The Upstairs Neighbour (January 2021)
By Georgia Cook
The top floor of the building was a dry, arid little attic space, unfit—according to the landlord—for habitation of any kind; save for the rats and spiders, skittering among the eves.
But someone lived here. Someone with the time and patience to hoard a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia. Every inch of floor space was crammed with shelves and boxes and chests; modern flat-pack vied for supremacy alongside opulent antique Rococo, squeezing the room into tight little enclaves of dust and decay and red-raw heat. Priceless antiques next to charity-shop tat. There was little space to move, little space to breathe. The air stuck in the throat, thick as soup.
He had lived here for coming on three centuries now and was, he felt, finally starting to make it his own.
He was old enough to remember when there had been no attic space, no London. When the world outside had spanned from here to the western coast; endless miles of blanket forests and deep, featureless bogs. Old enough to remember Londinium in its prime; remember the taste of blood and fear and Roman metal. So new and inviting. So simple.
There had been a time when he would have stalked this city, rendered the midnight streets a hell of scarlet and ripping claws, rendering the world to bone and marrow for daring to forget his name. But he was older now. Old enough to feel old. And the machinations of his youth no longer appealed.
Instead, he crouched here, among his boxes and his ornaments and his beloved books, and basked in the solitude of an endless life finally given time to relax.
Until the air changed. Until the light streaming through the one dusty window grew brighter, and the bumps and the clamps and footsteps in the flat below grew louder, longer, minglingly with the high, rich laughter of a child.
He would remember it later, but at the time he took note of this only in passing—he’d heard every sound imaginable, perched in his wooden space high above the world—every human sound ever conceived, and none of them with any interest. The flats downstairs were always occupied in some capacity, but humans came and went, as humans had come and gone for centuries. They’d stopped interesting him as soon as he’d grown old and weary enough to enjoy other tastes, and they never stopped to wonder about the upstairs flat.
Until one day the pattering moved, grew louder. Until the door on the opposite side of the room—closed now for over a century and thick with dust—shook with a round of low, curious thuds.
“S’cuse me.” The dust stirred.
“...Are you a monster?”
There was a face peering at him through the letterbox. He’d forgotten he even had a letterbox—was certain he’d seen it welded shut decades ago—but there it was. He could smell the child’s newness, her immense youth. See the deep wide brightness of her eyes, staring at him without apparent fear, through the tiny oblong gap.
He stared back.
This was not the reaction he was accustomed to.
“—Cos’ you live in our attic,” continued the voice. “And Jessica Lewis says only Monsters live in attics.” There was an air of indisputable authority about this statement. “An…and you’re all big an’ tall and skinny,” the voice went on. “And you’ve got great big pointy ears”
His mouth was dry and desiccated, his throat thick with sedentary disuse. And when he finally spoke, it was in a voice as brittle as old bone, and as soft as a whisper;
The little girl processed this with solemn reverence.
“...whose monster are you?”
He stared down at the wide brown eyes. This was not the tone he expected—no fear, no apparent awe.
The voice continued quite happily without his input:
“Cos’ you can’t be our monster, cos’ we don’t actually own the attic. And you can’t be Mr-and-Mrs-Clark’s Monster either, cos’ they only live downstairs. Are you Mr. Hendrick’s monster? Cos’ he doesn’t actually live here you know. He just owns the buildin’, mum says.”
“His family and I…have an arrangement.”
He was at the door now, looming out of the darkness, his great white eyes bright and cold, his high boney shoulders blocking out the evening light. There was, he felt, a pressing need to regain the upper hand here.
“Little girl,” he said. “What do you want?”
“Oh.” There was a shuffling from the other side of the door, as of someone standing up straight and tucking in their jumper, then the eyes reappeared. “Mum said we had to say hello to all our neighbours. And we said hello to the downstairs neighbours, and to Mr-and-Mrs-Clark in the basement, but we didn’t say hello to you, cos’ Mum said we don’t have an upstairs neighbour, but I said we do. An’ even monsters deserve to be said hello to.”
There was another pause, then a little hand stuck itself through the letterbox gap and waved at him.
He stared at the hand. Not in ten thousand years, ranging back through the mists of time to an age even his vast memory could not recall, had anyone said hello to him.
Almost without thinking, he found one of his thin grey claws taking her tiny brown hand and shaking it. Apparently satisfied, the hand withdrew, and the eyes reappeared, blinking up at him pensively.
“…Are you very old?”
“Little girl,” he whispered, “I was old when the great fires claimed the last of Alexandria’s Library. I was old when your mankind made its first ponderous steps across the continent. I am older than the cities upon which this city was built.”
He sat back, victorious. The girl pondered this for a moment.
“…D’you know my Nan?” she asked. “She’s very old too. Almost 70, Mum says.”
He sat back on his haunches. He was beginning to feel an emotion he’d never felt before: a deep stirring of something both alien and unfamiliar; the twinges of utter bewilderment.
“This woman is unknown to me.”
They were silent for several seconds. The little girl stared up past him at the great stacked bookshelves.
“Have you read all of these?”
“A great many times.”
“All of them?”
There was another long, pensive silence.
“…Must be very very boring,” said the little girl at last. “D’you want any new ones? I’ve got loads.”
“Little girl,” he said, in the slow, exasperated voice of one who has finally been given a turn in the conversation. “I have been offered gold and jewels and countless treasures. I have been offered virgin blood and human longing to cease my rampage upon the human multitude. I do not need New Ones.”
This didn’t seem to have the desired effect either. The little girl pulled a face.
“They sound yuck,” she said, in tones of great authority. “I’ve got nice books. Loads of em’. With pictures an’ everything. Not great big dusty ones with too many words.”
He glanced back at his array of books, still and faded in their high wooden cases. Some had not seen the light of day since the last century. Some had been written as they were—in ink or blood or substances unknown—then sealed forever, their contents never to be read by human eyes. He liked them like that: their oldness, their solitude. The sanctity of things untainted by human swarm.
Something hard and dry rose in his throat. A sensation that would have sent men running in the days before, and seen civilisations razed to the ground for disturbing his peace.
“Little girl,” he rasped, bringing his eyes close to the letter box gap. “ I will render the meat from your bones and the skin from your meat. I will leave your eyes and tongue for drying, and hang the sorry remains of you among my possessions, so that you may watch the centuries turn and do nothing to prevent your agony.” His teeth flashed, his tongue flickered black and glistening.
“Unless you Leave Me Alone.”
The eyes stared at him, wider now, bright with a far more familiar emotion. Then they vanished, the letterbox banged shut, and the sound of hurrying little footsteps echoed down the staircase.
He sat alone in the deep red dark, trying to enjoy the silence. Trying to enjoy the solitude. Then he shuffled back behind his wall of treasures, into the maze of red-raw heat and towering paraphernalia, and tried not to think about it.
And so it was. Time passed. The long, hot days were interlaced with deep, cloying periods of night. He didn’t hear from the little girl again, although more than once he found himself listening for that high lilting voice, and following the clatter of footsteps on the floors below. He’d never cared for the human inhabitants of the building, past a pressing assumption that they should thank him for even allowing their occupation beneath him. But now he felt...glad of them. Or, at least, more tolerant of their existence.
And then it was a week later, and there was a shuffling and whispering in the corridor outside, a nervous little giggle, the scampering of footsteps, and then silence again.
With immense effort, someone had wedged a book under the door. It was large and garishly coloured, with the kind of plush cover that had swelled it to twice its size. Carefully he extracted it and held it up to the light.
The legend “Mr. Lumpy’s Day Out” was emblazoned across the cover, above a picture of a large pink and purple rabbit. The book was dog-eared and obviously much loved. Opening it up (carefully, so as not to rip the fabric) he saw that someone had scribbled something inside in bright pink crayon:
To Our Monster.
Sorry I didn’t like your books.
You can have this one. It’s my favorite.
He stared long and hard at the words. This was no libation, this was no desperate sacrifice to appease an ancient beast. This was a gift. A tiny child had thought it unfortunate that he might have finished all his books, up here in the sweltering dark, and so had given him a new one. Slowly, slowly, he slid it into a free space, watching the light catch the plastic spine like some strange jewel.
Truly, something worth keeping.
Text copyright © 2020 by Georgia Cook.
About the Author: Georgia Cook (@georgiacooked) is an illustrator and writer from London, specialising in fantasy and horror. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Staunch Book Prize, and Reflex Fiction Award, among others, and published as both an author and reviewer.