It was the first house I owned. The penultimate property in a row of terraces, at the end of a quiet Sheffield street. The house was a fixer upper, which is why I could afford it. I moved in on 5th September when the days were still light and almost warm, with a surveyor’s report and an extensive to-do list.
The end terrace was occupied by an elderly man named Brian Royles. No one seemed to know that much about him, or how long he’d lived there – longer than anyone else on the street. He lived on his own, widowed years ago, apparently. My neighbours on the other side were the Hadfields, a family with two young children. I couldn’t quite work them out. They weren’t unfriendly as such. More….wary. I had a chance encounter with the dad, who looked too old to have such young children, putting the bins out one evening. He introduced himself as Gary. But he didn’t tell me the names of his wife or children – I’d only found out their surname from taking a parcel in for them. When I asked about the people I’d bought my house from, he confirmed my suspicion that they’d moved out sometime before the property actually went on the market. Well over a year, he thought. He gave me a funny look when he said it, and I wondered if maybe the Hadfields had preferred my house being empty.
Then on the Monday teatime of the first week in November, completely out of the blue, Gary knocked on my front door. When I saw him standing there, I thought that maybe, despite my efforts to be considerate, their patience with my infernal DIYing had at last run out. I invited him in, but he politely refused. He hesitated and asked (better late than never, I thought) how I was settling in. He asked if I’d met Brian yet. I said only the once, when I’d first arrived. I said that from the glimpses I’d had, his house was a living museum, but Gary didn’t laugh, or even smile at my comment.
‘Keeps himself to himself. Bit of an assumed presence really.’ He paused. ‘And of course, its bonfire night on Thursday….’
It was an odd segue and it crossed my mind that Gary was perhaps about to invite me to some event or something, but he left his sentence hanging, and then said, ‘Anyway, let us know if you need…...anything.’
And then he left.
Come the Thursday, in the absence of any bonfire invitations, I went to the pub with some friends. I invited Susie back, but she said no again. So, at closing time, I drifted home on my own, hazy drunk, and feeling lonely more than anything else, suddenly conscious that I wasn’t getting any younger.
As I went to bed, a remnant of fireworks was going off somewhere nearby. On the playing field at the end of the street, it sounded like. Bored teenagers, probably.
I quickly fell asleep.
It felt like I’d slept for hours when I awoke, head throbbing from the wine and the larger, but I looked at the clock and it was just after 1am. I lay for a while thinking I should get some painkillers. I still had work the next day.
That was when it started.
At first, I wondered why I’d not heard it before. The Hadfield children next door, of course. But as my head began to clear it struck me that the Hadfields had a toddler and a little boy who had started school around the time I moved in. I sat up and listened more closely.
My bed was against the wall facing the front window. The Hadfields house was through the wall on the right. Brian lived through the wall on the left. With growing unease, I realised that it was Brian’s wall through which the sound was coming.
What I could hear was a baby crying.
I got up, went over to the wall and pushed my ear against the cold, bumpy wallpaper and sure enough the crying became a little clearer. I was certain it was a new-born cry I could hear. My sister had had a baby the previous year and that was the sound of Christmas at mum and dad’s, right there on the other side of the wall.
But why did an old man like Brian Royles have a baby in his house?
The poor thing was becoming increasingly distressed. It wasn’t a sad cry. More that angry demand that baby’s make, a survival instinct, really, that doesn’t stop until someone gives it what it needs.
I threw on my dressing gown and went downstairs and out onto the cold and deserted street.
Brian’s house was in complete darkness. I crept up the two stone steps and put my ear to the peeling paintwork on the front door. More distant than in my bedroom, but I could still hear the baby. What was I to do? Knock? Try and wake him up? There could be someone living with Brian, who no one knew about. Some long lost relative. Or someone he’d secretly taken in. I wondered if I should call the police. But what would I say?
As I returned to my house, I was sure I saw a curtain moving in the Hadfield’s upstairs window.
Back in my bedroom the sound of the crying had become shrill and quivery. The baby sounded like it was starting to tire. The gaps between each outburst were lengthening and slowly, slowly, the noise subsided. Then after another ten minutes or so of on-off crying, it stopped completely. Fallen back to sleep, hopefully. I, however, was wide awake. My mind was spinning, and my head hurt. I went for the painkillers.
I slept fitfully for the rest of the night and struggled out of bed the next morning, feeling as though I’d not slept at all. I was late for work, and barely got a thing done in the office and then was too tired, and distracted, to go out for post-work drinks.
When I got home, I went into the back garden and surreptitiously peered over into Brian’s house. I could see him in his brightly lit kitchen, as ever in his shirt and tie and very tatty cardigan. He was alone and I waited for a while in the gathering dusk to see if anyone else would appear, like a mother with a baby. But it was just Brian, shuffling between the cupboards and the cooker, preparing his solitary evening meal.
It was a Friday night, but I was in bed by 9.30pm. A full night’s sleep was what I needed. But it wasn’t what I got.
Just after 1am it happened again. I lay in the dark listening to the breathy, minuscule, forceful, grating cries, and feeling horribly tense and on edge, willing someone to make the noise stop. But there were no sound of any movement next door. No comforter for the baby. My sister seemed to have magic powers when she picked up my niece; a unique, soothing touch that no one else could muster.
As the sound continued, its minor and inconsequential tone nevertheless seemed to fill up the darkness completely. There was no other sound to counter it, not in my house, not in Brian’s house, not anywhere else at the end of our quiet street.
Just as I too was about to start shedding tears, the crying reached its crescendo and once again began to drop off.
In the blissful silence that eventually arrived, I resolved to establish exactly what was going on in the house next door.
‘You look shattered!’ said Gary, when I met him on the street the next morning. His tone was almost friendly, and it was a surprisingly forthright comment from a man who’d barely spoken more than a few sentences to me in two months.
‘You going round there?’ He nodded towards Brian’s house, but like that was exactly what he’d been expecting me to do.
‘Yes,’ I said.
Why would I need luck? I thought. He’s just an old man.
I walked up the stone steps and this time knocked on Brian’s door, aware of Gary still standing on the road, watching. I was relieved when I heard his car door shut and the engine start. I knocked again and after a moment a key rattled in the keyhole on the other side of the door. The handle slowly dropped and with a slight stick in the frame, the door shuddered open.
‘Er, hello Mr Royles, sorry to disturb you. I’m Andy from next door. We met back in September when I moved in.’
Brian steadied himself on the door handle and looked at me with droopy, watery eyes, like an old dog. He was wearing his shirt and tie and cardigan, along with trousers and tatty slippers, one with a hole in the big toe.
‘Aye,’ he said.
‘Er, well, I was just wondering, well, it’s just that last night, the last two nights in fact, I’ve had some trouble sleeping….’
‘Y’ll have t’speak up, lad,’ he interrupted me. ‘Deaf as a post, me.’
I laughed nervously and repeated my faltering words, again finding that my voice trailed off before my sentence was finished. The old man repositioned himself on his bowed legs. I felt self-conscious but I was determined to make my point. I cleared my claggy, sleep-deprived throat and continued to speak as clearly as I could.
‘It’s just that for the last two nights I’m absolutely sure that I’ve been able to hear….’
‘Cud y’do me a favour lad?’ said Brian, interrupting me again, quite abruptly. ‘Cud y’drive me round to the cemet’ry?’
The request took me by surprise. ‘Er, yes. Of course. Now?’
‘Do you want to go now?’ I repeated.
‘Aye, as soon as yer ready, lad,’ and before I could say anything else he was turning himself around and shuffling back into his house. ‘I’ll just get me things,’ he called back.
Still processing this unexpected turn of events, I went and got my jacket and my car keys. The cemetery was only on the other side of the playing field, and accessible by foot from our street, but Brian’s mobility was pretty limited. He reappeared, wrapped in a thick overcoat, and handed me a bunch of flowers.
‘Try and get up there this time of year, tek fresh flowers,’ he said.
He eased his way down his front steps and I went ahead and opened my car, placing the flowers on the back seat.
‘Your wife’s grave is it, Mr Royles?’ I said.
No response. Instead, he said, ‘Cum on, y’ll have t’elp me ere.’
I held Brian’s arm whilst he steadied himself on the open door and painstakingly lowered his bulky frame, eventually slumping down on to the seat and almost tipping over backwards. He hoisted himself round, placed his stick between his legs and indicated that I could close the door.
‘Alright with your belt, Mr Royles?” I asked, noticing he didn’t have it on. But, of course, he didn’t hear me. Like he didn’t hear the baby crying, I thought.
‘Do you live on your own, Mr Royles?
‘Not a bad day,’ he said, looking out of the window, seemingly oblivious to my question. I decided to leave the belt. If we crashed, he wouldn’t need the airbag, judging by the number of layers he had on.
On the journey I asked him again if he lived on his own, but still he didn’t seem to hear me. As we approached the imposing stone pillars that stood sentry at the main entrance to the cemetery I began to turn into a space at the roadside and Brian said, ‘Y’know y’can drive right in?’
So I continued along the road and into the cemetery itself, like I was driving a hearse.
‘It’d finish me off, walkin all that way. They’re right u’ver ont uther side.
‘Pull up here lad,’ he said, indicating where I should stop.
Another palaver getting him out of the car.
‘I’ll be rate now,’ he said, clumsily tucking the flowers I’d just handed him under his arm.
Who’s “they”? I wondered.
I watched Brian shuffle heavily up the path between the rows of headstones, one hand holding on to his flat cap, stick scraping on the chipped tarmac. It was cold out and I was desperate to get back in the car, but then I noticed that Brian was struggling with the flowers in the wind.
‘OK Mr Royles?’
The grave stood near a tree, conspicuous amongst a host of newer stones, most with gold gilded edges and gold writing on jet black, polished stone. But Brian was in front of a worn grey stone, with cheap grey lettering attached to the front. The stone tilted back slightly on the uneven ground, no more than two feet high, an upended rectangle with the top corners cut simply at a slight angle. Brian was bent over trying to get the flower stems into the holes of a little, domed urn, which nestled in the trough of gravel in front of the stone.
‘Never just lie em ont’op,’ he said. ‘Wind teks em.’
I helped him finish the job. Then I happened to glance at the gravestone.
In Loving Memory Of
Penny Margaret Royles
And below that:
Loving mother of
5.11.1959 – 30.11.1959
I stood and stared and tried to work out what I was looking at. Brian seemed to sense it.
‘Thought I should put em both on,’ was all he said, after a moment.
‘Who’s……is she, I mean, was Catherine….?’ I stumbled over the words and couldn’t form the question I wanted to ask. Brian came to my rescue.
‘Aye,’ he said.
He looked at me and some of the agedness seemed to have left his face. Then he turned and started his slow journey back to the car.
05.11.1959. 5 November. Bonfire night. Two days ago. The night I’d first heard the crying. I felt my head go light and I had to crouch down whilst I regained my composure. I realised I was shivering but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the cold. Is that what I’d been hearing through the wall? The cry of a long departed baby, their long departed baby, baby Catherine, demanding to be remembered?
We drove home in silence. It was too strange to countenance but when I pulled up outside Brian’s house he turned towards me, as much as his aging muscles would allow him to turn, and said, ‘Y’shudn’t hear it again now, lad. She just wants to know a’ve remembered her birthday is all. I’m very much obliged lad. Y’ve dun me a big favour.’
As I helped him out of the car he said ‘That couple before wanted nowt to do with it. Or with me.’
In a daze, I handed him his stick and watched as he scaled the steps to his front door. Then I returned home. The following morning, I awoke and realised I had slept soundly, and completely undisturbed.
On Monday I encountered Gary on the street again.
‘Just to let you know, our house is going on the market. Next week probably.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Thanks for letting me know.’
‘Yeah, need a bit more space, with the little ones growing up, you know. And we’ve just, you know…..’ He indicated towards Brian’s house. Then he came a little closer and spoke in a low voice.
‘How did you get on with him the other day? There’re some funny goings on in that house. That couple who lived here before. Mark and…’ he clicked his fingers, trying to recall the name. ‘It happened to them two years running. First week of November. They said they could hear noises in the night, like a baby crying or something. They came round to ask us about it. I thought they were funny in the head, to be honest. But I guess you’ve heard something too? My misses saw you out on the street last week, in the middle of the night.’
He looked at me with a grim but sympathetic expression.
‘Good luck mate,’ he said and got in his car.
I watched him drive away, his little boy waving at me from the back seat.
Before me Brian’s house stood silently in the muted autumnal light. After a moment the old man himself appeared in the living room window and saw me looking and looked right back.
It was like a stare out, until he raised his hand in acknowledgement and I did the same, and felt a sudden enigmatic connection with that ancient gaze. I was the one who had glimpsed the strange predicament that had befallen him. Whether it was a burden or a comfort to Brian, I did not know. But I had helped the man.
As I watched, he turned and shuffled out of view, back into those time warped rooms, where the years stood still, where the past had not yet quite died.
I made my way thoughtfully home, to my to-do list. A year can fly by and next November would come around in no time at all. Only, this time, I’d be ready for it.