As Joe turned into the driveway, the old farm house looked welcoming with its flint stone walls glinting in the watery Autumn sunshine. But as he drew nearer, he saw him. He was standing in the porch by the front door, dressed in what looked like a dark monk-like coat with a large hood covering his head and hiding his face. As Joe approached him, he could see the coat was made of a coarse brown material. It looked scratchy and uncomfortable. A thick rope hung loosely around his waist. A large bunch of keys jangled as he stepped forward. Joe had not expected anyone to greet him and certainly not anyone who appeared so menacing and out of context with the present. The instructions from the letting agency had said the front door key would be left under a mat by the front door.
Joe stared at the ominous looking figure approaching him. He fiddled with the bunch of keys, removed one and handed it to Joe. He then turned on his heel and quickly walked towards a high laurel hedge at the edge of the driveway.
‘Hey, wait,’ called Joe, as the man quickly disappeared. It was then that Joe noticed a wrought iron gate in the middle of the hedge. He tried to open it, but it was stiff as if it hadn’t been used for a while. He didn’t think the man had opened it.
Earlier, he had stopped at the village shop to ask for directions to the farmhouse. ‘Take the first turning on the right past the Church and follow the unmade road to the end. It’s the last house. You can’t miss it,’ the shop keeper told him. ‘The house has been empty for a while now. The owners are trying to sell it, but not having much luck. Some people say it’s haunted. Probably putting people off,’ she added.
‘Oh, I’m not sure I believe in ghosts’, Joe laughed. ‘We’re here for a week. My wife is coming tomorrow. There was a problem at her surgery. One of the nurses is ill, so she had to cover for her today.’
He and Rachel love the North Norfolk coast. So, when they saw the house advertised online with photos showing the large lawn sloping towards the sea, they had booked it for a week’s break.
Joe opened the front door and stepped into a narrow flagstone hall with a dark staircase rising above him. A panelled door led to a large kitchen with an old cream Aga and a well-worn pine table in the centre. There were a few unwashed mugs in the sink. That’s odd, he thought. He quickly scoured the rest of the house. It all looked tidy with clean bedlinen and towels. Perhaps the cleaner forgot about the mugs.
He heard someone knocking on the front door. I hope it’s not the monk man again. He didn’t seem too friendly. He saw through a side window in the kitchen that it was a woman.
‘Sorry to disturb you,’ she said. ‘I’m Sarah from Coastal Lettings. I thought you might like another key.’
‘Oh, thanks. Who was that odd-looking man who gave me the first one?’
‘You know, looked like a monk, didn’t say anything, just handed me the key from a rope hanging round his waist.’
Sarah looked incredulous. ‘Sorry, I don’t know what you mean. We always leave the key under the mat.’
Joe lifted the mat. Underneath lay the key.
‘Oh, right, ‘I’ll ask my manager. I’m afraid I have to go now. I’ve a few other houses to go to. Have a nice holiday.’ Joe watched her walk quickly to her car. He was beginning to feel uneasy.
He went outside to explore the garden. There was a paved terrace with stone steps leading to a large expanse of lawn. He looked back towards the house. He thought he could see someone looking out of one of the upstairs windows. He ran into the house, shouting ‘Hello’. He went into every room, but each one was empty. I must have imagined it he thought. He decided to make a fire in the sitting room, but it took a while to ignite the slightly damp wood that he had found in a pile by the back door. At least it made him focus on something else.
Later that evening, Joe woke with a start. He looked at his watch. It was nearly midnight. He must have dozed off. Dying embers glowed in the hearth casting ghostly shadows in the gloomy light. The TV flickered in the corner of the room. Something had happened to the sound. He couldn’t remember pressing the mute button. The lamp on the table beside him was also flickering as if the bulb was about to expire. A draught of cold air wafted around him. He glanced at the large sash window overlooking the garden. He was pretty sure he had closed it.
He picked up his phone that was lying on the small table beside the winged chair he was sitting in near the fire. There was a text from Rachel: ‘Hope house is ok? See you tomorrow. Love you. X’. Joe began to write a reply when his phone screen went black. He pressed the main button. Nothing. The phone was dead. The room was beginning to feel colder. He looked up from his phone. He thought he could see what looked like a shadowy figure standing by the window. He rubbed his eyes. The figure had gone. Perhaps that last glass of whisky had been a bad idea. He walked over to the window. It was locked.
His phone began to ring. It was Rachel. ‘Hi darling. Did you get my message? Are you ok?’
Joe told her all about the strange events that had happened since his arrival. ‘I’m sure there must be an explanation. I’ll be with you around lunchtime tomorrow,’ she said. Joe clicked off his phone. Rachel had sounded sceptical. She often told him he drank too much. He decided to go to bed. As he started to get undressed, he saw a pair of black men’s slip on shoes poking out from under the bed. He hadn’t noticed them earlier. Joe felt his heart miss a beat. I can’t stay here. He grabbed his coat and stumbled down the stairs. He flung open the front door and ran to his car. The engine stuttered but wouldn’t start. Keep calm. He tried the ignition again and this time the car roared into life. As he drove down the drive, he thought he saw a dark shape in his headlights. He didn’t stop and drove off into the pitch-black night. He had no idea where he was going. He just knew he had to get away. He felt for his phone in his pocket and realised that in his blind panic, he had left it on the chest of drawers in the bedroom. He would have to go back.
Rachel set off early. She had been looking forward to having a break with Joe. They both worked so hard, finding time together was often difficult. Joe’s job as a salesman for an IT company took him all over the country. She hoped she and Joe would rekindle their earlier passion for each other, which had slightly fallen by the wayside recently and maybe the longed-for baby might become a reality. She had tried calling Joe to let him know when to expect her, but his mobile seemed to be switched off. She had left him a message, but he hadn’t come back to her. She turned on the car radio and switched to one of the local stations. She started humming to the song being played. As it finished, it was time for the news. She wasn’t really listening, but heard something about a man, thought to be in his late thirties found slumped over the wheel of a car near Holkham beach.
As Rachel turned into the driveway, she saw the old farmhouse with its flint stone walls glinting in the sunshine. But something wasn’t right. The front door was wide open and there was a police car parked in front of the house.
About the author
Jo Dearden trained as a journalist with the Oxford Mail and Times. She did a degree in English Literature with creative writing as a mature student. She co-edited her local village newsletter for about ten years. She also worked for a number of years for the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. She is currently attending a creative writing class, which is stimulating her writing again. Jo lives in Suffolk.