The letter was friendly, charming even, as it smiled up at me from my lap. A personal invitation, my mother had exclaimed, signed by the man himself no less! Mum put a lot of faith in a good signature, regarding those who took those spare seconds to scribble on the paper before stuffing it into the envelope as a superior sort. This particular writer was held as incomparable, signing the soft cream paper with a flourish of a fountain pen. The nib had sputtered ink and, in places of obvious over enthusiasm, had scored deeply into the paper- but this was of no consequence. Here was a man of means, who signed his own correspondence, and was offering me – the ungrateful brat I was – the opportunity of a lifetime. I picked up a gleaming leaflet from within the folds of the letter and stared at the tall manor pictured. The windows capped with elegantly arched lintels, winked cheerfully from underneath the dormer style roof, and at one corner, rose a statuesque tower. Going here would make university a real possibility for me, with both my bed and board covered by just £150 a month. My mother’s eye glittered, with this offer she could boast the prestige of having a university student for a daughter and not have to pay a single penny towards it. Guarding her own small trove of savings with a ferocity that had become a source of much bitterness between us these last few months, she much preferred me to shoulder all the debts incurred by attending university. I was not too upset about the debt itself, it was my ticket out of this broken glass estate; but her lack of care bit deep into my heart. It was something to be expected, as evidenced by my status as a serial runaway, but each time I came back it was with the hope that she might hug me, tuck me into my too small bed, and stroke my forehead until I slipped into sleep.
I was never so lucky.
I recognised the calculating look that lit her. A decision already made that needed no input from myself. I was to go to university. My stomach curdled.
Dust clogged my tongue and nostrils as I tugged my battered suitcase along the tow path, nearly masking the gross fish tank smell that emanated from the too low canal on my left. It was Summer’s final joke of the year to give us a September that scorched our cheeks after a decidedly damp holiday. A wheel of my suitcase rattled horribly as I tugged it the last few metres to the open garden of Holmes Castle and across the uneven stone slabbing to the grandiose front door. Quickly thumbing the door bell, I lent my weary back against the door frame and gazed idly up. Gloss that had been a brilliant white in the leaflet had taken on a sick cream tinge as it peeled away from the wood, and the sandstone brickwork had begun to darken with inner-city pollution. The proprietor’s – Mr Holmes – letter had mentioned our doing some light house work to mitigate the low cost of the rent, but looking at the house so obviously uncared for since the photos were snapped, I began to wonder as to the extent of them. Perhaps the insides would be better: Clean and welcoming like the home I’d left behind never was. I craned my neck to look at the windows, hoping that they’d offer some prospect of a happy future. They did not wink back at me, and instead stared down with dull, hungry eyes, weighing up the small morsel that stood defenceless before them. The planes of the walls skewed as I staggered sideways, my head suddenly clenched in a powerful vice. Fearing the unforgiving slabs, I tried to swing my weight towards the closed door that-
– wasn’t there.
Panicking and vision blinking in and out, I reached out, hands desperate for something to catch hold of. A strong grip arrested my decent, and blue eyes peered down at me. Such beautiful blue eyes, forget-me-nots floating in the black sea as I drowned.
The sky was washed with an angry orange as I came to, the light deepening the shadows of the room I lay in. It had been mid-afternoon when I arrived, and the hours I had evidently been out for had turned the dust in my mouth into a sticky sludge. Groggy, I clambered out the unfamiliar bed and scrambled for the glass that sat invitingly on the desk. Gulping it down, I barely registered the crisp metallic tang of the water, instead scrambling for the paracetamol set beside it to calm the headache that still lurked. I chased the water drops around the rim before sitting back on the bed, barely sated but curious as to my surroundings. The suitcase propped up by the door and a faint covering of dust on the sides meant that I was still at Holmes Castle. The few pictures that I had seen of the inside of the accommodation had made them seem bright and spacious, featuring calming blue and green walls and simple pine furniture. But now that I sat inside a room, I realised those photos could only have been taken by someone crammed in a small, airless corner. The only mark of individuality was the insipid water colour that hung on the wall adjacent to the window. Mr Holmes had asked that we all move in a week before, to allow time for adjustment and familiarity in your new home before joining the chaotic ranks the University’s first years, as he explained in his letter. At the time this had seemed reasonable, and I had packed my stuff with no more thought about it. Now, I realised that I had been left without anything to compare my room to. The few friends that had made it to university were still at home and were not to post any room photos for at least another six days. I suddenly felt alone and adrift, and the room suffocating. Padding to the door I peeked into the hallway to spy for signs of life, anything to lift me out of the miserable confusion I now found myself in. Greyed walls confronted me in the gloom of the corridor and I stepped out, tiptoeing my way to the nearest junction. Still feeling queasy from my faint, I kept my eyes firmly on the walls as the floors rolled with an awful mix of blues and oranges, and the corridor jerked off to the left, not with a tidy ninety degree turn, but a jagged one. The next turn I encountered felt just as jagged, as did the next, and the one after, quickly turning me on myself without any sense of how to return to my room.
A moment before as I was about to throw myself at the mercy of whatever was behind the nearest door, a bubble of laughter floated down from my right. An investigation lead me to a stairwell tucked inconspicuously behind yet another tight corner, and I felt myself lucky to have found it at all, and jogged up them, following the sounds of voices and clanking cutlery. Arriving at the top, I gazed around, finding myself at the bottom end of a large communal table set beneath the vaulted ceilings. Around it was sat ten other people, all a little fatigued but excitably chattering between themselves as they picked through plates of lasagne. A man, maybe a decade older than us, stood up at my entry and hurried amiably over to where I stood. Greeting me by name, he popped me down at the nearest seat and scooped me a huge dollop of lasagne. With a quick wink of a bright blue eye, he stood tall to address the table.
“As we are all here now, I shall give you a proper welcome to Holmes Castle, your new home for as long as you need it,” he smoothed down the front of his tailored suit before continuing with a self-satisfied smile. “I want to give you all, as the bright young things you are, the chances that you deserve. A chance to do more, and, most importantly, a chance to be more. I have plucked you all from ignominious lives to give you that beginning you need most.” There was an awkward shuffling in the pause, “The rules are simple: Behave like civilised beings, not animals. If you don’t have a key to a door, its off limits. As is this floor, except meal times of course – I live up here, and I like to keep a modicum of privacy where I can. There is also an eleven PM curfew where I expect you to be all in bed and I bolt the front door.” He looked down benignly at us, his new charges, and, satisfied with our silence, thanked us and motioned for the meal to continue.
Just as he letter had indicated, Mr Holmes was a pleasant fellow. A little old fashioned, but it suited the well-meaning tilt to his head as he listened to us, and his small proportioned body suggested a delicacy about him that was betrayed by the strong, lithe movements he made. He was unnerving to watch, we all agreed the next day. But we wrote it off as merely the eccentricities of the well off, pleased just to have been given this opportunity. The rest of the meal passed in peace, with only my health being ascertained after the tumble I had taken earlier. Embarrassed, I smiled around a mouthful and indicated that the day had been hotter than I’d realised and that I would be more careful in the future. The group had already taken on an intimate atmosphere born of an afternoon conversing and helping each other, an afternoon that I had missed and I was loath to break into. It was not long before I excused myself and stumbled back down the stairs to my room.
Getting back to my room took much longer than I cared for, and I was grateful to finally flop down into a soft clean bed and pass out into a deep dreamless sleep.
Sometime that night I woke up. The moon had transformed my pale blue room into a fractal landscape of silver and shadow, and I shuffled round impatiently, burying my face so deep inside the duvet that I almost missed the sound. It was a long creak of floorboards, as if someone was tiptoeing between rooms, had stepped on an old board by mistake and was now trying to quietly lever their weight off it without a sound. The creak ended, and silence reigned once more. With a last sleepy shrug, I dismissed it, someone going to the toilet. It did not occur to me until later that it had come from behind the painting.
The next morning was a groggy one as we slouched around the table, toast and tea in hand. It seemed that everyone was struggling to shrug off the deep sleep from the night before. Mr Holmes was not present, but he had left us forms to sign. Simply a precaution, justified a note attached to each, must be signed by midday. Flipping through, the document highlighted that as we were risks to take on (i.e. offenders, former prostitutes and drug users, run-aways, and altogether untrustworthy), Holmes Castle Association required a guarantee that the full rent would be paid up, either monthly, or as a lump sum by next of kin if something untoward should happen. The weight of gratitude pressed on my shoulders as I selected a biro to sign with. Without Holmes Castle, I would have no chance of a better life. Legal documents always made me nervous, so with that small scribble, I felt as if I signed away something vital, serving myself up on a silver platter to a house with a voracious appetite. The notion passed as the morning wore on and we introduced ourselves to the daily chores that needed doing. Lugging the hoover behind me, I began at the bottom of the house in the hall way. Unlike the starkness of the first floor where we slept, the ground floor was decked out for comfort. Plants sat along the walls at regular intervals and the rugs broke up the simplicity of cream walls and navy carpet. None of the warping from the first floor evident here, the living room and half-filled study sitting towards the front, and a games room and laundrette at the back.
The only thing that caused me consternation was the front door. Large and heavy, there were no dainty glass windows to let in light. Above the ornate, brass handle, two locks sat, dulled and scratched by careless keys. The first was a simple Yale latch screwed on the door that was comforting in its familiarity, and matched the key that had been pressed into my hand earlier. The second however was a heavy-duty affair, built deep into the door and its frame. Inquisitive fingers traced the sharp outline of the bolt nestled in its cavity, finding it to be impregnable once it had been shot across. It seemed that Mr Holmes took both his physical and financial security extremely seriously, though I was not one to critique on that.
None of us left the Castle that day, content to familiarise ourselves with the first-floor maze (I found that my room was nestled in an outer corner of the Castle) and each other. No one wanted to share what had made each of us special in Holme’s eye, but we did share tales of our antics from our respective home towns, giggling over silly remarks and stupid impressions of strangers we would never meet. We were all eager for the week to roll by so we could immerse ourselves into university, it could only be up from here. Clare, a dainty woman with wild hair and scars that peeked out from her cardigan sleeves, was especially animated, declaring dramatically that this time to be a new dawn for us all. She tugged nervously at her sleeves and smiled at us.
Holmes reappeared at dinner, this time serving us a tuna bake. Like the night before, he was a considerate host, answering all our questions and advancing a few of his own before watching us stagger to our beds. Again, the fatigues of the day seemed to hit us hard as we munched through the bake, and we barely managed to mumble our goodbyes before falling into our beds.
It wasn’t the moon that woke me this time, I had sealed the it behind the curtains. Instead it was the rasp of something unknown brush against the wall outside. It skittered across the outside of my door, paused slightly, then continued, this time accompanied by a muffled creak. Reminded of the strange noises the night before, I slid out of bed to look. There should be no one outside my door, I was the last room along the corridor and the nearest bathroom was at the junction. Why was there some one there? Grasping the door handle firmly, I swung it open with a hollow confidence, scared to see what was on the other side. Hand stretched out towards one of the forbidden doors stood my benefactor cradling a slight form to his chest. A strain of moonlight from the far end of the corridor illuminated the brief shock in his eyes that turned cunning. It trailed down the side of his body to the mass of hair that slumped against his shoulder. Further on down, a pallid hand hung limply.
Snatching his hand back, he levelled a baleful stare at me. I was breaking curfew.
“She’s unwell so I’m taking her downstairs. The paramedics will be here soon.” With a curt jerk of my head, he dismissed me and turned down the corridor, pulling Clare along with him. Her painted toes dragged along the floor.
Pushing the door too, I waited some long moments until I could no longer hear him, and stole to the door he’d neglected to lock. He’d never given us a satisfactory answer as to why the doors remained sealed to us, vaguely citing decorating in some, dangerous materials in others. The door swung open on silent hinges to reveal a small dark room inside. It had an unfinished rough look, with cheap, but well fitted doors on each wall. One was placed impossibly on the exterior wall. To the centre was what looked to be a chute protruding out of the floor. Its edge came no higher than my waist as I looked over the edge into the hungry blackness below. The nose burning scent of hair-dye rose up, and underneath that there was something… fetid. I reared back, almost tipping over in my panic to get away. Nothing should smell like that. Only the presence of Holmes downstairs prevented me from racing out of the front door that very moment. I scuttled to my bed to hide and to shake.
I joined my flatmates at the table the next morning, haggard from the night’s horror; not that anyone looked better than me. Pale and wan, they played with their toast, barely registering Holmes’ appearance at the head of the table. With a grave eye cast across the table, he announced Clare’s absence, his hands clasped solemnly at his front. The bile rose in my throat as he eulogised about her tragic circumstances, that some people fall back just as they reach the summit, alluding to an extensive history of depression and self-harm. He opened his arms out to his weary flock, inviting in their pain and sympathy as his gaze nailed me to my seat. He knew I had gone into the room. That I’d seen the chute he was about to drop Clare down. That I was going to be next. I realised that from the moment we accepted his offer we had walked blindly along the threads of his web. We were the perfect victims with our pasts branding us unreliable, unbelievable: The dregs that society were happy to forget. I thought about my mother who I’d last seen buried in an Argos catalogue, looking to redecorate my newly vacated room. Whenever I ran, it was never she who called the police, who checked the stations and the bus stops for a child with a purple duffle bag. She’d curse my name when she found out that I’d trapped her in a contract to pay back the full debt of rent that I owed, but beyond that, from the moment I had opened my door last night, I was good as gone.
Under Holmes’ penetrating gaze, the day had been long, and the dinner was worse. Not being a big eater, my tummy bloated and groaned as I forced down three plates worth of curry. I planned to leave tonight, and if that meant going with only a small bag and a handful of change then so be it. I tuned out of the conversations that bubbled around me, until a clatter hauled me back into the present. The fork I had been using had fallen, and my fingers, thick and useless, hovered above my food as if they too were as shocked as me. A wave of bewilderment and lethargy swept through me, swamping my limbs as I staggered to my feet. As my knees gave away a firm hand grasped my arm, and a voice spoke from far away. Just ill, it said, I’ll make sure she gets to bed.
Steps happened, the corridors swirled past me, then the bed pressed up against my face. And in the dark, the scrape of a key.
My mouth tasted bitter like the sleeping pills he must have fed us, a little each night and an extra serving for the prey. Rolling off the bed, I made my way to the door as the room dipped and swayed around me. It was locked. I rattled the door again but it didn’t even shift in its frame, solid and tight against any hope of escape. I ran to the window, but that too stayed resolute against me. The chair, that’s what I needed to crack the window open, but my arms were still too weak to make a decent swing for the glass and I ended up pawing at it, sobbing plaintively.
When the first breath caught in my throat, I didn’t understand. In my panic, I had not noticed the wheeze creep into each inhalation, nor the quiet hissing sound that came from under my bed. With each aborted hiccup, I clawed at my face and neck, at the widow that would not open. My body bucked and writhed on the carpet, and my eyes gleamed corpse white as they rolled in their sockets.
It was only a small snick that announced his presence to me. The water colour had slid back from behind its frame to reveal Holmes’ eyes, those forget-me-not eyes. They ate up every twitch and quiver with glee and I realised just how intricate his plan truly was. The noises behind the wall, the strange dimensions of the first floor, those forbidden doors. He had planned it all with devilish anticipation, inviting the forgettable into his murder castle, riddled with hidden corridors and festering with death.
He at least would not forget us, observing us through our short bitter lives, designing our deaths, drinking in our mortality at the end.
He would not forget me.