‘A Gentle Footfall on the Stairs’ by Guest Author Glen James

Author Glen James

Author Glen James

As carvings go it was pretty crude, the most basic stone head you will ever see. Nothing more than a broadish pebble, about the size of a saucer, with rudimentary depressions for eyes, a misshapen nose, and a lopsided gash for a mouth.

I hated the damn thing.  I had always hated it, as far back as I could go in my memory into childhood.  It totally gave me the creeps, and I did NOT want it. Why the hell give it to ME of all people?  I know I’m interested in art but I would rather lop off an ear.

This head always sat smack in the centre of my Uncle Gwilliam’s dressing table for years, for all the world like some Pagan Idol, and we were all scared stiff of it.  Two generations of my family refused my grandmothers requests to go upstairs on errands because of this thing, sitting solemnly on a Nottingham Lace doily, and staring at the chimneypots and pigeons opposite through the window.  There was something inherently evil about the bloody thing, which none of the adults seemed to notice, and all of us earned a scolding from my Grandmother for not taking fresh towels up to the airing cupboard, or bringing down the ironing, because of being “So damn silly about a lump of old stone.”

My Nan had a no-nonsense attitude to the spirit world and the ranged forces of hell.  “If you don’t hurt anyone when they’re alive, they won’t hurt you when they’re dead, now get on with you!” she would say, before ushering us firmly through the door.  The door closed tightly behind you, the little chrome ball catch slipping smoothly into place like the crack of a small flintlock pistol being cocked, and the stairs rose steeply like the north face of the Eiger towards the two landing doors.  If the light was off, there was no window in the stairwell, and no illumination, except for whichever door happened to be open.  Inevitably the door to the right, Uncle Gwilliam’s room, loomed open like an inviting portal to hell.

That was where the head lived.

“Please let it be shut!” you prayed, “Please let it be shut!” as you crawled as silently as possible around the razor tight bend at the bottom of the stairs, past the neat little tower of Swan Vesta matchboxes which Granddad kept at the bottom in easy reach for his fags, just inside the living room door. But Uncle Gwilliam’s door ALWAYS loomed open, casting a pool of sinister grey light onto the wall between the two doors. You swallowed hard and had a nasty jolt of fear when you saw it was open.

And then, there was nothing else for it, you were committed now, had to follow it through. You crept up towards the top, your own breath thundering in your chest… and then you bolted into my grandmothers room as fast as your feet could carry you, grabbed whatever was required, and then fled down again, jumping three at a time, jumping between intervening stairs with hands on the banisters, as if the devil himself were after you…..

Often as not you grabbed the wrong thing in fear, and were scolded for both that, and for making such a ruckus fleeing back down again.  They never understood.  Or at least, that’s what I thought then….

Sometimes the light bulb went, and that was terrifying. It was too high up for it to be changed immediately; hanging over a hell of a drop on the stair well, and then it really took threats to get me up there.  I had an excellent loving relationship with my grandparents, except for this one issue, and it has taken the threat of sending me home early, or stopping my pocket money, to get me to go past the room where the head lived when the light bulb had blown.

“He’s just an imaginative child!” they said affectionately, “What a mind for ghost stories! Did you know he made one up, and scared half his classmates to death at school last week?  They believed every word, what an imagination…”

Oh, I can tell a tale, alright.  But it’s not just me, that’s the point. Why do all my cousins tell a similar tale, having experienced an inherited family fear of that sinister front bedroom, and that head in particular, going back four generations?

I found out later that both my grandmother, and her mother before her refused to sleep in that room ever again, having had very bad dreams after having delivered babies in there.  My Mother was more than a bit wary of it herself, but never said anything specific, and thinking back she was never that quick off the mark to volunteer to fetch something from upstairs when one of us children refused.  And my mother hardly lacked a formidable courage. She once talked down a lunatic with a carving knife, who had gone berserk when she found out about her husband’s infidelities. The police couldn’t believe her courage and nerve, and she went to the hospital with this sick lady and made sure she was treated properly, decently, and with respect. But she wouldn’t set foot in that room if she could help it.

My grandparents have been dead these twenty years, but I can remember their home as clear as day, and the sensations and smells of my childhood.  Lamb chops and boiled potatoes, with fresh Mint sauce, with gravy sent straight from heaven, hot buttered toast as thick as tombstones, or in the winter a good sustaining stew with lots of pepper.  My grandmother was a wizard in the kitchen and her cooking would have gratified the gods. The aroma of beeswax polish on old wood, beautifully buffed red leather sofas with lace antimacassars, and fresh flowers everywhere, and fresh, sun-dried Linen being gathered in. Uncle Gwilliam’s Cherrywood pipe tobacco, a thick blue haze drifting up through the air, and Granddads’ cigarette smoke.  The old black and white Phillips telly, in the days of only 3 channels, and the hundred and one errands we were dispatched on to friends, family and neighbors. It was a warm, affectionate family home, with busy, hard-working, healthy grandparents in the prime of life, orchestrating a full on family life around them, with cousins, and aunts and uncles, friends and relatives, and neighbors coming and going night and day.  The teapot never cooled down, and was never empty for long.  And yet it was a dark house, even in summer, and the stairwell was never warm, even at the height of the hottest summers. There was a chill which had nothing to do with architecture, stepping through that door was like stepping into another world, one slightly forbidding, alien and slightly removed, with a threatening presence somewhere near but never glimpsed.

As we grew older we would dare each other to go up into Uncle Gwilliam’s room, and touch the stone head.  It was like confronting the devil when you were 8 years old, or the witch who lived down the entry.

We were true Celts, we children, even allowing for our strong Welsh and West Country ancestry, sneaking into a forbidden room to touch a feared, disembodied head. And there was something Druidic about Uncle Gwilliam, with his gruff dour ways and his huge spade beard, and a drop stem Meerschaum pipe.  We were almost as scared of him as we were that sinister stone, and he would have hit the roof if he had known we had sneaked up there to touch it…..

And my god, you ran when you had! The things stared at you when you entered the room, like the statues of Easter Island, an eternal, malicious glare of mute displeasure.  And your hand felt unclean for an age afterwards…. and tingled in the oddest way that made your skin itch… Or am I imagining that?

I don’t like to touch it even now.  I actually put my gloves on.

And it’s significant to think that we were wary of the thing in my family. We didn’t have quite the usual approach to issues of an other-worldly nature, and that makes it all the more bizarre. To say that we had a familial awareness of things beyond the veil is to understate the situation drastically.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  We didn’t sit up all night trying to contact the dead, or run around acting all fey and mystical and saying we could see ghosts.  No, it wasn’t that at all.  If anyone had tried that they would have been laughed out of the room.

My family were far too practical for that sort of thing. It was rather more down to earth, more of a grudging, sidelong family awareness of another world, and quietly playing down the fact that we were sensitive to it.

It wasn’t something hidden or denied, nor boasted of in public.  It was more of an acceptance that there was a gift there, and it was quietly acknowledged and treated with respect.  And it was a sort of slightly removed respect, too, in that it was always said that the women in the family had the sight. Our family went back a very long way indeed, and my grandmother always said we had “Old Blood,” so maybe there was something in that.  And it wasn’t something taken lightly.

It was particularly strong in my grandmother, and as a child I often saw, whilst playing under the table, the level of respect she was accorded in these matters.  She was often asked to read tea leaves by the groups of friends who came calling socially during the day, ladies of the same generation who had lived through two wars, and raised their families through a depression and rationing.  These were no-nonsense matriarchs who ruled their families with a brisk and firm hand… But they were deadly serious, if she could be persuaded to glance into their teacups, and listened with respect.

She didn’t like doing it, either, and it wasn’t pretence.  She wasn’t that sort of person at all.

I remember once when all these visitors had gone I was helping her to wash up, and I said “You don’t like doing that, do you, Nan?”

She shook her head vigorously, “No love, I don’t.”

“Can you really see all those things in the tealeaves?”

And at this she gave me a very perceptive look, “No, I can’t.”

“Oh…”

“No-one can see the future in a teacup, son. That’s just something I use to duck around what I can see…”

And that’s all she would say.  But I think she could see something in me that had passed on in a way the others didn’t understand, particularly when I kept asking her who the lady was.

I could see her as clear as day, walking down the road near an open area that was a bomb site in the forties.  She was a pale, thin woman somewhere in her 50’s, with a careworn face and long, lank, straight white hair. Her eyes were turned totally inwards, obviously because she was totally preoccupied with whatever was on her mind, but I have never seen such a look of sadness on a human face, and it seemed that all the color was bleached out of her.  Her coat was a very pale green, and her dress a washed out blue.  I naturally thought she was one of the 101 friends my grandmother always met when we were out and about, so I was surprised not to be introduced to her as usual.  And so, because this usual social nicety had not been observed, I asked who the lady was.

And then I was shocked by my grandmother’s angry reaction, and the scolding I got for persisting in saying I could see her, when my Nan quite clearly couldn’t.  She actually hurried me on, quite roughly, and that was unheard of.

That left an impression on me which I’ve never forgotten. I can still see that woman in my mind’s eye, still see that bleached lack of color and that lost sadness.  And now that stone head has passed to me.

After reaching maturity, of course, I always thought with hindsight it was one of Uncle Gwilliam’s own sculptures, or something he had picked up as an unusual ornament. He was very interested in obscure artworks and movements, and it might almost have been a copy of something by George Braque from the early Cubist era, or Picasso. But then I found out from my elderly Aunt about the origins of the thing, and it put a whole different completion on the story.

No-one had bought the head, or even carved it in the family, it was found in the back garden, by my great grandfather back when the house was new in 1908, when he was turning over the soil as virgin ground for the first time planting roses.

It wasn’t an unusual occurrence. There were all sorts of archaeological finds when the university and the surrounding houses were being built, and no ends of Roman artifacts were found.  But something this Pagan really was something unusual.

My great grandfather was a sculptor and stone mason himself, and he had a wary respect of anything created by those artisans of darker antiquity.  So he boxed it into the back of the airing cupboard in the front bedroom, and wouldn’t let anyone touch it.  And he was apparently never quite the same again after that.

This was also apparently when members of the family started having bad dreams, and the children began having a wariness of the front bedroom. I had no idea about this, or the fact that it turned up unexpectedly when Uncle Gwilliam was going through one of his decorating purges at the old house. He unearthed the thing and set it up in some state on his Dresser.  My old Aunt Emily remembered her father boxing it away, and she strongly advised him not to touch it, she told me, but Uncle Gwilliam was a law unto himself and took no notice.

And now it had passed on to me.

It’s a dark house, as I said, and no doubt now visited by a legion of family ghosts.  It was our home for 90 years, and generations of the family were born and died there, and that stone head saw them all come and go, from the early reign of Edward VII, to the later days of the second Elizabeth.

And something told me to spend one last night at the old place before it passed out of the family once and for all, when I went over to collect the last remaining artifact which showed any sign of our occupation, this stone head.

I had never slept over at the house since I was a babe in arms, and I had never stopped to wonder about that before.  I suspect we were not allowed to.

There was no-one there now, and all the old furniture had gone.  After such a long habitation it felt extremely eerie to see the place so quiet, and I could not quite believe I was proposing to spend the night in that front room on my own.

All that was left was a single bed, and I moved that around so it stood with its head to the chimney breast, with its foot to the dreaded doorway on the left, and the old sash window on the right. I carefully placed the stone head on the windowsill where I could see it, and tried to settle down in the room where my mother and grandmother were born.

I did not intend to get undressed, as I was filled with some gnawing apprehension, and I was wondering if I might need to make a sharp exit, so I settled down as best I could on the mattress in trackies and trainers.

Despite intending to ration it, I had soon drunk both flasks of coffee, and having to get up and go to the bathroom on the other side of the house in the dark was not a pleasant experience, but I was determined to stay awake. I’d chosen a few lurid paperbacks which should have done the trick, but it was still very difficult to keep my eyes open, despite the lamp post over the road.   How on earth did Uncle Gwilliam ever sleep on this on this bed….

It wasn’t an easy vigil.

My grandmother always said that an old house breathes at night. The floorboards settle and the timbers creak as they lose the tensions of the day, and react to the atmosphere. The steps of the stairs would creak and crack occasionally, and as my head started to nod over my book it woke me with a nasty start several times. I kept jumping up, running over, and staring down that terrific drop of stairwell, and turning the light off to see if there was anything there which appeared in the dark.  The sounds were uncannily like gentle footsteps, but I saw nothing when I snatched the light back on. That was the only way down, and it was far from reassuring.  Every time I got back to the bed I heard it again, at least once, and it was the bravest thing I ever did, turning the corridor light off.

The head kept its silent eternal vigil on the other side of the room.

A healthy dose of fear should have helped to have kept me awake, but my head kept nodding, especially after 4am. When these sound became frequent I tried to sound quite bolshie, and rather than get up, shouted to whatever it was to “Bugger off!” as loudly as I could. It took no notice though, and there was no-one else there to hear. The houses either side were empty now, up to three down in either direction, as the old neighbors had longs since moved away or passed on, and the homes were empty student houses now, vacated for the summer.  I was very much alone in the belly of the night.

I don’t know how long I was asleep, but a louder than usual sound from the stairs made me stir, and I had half risen from the bed with a snarling “For Christ’s sake…” when I realized I was not alone.

I was half aware of some tiny sound behind me, and as I turned I saw it.

It had its back to the window, and just as I saw it, the lamp posts clicked off on their timers, and the darkness deepened perceptively.  I saw a huge shape, far bigger than a man, and could see the outline of fur on its limbs against the window behind him.  His features were shrouded in shadow, but I could see long pointed ears rising up from the sides of his head.  And he was holding the stone head itself.  This thing was far bigger than me and I could hear it breathing….

I screamed. I screamed loudly, and I threw myself back on the bed. I don’t know what I expected but I didn’t expect that, and as I screamed, it dropped the head with a horrible, floorboard rattling bang, and took a flying leap across the bed towards the door.

I threw my arms up over my face, and I heard the door squeak as it flew wide open.  I heard its claws scuffling on the floorboards of the stairs, rattling down.

I was choking with fear, frightened half out of my wits, and all I could think of was getting out of there. I threw myself off the bed and ran for the door, and as I shot out onto the landing, I saw it again.

It had waited for me!

Standing at the bottom of the stairs in the doorway, dim light shining on its dark grey fur, more wolf than man, and watching me with hard green eyes which caught the light and shone back at me. And then before I could do a thing, it bolted for the door.

I went down the stairs four at a time, faster ever than when I was a frightened boy, through the empty lounge and into the kitchen, where I saw the scratch marks of claws on the paint of the door, and out into the garden….  Where I saw that it had vanished entirely.

And I stood there alone, in the faint half light of morning on the blue-grey Victorian pathing, looking up at the full moon through the charcoal clouds of a Birmingham sky, and that’s when I understood.

That’s when I first felt the fur begin to grow and my nails to lengthen into razors.  That’s when I first felt the sharpness of my teeth in my mouth, the sudden, mind cleansing insight into unfolding time, and an urge to run with the wind in my fur.

My grandmother was right.  We do have old blood, very old blood indeed, and this head which belonged to the ancient Celts was calling to the Shaman in the blood. But not to the family of someone who merely dressed in a wolfs pelt, we were a bit more special than that…  We were always told as children we were descended from the Wolf from the West,

and I wonder if, over the centuries the family had forgotten why….

I have removed the stone head from our old home, and I no longer fear it.  I have embraced the fact that I am different, and know I have an unusual path to run through the world.  I have placed it securely in a place of honour, where it will not be found, and given myself the space to run under the moon.  After all these years, I have reclaimed our inheritance.

Fin