It’s strange how someone can have an impact on your life without being around.
For me, that person is my grandfather. I never knew him, never even laid eyes on him, and yet his absence in my family cast so large a shadow, it was almost a presence in itself. We would see him in my mother’s stiffened face, whenever we asked about him. We would hear him during my grandmother’s long silences; twisting her wedding ring in endless circles, staring into space. We would feel him in the walls of his great house, built from the fortunes of his antiques empire, his collection hidden away or shrouded from view. He did not feature in any of the empty photo frames, and yet even as a child, I knew it was still his house. My grandmother just lived in it.
His employees still worked, hustling and bustling with deliveries. Items bought and sold in his name still brought money to my family. But there was a hole inside that house, and within our lives. A silence that screamed of betrayal, abandonment, and unanswered questions.
“Ran off with some young lass,” I overheard one of the movers say one day. He grunted as he lowered a chest of drawers, lacquered oak shimmering in the afternoon sun. My sister and I were playing hide and seek, so they had no idea I was eavesdropping. I stayed in my hiding place, peeking between ruffled dust sheets. There was a soft thunk as the legs settled on the polished wooden floor, and the men let out a sigh of relief. “That’s what I reckon anyroad.”
“Nah,” said the other voice dismissively, “you do that, you take yer money wi’ yer.”
My ears strained to wade through their accents. I knew exactly who they were talking about, and this sort of gossip was far more than I was ever likely to hear from any of my family.
“So what do you think then?” asked a more well spoken voice, the new boy, most likely. I had something of a crush on him.
“Summat dodgy,” said the dismissive voice. Another grunt, another thud. “Where you want this one?”
“Over by the grandfather clock please.” There was a pause and the new boy lowered his voice. “What do you mean, dodgy?”
“Come on lad,” heaved the dismissive mover through gritted teeth. They shuffled across the floor until I could barely see them, and plonked down the cabinet. “You don’t get this kinda cheddar wi’out doing someone rotten.”
“Ted thinks he were murdered,” said the first mover, resting a hairy arm on the cabinet.
In my hiding place, I held my breath and shifted, trying to get a better view. Despite the July heat, their conversation made the air feel so very cold. I shivered and hugged myself.
“By who?” asked the new boy, then after a pause added “Take this one and… the cellarette over there.”
“Well, he were stealing from the Chinese, paying bribes to the Russians, undercutting the Americans and dodging taxes over ‘ere,” said Ted, as the men moved back into view. “And that’s just what we know about. Mark my words lad, we’ll open these crates one day and find what’s left of him, stuffed inside. Just bones and teeth.”
I closed my eyes and kept my tears silent. Abrupt laughter burst from the two gruff men, and at first I feared they could see me, but when I peeked back at them, they were watching the new boy, struggling with a cargo crate. They effortlessly plucked it from his arms and set it down on the trolley.
“Leave the lifting to us lad,” Ted said as they carted the stock out the room. “You just tick them boxes.”
Their chuckles faded from the room, and even when they were gone, I didn’t cry out loud. Just clutched my knees and felt tears trickle down my cheeks. When Maisie found me several minutes later, I was still there, but I didn’t feel like playing hide and seek any more.
“Why are you crying?” she asked quietly, tilting her head before shuffling over to sit next to me. She was three years younger than me, and was always such a tender soul. She leaned over and kissed my head softly, as though it would make me better. Like our mother would when we fell over and scraped our knees.
I didn’t tell her, of course. I was far too protective for that. If I told her why I was crying, she would cry too. I wiped my tears away and flashed a smile. “Let’s play something else.”
There were plenty of games to play when we visited our grandmother. In a house that size, with countless treasures and mysteries, even an adult could lose hours exploring and perusing. Two little girls could play forever. We could dance in the empty rooms, or listen to our echoes in the cavernous hallways. We could live a million lives amongst the vintage furniture, trying on dusty top hats or having sword fights with silver capped canes. We could drape ourselves in dust sheets, and pretend to be ghosts or birds or aeroplanes, running around with our flapping cloth cloaks trailing behind us.
But new stock bought new guessing games. Hidden under the sheets that covered them were antiques freshly bought, ready to sell or ready to be restored to former glories. It would be years before I learned the intricacies behind the business, but as a child, it was close to magic.
Most objects were easy; the sheets barely hid their outlines. But a blocky shape that looked like a table could end up being a stack of paintings, a freestanding chess board, or a sealed crate with yet more mysteries lurking inside. We made our way through the fresh inventory, but I let my sister pull off the sheets, and barely guessed, lost in thought. What if our grandfather was still in one of these boxes? Desperate to get out. Trapped in the dark.
“Where are you going?” I heard Maisie ask.
My eyes focused, and I realised I was halfway out the door. Staring down the corridor, towards the door with the ivory handle.
Grandmother didn’t have many rules for us to follow. Don’t break anything. Don’t irritate the staff. But the one she always insisted on, was don’t go into the room with the ivory handle. She never explained why, she simply forbade it, quick and clean. I’d always figured there were valuables in there she didn’t trust to children. The door wasn’t locked, and I’d seen the staff go in there a few times, but only the most senior staff were allowed through this corridor.
Senior staff, and family.
I glanced back at Maisie and nodded for her to follow. She did so, and together we slowly made our way down the corridor, empty photo frames hanging ominously above us. I always wished they’d just put something in them. Photos of my mother, or us. Landscapes. Art. Anything really. Even taking them down would have been better than leaving them empty, like gilded tombstones.
Approaching the door, it was impossible not to feel small. The black panelled door towered over us, and had a way of looking heavy. Without having ever so much as touched it, somehow my mind knew the weight of it. With dry lips, I reached out to the handle. My fingers hovered, afraid it might burn to touch.
Footsteps made me snatch my hand away, and I turned on my heels, babbling nervous gibberish to my sister. Lucile, my least favourite administrator, stalked past, her heels click-clacking. She ignored us completely as she passed. I don’t think she cared for children, or not for us, at least. I always thought she looked shrivelled up, like a piece of fruit left out in the sun.
“Are we going to get in trouble?” whispered Maisie, after Lucile had left our view.
“No,” I said with a smile, “of course not.” But I knew it was too risky to try whilst the staff were still here. In a couple of hours, they would finish, and it would just be us and our grandmother. So I raced Maisie to the gardens and we practised cartwheels. But even in the summer sun, I couldn’t get the image of my grandfather out of my mind, pressed in tight, clawing at the wooden insides of his box-shaped grave, pleading for us to find him.
The staff left at five o’clock, and we had dinner with our grandmother. Afterwards, we usually sat and did puzzles or drew pictures, but because the sun was still shining, our grandmother said we could keep playing outside if we wanted to. We did, but only until she took her eyes off us. Then we headed inside, sneaking towards the door with the ivory handle. The house was a different place with the staff gone. Even in full daylight, it somehow felt larger and more foreboding. Maisie’s fingers found my hand and held it as we walked.
The ivory handle glistened, as if inviting us. Looking closely, I saw it had golden leaves snaking around the outside and curling along its edges. Maisie squeezed my hand tight as I reached out and opened it, letting the door swing slowly open with a drawn out creak of rusty hinges.
There were no windows, and though I tried the light switch, the only light that trickled in was the creeping remnants of daylight, bouncing off the corridor behind us. It made the shadowy shapes within the room look dark indeed. Like a nightmare version of the guessing game we played. Maisie stood at the door as I crept inside.
She squeaked and I turned to see her pointing to my left. A hulking figure draped in a white sheet loomed over us, and peeking out from between the sheet was shaggy brown hair and giant, curled claws. Heart leaping, I braced for the monster to attack, but nothing happened. After a moment, I plucked up more courage than I knew I had, and slowly tugged at the dust sheet covering the monster. It fell away, and as I saw teeth and fur my blood ran cold, if only for a moment.
It was a bear. Stuffed, and unmoving.
Behind me, Maisie giggled. She must have been emboldened by my display of temporary bravery, as she stepped to my side and joined me in unveiling the shapes within the dim room. Dust leapt into the air, swirling and making us splutter. One by one, the extravagant shapes were revealed. Patterned vases, golden toy soldiers, intricate galleons somehow placed within glass bottles. I could see why we weren’t allowed in this room. Everything was fragile or delicate, and seemed like a toy to the eyes of young children. The thrill we got from unveiling each bizarre object even overpowered the melancholy mood that had hung over me like a black cloud, and I joined Maisie in smiling and giggling. We began to guess what the next shape was, before our eyes strained to make it out amongst the fading light. One in particular caught my eye.
“It’s a statue,” I said. “A statue of a person!”
“It’s too little for a person,” said Maisie.
“They’re sitting down. Look,” I pointed at what I thought was the head. “Nose, ears, mouth.”
My finger traced the air, curving around the folds of fabric draped over whatever was hidden underneath. The way it hung made me convinced. A statue, or a shop mannequin. A large doll, maybe. The head and shoulders were a give away. Maisie was right though, it was too short, but the way the dust sheet also covered a blocky oblong beneath the person made me think of a park bench I’d once seen, with a statue occupying one seat and the other empty. I stretched out my hand, and just as my fingers settled on the fabric, whatever was underneath… shifted.
I flinched back, snatching my hand away and stumbling, my foot getting caught in the trailing sheet. It snagged against my foot, and some of the dust sheet slid away, the rest getting tangled around the object underneath. Half revealed, barely lit by what little daylight trickled through the open doorway, was a sofa. My mind barely registered it, my eyes locked on what I thought had been a statue. Most of it was still wrapped in tangled sheets, but enough had been removed to show a trouser leg and polished black leather shoes.
Maisie stepped forwards to pull off the rest of the sheet, thinking it was another toy, like the bear, but I shot out a hand to stop her. It had moved. If it was a statue, it looked very, very real. And it had definitely moved.
“Don’t-” I whispered to Maisie, but the moment the words left my mouth, they died. The folds of sheets twisted, the head of whatever was beneath snapping suddenly to face me. Maisie froze like a startled deer. We both watched the figure on the sofa, and it watched right back. Now I was looking closely, I could see it breathing, the sheets around its shoulders slowly rising and falling. Not daring to blink, not daring to speak, I gripped hold of Maisie’s dress, forcing her backwards with me as I stepped slowly and carefully out of the room, never taking my eyes off the figure. It was so horribly, painfully clear to me now. It was a person. There was somebody hiding in my grandmother’s house. Their head followed us, glacier slow, and I desperately swallowed the instinct to sink down into a ball and cry. The dust sheet rippled and a section near the waist folded as whoever was underneath grabbed hold. They began to rise to their feet, dust sheet enveloping them like a spectre. I didn’t stop to watch. With strength I didn’t know I had, I physically lifted Maisie off the ground and ran, both of us screaming and crying so hard I could barely see where I was running. I didn’t close the door or turn back to look, I didn’t stop running until I found my grandmother. Didn’t stop screaming and shouting until my mother, my father, and some of the staff showed up. Didn’t stop crying until I fell asleep.
They didn’t find anybody, of course. They searched the house. Nothing. No signs except disturbed dustsheets, all of which were blamed on me and my sister. Our mother and father had ended their night early to collect us, and whilst they were glad we were unharmed, we got the biggest telling off of our lives for going into the room with the ivory handle.
It was a long time until we were allowed to play unsupervised at my grandmother’s house. When we went back, we were told the door with the ivory handle was going to be locked from now on. They said it as though they were trying to reassure us, but I heard the truth loud and clear - they didn’t believe us. Maisie was happy though, she said she never wanted to go in that room ever again, and refused to even look at it, sometimes going around the house rather than walking past it. I wasn’t satisfied though, and as the terror of the event slowly faded away, I began to consider another possibility. What if that person wasn’t a stranger, hiding amongst the old relics? What if it was my grandfather, still alive, still visiting us and our grandmother? That would explain why the house always felt like his. He was still living inside it…
I tried explaining this to Maisie, but it just made her upset. She was still scared of that room, so I knew if I was going to go back, it would have to be alone. The staff might have locked the black door, but I knew roughly where they hid the key, and it didn’t take too much searching to find it. The next time our parents went away and left us with our grandmother, I was ready to explore again, to find my grandfather and meet him properly. He hadn’t tried to hurt us, after all. He’d just stood up, and we’d got scared and ran away.
I stole the key, and hid it beneath my pillow. When night came, I waited until Maisie fell asleep, sneaking out of my room into the hall. My grandmother was watching television, facing away from the hall, and it was easy to creep past her and down the main stairwell of the house. I was walking barefoot, and the floor was icy cold on the bottom of my feet. Tip-toeing past boxes of new stock and inventory, I made my way down the corridor, eyes locked on the black door ahead. The contrasting ivory handle shone like a beacon in the faint echoes of moonlight.
I’d taken a torch, but didn’t need it. As the door creaked open, an instinctive flick of the lightswitch revealed the staff had changed the broken lightbulbs before locking the door. The sudden, artificial light was almost blinding. The shrouded shapes were identical to my previous visit, though they weren’t nearly as ominous without the shadows to ensnare them. It was reassuring, and the light made all my nerves vanish. More than ever, I was convinced - tonight I was going to meet my grandfather.
As I stalked between the sheet-covered shapes - somewhat familiar and recognisable from before - I noticed only one difference; the blocky shape of the sofa was vacant. Searching the last hidden spaces of the room, it quickly became obvious. My grandfather wasn’t here. The room was empty, apart from the hidden treasures. A crushing weight settled over my shoulders, and I shook my head slightly, trying to ward off stinging tears. I was just a silly little girl, up past her bedtime chasing ghosts.
I walked back towards the sofa, wanting to sink down and go to sleep right there, but a hissing voice stopped me before I took my final steps.
“What are you doing?”
Maisie, at the doorway, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
I didn’t see any point in lying. “I was looking for grandad. But he’s not here. Nobody’s here.”
As if to check, Maisie’s eyes drifted to the vacant sofa. I expected her to nod, and turn to leave, but instead, her eyes went wide and her lips began to tremble. She pointed, and I turned to look.
An animal or insect, or... something, was crawling beneath the dust sheet, right across the sofa cushions. Slow, methodic, cloaked by the loose, draping sheet. My mind tried desperately to compare it to something, the way the sheet shifted around it was too spindly and angular for any animal I could think of. It could almost have been a spider, but each leg joint that poked under the sheet was thicker than my knuckle. If I’d have dared to move, I would have smashed it with my torch and kept hitting it until the dust sheet stopped moving.
Frozen as I was, all I could do was watch.
It crept forwards on the sofa, and as it went over the edge, it didn’t fall. The sheets rippled, and it continued walking downwards, at the same, steady pace. Whatever it was, I’d soon find out. It was walking straight towards me, and was about to emerge from the gap between sofa and sheet.
The sheets wafted gently, as though stirred by a breeze, and something drifted out, elegant and smooth.
Clean, perfectly manicured fingers. A youthful woman’s hand peeked out, each finger painted with shimmering red nail polish. The hand was so leisurely in its movements, arm disappearing back beneath the sheets, yet there was no shape beyond the tautly draped fabric. There was nobody on the sofa. No way somebody could contort themselves to fit what little void existed between cloth and cushion.
I gawped, mouth unable to close as the hand slowly rotated and took hold of the sheet, raising higher and higher to reveal the floral patterned sofa and pinewood legs. As though it were a woman, hitching up her skirts. The colours of the sofa were so vivid and vibrant, it was hard to believe we hadn’t noticed it before, even with a person distracting us, even in the near darkness. The flowers covering the fabric looked so real, you could almost see the morning dew forming on the petals, almost feel the sun’s reflection glittering in the tilt of wind-brushed leaves. Before it rose above the cushioned seats, the hand released the dustsheet, and… beckoned me. It withdrew, slowly disappearing beneath the sheets, and the shape of the arm slithered away. The way it curved and twisted made me shiver. Even as young as I was, I knew no human arm could bend that way. Whatever was underneath that thin layer of fabric, it moved the way a snake did, writhing and uncoiling.
The sofa itself was dazzling. It appeared pure white behind the flowers. But it couldn’t have been. It was too bright. ‘White’ somehow seemed… too dull a colour to describe it. It was almost blinding to look at, yet I couldn’t stop myself. Maisie was at my side, and we both stared unblinking at the fabric and flowers and this new colour our eyes had never seen before. Birds fluttered into the room, with silent flapping wings. Hummingbirds. Dozens of them, hovering and sipping from the fabric flowers on the sofa. They too, appeared to have fallen for its convincing trick. It took me a long moment to realise they weren’t in the room at all. They were just another pattern, stitched into the fabric of the cushion. And yet they were… moving. One by one, they zipped beneath the covering, following the hand. And for a moment, I wanted to follow them. I took a step forward and stopped myself. Maisie had made the same step forwards. At the exact same time. We turned to look at each other, peeling our eyes away from the sofa.
That was enough. Something deep and primal told me I shouldn’t sit down, yet somehow it was easier to stop each other than stop ourselves. We didn’t speak, but together, my sister and I left the room, gripping hold of each other and never breaking eye contact. When we reached the door, I flicked off the light and shut the creaking door with all my strength. As the room with the ivory handle vanished from view, I saw for one, brief moment, a man. He was barely visible in the darkness, but he sat on the sofa, hands on his knees. His cold eyes met mine, and even the half second before the door closed was too long. The moment the door was shut, I locked it.
We never went into that room again. Neither of us have ever spoken about it. To each other, or anyone else. She might not even remember. Perhaps I too would have been able to dismiss it as childish fantasy, if it wasn’t for the thing I saw yesterday.
My grandmother passed away last year. Her ashes were kept in an urn, but during the house sale and all the moving, somehow the ashes… got lost. They found the urn, which never left the house. But the ashes were gone.
Obviously my family was devastated. A few people who probably didn’t deserve it got fired, but we never found out who was responsible, or what happened.
During the final weeks of the house sale, all of our grandfather’s vast fortune and old treasures got divided amongst family, friends and loyal employees. Of particular interest to most were several items locked behind a door with an ivory handle. Maisie and myself avoided that particular day of exploration.
But as I said my last goodbyes to the house, I couldn’t help but notice a familiar shape amongst the others, draped beneath dust sheets. The blocky outline of a sofa, with something placed on it. Something with a head, and shoulders. The vague outline of a person, perched on the sofa with room to spare. At the very bottom, peeking beneath the sheets was the trim of a faded, green dress, and matching green buckled shoes.
My grandmother’s shoes.
Whatever was wearing them shifted slightly beneath the dust sheet, turning to face me.
And patted the empty seat.
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