There was no colour then. Everything was dark. The black, naked trees stood out against the iron sky like long-legged arthritic spiders. It was always damp, often foggy. There was a smell of ancient mud and rotting weed coming off the river. There must have been summers, but it’s the winters we’d remember. Perhaps any winter after a war feels like this. There was still a lingering smell of cordite and charred embers. And there was that house.
We were told it was the Luftwaffe who had created that abandoned ruin. But if a bomb had dropped on that neglected, ancient abode down by the docks, it had only made a hole in the roof. No-one really knew how old the place was. When you’re ten years old architecture and provenance are meaningless; derelict buildings are places of adventure. We lads in the old docks gang called it Jack’s House. Some of us called it Jack’s Jinxed house, because it emanated fear and loathing. Yet such danger to boys is as a flame to a moth. It had an atmosphere which seeped like squirming tentacles through every shattered door and window frame. I can never remember that place in sunlight. It was a cold place, as wintry and as scary as a remote mountain cave. There was a legend, you see… and rumours. What more irresistible attraction did a sinister pile of crumbling bricks need for a gang of short-trousered, scuffed-kneed, dirty diminutive daredevils than legends and rumours?
And what a legend.
“Don’t you go playing in Jack’s house” was the parental admonition. We all received this every time we ventured out in the winter twilight of the after-school afternoon. When we asked ‘Why?’ a different variation on the legend came from parents “Boys have disappeared in that house.” Or “Little Jimmy Morgan went in there before the war and he’s never been seen since.” Other names were mentioned. Boys, girls, but always children. And every time, we would issue our own request: “Tell us the legend, Mum and Dad.” And in the gaslight, our shadows dancing on the walls, as the kettle boiled and the fire spluttered, with serious faces, they would.
“That was Doctor Jack’s house, before the Great War, and the one which came after, before the Kaiser, Hitler, before Himmler, when Churchill was a young buck. Doctor Jack was a clever man. He was a biologist and a surgeon. Some say he was so clever that when Myra, his wife, died, he was able to bring her back from the dead. But no-one knew what happened really. He had three sons. One of them was killed in France. The other two were wounded, gassed and burned in the trenches. When they came home, they had no faces; just a fleshy slit for a mouth, staggered teeth like tombstones, eyeballs rattling in purple-veined, painful sockets above holes where there was once a nose. They were hardly alive. And after that cruel Great War, they all lived in that house, a brilliant, broken man and his two living corpses, and that place, like them, was slowly rotting away. No-one knows what became of them. No one remembers Dr. Jack’s funeral, or what happened to his sons. But beware, because that old house is storing something.”
And naturally, no matter how many times we’d heard this, we would ask what ‘something’ meant. The answer varied, but my Grandfather always explained it thus:
“Ink.” It seemed odd, and we’d repeat the word; “Ink? Ink?”
“Think about it, boys. At school, your ink wells, your scratchy pens. What happens when you spill ink on a desk?”
“We soak it up with blotting paper.”
“And what colour is the ink?”
“Well, boys, there you have it. That place is a huge blotter soaking up the blackness and despair. The fabric of that house is storing grief, anger and horror.”
But we were young, and though impressionable, we never dwelled too long over Granddad’s gloomy prognosis. It was terrific stuff but even so to us it was baloney. So, obstinate urchins that we were, we would still go to Jack’s house. We never played our favourite game there; Commandos and Nazis, because it felt wrong. Whenever we stumbled through that splintered, hanging door and passed through the veil of cobwebs, we imagined ourselves as Howard Carter, discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Our HQ was probably once Dr. Jack’s study. We had found our own little treasures there. A meerschaum pipe, a buttoned boot, some military buttons, three rifle bullets and a silver tobacco tin. We had two stained, fading, framed sepia pictures, one of a stern looking Victorian man with a walrus moustache, pork chop sideburns and piercing, almost lizard-like eyes. The other was a family group. The same man, but younger, standing alongside a seated woman, young, smiling, with three small boys gathered at her feet. We in the gang assumed this was Dr. Jack’s family, but we dare not take these artefacts home. We hid them in an old wall cupboard, and when we gathered there, the five of us, we would sit cross legged in a circle on the threadbare, rotting old Persian carpet, light candles, and like some bizarre, prepubescent ritual, pass these strange, fusty items among us. They felt like electric, spirit-imbued talismans of the old house. They gave us a shudder, and those shudders were a special thrill.
But the space between a shudder, a thrill and true fear is a narrow one.
There were only four of the gang that fateful late November night. Our fifth member, Tommy, couldn’t come out to play because he had a cold and had been off school. That left me, Eric, Stan and George. It was odd because when we’d called round for Tommy, his religious, Catholic mother had looked us up and down on her doorstep, then pale-faced and morosely wide-eyed peered out into the frost-laden fog and said “Ah, just look at it. Almost dark, lads … so cold and damp. Whatever you do, don’t be going down to Jack’s house. Play somewhere else tonight.” As far as we were concerned that request was like a line from a movie script. Don’t go to Jack’s! Don’t go? Where would the plot of an adventure be in that decision? Darkness? Fog? Bring it on!
And so we skipped on, through gas lit terraces, back alleys, over piles of crumbling brick rubble, courtesy of Heinkel and Fokke, until there, squatting on the riverbank, silhouetted against the sky, loomed Jack’s house. That smell arose again. The mist had cleared a little and a low moon had broken through, it’s sickly areola encircling it like a shroud. That smell was the same but tonight there was something else. The mix of mud, cordite, burnt timber and rotting weed was overlaid with something more pungent. We stood on the remains of the shattered perimeter garden walls of the house and sniffed. Eric wrinkled his nose, but before he could offer a thought, Stan stepped in. “Hospitals,” he murmured.
George sniggered. “Naw. Smells like our lavvy when mam puts disinfectant in it.”
But I agreed with Stan, and Eric’s view supported mine.
“I remember that smell. When I was in the hospickal after I’d fell on that steel rod and it went through me leg. An’ when I ’ad me tonsils out. It’s that stuff they give ’yer to knock you out. It’s a hospickal smell alright.”
Eric had a small flashlight, and we followed its low-battery beam through the tangled undergrowth and up the three stone steps to the house. That smell seemed stronger. Inside, we carefully crept along the crumbling hallway with the plaster peeled from the walls, and crept into what we called our ‘den’, and found our candles still laid out on the floor. George got a box of matches out and lit them up, whilst I retrieved our selection of trophies from the old rotting cupboard. It was only then, as we attempted to form our circle that we realised Stan was missing. Eric frantically flashed the diminishing torch beam around the room. I began to shout.
“Stan? Stan! Stop messin’ about! Where are you?” I picked up one of the candles and held it aloft. Our monstrous shadows loomed up the diseased old walls all around us. Where was Stan? Suddenly our boyish bravery left us, leaving only the reality of the nasty darkness of the house. With two candles on the floor, one dripping burning wax onto my fingers and a dim torch we staggered into one another, and with each repeated cry of “Stan! Stan!” the panic in our voices crept higher. Then Eric, sensible Eric, stood stock still in the doorway to the hallway. He shone the flashlight at me and George. He spat the words out in a loud, staccato whisper, the shadow trickery of the candles turning his eyes into black holes.
“Shut up you two! Shut up! Listen! Listen …”
The we heard it. It was unearthly, seemingly distant yet we knew it was near. Stan’s plaintive, reedy voice. “Help! Help me! I want me Mam! No! No!” Then the torch batteries finally gave out. All we had now was the candle I was holding. Stan’s voice rang out again, screaming this time. Hearts thumping, George, Eric and I huddled together and I held the candle aloft as we stepped into the dilapidated hallway. The voice seemed to be emanating from the very end, beyond the broken down staircase. We had never ventured there before because it ended in a boarded-up door secured with planks and nails. But as I held the candle up as high as I could, we were now shocked to see the planks lying on the rotten floor, and the previously obscured door slightly open. And from that black crack came poor little Stan’s scream again.
“Mam! No! No! Help me!” Eric gasped and turned.
“Let’s get out! Let’s go!” But George found enough courage for the three of us.
“Bugger off Eric! We can’t leave Stan! He’s our mate!” And so, in close single file, me leading with the candle, we approached the door. I pushed it and with a long, spooky creak it opened wide. There were stone steps. Stan’s tragic cries were closer. Everything was now bitterly cold and our combined, terrified gasping filled the air with exhaled vapour. We began our descent. I held the candle at arm’s length. We were only half way down into what appeared to be a basement when we all froze and screamed in unison.
Looking up at us with piercing, glowing amphibian eyes was a figure in a long white coat. He had a large moustache and massive side whiskers. But that white coat was streaked with blood and gore. In one hand he held a large, bloody scalpel, in the other a big syringe. He bared his jagged green teeth. In the gloom behind him we could see two tables, upon which lay two dismembered cadavers. And beyond … oh, sweet Lord, no, no. Beyond, on the wet stone wall, hanging in manacles, crying, bleeding, screaming … Stan. Poor Stan. Our little friend Stan, who we would never ever see again. And that was when we became cowards. That was when we ran. When we looked back from the perimeter wall, the house had caught fire. We’d left the candles burning. The next morning, all that remained was four walls of blackened brick.
No-one believed us. Nothing was found. What had been a basement was a charcoal pit. There were no bodies. It is 60 years since that terrifying night. Eric and George are dead. When they finally bulldozed Dr. Jack’s house, I stood and watched. Above the rolling rumble of tumbling masonry, I heard what my conscience demanded. Stan’s voice again, accompanied by a distinct odour of anaesthetic.