A scene straight out of a Hitchcock thriller…
And so it was with a heavy heart we returned to London, the 24-7 rumble of traffic, the sirens, the clatter of building work, builders’ hollers, builders’ whistles and people racing through the streets, po-faced with a hint of self-importance that comes with living in the capital. We squeezed back into our tiny lift, tumbled into our apartment and slipped back into our inner-city life as if we’d never left. The crackberry regained control of my Better Half, who attended to every blinking red light as if his life depended on it; my older daughter complained of a strange noise in her room (“It’s traffic,” my Better Half told her) and my one year old daughter took to yelling like Captain Caveman.
Our kitchen window has a typical central London view: a handful of cranes, TV ariels, satellite dishes, rooftops, roof terraces and the bedrooms of a boutique hotel. In the evenings when I look out of the window, I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window. Some rooms remain cloaked in darkness, others are lit with their curtains closed or cast wide open. TVs flicker moonlight blue. Microcosms of life appear sporadically in these windows: the lone businessman slumped on his bed, channel surfing while sipping a stiff drink; the twenty-something couple having a passionate argument; the fake tanned man plucking his eye brows while perched on the windowsill. Then there was Lingerie Lady who, let’s just say, liked to entertain a visitor (or two). Just to be clear: I don’t stare out of the window for hours on end, but once in a while it takes away the boredom of doing the washing up. The evening we got back from our holiday, another ‘interesting’ scene unfolded in one of those rooms (use your imagination) causing my Better Half to exclaim out loud. It was as if the incident was our little welcome back to London, making me long for the view of the mountains, the cows in the neighbouring fields and the tinkle of their bells which would lull me to sleep.
One night, when my younger daughter was a couple of weeks old, I was up doing the 3am feed. Bleary eyed I wandered into the kitchen to prepare her bottle. Propped up against the worktop I glanced out of the window wondering who else was up at that hour. A light shone from just one of the rooms in the hotel: a rectangle of pearl white, stark against the silhouettes of the buildings. The curtains were open, but there was no-one in the room. Before I turned away, a man appeared at the window, his arms spread out on the windowsill, staring, it seemed, straight at me. I bolted out of the kitchen and to my little one. When I returned half an hour later, the light was still on, the curtains were still wide open and the room appeared quite empty. After I finished washing up I glanced up again: there was the man, assuming the same position, looking in my direction. I ran out of the room and back to bed, thinking that it had never happened. In the morning, I put it down to (a) being knackered and (b) my overactive imagination stimulated by a city constantly offering the weird and wonderful.
New York City is more extreme in that regard and makes London look rather tame. I was there one summer for five weeks, put up in a serviced apartment close to Grand Central Station. Far from being a glamorous place, brown stains spotted the threadbare carpet, the bathroom was like the one out of Psycho, and the mattress on my bed felt like it was a hundred years old. I also had a little kitchenette where a lone cockroach camped out, demarcating his space between the kettle and toaster. Suffice to say, I never went in there.
After an evening out I returned to the apartment to find the light switched on and the curtains billowing in the breeze from the open window. I could hear the rush of water coming from the bathroom and immediately to my right, the kitchen light was also on, revealing the cutlery drawer – pulled out – and a large knife lying on the worktop. Lastly, a chair stood right in the centre of the main room, directly underneath the plastic light fitting. Standing stock-still in the doorway this was my thought process (bear in mind I was a little tired from my evening out): first, I was confused, thinking that I couldn’t have possibly left the lights on; second, I realised I hadn’t left the lights on as it was summertime and it was bright as day when I woke up that morning and I hadn’t returned to the apartment before going out. Third: who on earth would want to leave a knife lying around like that? And fourth: who the hell was in my bathroom? Swallowing the lump in my throat I quietly shut the door, all the while ignoring the voice in my head screaming, “What are you doing!” I crept over to my bathroom, my heart booming in my chest, my breath scraping inside me. Through the crack in the door, all I could tell was that the light was also switched on and steam filled the room. That’s when I bottled it. I bolted out of the apartment and down the lift to reception.
“There’s someone in my room,” I said to the old Hispanic man behind the desk. “You need to come now.” Faced with a slightly hysterical woman, he was at a loss, but seeing that I was a shivering wreck and refused to go back alone, he yelled for the bellboy to come upstairs with me. Bellboy sidled up to us, looking at me as if I were mad. Rolling his eyes he agreed to chaperone me and dragged his feet to the lift, suggesting he’d been made to do this many times before.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, his voice deadpan and void of any sympathy.
Yeah right, I thought, thinking of the weird goings-on in my room, like someone was staking out there preparing to murder someone, that someone being me.
We got to my room. I made him go in first, whispering all my observations:
“See the knife there.”
“Uh-huh,” he whispered back.
“And the chair there, the lights are on. See the curtains – wide open, the window’s open too – I didn’t leave it like that. Honestly.”
“It was probably housekeeping,” he said.
I frowned at him. “Did housekeeping decide to have a shower too?” I asked him, sounding like a hybrid of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. He didn’t have an answer to that one and I gave him one of my “I told you so” looks before getting him to check under the bed which he did without complaining. Of course there was no one hiding there. Nudging him in the direction of the bathroom, I said, “Can you go in first?” Probably thinking that he was about to perform a James-Bond-saves-the-damsel-in-distress stunt, Bellboy’s chest swelled. Pushing the door open, we both peered inside. An open bottle of bleach stood on the toilet seat lid. Steam fogged the mirror and hidden behind the closed white curtain, the shower raged away. Bellboy and I look at each other; we knew what he had to do. Taking a deep breath, he whipped open the plastic curtain. Both of us leapt back in unison expecting the worst. I screamed out loud.
There was no-one in there.
Management maintained it was Housekeeping and that whoever was cleaning my room, had been called away and “forgot” to come back. Offering me a limp apology, they gave me another room which I didn’t take as it was just a little down the hallway from my existing place and looked no different. I never quite bought their excuse. If just the shower had been left on, that’s one thing. If just a bottle of bleach had been forgotten, I’d accept housekeeping had left it behind. But I could never come up with a reasonable excuse for the kitchen knife being left on the side like that, nor why the chair was placed underneath the light. And together with the shower and the bottle of bleach – well – it all seemed a little too menacing. For several days I took to doing a sweep of my room when I returned to my apartment and I slept with the lights switched on. A week later, the events faded and so did my nerves and I told myself repeatedly that the whole episode was nothing to get excited about. Even still, the little voice in my head couldn’t stop wondering… If anyone has any plausible theories, then I’m all ears.
In The Silent Children, Max Gissing tries to rationalise away the things he experiences in his mother’s house in Ober St. Veit, Vienna. Soon, his reasons run out and he’s left flailing in the dark, wondering whether he’s truly losing his mind like his grandmother (and possibly his mother) before him.
Until next time!