The house, council built at the end of the fifties, was unremarkable. It sat in a neat cul-de-sac of similar semi-detacheds which, for most of their existence, had been chock full of low to middle income families.
His parents had led a happy if unambitious life there, achieving their goal of successfully raising their son and eventually owning their own home following a sell off of stock by the local authority in the eighties. They’d invested a substantial part of their savings into refurbishing the property soon after completing the purchase but had died well short of enjoying it in retirement. He from cancer, she from a broken heart.
The house, now full only of echoes and memories, became a burden to their son that they had never intended it to be. He was reluctant to sell it, still hanging on to the last whiff of the happy childhood he’d spent there, clinging to increasingly fragile recollections of the parents he’d lost too soon.
By now he was married with a small son of his own and he drove the twenty miles or so from his new home to air the old place and tend to the lovingly maintained garden a couple of times a month. But work and family meant that it was getting harder to find the time. His wife persuaded him to rent it out for a while, as there was no question of them downscaling from their city house back to the by now, rather diminished, careworn village.
They soon found a tenant. A young single woman, her parents standing as guarantors. She payed the rent on time and seemed to settle quickly but a few weeks later changed her mind and moved back to her mother’s. The house was empty again for a couple of months.
The next tenants were a young couple, he knew the family and they were delighted with the house. He cut his visits to once every two months to collect the rent and check that everything was running smoothly. It all went well for the winter months and into the spring.
His next visit was in early summer daylight and he recoiled in horror at the sight that met him as he turned the corner to the back of the house. The young man, who fancied himself as a handy man, had decimated the shrubs in the well stocked garden. His intentions had been good but his skills as a gardener verged on the barbaric. He’d hacked limbs off twenty year old Acers, cut the cherry tree that had marked the family dog’s grave to an ugly stump and cleared the artfully arranged rockery of its mountain-sourced stones, thinking them a hindrance to his ham fisted efforts at weeding.
As landlord he kept his counsel but demanded, probably a little too forcefully, that the tenants consult him before so much as mowing the lawn in future. A couple of days went by before they gave notice that they would be moving on, she being promoted and transferred to the capital. Or so they said.
The dust gathered, the air got damp and musty but at least the garden began to regenerate over the next few months. They had no enquiries to their hand written notice in the local post office window.
His patient wife, pregnant again, suggested that now might be the time to finally let go, and sell the property. She was right, he concurred, reluctantly.
They found a buyer within three weeks. He felt relieved, until he realised that he would now have to empty the place, sell the remaining furniture, empty the linen cupboards and clear the attic.
It had always bothered him.
Dark. Cold. Silent.
It was full of his old toys, magazines, books. There were bits of furniture his parents thought might come back into fashion and bundles of birthday and anniversary cards his mother had kept for god knows why. She’d never looked at them.
His father had fashioned a rudimentary light to use up there. A five metre cable with a low wattage bulb. He’d taped a cup hook to it so that he could hang it from a nail in a roof truss. It did the job, but cast a withering, grainy, cream light that seemed to intensify the shadows rather than illuminate them.
He cursed himself for forgetting the step ladder. He’d emptied his father’s shed into his own garage a year ago but the contents still existed in his head and and he kept neglecting to bring the necessary tools, imagining them there, in their rightful place still.
No matter, he carried one of the heavy dining chairs to the top of the stairs and positioned it well back from the edge. He stepped up and pushed open the plywood hatch, fumbled around for the coiled light cable just inside and plugged it in the front bedroom where he’d kissed his first girlfriend.
He hoisted himself up from the chair via the bannister newell post and sat on the edge of the attic opening, pausing for his eyes to adjust to the dusty twilight. The first box contained two years worth of NME’s from the late seventies, he wasted some time flicking through them, remembering the thrill of discovering new, ever more interesting bands every Thursday morning on the way to school. He pulled it to the edge of the hatch and stepped down taking its weight with him and placed it in the boxroom to sort later.
He repeated the exercise several times into the afternoon with various outdated chairs, boxes of ornaments, a nest of tables and several boxes of Lego, Meccano and a Hornby railway set that he’d lusted over and cherished as a boy. But it was slow going without the ladder and he decided that this was going to take another day to complete and switched off the light, exhausted. He loaded the day’s spoils into his car before locking up and making his way home to rest.
He forgot the ladder again the next day. Remembering as he turned into the street, swearing loudly enough to cause some net curtains to twitch in disgust as he parked outside the house. He considered going back for it but that would waste another hour or so, so he carried the chair back upstairs instead.
He felt the soreness in his muscles from the day before as he hauled himself back up into the dimness above. He was encouraged to see that apart from a hopelessly derelict ironing board and an old rocking horse that was riddled with long dead woodworm he only had half a dozen or so boxes left to shift.
He made good time and as he got to the last box, a plastic toy castle that clipped satisfyingly together, something caught his eye at the far end of the roof space.
Over in the dark he had to peer to make out a dark silhouette, a hunched figure near the eaves. His first thoughts were of a garden gnome, or a long forgotten doll, but this was bigger. He rose from his crouched position near the hatch and began to move towards the object, ten metres away. It was strange he hadn’t noticed it earlier.
And then it blinked. And looked at him with a doleful eye.
Blind terror propelled him backwards through the hatch. He hit the chair hard, stumbled, and found his feet half way down the stairs. He didn’t stop until he got to the car, slammed the door and locked himself inside, panting, shaking with the fright.
After an hour of driving aimlessly around the village he somehow shamed himself into going back inside. He gingerly checked every room before quickly throwing the light cable back up the attic and pulling the hatch shut with a shudder. He carried the last few things to his car and left, never to return.
He didn’t tell anyone, not even his wife.
The bruises to his body healed and faded, the bruise to his mind remained.
Over the years he rationalised what he’d seen. He’d been tired and it was dark up there. He attempted to convince himself that it had been a barn owl, or a trick of the light. It could have been a bat, or a large tom cat.
But he always knew, deep down, that it wasn’t.