Nigel Hadley drove out to Samara House to meet the clients. They were late, so he sat in his car and listened to Radio 2 and thought about his life.
Fuck my life, was what Nigel thought about his life.
At 42, unmarried, thinning hair, pot belly, he couldn’t remember why he’d become an estate agent; what had drawn him to the business in the first place. Estate agent: it had a vocational ring to it, like consultant or architect. Not just a job description. In truth (as he’d admitted to himself years ago), he was more like a used car salesman for houses.
The twenty-somethings who were already marking themselves out as the next generation of Archer-Bowman Residential had drive and determination. They were all about targets and spreadsheets, flashy suits and sales pitch that hummed with up-to-the-minute jargon.
Nigel was different. His demeanour was quieter, his salesmanship much less aggressive. Old school, some might say. Cornelius Archer, the senior partner, had another way of putting it: has-been.
Which was why Nigel had been saddled with Samara House.
Nigel switched off Radio 2 – the presenter had little to say and was taking too long saying it – and gazed through the windscreen at the house’s glowering facade. It presented nothing new. He’d seen it so many times he’d lost count. The photographs he’d taken of it could fill a gallery.
Samara House was in a style that Archer-Bowman Residential liked to call neo-Renaissance, but Nigel’s impression was that the architect had one eye on the future and was quite taken with the idea of brutalism. It stood in twelve acres of its own ground with the stubborn solidity of a bouncer outside a nightclub. If your name wasn’t on the list, fuck off.
James and Claire Aspley’s names were on the list, and as Nigel’s gaze drifted from the facade to his rearview mirror he saw the tiny dot of their Audi A5 at the far end of the long straight driveway that lead up to the house. He waited till they’d covered half the distance, then straightened his tie, shot his cuffs and got out of his drab-by-comparison Sukuzi. He was ready with a smile and an extended hand as the Audi pulled up.
Five minutes of small talk prefaced the tour. They were both fine, thank you, pleasant drive up from the suburbs, lovely day for it. He was a graphic designer, she worked in advertising. She named a couple of clients who were on the Fortune 500 list, and used the word “portfolio” as if it were gilt-edged. They had two children. Boarding school.
Nigel led the way. The atrium was a study in wood panelling; high windows monopolised every bit of light. The central staircase swept up to the second storey like something out of a Hollywood musical. Nigel beckoned James and Claire to turn around and admire the semi-circular stained glass window above the main door, pointing out its depiction of the Garden of Eden, and in doing so wasted the half a minute or so that it took the cowled figure, grey and vaguely translucent, to drift across the atrium and disappear through a wall that hadn’t been part of the original construction.
Still orating on the local legend that the stained glass was all that remained of the monastery upon whose foundations Samara House stood – but carefully omitting the details of the fire that razed it and claimed the lives of two dozen monks – Nigel steered them into the first of the downstairs rooms, fractionally ahead of the same grey figure gliding down the staircase and sinking through a long since sealed-over trapdoor leading to the cellar. Nigel had no intention of showing James and Claire the cellar.
The fireplace in the lounge was where Sir Godfrey Pemberton had fallen after being struck and rendered unconscious by a falling beam in 1931, and where he had lain all that winter night as a blazing open fire roasted his flesh. Nigel stood in front of it and kept his hands moving with the easy grace of a conductor as he pointed out the various features and ensured his clients didn’t notice the gusts of ash that danced on a cold hearth and formed themselves into a face barely recognisable in its deformity.
Re-emerging into the atrium, Nigel drew their attention to a handsome grandfather clock that occupied its own nook. He tapped its richly veneered wood, an almost casual gesture as far as James and Claire were aware; if they even noticed. The exact pattern of raps, arrived at via years of trial and error, was guaranteed to activate the chiming mechanism. The nostalgic bing-bing-bing-booong effectively masked the otherworldly howling of the spinster Anne Thrapp-Haye’s lapdog, which died in 1952 after sitting by her corpse for however many days without sustenance or even, apparently, thinking of its own survival. What killed its owner will probably never be known. The dog never stood a chance. Samara House was a stranger to callers in those days. A recluse, miser and shunner of society was Miss Anne Thrapp-Haye.
Moving on to the upper floor, Nigel took the staircase enthusiastically, his footfalls in juxtaposition to the creaks and groans that might otherwise have drifted up from other parts of the house. His speaking voice rose a few decibels, exploiting the acoustics to offset the howling wind that battered the landing windows. James and Claire struck him as the kind of self aware people who’d notice the sudden transition from balmy spring afternoon to outright gale.
He left the attic for last, apologising for the fact that the string-pull light switch had come away in his hand and offering a further reduction on the asking price against the cost of any rewiring. It was a final touch that had served him well down the years. Nobody trusts a deal that’s too good to be true, so stage manage an imperfection, knock off a few quid as an act of good faith and they come away with the positives intact and a rationalisation for the only negative.
That and the fact it kept in shadow the ghost of Jeremy Goldstone, stockbroker, Tory party fundraiser, narrow escapee from a custodial sentence for insider trading in the late 1980s, who had confined himself to the attic for several months after strangling his wife and three children, only to claw his own eyes out at the unspeakable things that eventually followed him up there.
Retracing their steps to the atrium, James and Claire exchanging a lexicon of nods, smiles and squeezed hands, Nigel eased off on the verbiage. There were a couple of creaky floorboards and a slamming door left but a judicious shifting of his weight as he slipped back into small talk mode accounted for the former, and a cushion dropped behind the recalcitrant door on a previous showing took care of the latter.
Outside, Nigel walked them to their car before the final round of hand-shaking, far enough from Samara House’s overhanging eaves that a self-detaching roof tile wouldn’t be fatal in its trajectory. He needn’t have worried: deconstructive roofing wasn’t on the cards today.
James and Claire thanked him for his time. It was a big undertaking. They needed to consider the refurbishment costs. There were conversations to be had, numbers to be crunched. It surprised Nigel that people still used that phrase, particularly people who were younger than him. They hopped back into the Audi, James executed a sweeping turn, and Nigel watched his potential buyers zoom off into the distance.
He had an hour to kill at the office. He surfed the net. Despite its glum history, Samara House hadn’t entered the popular consciousness the way Glamis Castle or Borley Rectory had. No books had written, no films or TV dramas had rummaged its chequered history for inspiration. But where publishing and the visual arts turn away from the obscure as unmarketable, the internet flings open its arms in welcome.
True, the websites that trafficked in Samara House ephemera were few and far between, but Nigel kept an eye on them. If there was one thing he’d learned from his younger colleagues it was that the information age had put buyer on an equal footing with seller. A few clicks of the mouse and any old punter could assemble their own file. It was disgraceful how little value was placed on a salesman’s spiel nowadays.
Nigel utilised a proxy server and a retinue of usernames and targeted the few sites that hyperbolised the Samara House hauntings. Employing the bland understated prose that came so naturally to him, he debunked theories, dismissed so-called witness reports, demolished the witterings of mediums and amateur ghost hunters, and ridiculed the very idea of preternatural activity.
With ten minutes to spare, he logged off and went home early.
Home was a studio flat, minimally furnished. His savings had gone on a Bang & Olufsen sound system. CDs were aural perfection, but vinyl was pure romanticism. Downloads were for children.
That night, he listened to Solti conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The witches’ sabbath filled the room, his head and by extension the entire county, including and biliously defined by Samara House.
He groaned and knew that there was no getting away from it. The needle lifted from the vinyl and floated back to its resting position.
Nigel pulled on his overcoat and grabbed his car keys.
Samara House at midnight was less scary and more worrisome in roughly equal measures and Nigel wasn’t sure that he’d be able to explain why. Not in terms that didn’t sound like a bad H.P. Lovecraft pastiche anyway.
Parking a discreet distance from the house, he took from the back seat a canvas bag and a heavy-duty flash light. Pulling on a pair of arm-length gauntlets, he clicked the flash light on and walked the perimeter. Wherever he came across a dead animal – rat, dog, fox – he rammed it into the bag.
There were more than usual tonight. Twice he nearly threw up.
The Sukuzi’s boot yielded a shovel. He dug a shallow grave at the rear of Samara House and interred the various corpses.
He then took the last item he’d stowed in the car. He stabbed a forefinger into the vacuumed packed plastic and encouraged a hole. Then he retraced the perimeter, this time trailing a circumference of salt.
At home, half past one in the morning and work tomorrow, he ran through a litany of small precautions to ensure nothing had followed him.
The Aspleys called him two days later. An appointment was made. As they signed the paperwork, Nigel’s hand repeatedly dipped into his desk drawer, ostensibly to retrieve a stapler, a date stamp, a paper clip.
He kept a crucifix in there, as well. He clutched it so hard it left a mark on his hand.
Neil Fulwood lives and works in Nottingham. His short fiction has appeared in Quantum Muse and The British Fantasy Society Journal. He has a collection of poetry, No Avoiding It, out with Shoestring Press. Neil’s hobbies include visiting inns and taverns of architectural interest. Some people confuse this with pub-crawling.