Chapter One: ‘Nyctophobia’
Solaris Books have a brilliant art department whose ingenious covers really help to sell a book. When I came to write my next novel for them, they took the idea of fear of the dark literally with their lightbulb image (left), which I loved. Originality often goes against the grain for book illustration, which tends to follow trends. Remember the driftwood-and-seashells craze a few years back? The US cover of Nyctophobia (right) was rather reticent (this is the first time I’ve published it) and I can imagine the conversation; ‘We have to reflect the fact that it’s so British and understated!’
But that’s howI like my ghost stories; the implications creep up on you as the consequences deepen. Here’s the outline:
Young architectural student Callie suffers from nyctophobia; fear of the dark. When she marries and moves to Spain, she finds herself living in a unique house. Flooded with light, it also has a mute gardener, a housekeeper and a sealed, darkened suite for which nobody can find the keys. At first she’s happy, writing a book and taking care of her new step-daughter, But she can’t help being drawn to the dark empty rooms. Soon she becomes convinced that someone is living in there. Researching the history of the house with the help of her neighbours, she starts to uncover the terrifying truth…As Callie’s fear of the dark returns and she can no longer trust her senses, she comes to understand the true nature of good and evil.
Now read on:
Chapter One: The Agent
The taxi driver spoke no English, but was kind enough to be unhappy about dropping me off in the middle of nowhere. He had the most sunburned face I’d ever seen, walnut-coloured, with a cheap white sailor’s cap perched on top, more like a Greek sailor than a Spaniard.
I looked out and saw the road, rocks shimmering in the heat haze, a dense dry row of gnarled olive trees. As if we’d driven into the middle of a spaghetti western. I half-expected to see buzzards circling the cliffs.
He turned around in his seat and raised his eyebrows again. Are you sure this is the right place?
I nodded. We used universally acknowledged hand signals:
(Point down)Should I wait for you?
(Shake of head) No, it’s okay.
(Hand across brow, waving fingers) It’s very hot.
(Indicate watch) Someone will be here soon.
(Point at tree) There’s shade over there.
I paid him and he reluctantly drove off, leaving me alone with the lizards. I sat on some dry brown grass beneath the nearest tree, pinging crickets everywhere, and waited. In my bag I had the name of Julia’s agency and the card from the cab company in case she didn’t show. Nothing else, not even a bottle of water. I’m from central London, we don’t ‘do’ outdoors.
Ten minutes later, just as I was starting to get worried, an old white Mercedes SLK materialised from the burning haze. I could see a woman behind the wheel. She crunched to a stop in front of me, opened the door and climbed out, carefully uncreasing herself. Julia was wearing a pink suit jacket with huge padded shoulders and a matching skirt too short at the knee, with pink patent leather high heels and large square sunglasses. She looked like a burly flamingo.
I clambered dustily to my feet and shook her hand.
‘Senora Shaw,’ she cried with an alarming roll of the R, ‘is a pleasure to meet ju. Ay.’ She stopped before me and gave me the full head-to-foot stare over the top of her glasses. ‘Tan bonita.’
She rotated her left hand in a circle, rattling a gaudy charm bracelet, and pursed coral lips. She had matching coral nails and a foot of spray-stiffened hair like copper wire. Presumably she wore pink underwear. ‘Ju are so young. This house, where is it –’She removed her sunglasses and gestured carelessly at the end of the tree-line. ‘Ju cannot see it from the road, no? I bet ju think we are crazy or something! This house – is too big for you I think. Too nowhere. Unless there are many babies, eh?’ She gave a course laugh. ‘Get in, we go closer.’
We drove off, bumping along the unmade road, raising clouds of hot dust.
‘My husband,’ I began. ‘He’s the one who wants to live here. He likes this area. He spends most of his time in Madrid but he was born in Andalusia.’
‘You marry a nice Spanish man, yes? Muy bien.’
‘His family was from one of the towns nearby.’
‘Ah,’ Julia said knowingly. ‘If he buys this house he must have mucho–’ She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together and flashed a wide smile. She had huge whitened teeth. ‘My husband, ach, he’s good for nothing, a lazy fat pig. We live in a tiny flat because he spends all the money I make in the bars with his fat pig friends. One day I will kill him. Ju, ju are lucky.’ She looked around theatrically. ‘Why is he not here with you, this guapo?’
‘He’s seeing another property while I’m looking at this one,’ I explained. I could see some wrought-iron gates appearing between a line of fierce green conifers. ‘It looks locked up. Can we get in?’
‘Si, seguro, I have the keys here.’ Julia parked and produced an immense set of keys. We got out of the car and she proceeded to attack the gate with them. ‘There is a gardener, very old, and a housekeeper who has been here forever, but she is muy loca–’she pulled a sour-lemon face. ‘I don’t like her. Ju can fire them both if ju don’t like. They’re not here today. Is okay, we’re in.’
Suddenly it was as if I’d left the set of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and entered an English country garden. The change was almost unbelievable. The outer ring of cypruses and cork oaks gave way to angled barriers of what appeared to be rowans and ash trees, with wild roses in every possible colour. There were clumps of honeysuckle, campion and lavender and a dozen flowering scented plants I couldn’t name. It seemed so odd to find them surviving here in the flat raw heat of Andalusia, hidden behind the walls of an estate like a private part of Kew Gardens.
‘You don’t need grass here, you can build a pool, a barbecue pit, whatever,’ said Julia, stalking between the flowerbeds in her high heels, avoiding the immense emerald lawn, a perfect razor-cropped rectangle. ‘And you can get rid of that. Maybe the old man was queer, I don’t know.’ There was a pockmarked statue at the centre, the figure of a naked young man holding what looked like a large plate above his head. Hooped in bronze, the disc was divided in marble halves, one black, one white.
The grass had coarser blades than the stuff you’d find in an English garden, but looked incredibly healthy. In the flowerbeds, bees and dragonflies dropped in lazy loops between clusters of petals. Beyond them, I saw Hyperion House for the first time.
It stood at the end of the driveway, backed by the great amber curtain of the mountain. It had been cut right into the cliff, so that the rock appeared to cradle it. The building was three floors high, with a cream-bricked frontage and tall, wide windows framed by green wooden shutters. At the centre was an immense double-fronted door, burnished brown wood studded with copper bolts like a castle keep. The steep red roof ended in stone statues and garlanded urns. There was something oddly shaped on the top floor, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
‘Oh,’ I said, taken aback. I’d seen six small photographs online which hadn’t done the place justice. They really hadn’t prepared me for this.
Julia’s eyes flared. ‘Si, muy grande – but wait, ju have to see inside.’ Another rattle of the keys produced one that opened the main door. She creaked it back, and I realised that the walls were about two feet thick. I followed her inside, waiting for the heat to fall away and be replaced by chill air, expecting it to be like entering a Spanish church, but although the temperature was definitely lower it stayed pleasant, not cold at all. I saw the reason why; the house let in a phenomenal amount of light.
‘The real name is Hyperion House,’ said Julia, flexing her shiny pink mouth to fit each syllable as if teaching me the name, and spitting over me in the process. ‘But we call it La Casa De La Luz. The House of Light. Ju can see why, yes?’
‘Yes, I can. I’ve never seen so much sunlight inside a property.’ We were standing in a wide blue and white Castilian-tiled hallway, with a severe stone staircase before us. Huge rooms went off to the right and left. I glimpsed a lot of very serious-looking furniture. ‘They leave the curtains open?’ I asked. ‘Doesn’t everything fade?’
‘Que?’ She pulled an uncomprehending face.
‘The carpets – don’t they lose their colour?’
‘Ah – no, they are very old. Ju should throw those out, get some good colours in. Pink is nice. So.’ She clattered across the hall. ‘Big staircase, a place to meet your guests, yes? Hello, come in, have a drink, blah blah blah.’
Turning sharply on her heel she waved a hand at the first doorway on the right. I could just make out the corner of a blood-marble fireplace, several ugly clocks, a lot of heavy armchairs. ‘Front room then drawing room, English word for it, yes? Then the next one after that is the music room I don’t know what that is but it has a piano. All original fittings, double height, double windows, double this that blah blah. Reading room on the left. I don’t know what that is for, but lots of smelly old books and again double everything. You could take out all those stupid shelves and get a big TV. You said you’re an architect –’
’I trained as one, yes –’
‘Then is perfect, you can rip all this old stuff out.’
‘All these rooms seem to face the sun.’
‘Yes, they get the sun from the dawn to the very verylast second of the sunset. Too much sun if you ask me. I like a dark room. I don’t want to see my husband sitting there all day. Is depressing. Then kitchen behind here and so on, and so on. I show ju.’
I’d never seen so many overstuffed armchairs, dressers, sideboards, striped sofas and oak tables in my life. ‘I guess these rooms will look even bigger once the owner has taken all his furniture out,’ I said.
‘Oh no, he is not taking anything, he was in the hospital,’ Julia explained.
‘But surely, when he comes out –’
‘He is not coming back.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Was he elderly?’
‘Very old, si. The furniture will stay here with the house. It comes included in the price. You can throw it out, make yourself some money.’
‘Even all the statues and paintings? Surely he could sell them?’
‘He doesn’t want to. They were made for the house, why would he take them?’ She grimaced. ‘Is not my taste, is too depressing, yes?’
She walked me through the house room by room, up the staircase and through the dazzling vast bedrooms until we reached what appeared to be the back. But I knew it couldn’t be. I ran the calculation and came up short. In my job you get a feel for the negative space a building creates, and we hadn’t gone deep enough inside to reach the far wall.
The end of the central hallway was closed off by a narrower door, elegantly carved with entwined lilies and reeds in the art nouveau style. Julia slid the keys around, holding each to the light in turn. ‘Is strange,’ she said finally. ‘They gave me all the keys but I can’t find one for this. Wait, come with me. We go back downstairs.’
She clomped down the staircase diagonally, in the way that women with too-high heels do, heading down to the kitchen. This vast flagstone room was also dazzlingly bright, with gleaming copper pans hung from ceiling racks. It was lit by great side windows that overlooked the hills. Set in the back wall was a similar carved wooden door to the one upstairs, but so small that you’d have to bow your head to enter, and also locked.
‘No keys for this either,’ Julia complained. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘What’s behind there?’ I asked.
‘This is what I wanted ju to see,’ she said. ‘There are four doors to the back of the house, two liddle liddle ones on the left and right of the ground floor, one here and one in the other drawing room. Then the full-size door in the middle of the first floor hall you just saw, and also a connecting door in the master bedroom. The back is interesting. For the servants, ju see. At least, I guess. Wait. We check the other door.’ She led the way around to the door situated behind the drawing room, and tried the handle. ‘No key for this one but I think is open.’
She put her formidable pink shoulder against the door and gave it a good shove, but nothing happened. She stuck her fists into her hips and stared angrily at the paintwork. ‘What is this? Why does this not open? Is like they have put furniture behind here.’ She bent down and peered through the keyhole. ‘Is no good, is dark, is always dark back there. Wait, I have a light.’
I thought she’d have an app on her mobile, but instead she dragged a colossal metal torch from her pink handbag and shone its lighthouse beam under the door.
‘Ah, I see now. Someone has moved the dresser. Why would they do that?’ She pointed to the floor. I could see that something heavy had been dragged from its original place, through to the other side of the connecting door. The legs had created jagged rips in the dark polish of the boards.
‘We can’t get into the back of the house?’ I asked.
‘Is no big deal, nothing special back there,’ Julia said airily. ‘I’ll get this open for ju. I’ll have Jerardo move it when he gets a chance. He’s the gardener. He is old but strong. Not so fresh,’ she waved a hand over her formidable nose. ‘So ju should stay maybe six feet away from him. He has been here for a long time, I think. This house is built over a hundred years, like 1910 or something like that, but the architect he was – what is it – when you are kind to everyone, even the stinky poor people?’
‘Yes, something like that I think, or maybe cheap. So he build the servants’ quarters like a copy of the main house, only much smaller, less than a quarter as big I think, just two floors and no light at all because the back of the house is right against the mountain, yes? Besides, they are servants, they work hard and go to sleep, they don’t need light. To be honest ju can’t do much with it, maybe store stuff I think. Is cold back there because of no light. I’ve been back there once and is lots of furniture the same, only not so nice I think, and no electrics. But anyway I have no keys to show ju.’ She stared angrily at the door. ‘I don’t understand because there is no-one here strong enough to move that dresser, so how they do that?’
‘It’s okay,’ I told her, ‘I already know how I feel about the house.’
Julia pulled her grimace again. ‘You don’t like it? Is not a lot of work if you keep the gardener and the housekeeper. I don’t mean to call her loca, she is just don’t touch this don’t touch that like it was hers. And a face like you want to hit with an axe. So what you think?’
‘No, I love it. I’d like to show it to my husband. But I think the price is going to be far too high.’
‘Yes, yes, the price, but it is not high ju see because the house has foreclosed to the bank, they need to get it off their books so they will definitely take a lower price, ju wait and see. Spain is in a mess, the politicos are all crooks and deserve to die.’
‘So the last owner –’
‘He got old and went bankrupt and then he got sick and went crazy, and then he went to a home. A very nice home, they say, in Marbella, and he was well cared for. He was muy anciano, very old. He had a long and happy life here but his brain dried out and there is no-one else to take over the house so it went to the pigs at the bank. And ju can get it from them. Yes?’
‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Perhaps we could. I’ve never seen a house like this before. Certainly not in the architectural digests.’
‘What is digests?’
‘In books. The house, it’s not well-known?’
‘Ju don’t see this before because the owner was private.’
‘So he didn’t want sightseers.’
‘No, I mean private,’ said Julia. ‘You know what that means?’ She waved her hand around her head. ‘Crazy.’