The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Other House

Two houses stand at No. 17, Farringdon High Street, behind the station tracks where the steam engines used to whistle and where the mushrooms grew tall as trees. One house you see, grey and cold, red drapes and only a single window lit. One house you don’t see. One house you’ll never see. I write this as a confession. I write this to speak of that other house – the one under the back stairs – and what happened to it, and what I did.

The stairs are still there. I hobbled down them just to be sure, while the nurse was sleeping. It is a dark, creaky little flight, squeezed between the scullery and the back hall. It has a door under it leading into what may have once been a broom-cupboard or a boiler room. You wouldn’t know it now. You would never guess. I had it papered over years ago in dull green stripes. Behind the door, that is where the other house stays. It is so silent, but when I was small, and we had servants and maids for every little thing, the other house used to come out at night and I could hear it wheezing and clattering from all the way upstairs. It had legs, you see. Long clicketty legs like a spider’s.

“Mother, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said to my mother once before bed, and she said, “Oh, how wonderful,” and looked worried and hurried away.

I thought it was wonderful, too. One night, when I was feeling very brave, I left a crust of bread for it in the back hall and watched from between the spindles in the banister. I waited a long time before the little door under the stairs creaked open and the house scuttled out. It was like a doll-house with eight sharp metal legs and a turret. It went right up to where the piece of bread lay and seemed to tip forward, its joints scraping. If it were a dog, I would have thought it had sniffed the crust. It wasn’t a dog, though, so I’m not sure what it did. Then it retreated back into the door, leaving the bread untouched on the tiles.

It doesn’t much fancy bread, I remember thinking. I wonder what it does fancy. I wonder it wants.

For several nights I did the same thing only with different foods. I tried a teaspoon of quince in a saucer. The house didn’t eat it. I tried a single ripe gooseberry and a bit of pear. A great angry puff of smoke went up from the house’s chimney when it investigated those and it immediately retreated under the stairs, slamming the little door behind it. It did not fancy gooseberries either.

I tried biscuits and snapped beans, a slice of plum pudding and a bowl of curds. It investigated all of them, but it did not take any.

“Father, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said one day, when he came back from the city, and he said, “What utter nonsense!” and had a talk with my mother, as if it were her fault.

Nonsense. . . When I saw the house again it seemed a bit darker and the windows were full of soot.

***

That evening, at dinner, I hid a disk of sausage inside my napkin. Mother saw me, but she said nothing. Father saw, too. He said something.

“What is that for?” he demanded. “Why did you take that sausage?”

I said something about the other house, and how I wanted to catch it and open its roof and look at its insides, and how-

“There is no other house!” Father snapped. “There is no such thing!”

But there was! I knew there was!

That night, I slipped from my bed and padded down the back stairs. When I had settled myself behind the banister, I tossed the sausage into the hall. It struck the tiles with a sound like a slap. For a second  nothing stirred. Then I felt a shudder under the stairs. The door opened a crack. Two long black legs uncurled, testing the tiles, testing the air. With a whir and clatter, the house shot out the door and fell upon the sausage in a frenzy of smoke and metal. I saw something, something so small I cannot be certain what it was, flicker out and snatch the sausage. That was when I knew I wanted to catch that house more than ever.

***

A few nights later I stole a small roast from the larder. The roast had a mottled white bone at one end, and to this I attached a length of twine. The twine I tied about my wrist. I laid the roast in the back hall. I sat up on the stairs. I leaned my head against the spindles, and thought about the house and all its secrets.

The other house came out after not very long. It was on the roast in a blink. The twine snapped tight around my wrist. The house began to drag at the ham, pulling and scrabbling, frantically trying to get it back under the stairs. I gasped, struggling to undo the twine. It was so strong. My head slammed flat against the banister. The house pulled and pulled. The twine went tighter, tighter, and then I was thrown off balance and went tumbling down the stairs.

“Help!” I shrieked. “Father, mother, help me!”

The spider-house was pulling me toward the door, right along with the roast. I squeaked over the tiles. Somewhere I heard doors open. Footsteps and worried voices. Faces peering down at me, pale moons of befuddlement and indignation.

I wasn’t moving. I was lying on the cold tiles. The roast was next to me, and the twine, and there were bruises on my arms and back.

“Mrs. Barrowstamp!” the housekeeper shouted. “Mr. Barrowstamp, your son!”

***

I got the most horrible lecture that night. It went on and on until I felt the words in my bones, and my head was full of them, full enough to burst.

Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

I went to bed, and woke the next morning with it still ringing in my ears. Mother had cried, Father had shouted, the maids had whispered, and the housekeeper had sneered.

Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Someday you’ll have to grow up.

And I did. I stole a great big ham next. I think it was for New Year’s Eve; I think a servant was probably sacked because of it. But I didn’t think of it then. From Father’s glass cabinet I stole a syringe and a bottle of carbolic acid. I had heard what carbolic acid does. I wasn’t innocent. The cold precision with which I went about all this would shock me now. I filled the acid into the syringe and injected the entire load into the ham.

As soon as everyone had gone to bed, I took the ham and laid it out on the tiles. Then I went up to my perch behind the banister and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

I was almost ready to assume the problem had taken care of itself and I could go back to bed, when the door under the stairs opened. The other house stood in it, swaying slightly on its long, long legs, staring at the ham. It clicked over to it. It leaned down. The ham was already shriveling, drying into a thin twist of sinew. The house turned slowly. Its gable tilted up, and I might have sworn it was looking at me. Then it turned back to the ham and began to eat it, quietly. A spring popped from the tiled roof with the sound of a snapped wire. It spasmed and jerked. It staggered around the newel-post toward the foot of the stair. It began climbing the stairs, right up toward me, legs scrabbling for hold on the wood.

But when it was only two or three steps below me, it stopped. Through its little windows I could see people, tiny shadowy figures moving frantically this way and that. They had fingers and eyes and clothes on their backs. A woman ran to one of the windows and mashed her face against the pane. Her mouth was open, gaping in a silent shriek. She had been pretty once, like porcelain painted doll. Now she was hideous, her face cracked and wicked-eyed. I watched as the fumes engulfed her and ate her away.

***

I vaguely remember the house retreating, dragging itself back under the stairs. I have not seen it since then. I think it must be there still, silent in the dark, spider-legs curled around itself, but I have not seen it. I have not seen anything particularly interesting since, and I no longer believe there were ever mushrooms growing as tall as trees on Farringdon High Street.

One Response to “The Other House”

  1. Creepy…Creepy…Creepy…
    The chills running down my spine! 0.0
    Love it!! 🙂

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