Now I am going to tell you about something that happened to me a couple of years back. I won’t tell you what to make of it, because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself. But here goes.
Back when I was a journalism student in Stockholm, finding a place to live was a real pain in the ass. I think I only ever knew one person who actually owned their own apartment. Most of my other friends and classmates rented their homes as sublets (or illegal sublets of sublets), or lived in the spare rooms of strangers as bizarrely overpaying lodgers.
Need I tell you that the rents were always ridiculously high? Well, they were. Absurdly so. Everyone were looking for a place to live, and all apartment adds on Facebook or in the papers were flooded with replies as soon as they came out. Getting first in line for any of them was, to say the least, entirely fucking impossible.
Therefore, when I found the add about a relatively cheap attic room for rent only ten minutes away from my school I didn’t think much of it. Someone else must have taken it already, was what I thought. But I still called, and was both surprised and incredibly happy when the old lady who answered said that I could move in the very next day.
Said and done. I packed my stuff in my car and drove the two hundred kilometers or so to Saltsjö-Boo, which is located in Nacka – a suburb of Stockholm. Everything felt new and a little bit crazy. I was to leave my old life behind (for a time at least), and do something entirely new, all on my own.
It was August, and although I arrived late it was still light out. The old lady lived in a big, red two storey house down by the water of an inlet called Skurusundet. The neighboring houses were just as big, and I could only imagine what buying a home here must cost.
The old lady – I’ll leave out her surname, but her first name was Harriet – greeted me on the porch when I stepped out of the car. She was a frail figure in her late eighties, and I remember catching myself wondering how she was able to manage that big house on her own. She had told me on the phone that her husband had passed away five years back, and that it was only this summer that she had cleaned out his old stuff from the attic room that I was now to rent.
She showed me where to park and then walked ahead of me to the back of the house, where a seemingly rather new built wooden staircase led up to a separate entrance on the attic level of the building. I kind of wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to climb up there to show me the room, that I could manage on my own. But she seemed so stubborn about making it up there that I kept my mouth shut and walked a couple of steps behind her as she slowly struggled upwards.
She unlocked the door and let me into a quite large room that took up at least half of the attic area. It was neatly fitted with a bed, a table, a portable kitchenette and some empty bookshelves. There were no windows, but I didn’t mind. Finding a place like this for a price like that in this part of town more than enough compensated for that.
Apart from the entrance, three doors led away from the room. One of them led to a small, simple bathroom with toilet and shower. She told me that this had been put in only four weeks ago, in order for tenants to live up here. The second door led to a big, cluttered storage space, that she unlocked briefly just to show me what it was. I’m guessing that this was where she had tucked away all her late husband’s belongings. She told me that I could put stuff in there if I needed to, but that she didn’t recommend it since the storage room lacked proper insulation.
After she had showed me all this – a process that didn’t take very long – we stopped in front of the third door.
“This door leads down to the rest of the house”, she said. “Always keep it locked. If you need to talk to me, you go out around the house and use the front door. And remember to knock first.”
I told her that of course I would respect this, and promised her that I wouldn’t come barging down the attic stairs and disturb her privacy. To be honest, if she had asked me to always leave my shoes outside and never to bring friends over I would have been fine with that as well. As long as I had somewhere to live in this city I’d be prepared to cope with just about anything. At least that’s how I felt at the time.
We signed a contract and she gave me the keys. She was really sweet actually, and told me about stores, bus connections and things to see nearby. Before she left me to mind my own business, however, she stopped one last time in the doorway and turned back to face me. “Keep it locked”, she said flatly. Then she closed the door behind her and started struggling her way back down the stairs outside.
I remember staring at the closed door in confusion, wondering what the hell that was – and why Harriet herself hadn’t used the interior stairs to get back down to the house. Then I just shrugged it off and went down to the car to start carrying all my stuff inside.
I settled in quite nicely. My courses started and the initial couple of months went by in a flurry of seminars, new acquaintances and study visits to the editorial staffs of different newspapers. I was rarely at home except for when I was sleeping or studying for tests.
I saw very little of Harriet, except for the occasional chance encounter in the garden. She kept mostly to herself, and since I had no windows I had no idea how often she even left the house. The only reason that I even knew she was living there in the house below me was two weird habits of hers that I discovered rather early on.
Every time she got home, namely, she knocked on her own front door before unlocking it. The first few times she did it, I always thought that she was having visitors over. It was only when I came home early one day and caught her after grocery shopping that I realized that she was doing it herself. I didn’t ask her about it. It was too odd, and I was afraid that it would embarrass her if she knew that I’d seen her. But after that day I started thinking that maybe she wasn’t as clear in the head as I had initially thought.
That was Harriet’s first strange habit. I told my friends about it and they thought it was hilarious. Every time we were studying at my place we always silenced and laughed when we heard her come knocking downstairs.
Her second habit, however, was one that quickly started irritating me more and more. The old lady turned out to be a real night owl, who didn’t go to bed until well after midnight. This in itself wouldn’t have bothered me the slightest, were it not for the way I was involuntarily made aware of her sleep routines. Because before Harriet went to bed, she always checked the attic door to see that it was really locked. Every single night.
I could lie in bed sleeping, and then suddenly jump in terror at the sudden squeak as old door handle was slowly pressed down a couple of times. Or, on nights when I was awake late studying for an exam, I could hear the soft creaking of the interior attic steps as she slowly made her way upstairs. Then the door handle would invariably be pressed down two or three times, before the creaking steps retreated downstairs again. And I repeat: this happened every fucking night.
Not only did the old woman apparently not trust me to keep to her rules, which was frustrating in itself, but she also had to scare me half out of my senses every night, at that? But as I said before, I was happy just to have a place to live, and didn’t want to antagonize the old, paranoid woman. So I settled for telling my friends and just having a laugh about it instead. On days when I seemed more tired than usual in school, they always teased me about it being because my weird landlady had kept me awake that night.
For some reason it actually never crossed my mind to be afraid of her, no matter her crazy demeanor. I just thought of her as an old person who was extremely particular about her privacy, and never fell for my classmates’ attempts to frighten me with stupid stories of her one night standing above my bed with a knife in her hand.
Until one particular night in late December, that is. I had been living in the attic room for almost four months, and had made myself quite well at home there. School was about to end for the holidays the following week, and my entire class were studying like crazy for the end-of-year exams. It had been snowing like crazy for the last couple of days, and I stayed inside with my reading to the extent that I could.
Anyways, there I was, sitting at my small table in the middle of the night, preparing for tomorrow’s test, when I could suddenly hear the first creak at the bottom of the staircase. I tried to ignore it like I always did, and continued reading. The steps drew closer, like always, and then stopped outside the door. The door handle was slowly being pressed down with its, by now, familiar creak, and then everything went silent again.
I stopped reading and glanced behind me when the sound of the handle being let up again never came. When I turned around I realized that the door handle still pointed downwards; it was still being pressed down. I just stared at it for several seconds. Was it broken? Or was the old woman still standing outside the door, holding it down?
After a while I began feeling creeped out at not knowing, and at thinking that maybe she was standing on the stairs, staring at the other side of the door.
“It is locked, Harriet”, I said loud enough for her to hear me.
Another couple of seconds passed, and I had almost convinced myself that the handle actually was broken, when it suddenly slowly started rising again. Then I heard the slow, creaking steps descending the stairs, before everything became quiet once more. I realized that I had been holding my breath, and that my heart was racing. I remember thinking “what the fuck is wrong with her?” I mean, I already knew that she was odd, but what was this about now suddenly?
I didn’t manage to get back to studying that night, and when I flunked the test the following day I laughingly blamed Harriet’s strange nightly visit. It became that day’s most-told story, and I didn’t think about how creepy the experience had actually been until I got home again that evening.
I went to bed, but the thought of the night before wouldn’t leave my head. In the end I had to get out of bed again and place a chair below the door handle before I could relax enough to actually go to sleep.
I awoke some time around midnight. It was pitch black in the room – of course, since I didn’t have any windows – and I wasn’t sure what it was that had woken me up. Then I heard the sound again, and was wide awake in an instant. It was the door-handle, the one I had propped up with a leaning chair earlier that night. It was creaking at even intervals, as if someone was struggling to press it down despite the resistance. I stared into the darkness, not daring to make a sound. The intervals quickly became shorter and shorter, until the door handle was drumming intensely against the back of the chair.
I almost panicked there in the dark. Then the chair suddenly fell over with a loud crash, and I screamed. The door handle was pressed down with a decisive creak, and by the sound of it was not let back up for several seconds. Then, slowly, it creaked back into place, and the steps outside retreated down the stairs again. By that time I was almost mad with fear, and just sat there in the dark, huddling with the blankets against the corner of my bed and listening for the slightest hint of a sound. I didn’t sleep at all for the rest of the night, but I guess I don’t need to tell you that.
I called in sick the next day. I just had to sleep. Or, what I actually wanted was to call my mum and tell her to come and take me home. But there were just a couple of days left in school for the semester, and I felt I had to finish. I had to pull thorough somehow.
After sleeping for a couple of hours, I decided to go down and talk to Harriet about the whole thing. Tell her that she had to stop doing this. I thought that if she got mad at me, I would just move out. I’d live on someone’s couch for a while until I found something else. I could put up with much, but this had even crossed my line.
I thought about using the interior stairs, but decided against it. I would be the bigger person here, and just because she disrespected my integrity didn’t mean I would stoop to doing the same to her. So I used my own front door, walked around the house and up to hers. The tracks in the snow outside were almost invisible, and I understood that she had not been out for a while. Maybe something had happened? Maybe she was ill, and this was why she had needed so desperately to get a hold of me last night?
I don’t know if I even considered this as a real possibility, or if I was just grasping for manageable explanations, but these were the thoughts that went through my head as I plodded through the snow and up to her door.
I knocked, waited and knocked again, but got no reply. I picked up my phone and tried calling. I could hear the signals from inside the house, but she didn’t pick up. I knew she had to be in there, but either she didn’t want to talk to me, or she was too sick to do so. And I realized that I had to find out.
If the old woman was so ill that she hadn’t been out for days, I had to find out and help her. I tried the door-handle, but the door was locked. I understood what I must do. Sure, if all was well with her she might get angry with me for taking liberties with her rules, but so be it. It was still better than risking it being the other way around, and doing nothing.
I walked back through the snow and back up to my attic room. As I approached the door leading to downstairs I could not help but feeling like I was about to do something very wrong. But the thought of the old woman lying helpless down in the house drove me on. The key was still in the lock where it had been when I first got here, and I reached out to turn it. Before I could, however, my phone rang and the sudden noise made me jump.
I picked the phone up and looked at it, expecting Harriet’s number to be on the display. But it wasn’t – it was a number I’d never seen before. Hesitantly I turned away from the door and answered.
It was a woman on the other end. It was not Harriet however, but a younger one. And what she told me… Well, let’s say it made me start packing my bags as soon as the call was ended.
She told me that she was Harriet’s daughter, and that she was sorry that she hadn’t called earlier, but the last couple of days had been a real mess. There had been so many relatives to call and things to fix, but now she just wanted to tell me that I could of course continue renting the attic room until the contract ended, even though things had sadly taken this turn.
At first I didn’t understand anything of what she was saying, and after a while I had to interrupt her and ask her to clarify. And it was then that she apologized again, and said that she had just assumed that her sister had called me already to tell me that Harriet had died in the hospital three days ago.
I went cold all over, and to be honest I don’t remember much of the call after that. Only that I monotonously thanked her for the kindness of letting me stay, said my condolences and then hung up. While doing so, I had slowly, slowly backed away from the door that I had been seconds away from unlocking. It was like in a movie. I just shook my head, said “fuck this”, and then started packing.
The rough half hour it took me to get everything into the car and scrape the snow and ice off its windows was thirty minutes of panicked terror. I even remember leaving some of my final things behind, for the simple reason that I could not bring myself to walk into that house one more time to get them. And then I drove away.
I didn’t drive all the way home to Gävle, of course. By the time I got onto the road I had calmed down enough to think somewhat rationally again, and instead drove to one of my friends who lived at the school’s boarding house. I don’t know how coherent I was when I got there, but she kindly let me stay at her place until end of term the week after.
I went home over the holidays, and when they were over I managed to get a room at the boarding house myself, as someone else had recently moved out. The room was small as hell and expensive as shit, but I didn’t mind. As long as I didn’t have to go back to that place I was happy.
I finished my studies and moved back to my home town, where I now work as a reporter for the local newspaper. But even now, several years later, I don’t know what to think. Perhaps I dreamed those things, or maybe I was just completely stressed out about the upcoming exams. I honestly don’t know. I just felt that I had to write it all down to maybe get it off my chest.
But I do know one thing: I’ve never really been able to shake the feeling that there was something living in that house together with Harriet, and that when she told me to “always keep it locket”, it was not in a paranoid attempt to protect her own integrity – it was to protect me.
Chris Smedbakken, 2018-01-11
This story was written in response to a writing prompt,