For Samuel and I, buying our first house together was what you might call a Big Move; the last, as we saw it then, of the tentative steps we had taken in the years beforehand into adulthood, and into each other’s lives. When we returned from a weekend mini-break in Bucharest to find the house unaccountably occupied by the ghostly Mr and Mrs Grey therefore, we were very much confused.
The strangest thing about it, as we remarked in hushed whispers to each other during those first few minutes, shivering in the cold on our own doorstep, was that the surname ‘Grey’ was Samuel’s own. They were no relation of his, he said, and I had to agree that I couldn’t believe they were either. They seemed insubstantial as they stood there in the hallway, he bending low over his curious black cane and scowling at her back; she standing tall and defiantly staring. Not that they weren’t there exactly, not that you could exactly see through them… but they were…tenuous somehow, if you follow my meaning.
She slammed the door in our faces, as indeed she had opened it at our arrival. They were substantial enough for that, it seemed and, as we soon found, considerably more besides. We hadn’t been standing there long before an upstairs window flew open and the head of Mrs Grey emerged over the sill.
“Get lost or I’ll call the police!” She cried, her hair flying about her in the wind. “Go on! Off with you!” She waved a bony hand at us, as if she might be shooing away a fly. Samuel, normally a mild and placid sort of man lost his temper completely.
“It’s our bloody house!” He yelled upwards. I felt a rush of pride. The head of Mrs Grey disappeared and was replaced rather suddenly by a bucket on the end of a skinny arm -wearing, now I think about it, my own nightdress. The arm and the bucket which it held were swiftly inverted. A deluge of malodorous water poured down towards us and we were lucky, on account of our both looking that way at the time, to only narrowly avoid it. We retreated to the top of the driveway and, as if satisfied, the face and the body of Mrs Grey turned away from the window and receded into the darkness of the room behind it.
Huddled on the pavement in the gathering dark we tried to regroup, but already the cracks in our defences were beginning to show. It had not, if I’m honest, been an easy few weeks for us, nor had the museums and the palaces of Bucharest done anything whatsoever to help. I was all for risking another deluge (or worse) in a full frontal assault – after all, I reminded Samuel, dangling them in his face – we have the keys. He brushed them away. It was the neighbours he wanted. In the heat of it all I think I tossed my head and called him a coward which probably didn’t help, but in any case, when I stamped up to the door in my new brogues and rattled the door, the key no longer fitted the lock. Samuel crowed. There was no more sign of the Greys. The house stood gloomy and deserted.
It was all very mysterious. At length, we went over to the Greenes’ house next door. We could count on them said Samuel, surely. It was Mrs Greene who answered; the veteran of countless teas and coffees and cakes and biscuits in our kitchen already. We were becoming friends. But when she came to the door that day, peering about short-sighted in her usual fashion, she didn’t seem to know us at all. In fact I’m not sure she even saw us, but sank instead into a sort of trance on the threshold, staring blankly at the house across the road. No amount of shouting nor coaxing, no hand waved in her face, nor even the firm shove that Samuel gave (he was, after all, at his wit’s end) could rouse her. As we turned away to go, however, she shuffled back inside as if re-animated, and closed the door behind her.
The police arrived. We certainly hadn’t called them, the events we’d suffered already seemed too unreal in our minds to warrant their attention. But they came nonetheless. When I saw the panda car crawl slowly up alongside us with its strobes turning, instead of relief, I felt a strange and creeping sense of dread. Sam, however was effulgent.
“Thank God you’ve come!” He practically pulled the officer, a sweating, piggish man in bulging stab vest and tide-marked shirt, out of the car. Whatever pride I had in him evaporated like morning mist. He was hopping around on the pavement like a child. I stood some distance away from them with my arms folded in silence. The policeman looked him up and down.
“We’ve had reports of a break-in.” He sighed, looking away from us towards the house. They never introduce themselves do they? The police. Identities subsumed into a higher cause. This man was a bar-code. An agent only of the law.
“Yes yes!” Cried Samuel, pointing. “Two of them. Over there! It’s our bloody house!”
“Your house, is it? Right…” He narrowed his eyes. “So you called us then did you, Sir?”
“Err… no, actually.” His face fell.
“I see.” There was a pause while the officer flipped open his notebook and took out a pen. Although the pen remained poised over the page for the rest of the exchange between them, I noticed that he wrote nothing.
“And what’s your name then?”
“And you?” He jerked his chin in my direction, turning black eyes squeezed by veined and ruddy cheeks towards me. I told him. “And you’re…married… are you?” He asked, with distaste. I shook my head, looked away across the street.
There were more questions. How long had we lived there, what did we do for a living, how long had we been away. Sam answered them all with a kind of anxious enthusiasm. I could see where it was going.
“So… Let’s look at the house then shall we?” He said in the end. My heart sank. “You’ll have the keys I imagine?”
He let us off with a caution. Wasting police time, hoax calls, whatever it was. No-one, of course, had answered the door. The house, our house, Samuel reminded me, remained a closed mouth, sealed up and dark. We checked into a hotel and spent the night there arguing over nothing.
Morning came, creeping in through curtains that I hadn’t hung. We had to go to work. I dressed as smartly as I could from my weekend bags and caught the train. Everything seemed normal. The carriage was eerie, wordless; full of the tinny whisper of headphones like the chirping of crickets, and the smashing of the wheels against the track. But I was nervous. I tried not to think that I had no home to go to, denied, in fact, that it was true.
Most days, as I exit through the barrier at the station I have a view of the revolving doors of the office across the road. When I did so that morning, as I almost knew I would, I saw her. She was hurrying upright, head bowed in an overcoat and black hat that I hadn’t worn in years. As she entered the building, the very building where I work, she turned and flashed a look so potent, so deliberate towards me with eyes that burned in triumph. The unmistakable Mrs Grey. Feeling that I had no other choice, I followed her inside.
It should, I suppose, have come as no surprise to me. My first thought, the one thing I had somehow known for certain when I saw them in the hallway of our house, and afterwards suppressed as brutally as I could, resurfaced then as I saw her from the other end of the office sitting blithely at my desk and chatting over the top of her computer my computer!- to Janice from accounts. That Mr and Mrs Grey shared the same name as Samuel seemed more than coincidence. That she was trying to replace me in the present, once so full of possibility, was abundantly clear. What I saw, though, when I looked at her, forty years my senior in the same clothes, the same shoes at the same desk at which I had sat so many times already, when I thought of her in the hallway with a man who despised her, who was weak and bitter with age, what I really saw, the thing that made my courage fail me, was a vision of my own torpid, stifled future.
Perhaps I should have stood my ground, but couldn’t. I ran out of the office into the street. It was Janice who scared me the most. Nowhere on her face had I seen a sign that anything was wrong. I tried to call my mother but she didn’t answer. In desperation I called Samuel.
“What do you mean you’re being replaced?” He snapped, irritated. “It’s US, Erin, We’re being replaced, TOGETHER! It’s our bloody house! What’s the matter with you?” I tried to tell him, but he couldn’t understand and got angry. I hung up. Mr Grey, he told me had been at his office too.
For the rest of the day I wandered the streets like a ghost, too angry with Samuel to meet him, though I saw him once, sitting dejected and alone at a bus-stop. At five o’clock I found myself crouched on the pavement outside the station, compulsively watching my erstwhile colleagues as they left the office. Already I felt like an outsider. It grew dark. At length, at the centre of a gaggle of my closest friends, she came out through the revolving door. They turned left, a clatter of heels, and shoaled their way, giggling, through the puddles of street-light towards the centre of town. Softly, it began to rain. Some hours later, numb with the cold, I stirred myself and followed in their wake, knowing exactly where they would be.
The restaurant was shimmering with golden light. It spilled out through the windows onto the pavement, wet with rain. There was music and laughter. Voices that I knew. I looked in. It was easy to see them, twelve or so, at a long table in the centre. To the right of Mrs Grey, raising a glass to drink with someone I didn’t know, was Samuel. He looked haggard, I saw, beneath the veneer of his smile. For a moment I pressed my right hand to the glass, as if willing it to open like a door; then I turned and walked away from them, back up the street towards the station.