A Guest

Dusk was falling when we overshot the turning. It was a Sunday in early spring, and it had been a warm day, but now, as the sun weakened in the hedgerows, the air was beginning to return to a brittle wintry chill. We stopped at a crossroads in a village, and the taxi driver, who had been talking incessantly, shook his head and began to manoeuvre the car around. ‘Nah, we’ve gone too far. This is Wickham. See that?’ he said, pointing to a sign up the road to our right which read Works Unit Only. ‘Up that way’s RAF Welford. Where we let the Americans keep their bombs before they drop’em on Iraq or wherever. Biggest ammunition dump in Europe. You wouldn’t know it was there’. I nodded. We drove back through the deep lanes.

After a mile or so there was an opening in the hedge, and as we slowed down I could just make out a sign in the failing light: Wormstall. This was the place. I don’t know how we’d missed it the first time. We turned into a driveway that wound down through parkland studded with still leafless trees. The house lay in a hollow below. When I first saw it I thought how well its dimensions suited the sluggish syllables of its name. Wormstall. It was mid-Victorian, at a guess, with pilasters and columns in the Italianate style, but with none of the proportional harmony that might normally be expected to accompany those features. The main body of the house was too wide and squat, as though half-sunk or subsided in the ground, and it was overlooked by an adjoining wing whose extra storey added an uneasy lopsidedness to the impression of the whole. It seemed a palace of mould and mulch, of things brought up slowly from below.

There were no lights on. I rang the bell as the taxi crunched away across the gravel, but there was no answer. Looking in at the window to the left of the porch I could distinguish a large billiards table in the gloaming and some furniture covered with dust sheets. Was this the right place? I rang the bell again and peered through the other nearest window into a shabby sitting room. I thought I saw a movement in the far shadows, but I couldn’t be sure; my eyes were still adjusting to the light. I waited. Down to my right there were some low outbuildings and stable blocks – perhaps the family lived there now? I turned to walk back down the steps, but just as I did so, the door opened behind me.

A pale, bony face was framed in the doorway. It seemed almost to glow in the gloom. ‘Are you the guest?’ it said in a low, weak voice. ‘I suppose I am,’ I replied, and drawing nearer it became apparent that the face belonged to a short, hunched and balding man in his late twenties or early thirties. He was attended by a pack of dogs, about seven in all, of different sizes and breeds, some mongrel, some more recognisable. ‘Are you the host?’ I asked, mimicking his question. ‘I’m one of them,’ came his odd reply. He added that he was the older son. The rest of the family had gone on holiday, and were due back later that evening. He gestured that I should come inside. We went in, guest and host together.

The ground floor was pervaded by a stench of cabbage that seemed to have been hanging in the air for years. I was led into a draughty kitchen dominated by a monstrous oven from which a fat heating pipe propagated and branched in various directions through the walls and unusually high ceiling. I felt like a toddler in there. The towering shelves were crammed with preserving jars, most of them too high to reach.

The son had an awkward manner about him and was clearly not used to playing the host. He managed, however, to boil the kettle on the hob and produce two cups of weak and scalding tea which we drank in an adjoining sitting room on threadbare armchairs carpeted in dog hair. He must have been skulking in the dark in here when I looked in at the window.

He explained that he used to be a jockey until a bad fall had injured his back, and as he did so the dogs settled around his chair where they hung upon his every word like captivated children. They seemed to be his closest companions, particularly the smallest one, a puppy whose name, Tilly, he kept repeating distractedly between sentences.

He showed me up to my room. The main staircase led up from the hall, but we used a secondary flight in the side wing that was barred at the bottom by a wooden gate. Next to the gate, as though guarding it, was a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary standing about four feet high. Paint was flaking from her face. We ascended the stairs into a corridor that gave onto several drab and unused rooms, a couple of sparse bedrooms and a utility room with linoleum floors that curled upwards at the edges. This must have been the servants’ quarters once. There was another floor above, but I never went up there.

My room contained two single beds and a large wooden cot. On the bedside table lay a book entitled Childhood Interrupted: Growing up under the cruel regime of the Sisters of Mercy, and, in the adjacent bathroom, a Victorian bathtub bore an unsightly brown stain where the water had dripped away over the years. The son left me to unpack and vanished. I took a few things out of my bag but went back downstairs as quickly as I could. He had shut the gate behind him on his way down.

I had a look around on the ground floor, and soon identified taxidermy as its chief decorative feature. A tall vitrine in the library enclosed at least a hundred tiny songbirds, frozen in desperate flight from a golden eagle fixed in mid-swoop, while in the dining room a hare stood erect on its hind legs in a cruel mockery of vitality. Above a lintel in the service wing corridor was mounted a tableau of various long, brown animals in the stoat or weasel family, one of which had the girth of a St Bernard. Whether it was an oversized freak or had been grossly overstuffed, I couldn’t tell.

At the end of this corridor was a pantry floored with flagstones. Amongst the clutter of wellington boots, riding tack, fishing rods and other rustic paraphernalia were piled tins of food in large wholesale containers, the sort of bulk supplies that cheap restaurants or school catering departments might order in. In the billiards room, my eye was caught by a black and white photograph on the mantelpiece of some young men in uniform posing in front of the same billiards table. ‘101st Airborne Division, RAF Welford, Wormstall, 1944.’

The rest of the family returned soon afterwards and we ate dinner in the colossal kitchen. There was an aged father, amiable but rather vague, a red-faced, bustling mother and their hyperactive younger son, who I would have guessed to be 13 had I not already known he was four years older. We were joined at the table by his prematurely aged brother. The family soon fell to good-natured bickering, which I took as a sign that they had relaxed around me. Perhaps they had forgotten I was there.

After dinner it was discovered that the beloved Tilly had gone missing. This hadn’t happened before, and was the cause of much consternation. Tilly had left the house and not come back. Someone suggested that she might have got stuck down a hole, or worse, been stolen by pedigree dealers. We embarked on a search of the considerable grounds, trudging through fields, climbing over stiles, traversing ha-has in the dark. We kept calling the dog’s name and flashing our torches into the night, our breath condensing in front of our faces. But there was no sign of Tilly. We headed indoors, and my wishes of goodnight were returned with a certain coldness by my hosts. I began to worry that they associated the disappearance of the dog with my arrival.

I wasn’t in the mood for Childhood Interrupted and so looked around my bedroom for alternative reading matter. I found another book on a shelf in the corner, but it was a memoir of a kidnap and sexual abuse ordeal in America in which the victim’s head was enclosed in a dark box for months on end.

I didn’t sleep well. My bedroom must have been directly above the kitchen with its enormous oven, because periodically it would grow uncomfortably hot. The house seemed to moan and curse in its sleep as it expanded and contracted. There was scraping and scrabbling above, and at one point, footsteps, or so I thought. Between the intermittent gurgling and rattling of the heating pipes I thought I heard the distant drone of propeller engines.

The week passed slowly. I looked forward to the daytime and even to teaching my hopeless student. He seemed to have played a lot of sport at his expensive school but learnt absolutely nothing. At home he spent his time almost exclusively on pursuits involving animals, whether riding them, training them, catching them or killing them. At mid-morning break he would grab his shotgun and run outside, returning a short while later with a bloodied trophy, a pigeon or rabbit, which he would present to his mother for gutting and freezing.

One afternoon I accompanied his father on a walk around the fields. As he poked around in a badger sett with his stick he confided to me that the stockpiled food in the house was a precaution in case ‘the mob’ broke loose. He seemed confident that he and his family ‘could hole up here for at least a few months until everything got sorted out.’

On my final morning I came downstairs to the kitchen to find the mother doing the washing up. We exchanged some pleasantries while I ate breakfast. Apparently the cleaning lady knew a gypsy woman who could talk to the other dogs. She would be coming later that morning to find out where Tilly had gone. The conversation petered out, and as I was leaving that day I couldn’t resist asking her.

‘I was wondering,’ I ventured, ‘This is an old house. It’s not meant to be haunted or anything, is it?’

She put a dish on the drying rack and looked back into the sink. ‘I haven’t seen it’, she said quietly. ‘But a couple of years ago we had a big party and some of the guests stayed the night in the service wing. In the morning one of them came downstairs looking upset. The first thing she asked me was whether anybody had come in fancy dress the night before.’

She turned and looked at me.

‘She’d got up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and seen a man standing there on the top landing. He was in full military uniform.’

The mother went out and shortly afterwards the cleaning lady came in on an errand.

‘You’ve been working here for years, haven’t you?” I asked. “Have you ever…seen or heard anything strange?’

Her answer came straight back.

‘Oh, there is a ghost, if that’s what you mean,’ she said matter-of-factly, looking in one of the cupboards.

‘How do you know?’

‘Well I’m often alone in the house, doing the sheets in one of the bedrooms, and sometimes I hear the billiard balls clicking round on the table downstairs. It doesn’t bother me. Just like you, I treat him as a guest.’