The House of Mystery
by Brian K. Asbury
Fear can sometimes compel us to bring about the very thing that we are most afraid of, as a group of factory-workers in England discover when they learn that the background noise that you hear all your life becomes louder just before you die!
“Obsession is a strange beast,” said Cain as he thumbed through the sheaf of papers before him. “It eats at men’s souls, often causing them to become that which they most despise, or to do unto themselves that which they most fear others may do — or even to embark with eyes open upon a course of action which they know must surely result in their own destruction.”
Cain peered over the rim of his glasses at the young man waiting eagerly for his words of wisdom. “So often, too, does the power of suggestion prove to be stronger than any physical menace.”
Settling on a dusty document, he looked at it for a moment and blew the residue of several years from its surface. The young man stifled a cough. Cain smiled. “This is such a cautionary tale, my friend. Read it. I think it will interest you.”
Cain passed the document to his visitor, who began to pore over it intently. “It begins quite innocuously,” Cain said, “upon an ordinary day in an ordinary factory in England. But it ends… ah, you will see how it ends.”
But the young man was, by now, not listening. He was studying the document, engrossed in the tale that unfolded before his eyes.
It was all Mike Sheldon’s fault. If he hadn’t brought that stupid magazine to work, I’d never have given the Rumble a second thought. Then again, I could well have been dead by now, I suppose. Dead, but blissfully ignorant right up to the end. Hell, I just don’t know. But at least for now I’m still alive, and I intend to stay that way.
Mike was an odd type, sociable enough most of the time, but while the rest of us would spend our breaks chatting or even playing cards, Mike would habitually find a table to himself, open up a book or magazine, and bury himself in it, oblivious to everything around him. Except, of course, for the day he brought that magazine in.
On reflection, perhaps it wasn’t so much Mike’s fault as the company’s. If the cheapskates had contracted a reputable firm to repair the canteen roof instead of the cowboys they did hire to patch it up… Oh, but what’s the point of saying “if only”? The roof leaked, and it decided to leak over the only unoccupied tables in the place that day. No amount of what ifs will ever change that, or the fact that it forced Mike Sheldon to sit with the rest of our shift for once.
Naturally, sitting with five other people, he could hardly avoid talking to us, and it was only natural that we should be curious about what he was reading. How could we have even suspected what such an innocent inquiry would lead to?
“It’s an article entitled The Hum,” Mike explained, showing us the page in the magazine. “It’s about this weird background noise that’s everywhere. Seems everybody can hear it, but you don’t usually notice it. Nobody knows what it really is.”
“Yeah.” This was Norman Perry, God rest his soul, our charge hand. “I’ve heard about that.”
“Yeah,” Norman repeated after a thoughtful bite of his sandwich. “I read summat about that in one of the Sunday papers, once. I think some boffin was claiming it was Martians or summat, flooding the airwaves with this subsonic buzzing noise to drive us all barmy ‘fore they invaded. Or maybe it was Russians.”
“They were flooding the airwaves with Russians?” said Trevor, the youngest member of our team.
“Nah. I meant…” The penny dropped. “Ah, shurrup, Trev. You never take anything serious.”
We all laughed, except Mike. “It isn’t Martians or Russians,” he said. “According to this spiritualist bloke in here, it’s a supernatural phenomenon. He claims people don’t always hear the same thing. He’s interviewed dozens of people, and lots hear something other than a hum. Some hear a buzzing, or a whooshing, or…”
“Ticking,” interrupted Norman. We all looked at him curiously. “There’s this ticking. It’s always been there, as long as I can remember…”
Trevor grinned at Norman. “If you’re hearing ticking all the time,” he said, “it’s ’cause you watch the clock so much!”
Norman glowered at him. “I’m being serious!” he said. “It’s there all the time, even when there’s no clocks around. I can be standing in the middle of a quiet field in open countryside, and it’s there. Tick, tick, tick. Funny, but it seems to have been getting louder of late. I never really thought about it ’til you started on about that article, though.”
“So what does this mystic in your magazine say it is, then?” I asked Mike. In retrospect, it was the very worst thing I could have said.
Mike looked slowly around the faces waiting on his next word. “He says it’s the last thing you hear before you die.”
Norman grimaced. “Spoo-kee!” said Trevor, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, get away,” I scoffed. “What a load of–”
“It’s what it says here,” Mike said defensively. “Look, don’t you hear a noise? It says everybody does. I know I do. There’s this sort of hissing, and–”
“No, it’s more a high-pitched sound. Almost a squeal.” This was Trevor again, looking serious for once, although his expression might have been put on for Mike’s benefit.
“See?” said Mike. “I hear hissing, Trev hears a squeal, Norman hears ticking. How about you?” he added, turning to me.
“Never mind!” said Norman, rising from the table before I could respond to Mike’s question. I’d never seen him looking so shaken. “That’s enough of that kind of talk. I don’t hold with superstitious codswallop like this, and neither should you lot. Time we got back to work.”
And that was that. Except it wasn’t. We didn’t know then that, within the hour, Norman would be dead.
It was such a ridiculous way to go, too — a routine job which Norman could have done blindfolded at any other time. Whether all the talk about the article in Mike’s magazine had rattled him so much it made him careless, I don’t know, but I could see he was sweating as he went up the ladder. He could have let Trevor go up instead, but it was only a matter of putting the clock forward an hour for the start of summer time — daylight saving time — whatever you care to call it. What could go wrong doing that?
Afterwards, Trevor blamed himself, but I was watching, and I know he was holding the ladder steady. There was simply no reason for Norman to fall, yet he did. Even then, the fall shouldn’t have killed him. It was bringing the clock down after him that did that — straight down on his head, crushing his skull like an eggshell.
It was only later that I remembered the magazine article. The last thing you hear before you die. Ticking, in Norman’s case. And it was getting louder, Norman had said. It made me think about my own personal noise. I hadn’t had the chance to tell everyone else about it, but there was one, I realized that now — a faint rumbling. At night, lying alone in the silence, I could hear it. I had always heard it, even when I was a child. It had registered from time to time, but I had always dismissed it as imagination.
After Norman’s death, however, I seemed to notice it more and more. I even found myself searching my flat, trying frantically to figure out where it was coming from.
And, of course, I found it. It was the central heating pipes. There was a rumble in the pipes exactly like my rumble. I relaxed somewhat, until a disturbing thought struck me. I hadn’t lived here when I was a child. My parents’ home had had coal fires and no central heating system. How could I possibly have heard this noise back then? Even so, I tried to dismiss it from my mind.
But then came the funeral.
Trevor had not been to work since Norman’s death, but he attended the funeral, and afterward we walked together back toward the crematorium car park, and he confided something to me.
It seemed that Trevor, too, had realized the significance of how Norman had died. “It’s true,” he said as we walked back to our cars. “All his life Norman had heard the ticking sound he told us about, and it really was the last thing he ever heard.”
I shook my head. “Get a grip on yourself, mate. It’s just coincidence. Start believing in stuff like that, and you’ll end up a candidate for the looney bin.” I didn’t tell him that I was beginning to believe it myself.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “It’s real. And it’s happening to me, too.”
“The squealing. The high-pitched sound I told you about. It’s been getting louder ever since the accident. I can hear it all the time now.” He cupped his hands over his ears. “It’s so loud now, I can hardly hear anything else. God, make it stop!”
I reached out to try and reassure him, but it was at that moment that the car appeared, roaring around the bend as though it was on a racetrack. I stepped back reflexively, but Trevor… with his hands over his ears, totally absorbed in his fit of panic, he never realized the danger he was in until it was too late.
Joy-riders, the police said. Joy-riders in a stolen car. Why the hell do they call them that? They certainly brought little joy to Trevor’s young wife or their three-month-old baby! The paramedics said he died instantly, but that was little consolation. We’d just left one funeral, and now, suddenly, there would be a second one to go to.
The incident brought no joy to me, either, and not just for the fact that I had lost a second good friend within a week of the first’s tragic death, but because of what people were saying afterwards.
I tried not to, but I heard the accusing whispers, and they hurt. I know there were some who said I ought to have pulled Trevor out of the way, but how could I have known he’d just stand there and let the car hit him? God, I can still hear the squeal of those brakes. When I’m not listening for the Rumble, that is.
That’s right. Rumble. Capital letter. Trevor’s death seemed to confirm the truth of that infernal article, and the Rumble suddenly acquired enormous importance in my life and an uppercase initial to go with it. I kept telling myself that it hadn’t really become louder. I was merely noticing it more, that’s all. But the hardest person in the world to reassure can be yourself. And I wasn’t the only one having the same thoughts. That became obvious when I saw the local news bulletin on TV the following night.
They described it as suicide. Death by asphyxiation. Or, more precisely, the victim had closed all the windows, then drunk himself into a stupor with whisky and turned the gas cooker on without lighting it. Poor Mike. Didn’t he realize he was creating his own personal noise himself? Hissing, he had said. He had always heard hissing. As in the hissing of a gas pipe!
So that’s it. They’re all gone now: Norman, Trevor, Mike… there’s just me left. Each of them dead, killed by the noise they said they had been hearing: Norman by a ticking clock, Trevor by an out-of-control car with brakes squealing, Mike by hissing gas.
It’s almost as if the very act of becoming aware of the noise made it louder for them. Brought the end closer. You could almost call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But it’s not going to happen to me. Whatever my Rumble is, I’m not going to stand idly by and let it be the death of me. I’m going to defy it.
My brother-in-law wondered why I wanted all the bricks and cement, but I know what I’m doing. There’s nothing left in the flat which could possibly kill me, and if nothing and no one can get in, it means I must be safe. Of course, I can’t get out, either, but that’s a small price to pay for thumbing my nose at the Grim Reaper.
Even the central heating pipes are now safely embedded in my new walls, out of harm’s way. I don’t see how central heating pipes could have caused my death, anyway, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. I can still hear them rumbling even through the bricks, but I’m safe. I know I’m safe. Nothing can get at me here.
So why does the Rumble still seem to be getting louder?