The Priest Hole
by William Gawdy
Home Bulletin magazine features all kinds of house renovations – but Millstone Cottage is one that really should have been left to rot…
Those who spend all day, as I do, looking at Photoshopped pictures of other people’s houses might conclude that nothing bad could ever happen inside. No stains mark the carpets; no wires mar the walls; the window panes are never smudged or cracked.
But soon you begin to recognise the tricks of the trade. The carpets are steam-cleaned. The wires are magicked away by computer. The glass is treated with water and vinegar, then buffed to a shine with an old newspaper by hands unseen.
The camera may not lie, but it colludes, and we all play along, manufacturing perfection even as, outside the frame, doors slam, foundations subside and marriages crumble.
As the deputy editor of Home Bulletin magazine, I know what we’re really offering our readers: envy. I’m not immune myself, but the side effect of looking at perfection all day every day is that everything starts to look the same.
I’ve been here for three years now, and sometimes it feels like I’m the only person who even reads the damn thing. Our readers, I think, would be shocked if they could see the reality of Bulletin life, with its broken mugs, piled-up magazines and mouse traps in the corners. Sometimes when the sales team go for long lunches or early drinks, the designer and I are the only people here. Even she’s working from home a lot at the moment. Something to do with her back, she says, although spine might be closer to the mark.
It’s halfway through a long, lonely afternoon when the email comes through.
“Before and After part one is in,” says the designer. “Needs a few captions and a shorter standfirst.”
Before and After is an attempt to flatter the readers by including them in the magazine. The idea is that people who are renovating their homes document the process for us, so we get five pages for free. This time, at least, the pictures don’t look too bad.
As usual, the opener shows one of the owners posing awkwardly in front of a dilapidated property. This time it’s a mum – mid-30s, pretty in a Scandinavian meatballs-and-muesli kind of way – and two little blond kids: a girl and boy under ten, the complete set. You can bet that it’s the person we don’t see, the silent partner taking the pictures, who’s the driving force behind whatever project they’ve taken on. You can also bet, nine times out of ten, that this person will be male.
The rest of the pages follow a similar format. After the exterior, we move inside to see the extent of the project while the text details their best-laid plans and projected budget/schedules.
It’s basically the set-up for the cruellest of jokes, as what the reader knows, but the family doesn’t, is that all of these expectations will be smashed to pieces by the next issue, where we revisit them mid-build.
The catch-up article, several months on, provides a kind of final reckoning, complete with more of those too-perfect pictures, professionally shot this time.
On the face of it, Millstone Cottage is more of the same: a crumbling 16th-century cottage with “good bones but terrible skin” as Mrs Muesli puts it. Yet there’s something about it that gives me pause. The interior doesn’t give too much away either, all bulging wallpaper and cobwebbed corners: what the editor calls Havisham chic.
I open the picture folder to scan the ones that the designer didn’t use and, in the corner of an upstairs room, I see the boards nailed fast to a bedroom wall, still there after all these years, and a jolt of static runs through me.
I know two things for sure.
One, will be no more work for me today. And two, when I finally have the place to myself, I will go downstairs, buy a large bottle of whiskey and drink until my hands stop shaking.
We are not the marshals of our memories. They won’t be laid out in order like images in a magazine. Instead, they come in lightning flashes: the late-night arriving taxi in the rain, the driver refusing to take Mum’s money, the blood drying on her face. Then, suddenly, we’re inside, with the dust and damp, in empty rooms echoing with our hushed voices.
I don’t remember how long we stayed in Millstone Cottage, it can’t have been more than a few months, but I do know there was a darkness we brought with us, and one that was already there. I never found out what shape it took, but I know where it lived, and might live still.
Once sales have left for the evening, I open the picture file again and start scanning back through the photos, trying to unpick exactly what happened.
* * * * * *
It must have been winter when we arrived because Millstone Cottage was freezing. It belonged to a friend of Mum’s who let us stay there until we got the Caulfield flat. I don’t recall much about the first few days, except that Mum let me sleep in with her. After that, she brought me a camp bed and insisted I slept in my own room while she took the sofa downstairs. I don’t remember if I was apprehensive about being alone, I just remember the sound.
Now, sound travels funny in an empty house. It’s sly. You can’t trust it. And even less so in the dark. I went to sleep under a scratchy duvet to a backdrop of drunken phone chat coming up from the kitchen below. Mum was angry at someone for spilling some kind of secret, something to do with Dad. I don’t know how much later it was when I woke to a deep silence and a sudden, vertigo-like fear.
When you live through what we lived through, you learn to read the room before you enter. Normal tones mean you should show your face while things are still calm. Raised voices mean make yourself scarce. Silence means something’s really wrong.
Immediately I’m awake, alert, the metal bed creaking under me, as I scoot back onto my elbows ready to move. Because I don’t know the room well enough to orientate myself, it feels even darker than before, larger and more unknowable. Mum must have finished her conversation and passed out, snuffling out that late-night medicine smell.
But that isn’t what I can hear.
Somewhere in the darkness, something is scratching at the wall. It could be over on the other side of the room; it could be right next to where I’m lying, rigid, breath held, willing it not to happen again. Then it does: a desperate, dry noise, like someone scraping the inside of a drum.
It’s a mouse, I tell myself, not a rat. Mus muculus rather than rattus rattus. A little lost thing, cowering in the corner, not a black-eyed predator, prowling the room.
Still, it sounds too big to be either of those things; it sounds like it has weight. I want to call out, but I don’t have it in me. And running? Impossible. I could feel something skitter across my foot. Or worse, I could trip, and find myself face down on the floor, in its territory.
Instead, I do what I always do: I wait. I wait to hear the sound again – which I do, over and over, those frenzied, blunting claws – and each time I pray it’s the last.
The next morning, I go looking for evidence, but find nothing. No droppings, no holes around the skirting board, no teeth marks. Mum puts some traps down, tells me that it’s definitely more scared of me than I am of it, but we both knew that doesn’t change anything in the dark.
Over the next little while, I hear rumours about the Millstone Cottage circulating around school. It’s a bad place, they say, cursed, we wouldn’t want to live there. But you know what kids are like, especially when they smell weakness.
It’s about a week later that I hear it again. Mum’s downstairs washing up when the phone rings, and I know immediately it’s him.
“You,” she says. “What do you want?”
I hear a bottle opening, a glass filling. I have the urge to tell her to put down the phone, that he can’t hurt us anymore, but also just to run.
“It’s late and he’s sleeping.”
I’m not sleeping. And there’s no way I will with Dad haunting the house like this.
“Yeah well, you never wanted to before.”
The bottle again, the glass, a cigarette. I know she’s still talking about me.
“Don’t do that.”
I’ve never heard her speak like this.
“DON’T DO THAT!”
She’s on full burn-everything-to-the-ground mode which is, in its own way, just as alarming as the idea of Dad coming here.
“I’m calling the police.”
The click of disconnection, the bottle, the glass, then the sound of tears.
Of course, she doesn’t phone the police.
Gradually the house starts to settle again, and that’s when it comes. The scratching, fast and thick-fingered, out there in the darkness. A horrible sound, of desperation, of intent. But this time I’m prepared. If I’ve learned anything from the past few weeks it’s that your escape is only ever as good as your plan.
Tonight, I have a torch so I can see where I’m going; slippers on my feet, so it can’t touch me; and a splintered piece of wood in case it tries.
As the torch beam strafes the room I hear something that plunges my heart into freezing water, like those Boxing Day swimmers. When the light passes a certain part of the wall, the scratching gets louder. Surely, no rodent would react like that?
Once the thought forms, I can’t unthink it.
What if it isn’t a mouse or a rat? What if they’re not claws I can hear, but nails? What if the murmurs underneath aren’t the twitches of little limbs, but a creaky voice, whispering, “Let me free, oh let me free!”
This time I do scream and Mum comes for me. At first she says I’m dreaming, but I won’t be calmed, so she examines the room, and that’s when we find it: a secret almost as old as Millstone Cottage itself.
Concealed behind a painted board fitted flush with the wall is a space not much bigger than a coffin, but musty with air that’s old and bad. She has the sense not to call it by its real name – a priest hole – instead suggesting we fix a rail inside and turn it into a wardrobe. Perhaps this is the first time I see someone using home improvement to paper over the cracks in their own lives, but it won’t be the last.
* * * * * *
An ambulance blaring past brings me back to the present. The office is empty now, the main lights off, and I can hear the cleaners chatting as they make their way upstairs. The room’s so full of junk there’s no space to feel lonely, but with the absence of life and movement, the shadows seem more pronounced.
I take another drink, straight from the bottle, and flick back to the photo of the bedroom, my bedroom, the board on the wall and the thick nails holding it in place. Of all the magazines on all the newsstands, what are the chances that Millstone Cottage would turn up here? That is, if it’s chance at all.
Then it occurs to me: what do you do when you find something like this, a plaster on an old scab in a corner of your house? You rip it off. And what did the designer call the article: part one? Which implies there may already be a part two.
Next month’s picture file is already filling up, and there it is: B&A/P2. Sure enough, here’s Mr Muesli, in new, spotless overalls, back to the camera, crowbarring off the boards. Next up is his wife pointing at the empty space behind. Look closer and you can see something else in her eyes: fear, perhaps, or contempt. Look even closer and you might even see a faint outline around the back wall.
I skim back through the Word document looking for an email address or a phone number, although god knows what I’d tell them. “I used to live in your house and you are in danger. Your children are in danger. Take my advice and leave – now.”
There’s nothing. I email the designer not expecting to hear back and text the editor, who’s probably at some work dinner. I look back at the yawning space, washed with daylight for the first time in years, and think of the last time it was open.
* * * * * *
It’s pitch black in Millstone Cottage when the front door wakes me. Mum has been out most of the last few evenings. She thinks I don’t hear her coming and going, but the cottage feels different when she’s not there.
Even before I hear Dad’s voice, I know something’s wrong. It’s his step, a big man trying and failing to be quiet, like an ogre trip-trapping across its own bridge.
“Son?” It’s his appeasing voice, the one he uses to get you to come closer when he’s really angry. “Son?” A singsong tone this time, two syllables.
The downstairs light goes on, and he pauses, surveying the ruin we have chosen over him. He’s got about five more steps before he’s at the stairs, which gives me half as many seconds to think of an escape plan.
I have three options, all of them awful: Go out the window, hope I don’t break my back, run. Stay and talk to Dad. Hide.
But really, there’s no choice at all.
By the time I hear the first creak, I’m across the floor and inside the priest hole, clutching the piece of splintered wood, but not daring to turn on the torch.
Another few creaks, another hopeful, “Son?” as if anything would make me go to him.
There’s enough space in here to crouch down, hold my breath, and hope he doesn’t find me. The only problem is the board, which I can slide across the gap, but won’t quite close. The sliver of light above is now a schizophrenic presence. I need it so the blackness can’t swallow me completely. But it’s also the one thing that might give me away.
As he reaches the landing, those purposeful footsteps coming closer and closer, I pray to be spared. And then it reveals itself––
* * * * * *
My phone squeals and I jump. It’s the editor.
“What are you doing?”
“Not like you.”
“Can you send me the number?”
“Sure. The photographer tried but couldn’t get through.”
I press it hoping to hear a human voice.
* * * * * *
The back wall of the priest hole isn’t a wall, but a door that leads onto a deeper darkness. Behind is god knows what: a secret passage? A ladder down into the bowels of the cottage? All that matters is that, if I climb in and push it shut, there’s a chance he might not get me.
Outside, the bedroom light goes on, and even at this distance I can feel the fury coming off him. I step inside and––
* * * * * *
Back in the office, the phone clicks through and starts to ring. I hang up too fast, dial again, think of what I’m going to say if anyone answers.
* * * * * *
Dad’s moving towards the door when he stops still, and I know I’m in trouble. He turns, strides towards the priest hole and pulls back the board, which crashes to the floor behind him.
Just one more step and he’ll be inside. He’ll see the outline of the second door, and I’ll have to face him.
One more step.
This is it, I tell myself, hand wrapped around the wood and wondering if I could really use it, or if I’d just collapse in tears and beg him not to do whatever he has come here for.
One more step.
I close my eyes and pray that, at least, Mum gets free.
One more step – but when it comes, he’s moving away, out of the room, across the hall, checking the bathroom, then boom-boom-boom down the stairs, and I might just be saved.
There is a single moment of elation, a shaking out-breath, maybe even a smile starting to form across my lips, when I feel it.
Long talons through the back of my hair, down my back, appraising me, marking me, as mouldering breath blooms over my shoulder. Next comes the most terrifying sound that has ever been uttered, something I hear in falling, feverish dreams to this day––
* * * * * *
Of course, I know now that some houses have priest holes concealed within priest holes; that some were hidden so deep the priests suffocated before anyone could rescue them; that some priests were so corrupted they should never have been found.
* * * * * *
When the phone finally connects, I know instantly that the family are dead, or so far gone they will never find their way back.
First, there’s a crash, like a receiver being knocked to the floor. Then it comes: the same sick, wet laugh I heard in the priest hole that night, before Mum found me, shrieking and wet and covered in furious red scratches, and we decided to nail that awful place and its secrets shut forever.
Photo by Marcus Cramer on Unsplash