The old house had been the subject of whispered teenage lore for as long as anyone could remember. Every town seems to have one somewhere: the slightly dilapidated property that somehow carries a gloom in the brightest afternoon, and that everyone swears is haunted.
Everyone of course knows that such a thing isn’t possible, but the lure of a good haunting is like the pull of a good story: your mind just wants to pick it over a little more like that loose tooth you had when you were eight or nine that you couldn’t leave alone.
It was obvious that someone lived there. There were glimmers of light through dirty panes of glass; and every now and then someone hired a gardener to try and tame the grounds, or at least keep the grass and weeds trimmed. You might be forgiven for thinking that this would lessen the mystery – after all, who was paying for the groundsman would be a reasonable question.
When Gary asked his dad about it, seeing as his father was an estate agent, a little digging revealed the grounds were being maintained on behalf of a company who had bought the property quite some time ago from the previous owner: Harold Jenning.
Now, this was a name to conjure chills for people whose families had lived in the area for more than a few years. His greediness and contempt for the truth had been legendary in his time, leading to collapsed court cases, ruined careers, and shattered reputations as the newspaper owner had tightened his grip as his business holdings widened.
Even some fifty years after his sudden fall from grace and disappearance from the public eye, the Jenning name was one that caused scowls and dark muttering if it appeared in connection with case law or business contracts. Every few years, some new example of his dealings seemed to come to light; refreshing the memory of those still living here and caught in the lasting consequences of his actions.
What continued to astonish people and that filtered down even to the young teenagers, was how each fresh uncovering of documents or rumours seemed to create a new scandal, rather than just shed additional light on existing facts. People would find hidden caches in old properties, or filed in strange locations. Sometimes people would seem to spontaneously remember old documents, or would find them mixed in old family papers.
Harold’s mysterious disappearance had been put down to his fleeing ahead of some unknown calamity that had never come to light. Gary said his dad had mentioned problems with a bank and some bearer bonds that had gone astray. Janet relayed half-whispered stories of how gangsters had chased him out of town.
Ken, troublemaker that he was, had leant forward across their campfire that night and said:
“Maybe he’s still up there?”
It was one of those stupid things he was wont to say just to get a rise out of people. Nevertheless, the thought fell on fertile soil, or at least into the imagination of three bored teenagers with clandestinely procured cider in their bellies.
“Don’t be daft – he’d be over a hundred by now – and besides, there’s no power or deliveries there, my dad said so.” Gary was always keen to assert some form of authority whenever Ken started up. If pushed, neither would admit it, but they had reached that precarious age of noticing that Karen wasn’t just one of the boys. Ken was as quick to retaliate as ever:
“In that case there’s no reason not to check is there? Bet you we could slip in there, take photos – or are you scared his ghost will get you?”
“It’ll be locked up, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Gary tried to act with nonchalance, but there was a catch in his voice.
“Bet you he died in there, and his bones are waiting in there along with all his money!” Ken had a ghoulish grin, mischief written all over his features.
“Ew, no way – if they’re looking after the grounds, they’d have noticed.” Gary wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“Then there’s nothing to be frightened of is there?” Ken delivered his masterstroke with maddening calm.
“Come on then,” said Karen, “let’s settle it, it’s only down the road, we can be there and back before anyone missed us!” She smiled like a princess realising she had the casting vote. There was no way either boy would gainsay her, not without losing face or risking her favour.
Buoyed up on nerves, alcohol, and suppressed sexual tension, the teenagers made their way along to the house. Their bottles were clutched under their jackets, and they walked with the exaggerated care that the truly drunk believe hides all trace of intoxication.
The house was as dark as ever from the street, although the street lights seemed to reflect more fully in some windows than others. The grass was freshly mown, it’s scent thick in the early evening air. It was this detail that decided them in the end.
“The gardener’s gone now. No one’ll be back today, and look, there’s no alarm!” Ken jumped the low wall and started to walk around the property. Karen looked at Gary, shrugged, and followed him. Faced with the choice of staying behind and leaving them alone together, he hurried after them both.
By the time he caught up, they were by the back door, and Ken was trying the handle. It was locked. He looked at them and shrugged.
“Well, I had to try. How about that window Gary?” He pointed to a small window that had been left partly ajar. It was higher up, the top frame of a narrow window, but it looked big enough for someone to wriggle through.
They squabbled amongst themselves briefly before Gary was voted as best person for the job. Ken was enjoying taking the lead, and Karen had decided she wasn’t going to crawl anywhere if she could make one of the boys do it instead. So in the end Gary, with a bit of a bunk up from the others, wormed headfirst through the window, and into what turned out to be a downstairs toilet, filled with papers.
This, he felt, was a good thing, as they cushioned his descent to the floor below. The internal door was wedged shut, so after loudly stage-whispering what he’d found to the others, he worked swiftly to clear enough space.
The pieces of paper were covered in scrawled handwriting in a dark blue ink, all seemingly in the same style. He took a glance at one or two while clearing the door, but they seemed to be rambling stories in no particular order. The name Harold appeared on one of them, and he stuffed it in his pocket for later, as proof he’d been here.
Gary quickly got into the next room, a kitchen by what he could tell, but this too was covered in stacks of paper. He tried not to dislodge any, a sudden fear of being crushed nagging at him, and found the key in the lock. He turned it, shot open the bolts, and eased the portal open.
He caught a glimpse of the two of them moving suddenly apart, as if startled, and frowned as jealousy stabbed at him. Perhaps a little more curtly than he intended, he beckoned to them, and led the way back in. Ken was smiling, but that soon changed to disbelief at the sight of the room beyond.
Karen looked into the next room while they got their bearings, and reported that it was the same there. Everywhere they looked, there was the same handwriting and the same paper, layer on layer, in piles and drifts obscuring everything. Ken joked that the only reason half the furniture hadn’t collapsed was that it was still being held up by more papers.
Every now and then, as they moved through the house, they would look at different papers and read out snippets. They all seemed to be about Harold Jenning, or possibly by Harold Jenning, as the tone and style and subject seemed to leap around like a grasshopper. The beginning of a page might discuss some dry technical detail of a transaction of some sort, before becoming an impassioned please to some unknown person.
The light was still sufficient from outside that they didn’t even stop to discuss whether or not they were going upstairs. Mindful of the ever-present stacks of paper, they made their way up to the landing and along to a closed door, under which could be seen a light.
Barely daring to breathe, the trio approached, but couldn’t hear anything above the sound of their own deafening heartbeats. The sudden sound of a voice therefore made them each cry out, ruining any chance of avoiding discovery.
“Come in! It’s not locked! I heard you downstairs you know!” The voice sounded thin but firm, inviting no dissent. It was Karen who opened the door and decided to brazen it out. The boys, after a moment of paralysing indecision, followed in her wake.
The room beyond was beautiful. It was lined with books, and lit with candles that were carefully placed away from the drifts of paper that cascaded from the desk at the heart of the study.
A man, thin to the point of emaciation, dressed in fine but outdated clothing that hung off him, was seated at the desk. He was writing constantly, barely sparing the teenagers a glance.
“You know who I am.” He stated. He finished the sheet of paper and without hesitation switched to a fresh one. The finished paper slid unheeded to the floor.
“Harold Jenning.” Said Karen. She had picked up one of the fresher pieces from the floor and was scanning it.
“That’s right. They promised me life and fame. Write, they said, confess your sins, spin new truths, and you will live forever and never be forgotten.” He sounded proud, but oh so tired.
“Who did? Everyone thinks you’re dead.” Ken had found his tongue again, though the expression on his face suggested he wished he hadn’t.
“The Gentle Ones. They came to me when I foreclosed on my father. He couldn’t face life any more, he was weak. Then they came to me, the three women.” He kept writing, always writing, whatever happened, his pen kept scratching on the paper.
Gary looked at the paper that had most recently fallen to the floor. It was barely legible, a stream of consciousness description that meandered across the page. He recognised all three of them in the narrative in his hand.
“The Gentle Ones?” He asked. Half forgotten stories from Classical Civilisation lessons were stirring in his memory.
“The Eumenides” Harold croaked. His eyes seemed to lose focus. They said my lies had murdered my father, and only my truth could save me. If I write the truth, I live. The moment I stop, I will die, and my soul will be judged.” He kept writing.
“And you’ve been here all this time?” Asked Gary. “Is that where the new documents keep coming from?”
“They come sometimes, and take things away to make space. Is that how you know me? Are my good deeds remembered?”
“No,” said Karen. Her parents still told tales of how their grandparents had suffered for this man’s cruelty. “No, you are a figure of fun, of jokes, of a lesson not to be repeated. Any good you did is long gone.”
The scritch of the pen continued. “Is that true? I had hoped…” His thin voice trailed off. “I’m so tired.”
“Then stop,” said Karen. “This isn’t a life, is it? And your legacy is gone. Just… Stop.”
“Yeah,” said Gary. Then he ran out of words. The old man was nodding.
“I think, I think I’d like to rest now. I haven’t slept, I haven’t eaten, I haven’t moved from this room… I don’t know how long. I’m sorry.” He said this last to the air rather than to the teenagers. “If there is to be judgement, well maybe this is enough punishment.”
The scratch of the pen on paper stopped. Harold bent forward to rest his head on his arms; and as simply as that he was no more. A shadow seemed to fill the room.
“Guys?” Ken said; and without pause they ran, knocking piles of paper aside as light flared behind them, redolent with smoke and blood. They ran as if the Furies themselves were in pursuit, and perhaps they were, or perhaps they ran alongside. When they reached the road and looked back, the house was full of flames.
They stood and watched as the fire consumed Harold Jenning and all his sins, and no one called the fire brigade.