It would be a fair assumption that weird things only started to happen to me when I was a young adult, or maybe even a teen.
That assumption would be wrong.
Weird things & weird people have radiated towards me all my life. When I was about eight, my family moved into an apartment in Stamford Hill, in London.
On paper, the place was perfect. It was a spacious, two bedroom duplex with access to a garden. Only on paper did it have access to the garden. Well, it would have a garden if we threw a rope ladder out the kitchen window as there was no other way to get to it. I loved the duplex quirk of the apartment. Particularly having a floor to myself. My parents liked the apartment a little less as the landlord had failed to mention a massive gaping hole in the roof of their bedroom.
In spite of this, we lived there for about two years. One & a half of which, it had a hole in the roof where water would pour in. But these are the things people put up with to live in London.
The apartment was once part of one big house. The downstairs was rented by a single mum & her daughter, Caroline. Caroline was about four when we moved in. I knew Caroline’s name because her mother used to shout it at full volume at all hours of the day & night. It was usually followed by a lot of loud bangs, child-screams & noises that were frankly terrifying to an eight year old.
I always felt sorry for Caroline. When I could, I would share sweets & magazines with her. I remember asking my Mum to buy a Winnie-The-Pooh magazine specifically for her. At some point, I think social services got involved. Caroline disappeared one day & a few months later her mum moved out.
Our house was in the middle of a large, Haredi jewish community. In fact, our house & the house opposite were the only non-Jewish households on the whole street. Haredim Judaism (as far as I understand) is an ultra strict version of Jewish law, to the point members reject much of modern culture.
Their religion extends to every aspect of their lifestyle. Their clothes, their hair, their studies & their businesses are defined by their religious beliefs. Haredi Jews also believe in the separation of the genders from a young age. At the time, my primary school teacher was a wonderful, liberal Jewish Canadian lady. When I moved house, I told her where I had moved to & my teacher rolled her eyes & said ‘urgh, those guys.’
For the most part, our neighbours kept themselves to themselves. It was a very quiet road, particularly on Saturdays as the houses around us shut down completely to celebrate the Sabbath.
In fact, once Dad was walking home & found a Jewish woman pacing outside of the phone box on the corner of our street. Her son has suffered quite a large asthma attack but she was unable to use the phone as she’s not allowed to use technology on the Sabbath. She was reluctant to speak to Dad, but it was a matter of life & death. Dad rang an ambulance for her & it came in time to save her son.
The night I want to tell you about happened to fall on the Sabbath. Mum & I had been at a baby’s first birthday party. I didn’t want to go but it was Mum’s friend’s baby.
*Side note* Mum’s friend’s surname was Walker. While she was pregnant, she decided she would call the baby Skye if it was a girl. It was a boy in the end. So no baby Skye Walker. She named the baby Freddie or something else equally as disappointing (compared with Skye Walker, obviously).
We went to the party, I was the oldest child there by approximately seven years. I was a little bored but there were sweets so I was happy. The party ended & we headed home, a friend gave us a lift because the party was either outside London or outside of the Tube lines. Either way, it was enough to make a Londoner annoyed they had to trek the whole way there & back.
When we arrived on our doorstep, Mum couldn’t find her keys. Or her purse. Or even her handbag. It was in her friend’s car. By this stage, Caroline & her mum had moved out. As yet, no one else had moved in, so we couldn’t even get into the hallway. Without money & keys (& in those days, no mobile phone), we had only one thing we could do. Wait.
Dad was due home. In fact, he should have been home already.
After a couple of hours on the doorstep, it dawned on us Dad might have been home already & then headed out with his friends.
Mum tried to knock on a few neighbours’ doors but no-one was answering because it was the Sabbath. By this stage, it was maybe ten o’clock at night. I had nothing in my stomach as the sweets from the party had worn off. Mum & I were plonked down on freezing, cold concrete steps. If I close my eyes now, my bum still feels the chill of those steps.
Mum dug deep into her coat pockets & retrieved chewing gum. It was dentyne gum. The worst kind that tastes like the pink stuff the dentist makes you swill round & spit out again. She hesitated to give it to me but I pleaded with her. After an hour of chewing now-flavourless gum, I had to admit Mum was right. It did make me hungrier.
It was dark, almost pitch dark as the streetlights were sparse on our street & every house had their lights turned off apart from the house opposite. It was a weird one, a creepy one. The house wasn’t very well kept, which made it stick out like a sore thumb on our street. The house was in need of painting, the guttering was sprouting weeds & the garden wasn’t much better.
In the house lived an old, skeletal Afro-Caribbean woman with a much younger woman, either a daughter or a carer. It was hard to see a familiarity between the two as the young woman was curvaceous & well kept in all the places where the old lady was sunken & frazzled.
The old lady was contained to the upstairs bedroom. At all hours of the day, she could be seen dragging a drip stand around her bedroom. Her curtains were always open, she would watch the whole street from her window. Because the old lady was obviously unwell (& because Mum was scared stiff of the house), we decided not to knock on their door.
It was approaching midnight. No Dad.
I was nodding off but kept waking up because of the icy cold which I could now feel in my frigid bones. Mum paced. She paced a lot. She would walk to the gate, look up & down the road & come back to me.
Then it happened.
The top window of the house opposite flew open. A yellow light poured out of it. The bony, elderly lady leaned out, framed by the light. She threw her head back & cackled.
‘Prisoner! Who’s the prisoner now?’ She crowed into the darkened, silence. The wicked chuckle echoed off the houses.
‘Prrrrrriiiiiissssssooooooonnneeer!’ She shouted as her carer guided her back to the bed.
The old lady made it back to the window a couple of times that night. Shouting & cackling at us, always with the same words.
‘Prisoner! Who’s the prisoner now?’
Dad came back about two or three in the morning. I remember his jaunty walk as he came round the corner & the way he froze when he saw us on the doorstep.
On the kitchen table, there was a shepherd’s pie & a note explaining he was going out for someone’s birthday. It was hard to stay mad at him.
I dragged myself to bed, the cold so ingrained in me that I hardly slept. When I did I would wake thinking I heard the old woman call to me.