‘So you’re going to be okay, right?’ Cerys said, frowning.
‘I’m fine. Seriously. You go.’ Bridget tried to push her flatmate through the door, but she couldn’t budge her, her stubborn nature and suitcase acting together as an anchor. Bridget didn’t want to admit it, but she didn’t like being alone, though this was her chance to prove herself; show everyone she wasn’t a complete waste of space.
‘I don’t like leaving you, Bridg. We’ve only just moved in. Someone else can take over the shoot.’
‘Don’t be daft.’ Bridget flashed Cerys a broad grin. ‘I’ll be fine. You have to work, and you’ll be back before either of us know it. Anyway, it’s good for me.’
‘You know Doctor Kapoor’s number, yeah?’
‘I do but I won’t need it. Now go, or you’ll miss your flight.’
Cerys cast her friend one last concerned glance before setting off towards the lift. Bridget shut the door and glanced around the empty hallway.
The day they moved into the flat, Bridget noticed the door as she unpacked – particularly the keyhole. Whichever way you looked at that weird little black hole, it appeared slightly different each time, like a hologram, or an inkblot in a psychology book. One minute it was a simple keyhole, the next a shadow, before it morphed into the outline of a woman. In the old days, she would have fixated on the oddity of the illusion, but now she knew she mustn’t let her imagination run away with her. She glanced at her watch, saw it was time, and popped a tablet onto her tongue. Swigging water from her bottle and swallowing the chalky circle, she congratulated herself on her self-awareness. It was definitely a step forward.
Once she finished lining her various pills on the dressing table, Bridget started to unpack her clothing to hang in the wardrobe. She only managed to drape a blouse and a pair of jeans over a hanger, before her eyes were drawn to the door again. She blamed her distracted state on the beauty of its random grooves and flaking paint, a combination she found irresistible. Something in her had always been attracted to the unique feel and smell of old things, whether it be clothing, furniture, or buildings; Cerys often teased her about her addiction to vintage shops and antique fairs. Once, halfway through a third bottle of wine, Bridget slurringly explained that old things excited her; connected her to the past. For her, there was a particular appeal to being in a different time and place; simply not being here. Cerys didn’t respond, but instead rubbed her friend’s arm.
Bridget studied the doorknob; the white, chipped, curved protuberance hanging slightly off-kilter caused by the screws loosening within the casing. Whenever she turned it, it created a quiet but obvious sound, something akin to a high-pitched scream muffled by distance. She observed the door and keyhole – the tiny black void set against the turmoil of white, mesmerising her. At times, its distorted, wavering shape resembled the figure of a woman struggling through a blizzard.
Bridget shook her head. She needed to get on.
Bridget and Cerys chose the apartment purely for its shabby allure, but then both women were always quirky, even during their school days. An innate eccentricity was what initially drew them to each other – Cerys recognising a similar spirit to herself in the quiet, new girl; Bridget thankful to actually have a friend in an almost entirely hostile, teenage environment. Cerys’ fearlessness gave her a sense of place and security she’d not felt in a long time. Before long, Bridget adopted her friend’s style – it was good to be part of something, even if it was only a two person club. The black of their velvet skirts and lace gloves not only reflected something about her view of the world, but also kept others at bay. This gave her confidence – if people stared now, it was because her differences were determined, not by others, but by herself.
As they matured into their twenties, Bridget and Cerys’ obsessions gradually evaporated. Only a couple of years from their thirties, the only link now with their gothic youth was a mild fascination with black clothing and nineteenth century horror. Their friendship, however, remained tight. Bridget couldn’t imagine a life without Cerys.
After Cerys’s departure, Bridget looked at her watch. It was nine-thirty – time to start getting ready for bed. Since she moved in the flat, she’s learned that routine was the best way for her to lead a normal life. Doing the same things each day was a comfort, so she headed towards the kitchen and made her nightly Horlicks. As she sat at the kitchen table, sipping the hot, milky drink, she realised how lucky she was to have a friend who was always there for her. Cerys took time off work to help her settle in; had even offered to take more leave, but Bridget knew it wasn’t fair. It was time to start seeking independence, doing things for herself. She was better – much much better – though it was good to know that, if she needed her, Cerys was only a phone call away.
Though Bridget rarely told anyone, it was more than a love for the gothic that drew the two girls together. At fourteen, when Bridget confided in her friend about her father – the rattle of the handle at night, his beer-scented breath in her ear – and the unspeakable things, Cerys encouraged her to tell her teacher. Later, when Bridget ended up in foster care, Cerys remained a constant presence. This hiatus was new, but strangely, for the first time, she felt truly grown up.
Bridget plodded to the bathroom to brush her teeth, then to her room. As usual, it felt cold. Out of habit, Bridget pressed her palm against the radiator. Yes, it was still slightly warm, though that was the only evidence it had been on. The rest of the flat retained heat far better than her room did. She closed her bedroom door to block out any further drafts, and as she did, the knob elicited its usual faded wail.
After climbing into bed, Bridget took her pills. Usually she fell asleep quickly – the prescribed chemicals breaking down her mind’s resistance to her natural rhythms – but tonight she lay awake, as alert as if she’d drunk a full pot of coffee. Her eyes were drawn towards the keyhole, which remained hazily visible due to the fingers of moonlight stretching into the room through the gaps in the curtains. She saw a hint of movement, like the legs of a spider attempting to pull itself out from the minuscule space, but Bridget knew it was an illusion; nothing more than her imagination. Just like the monsters in the shadows at night when she was a child. She shook her head to disperse the memory of her father that suddenly entered her head.
Bridget shot out of bed, grabbed a t-shirt from a drawer, and threw it over the handle to cover the key-hole, after which she climbed back into the comforting warmth of her duvet. She closed her eyes and thought of Cerys, and within minutes, the sound of her breathing slowed and deepened.
‘Hey Bridget,’ Cerys said, her voice distorted, ‘how’s it going?’
‘Cerys!’ Despite the poor signal, Bridget was happy to hear her friend’s voice. ‘It’s good. Really good. Finally unpacked all my stuff and guess what? I’ve started looking for a job.’
‘Oh my God! Really? Really Bridget? That’s, like, amazing. You’re brilliant. Really brilliant. This is the beginning, you know? The beginning. I told you this would happen one day.’
Bridget didn’t have the heart to tell Cerys about the dream last night. In it, she was in bed and from the direction of her bedroom door she could hear a sound. The nearer she got, the louder it became. She realised it was a woman’s voice arising from the direction of the keyhole. Let me out. Let me out. Please let me out, the voice keened. Over and over and over. Please let me out. Please let me out.I’m alone. I’m alone. Please let me out. Cerys bent down, her eye to the keyhole, but she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t work out how to help. After some time, the weird non-time of dreams, Cerys couldn’t bear the pain in the woman’s voice any longer. Neither could she couldn’t stand her own helplessness. She put her hands over her ears, trying to block the litany of torment, but it didn’t make any difference. The lamenting increased, continuing on and on and on, changing back and forth from the woman begging, to the squawl of the turning doorknob, and back again. After an eternity, as the cries escalated into hysteria, Bridget understood the reason she couldn’t block out the anguished appeals. They were coming out of her own mouth.
When she awoke she was sobbing.
Two mornings after the dream, the badgering of Bridget’s bladder woke her at sunrise. She stepped over the newspaper on the floor, opened on the jobs page. As she reached to open her bedroom door, she studied the t-shirt still hanging from the door handle. Part of her was tempted to lean over and check inside the keyhole, ensure there was nothing there, but deep down, she knew she was being foolish. Of course there was nothing in there. Nothing at all. How could there be? In fact, she knew there was no need to cover up the hole, because nothing would ever come out – ever. And come on, what protection was a t-shirt from a supernatural being anyway? With a feeling akin to relief threaded with embarrassment, she grabbed the t-shirt with a quick flick, folded it and put it in the top part of her cabinet. She closed the drawer with a certainty she had never felt before.
She smiled, pleased with herself – Doctor Kapoor would be proud of her – when, behind her, she heard a sound resembling someone gasping for breath. She shot around but no-one was there.
The following night, Bridget woke to the sound of scratching, like mice scuttling across the floor, or bats in the loft. Bats in the belfry, she sang in her head. A bit like her really. Not that it could be bats, she thought. Or mice. It couldn’t be either – they had a third floor apartment in the City, which would make it hard for mice to access, and they certainly didn’t have a loft. Maybe it was ants? They’d had a problem with ants when they first moved in, but the landlord had sorted it. It’d have to be enormous ants though to make that kind of noise. She shuddered and turned on the light, unsure what she would do if she saw a mouse scurrying across the floorboards. And God only help her if there was a bat in the room. Or giant ants. As she squinted against the brash luminescence, examining the room in its entirety, she realised thankfully she was safe from wildlife. Yet still, she could hear scratching.
Burglars? Bridget wondered. She hoped it wasn’t burglars brushing around in the dark downstairs. She opened her door and peered down the apartment. Her heart thumped in her chest and her tongue stuck dryly to the roof of her mouth.. There weren’t any signs of movement in the open plan kitchen-living room, and she realised that the scratching was actually coming from directly behind her. In fact, it was coming from the direction of the door. More accurately, the keyhole. The muscles in Bridget’s neck tightened.
Don’t be ridiculous, she thought. It’s probably an insect stuck in there; one that’s worked its way in in that stupid way they do. Whatever it is, it will be more scared of you than you are of it. Spider, moth, beetle, ants – they might be repulsive, but what can they do? She knelt down about a foot from the door. If there was a crawly in there, she didn’t want to get too close.
As Bridget hesitated, the keyhole appeared to transform, again and again – from keyhole to shadow to woman, from keyhole to shadow to woman. Bridget rubbed her eyes. It wasn’t real. Doctor Kapoor immediately came to mind; the disappointment in his face.
The scratching began again, and Bridget froze.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
The voice in her head.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
The voice she heard when she was ill.
Bridget wanted to cry, but held back the tears. She studied the room, knowing she would find no-one there. Neither friend nor enemy. No-one to help her. Just herself, alone.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
Shrugging, she edged nearer, leaning forward to let her eye rest as close as possible to the black crevice without touching it. She couldn’t see anything but the scratching continued. Bridget shifted her position until she could focus and saw a whiteness she assumed was the bathroom door. The scratching increased in volume, and she looked with yet more concentration, then moved back in disbelief.
She blinked: once, twice, three times. In the past, she couldn’t trust what she saw with her own eyes or heard with her own ears. Of course, there was a time when she could. A long time ago; before her own mother called her a liar. She edged forward and looked again, trying to recall the trust in herself she recently regained with the support of Doctor Kapoor.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
Within the keyhole, a womanly figure struggled against the force of a blizzard, her head protected by the hood of a long, black cape, her face low against the worst of the storm. The woman looked up and stretched her arms forward.
Please, she whispered.
Bridget pulled away. No. No. This was madness. She stood up, considering whether to take another pill and contact Doctor Kapoor immediately, or maybe she should simply get back into bed; try to sleep. As the scratching intensified, she realised she would never be able to sleep.
You are in charge, Bridget thought. This is your imagination, nothing more. You are not your thoughts; your thoughts are part of you. They are not you. Now stop it and take control. She wished she wasn’t alone, that Cerys were here. Cerys would know what to do. Cerys always knew what to do. Bridget couldn’t imagine a life without her.
And then it came to her. She wasn’t alone. Cerys was someone she could rely on; someone she trusted when she didn’t even trust herself. She knew exactly what Cerys would say. She would tell her to face her fears. Stop turning away and look at what frightens you. The feeling that Cerys was there supporting Bridget comforted her. It was Cerys’ words that convinced her to stay in the apartment by herself. Face your fears and you’ll always be a winner.
Don’t look in the keyhole.
She knelt down one more time and put her eye to the keyhole, not quite touching skin to metal. The image of the woman was still there. In fact, she was so close, Bridget could make out her features.
Stop it, Bridget shouted, you’re not real.
Please, the woman called, pleeeease. Help me.
No! You’re not real.
The voice became pitiful, beseeching. It wound itself around Bridget, seeping into her ears, tightening itself around her guts, and tugging her from the inside out. She opened her mouth. She lost her breath. Torn between pity for the woman and fear for herself, the pleading voice sapped her of the energy to shout.
Please, Bridget whimpered, you’re not real.
Her forehead touched the metal of the door knob casing as the woman’s hand touched the other side of the door.
Bridget felt a suction of air that pulled her with the force of a tornado. Immediately, her head was pulled forward and her feet left the floor. The world around her span, as though she was being sucked down a plug hole. Her stomach churned and she was overwhelmed by an urge to vomit. The violence of the moment appeared as if it would never end, then as suddenly as it started, it stopped. It took a minute for her to gather her bearings, and she kept her eyes closed until the dizziness and nausea departed. The air was frigid, even colder than the usual temperature of her room, and she became aware of icy pattering on her skin; her ears battered by howling wind. She opened her eyes, and squinted at her surroundings. The sky was heavy with charcoal-coloured cloud, and under her feet, the ground sloped steeply, thick with snow. She dug her feet into the icy whiteness to stop herself slipping. Though she could not see further than ten metres around her, she realised she was in the midst of a snowstorm on a mountain. Approaching her, she saw the footprints that stopped exactly where she now stood, though they were already being smothered by fresh snow.
Bridget looked down at her clothing – realising she was dressed in the woollen cape the woman in the keyhole had previously worn.
She called out, knowing no one would hear.
I’m all alone.
‘It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have left her,’ Cerys said, looking down at Bridget’s unmoving body, and the tube that snaked its way from her nose to the plastic bag hanging on a pole above her bed. She gulped, trying to swallow the knot of guilt rising in her throat.
‘There is nothing you could have done,’ Doctor Kapoor reassured her. ‘She had a lot of unresolved issues, and she took on too much too soon.’
Two weeks earlier, tired from her transatlantic flight, Cerys returned home to find it devoid of Bridget. Though that in itself wasn’t unusual, something tugged on her conscience. She called out many times, even knocked on her flatmate’s bedroom door, but there was no answer.
There was a half-complete job application on the kitchen table. Maybe she’d gone for an interview or even found a job? The emptiness of the flat was strange, though in many ways, welcome. The times she was free of Bridget were rare except the few short times she went away with work. Cerys truly cared for her friend, but the responsibility was huge, and sometimes, her fragility was suffocating. Especially in the last couple of years.
Bridget’s mental health – always delicate – had reached a point of desperation. Cerys felt a huge duty towards her friend as she always absorbed every piece of advice she gave, holding on to them as if they were the only things keeping her alive. Having this week alone had almost been a holiday for her. Usually when she had any extended time away, Bridget became agitated and stayed with Cerys’ mother, but this time she chose to remain by herself. God only knows what possessed her to stay alone, but at the time, Cerys took it as a good sign.
Case in hand, Cerys headed for her bedroom and decided as she passed to check inside Bridget’s room. Aghast, she found her collapsed on the floor, cold and barely breathing, her face as white and creased as the door. She called the emergency services, gasping out her words. Cerys sat in the hospital for three days, praying for her to recover, but Doctor Kapoor sent her home. Two weeks later, Bridget was still in a catatonic state. Eventually she would come out of it, like last time, but even then, who knew how long she would remain in the hospital.
Cerys touched the unconscious woman’s hand.
’She relied on me. Trusted me. And she always hated it if I wasn’t there. She hated being alone,’ she said to herself more than the doctor. She leaned forward and whispered, ‘I’m so sorry Bridget.’
Cerys let herself into the flat. She poured herself a large glass of Jack Daniels and sipped it at the counter. She couldn’t believe that two weeks ago she was enjoying her liberty, and now that feeling was superseded by an overwhelming guilt. She was haunted by the image of Bridget by herself. She slugged back the whisky, enjoying the sting at the back of her throat, and was about to pour another when she caught herself. Getting drunk wasn’t the answer. It wouldn’t help her or Bridget. She needed to do was something practical instead.
Cerys sighed. She couldn’t avoid the inevitable forever. It was time to rent out Bridget’s room. The flat was expensive and she couldn’t afford to keep paying for all of it herself. She shook off the guilt that consumed her, the image of Bridget lying in the hospital bed alone. It was only until her friend came home. She wasn’t betraying her. She wasn’t.
She dug her phone out of her handbag and opened the door to Bridget’s room. Some good photos would help to find a flatmate. The doorknob made an odd caterwauling as she turned it; so high in pitch it set her teeth on edge. Better get some oil for that too, she thought.
First she took a photograph with a view from the door, then entered and stood by the window. It was a beautiful, bright room – she’d rent it out easily – the only drawback being that it was always cold. The heating never seemed to touch it.
She lifted the phone to her eyes and looked through the viewfinder at the image captured there: the dressing table, half of the bed and the door. The door was ghostly white and it rippled with character, as did all the doors in the flat. Some people might say they were in need of repair, but Cerys thought they just needed the right person to love them.
As she was about to take the picture, something about the door caught Cerys’ eye. She looked at the viewfinder, shaking her head, and then at the door itself.
No, she thought. I’m imagining things.
The keyhole seemed to losing and regaining its form – shaping and reshaping – though she knew it was only the shadows and undulations created by the age of the door. One minute it appeared as it should, the next the edges softened like a shadow, and immediately after it resembled the outline of a woman dressed in a long cape. Cerys was intrigued. Obviously, it was nothing more than a trick of the light, but she’d never seen anything like it before.
As she stepped nearer, she heard a vague scratching from the direction of the keyhole. At first, she thought it was another trick, but it grew louder and louder. What was that?
She knelt down to investigate, then hesitated, unsettled. With the iciness of the room and the strange noises, together with the persistent mental image of Bridget alone and afraid, she wondered, for one moment, if all the events were connected. She shrugged off the idea. It was unlike her to have an over-active imagination, and she certainly wasn’t the nervous type. She remembered what she always told Bridget: fight your fears and you’ll always be a winner. It might be cliched, but it always worked for her. And she certainly wasn’t scared of a earwig or whatever awful thing was in there struggling to get out.
Her face only inches away, Cerys concentrated on the space within the keyhole. Her vision blurred, her eyes unable to gain focus in the tiny space. The scratching increased in urgency, as she shifted in place; edging closer – ever closer – until finally, as her forehead was barely any distance from the doorknob, her eyesight adjusted and her view cleared. As the icy cold metal shocked her skin, she gasped.
Photo by Tomek Dzido.
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