“They don’t build them like they used to.” That’s what my Dad always claims.
He tried so hard to put me off buying a new-build home. Too small. Too expensive. No character. But I’ve had my fill of DIY. I’ve done the ‘fixer-uppers’; those old wrecks that “just need a bit of TLC...” After decades of clawing my way up each rung of the property ladder, I just wanted a house I didn’t need to do anything with. A house that would just be… ready. Everything brand new, clean, no work needed.
Should have bloody listened to my old man.
This place was supposed to be our forever home. But it’s rotten. Inside and out. Rotten to the core. I used to watch shows like ‘DIY nightmares’ and ‘Homes from Hell’. I never thought I’d live somewhere that took the concept so literally.
We bought it before it was even built. An eye-watering mortgage, all for a patch of mud. The estate agents were all glitz and glamour; two dolled up young women giving us a virtual tour of the home. It was lovely. Perfect, even. But that pixelated walk-through never showed the black mould creeping up from the floor. Never displayed the wallpaper paste refusing to stick to the wall, each roll of luxurious, embossed wallpaper curling up and peeling itself free. On the screen, the plastic pipes were neatly tucked out of sight, not eaten through and pissing out thick streams of dark filth. The digital tour didn’t show the flies. Never conveyed the smell.
The issues were minor when we moved in. We were assured it would all be covered in the ‘snagging’ - last minute work to finish off any outstanding concerns of quality. Funny though, once the developers had our money, they didn’t seem as keen to act. Their offices were carted off, and they went to the next plot, taking all their coffee, biscuits and fancy presentations with them.
“They won’t have given it time to breathe,” my mate Jed reckoned. He was a builder, and much like my dad, had warned me that Developer’s penny-pinching often led to cheap materials and corners being cut. At this time, our problems were only a few fusty green speckles - creeping into the corners of the bedrooms and bathroom - so we followed Jed’s advice; just clean it up and wait. But each time me or my wife covered the walls with antifungal spray and scrubbed them clean, within a couple of days, the marks would be back.
Our neighbours had ‘snagging’ quibbles too, but we were the only ones on the street with such an aggressive damp problem. Eventually, after harassing and complaining every day, the developers sent a specialist to our door. The industrial chemicals they used to treat the damp were so potent, we had to sleep at my in-laws’ house for health reasons. We didn’t mind, we were just glad it was getting sorted. Soon enough, we thought, we’d have the home of our dreams.
When we moved back in though, the mould was still there. To make matters worse, new problems were beginning to raise their ugly heads. Waterproof silicon in the bathroom and kitchen was beginning to prise out, turning black along its edges. Paint on the walls were starting to blister and flake off, revealing splotchy patches of mildew underneath.
The contractors were back the next day, and couldn’t have been more apologetic. Or confused. We slept at my wife’s parent’s house again, and our home was cleaned from top to bottom. Or at least, that’s what they claimed. When we went back a couple days later, the problem was even worse than the first time. We blamed the contractor, of course. So did the developer. Their Managing Director paid us a visit, and we had a full team give our house a deep cleanse. We were put up in a hotel room this time, all expenses covered by the Developer.
This time I watched them work. At least until I got asked to leave for ‘safety reasons’. They were faultless. They pretreated, cleansed and scrubbed. They fetched out the silicon and reapplied it. They weren’t amateurs, or cowboys. They knew what they were doing. But none of it worked.
It was like the harder they tried to clean, the more the house fought back. Tiles began to fall off in the bathroom and kitchen, the adhesive crumbling away. Wallpaper would abruptly unstick and recoil, springing up the walls like it was possessed. Cracks started to appear in the plaster, growing longer and wider each passing day. We spent around a month living out of a hotel.
Eventually, even though it had been paid for, my wife decided to stay with her parents, as she was ‘sick of living in a box’. I put up with the hotel. I couldn’t stand my father in-law’s endless suggestions of how we could fix each individual issue, regardless of how many times I insisted “we tried that”. With each of his suggestions was this subtle edge too, a criticism, an implication that this was somehow ‘my’ fault. That I had placed his daughter in this position, and wasn’t ‘man’ enough to fix it.
So I stayed in the hotel, and just hoped I could trust the professionals to do their jobs. But even when I wasn’t in the house, its rot spread. It tainted my mood, my thoughts, my relationships. Sometimes a bad situation can bring people together. This wasn’t one of those times.
When we finally moved back in after a month, the house was picture perfect. The contractors walked us through the house, filming the entire ‘handover’, and taking pictures of every inch of every room. It all felt very stiff. Very formal. I had to sign reams of paperwork until my wrist ached, but the house was fixed, and it felt like a two-tonne weight had been lifted from my shoulders. We moved everything back in, and I slept like a baby, finally able to get the thoughts of rot off my mind.
It would be the last peaceful sleep I got. The next morning, my wife spotted signs of mould in the shower. I found some mildew, creeping up the fresh walls. Little air bubbles sprouting under the paint. Wallpaper, curling at the edges. My wife started crying and my stomach sank, knowing this house was going to sour just like it had before. Only this time, all our contacts with the developer and contractor were forwarded to their legal team, and we got the cold shoulder. ‘The issues were fixed’, they said. ‘Any changes after the fix were our responsibility’, they claimed. They had video evidence and signed documents. We were on our own.
Within a week, the house was the worst it had ever been. The rot spread into every room, and beyond. You could taste it in the air. Feel it on your skin. Even the fresh food in our fridge began to go mouldy. The damp got so bad it affected my wife’s breathing. Even when we were sleeping in separate beds, I could hear her in the other room, wheezing through the night.
I tried to fix the house. I really did. I took two weeks off work, took out a bank loan and set to work on the house. With Jed, his friends and my dad helping me, we took the house back to brickwork. We thought the only way to fix it would be to start over - pull up the fusty carpets, install new ventilation, prise off the wood that was beginning to warp and twist. But the rot was deep. The floorboards were so waterlogged, I could squeeze some of them out like a sponge. The mortar in the bricks crumbled to dust at the slightest touch. The bathroom pipes were starting to leak, black sludge trickling down the walls. If a limb goes gangrenous, doctors will cut it off to save the body. When a house goes gangrenous, what do you cut?
Worst of all were the holes. The house was full of them. All houses are, really. We pretend they’re safe havens, all pretty and fresh, but prise off the skirting, look under your floorboards, pull out your kitchen cabinets, and you’ll see the truth. Once we can’t see it, builders stop caring. Gaps, holes, cracks - all filled with scurrying spiders, bloated woodlouse or the odd hungry rat. Under the carpets of your living room and dining room are crawl spaces big enough to store an extended family of corpses. Even bricks have holes in, and the mortar never completely fills the joints - they just slap it in and make it look neat after. When you’re by yourself in your house, you’re never alone. Something is always hiding, waiting, just inside the walls.
But my house was like nothing any of us had ever seen before. Great, rotten holes the size of your fist, all black around the rim, like a fat, burning worm was burrowing in the walls. And in my bedroom, behind the wardrobe, was the biggest one of all. As big as a dinner plate, goopy threads of black gristle drooping around the outside, and decaying filth creeping around its edges. It looked like God had stubbed his cigarette out on the world.
And somehow, that wasn’t the worst part. No, that came when my wife finally packed her bags and left. As I lay in bed that night, staring at the patterns in my mould covered ceiling, I could still hear that wheezing. It wasn’t her. It had never been her. It was the house.
The walls seemed to press in with each rattling breath. I told myself it was just the wind, but I knew it was a lie. Fresh cracks formed on the ceiling, as it flexed with each inhalation and exhalation, sending trickles of dust floating onto me. All around me, inside the walls, I could hear something scraping as it slithered through the holes.
I didn’t tell anyone the next day. I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, and just threw myself into the work. It was only when my father took hold of my wrist that I realised I’d been hammering at the floorboards, over and over, until the wood was splintered fragments. I let go of the hammer and it tumbled through the hole I’d made. I’d been gripping the handle so hard, it had dug ridges into my palm, and I couldn’t unfurl my fingers. Everyone was staring at me. My dad, Jed, all the labourers.
“You’re not OK, are you?” said my dad, as everyone around me avoided my eye.
Part of me broke, and all the anger I’d been trying to hold in just burst out of me. “Of course I’m not fucking OK!” I snarled at him, snatching my hand out of his grip. “This house…” I couldn’t even finish my sentence, and began ripping up boards with my bare hands. “This fucking house!”
Eventually I tired myself out, but at that point, only my dad was still there. The rest had gone. My dad was quietly stacking up the boards I had managed to pull loose, casting a concerned eye over my bleeding knuckles and torn up fingers, but saying nothing.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled eventually, sagging and burying my face in my blood covered hands.
My dad just placed a hand on my shoulder, and pointed down into the crawl space, through my brutally created hole. “Best pick up your hammer.”
I managed the world’s smallest laugh, and wiped tears out my eyes. All I really did was smear more blood over myself. I looked down at the hammer, barely visible in the darkness beneath the floor. Grunting as I lowered myself onto my belly, I reached down, plunging my hand into the darkness, stretching until my fingertips could touch the hammer.
And it moved. Something wrenched out of my grip. I turned in horror, just in time to see a gnarled, withered black hand, pulling the hammer deep into the black void beneath my feet. I yanked my hand out of the gap like it had been in a hot stove, and stumbled to my feet.
“Please tell me you-”
“I saw it,” finished my dad.
For a moment the two of us just stared into the jagged hole, unable to comprehend what we’d just witnessed. Then my dad shook his head, and started clambering into the hole. I grabbed him and pulled him back.
“What are you doi-”
“It was just a rat.”
“Dad, you saw the same thing I did, that wasn’t a rat, it was-”
“It was just a rat.”
“It was a hand, for fu-”
“Just a big rat,” he insisted sternly, a note in his voice telling me he was trying to convince himself more than me. He jumped down into the hole, and pointed towards his toolbag. “Fetch me my headlamp.”
“I’m calling the police Dad,” I said, trying again to pull him out. I managed it, but he just stomped over to his toolbag and began snatching things up whilst I fumbled with my phone. “There’s someone in the-”
“JUST A RAT!” he snapped, thrusting a spare headlamp at me. Before I could stop him, he clambered back into the hole, awkwardly strapping the elastic band around his head. I’d managed to start the phone call, but as my father disappeared beneath the floorboards, it seemed moot.
Not knowing what else to do, I strapped the lamp to my head and followed, climbing down into the dark, damp space beneath my house. There was so much grime and filth, it was impossible to say what I was even standing on, but it squelched as I shuffled after my dad. The torch offered little light down here, and with every step I took, unseen cobwebs tickled my face, brushing against every inch of my exposed skin. The air was cold, and wet.
My dad screamed. Most people are lucky enough to never hear that noise. The sheer animalistic terror in my father’s voice made my bones crawl. I scurried up to him, checking to see if he was hurt. Then I saw it.
A living shadow was writhing in the light. Clutching my hammer, it tried to climb through one of those fist size holes, squeezing its shape smaller and smaller. It was vaguely man shaped. Same size, like a malnourished corpse, little more than bones. But as it flailed it was clear it wasn’t just shadow. It was sludge, and rot, and decay, all clumped together in a human shape. A familiar wheezing touched my ears.
As my headlamp’s gloom touched the figure, it shivered, and dropped the hammer. Some distant part of my mind realised the light was hurting it. Somehow, I wasn’t afraid. When it had been the house itself that had been the focus of my torment, it seemed like some impossibly large entity. A dark god, unconquerable and unquenchable. Now that I could see this feeble figure, quivering in pain, wounded by my light, all I felt was rage. Hatred. Rot.
I bellowed out a scream I didn’t know I had and clambered towards it, forcing the light of my headlamp closer, brighter. I pulled out my phone, and another beam of light joined it. I shouted for my dad to do the same, but he was frozen.
Withered black hands reached for me, tried to claw at my face, but I twisted, aiming the light at the outstretched, decaying limbs. Whatever they belonged to shrivelled and quivered. I held my phone like a weapon, pushing the light closer, and closer. The limbs sank to the ground, became grimy tendrils, and slithered through the hole in the wall. There was a clunk, as some rigid part of this grotesque creature got caught, and fell back. I focused my light on it, and the creature let out a howl. For some reason, it made me think of a worm, pinned to a dissection board, with a nail through its body, writhing silently. I don’t know how, but that was what it sounded like.
Whatever hadn’t been able to pass through the hole dropped, clattering to the concrete floor and rolling around. The cords of black rot were nowhere to be seen, though in the dim light it was hard to be certain. I was still searching for it, still hungry to hurt it, but my father had recovered enough to shine his light on the object on the floor.
It was a skull. Part of one, anyway. So cracked and decomposed, it was barely recognisable. But the eye sockets were undeniable. Two yellow teeth were still gripped in its upper jaw. There wasn’t a lower jaw. My father wretched, and it wasn’t until my rage vanished, the putrid smell hit my nostrils that I understood why. Even if you have never encountered it, your nose knows what death smells like.
Covering his mouth, still gagging, my father reached out to pick up the skull, but I grabbed his arm. For a moment we wrestled, without saying a word. Then, as our headlamps lit up each other’s face, he looked me square in the eye.
“Got to get rid of it,” he muttered.
I let him go, and nodded. He was right. This was the source. The house’s gangrene. The rotten heart. My dad picked up the skull, and we began to shuffle out of the crawl space. Then he let out a yelp, and the skull clattered to the ground again, sending a fresh wave of rancid death wafting through the house’s cramped underbelly.
“What’s wrong?” I managed, barely able to keep my stomach from emptying over the grimy ground.
I turned my headlamp onto my father. He was pulling off his gloves. Even in the darkness, I could see the torn fabric, crumbling away, turning to dust in his fingers. Or what was left of his fingers. Ashen grey skin tumbled to the floor, flesh dissolving and decaying and dripping off my father’s bones. His thumb, index and middle finger, rotten away.
I don’t regret what I did next. Not really. I could have been smarter, I know. Used tools to scoop it up, put it in a bag. But there is only so much a man can take before he snaps.
I took hold of that skull, nestled it against the bare flesh of my palm, and ran. My own skull scraped against the splintering timber floorboards as I hurled myself out of that underground hell, and leapt back into my house. MY house.
“MY HOUSE!” I screamed, feeling my flesh burn away, feeling my hand turn to the rot that I’d known in my heart for months. I managed to cross the threshold of my doorway before I started staggering. Managed to toss the rotten skull into the street before things went black, and my veins turned to ice. And as I hit the ground, I am almost certain I was smiling.
When a limb goes gangrenous, they cut it off. Leprosy, the doctors said. I was lucky it hadn’t made it to my chest. They had to sever my arm all the way to the shoulder. If it had spread any further, then… well, I wouldn’t have been able to write all this up. I hope you appreciate how difficult it is typing with one hand.
They never found the skull. Nobody believed our story, despite there being no explanation for our sudden and devastating flesh wounds. But the operation was a success - my house stopped rotting. It’s just bricks now. Nice, clean bricks. I’m sitting inside it, listening to the wind whistle outside. Air fresheners line the walls, hanging neatly on little threads of string. Bottles of disinfectant, anti-mould and anti-fungal spray are scattered about, never more than an arm’s reach away. And as for the crawl space… I flooded that with concrete. My house is just one big hole now, and it’s only me inside.