MAKE IT THREE
I lived there for some time, but I haven‘t been back for – oh, let me see . . . Over twenty years.
I expect the place has changed. No doubt it looks smaller, meaner, scruffier. A place to forget.
Except for one thing . . .
The only memorable thing that happened to me at that time, the only thing out of the ordinary, I mean. For something so far from the everyday run of things, it all began in a prosaic way.
I‘d just edged into a telephone box to call my office, picked up the receiver, inserted the money, and prepared to dial the number.
What stopped me was the voice . . .
No dialling tone, nothing. Nothing that is, except this voice.
I began to listen. Idle curiosity, I suppose. And before you‘re tempted to growl ‘Impossible !‘ let me tell you this wasn‘t the first time. A similar thing had happened once before. At the office, that time. I‘d lifted the receiver and then, just before the dialling tone clicked in, there was music. Several bars of it. I tried again, and it happened again. In the end I became so intrigued that I rang the telephone engineer and asked why.
He didn‘t sound in the least impressed. Happens all the time, he said. Around Droitwich they sometimes used to get a bit of the BBC Light Programme, he said. He went on to give me an explanation of the phenomenon that fairly deafened me with science. I didn‘t understand a word of it.
So perhaps I was less astonished than the next man to hear this voice coming from the ‘phone. Especially as I began to realize that, though I could hear the voice, it was clear that the voice couldn‘t hear me.
‘Oh, do help me, please ! Please ! Before he comes back ! Please !‘
‘Hello ! Hello ! Who is that ?‘
‘I‘m so frightened, so fr – ! Oh, do help me, please !‘
‘Hello ! Hello ! Who are you ?‘
The voice went on pleading, pleading. A woman‘s voice, low and soft. Not a mad voice, not hysterical even. But dreadfully urgent. And afraid, afraid.
And then it faded, growing fainter and fainter and more despairing with every second until there was – nothing.
The dialling tone clicked in, a comforting sound, reassuringly familiar. I noticed that my hand was none too steady as I dialled the number. But the days wore on, and the sharp edge of the experience was dulled. I began to put it down to some kind of hallucination, some waking nightmare.
And then it happened again . . .
The same voice, the same fearful, pleading voice, begging me to help, please, please. I found myself slamming down the receiver and all but falling out of the box in my haste. And this time I, too, was afraid. I began to think that there was something wrong with me, seriously wrong. I had to get some help, or advice, and quickly.
That evening I went to see a doctor. He was a young man, keen and ambitious, and I fancy he looked on me as something of a challenge. He gave me the works – or rather the neurologist he sent me to did. My brain was surveyed, mapped out, thoroughly explored.
And the upshot of it all was – nothing. Not a thing. Mentally, I was in the same shape as I was physically. Disgustingly fit. My young doctor was quite short with me as he read the report; indeed, he all but pushed me out of the consulting-room. It was back to the office again.
I decided to ring my landlady and tell her I wouldn‘t be in for lunch after all. The chap behind me fairly exuded malice as he realized I‘d beaten him to the only ‘phone-box in miles.
My hand trembled as I lifted the receiver and put the money in the box.
The voice was there again. The same voice, the same urgent, passionate pleas. Good God ! I thought. I‘m going mad !
Shakily, I replaced the receiver. Then I had an inspiration. I opened the door.
‘I say ! I don‘t seem able to get my number ! Engaged. Would you like to use the ‘phone now, and I‘ll try later ?‘
‘Oh, that‘s awfully good of you. I am in rather a hurry. Thanks ! I‘ll be as quick as I can.‘
I held open the door. As it closed behind him I thought, Now let‘s see if he hears it. I watched his every move.
He picked up the receiver, looked puzzled, realized that I‘d left my money in the box, retrieved it, opened the door, and handed it to me.
Then he tried once more, and again he looked puzzled, glanced at the ear-piece, juggled the receiver, and frowned. Then he replaced the ‘phone and went through the pantomime again, and yet again, each time looking more annoyed.
An enormous wave of relief swept over me. I wasn‘t the only one to hear it, thank God !
I smiled at him, as he left the box, and I took his place. No, I thought, I won‘t say anything about the voice. Let him mention it first. He was still looking cross as I handed him his coins which he, too, had forgotten to reclaim.
‘Thanks !‘ he said. ‘Well, all I can say is that if you got an engaged signal you were damn lucky. I can‘t get a thing out of it ! The line‘s completely dead !‘
After a time, with what seems to me now to have been commendable courage, I opened the door, stepped inside, and picked up the receiver.
It was there again . . . I could stand it no longer.
‘Look here ! Who are you ? For God‘s sake, what do you want ?‘
And this time there was an answer . . .
‘Oh, thank you, thank you ! Please come ! Please come and help me !‘
‘Yes, yes, of course ! But where are you ? Just tell me and I‘ll come right away !‘
‘No, no, don‘t come now ! Not just now – ‘
‘All right but, tell me, when ?‘
‘He‘ll be going out soon ! Come then, please ! Will you ?‘
‘Yes, of course ! But when ?‘
‘Make it three ! Make it three !‘
‘Very well, three o‘clock. But where ?‘
‘I don‘t know ! I don‘t know ! Oh God, I don‘t know !‘
‘Look, try to be calm ! Can you see anything from – wherever you are ?‘
‘Yes ! Oh, yes! There‘s a tall window. And across the square there‘s a tower. A high tower. And houses.‘
‘Right ! I‘ll take it from there ! I‘m on my way !‘
‘Oh, thank you, thank you !‘
‘Hang on ! I‘m coming !‘
I was out of the box and running before it occurred to me to ask myself where. A high tower, a square, houses, a tall window. The tower . . . That would be the old shot-tower, perhaps. Right, first stop the old shot-tower. I felt better now what I was doing something.
In the event it was ridiculously easy. Straight across from the shot-tower, and surrounded by several acres of newly-demolished houses, was the unmistakable remnant of a square. Only one building, a large Regency house was still standing.
I looked at my watch. Quarter to two. She‘d said, ‘Make it three.‘ I was about to turn away and come back at three o‘clock when I said to myself, What the hell, I reckon I‘m a match for most things on two legs. Suppose he is there – whoever he is ?
I began to pick my way across the rubble . . .
As I drew nearer to the house I began to sense that something was wrong. It was clearly due for demolition itself. A peeling notice-board, advertising flats to rent, hung from one corner on the wall near the door.
And then I came to my senses. What sort of nonsense was this ? Nobody lives here. Nobody at all.
But the feeling was momentary. The conviction would not be shaken off that she was here, waiting for me, relying on me. I had to get in. Legally, if possible, but inside, no matter what.
The estate agent was not at all disposed to take me seriously.
‘There‘s nobody in the house, I‘m quite sure, Mr – er – ?
‘Robson. You‘re sure ? Quite sure ?‘
‘Weeell – ‘
‘Mr Fothergill, I‘ve got reason to believe that there is someone in there. Never mind how I know. But it is possible, isn‘t it, that some youngster could have climbed in, and not be able to get out ?‘
‘I don‘t see how – ‘
‘As you say yourself, the place is dangerous !‘
In the end, he had no choice. We went together over every inch of the house. Well, almost every inch. The doorway of the room over the entrance-hall was close-boarded.
‘There‘s no point in looking at that door, Mr Robson. Anyone who got in that way would have had to board it up after him !‘
Eventually I had to let him go. As he locked the door behind us, I apologized. He took it reasonably well, considering.
But now I was certain where my quarry lay. I looked up at the room over the entrance.
High windows . . .
It wasn‘t even difficult. I climbed in at the rear of the building, and found the door at the head of the stairs again. I looked round for a suitable implement; a wrought iron upright from the staircase provided it.
I began to attack the boards in front of the door.
I remember now the icy feeling in my stomach as I worked on, prising away one board after another. But at last the ill-fitting door was free. I tried the door-knob. Locked. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I drove the bar into the crack of the door and threw all my weight on it.
There was a dreadful splintering sound and a loud crack. The door flew open and daylight flooded the stairway.
I don‘t know what I expected to find there, but there was certainly nothing in the least sinister about the high, well-proportioned – and empty – apartment. The tall windows stretched almost from floor to ceiling. A tastefully moulded cornice added dignity to the walls. The only incongruous note was struck by the black telephone gathering dust on the floor by one of the windows. I gave the room one final inspection, and turned to go.
At that moment, the telephone began to ring.
At first I was so startled that I did nothing but gaze stupidly at the instrument, I certainly made no move towards it. Then common sense returned. Of course. There‘d been a slip-up at the exchange, and the thing had never been disconnected. I set off across the room to the telephone.
I never reached it . . .
I remember the creaking of the boards as I crossed the floor, and the spongy feel of the floor. But I had no thought of danger until I felt the rotten planks collapsing beneath me.
The last thing I remember is falling . . .
I swam up from oblivion to a sea of green. Long ages later it took shape as a painted ceiling. I turned my head, and felt a sharp pain behind my eyes.
I was lying in a hospital bed. A stranger was sitting beside the bed.
‘Feeling better ?‘
I mumbled some sort of answer.
‘You‘ve had a nasty fall. Taken rather a crack on the head, but nothing that won‘t mend, they tell me. You‘re a very lucky young man !‘
‘I‘m sorry. Who – who are you ?‘
‘Of course ! I‘m senior partner at Fothergills. Overheard you talking to John, and I was, shall we say ? – intrigued. So I came up to the house, but you‘d apparently gone. Then I heard that appalling crash inside and – well, you can guess the rest.‘
‘But – that room . . .‘
‘Ah, yes, that room. Interesting, that. Obviously rotten with beetle, or dry-rot. Can‘t think what you were doing in there. But, you know, it‘s odd about that room. We‘ve always had difficulty with it. Always coming vacant. Couldn‘t understand why. So I dug into its history. Let‘s say I was – well, curious.‘
‘And – ?‘
‘It‘s over a century ago, mind. But murder was done in that room ! Can‘t say I was all that surprised.‘
No, I thought, neither am I. So that‘s why she needed help so badly.
‘And the girl – ?‘ I said.
‘Girl ? What girl ?‘
So I had to tell him about the voice. I couldn‘t have had a more attentive listener. Finally I said,
‘So whoever she was calling was too late, it seems. Poor girl ! Poor girl !‘
He began to chuckle softly.
‘Oh yes, you‘re quite right, of course. If there ever was such a man he was too late ! Good thing, too !‘
‘Good thing ?‘
‘Yes. For him, I mean. Otherwise he might easily have been Number Three !‘
‘Number Three ?‘
‘Yes. Your poor girl, as you call her, had already disposed of two young men. Seems she had lured them into her parlour from the windows of that room. She must have been quite a charmer. But mad, you know, quite mad. Her brother was looking after her. He‘d managed to save her from the stigma of the lunatic asylum, but respectability has its limits. He could hardly overlook two dead bodies. The verdict, of course, was "Guilty but insane",‘
I made no comment. I was thinking as hard as my aching head would allow. But the words going round and round inside it were ‘Make it three ! make it three !‘
You know, come to think of it, she almost did.