It was eight o’clock on Christmas Eve, and we were sitting in the circle of light thrown by the dancing fire.
We all lived in a large Victorian villa, which sounds impressive but really wasn’t. The house stood in the grimy heart of the city, and had long since been converted into self-contained flats. I lived on the top floor, in what must once have been the servants’ quarters, with my parents. On the ground floor, and in the largest flat, lived the Smiths and their daughter Libby. In between were two families: the Turleys, with their sons Richard and Brett, and the Foxes, who had a son and a daughter, Simon and Caroline, who were older than the rest of us, and more confident.
We got on well enough – we had to, I suppose, living on top of one another like that – and our families had decided to spend Christmas Eve together in the Smiths’ living room. After the initial excitement, though, things soon grew stale for us kids. The adults were watching a TV programme which didn’t appeal to us, and we were experiencing that surge of anticipation which comes just before Christmas and couldn’t sit still.
“Let’s play a game,” Simon said at last, jumping up.
“What game?” Libby asked.
“Hide and seek? Might as well … that okay, Mum?”
Mrs Fox nodded without turning her eyes from the TV. She had no reason to worry: there was no one in the house apart from us, and the front door was locked. So we trooped out into the entrance hall, where the orange gleam of a street light poured through the glass panel in the front door. The hallway light had been left on, but it was dim at the best of times, and the stairs seemed to lead into a pool of darkness.
“Okay,” said Simon, “me and Caz’ll seek, and the rest of you will hide. The rules are: you can’t leave the house. And the moment we find you that’s it – you’re out. Right?”
We all agreed. We didn’t have much choice, if that was what Simon wanted.
“All right,” he said. “We’ll count to a hundred, and then we’re coming after you.”
He and Caroline turned to face the wall and started to count, and the rest of us scurried away. I was dimly aware of Libby trotting along the corridor towards the rear of the house, where there was a communal drying room and the door to the cellar. If she was thinking of hiding down there I didn’t envy her; I’d peered inside once, and with its shadowy corners and dank brick walls it had looked like something out of a horror film. Richard and Brett, meanwhile, were tearing up the stairs, and I decided to follow them. When I’d reached the first floor landing I paused, catching my breath and wondering what to do next.
I could hear Richard and Brett running up the stairs to the floor above, where my parents’ flat was. We’d left all the doors open that night – there was no reason to lock them – and they would find plenty of places to hide up there; they’d probably curl up at the back of the airing cupboard or in the small alcove in the living room. Old Victorian houses are usually full of niches and odd corners, and ours was no different.
Well, I thought, if they can hide in my flat, I can hide in theirs; and so I crept through the Turleys’ front door and into their cosy living room, where a lamp had been left burning. I felt a thrill, half of fear and half of exhilaration, at being there without an adult, and without having been invited. The sound of Simon and Caroline in the hallway below, however, reminded me that I didn’t have time to enjoy the sensation.
“Ninety-eight … ninety-nine … one hundred!” they shouted together, and their footsteps burst out in the hallway. I looked around, searching for a hiding place. There was nothing obvious, because the Turleys, like the rest of us, didn’t have the money to accumulate a lot of possessions.
I crept into the larger of the two bedrooms, where Mr and Mrs Turley slept. There was a divan bed, with no space to crawl beneath it, and I could see no other place to hide apart from the wardrobe. It wasn’t ideal – I’d be found in no time, I thought – but I could already hear footsteps charging up the stairs, and I knew I would find nothing better.
I pulled open the heavy door – it was an old-fashioned wardrobe, large and ungainly – and peered inside. I couldn’t see much in the dim light, just a row of coat hangers and clothes and, beneath them, a jumble of shoes and bags. It smelled faintly of mothballs and lavender and, beneath that, of closed and dusty spaces where years’ worth of grime had built up. I wrinkled my nose; but I couldn’t change my mind now, not unless I wanted Simon or Caroline to find me straight away. So I stepped inside and pulled the door to – not so that it was completely closed, but so that there was a small sliver of light shining through.
All the same, though, it was dark in there – frighteningly dark. I could just about make out the shape of my own arms, and my legs curled beneath me, but otherwise I might as well have had my eyes closed. A ripple of anxiety ran through me, but it was still small enough to be ignored. I shrank back into my corner of the wardrobe, until I felt its rough wooden back against my spine, pulled up my legs, and wrapped my arms around them.
The sounds from the remainder of the house were dim now. I could no longer hear the comforting babble of the TV or the rumble of traffic on the road outside. I heard footsteps out in the corridor, and since they were quite heavy I imagined that they belonged to Simon. He paused at the Turleys’ half-open door, as if he was wondering whether to come in. Then he walked on, and his feet tapped on the stairs leading to the upper floor. Young as he was, Simon had a methodical streak, and had clearly decided to search the house from the top down. Caroline, I supposed, had gone to look around on the ground floor.
Simon’s feet pattered across the top floor landing, and then all was silent.
No – not silent. Not quite. There was the sound of my shallow breathing, of course, which sounded painfully loud in the wardrobe. And there was something else: something that I sensed, perhaps, rather than heard, at least to begin with. I held my breath for a moment, and listened.
At first I thought I had just imagined it. But no – no, it was there, and it was real. It was the very gentle, very quiet sound of someone breathing.
My first thought was that I had been mistaken when I thought that Richard and Brett had both gone up to the top floor. One of them, clearly, had decided to hide in his own flat instead, and was there in the wardrobe beside me. I wondered why he hadn’t said anything when I climbed in beside him, even if it was only to tell me to go away.
“Who’s there?” I whispered.
“Shhh,” someone said.
I fell silent, comforted by the knowledge that I wasn’t alone. Simon would come downstairs again soon, and find us almost immediately, and then I could go back to the light and warmth of the Smiths’ living room. I sat still, and waited.
It was cold, though – terribly cold. The skin on my arms puckered into goose-flesh, and I felt a chilly draught wafting around me. I had no idea where it might have come from – but of course, these old houses were always draughty, or so my mother kept complaining. So I tried to ignore it, but I could not help but shiver a little, and hope that Simon would find us soon.
My eyes had slowly adjusted to the dark, so I stared into the shadows of the wardrobe, trying to work out who was there. At first I could see nothing, but gradually I began to make out the shape of a head with short, smooth hair, a small and slightly snubbed nose, and a thin body. It must be Brett then, I thought, the younger and smaller of the Turley boys. He seemed to sense me looking at him, and turned his head slightly. I caught the faint gleam of two eyes, gazing at me briefly before they looked away again.
“Where is Richard hiding?” I whispered.
There was no reply this time. Instead, Brett reached out for me and placed a finger against my lips. It was a gentle touch, but his finger felt icy, and I flinched.
Brett drew back at once, and settled into his side of the wardrobe. But he seemed to leave a chill behind him, a chill more intense than before, and I shivered again.
A crash sounded on the upper floor, and I jumped. I recognised the sound as that of someone wrenching open a cupboard door, followed by a triumphant whoop. Simon had found Richard, then, who had probably been hiding in the built-in storage cupboard in our kitchen.
“Gotcha!” Simon shouted, and laughed, and I heard Richard plodding out of the cupboard. And then I heard something else: Brett’s softer, lighter footsteps, following just after him, and voices – three voices.
The person in the wardrobe was not Brett.
I turned back to look at him, and again caught a glimpse of that small and slender form, and the glitter of two eyes.
And then I closed my own eyes, and screamed.
I screamed loud enough to rouse the adults on the ground floor, and they came running up the stairs, and found me huddled on the floor, shivering and crying. My father picked me up and lifted me out of the wardrobe, but not before I saw that whoever was there had disappeared – driven away, perhaps, by this sudden intrusion of the adult world.
Later, when I told them what had happened, they said that I had just seen a shadow, or that I had fallen asleep and dreamed it all. They probably thought that I had frightened myself with some trick of my imagination, but I knew otherwise.
I had seen the boy – only just, it was true, but I had seen him. He had whispered to me, and even touched me. He had, simply, been there.
But who was he? Brett and Richard had both been upstairs with Simon, and Libby and Caroline had been down on the ground floor. There were six of us, and we had all been accounted for.
But there had been another child, a seventh child. I knew it even if no one else did.
I never saw him again, but I never forgot about him either, or stopped wondering who he was, that little stranger.
I’ve said that it was an old Victorian house. Once, before it was divided into flats, it must have been a large residence – large enough for a big family with several children. Perhaps one of them had died there, and had been wandering its rooms and hallways ever since, looking for a playmate.
And on that dark Christmas Eve night, he had found one, and it had been me.