The creaking of the old, empty building unnerved her. Echoes of footsteps paced the floor above. Laura knew she wouldn’t be able to settle until she had one last check, just to make sure she was alone.
She stepped out, torch in hand, onto the landing of a staircase that reminded her of Escher’s Convex and Concave lithograph. The house hummed as if frightened of its own silence. She turned right and stepped into the blue and red veined belly of Regency Heights. The weak glow of her torch beam was swallowed by dark wood. Shadows lurked under furniture and behind paintings. Beyond the grand staircase, huge windows, the only ones that remained unshuttered for the night, loomed, and beyond them trees shook claw-fisted branches threateningly.
Proud, pale faces glared down from the walls at jaded trims of intricate geometry while drill bit decorations covered in gilt, surrounded the closed doors of the State rooms.
Staring at the windows and portraits gave her a sense of vertigo. She was a mouse among ravenous cats. Only the thought of her shotgun and the heavy bolts on the other side of her apartment door gave her the confidence to continue. It was just an old house, an empty old house, an empty, dark and very noisy old house, far away from town, alone among the trees and memories. A movement of green, caught in the corner of her left eye, sent her running back to her apartment. She bolted the door before taking another breath and decided further exploring could wait until daylight. For now a broken night on a soft bed awaited.
Laura rubbed her tired eyes and switched on the coffee maker. The smell of Java brewing warmed the room and made it feel almost homely. Sleep in a new place was always hard to come by. It might take a few restless nights, but soon she would settle into the new routine. Her fears of the previous night seemed ridiculous to her now. The thuds she had taken for footsteps would have been old water pipes, expanding and contracting, and the tuneless humming only the humidifiers, which preserved the priceless oil paintings. She forced a laugh meant to deride her folly. She could invent ghost stories if she wanted, but she wasn’t going to be afraid of her own shadow each night after the house had emptied of staff. She was a McIntyre and nothing frightened a McIntyre.
She checked her watch again. It was only six-fifteen and the head steward wouldn’t arrive for at least two hours. She peered out of a window and watched a community of birds still sleeping in the branches of the giant horse chestnut. They had the right idea, but returning to bed would be pointless. Coffee, that was what she needed, and the filter machine had already finished brewing her first pot of the day.
That day and the others that followed were easier than Laura expected. The staff seemed to respond well to her firm but fair management style and even Angela’s demeanour seemed to soften with time. Only the nights were hard.
At first Laura spent the evenings working in her office, but the footsteps seemed louder there and she sometimes heard the soft chuckles of a child.
Within a week of trembling under the fluorescent strip light, trying to concentrate on the computer screen, she changed her routine and retired to her apartment as soon as she bolted the door behind the last member of staff to leave. Playing music helped, but she couldn’t play it loud enough to make the walls tremble for fear of tripping the alarms and she still heard the ticking of the drawing room clock, or the creaking of floorboards, or the whisper of satin, during the gaps between songs.
In daylight hours she would dismiss the silly ghost stories she heard from regular visitors and staff alike – the green lady who glided along hallways and the small child who played hide and seek on the back stairs. But alone at night she imagined the pair of phantoms plotting to tempt her out of her rooms. She woke at five each morning drenched in sweat.
When Laura thought back to her first day and what Angela had said about the house’s managers, that they always quit or died, her mind would curl inwards on dark thoughts and wonder how they died and whether those who quit left with their sanity intact. In the day time though, she had it all under control, so it surprised her when Peter, the area manager, remarked with some concern that she wasn’t looking at all well.
‘I’m fine,’ she replied, frowning.
‘Are you sure? You’re very pale and your eyes look tired.’
‘Since when does a boss want someone to be ill?’ That sounded a little defensive to her ears so Laura added a self-conscious giggle at the end.
‘Why don’t you come out to dinner with me this evening? We can get some decent meat into you.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Was Peter’s laugh self-conscious too?