It makes you sick.
This room, it makes you sick. It makes me sick. It’s all angular and wrong, and the angles join in conversation with each other. They become hateful. They begin to tell you that they hate you and that they want you to die, somehow, that maybe they’ll be the ones to kill you, or maybe they will convince you to kill yourself, with words, economic manipulation, gentrification, every weapon at their disposal. Because you didn’t deserve to live, at least not here, in this room, in this building, in this part of the city. You should go somewhere else. You make us sick, the angles and the walls say, you’d be better off far from here, or dead, or both.
I hate living here. The rent is okay, I suppose, but the heating doesn’t reach the top floor, where I am. On cold days I can see my breath in the air. And the inside of the windows fills with condensation, the corners of the room with creeping mould. I emailed the landlord about this, during winter, with my duvet wrapped close around me, and he responded telling me I needed to air the flat out by opening up the windows. But that’s not really why I hate living here. This flat, and my bedroom in particular, reminds me of another place, another room in another part of the city. It doesn’t look much like that place. It looks like a normal flat. Messy. Too messy. It’s not really in how the place looks, but it feels the same, I can feel the air pressing in all around me, eyes watching me. Maybe that’s why I moved in. This flat doesn’t hate me, not really. Its hate is only a pale imitation of real, true hate. This room is not passionate. It still hates, but it only hates because, well, what else is it going to do. How else is it supposed to feel about me? Rooms sit and stew. They take in the things you do in them. Their walls soak up every action you take between them, and those actions become part of the bricks and the plaster. Maybe I made it hate me. I can be hateful, to myself and to others. I try not to be. I try to be better. I have to believe that everything I do has a destination to it, that everything I do means I have control, over my environment, my relationships, my life. My job, if I had one.
I move flats a lot. I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same place for long, and in every house or flat that I’ve been in for the past five years, there has been a room where the house or the flat is concentrated to an absurd degree. In that room, the air grows thick and the spirit of the building becomes near-physical. The less rooms you have in your flat, the more concentrated this is. The less income you generate, the less rooms you can have in your flat, the thicker the air, the more hateful the atmosphere. I don’t know if this is how it really works but it is what I tell myself.
I don’t have many friends, but last year I began to ask whoever I could about hauntings, in the vague hope that somebody would understand what I meant when I said ‘hauntings’. Most people have a ghost story of some kind, even if they don’t believe in ghosts. Maybe their Great-grandma came to sit at the end of their bed for a month after she died, or they heard footsteps from the attic where there couldn’t have been anyone to make them. I’d try to ask casually, at bars or on the internet, have you ever experienced a haunting? I made sure to phrase it like that. Not have you ever seen a ghost? I wanted to know about hauntings, specifically. One common thread which interested me was that many of the people who answered said that their places of work were haunted. This was actually more common than peoples’ houses being haunted, which I thought was strange, but then again, Bly Manor from The Turn of the Screw was a place of work for the Governess and every big imposing house in the country has people working in it, cleaning, cooking and these days, now nobody lives in them, giving tours, maybe acting out scenes for tourists.
One girl told me that she worked as a cleaner for some offices which were housed in this absurdly tall old townhouse. She had to clean a few of the rooms, kitchens, toilets, but mostly the stairs, which wound up and up in sharp lines like a tower. But, after a couple of shifts, something strange started to happen. When she cleaned the lower landings and stairs, she could hear somebody doing the same above her. Moving about. Opening and closing doors. Vacuuming the floors. She could hear their footsteps on the hard wood of the steps, echoing down from above. She thought this was strange – she had been told she would be working alone, and the sheet in the downstairs reception had said that everybody who worked here had signed out. When she ascended the stairs to work on the offices up there, and see who it was that was cleaning, everything was deserted, and still dirty. She stopped and listened then, and heard somebody below, cleaning the floors that she had just done. This happened every time she cleaned at that place. She wrote an email to the manager of her cleaning firm about it, but the only answer he had was that, well, maybe it was just noises from the building next door. That was probably it… these old buildings have funny echoes. But one time, she said, she heard the person above, she could hear their feet on the floor clear as anything, and it was too much. She’d had enough. The girl ran up the stairs to catch them, because she had to know, desperately, what was happening to her. They were still making noise as she ascended the stairs, growing louder and louder until she got to the top floor. The noise was coming from a room at the end of the landing. The door to that room was shut. She called, “is anybody there?”, and nobody answered, of course. She walked down the landing, shaking, just a little bit. The door was locked, but she had a set of keys, one for every door in the building, or so she’d been told. There was still noise coming from inside the room. A long, agonising scrape as some item of furniture was pulled across the wooden floor. An unidentifiable thumping, and footsteps moving back and forth. At one point, she heard those footsteps get closer and closer to the door, and she looked down at her hands to see that they were shaking uncontrollably, before the steps moved away again, over to the other side of the room. She had cleaned this room in the past. She knew that one of these keys worked, but she couldn’t remember exactly which one. There were small silver keys on the ring, and big, bronze-coloured ones, strange little ones that opened the bins out at the back of the building. Keys of every type. She wished she had made a note of which one worked for this, the last door, but she hadn’t. That could have been it. The girl could have left the noise a mystery. But… when she told me this story, I asked that. Why open the door? Why did you need to see what was in there? She shrugged, and said she wasn’t really sure, beyond the fact that this was her workplace, she felt unsafe, and she had to know why. So, the girl tried every key on the set, and, of course, they all stuck in the lock. Sometimes they stuck fast, and she had to pull hard to get them out again. This happened every time, until she came to the last one, which was big, golden. She put it in the lock, her breath rattling in and out. Then, at the last moment before she turned the key, she pulled it back out. She couldn’t do this. She wasn’t strong enough. But she still wanted to see… she bent down, so that her face was at the height of the keyhole, and peered through.
Do you know what was in there? Do you? Do you want to know? I know what you want to know and maybe what you want it to be, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, trying to reconstruct the circumstances of a haunting in my mind, and you want it to be nothing in there. You want her to look through the keyhole and find it empty, and then open the door with the key. You want her to walk around the room but find nothing out of place or strange in there at all. You want her to go to each wall and place her hand on the red wallpaper and feel a throb inside. Maybe see shapes in the old stains on the wallpaper. In all honesty, I would also like that to be what happened in the story. I asked for stories about hauntings to feel less alone, to feel less like an outsider from everybody around me. But that isn’t what she found. Instead, she found a woman in there, who had been cleaning out her desk. This was her last day and she didn’t want to leave things looking like a mess. She apologised for any distress she may have caused. ...
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