I didn’t want to stay in a bed and breakfast. I find it weird. I’m not sure if you have them in your country, but in England, they are usually someone’s house. It’s not even like they convert it. For the nights you stay there, it’s as if you are a family friend staying over. Except you don’t know the family. I avoid them like the plague. It can be very uncanny. Though last week, I didn’t have a choice.
I was travelling down the country to visit my mother who had just been placed into a home. I had a reservation at a family run hotel in the centre of a small village around four hours away from my destination. When I was told they had no record of my booking, I instantly became aggressive.
I had been on the road for five hours and I was shattered. All they could give me was a sympathetic head tilt and an apology that had all the sincerity of an insurance salesman. I slammed the door on my way out and secretly hoped it would jam their fingers. I pleaded for a scream, but, no such luck.
I couldn’t make it safely to my mother’s being as tired as I was, though I had no where to stay. I got back on the road and would stop at the first Premier Inn or equivalent as soon as I saw one.
I drove for forty minutes, down one lane highways, street lights absent, my eyes squinting in the low light, taking the corners slowly and carefully. The rains hit soon after. I began to panic. I was not one for driving long distances, especially in the night, and definitely not in torrential rain.
I almost contemplated pulling over in a lay-by and sleeping in the car. But being a woman, out in the middle of no-where, I wouldn’t have felt safe.
As if by some good fortune, I saw a hand written sign in white paint against a black board that lit up in the headlights.
The Sundown B&B – 3/4 Mile Left
My heart sunk, knowing that this was the place I had to stop at. Every fibre of my being wanted to carry on and find a hotel that had cookie cutter rooms I’d seen a hundred times before, its recognisable decor familiar and inoffensive. My heavy eyes pleaded with me to stop. So I did.
A single lamp outside lit the building. It was a two storey house with lots of character. The front door was something that wouldn’t look out of place in a row of terraced houses. I banged on the knocker and waited. The lack of a porch allowed the rain to soak me through.
The door creaked open and I was greeted by a sweet old lady.
“Come in, child,” she said, “you must be cold.”
“Thank you,” I replied, feeling the dry heat of a fireplace warm me, “I hope I’m not intruding?”
The hallway was typical of a house of this size. A small rotary phone sat on a pedestal, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. Coats hung from hooks, shoes rested underneath.
“I really hope you have a room,” I said, a part of me hoping she’d say no.
“Yes, my dear,” she said smiling, offering to take my coat, “we have a room free.”
I handed her my coat, she struggled to place it next to the others.
Absentmindedly, I took off my shoes.
“Thank you,” she said, picking those up as well and placing them next to the rest.
“I’m so sorry to burst in on you like this. You see, I had a reservation in town, but they said they were overbooked.”
“You look tired. Let me get you a key and show you to your room.”
“You have no idea how grateful I am,” I said, as the warmth of the fire caressed my bones.
She bent over, next to the pedestal, her knees clicking with the effort. She opened a drawer and pulled out a key. Her back curved into a hunch from years of effort.
“Follow me,” she said, as she delicately ascended the stairs.
“Would you like me to make you a sandwich? I have eggs and ham?”
“I don’t want to put you out,” I said, staying close behind her, worried I’d need to catch her if she fell.
“Nonsense, it’s nice to see a young face, I don’t get many visitors nowadays.”
She put the key into the lock and opened the bedroom. She placed it in my palm and curled my hand shut around it.
“Please make yourself at home. There’s a small ensuite that you can use to freshen up. I’ll go make that sandwich. I’ll see you downstairs whenever you’re ready.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I genuinely meant it.
She waved her hand in front of me, “Is no bother.”
One by one she descended the stairs, holding the banister for balance.
The door clicked as I closed it behind me and surveyed the room. A bed sat in the middle, the sheets baby pink, with frills on the edges. A walnut closet stood next to it. I placed my handbag on the bed and entered the ensuite.
I picked up a towel and wiped my face, its soft warm fabric wicked away the rain. I sat on the toilet. I didn’t realise how desperate I was. The relief sent shivers down my spine. I flushed, washed my hands and re-entered the bedroom.
I swear I put my handbag on the bed. It now sat on the nightstand, its zip open. I panicked, and rustled around inside. My phone was missing. In reaction, I checked my pockets. Though I couldn’t remember if I’d brought it in. I was using it for directions, so it could still be in the car. But the bag, I swear I left it on the bed.
The closet, one of the doors was ajar. I know that was closed. And the door to the room, it was also open. Anger filled me, I was exhausted, and someone had been through my stuff. I closed the door behind me, pulling the handle to make sure I heard the click. I stormed down the stairs and realised I didn’t know where to go.
“Excuse me?” I said in a raised tone.
“In here, love,” the old woman said. I followed the voice, into a kitchen diner.
“Almost finished,” she said as she placed meat in between the pieces of bread.
“Someone was in my room,” I blurted out.
She finished placing the piece of bread on the top of the sandwich and turned around. She put the plate on a wooden dining table.
“I’m so sorry, that was probably my grandson. He’s always excited to see new people. He’s only eight, he doesn’t understand personal space.
She shuffled past me and shouted into the hallway.
“Charlie, don’t go in the guest room, you know better than that.”
She waited at the threshold of the door. I heard the sound of excited footsteps run along the landing above, then the closing of a door. Satisfied, she returned.
“Boys,” she said, shaking her head, “please don’t mind me, eat your sandwich.”
I took a bite, the homemade bread was so soft in my mouth.
“This is good,” I said, as I ate, realising I was hungrier than I expected.
As I finished I felt embarrassed, “I’ve not paid you anything.”
“Shush, no need to talk about money, just eat your food and get some sleep.”
“Thank you,” I said, “I never got your name.”
“I’m Edith,” she said.
“My name’s Carol.”
“Pleased to meet you. Would you like a glass of milk too?”
“I don’t want to impose.”
She waved her hand again. It was obvious she was happy to help.
“Here you go,” she said, placing the glass on the table.
I sipped it and stared around the kitchen. Iron pots and pans hung from the ceiling, reminding me of my mother’s house, before my brother and I sent her to the home. Seeing this old lady made me wonder if we were too quick to send her there. She was obviously older than my mum, and she was still getting around okay.
“You know, I never stay in a bed and breakfast, they usually creep me out. But you’ve changed my mind.”
I waited for a response and heard none.
“Edith?” I asked.
I turned but she wasn’t there.
Confused, I picked up the glass and plate and put it on the sideboard next to the sink. I heard a hissing from somewhere near. I turned to see it was coming from the stove, the back burner roared with no pot or kettle on top. I switched it off and thought that sweet old woman should be more careful.
Quietly I ascended the stairs. I paused briefly, seeing the door to my room hang open.
“Charlie?” I said as I entered.
There was no response.
I closed the door, pulling the internal bolt lock into place. On the nightstand, next to my handbag sat a small vase, with a single daisy. Underneath was a note, written in crayon, sorry.
I held my hand to my chest, and felt how nice that was that Charlie had left me a note. On the other hand though, he had been in my room again.
I took off my clothes, placed them on the wooden chair in the corner of the room, and tucked up into bed. I heard dulled footsteps race past my room again and hoped Charlie would go to bed soon. I had no idea how late it was, but I was tired and it wasn’t long before I dropped off to sleep.
I woke abruptly in the night. I wasn’t sure if it was a nightmare that roused me or something else. The room was almost pitch black, except from the small amount of moonlight that leaked through the gap in the curtains. It took a few moments for me to realise where I was. My face was clammy.
I got up and padded to the ensuite. I relieved myself before turning on the tap and flooding my face with water. I turned the water off and heard a click. On edge, I returned to the bedroom to see my door ajar. A small sliver of orange light leaked into the room. I stood perfectly still, in the gloomy dark, trying to work out if there was an intruder in my room.
There was a shuffling from the closet.
“Charlie, is that you?” I asked.
The shuffling stopped.
I exhaled deeply.
“Are you playing hide and seek?” I said, creeping into the room.
“I can’t see you. Are you under the bed?”
I got onto the floor and pulled the valance up. Dust motes wafted forth, stinging my eyes.
I heard a giggle from the closet.
“Are you… behind the chair?”
I pulled the chair away from the wall and heard another giggle from the closet.
“You must be… in the closet.”
Another excited giggle erupted from within.
I held the handle.
“Are you in here?” I said.
Quickly, I pulled open the door, to reveal an empty cupboard, except for a few towels.
The bedroom door slammed and the sound of excited footsteps ran along the corridor.
It happened so fast I didn’t see Charlie leave.
I stepped out of the room, peering down the empty hallway. I heard another click and the light went out.
“Charlie, this isn’t funny,” I said.
He giggled in the darkness and I heard his familiar footsteps run down the stairs.
“It’s really late, shouldn’t you be in bed?” I asked, suddenly feeling alone and almost naked.
The bedroom door slammed shut. I pulled on the handle, it wouldn’t budge, as if a large person was holding it from the other side.
“Charlie, please, I’m scared.”
I felt along the corridor, looking for a light switch. A small amount of light travelled up the deserted staircase. I fondled the wall, feeling the embossed wallpaper, until my hand touched a switch. I flicked it on, the light grew bright. Charlie was standing on the stairs. His wet hair slick against his face. The bulb clinked as the element died.
The staircase was deserted again.
“Charlie, where did you go? I’m not having fun anymore. I need to go to bed.”
Like a flash, I saw his pajamaed body race past the hallway on the ground floor. His bare feet left damp patches as he ran.
Having cousins, I knew how hyperactive they could get after a bath and a mothering instinct came forth.
“Charlie, why don’t you towel yourself off and get to bed.”
My legs took the stairs gently, even though my racing heart wanted to go back. Then I thought about my room and the handle that wouldn’t budge. I pushed on, until I was back in the hall where my coat hung on the hook and my shoes rested underneath.
I followed the wet footprints that led into the living room. Edith sat in a rocking chair facing the wall, lit only by the light of the hallway. She mumbled to herself.
“Edith, I think your grandson needs to go to bed. I can’t sleep, he’s playing games.”
Her rocking increased in speed and her mumbling became more and more frantic.
I knelt beside her and put my hand on the armrest to stop the chair. A knife glistened in her hand.
“He fell down the well, he fell down the well, he fell down the well,” she said to herself.
“Edith, are you okay?”
As if being brought out of a trance, her neck whipped as she turned to me. Her face was frozen in panic. Her lips trembled.
“Charlie fell done the well, he fell down the well. Charlie fell down the well.”
With every time she repeated the words, they came out louder and more hurried.
“Calm down,” I said, putting my hand on hers.
She raised the knife, in reflex I removed my arm. The knife crashed down, slamming into the back of her hand.
I reeled back, bringing my hand to my face.
“Oh my God,” I said in surprise and shock.
Blood begrudgingly seeped out of the wound and dripped rhythmically from her hand.
She pushed the chair into action, rocking so fast, I was scared she’d topple over.
“CHARLIE FELL DOWN THE WELL, HE FELL DOWN THE WELL.”
It was so loud now, it was almost a chant.
Thumping footsteps raced down the stairs.
“What’s going on?” I heard as the voice descended, “Mum, you should be in bed.”
I spun round, to see a middle aged man in a string vest and briefs.
“Who the fuck are you? And what are you doing in my house?”
I put up my hands as if I was being arrested.
“Please, Edith let me in. I’m not an intruder, I’m a guest!”
He stared back at me in disbelief, but also a recognition.
“Lady, you need to get your things and leave NOW!”
I didn’t think to argue. I ran past him and up the stairs.
“You’re bleeding!” the man’s shout was muffled.
The door to my room was wide open. I struggled into my clothes, grabbed my purse and darted downstairs.
“How many times do I have to tell you, ma, you need to stay out of the kitchen. You’ll do yourself a harm.”
Edith continued to mumble under her breath.
I slipped my shoes on. My damp coat felt cold against my sweaty skin.
The man bandaged the old woman’s hand.
“You have to stop talking about Charlie, you know how much it upsets us. We all miss him, a lot.”
He stood up.
“I’ll call Dr Parsons, we need to get that wound looked at.”
The man turned to see me in the lobby. He shook his head and his attention went back to his mother.
I opened the front door. It wasn’t raining as hard now, but I shivered as I left, not from the cold, but from the house.
I sat in the car, seeing my phone sit in its cradle. I pulled out of the drive and decided not to stop, awake from the adrenaline now coursing through my veins.
It was less than thirty-seconds when I saw a sign for The Sundown, the name rang a bell, but I didn’t know why. When I saw the large wooden sign, my heart skipped a beat. Lit up brightly in the night sky, The Sundown B&B. Underneath a neon sign flickered as it advertised Vacancies. I didn’t stop. I was never going to stop at a B&B again.