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The 1980’s. The wonderful years of my early childhood, filled with the delicious smells of Christmas, baked apples and amazing memories of endless, warm summer days filled with laughter and innocent, childish friendship. It was also, however, the end of this decade that marked the beginning of the end of my unblemished view of the world and thrust upon me the realisation that sometimes in life we encounter eerie situations that we just cannot explain.
I grew up in a city in the Midlands of England called Stoke-upon-Trent. My mother had grown up in a town on the outskirts of the city called Uttoxeter. I recall countless happy visits to this town to see family and friends; however, it was during one of these visits that the first incident that really made me question my views on reality occurred.
It was the summer of 1989 and I was nine years old. My family was visiting an old childhood friend of my mother. I was very excited to be there because these people had a daughter named Allie who was my own age and it meant that I would not be subjected to the endless whining of my irritating six year old brother alone. There was to be a dinner party late in the afternoon, after which my family would be leaving me there overnight for a sleepover. I felt special because my brother was going to be going home with my parents and I would be having all the fun.
The other guests had not arrived and dinner was quite a while from being ready. Not wanting children underfoot while the food preparation was taking place, Allie, my younger brother, her even younger brother and I were unceremoniously foisted outside into the back garden to play until it was time to go inside to wash our hands and eat.
Allie lived in a cul–de-sac, the end house of which backed onto Uttoxeter Racecourse. Behind Allie’s house, running the entire length of the short street, was a huge plot of land containing an old condemned house that had suffered some fire damage many years earlier.
Rumours were rife in the late eighties about the fate of the house. There were rumours about arson due to drug debts, rumours that the house had been home to a sex offender and his family who had fallen prey to a vigilante style attack, even rumours that one of the occupants had committed murder and that somebody had decided that it was high time that this person get what they deserved. All anyone knew for sure was the fact that in one upstairs bedroom two very certainly innocent young people had sadly succumbed to smoke inhalation.
Surrounding the house was a huge, overgrown orchard and surrounding the grounds themselves was a high wall. The entrance gate, equally high and locked with a gigantic rusty padlock was situated right at the other side of the grounds, far away from Allie’s house. As young children, blissfully unaware of the desolate history of the house, Allie, our brothers, and I had spent many delightful hours with our parents slipping through a gap in the hedge at the bottom of their garden and walking the grounds to pick apples, pears and blackberries with which we could make fruit crumble when we returned home.
On this particular day, as Allie and I sat restlessly at the bottom of the garden bored to tears after having played with all the outdoor toys and having spent at least ten minutes petting her rabbit, our eyes met and she glanced and nodded at the hole in the hedge. Knowing full well that we were not supposed to enter the orchard without permission and stealing a stealthy glance up towards our brothers playing with their boring “boys' toys” up by the back door, we surreptitiously slipped through the hedge into the woods beyond.
We felt absolutely no fear for the orchard was our playground of old. We fantasised about fairies and magical beings as we clambered around through the undergrowth, dropping apples from the trees into the front of our outstretched jumpers. Maybe if we told our parents that we only ventured a little way in, they would disregard our disobedience and allow us to make apple crumble after dinner.
Suddenly and seemingly with no warning, we realised that the old derelict house was directly in front of us. You could tell from the outside that the place had once been truly magnificent. Two storeys high, built of grey stone, the house inspired our nine year old selves to romanticise about beautiful princesses trapped in ivy covered towers. It was sad to see the soot licked, empty downstairs window frames that were still home to shards of jagged broken glass and the weed ravaged front door that had long since fallen from its hinges and began to decay upon the moss covered ground. The upstairs windows were boarded up, presumably less accessible to vandals and the roof looked patchy as if the slate grey tiles could fall at any given moment. We stared up in awe. I confess that I was again thinking of handsome princes charging through the orchard, sword in hand ready to bestow “True love's kiss”.
Allie, being a “Sixer” in one of the local church's brownie groups and also being heavily involved in a lot of out of school sporting activities, was much cockier than I and of an extremely curious nature. She quickly stated that we “absolutely must” go inside to explore. Hesitant for merely a second, I agreed and we marched bravely forward. Peering in through the dilapidated door frame, directly in front of us we could see a long hallway with a large, fairly well lit room to the left. Gazing farther down the hall we saw several more doors that led off to the left and what appeared to be the kitchen at the end, but it was hard to tell as the hallway really did seem very long, more like a corridor. There was a wide staircase to the right that obscured any possible doors on that side of the hall.
Looking up the staircase I felt my first faint twinge of unease. Due to the boarded up windows on the upper level, it was difficult to see very far up the staircase at all. In fact (of course this must be due to my childish imagination) the stairs seemed to be swallowed just over half way up by an unnatural, eerie darkness.
Seeming not to notice that huge, gaping mouth of a staircase and grabbing my hand, Allie pulled me into the large room to our left. It had obviously once been a sitting room. Defaced by graffiti, there was a good amount of soot damaged flowery paper peeling off the walls. There were even some old and extremely dingy looking armchairs that had certainly seen better days. Forgetting all about the staircase, I squatted down by the fireplace beckoning Allie to follow and we allowed our apples to fall onto the cracked hearth. Light, magically dappled from the canopy of trees above us, streamed through the empty window frame. It seemed enchanted, almost as if real fairies might actually live here.
We sat and chatted for quite a while, giggling with our childish innocence about a trick that we meant to play on her brother that night. She had a set of walkie-talkies and we planned to leave one under his bed and whisper into it as he was falling asleep to basically scare the pants off him. In hindsight this seems very cruel, but at the time we genuinely believed that it was terribly funny.
I bit into an apple and we toyed with the idea of visiting the other rooms on the ground floor level. We both agreed that we would not be going upstairs as even at such a young age we had the sense to be aware that the staircase was almost definitely unstable after the fire and we did not want to risk it, knowing that our parents would be furious if anything happened. It then occurred to me however that she too may have noticed the unnatural darkness and silence of the staircase as we entered the house and felt no desire to go poking around in places that certainly did not appear to be very welcoming.
As we sat and pondered, a sound became apparent *tap. tap. tap*, very softly, followed by what sounded like a soft scratching noise. It seemed to come from the outside of the window frame of the room that we were sitting in. We froze, our heads whipping round to stare at the empty hole. We stayed that way for what seemed like ten minutes but what must have realistically only been a few seconds. Upon hearing nothing else, Allie giggled which unnerved me. After all, “they” may have heard her, but then I ticked myself off for being such a baby; however it did hit me how silly we had been to sneak off into the orchard with no one knowing that we had even left the garden.There were no more sounds. All was suddenly very quiet.
“Did you hear that?” I hissed.
Allie shrugged, stating that she believed it was probably one of the neighbour’s cats, or even just the wind blowing a tree branch against the empty window frame. Nevertheless, to me our sanctuary was now slightly tainted. We stowed our fruit back into our jumpers. She took my hand and we stood up and made for the doorway so we could explore further.
Upon exiting the room, Allie and I had a better view of the hallway. There were in fact just two more doors on the left hand side. They both appeared to be ajar, however, the lighting was far from wonderful; we would not be able to see inside without venturing forth. I remember feeling that the place seemed extremely creepy. I just felt a kind of unsettling unease. I voiced my opinions to Allie about not wanting to continue our explorations but she laughed and told me that I was being silly.
Pushing my fears aside and again chastising myself for being such a baby, I followed Allie into the next room. Once inside I relaxed a little. Again the glass in the window was broken but the frame was large and the room well lit. It appeared to have once been very pretty indeed. In its heyday I am positive that it had been a very grand dining room. Most of the furniture appeared to be pretty much still in place including a large wooden sideboard. No bone china remained, of course, for the house would have been looted years ago by thieves, but there was much less graffiti than there had been in the first room. This room, however, was a considerable amount dingier and more damaged than the previous room. Touching the rotting remains of a large wooden table, I was able to draw a face in the soot.
Allie bounded about opening drawers and chattering endlessly about who might have lived here. They “absolutely must have been very posh,” as the furniture was all very beautiful, or it had been at one point anyway. As Allie explored I moved over to the sideboard to examine the pretty design that had been chiseled into the wood. As a child I loved anything intricate, it always seemed to draw me in.
It was at this point that I became aware of what sounded like soft but quick footsteps directly above the place that I was standing. I said nothing and listened for a minute, feeling my skin start to break out in goose bumps. The steps seemed to be scuttling back and forth. One, two, three, four, five and stop. And again. And again.
“Allie, do you hear that?” I whispered, nodding at the ceiling above.
Allie’s movements slowed to a halt and she looked up, following my eyes to the ceiling. Silence. The sound was gone as suddenly as it started. Yet again, Allie giggled at me and told me that I was a “wimp” and that I should be braver.
Upon finishing her inspection on the room, Allie insisted that we “needed” to explore the third room on the corridor, then we could go as I was obviously too much of a baby to continue. Was she seriously not feeling the sense of dread that was now firmly lodged in the pit of my stomach? How on earth could she be so blasé about the fact that we were in the middle of a creaky, abandoned house in the middle of an orchard and that nobody else knew where we were?
Allie placed one hand on the door of the third room, making sure not to drop her carefully gathered apples and pushed gently. The door swung open and we both gasped, me in horror and she, I suspect, in awe. This was obviously the room in which the fire had raged at its worst. It was a much smaller room than the other two and the window was extremely tiny, hardly allowing any light at all. The walls appeared to be almost totally black from grime; there was no furniture to be seen. The wall parallel to the kitchen had been entirely burnt through and we could see the outlines of the blackened remnants of kitchen units hanging like long dead prisoners manacled in some hellish dungeon. A dripping noise gained our attention. We looked to the source and noted a dirty grey puddle lying against the same burnt wall and leaking through into the kitchen. Looking up we saw a sizable hole burnt into the ceiling, appearing as emptily black and uninviting as the staircase. This was the source of the fluid and I knew then that I had had enough.
“This place is horrible,” I hissed at Allie.
All fantasies of fairies and princesses had long disappeared and been replaced with an unpleasant disquiet. This was no palace. It was a place where bad things happened. I had become certain of that and I wanted to leave.
Allie looked at me and sighed, “Okay,” and we turned to face the open doorway that lay at the end of the hall, as open and inviting as any ice cream parlour or toy shop.
This was when things started to take a turn towards the inexplicable.
We took several steps towards the door and we froze. Remember back in the day those toys called Space Hoppers? They looked like giant, heavy duty balloons with large ears that you held onto so you could sit on and bounce around. Well, Allie owned one. It was bright pink and had the face of a goofy bunny rabbit painted on the front. And it was there, out in the hallway near the base of the stairs, facing us. I remember that I felt physically sick. I had been correct; someone was there, but who on earth could it be? Oh, how silly we had been to just disappear like this. Had our brothers seen us sneaking off into the orchard and decided to play a joke on us similar to the one that we planned on playing on Allie’s brother that night? I stood frozen to the spot, not wanting to venture any further along the corridor and confront whatever must be lurking there waiting for us.
“Come on,” Allie whispered.
There was no other way out; I didn’t fancy my chances with either of the empty window frames in the first two rooms which still housed shards of broken glass. If I ripped my skirt, my mother would be furious.
I felt sick to my stomach as we slowly took several steps forward, more of the hallway coming into view revealing the wide, open mouth of the staircase. Suddenly, Allie was jumping up and down and howling with laughter. She grabbed my hand and pulled me onward. I looked up and felt an immediate sense of relief.
There, standing on the first step of the staircase, was Allie’s friend Evangeline. I had completely forgotten that her family had been invited to the dinner party. A year older than us, Evangeline lived in the road parallel to Allie’s, the road that boasted the entrance to Uttoxeter Racecourse where a lot of well to do, rich people lived. Evangeline was by character extremely bossy and horsey, a direct result of having grown up “privileged.” Upon our questioning of what she was doing there and did she see us sneak in, Evangeline smiled at us with that wide, cheeky, grin that we knew so well and she pointed up the stairs.
“Come upstairs,” she giggled in her distinct, rather posh voice (Evangeline’s father was the managing director of a company several cities away and she attended boarding school during term time and always returned for the holidays extremely well spoken,) “I have been exploring up there and I found something that I really want to show you.”
With that, she turned her back to us and bounded up several stairs. Allie of course moved forward immediately but gazing up into the pitch darkness and remembering the dripping black hole of the third room, something inside made me grab her wrist.
Without turning back around to look at us Evangeline spoke again.
“Come on,” she urged, “you really need to see what I found up here.”
At this point she was no longer bounding up the steps. She was walking very slowly one stair at a time, lifting one foot then the other without looking back. It almost looked as if time had slowed down. I found this odd and again a nagging feeling of disquiet gnawed at my stomach. What on earth could she have possibly been able to find in that pitch blackness? And quite honestly, what had she been doing up there all alone in the dark in the first place? It was the last place any well behaved little girl should be.
Evangeline took another step towards the darkness and stopped.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
This time her voice seemed laced with what sounded like an irritable, maybe even demanding tone. However, despite her obvious irritation she didn’t turn around and her arms hung down limply by her sides. Again Allie made a move forward. This time when I grabbed her, I yanked her back hard and she turned her large green eyes on me in surprise.
I looked up at Evangeline as she took another step into the ever increasing darkness and then something struck me. Evangeline was a girly girl. She, Allie and I often compared clothes. Remember in the 1980’s, those awful layered “Ra Ra” skirts with matching frilly T shirts or jumpers? Well Evangeline would never be seen without one of those outfits on, yet the girl in front of us was wearing what appeared to be cut off, mid calf length dark blue Jeans and a grey Sweatshirt. As I watched her climb, almost swallowed now by the unrelenting nothingness, it was then that I noticed something else. It had to be a trick of the eye surely? As the gloom closed in on her, her arms seemed to be growing longer and longer as they continued to hang limply by her sides. I looked across at Allie again and noticed that she too was staring at Evangeline and her eyes were now narrow and confused, as if for the first time she was getting some inkling that something may indeed be amiss.
I tried to take a step backwards but for the first time ever in my life I was paralysed with what must be irrational fear. It had to be the eeriness of the house coupled with the odd behaviour of our friend causing me to imagine things. Barely visible now, Evangeline finally stopped her slow, deliberate steps and turned around. She was nothing but a dark silhouette. Again we heard her speak. This time we heard it in a whisper but it seemed to me like the sound was inside our very heads.
“Are you coming to see what I found or will I need to come and fetch you?”
As she spoke the last few words, she reached out her arms towards us and, I kid you not, those arms looked like tentacles in the darkness. Black; almost fluid like, her arms appeared to snake through the air down the stairs towards us.
This broke the spell. Allie and I both suddenly found our feet, turned our backs on the thing on the staircase and shot out of the front door. Forgetting our plans to make fruit crumble, the apples tumbled from our jumpers. We stumbled madly through the undergrowth, finally bursting through the hole in the hedge, our hearts thundering and both of us sweating like pigs on a spit. Our brothers looked on in amusement at our disheveled appearance.
"What on earth had just happened?" I wondered. "What on earth had Evangeline been playing at scaring us like that?"
By this point, back in the safety of the garden (meaning back in our comfort zone) we briefly talked and convinced ourselves that the eerie nature of the upstairs of the house had caused our minds to play tricks on us. I even began to feel somewhat guilty for leaving our friend behind in that scary place.
Looking at each other, we stumbled up the garden path to the back door, both still rather shaken and desperate for a drink of water after which we were planning to try to convince our brothers to break the rules and accompany us back into the orchard to try to see if we could find Evangeline and bring her back with us.
The back door to Allie’s house opens to the kitchen which leads to a hallway that runs the entire length of the rather small house ending directly at the front door. We both had a quick drink of water gazing out into the hallway as we did so.
A knock at the front door caught our attention. We automatically walked forward to see Allie’s mother answer the door for Evangeline’s mother who was clutching a bottle of what looked like wine. She was apologising for being later than she expected and explaining how her car had failed to start after she had visited the bank in town and it had set her back half an hour. As she was ushered into the living room by Allie’s mother, our jaws dropped in terrified, gut wrenching horror as she moved to the side to reveal Evangeline behind her, hair braided neatly wearing a pink and white skirt and T shirt set and clutching a fluffy pink rucksack.
Allie and I gaped in horrified amazement and Evangeline stared back with a puzzled look on her face. Had we imagined our encounter in the abandoned house? Had it been someone else? Oh, the way children rationalise everything. We did after all still believe in fairies. It must have been another girl, but we had been so sure that it had been her.
Finally, the puzzled look evaporated from Evangeline’s face and she smiled at us, then moaned with that sense of entitlement that she always exuded that her day had been “reallllly boring” so far so and could we “pleasssse” go up to Allie’s room to play with her My Little Ponies for a while before dinner began? She passed her partially opened rucksack to Allie for her to hang it up on the pegs at the foot of the stairs. Allie glanced down at the bag and her face went white. I looked from Allie to Evangeline wondering what on earth was wrong now. Still smiling, Evangeline, now standing on the bottom step of the flight of stairs looked directly at me and simply said,“Silly, silly, silly,” as Allie dropped the rucksack in revulsion, spilling its fruity contents out onto the hall floor.
“You left behind your apples,” Evangeline continued, her eyes glinting wickedly. “How were you ever going to be able to make crumble without them? Now, are you both coming upstairs?”
Needless to say, in favour of the adult filled safety of the living room, we declined.