The Devine house was old. All the houses in that part of Belfast were – old buildings, old families, old money. They were big too, big and cold. They had fireplaces in every room, though few that worked – they just let the wind whistle through and kept the rooms in a frozen stasis. In my experience, wealthy people don’t mind the cold. It’s as if they use it to measure your endurance and character. That home was freezing, but it was furnished with the most modern of furniture and appliances – stereos and TVs controlled by voice command, intercom’s in every room and cameras that blinked red in every corner. No expense had been spared on the place, and yet it was bitterly cold.
I was their housekeeper, a vague title with constantly changing responsibilities. They’d inherited me from an uncle – a mean man who’d died the way he’d lived, in misery, moaning and groaning and cursing me and anyone else who cared to listen. The young Mr Devine was a barrister. Mrs Devine worked in finance. They were young and ambitious – all appearance, status and money. They were quiet and detached and made no small talk. They allowed me to work on my own initiative – which I was more than capable of doing.
And that is how it went, until last week, when Mrs Devine came home early, red-eyed and wet-cheeked. She threw herself onto the settee and sobbed. A miscarriage. Her fifth. I could think of no words to soothe her, so I simply stood there, watching mutely. The next day Mr Devine took her to their holiday cottage in Wexford. That left me on house sitting duty. And that is how I found myself alone, standing in the doorway, watching them drive away, uneasy at the thought of being by myself in that house.
I cleaned for a while, although my heart was not in it. But I needed some time, doing what I always did, before I could settle into my new role as a house-sitter. As the darkness inched its way across the sky, I opened a bottle of wine, but still I could not settle. With a desire to hear a familiar voice, I phoned my sister, but she did not answer. I finished my glass and had another, then I ran myself a bath. I had always loved that bath – a big cast-iron thing with a curved end and feet that made it look indulgent. I sank in and let the warm water calm my thoughts.
The buzz of the intercom made me jump.
Then the front door slammed shut.
Panic hit me like a firework.
I bolted upright and scrambled out of the bath, grasping for a towel. I felt like an intruder as I raced through the bathroom door.
Wet-footed and shivering in the hall, I called out a stuttering, “Hello!”
The light sensor activated, illuminating the stairs.
I peered over the balustrade.
No one was there.
I checked every room, creeping hesitantly through each door, calling softly to announce my presence.
I was alone.
I checked the doors again. They were all locked. I thought that my mind was playing tricks on me, that the creepy old house and the wine had combined to unnerve me. I cursed myself for being so foolish.
I decided to settle myself with the rest of the wine and watch some TV in the sitting room. I must have fallen asleep, as I woke there, shivering to my bones with the TV still on. Checking my phone, I saw that it was three minutes after midnight. I was half asleep, but I felt … strange, as if I was not alone. The house was silent. There was no sound from the TV. Had I done that? Had I turned it down? But it was more than the TV. There was no sound anywhere. It was like being in a vacuum. My ears searched for the familiar, but there was nothing. No clocks ticked. No taps dripped. In such an old house there were no floorboards creaking, no pipes whining – even the whistling fireplaces had fallen silent.
My breath froze before me, hanging in the air.
And then came the noise.
A banging and crashing, as if an anvil had been thrown down the stairs.
The hairs on my arms stood to attention. Adrenaline raced through my limbs, and my body tensed expectantly, readying itself for what was to come.