The music began late one night and never stopped. A haunting refrain that captivated the ear, tickled bones and gently prised its way beneath fingernails. Like all constant or rhythmic noises, it blended with my tinnitus and the usual background racket from outside, made itself into a rich tapestry of bass and sound. It was only the more uncommon physical aspects that distinguished it from every other day’s programme of imaginary sounds and music. I live alone, but it doesn’t feel like it. Every knock on the door, train that rattles past or the tapping of birds on the roof swell into deeper and thicker melodies. I’m constantly imagining a tap at the door or someone calling my name. At first I’d find myself leaping to my feet, bounding down the stairs or pausing to see if the sudden moment of silence that followed contained any real sounds. It’s impossible to tell, and so I’ve mostly tried to ignore these things, drowning them in actual music and white noise soundscapes where at worst the additional rhythms become interwoven and can be properly ignored. It hasn’t been quiet in my head for a long time, and I fall asleep to the hiss and squeal of unreal sounds in my ears, the rush of blood and thump of heartbeat.
It’s an old house, inherited from a distant relative who I’d never heard of, and nor had any of the rest of my family. It came at a fortuitous time, when I found myself between jobs and relationships with no desire to expose the rawness of my inner self to the world. Vanishing off to a house in the country seemed like the perfect solution. It was in the style that I always thought of as “gingerbread gothic”, lovely Victorian red brick with an excess of gables and other detailing. Apparently the place had been unoccupied for ten years or so, but the doors and windows had been kept sealed and it felt like its previous owner had barely left a minute ago. Sparsely furnished, but with all the essentials barring trustworthy white goods in the kitchen. I was committed to what I called my social abeyance, pending some occurrence that made me want to get involved in the world once more. The lack of a landline was a positive triumph, though I did at least keep a mobile phone charged (if largely ignored). I settled in, was surprised to find the boiler did not immediately explode, and set myself a straightforward course of reading and writing and avoiding everything outside the house.
That worked very well for a few weeks. Being in a strange house, as yet unused to its natural soundscape – especially when those sounds are swiftly incorporated into a mental melody – can be alarming. Oddly, the way the house creaked, and the initially disturbing thrashing of the tree outside, came to feel normal very quickly. The house and I were well suited. I gave it purpose, and it lent me peace and relative quiet. I’d taken up residence in the higher of the three bedrooms, nestled in what must once have been a good-sized loft, where I could hear the rain on the roof tiles at night. It had a good view out the circular window and from it I could see the doorstep, which was handy if I gave into the possibly-real sound of knocking below. The music woke me up, late one night – or early one morning, depending on how you look at these things. It was a sound that had penetrated my dreams, swelling until it forced me out of sleep. Blinking in the darkness, I was almost sure that it wasn’t a refrain that I’d concocted from tinnitus whistles and the crack of tree branches. So sure that I dragged myself out of bed. I’m a reluctant waker and would have just tried to ignore it, trusting that I’d fall asleep again. But I was sure, convinced for a reason I couldn’t explain beyond having just woken up, that it was playing somewhere – like a tune played out of an old mono speaker; tinny and lacking depth. At worst I’d find the bourbon downstairs and put more effort into returning to my slumber.
I’d grown comfortable enough in the house that I felt no need to flick the lights on. Grabbing my phone from beside the bed was enough – it fulfilled all of my alarm clock and torch needs. I took a cursory tour of the house. For all that it was a tall building, there wasn’t really that much in it, and the depleted state of the furnishings meant there was less to check under and behind than might have otherwise been required. If it was as I thought, an old radio alarm clock which I had neither noticed nor unplugged during the last few weeks, then it would probably be in one of the other bedrooms. Nothing in there but the boxes I’d moved in with and dumped in the middle of the room. The music grew no louder as I pressed my ear to what I was fairly sure were books, clothes and whatever I’d decided fit into a box labelled “stuff.” Down and down then. The kitchen, living room and dining room were also free of devices, though the music did seem to have become louder. There’s a nook under the stairs, intended to be jammed full of wellington boots, umbrellas and worn-out gloves. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like it might be the source. Some ancient battery-powered thing that had been bumped and reconnected its power. I tossed out the cupboard’s contents – all junk that wasn’t even mine, but on my own I’d had no need of the space. There were a couple of OK coats and a hat that was perhaps wearable, the rest of it I’d be bundling up for the charity shops come morning. Beneath the heaps, and beneath the small wooden shelving unit that had been crammed between its narrow walls, there was nothing but the music. I abandoned the task, kicking old clothes out of my path back to the kitchen. Bourbon. Book. Sleep.
I woke the next day with the song – if it even had words – still ingratiating itself into my thoughts. It was in that afternoon that I felt like it had gotten into my bones, a distant vibration in my skull and fingertips. But still, it’s only sound. I bent myself to my work, tapping away until the sun fell from the sky once more. And then the music redoubled itself. I’d half wondered if it was just an ear worm, but it peaked as I passed the under-stair cupboard once again. I kicked out of the way the clothes that I had failed to bag up, and flung the door open. Still empty. I laid my head against the walls and explored every inch of the tiny room. I felt like I was playing Marco Polo. I dug my fingernails into the tight gaps between the panels that made up the space, felt all the way down them to the floor and at last found something loose. With a cry of effort that snapped one fingernail and the thin plank I hauled at, the floor splintered and broke open.
A cellar. Of course there was a cellar. Nothing about it in the guides and information I’d received along with the inheritance documents, but of course a house like this had a cellar. I peeled back the other planks, which was easy now I’d snapped one of them out of place. In short order I had a stack of ragged wood and a descending brick staircase. The music was louder now, and I could almost distinguish words, the feel of verse and chorus endlessly repeating. Only an idiot goes into a dark cellar in a newly-mysterious house on their own. I can’t argue with that assessment…