The Thing In The Hall by Mark Prescott

 

My Auntie is great, but a little bit crackers. But that’s family for you and we wouldn’t have them any other way. She is a proper scouser though, tough as old boots and not afraid to use choice words when necessary (or even if it’s not frankly.) She’s lived in the same house all her life, a typical basic terrace house in need of modernisation and looking a little Victorian. Like a lot of cities, the area of Liverpool she lives in isn’t great, lots of loud delinquent kids wandering around the estate, lots of boarded up properties and old rusty cars abandoned on the road, their windows long since smashed.

I walked up the moss covered cracked pathway up to the heavy duty front door and knocked loudly. She’s a little deaf these days and is a nuisance for forgetting to turn her hearing aid on. Cue the usual ritual…”hold yer horses…I’m coming” echoes from somewhere within and I hear the slow shuffling footsteps as they approach the door as one by one the metallic chinks of the slide locks move to one side followed by a heavy clunk as an old rusty key turns in the lock.

I smile warmly as I see the familiar face of my old Aunt and she smiles back a toothless grin and with her arms outstretched, we embrace as if we haven’t seen each other in years. It was only actually last week but that doesn’t matter, it’s always nice to see her. “Come on them soft lad, get inside, you’re letting all the heat out.” I negotiate my way through the cluttered hallway full of coats, umbrellas and items that are far too tall or cumbersome for such a small space. The dusty old grandfather clock is the dominating feature of the hallway though, standing proud amongst it all, taking up too much space. I carefully negotiate my way past it and into the musty lavender scented lounge, complete with an ancient piano (which hasn’t been tuned since the twenties I shouldn’t wonder) old sofa, even older armchair (which of course don’t match) and all sorts of piles of books, papers, and bric a brac. She always was a hoarder, and there’s no point in trying to tell her to stop now at her age. Besides, it adds to the charm of her and the old place.

She says he same thing every time any family through that heavy front door “get inside you’ll let all the heat out”, “mind you wipe your feet”, “ go straight in, watch out for the thing in the hall, sit down, make yourself comfortable and I’ll make us some tea.” It doesn’t matter whether you like tea or not, she would make it anyway. You learn over time just to let her get on with it, it’s much easier than trying to suggest an alternative even when I was a kid. I knew that my mum had done her shopping and had brought bottles of lemonade, cola (and the odd bottle of sherry) but it didn’t matter, you got tea and that was that.

“So what have you been up to then?” came the voice from the kitchen. “Not a lot” I reply. “Just work stuff, nothing exciting I’m afraid.” My eyes took in the familiar surroundings of the room. There are dark fading watercolours in poorly constructed wooden frames on the wall that have been there since I can remember. The wooden shelves bursting with papers and books from all manner of subjects and in no order whatsoever and the usual copy of the radio times on the dusty coffee table in front of me. To most, the room might be considered rather stereotypical of an elderly ladies front room, not so much prim and proper, but “lived in”, as they say. But to me, it’s so welcoming a sight that it almost makes me sigh in contentment.

“I’ve had a few visitors today” she announces, as I hear the distinct sound of biscuits landing on a plate. “Susan’s been in with my paper, our Liam popped in this morning on his way to work and a fella came round earlier about the roof, said he’d pop round again later with something to sign so you won’t be the last visitor I have today, it’s all go.”

“What do you mean, came over about the roof, what’s wrong with it? I asked. “You’ve never mentioned this before. Is it something I can look at for you?” I don’t know the first thing about roofing, and im not great on a ladder, but I hate the idea of her having a large bill for something at her age if there’s a chance one of us can help her with it. As is often the case, there’s no immediate reply, just the sound of tea being poured into cups and the rattle of crockery. “I said.. is it something I can help with?” She totters in from the kitchen holding the tray containing two cups of steaming tea and a plate of assorted biscuits. “With what?” she asks. I repeat myself loudly. “You know, you’ve just been telling me about the roof, is there something I can look at for you save workmen bothering you and all that. Have you got your hearing aid in Auntie?”

“I can hear you perfectly well, now make yourself useful and pull that table over.” I got up and dragged the small table over to the space between the sofa and the armchair as she perched the tray on top of it and shuffled over to her armchair, lowering herself down into it slowly it. She gets herself about well for someone her age really, I can only hope I can still move myself around at her age. “Now then, what were you saying?” she asked. “The workmen, about the roof…the one that’s coming….” I stopped mid sentence having glanced at the shelf by her chair and spied the discarded hearing aid lying on a copy of the Liverpool Echo. “You little fibber!” I snapped, “If you’ve got your hearing aid in, how come I can see it over there hey?” pointing across to her shelf.  “Oh go’way, I’m alright, I keep telling you I don’t need it, it’s too noisy with that in me lug’ole.”

I try to lecture her about it but it’s pointless, she’s survived this long without one and she’s still got that stubborn streak in her making her believe she is still in perfect working order, god love her. I take a sip of the hot tea and take a rich tea biscuit from the plate. I can almost see the mischievous little grin on her face, winning this latest round of the battle of the hearing aid. “So what time is this bloke coming?” I asked, having accepted defeat this time. “He said any time after 3 and after me he’s got to go to Barbara next door and then all the others as it’s the whole row he said”. I glanced at the clock on the wall, showing ten past three. “Could be anytime now that Auntie, I’ll hang on for him with you if that’s ok. I don’t trust these door to door types, they could be a scam, you hear about them all the time on the news and in the paper, and you’ve got to be careful these days you know.” She didn’t reply, but then, she probably didn’t hear me properly. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door.

“Door Auntie!!” I shouted, as clearly she hadn’t heard it. There was a faint growling sound from near the front door. “Bloody ‘ell!” I shouted, “He’s brought a dog as well! What’s he done that for?, that’s intimidating to people that.” As she slowly got up from her chair and shuffled towards the hallway, I decided to stay put so I could overhear what he had to say and jump in if needs be. My Aunt smiled as she shuffled past me towards the door. “Have another biscuit” she ordered on her way past.

She paused briefly in the hallway, then proceeded to slide back the chains on the door and slowly turned the key in the lock and pulled the heavy door open.  I instantly heard the voice of the stranger. “Hello again missus! Back as promised! Now further to what we discussed earlier today, I’ve drawn up a quote here for you so all I need from you is a signature there and we can get started, ok?” I disliked him already. “Come on through lad” she exclaimed “wipe your feet, watch out for the thing in the hall, sit yourself down.” I heard him thank her and make his way in. “’Best leave that dog of yours outside mate” I exclaimed, thinking that would surprise him, but in fact he surprised me. “Oh, alright there mate! I err…. I haven’t got a dog mate…. I’ve err….just come about the ladies roof”.

He was right, there was no dog. “Oh, sorry,” I replied, “I thought I heard one outside.” He was already looking a bit surprised to see someone else at home. Definitely shifty this one I thought. “No mate, but I reckoned there was one here” he said jokingly, “I heard something by the door so I was preparing myself in case it was a Doberman or somethin’!” He proceeded to sit down on the sofa and pulled out a pad full of scribbles and numbers. “It’s all there love as we discussed, all I need from you is your signature and a cheque for £3000.” I nearly spat my tea out at him. “HOW much? Three grand? You’re havin’ a laugh mate, let me see that” and I made for the pad of scribbles he was holding. He pulled it away from me instantly. “Whoah, hold on pal, it’s the old ladies decision not yours and it needs to get done before winter sets in as its gonna be a bigger job then and it’ll cost twice as much, I’m telling you.” My Auntie was making her way back to her armchair “Im more than capable of looking after my own affairs, I’m not senile yet y’know” she barked as she sunk back down into the chair.

The growling sound I’d heard earlier was louder this time. I didn’t even know next door had a dog, must be a bit of a monster too. I must remember to have a word about that with Auntie before I leave, but that’s another issue. This one is more pressing. “That’s a big dog you’ve got missus! Hope he’s housetrained!” My Auntie turned to him, confusion etched over her face. “What was that again?” she asked. To save time, I jumped in. “He thinks you’ve got a dog Auntie that’s all. Put that hearing aid in will yer?” she looked at the man sitting on her sofa in surprise “Oooh no! I can’t have a dog in here, oooh no!” and she finally leaned over to pick up the hearing aid and started to fiddle about with it.

I went to grab the pad again but he again pulled it away from me. This guy is as dodgy as hell and I want him out of here. “Now listen pal,” I began “I wanna see some ID from you, nobody is signing anything until I see some form of identification and while you’re at it, you can come outside and show me where three grand’s worth of repairs are needed on this roof. Which, by the way, I believe you’re asking from all the people living on this block, so you can show me the rest and all...” I can feel myself getting worked up now, I hate cowboy builders and I hate con artists even more. If he was what he claimed to be he would have simply shown me something official, but of course he didn’t. He didn’t like where I was going with it and so immediately went on the defensive.

“Oh so you’re a qualified roofer are you mate? If I point it out will you know what you’re looking at? No, I don’t think so. Do me a favour mate, leave it to the experts and calm yourself down. I went through all of this earlier with your Auntie here.” Yeah, a load of bull I thought. As she clearly hadn’t yet even put her hearing aid in, there’s no chance that she had any idea what he was telling her and wouldn’t have even heard most of it anyway. I’ve had just about enough of this guy. He calmly continued “This house is the first one in the row and once the others have signed up too, we can start the work and get it all done in one go, we don’t want to be waiting for one of the properties as its best to do it all at once, for labour costs of course…”

I sat there momentarily and worked out what that would mean. “Do you mean to tell me that all of the other houses on this row are gonna pay you three grand to repair their bit of roof? There’s got to be 6 or 7 houses here, are you saying this job is going to cost over twenty grand? That’s an insurance issue that mate, long before we get into paying money out to anyone. These are all elderly people here, you could be taking advantage of them so where’s that ID?” I felt myself getting angrier the more I spoke to him.

My Auntie, still fumbling with her hearing aid, was now clearly fed up with the noise, “Oooh pipe down you two will yer? Ooh it’s bad enough with that thing without you two fighting like cats and dogs and all. Now what is it you want? You ….need me to sign something do you?”. “You’re not signing anything Auntie” I loudly interrupted. The guy next to me was becoming anxious and was clearly concerned about losing the business and the cheque the way it was going. Turning to me in an effort to try and reassure me he calmly announced “look, I’ve got ID, just not with me. I didn’t think it would be an issue because we agreed everything earlier,” as he then turned to my Auntie and continued “and I’ll be on my way once I’ve got your signature on here and the cheque, then we can then get started, ok?” before rising from the sofa ready to hand over a sheet of paper.

My Auntie turned herself around in her chair to face the hallway, with next doors dog becoming much louder and making more of a wheezing sound now, clearly not helping the situation at all. It must be bothering her day and night making that kind of noise, I thought. It doesn’t even sound like a dog now, more like a horse or something. God knows what sort of animal they’ve got.

“Well let me see….” my Auntie suddenly announced, “what do you think?” She had turned away from me, looking into the hallway. Surely she’s not going blind as well? I’m surprised she even needed to ask me anyway, I thought she already knew my thoughts on it. This idiot next to me certainly does. I was about to start again about his ID when I looked up and noticed the expression on the guys face, it was one of terror. His skin had gone quite pale and his eyes were just staring out from their sockets. Ha! It’s because he knows he’s been found out and now he’s got to get himself out of it! No. That’s not it. This was something else. I followed the direction of his terrified eyes to the hallway. I felt my breath leave me, and every ounce of my being froze.

The sight that I beheld will stay with me forever. It was not a man, nor a beast, but something in between, thin, black and sinister. Its shiny black body with its elongated arms were silhouetted in the doorway between the white interior of the hallway and the room we were in. It looked something like a tall thin tree root, with black twigs or branches protruding out of it from everywhere. Its shiny black head was bowed and it seemed to have a faint outline of smoke or steam around it. An unearthly wheezing sound was emanating from it which sent shivers up my spine. The terror that consumed me and the roofer next to me was momentarily disturbed when my Auntie again barked out “Well….what do you think?” clearly addressing the thing in the doorway.

It slowly raised its sleek shiny head and turned it slowly towards the roofer, glancing past me. There were no eyes, there were no features at all, just a shiny smooth surface where a face should be. It stopped when facing him directly and tilted its head at him, the wheezing sound now becoming louder. The roofer tried to speak but nothing would come out and he just stuttered, sweat now forming on his forehead. The creature tilted its head to the other side. What was this thing? What was it doing? My Auntie was watching its every move but she did not seem terrified by it at all.

“P-p-please…” uttered the roofer, get it away from me… get it away!” It continued to face him tilting its head from one side to the other. I couldn’t move. I wanted to run but I just couldn’t make my legs work. Besides, I didn’t know if I should move, maybe that would provoke it and it would turn its attentions to me. I looked over to my Auntie, she was smiling. I wanted to speak but no words would come out, I could feel myself shaking now. Just then it started to move. Slowly, on black shiny stalk like limbs, it began to move forwards, scraping the carpet at it walked, still tilting its head from side to side, still facing the direction of the roofer.

With a bloodcurdling scream, the roofer broke out of his trance and threw his arm out at me, knocking me back down onto the couch as he tore away from the room at speed into the back kitchen and towards the door to the outside. I knew my Auntie always kept it locked, he couldn’t get out that way, but I wished now she didn’t as it seemed like a pretty smart move to me right now. The black creature crossed in front of me as I lay prostrate on the couch, the sinister wheezing sound coming from it now much louder as it passed. If it looks at me I thought, I don’t think I will ever recover... But it didn’t. It carried on across the floor on its stalk like legs towards the kitchen where the roofer was frantically pulling at the handle and throwing himself against the frame of the door, still crying out “ get it away from me…get it away!”.

The thing continued and passed out of my line of sight. I carefully and very slowly sat myself up and looking back towards the kitchen, moved towards my Auntie. I had to get her out of here. I glanced behind me briefly towards her holding out my arm hoping she would take hold and I could usher her outside as quickly as I could get her to move. She must be as terrified as I am, she’ll move alright. But she was in no rush. She was still sat there smiling sweetly at me. “It’s alright” she said, “it looks after me y’know. You’ll see….”

I gave her a baffled look as the sound from the kitchen grew louder, shrieks of terror from the roofer and a last desperate thudding sound as he threw his full weight against the door. The door shuddered open and we heard his screams as he darted through it, his screams getting quieter as he ran into the garden and presumably mounted the fence to get away, there was no other way out after all. “Come on Auntie!!!” I cried “we need to get out NOW!” She shook her head softly. “You don’t understand yet do you? You great soft sod! No harm will come to us. It’s just chased him off that’s all, he was clearly a bad egg. So you can let go of my arm now soft lad”.

I was stunned. She genuinely had no fear of this thing at all. She was talking about it like it was some sort of pet. I span around toward the kitchen. It might be coming back. Oh no… It was. I could hear it wheezing loudly. I backed away towards the doorway of the hall. “Come on Auntie!! Get up! We’ve got to go now!” I made another attempt to grab her arm but she pulled it away from me with a petulant “gerroff”. The thing entered the far side of the room, its head tilted to one side and its stalk like legs still making their way across the carpet towards us. “Auntie!!!” I shouted, but she wasn’t interested. She leaned across her chair towards the advancing creature. It was then I noticed it was holding something in its black elongated twig like fingers.

“Now what have you got there then?” my Auntie asked it. It tilted its head the other way and dropped the roofer’s pad of paper on the carpet in front of her. She looked at it and chuckled loudly. “That’s the last we‘ll see of him I think.” She turned to me but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the shiny black featureless face of the sinister looking creature in front of us. “Well…?” she began, “aren’t you going to say hello? It’s not very often you see it y’know. You’re privileged.” Every instinct in my body was telling me to turn around and run as fast as I could through the hall and out the front door. But if she wasn’t scared of this thing, there must be a reason. I’ve got to figure out what’s going on here. What the hell is this thing?

Stuttering, I mustered just enough courage to get out a feeble “h—h—hi.” It tilted its head to the other side and back again, all the while making that sinister wheezing noise. What was it doing? Was it about to go for me? I wondered. I felt behind me to feel the frame of the door and tried to figure out how much time I’d have to try and open the front door if it went for me. My Auntie tutted loudly, shaking her head. “This is my nephew” she stated “but you know that don’t you? You’ve seen him lots of times” she turned towards me as she said “ he takes a little while to understand things, but then, we all do I suppose.”

I looked back at her, mystified as to how she could be so calm and unmoved by the events that were happening around her. I hadn’t noticed the creature had moved a few steps towards me until I looked back in its direction and almost died from the shock of seeing my own terrified reflection in its shiny black surface. It bowed its head as I stared in terror and started to move backwards slowly feeling again for the frame of the door. I was only surprised that my legs would move at all.

“Ahem…” my Auntie coughed, “you’re in the way soft lad”. I moved quickly, backwards through the doorway, then turned and ran, almost throwing myself at the front door, fumbling to find the handle. I realised with despair that she had slid all the chains back into place and it was locked again too. A heavy air of resignation engulfed me as I realised couldn’t make a quick exit even if I wanted to. I was trapped. I span around with my back firmly against the door desperately scanning for the old brass key and watched as the sinister shape of the root like creature came through the doorway wheezing, a thin haze of steam surrounding its black shiny surface as its stalk like legs moved closer and turned towards me. So this was it. I could never have pictured this was how I would go. I just hope it’s quick. I closed my eyes.

Nothing happened. The wheezing had stopped. I opened my eyes slowly to the familiar surroundings of my Aunties hallway. She was staring at me, with a look of disapproval. The creature had vanished.

“My hero” she uttered sarcastically, rolling her eyes to the heavens. “Honestly”. She shuffled back into the lounge shaking her head. I looked around anxiously, but there was no sign of it. I looked at the dark staircase to the side of the hallway. It must have gone upstairs I thought. I slowly crept toward the foot of the stairs and timidly looked into the darkness. “What are you doing now soft lad? It’s ok...It’s gone. So you can just settle down now.” I wasn’t convinced, the thing itself was so dark it could hide anywhere, maybe I should go and take a look… “Will yer give over!!!!!” she barked, making me jump. I backed away and walked slowly into the lounge. I could feel myself still trembling.

I turned to my Auntie, she was by her chair fumbling with the hearing aid. “I told yer, it’s gone. You won’t see it again for a good while now, if at all.” She shoved the hearing aid into her right ear and breathed a contented sigh. “Ah, that’s better, I can hear properly now. It sometimes gets too loud, all that wheezing, it’s too much with this in sometimes so I don’t always have it in y’see.” She shuffled over to me, placed her right hand on my right cheek, looked sympathetically into my eyes and gave me a few playful slaps on the left cheek before turning and shuffling over towards the kitchen saying ”Now then…..you’ll be wanting a drink after all that won’t you? Let’s see what I’ve got in…” I was still speechless, still trying to get my head around what just happened.

I sat down slowly, trance like onto the couch, unable to know what to say, what question I should start with even. I heard the familiar clattering of crockery in the kitchen and the clinking of glass. I sat down slowly onto the sofa. Eventually, the words floated up from the pit of my stomach up to my mouth and gasped out of me. “Auntie…..what….was….that?” I turned to see her shuffling in with a tray containing a plate of biscuits and a glass of what I can only hope was whiskey. She placed the tray down on the table and turned towards me, patting me on the head as she shuffled past. “Now don’t you go worrying yourself” she began calmly. “I know it must seem strange, truth be told it doesn’t show itself very often, just makes a racket mostly. You’re the first member of the family who’s seen it I think.”

I picked up the whiskey from the tray and eagerly knocked it back in one, gasping as I put the glass back down onto the tray empty. I doubt I’ve never needed a drink as much as that in my life. It seemed to do the trick as I felt able to speak properly all of a sudden. “Auntie” I pleaded, “you can’t stay here with something like that in the house, its….its….dangerous. Come on, get your coat and your handbag and we’ll go now, I’ll call someone… get rid of it for you.” I looked deep into her eyes pleadingly but it was no use, she remained as ever a stubborn old soul.

“Behave yourself soft lad” dismissing me, “It’s been good for me. A bit of company, y’know, and it looks after me.” She pointed towards the window. “Those little tearaways out there don’t bother me anymore since it chased one of them off”. I tried to interrupt her but she was having none of it. “And no, I don’t know what it is or where it came from. I reckon it came with that old clock in the hall there, it was only after that arrived that I started to notice all the noise.” I glanced back to the hallway, looking intently at the side of the dusty old grandfather clock. “Anyway, It only really shows itself whenever there’s any bother.” I tried to interrupt but she continued. “Now, I’m not ashamed to admit I was a bit frightened at first. I didn’t sleep for a few nights when I first saw it in the hallway after Margaret’s funeral. I’d often heard it, but thought it must be the old boiler.”

“Auntie, listen…” I tried again to get a word in but she started again, quite forcefully this time. “But I’ve lived through a war and it’s never done me any harm lad. It’s kept unwanted visitors away too.” She turned to look out of the window. There was a real sense of calmness about her. “It knows… you see” she continued staring at the outside world, “It’s only bad sorts that it doesn’t like.“ She then smiled and laughed to herself. “It even watched Corrie with me once…” with that she shuffled back towards the kitchen whilst I sat bewildered. “So make sure you’re nice to your old Auntie!” she barked with hidden amusement. She stopped and turned back towards me and, with a knowing smile, said “After all, I do always tell people to watch out for the thing in the hall.”