Why did I agree to become involved? As I look back now I can see no clear decision or conscious choice, just a hapless falling into circumstance. If I had refused to entertain the stupid idea from the beginning would that have absolved me from the knowledge that was to come to me? Or was I already destined to find it no matter what I willed or thought? Arid inquisition one might say, but I find myself increasingly wondering about such things. So be it.
I remember how it began so clearly that I am embarrassed by its triviality. My wife, Grainne, was sat at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning with a mug of coffee reading the local newspaper. The sunlight poured through our south-facing window gilding the kitchenware with a spring glow. A Radio 4 newsreader was droning on in a semi-ambient background noise. And Grainne was scanning the property pages. “Oh my God!” She suddenly burst into life, talking to me whilst folding the paper into a smaller, more focused square. “That house is on the market; the one where that man killed all his family!”
I knew straight away what she was talking about even if I didn’t then recall all of the details of the case. Did I somehow know at that instant that I was falling towards the underlying cat’s cradle of time? That I was approaching a crisis point, a fork in the road? That one path would take me to an uninteresting life of dozing mundanity whilst the other would awaken me to the unassimilable horror of actuality? I honestly can’t answer that question. I like to think that I felt an icy frisson of unwilled anticipation as I stood there listening to Grainne talking that Saturday morning but hindsight is a master of illusion and I can’t pretend that I can see through his sleights of hand.
Grainne quickly filled in the missing details. Last year, a businessman living locally found himself caught in a familiar, yet still crushing, pincer movement. His business had been steadily declining, but he had hidden that fact from his family by running up debt after debt after debt. As the demand for repayments grew his ability to make them diminished. It was a classic checkmate, and the impersonal forces of the world had won the game. On the evening after he had been officially declared bankrupt he bludgeoned his wife to death with a club hammer in their marital bed. He then stabbed to death his two sleeping teenage daughters. His body was found by a dog walker the following morning at the foot of a great drop in a disused quarry.
Such a story might be considered off-putting to many, but Grainne was like a moth to a candle. She passed me the newspaper and I read the estate agent’s laughable evasions. “Occupying a beautiful setting with rural views, early viewing is recommended of this extended and spacious family home.” And on and on. The house was certainly impressive, as you would expect given its price, but what sort of psychic residue would the violence carried out there have left on its bricks and mortar?
Grainne was already in the process of beginning to find out. She was on the phone to her friend from university, Esther, with whom she shared a shallow interest in all things supernatural. I myself was mildly fond of their mutual pastime although my instinctive role in this was as disapproving, rational naysayer. They seemed to enjoy having someone to play the role of sceptical disbeliever so I willingly obliged regardless of the fact that I was ambivalent about the subject.
Even so, I felt distinctly uncomfortable listening to Grainne’s half of their phone conversation. Evidently, they were going to arrange a viewing of the house and they were discussing how to convince the estate agent that they were genuine prospective house buyers rather than morbid timewasters. Rather ominously, I appeared to occupy a central position in their scheme. “I’ll tell them that me and Robert want to view the property,” she said into the black screen, “and then when we arrive I’ll explain that you’re my sister.”
I turned away from Grainne at that point and looked at the white clouds slowly swimming through blue. I was already caught. What could I possibly say to object to Grainne’s silly scheme? That I was worried we might bump into the ghosts of the dead family? That I thought her idea was in extremely poor taste? She would have seen straight through me in either case. And what would she have seen? I now fear that she would have seen the real me rather than the shared illusion that I was comfortable with. If I had had the courage to be myself back then perhaps things could have been different; no, they would certainly have been different, but I would have had to have acted entirely autonomously, without any care for the opinions of those with whom I shared a life. Who has ever acted thus?
So, although I can see clearly the fork in the road, the diverging paths that lay before me on that sunny morning, there was only ever going to be one outcome. I had a choice before me but I only realised that this was so after the choice had been made. And if I now feel as though I didn’t really make a decision, that I simply fell into circumstances not of my own making, then at least I can now begin to understand how profoundly true this is.
Within the hour, Grainne was talking with the estate agent’s office. They had a cursory filter to try to prevent people like us wasting their time, asking if we had already sold a property, if so what the address was, whether we had a mortgage in place. Grainne answered each question with a self confidence that was more compelling than the detail of the replies. She had soon arranged a viewing for five o’clock on Monday. I retired to the shower whilst Grainne gushed to Esther about our imminent excursion.
As I stood beneath the powerful jet of water I tried to reflect on Grainne’s real motivation and my own response to it. Grainne was certainly not simple minded but her excitement at visiting the scene of this tragedy was irritating to me. I had only heard her side of the conversation with Esther so I couldn’t tell whether Esther was a semi-reluctant piece of flotsam caught in Grainne’s wake like me, or an enthused collaborator. I was annoyed with myself because I detected a current of energised anticipation coursing through my body. Part of me was looking forward to the visit with the sort of girlish excitement that Grainne and Esther would have felt no need to suppress, and I resented it. There was nothing innocent or joyful about Grainne’s plan, it was morbid trolling of the worst sort. I realised then that the youthful energy that I had fallen in love with was beginning to sour.
On Monday morning I lay awake in bed before the alarm clock sounded looking at the dim suggestion of dawn leaking through the curtains. I was tired but couldn’t sleep and couldn’t be bothered to wake up. When the alarm finally went off I silenced it and slumped back onto the mattress. Grainne, still sleepy, put her arm on my torso. Despite myself I began to think about sex. Evidently, Grainne had similar thoughts as she slipped her hand down my pyjama trousers and held my penis. “I have to get up for work,” I protested, lamely. Grainne just pumped her hand, slowly but effectively. I rolled on top of her and took off her panties, entering her sleep-warmed loins easily. She was still sleepy but she moaned and murmured something or other. I was keeping one eye on the alarm clock watching the second hand ticking off the moments, consigning them to who knows where?
When I came, Grainne writhed somewhat, trying to eke more pleasure out of a disappointing climax, but I just lay there as though totally spent with the ecstasy. Nonetheless, I soon hopped up and made my way to the shower. I caught myself thinking about my father for the first time in months. I confronted the stark realisation that I would never be able to find out more about his life; that now he was dead I could never ask any of the idle questions that I should have asked him whilst he was still alive. The day was soured before it had begun.
My day at the school was one of trivial distraction and irritation overshadowed by a barely articulated anxiety for the evening’s ‘entertainment’. I was short tempered with the students and couldn’t focus on my work. In truth, I had decided that Grainne’s desire to view the house where a personal tragedy had unfolded was a very bad idea indeed with no reservation. I had told her as much on the Sunday. She wrong-footed me by thoughtfully agreeing. “Those poor people,” she said. “What on earth could make someone flip like that?” We seemed to concur but neither of us volunteered to cancel the arrangement. And so, early on Monday evening, the three of us met up outside the impressive house. “Hello Robert,” Esther said as I approached the two women, “welcome to Paranormal Investigations Inc.” It was an old joke shared between the three of us but it fell flat on that evening of clouded sunshine, perhaps because I was unwilling to play along.
We left our cars on the road and walked up the long drive to the front door. The house was vulgarly impressive: large, rather than imposing; constructed, rather than designed. Its clean edges conveyed more the presence of money than of taste. The estate agent was waiting inside talking on his mobile phone. After curtailing his conversation he welcomed us and handed each of us a brochure detailing everything you could wish to know about this house that none of us intended to buy. “You don’t need to hear any spiel from me,” he claimed before reeling out his cleverly anti-spiel spiel. Grainne asked one or two astute questions, quite different from anything I would have thought to have asked. Mr Estate Agent was evidently charmed by Grainne’s manner (and her 20something beauty, no doubt), and he revealed no scepticism regarding our interest in the property.
He showed us around, answering Grainne’s questions obsequiously, then said he would let us explore for ourselves, diving straight back into his phone as he retreated down the stairs. “Do you know,” said Grainne, allowing the repressed Irish to return to her accent, “I think I’ll take it!”
“There’s five bedrooms so I can have my mum over to visit at weekends,” Esther parried back.
“I think I’ll be homing yous lot in the East wing. We are at home here in the West wing.” And on. I found that I was quite desperate for a piss so I told the girls that I would be inspecting the bathroom. Now, there was a bathroom on the first floor where we had just been looking, but I felt I needed some distance from Grainne and Esther so I walked up the stairs to the en suite serving the master bedroom.
From up there the “rural views” of the newspaper advert stretched out in all their price-enhancing glory. The distant hills enclosed a rolling pastoral landscape that was a beautiful anachronism and the sun blessed the kitsch scene with all its solemn fire. I went in to the bathroom.
When I had finished, the flush still filling the clinically modern cistern, I felt my phone buzzing a notification in my back pocket. I stood in the early evening light of the south-facing master bedroom and looked at the screen. I had received an email from the school office. “Please click here,” was the curt message. I touched the hyperlink and a new screen opened. A sudden shaft of sunlight from the window blanched the phone’s screen so I turned away and shaded it with my body. A curious alignment seemed to occur. The phone seemed to have switched to camera mode, as I was looking at a moving image of the very room that I was standing in. But, at the same time, it was clear that the picture was moving independently of my own movements. It was momentarily disorientating but it quickly became obvious that I was watching a video taken in the master bedroom.
As I watched, the video panned upwards across the built-in wardrobe to the ceiling. I heard the muffled talk of the girls downstairs almost as a subliminal subtext. Their sound reminded me that I had turned my phone’s volume down to silent, so I held in the button on the side until I could clearly hear other voices. At first the phone’s tinny sound rendered them indistinct but perhaps that was just me suppressing what I didn’t want to hear. Which was the sound of a man and a woman evidently in some sort of sexual encounter.
The picture panned down and faced the bed. A woman sat astride a man who was lying on his back. Both were naked and clearly fucking. For some reason I looked around the empty room, fearful that someone would catch me looking at this video, even though its appearance on my phone was nothing to do with me. A strong notion of guilt had quickly roused itself within me. I was standing in the bedroom facing the bed, looking at a video on my phone of a man and woman fucking on that bed. I had no way of knowing for sure but I couldn’t think of any other interpretation than that these were the previous owners of the house. The man who had thrown himself from a quarry edge after hammering the woman’s head to a pulpy mess. In this very bed.
Grainne’s voice carried from the lower floor. She was assessing room sizes and aspects, continuing to play her silly role. I was stood in the bedroom of the deceased watching them copulate on their marital bed whilst they were still alive; still alive and full of sexual energy. Almost at once they both raised their voices in loud moans and grunts. I fumbled for the volume button and turned the sound down to a minimum, the sex noises only audible to me with Grainne’s evaluations drifting up over them.
And I felt sexually aroused. The woman was grinding her hips quicker and quicker until the man flipped her over and lay on top of her, quickly coming inside her. I heard Grainne’s voice grow louder; she and Esther were walking up the stairs towards me. I turned the sound down completely but continued to watch as the two lovers completed their climax. I knew that I shouldn’t be watching (but why? I was an innocent recipient of this file; really a victim) but I wanted to continue to the end. Grainne was calling my name. I suddenly wondered who was filming this act that I was watching. Who was the ghostly cameraman of whom the two lovers seemed to be unaware?
Grainne and Esther appeared as a spontaneous composition in the doorframe. “There you are. We were worried you’d got flushed away.” (She lifted herself up from his body and collapsed onto her back, reaching for a box of tissues by the side of the bed. His spent penis flopped over to one side like a blind grub). “I think we’re done now. We might need to shave a few hundred thousand off the asking price, though.” (She wiped between her legs and sat up on the side of the bed, her right breast profiled in surprising clarity, her body past its youthful prime but growing in to middle age perfectly, softening and rounding rather than plumping). “Well, are you?” I had clearly missed a question. Fumbling with my phone I accidently turned up the volume. The sex act finished, all that sounded was an ambient hiss and creak of the room that we were standing in, an echo from another time. I felt that I was revealing a dirty secret (but why? It had arrived unbidden) but I managed to turn off the phone and mumble some sort of banal reply. Grainne, no longer interested, was leading a giggling Esther back down the stairs and I was clearly intended to follow.
The estate agent was inevitably talking on his phone when we reached the ground floor. Perhaps he had heard something of the girls’ silliness and realised that we were time wasters because he merely paused his conversation to scribble his mobile number on Grainne’s brochure. “We’ll be in touch,” Grainne shot at him in final, mocking valediction.
We drove home then, each of us in our own car. I turned on the radio and listened to some jovial halfwit for a few minutes before switching it off with an irritable “fuck off.” In truth I was in no mood at all for inviting disembodied presences into my immediate vicinity. My car was a shell protecting me from outside influences. The spectral video had unnerved me and now a tourniquet of nausea was twisting in my stomach. I felt guilty and spooked and couldn’t begin to tear the one from the other, let alone begin to rationalise either. Our cars had been driving in a spontaneous convoy, me gallantly picking up the rear. As we passed through a small village I slowed down as we approached its traffic lights so that I would be caught on a red and separated from the others. Then I turned into a small parking area for the few local shops. I opened my window to let some air in and caught my blanched reflection in the rear view mirror. My stomach was cramping painfully and I felt close to vomiting.
A mother was strapping a small child into its car seat. She must have just picked her up from nursery on the way home from work. They both wore glasses and in their similar gaze from the same bone structure I saw an identity that defied time. It seemed to me that the small child was already aged and that the mother was also aged and at the point of death. Their actual appearance at this moment in time was a brief mask hiding the skeletal truth beneath the skin. There must be thirty years between mother and child and it would seem like no time at all before another thirty had turned and brought around the next generation, the grandmother already dead. The girl was quiet and serious. I saw her youth as a cruel deceit. Soon she would understand death, and I couldn’t avoid seeing the momentary deferral of its arrival as anything other than sickly poignant. I opened the car door and vomited on asphalt.
Despite my state I was vaguely conscious of the mother distracting her daughter’s attention away from the disgusting man. Even though I didn’t really feel better I no longer felt that I was rapidly becoming worse. I had passed the crisis point. I manoeuvred the car so that it was parked outside the bay but hiding the vomit on the floor. Then I went into the small convenience store and bought a bottle of water. Back in the car I rinsed and spat out almost half the bottle before drinking the rest.
I brought my phone to life and checked my emails. Only now did it occur to me to wonder why that link had been included in an email from the school. Looking through my inbox I could find no such email. I checked the deleted and spam folders. I knew from experience that sometimes email apps on phones could be unreliable but, in truth, I was unsurprised when I could find no trace of the original email (and I’ve never found any trace of it since). Sitting in my car, waiting to drive back home to hear Grainne talking about the evening’s entertainment, I was strangely unconcerned about the non-existence of the ghostly video. It had once existed, and it existed no more. I could not convince myself that its inexplicable appearance and disappearance were any more of a mystery than the coming into being and passing away of the people who appeared in it. All that has died is gone forever. Existence is a brief flicker of light within which we are never really at home. I turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the small car park. The sickness had passed for the time being.