A short story written for Margo Roby’s photo prompt
We’d visited all of the house except the attic. We’d admired the old beams, run our fingers through the soot around the fireplaces, picked at the flaking paintwork and prodded the woodwormy window frames. We smiled inwardly. Nothing serious. Cosmetic. We loved the house. The estate agent turned in the doorway, the eager light in his eyes betraying his hopes that we’d be signing without too much fuss. I too turned for one last look at the kitchen, the homely beams, the red tiles on the floor, the small wooden door in the corner, and I hesitated, the warm feeling faltering.
“The attic. We ought really to visit it, you know.”
The estate agent had opened that door briefly, pushed his overfed bulk into the narrow opening and declared.
“No, that staircase really is too rickety.” He backed out, a determined smile plastered across his face. “Next time, maybe. No electric light up there. The beams are perfectly sound. There’s a certificate in the file. Nothing to worry about from the roof either. It had a thorough revision two years ago. In the file.” He smiled again without warmth, and they’d moved on to visit the other rooms.
“I’d like to see.”
The estate agent began to bluster, which made me even more adamant. As a species they have a bad press, and I wouldn’t trust this one as far as I could throw him, which, given his girth, was not far.
Tom caught my eye. “I brought a flashlight for emergencies,” he said, producing it from his pocket like the piece of evidence that clinched the case.
The estate agent sighed and opened the door with an obvious bad grace. He led the way, grumbling about the dust, the ominous creaks, the broken handrail. At the top another door. Behind, the light was pale, thin. One dusty window let in light that I had the distinct impression came from another time. The day we had left was sunny, cheerful. The attic was full of winter.
The estate agent stomped about on the boards, his shoes leaving prints. He stomped, chuntered, broke the silence that had hung like cobwebs for how long?
“How long did you say the house has been empty?”
“Not long. The owners moved out in the spring.”
Tom flashed light into the dim corners. I rubbed a hole in the grime of the window. The garden was there, but I couldn’t see the flowers. I was certain I’d seen a clump of hydrangeas by the wall, a splash of dawn sky colour. I frowned, shivering. It was cold in the attic though outside the sun was warm. The estate agent carried on stamping his feet and slapping his hands together. It was almost as if he was trying to make as much noise as possible. Tom’s flashlight lingered on an old pram with a mouldering doll sitting inside. The pram was a relic from a bygone age. The fabric of the doll’s dress and the lining of the pram were the colour of dust, fragile, and trembling on the brink of becoming dust like the rest of the attic. I listened to the papery rustling behind the estate agent’s elephantine blunderings, the patter of voices.
“They didn’t come up here often, did they?” Tom let the light wander right to the back where the roof was lowest and the shadows deepest. A bed, a child’s bed. He started towards it. I grabbed his arm. The air was so cold. The estate agent was shuffling nervously by the stairs. Maybe he could hear them too, the voices.
“They never came up here,” I said.
Tom looked at me and I could see that he understood too. Something touched the back of my neck.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Please.”
The air moved and the rags that hung over the window fluttered. The thin light dimmed. The estate agent’s bulk disappeared surprisingly quickly, and the sound of his steps hurrying across the room came up from the kitchen.
I turned and peered one last time into the darkness of the farthest wall beneath the eaves. The shadows stirred, laboriously, and Tom pushed me down, away, and pulled the door shut behind him. The rickety stairs shook and shuddered, and the voices whispered,
Outside, the sunshine that dried the damp tears on my face beamed down on the sky blue and pink flowers of hydrangeas by the wall.