They were returning for a reunion: Bill, Bobby, Bud, Babs and Brian – the five B’s, that was what they called themselves. Brian was the first to arrive and to him nothing seemed to have changed, though in essence everything had.
Forty years had passed since they’d been kids, a whole world had evolved from Kennedy and Krushchev through to Bush and Blair, during which time they’d split in directions as wide as the North Sea. And yet the old manor looked the same.
As forlorn as ever, standing on its hillock amidst the flat Suffolk heathlands. The same peeling paintwork, the same neglected timbers and beams; mullion windows supported by rusted iron bars.
The back wall too seemed in exactly the same state of erosion; loosened brickwork pushed over by eager young hands as they scrambled over to explore what lay beyond in the dilapidated mansion.
And as Brian pulled up on the same swampy makeshift road he could swear that the old blue door, always wedged three quarters open by a mixture of dust and gravel hadn’t changed one bit.
He checked his watch; they had arranged to meet at twelve, so he’d a few minutes in hand. The reunion had been arranged via the internet and Bobby had instigated it. She’d been surfing and found a site where you traced and located old pals – that’s how it had started.
Brian felt a surge of excitement when he thought about Bobby, alia Roberta. She’d been pretty, intelligent, funny – a real tomboy, hence she’d insisted on her nickname being spelled with a “y.” And boy was she strong. He wondered how she’d stood the test of time.
It wasn’t long before he found out; behind he heard the growl of a 4x4 and turned to see who the first arrivals would be – indeed whether they’d be recognizable after all the years.
The two occupants clambered out, well not so much Bobby because she sprung out – nothing much had changed about her in the forty years – she looked as energetic as ever; the same vivacious, stocky presence and collar length raven hair, she came running at quite a pace for someone in their early fifties and Brian felt a little old in her presence.
She wrapped her arms around his neck, ‘Hey, long time no see – hey you look great.’
‘Yeah, doesn’t he Bud?’
Brian had been pleased until he looked across at the dapper, dandyish Bud, who dodged the pools of water at a more sedate pace, carefully raising his flannels.
‘Good to see you, Bud.’ Brian shook his hand. Were these two an item? He realised he felt just a trace of jealousy at the prospect. An unlikely combination, he thought. Well, Bobby was all get up and go while Bud – he’d always been the reticent member of the gang - often needed to be coaxed, particularly where the old manor was concerned.
Brian could see it plainly as they stood chatting, waiting for the others to arrive. Bobby clearly couldn’t wait to be over the fence; Bud keeping up the guise of the cultured one, that bit of reserve.
‘Gosh it’s good to see you again, Brian.’ Bobby hitched up her jeans and glanced at Bud ‘I picked up Bud on the way, I found he lived on the route.’
‘Ah.’ Brian his pleasure and then glanced up, because in the distance a small vehicle was bumping and straining on the uneven surface. ‘It’s Babs!’ Bobby jumped and waved, turning to the other two, ‘Reckon she’ll need a push? Really marshy right here.’
‘Nuh – she’ll make it and look there’s a truck right behind.’ Brian pointed at the dust rising from an open back truck closing down on Babs.
‘That’ll be Bill,’ Bobby said, her hand on Brian’s shoulder, ‘he runs his own horticultural business these days so he says.’
Babs made it, just; though by the time her car had reached the manor Bill was close enough to give her a nudge.
They stood in a ring and held hands, the warm wind whipping around them. Brian thought Bobby looked marvelous with her shining dark eyes and was clearly as fit as ever; she held his hand with all her old bone-crunching strength and it was all he could do not to wince. He wondered whether she was applying the same power to Bud but it was difficult to tell. Bud was adopting the same, nervously worried stance he always used to.
Brian took a discreet glance at the others. Bill had developed a paunch, he’d always been plump as a kid but now appeared positively portly in his chequered red shirt and cords – and with his receding hairline Brian reckoned he looked his age. Suddenly he didn’t feel so bad, okay his hair might be turning grey but he hadn’t lost any, and he’d kept himself slim.
Babs was pert, with trim brown hair and a sharp nose which dominated her face. She’d kept herself pretty well – developed into the perfect grandmotherly type. She was as perceptive as ever though, the first to realize that he had been weighing them up. ‘Do I meet your evaluation then, Brian?’
‘Oh – sorry I stared, it’s just that I haven’t seen any of you for so long…’
Babs broke the ring, throwing her hands up, ‘Yes, well we’ve all changed as far as I can see; age is never our friend, is it?’ She glanced markedly at Bobby and for a moment there was a glare in Bobby’s eyes, but she laughed it off and turned her attention to the house. ‘Yes, well I’ll concede we might have aged somewhat, but I guess that door’s still stuck as it was; nothing seems different about this place. Spooky really, don’t you think?’
Bobby swept her gaze around the other four, ‘Well, are we going in?’
And then just as she’d done forty years before, Bobby hurdled the wall. It might have been dilapidated but was still ten bricks high, a difficult enough task for a youngster let alone someone in her fifties. As she stood waiting for them, hands on hips, Brian marvelled at her athleticism, but noted embarrassment on both Bud and Bill’s faces, while Babs looked positively displeased.
Brian was next over, cautiously raising one leg and then the other, ‘How do you manage…’
‘Oh I keep myself pretty fit, lost a little speed perhaps since my youth but that’s about all.’ Bobby laughed, watching as Bill gave Babs a helping hand, while Bud followed up the rear. ‘I’m not sure this is such a good idea,’ he said gazing up at the old house; despite its state, the high gables and attics made it more daunting than ever.
‘Oh really,’ Bobby looked at Bud with the air of a reprimanding schoolteacher, ‘we all agreed.’
‘It was a hasty internet arrangement,’ Bud objected, brushing dust from his pristine clothes. ‘I say we drive to Aldeburgh, there’s a nice tea shop…’
‘Yes,’ Bill cut in, panting from the effort of negotiating the wall – ‘let’s do that. It’s one thing sitting at home making the arrangement like this, but quite another to come face to face…’
‘Oh shush.’ Bobby smiled but Brian could see her irritation, ‘I won’t let any harm come to you. I didn’t come here for a bloody tea shop.’
‘Still the big I am…’ Babs only muttered the words but the strong breeze swept them within range of Bobby’s hearing.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Brian held his breath, calamity at the first hurdle he thought.
‘I said, still a big game,’ Babs corrected herself wisely and Brian smiled. Bobby took no prisoners when the chips were down.
‘Follow me.’ Bobby swung round and led them into the cavernous interior; the huge hall was dark and musty, the neglected years hung heavily in the air. When their eyes adjusted to the gloom within, the only item of furniture was a dark oak ottoman by the stairs, exactly as it had been forty years previous.
‘Just smell that,’ Bobby’s voice echoed around the hall, ‘air’s so thick it might be soup.’
‘Yes, tomato soup.’ Bud hung back by the door, ‘It smells sweaty – like someone’s spent years in here, hibernating, not washing…
‘Oh go on,’ Babs prodded him. Was it nerves or was she actually cheering up? Brian wasn’t sure.
‘Won’t find any down and outs here – nothing for ‘em to…’
Upstairs a door thudded shut and even Bobby looked alarmed.
‘There’s somebody here…’ Bud’s eyes rose anxiously to the upstairs gallery that ringed the hall.
‘Thought I heard a cough,’ Bill added. Bobby turned full circle, shook her head, ‘No, the door just groaned – must be the breeze.’
‘You mean the door that hasn’t moved in forty years, that even howitzer gales appear not to have shifted,’ Babs sniffed, her long nose held high.
Silence followed. Bobby’s eyes were challenging, there was real fire in them, but the wind whistled through and they all heard the door creak.
‘Yes,’ Bobby said defiantly, ‘the one that hasn’t moved in forty years – now let’s go investigate that slamming door.’
‘Probably the wind as well,’ Babs muttered under her breath.
Bud brushed his forehead, sweat glistened on the back of his hand, ‘I don’t know – it’s stifling in here.’
‘Oh come on Bud, stop stalling; I know you of old.’
Bud reddened and it wasn’t from the heat as Bobby led the way upstairs, clouds of dust cascading down from the broad central staircase.
Upstairs the smell was even stronger, mixing with the trapped heat, enough to make them gag.
Along the gallery to the right of the staircase something caught Bill’s eye; etchings high on the door, scratch marks on the rotting wood, except that when he looked closer the markings were much more organized than mere scratches –BILL stood out in big bold lettering.
He rounded on the others, crooked a finger, ‘Which of you buggers is responsible for this?’
Brian frowned, stepped alongside. ‘Oh come now, we came in together, we haven’t left each other’s sides.’
‘Not quite true.’ Bud twisted his cheek, gave Brian a long unblinking glance, ‘You were already here.’
‘Looks recent to me,’ Bill interrupted, squeezing between the two to run his fingers along the etchings, and then frowning at Brian.
‘Oh I see, some sort of expert are you? Brian countered, irritated.
‘Eh up.’ Bobby had moved further along the gallery, eyes surveying another door. ‘Would you believe this one’s got your name scratched on it, Brian.’ She turn to him with a puzzled look, ‘How odd, could we have done this all those years ago?’ Bobby had a strong, crisp voice that echoed the gallery wall to wall and captured Babs’ attention. Babs came across, ‘I certainly don’t recall any of us doing that – if any of us had of done so it would have been Brian – or perhaps you, Bobby.’
Bobby’s look darkened. ‘I think I’d have remembered doing so, my memory’s pretty good. I’m sure it wasn’t Brian either.’
‘No, well Brian was always at your side, wasn’t he? I just think it’s pretty spooky that nothing seems to have changed in forty years apart from these names chiseled out on the doors, two of our names…’
‘Hey, look, I think there’s more.’ Bobby marched along the gallery as it circled past the staircase and stopped at another door; inspecting the etchings, she said, ‘Babs, this one’s got your name carved on it.’
All four rushed along to where Bobby stood mystified, hands thrust on hips. She shook her head, ‘Could somebody be having a game with us? This is kinda odd.’
‘And how did they get our names?’ Bill placed his hands on the gallery rail, looking white despite the humidity. ‘I vote we should quit, something’s not right here.’
‘I’ll vouch for that.’ Bud was fidgeting, looked like he was on strings, ‘I had my doubts about coming…’
‘Why did you then? Oh come on you guys.’ Bobby thumped her fist firmly into the palm of her hand, ‘This just might be a real adventure in your boring everyday lives. Why pass up on it?’
Two doors closed like quickly fired bullets, Bud glanced down in alarm at the main one, now soundly shut. ‘That’s it, I’m getting out of here…’
‘Oh Bud!’ Bobby howled in frustration, even her nerves seemed on edge. ‘It’s nothing but the draught.’
‘Except that the door was wedged open by a mountain of grit.’ Bill clenched his jaw, looked round and shuddered, ‘I don’t like this one bit.’
‘Oh get a grip on things; you’re all getting timid in your old age. We arranged this specially.’
‘Yeah, we did,’ Brian endorsed vigorously, rifling a hand through his greying curly hair, ‘or rather Bobby did. Are we going to let her down?’
Babs looked pale, even in the poor light the gallery provided. ‘What’s the betting the other door slammed shut has Bud’s name on it?’
‘So what if it has?’ Bobby crossed her arms, bare in a sleeveless black top, ‘Then we each have our own rooms and by searching them we might get to the bottom of this. I say we open…’
A nerve twitched in Bud’s cheek, Brian deduced he was nervous as hell. ‘I’m doing nothing of the sort, not while the front door remains shut.’
‘Then open it,’ Bobby scoffed, ‘I’d hate to see your escape route cut off.’
Bud looked at the others, Babs nodded, casting a disapproving glance at Bobby, ‘I’d agree with that.’
Bud strutted down the staircase, continually looking back for support; he put his hand on the knob of the rotting blue door and pulled for all he was worth, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried again, yanked with both hands this time but still without movement. Not so much as a flicker of light showed between the jamb and join.
Bud shouted in alarm, ‘It’s locked, some bastard’s locked us in – I said something was wrong here…’
‘Oh nonsense Bud…’ Bobby hurled derision down on him, ‘you’re just not strong enough. Want me to try?’
‘Time to flex your muscles Bobby,’ Babs’ voice was flat but there was thinly disguised scorn. ‘I can see you’ve still got them.’
‘You bet.’ She flexed her arms, watched her biceps swell, turned to Brian and saw him grin, then smiled in triumph. She recalled how easily her physique could make others feel inferior, their jealously was obvious. But not Brian, it never bothered him.
She galloped down the stairs, ran across the hall to the door, grabbed the handle and wrenched.
Nothing, not so much as a groan. Bobby reddened with embarrassment, the damned thing had resisted her so easily.
‘The years have taken their toll, eh Bobby?’ But Babs’ derisory remark had been an empty one. They were locked in, though by whom, and why?’
But Babs had enraged Bobby; she took a deep breath and then took the knob in her right hand, placed her left hand over the top for support. She exerted enormous pressure and this time there was creaking, then cracking before the knob snapped free of the door…’
‘Oh…’ Bobby sighed, flung the useless object to the floor; like a small bronze cannonball she thought, only completely useless now.
‘Or perhaps more muscles than brain…’ Babs called out in a deliberately thin voice.
Bobby pointed a finger, eyes blazing, ‘Don’t push your luck.’
‘Someone’s locked us in well and true.’ Bud’s voice was trill now, ‘We’ll stagnate in here – look for another way out.’
‘Let’s try the windows,’ Bill urged, ‘they’re our only real chance.’
Bobby sighed, examined one, placing her arms against the metal bars. ‘They’re mullion, rusty and the lever’s seized. We’d be wasting our time. I think we need to look beyond those doors chaps, like it or not.’
‘Try Bobby.’ Brian came down the staircase, wrapped an arm around her waist. ‘If anyone can do it, you can. You can get us out of here, I know it.’
Bobby gave a quiet laugh, slapped his head gently. ‘I fouled up on the first count so I’m steamed up enough to try.’ Her smile eroded into a frown as she studied Brian, ‘I just get the impression someone doesn’t want us out. Oh well, here goes…’
She ignored the handle, just gripped the bars and pushed out. There was a grating sound from the metal as it complained from the pressure, and in a few seconds not only the handle began to buckle but the iron supports of the windows as the whole fixture began to give way.
Brian clapped. ‘Incredible!’
‘Just a little further,’ Bobby gritted her teeth, watched the structure begin to fragment – before a sound like thunder crackled through the rafters and what seemed like a voice from the depths commanded, ‘No!’
Bobby backed off immediately, aware now of the foul stench that was infiltrating their lungs.
‘What’s happening – what is it?’ Bud was beside himself with panic, his eyes bulging in their sockets. Babs sat on the stairway, panting, clasping her chest, while Brian and Bill just looked to Bobby.
Her eyes were locked on the huge rafter that had crumbled to the ground a few feet from where she stood; none of the others had seemed to notice.
She sighed, took Brian and Bill by the arms and walked to the bottom of the staircase where the other two sat, shattered. She raised her head to the ceiling, to the gaping hole in the rafter. ‘Now you can say that it’s just this old place falling apart, but it’s more than that. I could have broken through, only I doubt any of us would have got out in one piece. Somebody or something is against us, has a score to settle and we have to see this thing out. And that means going beyond those doors.
* * *
‘So this is what we do…’
‘You’re asking us to go beyond those doors…’ It was Bud who interrupted, perceiving Bobby’s intention, ‘This is crazy,’ he looked aghast, pointing to his door. ‘No way am I going through there, who knows what will happen, this place is spooked.’ He paced along the gallery floor, did an about turn and just as swiftly marched back to Bobby, ‘I tell you what, you go first since it’s your idea+, then when and if you come back and tell us what happened we’ll think about going in. How’s that sound guys?’
‘I’ve got no problem with that,’ Bobby’s voice cut the indecision, ‘I’m not frightened of this place.’ She glanced briefly up at the timbers; unsettled by the commotion somewhere in the rafters a bat stirred. ‘Are we all agreed, I’m going in.’
‘Hey hang on a minute, no.’ Brian touched her arm, ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘You can’t,’ the severity melted away from Bobby’s face as she met his eyes. ‘I mean, I don’t think you can do that. The way I see it Brian, for some reason we’re meant to go through our own doors.
‘Then that’s what I’ll do…’ Brian swung at the others, ‘come on you three, back us up.’
But Babs shook her head, looked at Bill who seemed uncomfortable, ‘No, I’m with Bud. You two want to go inside those rooms be my guest.’
‘So be it.’ Bobby sighed, thumped her door open; Brian watched for a second then opened his own.
* * *
The room hadn’t been as she’d remembered it. If it hadn’t been for the dust covering the tatty, mould carpets and the cobwebs cloaking the alcoves, the occupants whoever they were, might not long ago have left.
There was a single bed and a table for one thing, surely to hell the furniture hadn’t been before, forty years hadn’t impaired her memory.
A whish disturbed the fragmented red curtains and immediately the bedroom door crashed shut behind her.
And then came what sounded like an old female voice, crackling with static.
‘So you’re back, I’ve been expecting you.’
Bobby’s nerves were normally as strong as her body, but they were wilting now as her eyes furiously scanned the room.
‘Oh you won’t find me; I’m beyond the confines of this old house.’
‘Who are you? What made you so sure we’d come?’
Silence, then a shrill inhalation and the smell of decaying breath, ‘Why Bobby, your voice doesn’t carry its normal power – and can I see you trembling? Ha ha. Oh - a flash of anger in your eyes – you’ve still got some spirit left then. Good, because you’re going to need it.’
Bobby felt her muscles tensing, how she wished she could use them but she couldn’t strike what she couldn’t see. ‘I asked a question…’
‘And I’m going to answer it – if only you weren’t so impatient.’ The inhalation seemed louder this time, the odour stronger, like rotting cabbage. ‘Let’s say you’re family shall we? All of you…’
Through the filthy window, by the trees, a shape seemed to flit across the heath, catching Bobby’s attention. Was she seeing things? Having hallucinations, imagining voices? Would she wake up in bed after a bad dream?
‘Oh, no bad dream Bobby, believe what you see, what you hear – as you hear me now.’
A long silence followed as a cold breeze filtered its way through the rotting frames on a warm day, ruffling her dark hair and the fine bristles of her arms, refrigerating the humid air. ‘You’re family, all of you and I can’t let you leave.’
Bobby baulked at the words, the awful finality of them, as she backed against the wall and felt the chill of ancient plaster. But she hadn’t ever cowered to a thing and she wasn’t conceding now to a spook – ‘Oh we’re leaving, believe me.’
‘Recovering your resolve I see, how commendable in the face of the unknown.’ There was more static now, the voice seemed to circulate the room, ‘Oh yes Bobby, you’re the strong one aren’t you – you’ve shown us all that – these rotting old windows wouldn’t resist you for long, but remember my little demonstration downstairs and apply some logic to your thinking – right now I can feel you steeling yourself to break out.’
‘Too right I am.’ Bobby ran to the window, gripped the two thin rusted bars just as a crash from the adjoining room caused the house to moan and shudder.
Bobby heard Brian’s voice cry out, she swung in alarm. ‘You bitch!’
‘I’ll thank you not to swear in this house.’ The voice deepened; the static so intense her ears rang. ‘Don’t worry yourself, your friend is unharmed but I needed to emphasise a point; you might escape Bobby, I’ve a feeling you possibly could – but the others – oh – no I’m afraid they’d perish as this old house disintegrates.
Bobby’s composure was returning amidst controlled anger, ‘What do you want of us?’
The silence seemed like an eternity; the festering breath filled the room, ‘What I want Bobby, is for this house, my beloved house, to be restored to its original condition. Since my material passing, there being no descendant to occupy and restore it, this beautiful building has suffered decay and neglect. Its fine timbers and masonry can stand only so much ageing - only you and Brian have the will and ability to enable its restoration. To prove a point, you were the only ones brave enough to pass through the doors. And only you Bobby, were shrew enough to perceive my intentions…’
Bobby sighed, she’d half a mind to reduce the window frame to fragments, she could buckle the age old structure in seconds and there was plenty of overgrown heath below to break her fall – then a quick roll and she’d be away.
But the others were going to perish – and among them, Brian. In the end, to varying degrees, she owed allegiance to them all.
Would Brian agree?
The shapeless voice answered for her. ‘Brian will do anything you say – can you not see that after all these years he looks at you the way he did forty years ago? His attention only for you? Your picture has ever been deep in his mind – ah, what you earthbound creatures cannot see.
‘You will not go unrewarded Bobby, my estate remains undiscoverable and unclaimed, to be revealed only to yourself and Brian; and you may continue to live in the house once you’ve completed the task – if you so wish. Assuming you would wish to share it with an invisible companion. Ha, ha.
Ha, ha. Well her home life was boring and uneventful, that was why she’d come here, for adventure. And Brian, well he did happen to be a builder – and she’d make the best hod carrier going.
‘One last question,’ Bobby glanced into the field, there was a form standing by the trees, looking in, she struggled to see its face, ‘How much interference will we get from a spook?’
‘Only my guidance, I assure you.’
‘That’s what bothers me.’
The door opened of its own accord, the remaining three stood outside, huddled together. Bobby and Brian stepped onto the gallery simultaneously. They looked at each other and smiled.
It was Brian who spoke. ‘Bobby and I are staying,’ he said as they linked arms.
‘You three are free to leave,’ Bobby added, pointing. ‘Look, the door has opened.’
‘What’s happened?’ Babs looked puzzled, ‘Surely you’re not going to…’
‘You wouldn’t believe it if we told you.’ Bobby folded her arms and gave a faint smile, ‘Now be off with you, and safe journey home.’
She stood in the doorway, arm in arm with Brian and watched them leave.
Through the house a sigh was heard –
A soft, contended sigh.