Tom opened the door for the third time to check that he wasn’t really going crazy. The room beyond was dark and still, a faint reflection of the hall lamp winking off the glass in the photo frames. Stillness and silence oozed across the threshold. The lounge was definitely empty.
Frowning, Tom closed the door again and rattled the handle to be sure that the door was firmly closed. Whatever he’d heard it wasn’t beyond that door. One final rattle of the door and Tom walked back into the kitchen to finish making tea. Clicking the kettle on he leaned against the cupboard and waited for the water to boil. He’d obviously spent far too long living alone if he was getting spooked by every little creak in the house.
Since Marie had left with the children the house seemed unnaturally quiet. He’d been used to noise – the TV, music, chatter, feet pounding up and down the stairs, the dog barking – the soundtrack to his life as a husband and father. Now, as a divorced dad of two, he rattled around the house alone, hardly bothering to turn on the TV or listen to music anymore. Each evening he returned to silence, magnified in contrast to the din of his office and his commute. From 7pm to 7am he spoke to no-one and no-one spoke to him. When Marie had first left he’d been surrounded by well meaning friends trying to fill the place of his missing family. He’d gone to the local pub on his way home and even joined the pub quiz team. But nothing had worked. He still felt totally alone and silent for half of each day.
The kettle clicked off and he went through the motions of making a pot of tea. Sitting at the kitchen table Tom was aware of every sound in the house – the tick of the clock, the click of the central heating coming on, the bus driving over the speed bump outside the house. So it wasn’t surprising that he was hyper sensitive to any new sounds. And that tapping was definitely new.
Just on the edge of his hearing Tom heard it again. A quiet, rhythmic tapping, as if someone was tapping a stick or cane on the floor. It was muffled, as if in another room and Tom was sure it was coming from the direction of the lounge. Yet he knew that there was nothing in the lounge, nothing that could tap like that. So what was it and where was it?
As quietly as possible Tom crossed the hallway, reaching slowly for the handle of the lounge door. The tapping sounded slightly louder in the hall but still with a muffled quality. As soon as Tom’s hand touched the door handle the tapping stopped. It was as if someone had felt or sensed him touching the handle and stopped at the very moment he made contact.
Feeling very foolish he moved his hand away from the handle and the tapping started up again as soon as he backed away. The frown returned to his face as he tried to think of a logical explanation.
He was alone in the house, he knew that. As soon as the tapping had started this evening Tom had checked every inch of the property. He was convinced that there must be an animal trapped in the house, perhaps one of next door’s cats, and the noises were the pesky thing trying to escape. But the house was empty. Nothing in the house made a sound like the tapping, no appliance, nothing he could find. All the windows and doors were shut so it wasn’t something tapping in a draught. Tom was at a loss to explain it.
He reached forward to touch the handle again and as soon as his fingers brushed against it the tapping stopped. He kept his hand there for several minutes and listened intently to the silent house. Again he let go of the handle, straining his ears to work out the location and direction of the tapping, which of course had started up at the instant he’d stopped touching the door handle.
The sound was faint, almost too quiet to hear but it was regular, rhythmic, unsettling. Tom was sure it was coming from the lounge but as he put his ear against the door the tapping seemed to move from the lounge and was now coming from behind him. He turned around, listening carefully as the sound was again coming from the lounge. Whatever was making the tapping noise didn’t want Tom to find it.
A sudden breath of chilled air brushed across Tom’s neck. He spun around fast, scanning the hall and kitchen. Nothing. He knew that he windows were all closed, he knew that he’d closed and locked the door when he came in, he knew that there was no way a draught could be blowing through his hall. Yet he’d felt its cold caress. The tapping increased in volume and frequency, now more like a drum beat than something tapping on the floor. It seemed to be coming from the kitchen now.
Tom walked slowly towards the kitchen door. He pushed it slightly and it slowly swung open. Nothing. The harsh fluorescent light cast few shadows and the kitchen looked exactly as it had when he’d sat at the table drinking tea. The noise was now behind him and he could feel the draught across his neck once more. Tom turned around until he was facing the lounge door and the noise again seemed to be behind it, coming from his empty, deserted, usually silent lounge. Tom stood very still in the hall, staring at the lounge door, trying to make up his mind what to do.
He could feel a strong, steady draught blowing down the hall towards him and the drum like beating was slowly getting louder.
With a deep breath Tom grasped the door handle, pushed the door open and prepared to enter.