the house on nazareth hill
R a m s e y C a m p b e l l
an exclusive first draft extract from chapter six of the author’s
‘haunted place novel’
Many of the windows on the way out of Sheffield were alive with rainbow trees. A tree ivied with lights stood in a garden where the houses began to grow fewer and larger, and soon there were only trees beside the road, their branches gleaming dully with dead branches left behind by a fog. Now and then a bulb fell to shatter on the tarmac, and Dominic had drifted into watching for the next fall when several revellers staggered out of an unexpected pub. Singing ‘God rest ye jerry mentalmen,’ they reeled straight in front of the car.
Dominic stamped on the brake and swerved, unable to think which was right. A smell of smouldering rubber caught at his throat as the Toyota skidded across the narrow winding unfenced road. His mirror exhibited the men flayed by the brake-lights while they shouted encouragement and performed an impromptu dance as a chunk of limestone several times the size of the car reared up in the headlights and rushed towards him. ‘Release,’ he snarled at himself, unable to act without having spoken, and managed to lift his foot from the brake as the right rear wheel slewed into the ditch. The men toppled out of the mirror; the limestone hulk sailed into the darkness; the wheel bumped onto the road again, where the rest of the car had miraculously remained. Before he could think to change the gears the car shuddered to a halt in the middle of the road, and he pressed his forehead against the windscreen until his sweat fogged the glass in front of him.
‘Crazy. Shouldn’t be let out,’ he mumbled, when two cars roared out of a concealed entrance and beeped in chorus at him before speeding forwards. He switched on the engine and then the radio, where he located a programme of carols in the hope they would calm him. At last he drove to the motorway, braking at every curve of the deserted road.
Apart from the occasional midnight lorry, he had the motorway almost to himself. Once he reached a lit stretch that he knew went on for miles he allowed his speed to build up. He was shaking his head at the spectacle of a white saloon coming up fast behind him – he was exceeding the speed limit himself, but the other driver’s speed was insane – when its roof began to flash like a multicoloured Christmas light, and he saw it was a police car. As he braked, it raced past him and down a slip road, leaving him gasping for breath. As the siren howled into the dark a radio choir announced a silent night, which struck Dominic as a bad joke, especially since he was anything but calm and bright. He had to force himself to increase speed so as not to appear as suspect as he felt all the way to the Partington turn-off.
Five minutes off the motorway an orange glow became visible beyond the rocky slopes, as though there was a fire above the town. When the Toyota reached the top of a long curve of road Dominic saw the entire town, its chain of light trailing down from Nazarill. The light drew him in like a fire he couldn’t feel. As he drove up through the streets decorated with trees it made all the ground floor windows of Nazarill appear dimly lit, welcoming him. He couldn’t quite persuade himself that wasn’t the case until he reached Nazareth Row and saw that the whole of the ground floor, and indeed the rest of the building, was dark.
Some animal – it must have been a cat – dodged away from his headlights as they swung through the gates. The radio began to sing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, but had uttered only those words when the tuning strayed awry, substituting a shrill mutter for the rest of the carol. Whatever the voices were chanting was in a language foreign to him, one he didn’t like the sound of, and he switched off the radio as the gateposts crept together in his mirror. The voices seemed reluctant to depart, but surely that was the noise of gravel beneath the wheels. The cat went scrabbling up a tree and was lost in the tangle of branches, from which Dominic thought for a moment more than one rope was swinging. Of course there were no ropes, just broken branches, and he ignored them as he cruised around the opposite corner of the building into the car park.
The slam of his door sounded flattened, boxed in. The building had sensed him as he drove up, and its walls looked drained of colour by the harsh light, which coated the windows, turning them blank and dead. If anyone was stirring beyond the double panes, they would be as inaudible to him as the slam would have been to them. Perhaps. It was the opaqueness of the windows, or the glare he’d triggered, or the gravelly sound of his tread in the midst of so much stillness that made him feel watched as he headed for the entrance. ‘It came upon a midnight clear,’ he tried singing, but couldn’t remember any more words – it felt uneasily as if the incomprehensible chant on the radio had been a confirmation of the carol rather than an interruption of it. He pulled out his keys with a jangle shriller than the clash of gravel and admitted himself to Nazarill.
The external glare stopped short of the lobby. As the glass doors closed behind him, the glow of the interior gathered around him. It should have been soothing, but just now it felt rather too much like a medium designed to subdue anyone who entered it. The close stagnant heat was making him sweat, and he unbuttoned his coat as he twisted the key in the lock. The door fell away from him, pulling him into the hall, and he slapped the light switch.
‘What are you lot up to in the dark?’ he said.
None of those addressed answered him. Of course he’d taken them unawares; that was their constant state. There was a bridegroom stumbling over his wife’s train as he lunged in pursuit of his windblown top hat, and next to them a mother making to strangle her five year old who wouldn’t sit still for the camera; opposite these groups were a violinist whose musicality was summed up by the grimace of the pianist behind her, and the hotelier who insisted on rearranging himself and his Great Danes for so long that one of the dogs was cocking its leg against his seventeenth century chair . . . Usually talking to all these and their counterparts in the various rooms relaxed him in proportion to the trouble the various sitters had given him, but tonight it didn’t quite work perhaps because even when he’d tugged the chains of the tubular lights above the framed photographs the hall seemed unduly dark. ‘Too much to drink, that’s what it is. Anybody gonna tell me off? I thought not,’ he said and stumbled into the bathroom. A young woman who’d fidgeted so much during her coming-of-age portrait session that she almost came out of her dress was waiting for him. ‘I should avert your eyes if I were you,’ Dominic told her. ‘Not that there’s much to see.’ He took out the little he had and emptied the great deal for which it was the solitary exit. Zipping himself up without looking, or wanting to look, he sent himself to the kitchen for the blackest coffee he could make.
‘No need to look at me as if I’m mad,’ he said to a retired headmaster whose wife’s attempt to adjust his waistcoat had released his bearded stomach to pucker its round lips at the lens. ‘I’ve a job to do, and I can’t sleep until its done.’ He almost thought his restlessness had communicated itself to the figures in the photograph, but of course no part of them had actually stirred; it was the reflection of something behind him. He swung round so fast that the room took longer to stop turning than he did. Nothing moved on the clinically white surfaces, but outside the window branches were swaying as if some creature was leaping about in the oak. He leaned his elbows on the thick stone sill, and peered over a swelling and dwindling patch of his breath until the percolator summoned him with a peremptory click. ‘The hell with you, whatever you are. You can’t get in.’ he declared, and poured himself a mug full of coffee to accompany him to the dark room.
He’d known there was a place for him in Nazarill the moment he’d seen he would have a windowless room. He switched on the safe light, which lit up the interior, just. The amber glow seemed not so much to illuminate the room as to stick like honey to the contents: the enlarger poking its single eye at its base board, the plastic tray lining up opaque jars of chemicals for him beside the tray which isolated the developing tank. He stood the mug in the space between the tanks on the bench and leaned into the hall to switch off the light. ‘Don’t get up to anything while I can’t see,’ he murmured at the photographs, and wished he hadn’t spoken – wished he hadn’t behaved as if someone could hear him. Nobody could, he told himself, and the appeal of living alone was still that there was nobody to interrupt him when he had a job to do.’ ‘Here comes the dark,’ he said loudly, to convince himself he had no reason to speak, and punched the switch and closed the door hard, rustling the long envelopes that protected negatives. ‘Let’s get on with it.’ he said.
His voice sounded very close to him, as though there was no space for it to move. It made him uncomfortably aware of talking to himself and sucked in a breath which a trace of chemicals rendered sharp as disinfectant to shut himself up. He gulped a mouthful of the orange medicine into which the safe light had transformed the coffee, and went to a smaller bench to fetch the negatives of the Nazarill session. He slipped them out of the envelope and into the negative carrier, and was holding them under the enlarger lamp to examine them for dust before he realised he was holding a school photograph. Nobody could have used the envelope. He’d elected the wrong one, that was all. Of course, the negatives he wanted were in the left hand envelope, not at the end he’d fetched these from. Nevertheless, he had to restrain himself from mopping his forehead with the hand that held the carrier, because he couldn’t help wondering whether he’d been unconsciously trying to avoid developing the photographs of Nazarill. ‘Don’t be so damn stupid,’ he muttered, and slipping the wrong negatives back in their envelope, slid the Nazarill strip into the carrier and held it at an angle beneath the enlarger lamp.
The line of tiny black-faced figures stretched along the front of the building, their eyes and their hair albino white. Behind them the windows – thirteen on the upper floors, twelve on the ground floor – were, like the glass doors, black as granite slabs set in the bony facade. Except one window wasn’t quite so black, because it contained a blurred slightly paler mark, roughly oval. It was his bedroom window. Perhaps the mark was the reflection of the back of someone’s head, though he couldn’t see how this was possible when none of the other windows displayed anything similar. Perhaps it was simply, though annoyingly a flaw in the negative; he wouldn’t know until he made the print how bad it was going to look. He inserted the carrier in the lamp housing and focused the image on the base board. Someone’s head was reflected in the window, he was certain. It was a head. ‘Let’s be seeing you,’ he growled, and switched off the enlarger lamp while he set up the easel on the base board and arranged a sheet of printing paper in it. He made a final finicky reduction to the lens as he always did, and switched on the lamp.
Often he would expose the first print in strips to judge how much time it needed, but he wanted to see what precisely was there. He gave the sheet the full twenty-five seconds before extinguishing the lamp and preparing the plastic trays: developer in the first, stop bath in its neighbour. ‘Now we’ll see who you were,’ he said, but fed himself another gulp of coffee first, in an attempt to stave off the chill which seemed to have invaded the room. He raised the frame of the easel and picked up the exposed sheet by one corner of its border to float it in the developer.
This was the stage of the process which he most enjoyed – seeing the picture at last – yet as he stooped over the tray he felt as though the thick dimness was weighing on him, helping the drowned images to drag his head down. He held onto the corner of the print with the developer tongs and shook the sheet gently in the fluid, and had never been so conscious of performing a ritual. The lined up faces grew darker as the walls of Nazarill did, and wisps of cloud sprang up like unkempt hair above the roof. For a moment the window from which he was peering uneasily appeared to swallow whatever it was framing, and then the glass paled and the shape within it darkened. ‘Dear God, look at this,’ he blurted, hardly aware of speaking, and crouched forward in case a closer look might refute the evidence of his eyes.
There was a face in his bedroom, not the reflection of anybody’s head. It was nobody he had ever seen or would have wished to see. Though it was bald he couldn’t tell if it was male or female, or how old. It had been wrenched into a grimace that seemed barely human, its jaw gaping wider than any mouth should be required to suffer, stretching what little flesh the face had so that he could almost see the bones breaking through it, could unquestionably see the eyes bulging, miniscule though they were. The head was thrown back on a neck as thin as a child’s wrist, but he couldn’t tell whether it was laughing or screaming, or both. He gripped the edge of the bench so hard his fingers trembled, and just as the print started to disappear, having lain too long in the developer, he saw from the position of the head and neck that their owner was being dragged back into the room. He fumbled for the stop bath tongs to move the print into the second tray before the image could darken further, and at that moment heard the door open behind him. He was twisting his head and upper body towards it when the whole of his spine seemed to lock. The door opened about a foot, and all the darkness of the flat seemed to have massed beyond it, but that wasn’t why he felt unable to move. He hadn’t meant what he’d said, he pleaded so desperately it was like speaking aloud; he hadn’t meant how the words sounded. He’d said ‘Look at this,’ but surely nothing had responded to his invitation, which hadn’t been an invitation at all.
He didn’t realise he was holding his breath until his chest began to throb. If he didn’t move, he thought he might die, but if he moved he was terrified that would attract attention to him. Then he heard the sound of something creeping over the carpet, and saw the door edge further open. Beyond it was a dim round object, hovering some inches above the floor.
The plastic tongs fell out of his hands, clattered on the bench. His fingernails dug into the wooden surface, and the jabs of pain freed him. He straightened up so violently that for a moment he was afraid he’d damaged his spine, and then he recognised how helpless he was. The nearest light switch was next to the rectangle of darkness, not even separated from it by the door.
He’d started to back away when he realised he was only trapping himself in the room. He sucked in a breath which seemed to fill his head with fumes, and grabbed the enlarger. Snatching out the negative carrier, he wrenched at the lamp housing until its top clanged against the column, and scrabbled at the switch for the lamp, and seized the column with both hands to tilt the heavy enlarger and direct the beam across the room.
That wouldn’t work, he saw at once. By the time it reached the doorway the light was so diffused that its glow on the carpet was barely visible. Yet it did work – altogether too well. As though the latent contents of the darkness had been enabled to develop, the dim round object wavered upwards until he could see its face, the face from the window in the photograph. Its grinning mouth gaped as the fleshless body scuttled on hands and knees into the room.
Though it was naked, its sex was past judging. Not only remnants of flesh hung from its ribs. Near where its left breast might have been, a black glistening cylinder as long as Dominic’s hand dangled and writhed, and it seemed to him that it was suckling. The figure had halted a yard or so inside the door and raised itself on arms like dead branches, twisted and scrawny and peeling, as though to locate him. It cocked its yawning, almost noseless head and turned it back and forth, and he thought that whatever was left in the puckered eye sockets was unable to see him. The sight would have paralysed him, except that the prospect of waiting to be found was worse. It wasn’t really there, he thought over and over; it was like a photograph which the building had somehow taken. The thought allowed him to lower the base of the enlarger stealthily onto bench, although his pulse made his fingers seem swollen and unstable, barely able to grip the metal column. The base met the wood with a faint thump hardly audible through the pounding of his heart, but loud enough to send a surge of panic boiling through him. He launched himself at the hall, extending one arm which felt as though it was wrapped in thick rubber to fling the door wide. The lockjawed head turned blindly away from him and the heel of his hand thumped the edge of the door. Then something like a bunch of bones closed around his ankle, and another claw dug into the tendons of his calf. As he kicked the leg frantically and tried to find breath for a scream, the figure dragged itself up his body, growing more substantial as it came, crushing between them something that writhed. The dead face rose level with his. The shrivelled eyes found him, and the tattered stump of a tongue moved within the broken jaw. What it might have tried to say he never knew, but the eyes were telling him a secret worse than death . . .
(c) Ramsey Campbell 1998