Jimmy’s hand shook on the handle. He closed the door and clicked the lock. Her eyes met his. His head shook, pre-empting the question. “It’s nothing.”
“I heard noises. A lot of noises.”
“I ended up in a cupboard.”
Connie laughed. “Silly. What’d you do that for?”
“I…” Jimmy began. He shook his head. The idea was preposterous. The figure over the sink… it wasn’t real! “It’s awfully hot and stuffy in here.”
Connie’s lips twisted. “Honestly, I thought it was bloody cold.” She purred serenely. “I’ve waited long enough. Come warm me up then, Jimmy.”
He turned slowly back to the room. A duvet wrinkled, the threads rubbing together. Jimmy rubbed his hands together similarly. The look of terror and desperation cracked apart between a wide smile. His face remained flush. Jimmy knew the blood was gushing somewhere else. The underwear slid down his sheened legs. Connie, her naked flesh glistening in the glow of the ancient lights.
Jimmy smiled wryly, slinking back into the bed. She moved her hands under the covers, making sure that he was ready to carry on. As her hand touched him, his smile opened. He was ready, and in a few brief, intense minutes the passion was out of them both as they sunk again into the mattress. The pocketed springs gave a last, long groan, and the couple finally fell into a happy, relieved slumber.
It was but a brief respite. Outside, the hazy sky filled with thunder and a storm buffeted the construction of the house. The spittle of rain on the clouded-up bedroom window became steadily more intense, more regular.
It also hid the sound of the lock clicking, padded footsteps pacing in through the bedroom door and the steady scrape of sharpened metal on the treads of the staircase.
In quick succession: THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
Connie quickly gasped. She shuddered, suddenly feeling a chill. Her eyes opened, and she saw the rain on the window. The frame was rattling in the wind. She took a breath, beginning to sit up. Rubbing her eyes, her ears now focused on the sound outside the door.
“Jimmy?” she whispered, prodding his shoulder. His back was still glistening with sweat from their passion and faced away from her. “Jimmy!”
He murmured again, and sleepily gestured her away. As if to say not right now.
“Yes, now!” she hissed, her foot finding his leg. He shook, then got up out of bed. He found the door handle in the darkness. The handle rattled but didn’t move. There was an electrical buzzing and, as he noticed the lights in the room had extinguished, his head turned.
“Did you turn out the lights?”
Before Connie could answer, the bedroom door seemed to fall open by itself. Jimmy’s head turned, and, with a grunt of surprise, he saw Mrs. Chaldean, standing in the doorway.
“Still awake, love?” she said sweetly. Jimmy looked at her suspiciously. Her voice was loaded with such sweetness, he thought, he might contract diabetes from it in an instant. He didn’t answer. The landlady gave a cursory glance down. “Didn’t you pack any pyjamas, love? Dear me…”
Jimmy quickly covered his modesty. If there was enough light the landlady would’ve seen his face light up like a traffic light. The door closed in a swish of air. “Sorry, sorry!”
Connie laughed as Jimmy retrieved his clothes from the heap on the floor. He stood up, just as a muffled but distinct voice came through the door.
“No funny business in the room, please, my loves!”
Jimmy didn’t answer. He stared at Connie. His eyes returned to Mrs. Chaldean. In the gloom b y her legs, a black plastic sack, like those used for rubbish, flapped and crackled. Their gaze met. Jimmy said nothing about the sack.
“I hope that isn’t too much to ask, to keep the room clean and tidy! It’s… one of my little ways, I’m sorry,” the voice of Mrs. Chaldean continued. “Well, I’ll be going to my room now. Sleep well, dears. Sleep!”
Some low, light thuds echoed through the building as Mrs. Chaldean climbed the stairwell to the third floor, where her quarters were. Jimmy, breathless, looked to Connie. He climbed back into the bed.
“We’re out of here by eight tomorrow, alright?” He growled. His eyes rolled to upstairs, as he heard a wheeze of a mattress, much quieter than the racket that Jimmy and Connie had connived to bring about. Then silence.
“Alright, alright,” Connie relented. “Come to bed.”
Jimmy gave a sceptical glance to the room, as if he could see something in the darkness, but shook his head. He felt drowsy and the pillows on the bed next to Connie looked much more inviting now.
Finally, it seemed that the ghosts that lurked the corridors of Holman Hall would let their guests slumber. Jimmy slipped into the bed. The sheets crinkled. He felt Connie’s warmth close by, and a hand wandered from his side toward hers, tenting the linen subtly, then meeting the taut flesh. She hummed, and he hummed too, taking a deep breath of her essence.
Eyes closed, Jimmy smiled, and his tented hands fell flat on Connie’s thigh, and wandered further in a well-rehearsed dance of the five fingers. He took another deep breath, about to make the final flourish of his act, but the breath stirred him in a way he didn’t expect. In the dark his eyes screwed up and his naked shoulders rolled restlessly. He withdrew, feeling a tingling sensation in the back of his mind. Somehow, his eyes open now and glistening, he felt he was being observed by a force of powers unimaginable.
“What?” Connie murmured, feeling the disturbance in the bed and the removal of Jimmy’s hand.
He waved, making a noncommittal noise, and let the drowsiness descend onto his dewy eyes, and fell into a perturbed, slumber, his arms like those of plastic figurines, cast closely to his self. They stayed there, stiff and immobile, all night.
A cold draft rattled the loose window frame again. It roused Connie. She’d been awake for a good while already but maintaining the pretence of sleep with closed eyes. Maybe this strange house would melt into her familiar surroundings if she wished it hard enough?
She opened her eyes after the rattling carried across the room. She took a shallow breath. Cold stale air. Connie sat up, and the chill caught her skin, bringing out goosepimples on her naked breasts as the duvet fell with the same raspy sound that had kept her awake with every subconscious movement.
Next to her, Jimmy murmured incomprehensibly as he stirred, his eyes opening slowly. He smiled, seeing her sitting in bed, gazing sleepily across the top of her goose pimpled frontage.
Before she could reply, there was a clatter outside and the door to the room flung open. Quickly, Connie wrenched the cover up. Mrs Chaldean leant in.
“Hello loves,” she smiled. “Did you sleep well?”
Neither responded with more than hums. She continued. “Well, there’s a hearty breakfast downstairs for you both. Now get dressed, it’ll not stay hot for long.”
Jimmy sat up next to Connie. “What time is it?”
“Six-thirty, loves. About time you young things were up and out of that bed, I should think!” Mrs. Chaldean trilled, drawing the door closed with a muffled thump.
Connie threw the bedcovers off, despite the coldness that brought up her skin like a Christmas turkey. She looked out of the window, seeing sunshine in the sky but not feeling any of its warmth. Turning back, she saw Jimmy propped up in the bed.
“Well?” he asked.
“What is her problem?!” Before Jimmy could answer, she continued. “Get dressed. We’re having breakfast,” she snapped, looking around. Even in daylight the room seemed dark at the top, the ceiling cast in an eternal shadow. “Then we’re leaving. Out by eight.”
Jimmy pulled himself out of the bed and threw on his T-shirt. “If you say so…”
“Don’t you want a shower?” she asked. She gave him a wily regard. “We could have a-“
“No.” Jimmy said firmly. The bathroom was mentally out of bounds after the night he’d had. He swallowed hard. “Just… no. Not here.”
“Unlike you. On both fronts.”
“I’m not feeling like it. Not… not now.”
Searching through her bag for a creased pair of jogging pants and a similarly-ruined camisole, Connie looked at Jimmy. “I don’t quite know what it is, but something in this house… it creeps me out. And I want to go.”
Jimmy finished dressing by pulling on a cardigan from the bottom of his backpack over his shoulders and opened the door. “Ladies first,” he said playfully. Connie, despite her scorn, couldn’t fail to smile, just a tiny bit.
The dining room looked brighter than it did the night before, and as the couple trooped down the staircase, the sound of clattering cutlery against porcelain grew steadily louder, and the warm scent of a cooked breakfast wafted, meeting Jimmy and Connie midway down. They paused for a moment, savouring it.
“It’ll be just a minute my loves, come in!”
Jimmy did so, but Connie paused for a moment. Her eyes were drawn to the locked door of the reception room. In the morning sun the hallway was full of motes of hanging dust, disturbed only by the passage of the two guests toward the dining room. Her gaze on the door was broken only by the rattling of the dining room handle under Jimmy’s hands. Shaking her head, she followed.
“Eat, eat!” Mrs. Chaldean called. Jimmy and Connie sat down, and the old lady placed a plate of cooked eggs, bacon and beans before them. She gestured to a small metal rack and dish in the centre of the table. “Toast and butter too, if you want to mop up afterwards.”
Jimmy reached across the table, but Mrs. Chaldean quickly moved, exclaiming. “Use the tongs, dear! Can’t have any nasties from your hands on the toast!”
“I did wash…” Jimmy began, lying. He caught Connie’s severe gaze. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Not to worry dear, we can all make some mistakes. That’s two so far for you.”
“Two, what do you…” he began to protest, but felt a pain bolting across his shin. He corrected course quickly, for the second time in as many minutes.
Connie piped up quickly. “Well, let’s keep it that way.”
“Yes, lets,” the landlady replied with a sigh. The conversation petered out, replaced with the sounds of breakfast being eaten.
As they ate, Mrs. Chaldean excused herself. The kitchen door clattered closed. Pulling back her shawl, she checked the watch on her withered wrist. Wordlessly she acknowledged the tiny movement, then made a tiny movement herself, gliding across to the sideboard by the door. The register opened under the lightest of touches, the pages flittering past, propelled by a mystical kind of hurry.
“Let’s change that, shall we?” Mrs. Chaldean hummed to herself. “Put that right.” She crossed the latest two entries in the register.
“Mrs Chaldean!” a voice called. She looked, subconsciously looking at the living room door. It hadn’t moved. Then Mrs. Chaldean looked back to the kitchen. Better. “Coming, my loves.”