The House in Lister Road
It's all gone, now, of course. Couldn't find the place even if I wanted to. Whole neighbourhood's been razed to the ground. And to be fair, old Mickey was a proper wind-up merchant in them days. You could never be sure if he was having a laugh or what. But when it come to the house in Lister Road, I couldn't see the joke. If there was one, I reckon it was on him.
It was back in the seventies, when they was clearing the slums. You know - two up, two down, front door opens straight on the street. Loads of them, there was, terrace after terrace all the way down to the river, with a corner shop or a pub thrown in here and there to break the monotony. Nothing wrong with most of them if they'd only spent the money, but the Council didn't see it that way so they had to come down.
Mick was with the Electricity Board then. Once people had been moved out it was his job to do the disconnections. Used to take a pot of red paint round with him, and when he was done he'd put 'LEB Off' on the front door, so's the demolition men'd know it was safe. Stood for 'London Electricity Board' but a lot of people took it for graffiti. Mick said one time he seen a house he'd done and someone'd put 'LEB off yourself' underneath. We used to laugh about that, me and Mick.
He was a bit of a lad in those days, as you know. Used to have his hair blonde, if you can believe it. Long down the back and sort of spikey on top, like a bleedin' bog brush. Proper narner you'd look if you had it like that now, but that was the fashion then. And Mickey always liked to look good, even when he was in his overalls.
On this particular day, Mick was working his way along Lister Road. It was hot that afternoon and he was looking forward to knocking off. He'd got in the habit of popping down the Feathers most nights before he went home and he'd taken a fancy to this barmaid what worked there - Lisa, her name was - so he was looking forward to chatting her up later on. It was a bit naughty, what with Pauline at home and 'Becca on the way, but that was Mickey all over. Always had an eye for the talent. He knew none of us was going to say nothing to Pauline. Besides, it never does any good interfering between a man and his wife.
Anyway, Mick was nearly finished for the day. Number twenty-seven was the last one on his list. Nothing funny about it from the outside, he said. Front door in need of a lick of paint and the window frames was in a right old state, but it was just the same with all the others. They always left the doors unlocked - nothing inside worth nicking - so all Mick had to do was roll up with his toolbox and his tin of paint.
The stairs was straight in front of you when you went in and the first room was the parlour. At the end of the passage was the kitchen and the back extension. That was the scullery. The lav used to be outside in the yard. Now Mick must have seen this arrangement a couple of thousand times in his job, but there was something about twenty-seven Lister Road that proper gave him the willies. That's what he said, jokey, like, but you could see from his face it still bothered him. At least, I could.
So he closes the door and stops in the hall for a minute while his eyes adjust to the light. Its dark after the sunshine outside and there's that same smell of damp bread you always get in them houses when they're unoccupied.
There's not a sound inside and there's no traffic in the street, 'cause all the houses is empty. All he can hear is a crisp packet or something skittering down the pavement, and an ice cream van playing the Match of the Day theme in the distance. Funny he should remember that.
Now usually Mickey would head straight for the cupboard under the stairs, 'cause that's where they always put the meters. But this time, while he's stood in the hall, he happens to glance up at the staircase. And it was funny, he said, once he done that he said he couldn't take his eyes off it.
The stairs was steep and dark. There was no carpet, though there must've been one once 'cause there was this strip of lighter wood going right up the middle into the gloom at the top. You didn't used to stain the whole of the stair was why, just the bits that showed either side of the carpet. They must've been pretty house proud, the people what had it before, 'cause at the bottom where he was standing the boards was scrubbed almost white. There was twelve stairs, Mick said. He knew that because he stood there and counted them.
Mick had no idea how long he stood there but after a while his toolbox starts getting heavy and that reminds him he ought to be getting on. So he leaves his brush and his tin of red paint in the hall for when he's done, and takes his tools with him into the meter cupboard. He said it was quite an effort to tear himself away from the foot of the stairs, but he did, and before long he's kneeling in the cupboard with his torch, disconnecting the meter.
Mickey stopped feeling uncomfortable about the house pretty much as soon as he set to work, what with this being his last job of the afternoon and him looking forward to seeing Lisa and picking up where he'd left off. There was a juke box in the Feathers then - this was before they got the telly - and it had golden oldies on it. It had that Connie Francis number, you know, and Lisa used to tease him by putting it on. She was a right one, Lisa. Bad as he was, if you ask me. They was both attached and they both should've known better, but I reckon that just adds spice to it for some people and that's how it seemed to be for them.
So anyway, he's down there in Lister Road, in the cupboard, and that tune pops into his head, probably on account of him thinking about what he was going to get up to later. So he starts singing to himself, under his breath, like:
Who's sorry now?
Who's sorry now?
Whose heart is achin' for breakin' each vow?
Who's sad and blue, who's cryin' too?
Just like I cried over you.
And right then, just as he's taping up one of the wires, he hears this baby crying. He realises it's been going on for a while without him really registering, and it sort of brings him up short, what with Pauline being in the family way. The crying stops almost as soon as he notices it, but he don't feel like singing any more after that. The words seem to come out wrong somehow. Sort of flat, he said, in that confined space.
Then all of a sudden this feeling come over him - this feeling there's someone with him there in the cupboard, right up close behind him. Like they'd been there a while, just watching him. Said his stomach turned over just like he's crossed a humpbacked bridge. He looks over his shoulder and of course there wasn't nothing. Couldn't have been, 'cause there's hardly room for one under there, let alone two.
He carries on working. But try as he might he can't get that tune out of his mind. You know how it is sometimes. It's stuffy and cramped in the cupboard, and he's breathing in the damp and that. And the words was going round in his head:
Right to the end,
Just like a friend,
I tried to warn you somehow.
Now whether he wasn't concentrating or what, but he only goes and drops his torch, and it rolls into the back of the cupboard where the stairs come down, and it goes out. Well, he stretches right in groping about in the dark - there's hardly any room - and just as he gets his fingers on it he suddenly gets that feeling again, only twice as strong. As if it was right behind him.
He presses the button on the torch but it takes a couple of goes to come on, and when it does it's kind of flickering, where the batteries've been disturbed. He turns round and shines it towards the door. Again there's nothing. But old Mick's thoroughly spooked by this time and he can't help feeling he ain't the only one in the house.
He backs out of the cupboard and looks up and down the hall. No-one. There's not been time for them to have got up the stairs, so he puts his head round the door of the parlour, which is empty. Then he looks in the kitchen. All quiet. Not even a dripping tap, 'cause the water's already off. He checks the scullery, but there's nowhere to hide in there. Tries the back door - rattles the knob, but it ain't shifting. He looks through the glass into the bit of yard and across the way there's the lav, but he can see the door's half off and there's no one out there either.
He decides he needs a fag to calm his nerves, so he goes back and sits on the stairs next to his paint pot. He's no need to worry about the ash, what with there being no carpet. Well he sits there smoking for a bit, just staring down at the patch of boards between his feet. He's just starting to feel a bit more like himself when it comes over him there's someone at the top of the stairs.
He jumps up but there's just stairs going off into the dark on the bend. They was very dark these old places. And it's like half of him wants to go up and investigate and the other half would rather do anything else in the world. So he just stands there, and it's like he's got to keep watching them stairs 'cause something bad's going to happen if he doesn't keep his eye on them.
Mickey reckoned he must've been there for ages, but that ice cream van he'd heard before was still in the area and when it struck up with Match of the Day again that sort of snapped him out of it. Anyway, he stubs out his fag and gets back to the cupboard. He wants to finish the job and get out of there, see?
It's hard going for him now, what with his torch on the blink and the fittings all rusted in with the damp. He struggles with it for a while and then he forgets about everything else 'cause he's starting to get aggravated. He's still got that tune going round in his head, and to cap it all the baby starts up again. He can't tell where it's coming from, 'cause he's right in the cupboard, but after a minute it dies down 'til it's just sort of fussing and after that it stops.