One day my hand will slip onto the handle and I’ll enter that room. I doubt I’ll return. As I age, as my memory slips and the redness of my face glows that bit brighter each day, I know I’m losing the fight. I tell myself that perhaps I am being pessimistic, that I may enjoy it, but in moments of increasingly rare clarity I know it’s not true.
Rooms are not alive, yet inside it is warm – it knows my moods and miseries. Carpet and oak should not flow with the warmth and feeling of something living, like that of a horse just finished the gallop. Bricks and mortar do not choose when to be – they are either there or they are not, they do not choose their timings with menace.
I remember first entering because I recall its colour, the vivid red walls with a warm glow of their own. Like most of my generation, I was raised in a house three generations removed from its foundation, but one generation from restoration. Our terrace was not crumbling, but the interior had ripened to varying degrees of brown.
Yet the unpretentiousness suited the puritanical bent of my parents, for whom decoration was a distraction from the righteous life, along with television, holidays and drink.
However, the reflective nature of their lives had not yet affected me at age six. The whole world was still to be explored, so a strange, wood-panelled room was to be entered without hesitation. Inside was what seemed at the time to be a gigantic desk and chair – nothing of interest to a small child, so I soon wandered back out. I may have forgotten this had I not asked my mother why we had a room with such big furniture – I think I called it the giant’s room – but she dismissed my question as the product of an overactive imagination. I saw the room two more times in that house when I was slightly older, and on both occasions I refrained from entering.
We – my mother, father and I – moved house and I thought no more of it until I went to Crete with some friends from university. That holiday was one of discovery for me – of the other sex, and the joy I found in a new way of opening up. Though the hangovers pained me, I enjoyed the confidence and loquaciousness I gained. With this group of friends – acquaintances really, keen to have another body to save costs on the room – I did things I’d never done before. Chatting up girls, hitting up bars – even laughing out loud – were things I had once avoided. But in the morning, when I had recovered, I was my usual, quiet self. More quiet than normal, as I recalled some of the things I had said and done, inwardly reprimanding myself.
A few nights in, when the ouzo flowed ever more generously – more in fact than I’d ever drunk in my short life – I took back a local girl I’d met in one of the clubs. Drink clears my memory, but I recall her waking to ask for the bathroom and me gesturing to some door or other.
When she didn’t return I assumed that I – neither a particularly handsome nor confident man – had been left on the night of his first experience. Yet on our final trip into town I saw a sheet of paper with her photo and words in incomprehensible Greek script. Fortunately our flight was that day and I never returned to Crete. I didn’t return home much either after that, growing so distant from my parents that even now contact is limited to me posting Christmas cards – their sending of one to a disappointing son being an extravagance.
From then on the wood-panelled room began appearing in the various houses I moved into after graduation, like it had lost my scent all those years ago but had now regained it, tracking me with vigour. One night I awoke to find a door I’d never had before on my wall. I pulled the covers over my head and was soon back asleep.
A few months later I saw it again. Fearful – yet curious – I turned on the light, and once my eyes adjusted to the brightness the door had disappeared. So the next time I saw it I left the light off and padded to the door. It took several attempts, with me flinching back each time, before I could confidently grab the handle, but I could not turn it. Yet by grasping the round knob, I felt a release: I felt the door relax somehow, as if flexing to make my opening as smooth as possible, that it wished to atone for the mistake of being shut.
After this the haunting stopped and once more I forgot. It was not until after another decade and several new homes that it returned. And this time I saw the full danger of it. I’d had a fiancée, but it hadn’t worked out – I thought a proposal would show Lisa I was fairly serious – and for several days I’d taken to home, whisky and tobacco. Several bottles in, she returned to claim her belongings but I was in a belligerent mood and she soon fled.
I passed out and awoke to find a man stuffing clothing into bags. Lisa sauntered into the room, now smug rather than afraid to find me in such a state. I roared at them to leave but the man took the nod from Lisa to continue. I leapt on him but after being hurled into the sofa I was resigned – bar a few more curses – to what was happening and asked for a bottle to be passed from my sideboard. Her man tossed a small flask my way.
I uncapped it but then froze. The door was there. Lisa was saying something, trying to return the engagement ring, but I knocked her hand away. They left. I think it was through the door.
The police came and investigated, but in the end nothing was proved. I still don’t know if Lisa and her man exited via that door. She’d always said she wanted a new life, so perhaps she is enjoying the sun in some expat ghetto. She was always the spiteful type, and with no family of her own to worry about her, I imagined it was she who reported herself missing. Yes, they are out on the coast in Thailand, or South America, still laughing about it. At me.
The room returned. Sometimes the door was open, but the furniture that was once gigantic was now designed for a midget. There were things on the desk: a ledger, and a pen in an old holder. I stumbled up to the door but had the sense to push myself off the frame. So it continued, the room toying with me, appearing when it wished, in daylight now as well as night, secure of its quarry, playing until it tired.
Life continued normally, sometimes with girls, but they always got home safely – I made sure I showed them the door, no matter how intense the row or tiresome the hour. One night, alone, I was startled awake and for an instant, in the dark, I feared I had awakened in that room. But before I hit the light, I heard the clump of someone walking into something solid and knew I was in my own house.
Keeping the bedside light off, I patted around for a discarded bottle and held it as a club as I rose from bed. There was a man at my door – my bedroom, normal, door. I screamed, not in rage but terror, yet rather than run as I would have had I been in his position, he swung at me with a crowbar.
I was on the floor and inched backwards to the wall, a trapped animal. But when I leant against the wall – for I could not take my eyes off his face, waxy in the streaming streetlight – I felt a warmth. It was the door, my special door, and without a second thought I opened it, went through and threw it back.
The door was an inch from closing when it halted. The intruder’s shoe jutted over the frame. With a thud, he’d pushed the door open, but this was a mistake. He must have been expecting me to be pushing against it, but I was too terrified even for that. He tumbled into the room.
With him still on the floor, I dashed back into my bedroom and the door slammed behind me. Though bed was tempting, I ran down out of my house, past the smashed window, and called to my long-suffering neighbour who, accustomed to my noisome appearance at late hours, took some convincing but eventually agreed to call the police.
When they arrived they found no trace of the burglar and assumed that, if it wasn’t another drunken escapade, any intruder had long since escaped. But I know he could not, for I never heard any steps behind me on the stairs. I know he is in that room, the room.
The door was open this morning. Something glinted on the desk and there was a faded stain on the carpet, a deep, rich, reddened brown. Many times now the door has appeared next to my own, and the last time I nearly grabbed its handle.
Perhaps it will claim me. I have wondered:what if it can appear in place of my normal door? Since that thought struck me I have checked and triple-checked handles, feeling for warmth or sensation when I grab them. Perhaps if I give up alcohol I’ll escape, but I couldn’t give up drinking for Lisa, so why should I for this? The room was warm, it was cosy. I have a hipflask with me in case I do go. I don’t want to, but it has haunted me too long to quit.
I hope that it is my body you find, rotten or damaged – I don’t care about its condition, as long as it’s found. But if not, you know where to look. Behind the oak door with the brass, round handle.
Feel it before opening.
Jonathan Richardson is a writer and journalist based in London. He worked on the BBC website for several years and on the production of radio dramas and comedy. He has had sketches and plays produced and continues to write essays, stories and scripts.
He writes about writing, data and people at www.consideredwords.com
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Story illustration by Jihane Mossalim.