As she stepped out of Brian’s large station wagon, the frail old lady cautioned him once again, “Beware of the house in which you intend to stay. It is not safe.” Then, thanking Brian and Susan for the ride, she bade them goodbye and soon was gone in one of the alleys that lined the borough. Brian and Susan stood transfixed for a moment as they saw her depart; then they were again on their way to their new home about a couple of Km away.
It had been an hour-long drive through heavy traffic in central London, obviously because of the week-end rush. The journey to Croydon was enjoyable with the two of them taking in the scenery of the landscape and the lining of trees on either side. Somewhere, near Brixton, Brian had noticed some movement in the distance on the left side of the relatively deserted stretch of the highway. He slowed down and, as he did so, could discern the contours of a bent figure reaching out to him with a ‘thumbs up’ sign.
“It’s an old lady and she needs a lift. Let’s help her, Brian,” said Susan with a tone of concern mixed with anguish.
“Of course,” replied Brian and stopped his vehicle close to where the lady was standing. He got out of the car and helped the lady, whose lower half of the face was covered with a stole, into the back seat of the spacious automobile. Brian felt the lady’s hand was surprisingly very cold but he thought no further about it.
“Thank you very much, sir and ma’am,” she said with a queer drawl to her tone.
“You’re welcome, ma’am, and where would you be heading?” asked Brian politely.
“Central Croydon,” replied the lady in her peculiar way.
“Oh, that’s about the area we are also headed,” remarked Brian with a smile.
“My name is Martha,” said the lady, after a while.
“I’m Brian and she’s Susan,” said Brian, smiling at the lady through the rear-view mirror.
“So, do you’ll stay in Croydon?” asked Martha.
“We have been staying in central London, but we now intend to stay in Croydon. In fact, we have just furnished our new place and propose to move in today,” said Brian happily.
“Whereabouts in Croydon would you be staying?” asked Martha.
Brian explained the location and was about to give her the address, when she let out a feeble shriek and then cupped her mouth with her hand.
“Don’t tell me you are going to stay in the house overlooking the lake, are you?” asked Martha, with a feel of trepidation and an outpouring of concern.
“Yes, that’s right,” replied Brian, almost immediately. “Why, do you know the house?” continued Brian.
“Know? What do you mean? I have full knowledge of that house and the precincts thereof and I can tell you with the utmost degree of confidence and certainty that the house is not safe. It spells danger to anyone who shall dwell there for the inhabitants of the house shall continually be beset by worries and fear. You take my word for it. I can foresee that there will be a major upheaval in your lives if you continue to insist on making that house your home,” said Martha, with a great deal of finality.
Brian’s jaw dropped and his mind went in a whirl. What did this woman mean by saying all this? Was she a fortune-teller of sorts? How was she so sure of what she was saying? He had many questions to ask her, but before he could say something, Martha exclaimed, “I think I have reached my destination.”
Brian applied the brakes and brought the car to a halt on the side of the road. Martha alighted, thanked them and repeated her warning about the house to them. Then she was gone within no time.
After resuming their journey, Brian looked soberly ahead, the warning from Martha ringing in his head like the bell in a church.
“What do you make of it, about the forewarning given by Martha?” asked Brian after a while.
Susan was woken from her reverie and looked sideways at Brian. “It sounded very sinister and foreboding. The lady seemed to be detached from reality and looked very morbid too.
“You’re right. It did strike me as being odd to find her in that part of the wilderness, from where we gave her a lift,” said Brian, looking blankly at the road ahead. “In fact, when I held her hand and helped her into the car, she felt very cold to me. Whatever it is, there was an air of unnaturalness about her. Anyway, let’s not spoil our weekend by thinking anymore about it. We have guests coming over today and a grand dinner in the evening, so let’s look forward to that,” continued Brian.
“Quite right, I should say. Let’s get rid of these negative thoughts. We’ll cross the bridges when they come,” said Susan confidently.
They had by now arrived at the house which was to be their home. Brian looked up at the two-storey structure and everything about it seemed very placid to him. “All very well, nothing to worry,” he said to himself under his breath. The butler and the gardener were there to receive them and they stepped confidently into their furnished home.
The butler and the gardener brought in their luggage and then retired to the outhouse about two hundred feet away within the precincts of the high compound walls of the house. Brian fixed himself a drink while Susan opted for some wine. Afterwards, the two of them took a shower and got ready to receive the guests for the evening party. They had invited several of their friends and their families and it was to be a crowd of about thirty adults and children. The chefs had done a good job with the menu and prepared a lavish spread before they had moved to the outhouse.
Evening came and the guests arrived in droves. There was a lot of fun and laughter and everyone complimented Brian and Susan on their decision of moving into the house. They all tucked into the varied fare laid out on the long rectangular dinner table, bought specially for large gatherings and as the evening wore on there a lot of bonhomie within the motley group, with some amongst the group who were meeting each other after quite an interval. When it was time to depart, Brian and Susan thanked them for their time and company and the blessings received for their new home. Soon, the guests had all departed and the butler and chefs, after having had their dinner, had gone to their accommodation in the outhouse. Brian and Susan decided to call it a day and before long, tired from their journey and the evening party, were fast asleep.
The sun shone through the curtains, as Susan woke up and stretched herself on the bed. She moved to the window to see the gardener watering the plants and shrubs. Freshening up in a jiffy, she went down to the kitchen to see if some breakfast was being prepared.
“Good morning, ma’am. Hope you had a sound sleep,” enquired Kent, the butler, politely.
“Yes, indeed,” replied Susan, as she surveyed the array of items that the chefs had churned out for breakfast. “Hope you had a peaceful night too,” continued Susan.
“Yes, ma’am, it is indeed peaceful around these parts and you have some good neighbours too,” replied Kent.
“Oh really, that’s nice to hear. Hope to meet up with them shortly. But tell me, have you heard from anyone about this place? I mean, has anybody mentioned anything queer about this house?” asked Susan very expectantly.
“Oh no, nothing at all, ma’am; in fact, this is an ideal place to reside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But, why do you ask? Have you heard something to the contrary, ma’am?” asked Kent, continuing to speak in a polite tone.
“No, not exactly,” replied Susan, not inclined to disclose what she and Brian had heard from Martha. “I’ll go up and see if Brian is ready and then we shall come down for breakfast.” So saying, Susan went up the stairs to the bedroom. Brian had woken up in the meantime and was in the washroom. Susan picked up a magazine and waited for him to emerge. Soon enough, Brian was ready to go with Susan for their first breakfast in their new home.
They enjoyed their breakfast and decided to take a stroll to see what their neighbourhood was like. They liked what they saw, for there were other families who waved out to them when they passed by. They interacted with a few of them and invited them over to their home. The air was pristine and cool and Brian and Susan were enjoying their walk. They saw a large park nearby, where several people were either playing some game or involved in stretch exercises. Further on, they came across a supermarket and a salon. After walking for some more distance, they returned home.
Brian looked across the window facing the lake and saw there were a few people who had come with fishing equipment and were engaged in fishing. He felt this could be a good pastime for him, albeit later. Susan apprised him of what Kent had mentioned to her; and, with regard to the premonition that Martha had communicated to them, there was consensus between them that such eerie thoughts be put to rest once and for all.
The weekend got over and Brian went about his work. His daily commute to central London and back seemed hectic in the beginning but he soon got used to it and even began enjoying it. Susan, on her part, kept herself busy with her painting, crochet and embroidery and of course, reading. When she felt she had some time, she would go around the garden or meet up with neighbours who were close to her. Sometimes, her friends would drop by and then they would have a ball of a time together. All in all, both Brian and Susan had begun to like the stay in their new home and they used to have regular weekend parties and celebrations.
On one of these weekends, Susan’s parents, who stayed in Bromley, came over to meet her and Brian and to stay with them for a week. Susan’s mother, Anne, had been a schoolteacher in Bromley and had retired as the headmistress of the school. She had an eye for detail and so when she arrived, she went about poking and prodding every nook and corner of the house to see if everything was in order. She liked the house and said so in no uncertain terms to both Brian and Susan. But she hadn’t seen the full house.
“What’s in the attic?” she asked Susan on the second day after her arrival.
“Oh, that’s where we’ve kept our long rectangular dining table which, incidentally is foldable, as well as several other items which we don’t use for our daily needs. Besides, there’s the set of photo-frames which you had handed over to me some time back of all our ancestors, etc. These have been hung on the walls to remind us of our ancestry,” remarked Susan with a smile.
“Ah yes, we must not forget our lineage,” said her mother with her chin thrust forward. “Could we go up and see how the set-up is like?” she asked Susan.
“Of course, mother, by all means. It’s kept locked so I’ll get the key and we can then go upstairs,” replied Susan. She hunted for the key and then motioning to her mother, the two ladies ascended the stairs to the attic. Susan had not been to the attic since they had shifted and so was eager to see whether everything was in order.
She applied the key to the lock and then opened the door. There was a faint musty odour inside, the likes of which one encounters when a room is kept locked for long periods. The dining table had been laid out with the chairs alongside. There were many items which were kept covered with cloth and a certain amount of dust had settled on them, even though the windows were closed.
“You need to get these dusted once in a while, otherwise it becomes a big headache to keep the place clean,” said Anne, referring to the items covered with cloth.
On the walls, as Susan had stated, were hung the pictures of all her ancestors and both Susan and her mother read out the names which were mentioned at the bottom of each photo.
“You notice the man in this picture he’s James Anderson, my grandmother’s husband. This man here is Harry Stewart and the lady, whose photo is next to his, is his wife, Martha Stewart, who was my grandmother’s mother,” said Anne, as she went on explaining the details of each person. After spending another ten minutes in the attic, the two ladies stepped out and Susan locked the door as before.
Susan’s parents enjoyed their stay with their daughter and Brian and returned to Bromley at the weekend. Life was going on as normal for the young couple. They had now spent about three months in their new home and had settled in and liked the neighbourhood as well. They had made several friends amongst the neighbours and would meet up with them on weekends.
One night, during a weekend in the beginning of summer, Brian woke up with a start on hearing a stomping sound overhead. The sound seemed to be coming from the attic and was that of a regular heavy footfall. He looked at his watch; it was 2.30 a.m. He glanced at Susan and noticed that she was in deep sleep. The sound continued unabated and so he decided to find out what was causing it. He collected the key to the lock of the attic and then slipping into his sandals and carrying a torch and a loaded pistol, he tiptoed out of the room and made his way upstairs.
As he climbed up towards the attic, his heart was thumping and he could feel goose-bumps on his bare arms. Having reached the door of the attic, he placed the key in the lock and with a swift turn opened the lock and then the door. The sound stopped abruptly and, as Brian raised his right leg to get over the threshold, he felt a strange tingling feeling pass down his spine. He reached for the switch of the tube-light and pressed it to the ‘on’ position, but apparently the tube had conked off. Brian shone his torch all over the room, especially in the crevices where the items were placed on the floor. He checked the windows; these were properly shut. He walked the entire length of the room; there was nothing amiss nor was there any indication of any forced entry. So, ‘where could the sound have come from?’ wondered Brian. He guessed that he may have imagined the whole thing and was about to retrace his steps and leave the attic, when he felt the presence of a being in the room. He looked behind him and then sideways; there was nobody. But the feeling gained preponderance and he suddenly felt a chill go down his spine. Moreover, he was now very confident of a strange odour that seemed to permeate the room; and then gathering all his courage, he once again flashed his torch all over the place, all to no avail. He walked towards the door and was about to leave the attic when he heard a sound of heavy breathing, presumably through the mouth. He quickly looked round and what he beheld made him freeze; at the end of the long dining table was seated a dark woman in a black cloak. Even in the light of the torch, her contours were clearly visible. She had blood-shot eyes and a red tongue which was thrust prominently out of her mouth. She was breathing heavily and loudly as if thirsting for blood. On an impulse, Brian shouted, “Who are you?” but the figure or apparition simply seemed to fade away into oblivion. Brian stepped out of the attic quickly and bolted the door. He then locked it and ran down the stairs till he was in the confines of his bedroom.
He sat up in bed for the rest of the night and at the first ray of sunrise, he got ready to begin his day. Susan woke up soon after and he narrated his experience to her. She was horrified and wanted to leave the house immediately. Brian pacified her and said that he would wish to inspect the attic once again with a couple of his friends. After the latter arrived, they went into the attic and inspected every nook and corner; but there was no evidence of an untoward incident. Just as they were about to leave the attic, Brian happened to glance at all the pictures on the wall and noticed a blank space; one of the pictures was missing. He rummaged around the place but the picture was nowhere to be found. Puzzled, he locked the attic and went downstairs. His friends had other engagements and so they took leave of him. As he went to see them off, he saw the semblance of a photo-frame protruding from behind a bush. He bent over and picked it up. Across the picture of Martha Stewart was written, ‘This house is not safe. I had told you so’.