Neil, who was an old friend of mine, had been looking for a new place to live for an age. His story was not uncommon. Hed seen flats that hed quite liked, but hed taken too long to decide over them, and theyd been snapped up by some other desperate home hunter. Other than that, hed only viewed overpriced boxes, or places that were rotten, and barely fit for habitation. I could sympathise with him up to a point, as Ive been through the rigmarole of finding accommodation before, but Ive never had the trouble that Neil has.
I was with him one afternoon for lunch, as we both worked in the same area. It was mid-winter, but the day was tolerably sunny, and not too cold, so wed taken our places on a bench on the pavement of the main road, surrounded by cracked concrete and pigeons (and their mess). He was telling me about one of his leads.
What Ive started doing, he explained is to look in newspapers, through the classifieds. No one looks there anymore, theyre too chained to the internet. I reckon thisll give me an advantage. I doubted his logic, but let him carry on without interrupting. So, anyway, Ive managed to find something that sounds pretty good: a two bedroom, and the landlord lives with you. I think thatd be good. Any problems, and hed want to sort them out as soon as possible. Its quite cheap as well.
Where is it? I asked.
Rolling Hills estate. I recognized the ironically named monstrosity, which was a council housing estate, neglected by the local authority for decades. I must have unconsciously screwed up my face disapprovingly, as he became defensive.
Its not so bad any more, mate, seriously.
Did you go to see it?
Well its weird, I phoned quite a few times, and there was no answer, so I went round the other day to have a look, and the same thing. No answer.
So, no one was home?
No, and I got the impression that nobodys ever home. Its on the fifteenth floor of one of the blocks of flats, and the front doors on one of those long balconies that you get on estates. When I got to it, the front window was covered with newspaper from the inside, and there was no light or sound either. The buzzer was mouldy, too. Its a pretty rough looking place, but I want to try again, because its such a good deal.
I nodded my half genuine agreement, and he left his story there, with both of us going our separate ways back to work. That day I had a bit more time to think about the estate. I remembered faintly that something weird had happened there, but I couldnt for the life of me recall exactly what it was. It bothered me for a lot of the afternoon, but I was soon distracted by the mundane duties of work, and wouldnt revisit my curiosity until the next time I saw Neil.
A few weeks after that encounter, I met up with Neil again, only this time it was for a Christmas night out that was an annual tradition of Neil and Is wider circle of friends. It wasnt that different from any other night out, only that some people who usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the pub (an increasing number over the years), would turn up willingly. For most of the night, Id been engaged in conversation with people I hadnt spoken to since the previous years get-together, but later on in the night I finally managed to catch up with him.
His black hair was messily shifted to one side, and his eyes were slightly glazed. A teeth-revealing, dopy grin had spread over his face, and his eyes were red and squinting; obvious symptoms of having left sobriety behind for the evening. He was still pretty lucid, though, and seemed in fairly good spirits. I sat next to him, and obviously my first line of conversation was to ask about his housing situation.
You found a flat, yet?
Yeah! He drew this word out, giving it the satisfaction it merited.
The same one. Rolling Hills.
Really? You finally found the landlord, then?
It took a bit of persistence, but I finally got hold of him a couple of weeks ago.
Neil began to tell me the story of how he finally caught up with the owner. He didnt give up calling, and was rewarded when the phone was finally answered a couple of days after Id last met up with him. The voice that answered was low, and gruff. He said he could barely hear the man, named Sidney, and had to strain his ears to get anything. Neil said it was like listening to an old gramophone recording turned right down. Despite the difficulties, he managed to arrange a meeting the same day, at around 4pm; dusk at that time of year.
The sun was almost set when Neil stepped out of the lift onto the fifteenth floor, and as he made his way onto the balcony he noticed that the lights hadnt yet come on in the estate. It was a dim and unwelcoming setting, and the chill at that height pierced right through his clothing, finding its way down to his bones. When he got to the door of the flat, the place was exactly the same as the last time. Not wanting to touch the mouldy buzzer, he gave the door a hard wrap with his knuckles, which stung from the cold, as if hed rubbed them with nettles. It took a while until the door was slowly pulled open, and the first thing he noticed was the musty smell that wafted out. Squinting to get a look, he saw a dark figure, half obstructed by the doorframe.
Yes came the blunt welcome.
Hi, Im Neil, we talked on the phone.
Yeah, come in. The invitation was accompanied by a cough. Neil told me that his voice was exactly the same as it had been on the phone, as if it was coming from somewhere distant rather than the man who was right in front of him.
They sat down in the near dark of the living room, barely lit by a single lamp, which was on a small table next to a shabby three-seater sofa. Neil settled in an arm chair, which in his words smelt like old people. Apparently, it was too dark to notice any other details, not that there was much to notice.
Sidney was a very thin man, Neil said, wearing only a white vest exposing his skeletal arms. His trousers were too big for his frame, and sagged, and he had a long, gaunt face, accompanied by a thin, greasy mop of white hair, which hugged his bony cheeks. Eventually he showed Neil to his room, which was apparently as basic as the living room, with the only difference being that it had an unobstructed window so that light could come through.
It sounds grim, I interjected. Why did you take it?
After the luck Ive had, this was a gift from the gods, especially at the price.
Whats it like living there, then? I asked. He told me that it was good, but pretty weird. Apparently, the landlord was hardly ever there, and that most of the time he would only see glimpses of him going into the bathroom, or his bedroom. Neil said he quite liked the privacy that afforded him, and that by and large he stayed in his room, which he had decked out with pictures, ornaments, and the like. One thing that he couldnt get his head round, though, was a warning that he had received on the first day. Sidney had told him that people would be coming round to visit at various intervals throughout the day, and all sorts of different times, and that Neil was never to answer the door when they rang.
He was very forceful with this point, said Neil and he seemed really serious about it.
Who are these people that come round? I asked.
Thats the bizarre thing. No one has ever come round.
What, not a single person?
Not a single person he echoed. As it turned out, though, despite these oddities, Neil seemed pretty content with the place. I didnt get any more information, as it was time for me to go. I promised that I would catch up with Neil more often, which was a genuine promise on my part, rather than an empty one fuelled by booze.
From that night onwards, I didnt hear a word from him. It wasnt for want of trying, either. Whenever I tried his mobile, it would go straight to answerphone, and the landline number he gave me just gave a faint crackle when I phoned it, so I wasnt even sure whether or not it was actually ringing. Over the next couple of months or so, I tried sporadically to contact him without any success. We hadnt been that close over the years, so I wasnt worried, although Id be lying if I didnt take offence to it. I eventually started asking around to see if anyone else had seen him, but that avenue of enquiry proved as fruitless as the attempts at direct contact.
After a while, I took it upon myself to go over to Rolling Hills to visit the flat myself one afternoon. I couldnt remember the flat number, but I could remember the name of the block, and the number of the floor; 15. Surely his flat was the only one with newspaper in the window, I thought. My overriding memory of the cramped lift of the block was its smell. It was like a cross between cheese and tobacco, and was very unpleasant. The ride up felt less than secure as well, and I was glad when the doors finally opened onto the landing of the fifteenth floor. The long balcony was concrete grey and empty, and dampened my mood immediately. I walked along past a few doors, each of which looked like it hadnt had even the merest brush up of paint for years.
I finally got to the middle, and there before me was a rotten old door, a mouldy buzzer, and a window covered by newspaper. It was definitely the one; flat 6. It looked uninhabited, cold, and unwelcoming. I looked from side to side at the empty balcony and felt totally alone, with the only sounds being the hollow echo of the wind, and distant traffic. I knocked on the door once, and wasnt surprised to hear no reply. I knocked again, and again, and again, and began shouting Neils name. The only thing that stopped me was a small, frail voice.
Theres nothing for anyone there, son. I was startled, and shot my glance to the right of me, where peeping out from the door to the next flat along was a small, old woman. She was half inside, so I was unable to get a good look at her, and before I could reply, her door slammed shut, and she was gone. This just confounded my sense of unease in such a creepy environment, so I gave up and left. That was the other day, but it was only this morning that I finally got a good sense of what may have happened to Neil. I met up with another friend, Rob, who Id known since school, and I told him of how worried I was about Neil, whom Rob doesnt know. As soon as I mentioned the name of the estate, Rolling Hills, I jogged his memory.
Rolling Hills?! Not that place! Remember that story from a few years back?
No, I replied but something in the back of my mind was telling me theres something weird about the place.
That drug dealer. Remember? Apparently, nobody on the estate ever wanted to go near him, because he looked like an old, dirty skeleton; always walking around in his white vest. He lived on one of the floors high up in one of the tower blocks, and the neighbours used to hate him because he had people coming round to buy stuff off him all day and night.
That rings a bell. I admitted.
Well, I think it was about three years ago or so, he pretty much disappeared. His clients stopped going over there to buy drugs, which the people living either side of him were obviously pleased about. Everyone on the estate was fairly happy that hed gone as well. One day, though, the police went round to kick his door in, maybe because a relative was worried or something. They found him dead on the floor; hed overdosed on something and been lying there for over two weeks! Apparently since then no ones moved into the flat. Its been left as it was with the windows covered up or something.
Never has a story hit me so hard. My heart paused, before violently jolting back into rhythm, and my stomach turned. I sat there opposite Rob, pale and mute.