I didn’t notice immediately, It was slow and insidious but it soon caught up with me and I became all to aware of the subtle hostility of my neighbours.
I’d just moved into my dream home. Saved up for a down payment, worked my arse off and of course with a little help from the bank of mom and dad, I’d finally done it. A two story Town House in a beautiful leafy suburb. I’d taken a sabbatical from my main job which freed me up to spend more time on art commissions. That, combined with decorating, renovating, shopping for décor, I was pretty busy. The house had many beautiful features but the one feature that delighted me the most was the tiny garden in the back. I planned to spend many a summers evening out there painting.
I’d moved in during the Spring months and the bird song and rustling trees outside my study window was magical, a far cry from the last dump I had lived in with my now ex boyfriend. I had set up my desk by the large bay windows that overlooked the street, where I would have my morning coffee, sketch, letting the spring sounds inspire me. I would often pause what I was doing and sit there staring out of the window, watching people walking by, note who lived in my immediate vicinity.
It must have been my second week of moving in when I noticed my neighbour, who lives directly across the way from me. A little old lady, looking furtively across in the direction of my house. As she approached hers she would stop, stare at mine for a minute or two and then scuttle into her home slamming the door behind her. Then a minute or so later I would see her curtains twitch.
I understand that sometimes people are cautious of new comers but ‘what the hell was that all about?’ I enjoy people watching, so whenever I got the chance I kept an eye out for her. It fascinated me how she would sometimes stare out of her window across at mine. I could see her clearly. The twitching of her curtains, the glint of her milk bottle glasses as she nudged them up higher on her nose. I don’t think she realised I could see her. I viewed her antics with some amusement. It was kind of funny. I figured she must be the neighbour hood watch.
The old woman’s isolated shenanigans didn’t really bother me but then I began to notice the passers-by, quickening their pace as they walked past my house or worse crossing the road. It was subtle, it was clever. I really hadn’t noticed at first. I am far from paranoid and generally don’t give a damn what people think about me. However the combined odd behaviour of my neighbour and passers by eventually had me on edge.
I would sometimes pop down to the corner store to pick up some milk, bread and other necessities I might have run out of. The proprietor, polite enough, would avert his eyes. No matter how much I tried to catch his eye he would always be looking at something else. Small talk was impossible, he would just nod and smile concentrating on the till or packing my purchases into a bag. I was beginning to feel like the local freak. It was obvious he wanted nothing to do with me.
Other times I would notice people in clusters looking at me and whispering. I can tell you it was really uncomfortable and couple of times I had wanted to confront them but I held my tongue. I would calm myself, I reckon it would ‘all come out in the wash.’ as my mum always said when confronted with a mystery.
By my fifth week of moving in, I’d had enough! This morning I watched as the old lady returned from, what I presumed was her early morning jaunt to the shops, she was laden down with shopping bags.
As per usual she cast furtive glances in the direction of my house, got to her door, put her bags down but instead of taking out her keys she took out her phone. I leaned forward watching closely. Nothing extraordinary about that, I guess. She seemed to be fumbling with it, what was she doing?
I saw her take a sly peek over her shoulder in my direction then turn back to her phone. Suddenly she spun around and started taking pictures of my house, of me? Could she see me watching her? I ducked down laughing incredulously, my heart pounding for no apparent reason. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I giggled nervously as I counted to five then took a quick peek through my blinds. She was gone. Well that was the last damn straw. Sneaky old bitch, I mumbled to myself as I grabbed my coat.
I saw her curtain move as I marched up her pathway. I knocked on her door and waited. I was sick and tired of people averting their eyes, crossing the road, whispering when I entered a shop. The old lady had the answers. I had a sneaky feeling that whatever gossip or rumours were circulating and subsequently scaring the vicinity had been instigated by this nosy old cow. If there was one thing I hated, it was malicious old gossips. Nobody liked to feel they were some kind of pariah. I was done with wondering. If I had broken some neighbourhood etiquette.
I knocked on her door again, mindful that she was old, I didn’t want to spook the old bitch, have her calling the police on me. That would be the cherry on top, the neighbourhood witnessing my arrest and she throwing fuel on the fire. Isn’t that what gossips did?
I turned and looked back at my house. I couldn’t see into my front room from here. What did she keep looking at? Why was she taking pictures? What was so damn fascinating and scary about my house? I scrutinized it, nothing! It must be me. I was obviously the problem. I loved my house, I loved the neighbourhood, I was happy here and no way were these crazy fuckers gonna spoil my peace of mind. Why did people always have to spoil shit?
I was just about to leave, it was obvious she wasn’t going to answer the door, no point in standing out here, she was obviously scared of me. I needed to go home and take a long look in the mirror. Last time I checked I was an average looking human female. I don’t ever remember my visage scaring small children, never scared myself, even when I accidental caught sight of my reflection in a shop window. Fuck em, they were all crazy and they would either get used to me or not. I was staying bitches, get used to it.
I slammed her front gate behind me, I was done with being nice. Waving at fuckers who just ignored me, crossed the street when they saw me approaching, nervous smiles, nervous laughs. Even cars would speed up when they drove past my house. I could feel the anger welling up inside me as I viewed my property. I shook my head and was just about to cross the road when I heard the old ladies door open behind me. I turned to see her peering out. She was clutching a small gold cross around her neck. She beckoned to me, looking fearfully over my shoulder. She reminded me of a startled meerkat, her head bopping up and down. I sighed with both relief and irritation.
She beckoned to me again. I opened the gate, a little less aggressively this time and closing it quietly behind me I walked up to her. She ducked down as if using me to shield her from something, someone I looked behind me, nothing but the empty street. To my surprise she opened the door wider and flapped her hand at me to enter.
‘’Come in dear.’’ she said and grabbed me by the arm pulling me into her hall way. She was surprisingly strong for a woman of her advanced years. I laughed nervously as she shut the door behind me. She bustled me into her living room, a pristine affair with a pretty couch and two arm chairs. She told me to take a seat then left the room. I heard the clink of cups and saucers from the kitchen. I groaned inwardly as I looked around. I really didn’t want tea. This really wasn’t a tea moment.
I had been expecting an old fashioned room full of chintzy old fashioned ornaments and décor. The lay out of the house from what I could see was almost identical to mine. It was very modern and not a thing out of place. Beautiful Oak flooring, a few religious pictures and a crucifix hung above the door. No other décor. There was a PC and a lap top on the large oak wooden desk in the corner. The coffee table and end tables were also made of oak and matched the desk perfectly. She was obviously a woman of taste and was certainly keeping up with the times.
‘’Tea and biscuits?’’ she asked brightly as she set the tray down on the coffee table. I nodded my thanks. The tea set was the most exquisite I had ever seen. I am no expert on china but it was absolutely beautiful. I said as much.
‘’Oh yes, thank you dear. It’s a JA Bailey Flower Rose English Porcelain set. Very rare, handed down through the family.’’ I nodded slowly as if I was in the know about rare china sets.
I took a deep breath‘’The reason why I popped over was to…introduce myself and basically ask.’’ I stopped myself unsure how to proceed diplomatically. I watched as she poured the tea. She wasn’t so annoying up close and personal and seemed really sweet
‘’Sugar?’’ she offered.
‘’No thanks.’’ She handed me a cup. I took it, thanking her.
She settled herself down opposite me and took a sip of her tea. We sat like that in silence for a couple of minutes. I racked my brains thinking of the best way to approach the subject without sounding rude. Now that I was here I really didn’t know how to address the situation and ask her politely to stop taking pictures of my house, of me!
After her second cup of tea she broached the subject‘’The thing is dearie, I was hoping you would pop over. I’ve been wanting to have a word with you.’’ She stirred her tea slowly and looked at me conspiratorially over her spectacles ‘’I’ve lived here since I was a young woman, with my husband, Albert, he’s dead now god rest his soul and I’ve seen all manners of comings and goings from…’’ she nodded, I assumed in the direction my house.
‘’You mean, my house?’’ She nodded and popped another cube of sugar in her tea. She continued stirring as if the motion helped her think. She took a sip of her tea.
‘’Things really took a turn for the worse when the Wilson couple moved in.’’ I nodded as if I knew who the hell the Wilsons were. I didn’t want to interrupt her train of thought. I sat stock still willing her to get on with the story.‘’Well all manner of things were going on over there, Oh this must have been nineteen sixty…’’ She nudged her glasses higher up in her nose and looked at the ceiling as if the precise date was hidden there…somewhere. ‘’That’s it nineteen sixty nine. I never liked them dearie. There was something off about them, the pair of them.’’ She took another sip of tea. I hadn’t touched mine, afraid I might drop the delicate cup.
‘’They were eventually arrested for luring, torturing, mutilating and murdering local pets.’’ She shook her head. ‘’Trixy my…’’
‘’You’re talking about my house, killing animals in my house?’’ I interrupted.
‘’Yes dearie. I am sure my old Trixy ended up as one of their victims’’ She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. ‘’Trixy was so special to me. I’ve had many cats after her but never as special as…’’
‘’So they arrested the Wilsons for killing animals…that’s it?’’ I was none to happy with the idea of animal killings in my beautiful new home but that was years ago. I almost laughed in relief. So that was why this superstitious lot were giving me the hostile treatment. Why the old lady had been acting in such a strange manner. I took in a deep breath. I could deal. I stood to leave. As far as I was concerned she could continue taking pics if it made her happy. Why she wanted pictures of my house…well quite frankly I didn’t care.
‘’Oh don’t leave dear I want to show you something, you seem like a nice girl….please sit down.’’ I looked longingly at the door but did as she asked . ‘’I have it somewhere…’’ She looked around the room ‘’Now where did I put my handbag?’’ she mumbled to herself. I spied it by the fireplace. I handed it to her, she thanked me I watched as her arm disappeared into its depths and she began to rummage for what ever it was she was looking for ‘’Ah! Here we are dear!’’
She scrolled through her phone. ‘’See the last people that were there were not very nice so I never showed them the pictures…very rude actually.’’ She chuckled. ‘’ I decided to let them find out for themselves.’’ she continued to scroll. ‘’It wasn’t pretty I can tell you.’’ She chuckled to herself again. ‘’The wife hung herself…very sad affair.’’ I looked at her sharply.
‘’In my house?’’ she ignored or didn’t hear my question.
‘’Ah yes, have a look at this one.’’She handed me the phone. I took the phone from her and stared down at the picture. I saw my house, nothing out of the ordinary. ‘’Have a look at left hand window on the second floor.’’ I heard her bite into a biscuit. I did as she instructed. I could see the faint outline of a figure peering out of the window, more a shadow. I squinted.
‘’OK yeah I can see…someone, not very clear.’’ I handed the phone back to her. She nodded and continued to scroll.
‘’I took that just before you moved in, the house was empty, no one living there….oh must have been…’’ She looked up at the ceiling again. ‘’that’s right five years, could be six, that house was empty.’’
‘’Could have been the estate agent? I offered. She nodded again and looked down at her phone
‘’Can I ask you a personal question dearie?’’
‘’Sure!’’ I replied
‘’Would I be correct in assuming you live alone?’’ she asked tentatively as she placed her phone down on the table, avoiding eye contact as she busied herself pouring yet another cup of tea. I laughed.
‘’I’m sure you know that I do live alone.’’ I raised an eyebrow and watched with some amusement as her cheeks flushed a rosy red. Good to know she was at least a little embarrassed by her clandestine activities.
‘’Yes, yes of course dear I just thought I should ask.’’ The steam from the teapot had fogged up her glasses. I could see her faded blue eyes blinking behind the thick lenses, struggling to focus on me. She took them off and cleaned them with a napkin. It was all I could do to not burst out laughing. She popped her glasses back on and began to scroll through her phone again. I watched as dozens of pictures flew past.
‘’So basically what I am gathering here is that you and the locals think my house is haunted?’’
‘’Oh not think dear, we know.’’ She continued scrolling, obviously looking for something in particular.
‘’So can I assume you have shown those pictures to your friends, neighbours… The whole city?’’ I added sarcastically.
‘’Yes, but not the ones of you dear…not yet’’ she looked up at me slyly.
‘’Of me?’’ I knew it! I knew the old trout had been photographing me. There had to be laws around that sort of intrusive invasion of my privacy. Before I could finish my outraged thoughts she interrupted.
‘’I have been taking pictures for years, my son put them up on the internet. Well you know, when the internet was invented, hasn’t always been around….but everyone thought they were….’’ she struggled for the right word.
‘’Photoshopped?’’ I helped her before could focus on the ceiling again. She looked at me gratefully.
‘’That’s it dear.’’ She stopped scrolling and scrutinized the picture before handing me the phone. Again a picture of my house, again she instructed me to look at the left hand window, she didn’t need to I could see myself clearly, cleaning the windows. Now I was really pissed, my face tightened.
‘’That’s me!.’’ I exclaimed as I lowered the phone and looked at her sternly.
‘’Yes dear I know!’’ she stared at me as if I was dense. ‘’Now look really closely.’’
I looked back down at the picture. There was something really unsettling about seeing your image on a strangers phone. Something else in the picture, behind me. I could see a shadow, a figure of a tall, muscular man, I think it was a man, its thick arm around my waist its misshapen head on my shoulder. I sat there frozen. I could feel the blood draining from my face.
‘’If you look at the next sequence of pictures dear, just scroll across.’’ I looked up at the old lady, I could sense a shift in her energy, the tip of her pink tongue darted in and out of her mouth picking crumbs of biscuit off her lips in anticipation. There was something almost serpentine about the action. Her eyes were a feverish bright blue and she waved her hand at me impatiently. ‘’Go on dear.’’
The next picture, the shadow was clearer, I could just about make out blurry features. A vague impression of a mouth leering, a vague impression of eyes looking beyond me, out across the road, towards the photographer? Was it winking but at whom? It’s hand like a birds talon around my neck, the other on my thigh, pulling me in close for an obscene embrace, and then the third picture.
I must have been leaving the house. My front door was wide open. I was bending over picking something up. I must have dropped something, maybe my house keys. In the back ground that same thing that had been embracing me as I cleaned the windows, standing in the door behind me, stark bollocking naked staring across the road as if aware its picture was being taken, as if posing. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, my heart began to pound, my scalp crawled. A knot began to form deep in my stomach. I could see it clearly. I could see all of it. The image seared my brain. There are no words to describe what I saw. No words in the English language, at least.
Her voice breathy, excited, strange ‘’I have a video…would you like to see what it’s doing to you dear?’’
I threw up all over her pretty little china set.