It was just three years old, a semi overlooking the park. There was a children’s play area just beyond the stone wall dividing the back garden from the public space. It would be nice, they said, for when the baby was a bit older.
The couple were young, and although this was the first house they’d looked at, it was exactly halfway between his parents’ home and hers. About a mile in each direction. He worked in the oil industry and was often away for long periods; if she needed help he wanted her to know the parents were close by.
The place seemed neglected – clearly no decorating had been done since the builders moved out – but the vendors said they’d only been there a year. The price stretched the couple’s finances too, but otherwise it was ideal. Not much money left to furnish the place, so they bought a new bed, accepted a sofa and a rocking chair from the parents, and hired a TV.
They moved into their new home in February. A month or so later, one weekend when he was away, she invited her mother to stay. When they went upstairs, Mother sniffed and said, ‘Have you left a wet nappy on the floor somewhere?’
She protested at that, but agreed there was a vague aroma. In fact she’d noticed it once or twice before, but had been too tired to carry out more than a cursory search.
‘Maybe it’s the drains?’ Mother said.
But by morning the smell was gone, her plans to investigate cast aside by the demands of a lively toddler. Life went on. The bedroom doors were rarely closed, but the smell of stale urine – vague, occasional, and only at night – was confined to the one room. And usually when she was alone.
One night she woke abruptly, heart racing, every sense on the alert. Click-click, click-click, click-click – the distinctive sound of the chair clicking on its rockers in the lounge below.
And then it stopped. No footfall on the wooden floors – no sound from the nursery. No sound anywhere in the house. Only her own heart thumping away. After a minute or so, she slipped out of bed and crept barefoot into her little daughter’s room. Sleeping like a cherub. Hesitating on the landing, she looked at the stairs, thought about going down to investigate, decided not, and went back to bed.
Next day, all was as she had left it the night before.
It happened again – and again some months later. In fact she grew so used to these occasional mysteries – the odd smell, the clicking rocking chair – she just rolled over and went back to sleep.
Until one night when her husband was at home. She was sleeping peacefully until he sat up suddenly, grabbing her arm.
‘Shh – we’ve got burglars.’
‘Can’t you hear them? They’re downstairs.’
She listened, hearing the familiar click-click, click-click, click-click. With a sigh she sank back onto the pillows. ‘Oh, that’s not burglars – it’s the rocking chair.’
‘I know it’s the rocking chair,’ he hissed, ‘that’s what woke me! There’s somebody in the house!’
‘No, no,’ she insisted, ‘like I said, it’s your mother’s old chair – it rocks sometimes in the middle of the night. I don’t know why – but there’s nobody there. It’ll stop in a minute…’
He didn’t believe her. Pulling on trousers, he grabbed the transistor radio as a weapon and went downstairs. The rocking, of course, had stopped.
Moments later he was back, astonishment in every line of his face. ‘You’re right – nobody there. Rocking chair – not moving.’
She put out the light and went back to sleep. He was awake for the rest of the night.
‘So what’s going on?’ he asked over breakfast. ‘That chair – I definitely heard it rocking.’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe your mother’s trying to tell us something – though God knows what.’
His mother, of course, was no longer of this world, and his father had married again – hence the gift of the chair.
Bloody weird, was the consensus amongst their friends.
The drains were investigated, and proved to be normal. The occasional pee-wee smell at night remained a mystery – as did the clicking of the rocking chair.
In fact life went on as usual – until February, the third anniversary of their move. He’d had a promotion and was keen to celebrate, so Granny offered to spoil her grand-daughter for the weekend. On Saturday night they went out with friends, had one too many at the local pub, and a couple more with coffee at the friends’ house. Afterwards, gloriously merry, they walked home in the moonlight.
It was after midnight and the house was cold. ‘Never mind,’ he said, chasing her up the stairs, ‘we’ll soon get warm…’
She was giggling as she opened their bedroom door.
The giggle stopped in her throat, choked off by the stench of urine. It was overpowering, all-enveloping – and warm.
She gasped; his cough was almost a retch. ‘What in hell is that?’
‘My God, it was never like this – quick, close the door!’
But the smell was all around them. Not in the nursery, nor the bathroom. It was on the landing, warm, choking, revolting, moving as they moved, down the stairs and into the hall.
On the verge of panic, they stood, uncertain.
‘It’s followed us,’ he hissed. ‘What is it?’
She shook her head, opened the lounge door – took a breath as he followed. Before he could slam it shut, there came a great rush of foul air. The door flew out of his hand and back on its hinges. He grabbed her, arms protecting as they clung, terrified, to each other.
Suspended by terror, beyond thought or breath or reason, each passing second an eternity. A feeble sound – a single click-click of the rocking chair – and then stillness.
She whimpered against his chest. He had to breathe, and with that indrawn breath came overwhelming relief. The air was clean.
Weak, exhausted, and sober, on legs that would barely stand, they moved at last. She flicked on the lights, went into the kitchen. ‘Nothing here…’
In great trepidation, they climbed the stairs to their bedroom. No trace of the smell remained.
‘Where did it go?’ he demanded. ‘Why did it go?’
‘Whatever it was, it’s gone. And I pray to God it never comes back.’
They had been talking about selling, and the incident decided them. He went back to the oil fields of the Middle East while she started looking for a house with a third bedroom. And in the flurry of activity that moving house entails – especially to a town some miles away – she put both house and terrifying experience out of her mind.
One winter’s evening many years later, a good meal, a blazing fire, and convivial company brought up the subject of ghosts and inexplicable events.
Her husband said, ‘Well, the only strange experience I’ve ever had was in our first house.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Do you remember?’
‘Oh… yes,’ she replied at last. ‘Your mother’s rocking chair – I’d forgotten about that.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘not the chair – the smell…’
Suddenly, for her, that night came back in all its horror: it was as though the incident had just occurred. Unable to speak, she gazed at her husband and reached for his hand.
Their host – a professional historian – poured a measure of cognac and urged her to drink it. He also urged her to tell the tale. And when she had told it, she said, ‘I can’t believe how completely I’d blanked that night from my mind…’
‘And had the smell gone completely? You never experienced it again between that night and the day you left the house?’
‘That is strange,’ he agreed.
Her husband said, ‘So what do you think? Have you ever come across anything like it?’
‘Oh, yes, it occurs in many stories…’ He paused to sip at his coffee, casting a glance at both the husband and wife. ‘But not, that I’ve come across, in what was essentially a new house.’
‘But you have heard of it?’
‘Yes,’ he said at last. ‘The stench of urine is always associated with the devil…’
That night, as she lay sleepless for what seemed like hours, she thought about the chair, about that final, feeble little click – and wondered…