and I’ll return the favor.”
When I closed the door behind him, I leaned against it and took in my new surroundings. My mother’s grandfather clock finally had the home it deserved, in a hallway where it provided a focal point and a welcome. Its steady, rhythmic tick-tock felt familiar and reassuring. It no longer chimed the hours, since its bells had been removed years earlier. I also had the peaceful library I’d always craved, where I could sit in the evenings, lit by lamps and surrounded by books. And, when sleep overcame me, I could drift upstairs to my cozy bedroom with its dark oak furniture. So in keeping with my Edwardian home.
I couldn’t wait to Skype Carol. I carried my laptop around the house and showed her the rooms, transformed from the ‘before’ photos she’d been so horrified to see. I had even erected a Christmas tree and strewn garlands of artificial holly and pine, bright with shiny red berries, around the walls and doors. With its decorations and twinkly lights, my tree looked festive and gave my home a seasonal finishing touch.
Tour complete, I sat in the library, with my laptop on my antique partners’ desk.
“It all looks lovely, Mum.” Carol smiled. “Not really my taste, but you always preferred old-fashioned stuff.”
I smiled back. “You’re just like your father. He always thought modern was best.”
“Only in Dad’s case, modern meant circa 1980.” Carol laughed, but then stopped abruptly. She stared closer into the webcam, her face wide-eyed, mouth slightly open.
Goose bumps rose on my arms. “What’s the matter?”
“I… don’t know. I thought I saw…” She shook her head. “Don’t worry. It’s gone now. Probably a technical glitch.”
That night, I fell asleep straightaway and awoke before dawn. I needed the bathroom and the chill in the bedroom had me reaching for my dressing gown. Moonlight shone through the landing window, illuminating my way.
I reached for the bathroom door handle. Invisible fingers stroked my hand. I jumped back. Spun around. No one behind me. No one either side of me. The moon withdrew behind a cloud and now I couldn’t see anything in the gloom. Where was the damned light switch? I fumbled around the walls and my fingers made contact with the hard plastic. I pressed. The bright light made me blink. Still nothing there. But something – or someone – had touched me. It couldn’t have been cobwebs. An insect maybe? The house was so quiet, except for the clock downstairs. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
Above my head, in the loft, scratching, scrabbling. Bats, Derek had said. Then why did the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention? A loud groan echoed around the walls. A woman in pain. I ran into the bathroom and slammed the door, locking it. I hardly dared breathe as I strained to listen for the slightest sound in the sudden cold, still, silence…
Finally, I dared open the door and peered around. The light from the bathroom shone out, illuminating part of the landing, but casting shadows where I didn’t want them to be.
At the opposite end for where I stood, the dark void of my bedroom awaited me. There should be another switch to brighten that area, but when I found it, nothing happened. In desperation, I flicked it a few more times but still darkness where I so needed light.
From nowhere, cold, invisible hands pressed down on my shoulders, forcing me back against the wall. The face – if it was a face – loomed in front of me. Hollow sockets for eyes set in a gray, twisting, amorphous mask that might once have been human, or could have emanated straight from hell. I pushed hard against an unyielding mass that pulsated and throbbed. Panic rose in waves, coursing through my body. But when my muscles ached and trembled, some inner reserve of strength, borne of terror, powered me and I wrenched myself free, hurling myself down the landing into my bedroom. I locked the door and huddled on the bed, hugging my knees to my chest. My heart thumped and my breath came in gasps. I had to stifle them. Too much noise and it would find me again.
Above me, more scratching. I clapped my hands over my ears to drown out the noise. What was happening to me? Had I gone mad?
I swore I heard a female voice whisper my name.
For the first time since I was a child, I prayed, as the hours ticked by and night eventually gave way to dawn.
I waited until the sun was fully risen before I dared unlock my door. Downstairs, my confidence trickled back as I saw nothing untoward. My tree twinkled merrily. In the library, I switched on the radio to the sounds of Nat King Cole roasting chestnuts on an open fire. Outside the window, a solitary robin hopped from branch to branch on the sycamore tree, each move dislodging a shower of snowflakes. The sky looked as if it would deposit more of the white stuff anytime, all adding to the feeling of Christmas right around the corner. My grandfather clock gave out its familiar low tick-tock as Nat King Cole gave way to Mike Oldfield’s take on In Dulce Jubilo.
Maybe I’d imagined last night. Perhaps I’d dreamed it and been in a half-awake, half-asleep state when I awoke to go to the bathroom.
But then I opened the kitchen door. And stared.
Sugar, flour and smashed eggs covered the floor. Ketchup smeared all over the worktops. Two bottles of white wine, unscrewed and emptied down the sink. Glasses and plates lay smashed on the draining board, cooker and floor, and someone had written on the newly painted walls, in bright red letters:
Veni, mi domine Lucifer!
My mind sped into overdrive. Burglars. It had to be. Well-educated burglars who had studied Latin? Unusual, to say the least. Besides there were no signs of a break in. When I checked, all windows and doors were locked from the inside.
I picked up the phone and called the police.
The attending male officers looked barely out of high school. It didn’t take long before I realized they thought they were dealing with a dotty sixty-year-old – bordering on senility -who had probably created this chaos herself.
My curt responses to their inane questions were met with their exchanged glances and raised eyebrows. No, nothing like this had ever happened to me before. No, I wasn’t on anti-depressants, or being treated for any psychological condition.
One of the officers took notes, while the other examined the writing on the wall.
“It means”, I said, “Come, my lord Lucifer. I suppose whoever wrote it is into devil worship, or wanted to scare me.”
The officer, who had introduced himself as PC Workman, turned back from examining the graffiti. “The old lady who used to live here dabbled in that sort of thing.”
“Who? Miss Frobisher?” Surely not. I’d built up an image of a kindly old soul although, admittedly, I didn’t have any evidence to go on.
The other officer – PC Ramsden – scoffed. “Daft rumors. Just because she lived on her own, people made up all sorts of stories.”
His colleague remained adamant. “Oh, she was up to something, that’s for sure. Three local men went missing over the preceding three years before she died. Always at Christmas time too. The only thing they had in common was that they’d all come here to do casual work for Miss Frobisher. One was a handyman, another an electrician and I think the third was a decorator. It got so no one would come near this place.”
An icy shiver shot up my spine. “But you never found any evidence linking her to the disappearances?”
The police officer shook his head. PC Ramsden chortled. “Not likely to either. She was well into her eighties by then and hardly a match for three burly blokes.”
“But these men have never been found?”
“No,” PC Ramsden said. “But people go missing all the time. It’s not that hard to do if you’re determined enough.”
They didn’t stay long after that, merely gave me a crime reference number, promised to look into it and left. They told me I could clean everything up, so clearly there was to be no fingerprinting. They simply didn’t believe me. I suppose I was lucky they didn’t arrest me for wasting police time.
I sighed and set to work sorting out the mess, wishing I had some sort of explanation. I found none, except the crazy notion that, somehow, Miss Frobisher was behind it all.
Carol Skyped me at our pre-arranged time of eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. I hadn’t told her what I had experienced and, as the days passed and nothing more happened, I calmed myself. I sat in the library, my laptop on the desk and, when I answered her call, her cheerful smile made me ache to be with her.
“Happy Christmas, Mum.”
“Happy Christmas, love. Are you enjoying yourselves out there in the sun?”
She started to answer. Stopped. Stared hard at the screen. “What the hell?” She pointed behind me. Her hand shook. Her face a mask of horror. “I don’t know what that thing is, but for God’s sake, Mum, get out of there. Now. Just run!”
I twisted around to see what had scared her so much. A black shape swirled and morphed into a caricature of an old woman. It opened its mouth in a hideous parody of Munch’s most famous painting. From the laptop, Carol screamed at me, again and again. “Get out, Mum. For God’s sake, get out.”
But I couldn’t. The swirling mass, with its black holes for eyes, paralyzed me with its hideous stare.
Deep voices chanted in the echoing distance. A hymn to their Master. “Veni, mi domine Lucifer! Veni, mi domine Lucifer!
Carol’s hysterical cries screamed out from the laptop. “Mum listen to me, you have to get out. Just leave everything and go. Mum please!”
A rapier stab of pain in my side knocked me to one side. I clasped my head in my hands, willing it to stop. Cold fingers invaded my mind. Violating. Searching. Infecting my spirit and my soul with floods of hatred and despair. Pure evil.
I cried out. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
The laptop shot off the desk and smashed on the floor. That brought me to my senses and broke the hold on me. I sprang to my feet and ran. Behind me, I heard the sound of splintering wood and shattering glass. The grandfather clock chimed.
I ran. Out of the house, down the path. I ran and never looked back.
A year later, I’m still running. I hear the chanting. It’s in the wind. And in my head.
“Veni, mi domine Lucifer…”
Cat first started writing when someone thrust a pencil into her hand. Unfortunately as she could neither read nor write properly at the time, none of her stories actually made much sense. However as she grew up, they gradually began to take form and, at the tender age of nine or ten, she sold her dolls’ house, and various other toys to buy her first typewriter. She hasn’t stopped bashing away at the keys ever since, although her keyboard of choice now belongs to her laptop.
The need to earn a living led to a varied career in sales, advertising and career guidance but Cat is now the full-time author of a number of supernatural, ghostly, haunted house and Gothic horror novels, novellas and short stories. These include (among others): The Haunting of Henderson Close, The Devil’s Serenade, and Saving Grace Devine.
Her new novel – The Garden of Bewitchment – is out from Flame Tree Press on February 10th 2020.
Cat lives in Southport, in the U.K. with her longsuffering husband, and a black cat, who has never forgotten that her species was once worshipped in Egypt.
When not slaving over a hot computer, Cat enjoys wandering around Neolithic stone circles and visiting old haunted houses.