Part One: Coming Back
The house crouched low against the close-cropped expanse of lawn, nestling among the browns and shifting greens of the countryside. Nature sheltered it, gave it a small seclusion, framing it within a quiet and gentle growth. It was a house built at the edge of a town, its neighbours hidden by a well-tended hedge and a clustered mass of trees. They stretched high on either side; the grand homes just visible through the crowd of lazily waving limbs that framed the lawn. The leaves and branches sought to shelter the house that had been erected so long ago.
Beyond the wall lay Poplar Road, a gently curving avenue which disappeared as it went beside the rugged trunks of English trees. The road was short in breadth, little more than a lane. There would be enough room for two cars to squeeze past each other but both would be stroked softly as they passed by the twigs that reached out into the road. The leaves that hung over the road filtered the rich light through a canopy of green, dotting the tarmac below with a thin tapestry of shifting light.
Though the town bustled mutedly at the end of the road, a mere three houses down, the cars that slid softly through the quiet tunnel of English countryside were few. The road at the end of the lane took most vehicles away from these provincial homes to the newer concrete strips of electric light and rushing noise. A small stream trickled lightly, unseen but heard just beyond the slope of the bank opposite the houses. The soft chatter of birds filled the undergrowth through which the road ran. The rush of time was silent here, the stretch of thick and lazy countryside undisturbed by the bustle of the small coastal town it sheltered beside.
This house was occupied. But the occupant did not emerge during the day and his car was never seen by his neighbours. No tyre tracks were scored in the gravel of the driveway, no postman, no milkman ever called at the door. There were no visitors, and the neighbours, when questioned, could not remember there ever being any. They replied to the police that no one had really thought about it being strange at the time.
The occupant, whose name was Mr Camden, was just a local oddity. He would be mentioned occasionally but no one gave him much thought. He’d always been there, he’d always been a recluse and no one had ever bothered to wonder why. The detectives examined the local records and on doing so it was found that someone also named Mr Camden had bought the house in 1923. They took this to refer to the current occupant’s grandfather or another similar relative. Their other investigations raised no further answers and the man the neighbours had occasionally seen tending the gardens, the man they had all assumed was Mr Camden was never identified.
Deserted though it seemed, the building’s expansive grounds remained well tended, from the driveway and wide lawn of the front to the gardens and pathways at the back. Yet the windows remained dark throughout each night and apart from occasionally emerging to mow the lawn in front the occupant was never seen. The back garden was hidden from the neighbours by the trees and hedges on either side and so Mr Camden’s was never seen as he tended his extensive gardens. Because of this the people of the town of Lewiston commonly thought of the house as deserted.
Those who went for walks into the Suffolk countryside passed by the house as they left the town and remarked on how well the estate agent kept it. Even the neighbours discussed among themselves whether the man that was so rarely seen was actually the occupant or someone sent to keep the place tidy.
The man that lived in that house did not disturb the world that nestled just out of sight of his windows, and that world forbore disturbing him. For a long time this tacit agreement lasted. Decades passed and the neighbours came and went, houses up for sale and snapped up quickly by those who could afford to buy them. Rich townspeople or city businessmen thinking of a house to retire to or in which to spend the summer. Long years in which the occupant of those ivy-covered walls sheltered far from the world outside.
And no one wondered, and no one disturbed him. And for years he lived contentedly untouched. Until one night in the middle of June.
The two teenagers hurried softly across the lawn, their feet crushing the delicate petals underfoot as they trampled the flowerbeds close to the side wall. Stems broke and seeped their juices into the disturbed earth as the two nervous boys shifted their feet and stared up at the windows above. The ivy was thick against the wall and the window above them was slightly ajar. They had noticed it as they crept round the house. An open window, however high up, was still a better proposition than shattering the glass of one of the nearer panes. The open window was tempting. And the thick ivy blanketing the wall underneath offered an easy climb.
The two would-be burglars were inexperienced, their talents before constrained to shoplifting and petty opportunism. This would be their first attempt at breaking and entering and they had decided to pick an easy target for their first attempt at their new career path. The house, although well tended, was largely believed to be deserted. The boys didn’t expect much of worth within this old building but whatever they could loot would be an achievement. And after they had thieved once the next time would be easier. And there were many other houses around Lewiston that offered greater hauls, despite the dangers of alarms and dogs.
There was no red box on the walls of this home though. There were no triggered lights or prowling pets. Despite their inexperience and nervous excitement the eyes of the two boys were flint, dead determination beyond their youthful appearance.
The thieves crept close and began their climb against the straggled plant. The older boy reached up first, crushing the trails of roots and leaf in his hand. His hair was dirty blond under his cap and hood. He moved with ease, grasping and pulling himself up to the window with a quick agility. The younger teenager followed with more caution than the first. His eyes were dull yet his mouth was set in a smile of evident enjoyment.
The younger boy waited below as the first boy worked the window fully open. It was stiff and creaked softly, breaking the stillness of the night. Suddenly as the window scraped past its frame a fetid smell drifted from the room, rank and cloying.
The older boy froze as he smelled the air. His face twisted in distaste. There was a sound of gently tearing vegetation from below and his friend hissed at him to hurry up. As they hung below the reeking window the moon disappeared and dark clouds sank across the sky. The soft breeze blustered and stilled, first buffeting against them causing another soft tearing sound from the wall growth. It caught the cloying air that emanated from the heavy room beyond the window, pulling the stench out and into the boy’s face.
And then the air stopped, leaving lingering remains behind against the back of his throat. The ivy twisted and tore underfoot as the lower climber shifted to gain a better grip. He hissed again and above, his friend steeled his face and hauled himself over the lip of the room, disappearing within, dropping. With a few movements his friend followed him, his smile gone. He grimaced, his face moving as he caught the smell that had stalled his companion.
The night hung quiet, almost silent as the breeze struck the branches and rustled the leaves impatiently. Then there was a scream, primitive and harsh, cutting the night like a knife. Guttural, ugly, a scrabbling sound came from within the room, beneath the cries.
Then quick movement, a crash. The window forced open fully with a dry screech as the two boys threw themselves over the lip of the room. And the ivy tore and ripped away from the walls as they half-climbed, half-fell to the ground. Crashing heavily to the broken earth they fled from the house and the garden and the window that now yawned wide against the wall.
And darkness grew quiet again but the window remained. Gaping black and reeking out into the once still and peaceful night. And after a while a hand came out and pulled it closed with a soft, juddering creak of old and warped wood.
There was a flare of flame and an intake of breath and the first cloud of tar exhaled on Sergeant Lawford’s breath. Strictly, he wasn’t supposed to smoke inside the station but this situation seemed to require it. He drew deeply on the nicotine, feeling the tendrils of the cigarette infuse his brain and he stared at his companion with a question in his eyes.
“So?” The question needed nothing else. PC Merton had heard the story as well as he had. The boys had been convincing enough, their terror better evidence than the details they had admitted. Lawford looked past his friend, his eyes staring unfocused as he dragged the nicotine into his lungs. Merton looked askance at him, his thin face and deep-set black eyes like stones, giving nothing away.
“I don’t know, they’re just petty criminals. But…” He paused. Lawford nodded absently at the unspoken end of the sentence. He knew what Merton meant. They had both seen the boys when Merton had pulled up beside them. They had both seen the terror in their eyes as they had unloaded their story at them. They had both been there at the formal interview when they had told their story with more comprehension but losing none of the emotion, none of the look in their eyes, though the younger kid’s hands had stopped shaking by then.
What was strange was that Merton had just stopped to ask them what they were doing. It was late, they were wandering the streets. It was an innocent question. They could have said anything, coming back from a friend’s or a club. Yet they had convicted themselves with such speed, as though desperate for the safety of a cell. They had owned up to breaking and entering, although that hadn’t been the central aspect of their story, mere background detail. Even the older boy that seemed to have a bit more sense than his friend had only made a brief attempt to gloss over their crime in his attempt to relinquish the sights they had seen onto someone else.
Lawford leant back against the wall and let the cigarette burn down between his teeth as he stared at the edge of the ceiling.
“Are their parents here?”
Merton nodded. “Just arrived. They’re signing for bail right now.” Lawford nodded and then pulled himself together. Whatever truth was in the story that house would need to be looked into.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was six in the morning now, five hours since the boys said they had fled the house. He considered his position. Time had passed now, time for the evidence to be removed if the boys entrance had been discovered. And if it hadn’t then waiting a few more hours for morning would make little difference. He would think clearer over a coffee, a bacon roll and another cigarette.
He should take the time to gather his thoughts, control his reaction, think dispassionately. It was a flaw he had, to rush into things. He glanced at PC Merton as he stood waiting patiently. He crushed the cigarette out and tossed it to the bottom of a bin. The cafeteria should be opening up around now. He nodded at Merton. “Let’s grab some food.” Merton fell into step beside his Sergeant as the two men walked off. Both were silent, their gaze far away, on two boys shaking and weeping brokenly as they told of something reeking in a dark room, something foul.