I am a businessman who travels for work. I can’t give my name or that of my company because, should those particulars be discovered, the following account would certainly call either my honesty or sanity into question, a circumstance that would be disastrous for one who relies for a living on public trust. Although every word is (unfortunately) true, and ought to be known for reasons of general weal, I shrink from attaching my ‘brand’ to the matter. In fact, I have never told any of my intimates and, except for setting the matter down here in black and white, intend to take my secret to the grave.
I understand, especially given the incredible nature of the events hereafter described, that a reader might require some description of me, the better to weigh my words and judge of their truth. As I said, I am a businessman. At the time this episode took place I was a middle-aged bachelor with a solid career of 20 years in the same company wherein I now work. I was, and remain, unremarkable in appearance in manner. An acquaintance jokes that if he were called into a morgue to identify my body, he would hesitate to make a positive identification as there are so many who look exactly like me—a person of average build, brown hair cut short, clean-shaven, clothes tidy and innocuous. As for my personality, well, in this matter too there is little to distinguish me from the herd. If anything, I might be considered to have even less imaginative or emotional than others, having a respect for Truth that makes it actually painful to consciously deviate from verifiable fact.
On the occasion in question I was visiting a mid-sized city on the West Coast. I will not mention the name of the city, partly for the reasons given above—that is, particulars might help identify me–but also from the sense of dread that it inspires in me yet. As it is pertinent to my story, however, I will give the name of the apartment building: Asylum.
Fool that I was, when I saw that sign, I smiled. I briefly thought my secretary (who made the booking) had played a practical joke on me, but soon dismissed the idea. After all, apart from the image conjured up by that word – of Bedlam, disjointed raving of lobotomized shufflers in pyjamas—the original sense surely claimed precedence: a haven, a sanctuary—this was after all an appropriate name for a temporary home away from home.
After I punched in the entry code at the metal gate, it swung open to admit me and then closed with a heavy clang at my back. Following the directions my secretary had sent, I found the first staircase and climbed up to the third floor. Here, as on each floor, were three doors: one in front of me and one on either side. My apartment was in the middle.
Stepping inside, I quickly took stock of the place. It was modest but clean and wholly adequate to my needs, with a kitchenette, a small table and chair, a couch and large television. The bedroom included a large bed and ample wardrobe for storing my suitcase. And the bathroom was also quite acceptable.
What’s more, unusual for a dwelling in the middle of a city, the view from the living room window was quaint to the point of eccentricity. Across the parking lot, opposite Asylum, was a strange building, an architectural mishmash from the nineteenth century with a neoclassical façade, gables and two tall brick chimneys. As I stood looking out at it, I saw a figure in one of the attic windows. I couldn’t tell for certain, as he or she was lit from behind by some weak yellow light, and I could only just make out a thin silhouette, but the figure seemed to be looking straight back at me. My eyesight is really not very good. There was, though, something about the figure that struck me as unpleasant. I couldn’t say exactly what it was except that the way it leaned forward and kept its gaze fixed on me suggested the kind of single-minded eagerness and intensity of a thin eagle contemplating a rabbit. Annoyed and uneasy, I rolled the blinds down and turned on the television news. Gradually, the strange image began to fade from my mind.
I spent most of the evening preparing for a business presentation I was to give the following morning. After that, I ate at a small restaurant close to the hotel and returned to my rooms at about nine o’clock, planning to have an early night.
As I was setting out my clothes and things for the next morning, I heard some movement upstairs and that the soundproofing in the building was flimsy, to say the least. I could hear—and feel–every footstep, every closed door and cupboard, and the sound (though not the substance) of every conversation. If I have a fault, it’s that sounds do have the capacity to irritate me. The person or people upstairs were rather active. At first, I thought it was a child playing, and this made the sound more acceptable as it is only natural that a child who has been cooped up at school or day will want to let off steam.
Eventually, though, after an hour of rough-housing, it occurred to me that the child seemed to be extraordinarily active and much heavier than most. The walls trembled at each step as he or she scampered here and there. I began to wonder if it was not a child at all, but a very large dog. But then, if it was a dog, there would surely be the sound of toenails tapping on the floor? When the sound and trembling of the weird dance upstairs continued for another hour, I took a broom and tapped sharply on the ceiling three times. The sound ceased and, satisfied, I poured out a glass of water to keep beside my bed.
As I was crossing the room with the water, there came a huge and terrifying ‘THUMP’ directly above my head. My hand flew up in the air and the water splashed onto the floor, and my heart leapt in my chest. It was immediately clear that whatever was over me was no child nor dog. If it was a man, he must have been enormous. I admit, in my shaken condition, the thought occurred to me And if it is not a man?
The sound made me freeze for several moments—I thought the world was ending. Then I retrieved a mop to soak up the spilt water. Just as I was finishing up the mopping, the sound came again: ‘THUMP’—just as loud and catastrophic as it had been before. And, several moments later, it came again and I feared the ceiling might cave in.
I stood there in shock, not knowing quite what to do. Call the police? How ridiculous. Go upstairs and confront the person? I didn’t have the nerve! So, cowardly though it may have been, I did nothing, preferring to ignore it and carry on to the bedroom, hoping that whoever or whatever it was upstairs would fall asleep and so end its persecution of me.
In bed, I calmed myself down by reading Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence by Alexandre Harvard. I like to read improving literature every night before sleeping as I believe it is a time when the mind is particularly receptive to new ideas and can be reinforced by dreams.
As I was reading, however, I was distracted by the sound of a television in the apartment to my left. It was turned up very loud, as if whoever was watching it was deaf. As always, I’d prudently brought earplugs and now put them in, but even so the sound was intrusive enough that I could still hear it. I resolved, if it was still on in one hour and if I was still awake at that time, then I would knock on my neighbor’s door to ask them to turn it down. To tell the truth, I was a little ashamed of my earlier timidity and determined to exhibit the leadership I’d been reading about, particularly ‘courage: staying the course and resisting pressures of all kinds.’
Exactly one hour later, I pulled my earplugs out to see if the television was still playing. At first, I thought that it was because I heard the rise and fall of voices, but after a few moments I realized that it was only one voice and it didn’t sound like a television at all but a solitary, repetitive chant. The longer I listened, the less I liked it, and yet I found that I could not stop listening. It had the cadence of a prayer, as if whoever was uttering the sound was imploring or summoning unholy assistance. Yet at the same time, it did not convey the serenity of faith but rather the darkness of desperation. On and on it droned, and it seemed as if whoever was uttering that dreary, wordless hymn had forgotten the necessity of drawing breath.
Quite suddenly, then, I heard a whimper. This, I was certain, came from a dog and (quite naturally considering the circumstances), the creature seemed nervous, not to say terrified. My soul shrank within me and my mind busied itself wondering the scene that was unfolding in the room just next to mine, separated from me only by a flimsy wall.
As I listened, appalled, the humming sound gradually transformed into something different, a kind of aural whirlwind that caught me up, helpless, in its progress. At first it seemed like the rising and crashing waves of a furious storm at sea. Then it became the clamor of approaching hooves, as of a cavalry charge. It morphed into the laborious tilting of a great planet, then into the beating of a giant heart. Each manifestation grew from the same seed—that terrible seesawing, the rhythmic tug of war between being and unbeing. It went on and on, and felt paralyzed, as if nailed to the bed, unable to resist the awe-inspiring and dreadful sensations the sounds aroused in me.
Eventually, decades later perhaps, the sun rose and the sound diminished with the darkness. If you strained to hear it, you could—it was always there. But now other sounds of the new day were demanding attention: birds, traffic, children’s voices, radios and the cumulative murmur of hundreds, thousands of people and animals rising and moving. And yet, now I knew, it was always, always there.
I did not remain in the hotel. I dressed and packed quickly and left immediately for the train station. As I waited for my Uber, I happened to glance up at the window of the ghastly old house across the way and shuddered: there at the window was a figure in a dressing gown, and it appeared to be waving and smiling at me.