Short Stories

Here's a ghost story for Christmas I wrote some years ago. I'd pretty much forgotten about it until one day I found it stuffed in a bag full of old newspapers and press clippings, and thought it wouldn't be such a bad idea to share it with you here. Enjoy!

The Other Room

By Chris Westwood

On Christmas morning Molly tore the wrapping from the house, threw up her arms and cried, "It's just what I wanted! It's our house, this house!"

Beaming, she fell to her knees for a closer view. "See here? There are people inside, just like Mummy and Daddy and me. And Gavin, this must be you, the boy in this room."

Gave came forward, amused. It was his first sight of the model his parents had smuggled home from the shops late last night. While they hauled the thing upstairs out of sight, Gavin had been confined to the kitchen, keeping Molly occupied. At the time Molly had been too full of Christmas Eve thoughts to concentrate on her Narnia colouring book, and at last she pushed the book aside and frowned at Gavin. "Do you think Santa will bring me a house? One exactly like this? Do you think?"

Now, kneeling beside her, he understood what she meant. The model stood perhaps two feet high, its painted-on stonework the same sandy brown as the real thing. There was even a flourish of ivy, plastic to the touch, above and around the front door. As far as he could see through the windows -- their frames just wide enough to admit his hand -- the interiors were similar too. There was a fitted kitchen almost twice the size of the lounge, in which a miniature TV and Christmas tree were placed. The tiny three-piece suite and nested tables looked quite authentic.

Upstairs, he could quickly tell which room was his, which was Molly's. The bathroom even had a shower screen alongside its tub. The likeness was uncanny, the only difference being the extra door on the upstairs landing: a closed, concealed rectangular space flanked by his parents room and his own.

"What's in there?" he asked. "Is that another room, Molly? Why no window?"

"It's the closet, stupid," she told him. "They keep all the linen in there. Since when did closets need windows?"

As Gavin stretched out a hand to that door, meaning to test her theory, she pulled him back. "It's my house, not yours. You leave it alone."

For the rest of the morning Molly was lost to her house, kneeling before it in a kind of reverie. Her voice, a vague hum, chuntered away on behalf of the residents. Occasionally she would reach in and walk her miniature mother upstairs and down, or her miniature self from one room to another. Several times during lunch she left the table to check that all was well in the house in the next room while her helping of Christmas pudding cooled. Gavin's father shook his head as he cleared the table. "Well, it's only once a year," he said.

"Did you notice anything odd when you chose it?" Gavin said, watching Asti Spumante bubbles rise in his glass. "Don't you agree with Molly when she says how much like our house it is?"

His mother folded a dishcloth at the sink. "Ah, but it's sure to seem like that to her. It's nice she sees so much in it."

"So you didn't choose it because you saw a resemblance?"

His parents glanced at each other and shrugged. "It was the last one in the shop," his father said.

The snow began falling mid-evening. Through the lounge window Gavin watched the hedgerows turn white and sag, the front lawn disappear, the air turn foggy above the rooftops.

By midnight his parents were draped in front of a Paul Newman film. Molly had been in bed for hours. Before retiring Gavin knelt again by the model house. There was just enough light to see inside. Three model residents, much like his parents and himself, were grouped in the lounge while a fourth figure slept upstairs in the room he'd decided was Molly's. On the landing, the spare door remained firmly closed. He felt tempted to open it in Molly's absence, but decided against it. It would only upset her to find he'd been prying, and in any case what did it matter?

In the morning he was surprised to find Molly ignoring the house. She had turned her attention instead to a Snowman jigsaw, a talking doll, a book about ghosts. The lounge was filled with new possessions, hastily unwrapped first thing yesterday but forgotten until today. At last she was discovering what else she'd received.

But by mid-afternoon she still hadn't so much as glanced at the house.

"Is there a problem?" Gavin asked, finding her alone in the lounge. "Have you lost interest? Are you bored with it now?"

Molly said nothing for a moment. She stared at him, narrow-eyed, gnawing her lips. "Don't like it anymore," she said finally.

"But yesterday you loved it, it was just what you wanted, you said..."

"Until it got dark. And then..." She broke off, nibbling a thumb nail.

"And then what? You stopped liking it... Why?"

"Because," she said, her voice falling to a sigh, "my house is being haunted."

"Really?" He glanced at her ghost story book. "By who?"

"By someone who wants to get even for what happened before."

Gavin studied her blankly.

Molly went on, "They murdered him in the bathtub, see, one Christmas years and years ago, a wicked man and woman who wanted his money and his house. First they drowned him, then they put the body where no one would find it. But now he's coming back for revenge, to take them with him. But they don't live there anymore so he takes the first person he sees. He's all pale and shrivelled from being in the water so long, and he moves the furniture about in the night, to frighten the people who live there, to prove that he can." Even by Molly's standards this was far-fetched. She continued at a whisper, "You know the door you were on about, the door to the closet? That's where they put him."

"Then there is something in there," Gavin humoured her. "Shouldn't we flush it out then? Shall I break down the door and see what's behind it?"

"No! You leave it alone!"

Molly's shrill, piercing cry took Gavin by surprise. Within seconds their mother was at the lounge door, white-faced, hands on hips. "What on earth is going on?" she demanded.

"He wants to break down a door in my house," Molly sniffed.

"Gavin..." His mother drew out the second syllable until his name became a meaningless drawl. "When will you stop tormenting her? If we'd known you were going to take such an interest, we could have arranged for you to have your own house. Don't you have anything better to do?"

Later, replaying the scene in his mind, he couldn't get over the sound of panic in Molly's voice. Suddenly it wasn't a game anymore. In her eyes everything that took place inside the house was for real; she was genuinely afraid he'd do what he said. Perhaps something in her ghost story book had unsettled her. But after all it was only a toy, pieced together from wood and hardboard and plastic; why should it bother him too?

On the second night the rest of the house was asleep before Gavin. For hours he lay awake, unable to tear his thoughts from the sealed room. He was finally drifting to sleep when the sounds began just above his head, as if someone's palmed hand were brushing the wall.

His heart gave a jolt. Someone or something was leaving the closet or fumbling about inside it. But of course there was no linen closet next door, only in the model; his bed was flush to the wall that divided his room from his parents. Now he could picture his father feeling his way blindly along the wall next door as he left the room. Then came the sound of a door sighing open, and soft, quick movements across the landing and down the stairs.

Gavin relaxed. Somewhere far back in his mind was a childhood memory, a long ago Christmas as he lay under the quilt, holding his breath and listening to Santa steal about the house, unloading crinkling parcels. Fear and wonder kept him where he was, safe in bed, for he knew that anything could go wrong if he went to see what was happening. Santa would vanish, taking every last parcel with him. Smiling at the thought, Gavin turned onto his side. As he did so he heard something crash downstairs.

He must have been expecting it, for he was out of bed and across the landing in an instant. As he went he barely registered that the door to his parents room was firmly closed.

There was no one in sight downstairs, where the hall was tinged pale grey by moonlight. Approaching the lounge doorway, Gavin switched on the light and peered inside, bewildered.

Apart from the TV and Christmas tree, everything in the room had been moved. The sofa was now under the window, with two armchairs either side of it and angled in towards it. A floor lamp had flitted from one corner to another. The nest of tables occupied the centre of the floor.

Gavin swallowed hard. Could Molly have done this, acting out what she'd accused her resident ghost of doing? But why would she? This time, when he crouched to peer inside the toy house he saw the four tiny figures asleep upstairs in their rooms, himself included. The thought crossed his mind that he really was upstairs asleep right now, dreaming this. None of it was happening. Then the lounge door creaked behind him. At the threshold stood his mother, shaking her head and sighing.

"Gavin... Really. Enough is enough."

She was right of course. He was making a fool of himself over nothing. First thing tomorrow he would call Andrea, the girl from his class he'd been seeing this term, and set something up, put this stuff and nonsense behind him.

Putting out the light on his way from the lounge, he faltered again. Perhaps it was tiredness, but for a second he sensed something else way back in the darkened lounge, the merest disturbance of air, as if a light had just flicked itself off in the model house too.

Next morning, Andrea was apologetic on the phone. "I can't, I'm sorry," she said. "We're going south for two days to my uncle's in Ambleside and I can't talk my way out of it. But we'll do something before New Year, I promise."

Later he tried calling Tony Stead and Billy Hughes, both of whom were away or not answering. That was all right though: he was seeing more clearly today, and being house-bound one more night wouldn't matter. His parents would be out with Molly at the pantomime, and he'd have the house to himself, watch another film or begin a good book, break into his father's bottle of Glenmorangie.

By nightfall they were gone. Outside the snow was falling again. The first taste of malt whisky stole Gavin's breath, then made him grateful to be indoors in the warmth. A log fire roared, filling the lounge with an amber glow. Sprawled on the sofa, he levelled the VCR handset and Die Hard began. The film had been running for an hour when his attention strayed to the model house.

At first he wasn't sure what had distracted him. He could barely make out its shape in the half-light, but there was something about it that troubled him. Unless he was drunk or seeing things, one of the downstairs rooms was aglow, as if a mini log fire or TV were in use. Forgetting Bruce Willis, he shut off the video, forced himself up and across the room to the light switch.

He didn't think twice about what to do next. All he knew was that Molly hadn't been far wrong when she'd claimed her house was haunted. He passed through the kitchen and outdoors, into the swirling snow. On a shelf in the garage he found his father's blue metal toolbox, inside it a selection of screwdrivers. Taking one at random, Gavin marched back to the house. As he entered, a sharp gust forced the door shut behind him.

He twisted the key and stamped slabs of ice from his slippers. Even now, despite his heart beating painfully between his ears, he thought he heard noises elsewhere in the house. They sounded like footsteps streets away, miles away, and yet oddly, directly overhead. "I'll show you," he told no one in particular. "I'll show you once and for all."

In the lounge the TV screen was awash with white noise, as though the snow were forcing its way into the house that way. Gavin knelt before the model, flat-head screwdriver poised. Perhaps all he'd heard was wind trapped in the eaves, but he wasn't about to stop now. He wouldn't be able to rest until this was done. Angling the screwdriver in through an upstairs window, he went to work on the closed closet door.

At first it resisted. The door was firmer than it looked, made of wood rather than hardboard. The tip of the screwdriver skidded across it, gouging a nearby wall. Gavin tried again, twisting the driver until a slight gap opened, the door seeming to buckle at its top right hand corner. Across the room a log collapsed in the fire, sending sparks dancing upwards; in the heights of the chimney the wind began a shrill, sustained whistle. As Gavin lunged again, the miniature door splintered inwards.

Gavin held his breath. For a time all he heard was silence beneath the wind. Then, all at once, the movements began upstairs, echoing through the house. They sounded like footfalls, but altogether too unsteady, too heavy and frenzied for the steps of a human being. It took him a moment to understand what he was hearing: someone or something lurching clumsily from the bath, skidding over the wet linoleum.

Gavin's last impression of the model house, before he drew back and away from it, was a view through a front window. In the lounge, one small figure -- an effigy of  himself -- sprawled face-down on the floor. In front of the figure was an object he hadn't noticed before, perhaps because until now it hadn't been there to see. It was an infinitesimal miniature house, a model within a model, perfect in every detail. On its narrow upstairs landing, a new figure -- pale, indistinct, certainly not one of the family -- had appeared and somehow positioned itself above the stairs as if about to begin the short journey down.

Gavin sprang up in a panic to break the spell. He couldn't let Molly's story come true. Upstairs there were more hasty steps, and worse -- the sound of water draining steadily from the bath. As he hurried from the lounge to the moonlit hall, an ancient smell of mouldering damp paralysed him.

He should have left well alone, he knew that now, but the door had always been there for the opening, and he'd finally let loose what had waited inside all these years. The screwdriver fell from his grasp as he realized the occupant was already on the stairs, lurching down through the darkness towards him. Transfixed, unable to move, it was all Gavin could do to stand there, look up, and await his first sight of it.

Commissioned by Scotland On Sunday newspaper for Christmas 1991

Copyright © Chris Westwood 1991