The hatch cover; a square of white-painted plywood that gave access to the attic, was normally set snugly into its frame in the ceiling above the hallway landing, but this morning, on her way from the bedroom, Julia saw that it was lifted in one corner and slightly askew, revealing a narrow sliver of blackness; an elongated triangle of dark space.
“You been up into the attic this morning?” she asked over her shoulder, as she poured her husband’s morning coffee.
Miles looked up from his newspaper; a piece of buttered toast paused halfway to his mouth. “No, why on earth would I do that, love… and more to the point, why do you ask?”
“It’s open,” Julia said, placing the coffee mug on the kitchen table, and then seeing Miles’s frown, added, “The ceiling hatch, I mean. It looks as if it’s been opened.”
Miles put down his toast, stood up from the table and wandered over to the foot of the stairs. Leaning on the banister and craning his neck, Miles glanced upwards. “Oh, yeah.” He sounded surprised. “I wonder how that happened.”
Taking a broom from the cupboard under the stairs, he went up to the landing. Miles stretched and, using the broom handle, pushed the hatch cover up slightly; manoeuvring it across a couple of inches to where, with a gentle thud, it dropped back into place in its frame. Coming back downstairs, Miles replaced the broom in the cupboard. “Maybe there was a gust of wind or something… just lifted it a bit,” he remarked to Julia, and went back to his toast and coffee. Neither of them gave it another thought.
That night, while in bed, Miles thought he heard a faint scratching sound coming from above the ceiling in their bedroom; a slight scuffling, as if something small was moving about… maybe rats, he thought. The following morning, the hatch cover was out of place again… not much; just one corner lifted askew and pushed over about three inches to one side. Miles stood with his hands on his hips staring up at it, an annoyed frown on his normally placid features. “Pretty weird,” he said to Julia, as his wife paused next to him on the landing. “There must have been a bit of a wind again last night… I can’t think of anything else that would have moved it.” He did not mention the scuffling noises… Julia would be freaked out completely if she thought a family of rodents was sharing their new home.
“Well, all our windows were closed, so it couldn’t have been a gust of wind blowing up there from down here,” his wife remarked. “Maybe there is a gap in the eaves and the wind outside is causing a bit of a vacuum in the attic. Maybe that’s what lifted the hatch cover… it’s very lightweight and maybe it sort of got sucked out of place.” She gave him a wry grin. “We’ve only lived here a couple of weeks, and we don’t yet know the house that well.”
Miles smiled at his wife. “You know what, clever girl? You might just be right!” And he went downstairs to get the broom.
Miles awoke in the middle of the night. Something was not quite right. He was sure he heard a noise from somewhere in the house. He lay there silently, mouth open with the air trapped in his throat, listening carefully. He wiggled his jaw, cracking his eardrums to remove the faint slumbering pressure and just lay there in the darkness next to his sleeping wife. There it was again, the faintest of dragging sounds… like an old desk drawer being pulled slowly open.
Miles slipped out from under the duvet, picked up his old school cricket bat from its place in the corner and padded across the darkened room, where he pressed his left ear gently against the door. Silence. After a few breathless moments, he carefully turned the knob and opened the door. The hall landing was in darkness. No noise or light came from downstairs. Slowly, he stepped out of the bedroom and, so as not to wake Julia, closed the door softly behind him. He flicked on the wall switch. Light flooded the hallway and down the stairs. Miles leaned over the railing and peered into the room below. Nothing; no reactive noise of a burglar escaping the house; no noise from outside; no dustbins being knocked over in flight…and no neighbour’s dogs barking. Total silence.
Cricket bat half-raised, Miles padded quickly downstairs and checked the exterior doors. All were locked, as were the windows. Everything was in place and so, with an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders, he headed back to the foot of the stairs. Julia came out of the bedroom and onto the landing; when Miles glanced up at her, his gaze fell upon the attic hatchway. The cover was skewed well over to one side… almost fully open this time. Julia followed his gaze and clapped a hand to her mouth, stifling a scream, and withdrew quickly back into the bedroom. Miles completed his ascent in two leaps, running along the landing to the bedroom and throwing a quick look at the black rectangle above when he passed beneath it. Back inside the bedroom, he found Julia sitting on the edge of the bed, the duvet wrapped around her shoulders.
“It’s okay, honey. No burglars, everything is fine. It’s just that damned hatch!” He put his arm around her and, coercing her to get back to bed, pulled the duvet over the both of them. “I will check the roof tomorrow; I promise,” he said, kissing her on the nose.
Early the following morning, before breakfast—and after another hatch cover manoeuvre with the broom handle—Miles went out into the garden and made a wide circle of the house, peering up at the steeply-angled roof to see if there were any tiles missing or any holes under the eaves that could allow wind or a vacuum to disturb the hatch cover. From down at his lower level, however, he could see nothing that would indicate such a fault.
The house was very old and had stood empty for several years before being sold. Recently renovated and finally decorated by a property developer just a few weeks before Miles and Julia had purchased it at auction, the house still retained all of the original structure—the masonry and wooden beams and so on. It stood alone in an acre of ground that abutted to the rear rolling farmlands that disappeared off to the vast Yorkshire moors rising beyond. They had yet to venture up into the attic… in fact, as first-time home owners, they had very little junk or items for storage, so there had been no need; and besides, Miles had no step ladder. That was something he put right as soon as the village hardware store opened.
Miles also purchased a big chunky flashlight at the store, and so armed, he set the folding aluminium step ladder below the hatch cover and climbed a couple of steps. He extended his fingers, lifted the cover and slid it to one side, then climbed another couple of steps until his head and shoulders were inside the hatchway. Before using the torch, Miles peered around in the darkness of the huge roof space, looking for any tell-tale shafts or pinpricks of daylight that might indicate a hole in the roof or a gap somewhere. There were none. Flicking on the flashlight, Miles made a sweep of the roof space, but the torch beam revealed nothing untoward. He did not, he admitted to himself, even know what it was he was looking for. Could a stray cat, maybe chasing a mouse or a bird, have gotten trapped in the attic and, in desperation to escape, moved the hatch? Could there be a family of rats living up here… are rats capable of moving objects?
He examined the edges of the plywood hatch, somewhat illogically, for claw scratches or the evidence of gnawing teeth marks, but there was nothing to see. Miles’s mind could not settle on any logical answer and he carefully ascended the ladder until he was able to haul himself over the edge of the hatchway and into the attic. Getting to a crouched standing position and balancing on the latticework of narrow and uneven beams, Miles gingerly shuffled forward twenty feet or so, swinging the flashlight around and peering into the shadows, but apart from cobwebs hanging from the rafters there was nothing Miles could see. The only real blind spot in the convoluted roof space was the large brick chimney stack that thrust its bulk up through the living room ceiling on the far side of the attic, but he was reluctant to approach it, fearful of losing his balance and crashing through the hairy insulation matting and plasterboard ceiling—or maybe he was subconsciously wary of leaving the hatchway too far behind.
Satisfied that there was no roof damage or holes that would allow gusts of wind inside, and that there were no rats or stray cats living up there, Miles turned back towards the hatch.
His torch beam swept over a few scattered piles of some lumpy, greyish objects over on the left. Miles stepped gingerly from beam-to-beam, ducking lower and lower as the roof angled down until he could go no further. He bent forward; holding the flashlight at arms’ length, peering at the objects. They looked like animal droppings. He stretched out and plucked the nearest one, holding it up in the torch beam. It definitely was a dropping of some sort; a desiccated piece of dung, as thick as his thumb, about two inches long. Miles crumbled it in his fingers; dry greyish-white crumbs and tiny splinters of bone mixed with matted hair fell down onto the insulation matting. Miles was taken back to something he studied in the biology lab when he was at school… “Not dung, but maybe owl pellets,” he mused aloud. “If I remember rightly, the calcium from the bones of their prey makes them greyish-white.” He dropped the remains and wiped his hand on his jeans. “Or is that hyenas?” he frowned, crabbing his way back to the hatchway and departing the attic.
“Well?” Julia asked, holding out a mug of coffee.
“Nothing… just dust and cobwebs.” Miles brushed his shirt front before taking the mug and sitting at the kitchen table. “There are no holes in the roof, no tiles missing, and no gaps in the eaves… and no wild animals living up there.”
Julia raised her eyebrows. “Wild animals? What on earth do you mean, Miles?’
He smiled. “Only kidding, but the thought had occurred to me that maybe a stray cat had got trapped up there, or some bats or… something like that.”
Julia put one hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow. “Or rats? Is that what you were going to say? Or is there anything else ending in ‘ats’ that might live in an attic?”
Miles gave her a wry grin. “Anyway, there is nothing up there at all. There were some owl pellets, but they must be old, from a time before the house and roof was renovated, I imagine.” He sipped his coffee.
“Owl pellets; what are they?” asked Julia.
“When owls eat their prey – mice, rats, other small mammals or birds – they are not able to digest everything. They regurgitate the undigested bits of hair and bone as pellets.” He explained. “But there is no owl up there now, and I still have no idea how the hatch cover got moved,” he said, picking up the newspaper from the table. “It can only be either the wind or, as you first suggested, a vacuum caused by something. We will have to check the whole house this evening before bed… just to make sure there is not even a fanlight open. I’ll even seal the letter box with duct tape,” he said, pausing to sip his coffee. “And I am going to leave the ladder and the torch up on the landing… so if the hatch is blown open again, at least I can have an immediate look to see what’s going on.”
“Maybe the house is haunted,” Julia said, with one eyebrow raised; with a wry grin on her face. “Maybe we have a resident ghost… woo woohooo!”
“Very funny” said Miles, chuckling. “Now, how about some breakfast before I go to work? I still have time.”
Later that day, Julia was doing her housework, running a feather duster over the framed pictures Miles had hung on the walls up the stairs and along the hallway; prints of old paintings, landscapes and family photos, etc. On the landing she paused to straighten a photo of her sister’s wedding day, smiling at the memory, but suddenly stiffened and looked up; sure she had heard a faint noise from above… from the attic. Julia stood there, her ear tilted to the ceiling, a frown of concentration on her brow. Nothing. She shook her head in dismissal and ran the duster over the photo. The attic hatch above her lifted up and thumped shut twice in quick succession; just a few inches, like a mouth opening and closing… or chomping. Julia screamed. The photo fell from its hook; glass smashing when it hit the polished wood floor. She flew down the stairs and ran out of the kitchen door and down the back garden, scared stiff. Resting on the low wall of the fish pond at the end of the garden; Julia put her hands upon her knees and hung down her head, breathing heavily. “Damn!” She swore once she had regained her breath, shaking her head. “What the hell is that?”
After some minutes she plucked up the courage to sneak back into the house. Taking a carving knife from the kitchen draw she crept into the living room and tip-toed across the carpet to the rear wall. Leaning on it with one hand, she peered around the corner and up the stairs. On the hallway landing, the hatch cover was in place.
“I don’t give a damn what you do, Miles,” Julia stood with her hands on her hips, confronting her husband when he arrived home from work. “But do something! This is freaking me out!”
“Okay, honey,” Miles raised his hands in surrender, “I promise I will get it sorted… tomorrow I will see if I can locate roofing contractor to come and check it all out… and maybe call in an exterminator.”
“An exterminator?” Julia frowned. “I though you said there was no rats or whatever living up there.”
“Well, I didn’t see any, but it wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
He was also getting freaked out by this attic hatch situation. He was worried that he couldn’t explain it, but he didn’t want to alarm Julia any more than she already was.
Julia awoke in the middle of the night. There was a faint noise; a dull thump followed by a faint susurrus. It sounded as if it came from the attic.
“Miles?” she whispered, urgently, turning to one side and reaching out with her hand to wake her husband. But Miles was not there. His side of the bed was empty and cold. A faint strip of light showed under the bedroom door. Julia slipped out of bed, pulled over her head a baggy tee shirt and tiptoed over to the door. She listened for a second before opening it. The landing light was on and the step ladder was in place directly under the attic hatch… which was wide open. “Miles?” she said in a hoarse whisper. No answer. She walked warily over to the foot of the ladder, resting one hand on a step and craning her neck to peer up into the tenebrous space above. “Miles, you up there?” she asked. Again no answer, but she was sure she could hear some faint noises up there. Miles must be in the attic, she thought. Julia placed one foot on the lower step, testing her weight. Then, with hands trembling, she carefully climbed the creaking ladder. As her eyes reached the level of the hatchway, Julia swivelled her head, peering around the roof space. Some twenty feet away, the chunky flashlight sat lens-down between two wooden beams, the torch beam diffusing through the matted roof insulation, giving off a dim yellowy glow.
Stepping up and clambering into the attic, and with arms outstretched for balance, Julia began a timorous journey along the precarious roof beams towards the faint guiding light. As she reached the flashlight and picked it up she became aware of a weird slurping or sucking noise, coming from behind the great chimney stack that stood some distance away.
“Are you there, Miles?” she hissed, and the noise ceased. “What the hell are you doing?” Still there came no answer.
With the flashlight held in front of her at arms’ length, Julia shuffled warily forward through the roof space until she reached the chimney. She wrinkled her nose; there was a smell—at first it was indistinct but then she recognised it—the sickly-sweet, coppery smell of the local butcher’s shop. As she peered cautiously around corner of the massive structure her breath caught in her throat. For a brief moment she stared incredulously at the lifeless body of her husband, Miles – his throat torn open and bloody. Her scream—shrill, piercing and full of terror—filled the attic as a clawed hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, violently jerking her down behind the chimney stack. The flashlight fell from her hand and went out. Her scream diminished quickly to a wet gurgle, but for several moments the memory of it echoed around the attic, until fading away to nothing.
A moment later, way back across the roof space, the hatch cover jerked and scraped slowly across the hole until, with a gentle thud, it dropped back into place, shutting out the ambient light from the hallway below; plunging the roof space once more into total blackness.
In the entire house the only sound to be heard was the tearing of flesh and the crunching of bone coming from up in the attic.
The young couple stood in the middle of the front lawn, gazing up at the house. “It has been empty for over a year,” the real estate agent was saying to the potential buyers. “Apparently the previous owners just upped and went away one day; leaving everything behind. It was a mystery, of course, and became the subject of a massive search and long police investigation. As far as I know they never discovered where the couple had gone off to.” He looked up at the house. “Some weeks after the investigation had gone cold, as they say in police jargon; their respective families came to collect all the various belongings and empty the house.” The agent paused and turned to them with a smile, “Anyway, that’s just ancient history,” he said brightly. “Now, would you like a tour of the interior?” The couple nodded enthusiastically, and the followed the agent to the front door.