Trying our hand at suspense

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Photo by Alistair MacRobert on Unsplash

Now that we’ve analysed some examples of suspense, we in Bounds Green Book Writers have been trying our hand at creating our own. Below is Elaine Graham-Leigh’s attempt at a visit to a haunted house – see if you can spot some of the techniques we’ve discussed. There will be more to come!

The Job by Elaine Graham-Leigh

‘And last’, said Sarge, ‘there’ve been complaints about disturbances at 59 Pellatt Road.’

There was an outbreak of silence from the lads behind me, as if the Super had appeared in the briefing room door.

‘Banging in the middle of the night, lights where there shouldn’t be, all that,’ Sarge went on. ‘The property is supposed to be empty, so we should check it’s secure.’

It didn’t sound exactly like a policing priority, but perhaps a neighbour was friends with the Chief Constable. It’s posh, Pellatt Road.

‘Anyone got time for a special visit?’

More attentive silence. You would have thought the lads were straight out of training instead of making up the worst shift in the station. Except for the not volunteering part, that is.

‘What, no one? Donny? Mike? Sean, you haven’t got much on your plate. Fit this in?’

Sean was sitting over to my left, one row back. I could just see him out of the corner of my eye, head down as if studying something in his notebook.

‘It’s on Karen’s beat,’ he said, apparently to the table. ‘It’s not too hard for a WPC, is it?’

Sarge sighed. ‘No, you’re right, it’s not,’ he said. ‘Karen?’

I sat up straighter. If the rest of this shower couldn’t handle a little check-it-out job, I was more than happy to show them how it was done.

‘No problem, Sarge,’ I said.

He sighed again, looking over my head at the rest of the room. He’s often a bit gloomy, is Sarge, but it struck me then that he didn’t half look tired.

Pellatt Road is all big Edwardian piles and people with money to spend on them, but not number 59. Not that it was derelict, exactly, I mean, the good people of Pellatt Road wouldn’t have put up with that. But the paint was peeling on the windowsills and the grass in the front garden was long and straggly. All the curtains in the front windows were drawn, except that in the big first-floor bay, a corner had been pulled back, as if someone had hooked it up once so that they could peer out. The house stood slightly apart from the rest of the row, a semi-detached with no mate joined onto it. That would have been a WW2 bomb, I’d guess, there was a fair bit of that round here. It was a little odd to look at straight on. Your eye kept trying to fill in the missing house, like a phantom limb.

The front gate was stuck half open. I picked my way over the broken tiles on the path and rapped smartly on the door. No answer. Well, I didn’t really expect there to be. There wasn’t a bell or anything, so I knocked again and stood, listening. I thought for a moment that I did hear something, something just too quick and faint to pin down, but I waited and it didn’t come again. I had a squint through the letterbox flap. Nothing but an empty hall, more Edwardian tiles and dust. I’d have to go round the back. I let the flap fall. I had been sure that the door was secure. Hadn’t I been hammering on it? But as the flap clapped shut, the door itself swung open, as smoothly and politely as if someone was letting me in.

Well, I had to check it out, after that. I took a couple of steps inside and called out, in my best official voice, ‘Is there anyone there? It’s the police.’

Nothing. Except… you get a sense in the Job, you have to, of when somewhere is empty and when it’s not. There’s a thickness to a silence that’s more than just the absence of sound. I got my baton out and advanced a little further into the hall.

‘It’s the police. Make yourself known,’ I shouted, trying to sound aggressive.

No response.

The front door creaked behind me, making me jump, even though it must just have been the wind. I shouldn’t leave it unsecured while I went in, I knew. I checked the latch and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. I closed the door.

The quiet felt less quiet with the door shut. I told myself it was just because I couldn’t hear the street noise, so all the little bangings and creakings that all houses make were suddenly more audible. They were quite audible, though, quite noticeable. Was it just creaking? Surely that was a footstep? Was there some little scroat in here, upstairs, playing games? I went to the bottom step and looked. The stairs, under their threadbare carpet, curved innocently up and out of sight. I had the stupidest sense that I shouldn’t go up there. But what would I sound like, requesting backup for an empty house? Female officers have it hard enough as it is. I started to climb.

I realised halfway up that there was definitely a noise. A regular tap, tap, tapping noise, like someone drumming their fingers on something hard, beating out a rhythm while they waited for me. I raised my baton, ready to hit out if I needed to. The doors on the landing were ajar, showing me glimpses of half-furnished rooms, dim behind drawn curtains. The noise was louder, tapping irregularly like it was a message. They don’t teach us Morse code in training now, but that’s what it sounded like. It was coming from the back room.

The door was pulled almost to, with only a sliver of muted light showing. I paused behind it, holding my baton too tightly in a sweaty hand. I could still hear the tapping, it must have been just on the other side of the door, just the wood between me and… whatever it was. What the Hell was it? There were three loud taps from inside the room, then nothing but that thick, breathing silence. I took a deep breath myself, and kicked.

The door slammed back against the wall with enough force to make the whole house shake. I charged in behind it, ready to brain someone, yelling, ‘Police! You’re under arrest!’ at… nothing. I was standing in an empty room, with not even any furniture except for a sink in the corner. As I looked, a drip collected under one of the taps and fell into the basin with a derisive little splurt.

‘Fuck sake, Karen, get a grip,’ I muttered at myself.

It was a good thing none of the lads had been with me, I would never, ever have heard the end of it. I walked across the room to turn the tap off.

It was too stiff to turn with one hand. I tucked my baton under my arm to give it a go two-handed. I touched the top of the tap, and as I did, I felt it. Clearly, unmistakably, a hand closed over the top of mine. I could feel the callouses on it, the way the dry, warm palm smothered my fingers, the size of it, the weight, even though there was nothing there. I couldn’t move, couldn’t react; I was just frozen there, staring at the tap.

‘Let me help you with that,’ a male voice said.

It was close behind me, so close I could feel the words on my hair.

‘Let me help you with that, dearie.’

I screamed. I’d like to pretend it was a macho yell, but it wasn’t. It was a scream. I turned to run and it seemed like everything was happening at once. The door slammed shut in my face and I wrenched it open. On the landing, all the doors were banging, bashing to and fro, light fittings swinging, the air thick with dust and panic. I crashed down the stairs, fumbling with the front door latch. I couldn’t get it open! It was stuck, it wouldn’t turn, I couldn’t move it. Something was thumping down the stairs. I pulled again at the latch; I could hear myself whimpering. The thing was getting closer. I kicked at the door. It was right here! I gave one last frantic turn on the latch, and it gave. I was out. I stumbled through, barrelling down the path, sliding and tripping on the broken tiles until I ended up in a heap halfway down. The front door shut itself behind me with a final little click.

I picked myself up, straightened my uniform and walked at a fast yet professional pace to the gate. Once I was safely in the locked car, I looked back at the house. 59 Pellatt Road looked the same as it always had, the tatty, empty house in the posh street; the old-fashioned shame that was somehow still there. In the first-floor bay window, the curtain twitched a little further aside for a moment, then fell back.

I think I managed to seem unruffled when I got back to the station. In my report, I just said that there was no sign of disturbance and that the front door was secure. I’m sure it is, until that house wants it not to be. I didn’t say anything to the lads, not even to that bastard Sean, I know better than that. Next time a call comes in about 59 Pellatt Road, I’ll keep my head down like the rest of them. It’ll be some other WPC that’s sent out. As long as it’s not me, that’s as good as its ever going to get. And the next bloke calls me ‘dearie’ gets nutted.


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