The Men Downstairs

“Help me, nurse,” I clutched my burned throat, “the Men Downstairs are coming.”

“We’re coming for you, Lauren.”

            Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

            “You’re a stupid bitch.”

            Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

            “You’ve been a bad girl, Lauren.”

            Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.  

I scrambled on my bedside table for my glasses and jammed them on my face.  I peered out from under my bed covers, at the pictures I painted in art session, the photos of my family on the walls, anything to distract me from them.

“Nurse, where are you? Why won’t you help me?” I shrieked, staring at my swollen legs.  What did I do if the Men Downstairs came for me?

The door creaked open.  They were coming.  And I couldn’t stop them. My heart raced; lungs screamed out.  I couldn’t run away.  But instead of any man, a young boy stood in front of me.

“Oh my darling, David, thank God, it’s you,” my heart hammered in my chest, “I thought it was the Men Downstairs.”

He hugged me and my breathing slowed.  I clung onto him.  He backed up and smiled at me.

“You’ve such a lovely smile.  You look so much like my son when he was your age.  He had long, thick hair just like you.”

A young lady strolled in and winked at me.  David smiled at her before turning back to me.

“Lauren, I’ve told you before, I’m not going to let any man anywhere hurt you.”

“How can you stop them?”

He handed over my false teeth.  “I’ll fight them off.  Don’t let my scrawny, matchstick figure fool you.  I can hold my own in a fight.” He took up a fighting stance.

I smiled, looking downwards.  It was sweet that he was trying to comfort me, but I could tell he didn’t believe me.

“Laurie, can Sophia and I get you up for breakfast?”

Sophia swished her mousey-brown hair across her shoulder.  She smiled at me and through the crack in her teeth, I saw her tongue piercing.

“How did you sleep?” Sophia asked.

“How can I sleep? The Men Downstairs talked to me all night.”

“Don’t worry, David will fight them off.  Although, I doubt he could fight his way out of a cardboard box.” Sophia readied my clothes for the day.

“Why are you making fun? I can really hear them.  They’re real.  Why won’t you believe me?”

David and Sophia shared a look. He crouched by me.

“Sorry, you’re right.  We shouldn’t be making fun.  If you say there are Men Downstairs, there are Men Downstairs.  We believe you.”

“Should we get some breakfast? You’ll feel better after a cup of tea,” Sophia suggested.

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure how a cup of tea was going to change things.  Not when they were still talking to me.  Squeaking at me.  I clenched onto the bed sheet and trembled.  Sniffing, I shook my head.  How would a cup of tea make anything better? I watched David dive in and out of my en-suite bathroom, Sophia preparing my wheelchair.  David pulled out my bed from the wall and squeezed to the other side.

“Life your arms up.  We’ll get you washed and dressed.”

I raised my arms above my head.  They pulled off my nightie.  Sophia handed me a wet wipe and a mirror.  I cleaned my bloodshot eyes.  I brushed my hair back.  This was the only part of my morning routine I could still do.

“Turn to David now, give him a cuddle,” Sophia said.

I clung onto him.  I whimpered as Sophia removed my pad.  Biting my lip, I braced myself for what was next.  When did I get so helpless? What had I done to deserve this? But I relaxed, as Sophia gently wiped me.  Other carers were so rough.

I turned onto my back and they dressed me.  How old were David and Sophia? 21? 22? Young enough to be my own grandchildren.

I whimpered as Sophia brought in the mechanical hoist.  My legs didn’t work anymore, so I relied on this machine to transfer me into my wheelchair.

“I get very nervous in that thing.”

“Don’t worry, Laurie.  I know exactly what I’m doing.  Sophia…on the other hand.”

“Did you know what you were doing when you put Lauren’s jumper on backwards?”

David jumped to check, before realising he had been fooled. I forced out a small smile.  I wish they would stop messing around and do their jobs.  Sophia fitted the padded sling under my arms, before David pushed the button.  One beep and I climbed up.  Clinging onto the rails, praying I wouldn’t fall.  Another beep and I descended into my wheelchair.  I sat back and breathed out.  David passed me my handbag and wheeled me out.  Along the corridor, past an alcove with red armchairs and a snack station.  Past a lady with a pink coat crying for no apparent reason.  Were the men downstairs tormenting her too? No, of course not.  I was the only who heard them.  I whimpered and stifled a sob.  What was wrong with me?

“You alright, love?”

“Why’s this happening to me? Why can’t anybody else hear them? What have I done to deserve this?”

“Nothing, Laurie.  After breakfast, we’ll get to the bottom of this.  How about a nice hot cup of tea now?”

I shrugged.  There he went again with a cup of tea.  He wheeled me to a table in the corner of the brightly-lit dining room.  A CD player drummed out old pub sing-a-long songs, but I still heard them.  Talking.  Whispering at the base of my skull.  One voice crashing into another.  I looked around.  Somebody else must have been hearing this.  I couldn’t be the only one.  Maybe Mary on my table could hear them too.

“Mary, can you hear anything?”

Mary looked at me, mumbled something and crossed her arms.  She looked past my shoulder, like I wasn’t there.  What was wrong with everyone? What was wrong with me?

“David?” I said.

He placed down my cup of tea.

“You okay?”

“They haven’t done this on purpose, have they? Did I do something wrong? Do they not like me here?” I squeezed my eyes shut, as a lump pushed up my throat. My hands shook, as the voices loudened. Drilling into my skull.

David sighed and smiled, although the smile wasn’t as broad as before.

“I promise you, you’re fine. You need to stay calm.  Don’t let your imagination get the better of you.  Drink your tea, love.”

I pouted and picked up my cup.  The tea was sweet and red-hot.  Just the way I liked it.  But it didn’t make me feel any better.  What was David talking about? Letting my imagination get the better of me.  He thought I was imagining this? Making this up? What the hell did he know? He was a stupid little boy.

The nurse put my medicine in front of me.  I didn’t want to take them.  Maybe the nurses were doing this to me.  But I unclenched my jaw.  Swallowed down the sweet, cloying medicine.

I stared at my bowl of cornflakes.  They had all dried up.  I moved them around, before pushing the bowl away.  I waved at David and he pushed me into the lounge.  It was a small room where four massive teal armchairs dominated the centre.  Set into one wall was a bricked-up fireplace.  Next to that was a tower of CDs.  But somebody was missing.

“David, where’s that nice man? Who was always calling for his wife?”

David looked downwards.  “You mean Albert.  He passed away a few months ago.”

My hand flew to my mouth.  “That’s a shame.  I liked Albert.  Was it the Men Downstairs?”

“No, it was just his time to go.”

I nodded.  “Are we going to look for these men now?”

David’s face fell, as Sophia brought Mary in.  “We still have a lot of work to do.”

My stomach sunk, but I forced out a smile.  “Of course, you two are the best carers here.”

“I know I am,” David said, “as for Sophia, I don’t want her to take care of me when I’m older.” He laughed, as Sophia chased him away.

I laughed, straight from my belly.  It was nice to laugh like that again.

“We’re coming for you, Lauren.”

Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

“You’re a bitch.”

Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

“You’ve been a bad girl, Lauren.”

Squeak.  Squeak. Squeak. 

I trembled and clenched my teeth.  The voices weren’t there.  I was just imagining them, wasn’t I?

“Can you hear anything, Mary?” I asked.

She glanced at me, mumbled something and stood up.

“Where are you going? Please don’t leave me.”

Without a word, she walked out.  I looked around at the empty chairs.  I was completely alone.  And they were still talking.  I rubbed my eyes.  The Men Downstairs had talked to me all night.  Not allowing me an hour to myself.  I couldn’t sleep now, but my eyelids were so heavy.

I jolted awake and yelped as I realised I had fallen asleep.  I was in bed, but something was wrong.  Instead of my children and grandchildren in my framed photos, there were just shadows.  My heart raced, as they started speaking.  Words flooding out, streaming into my ears.  I ground my teeth, squeezed my eyes shut, clamped my hands over my ears.  I peeked through one eye.  And screamed, as six grey shadows towered over my bed.  Peering down.

“You’re not real.  You can’t hurt me.  You’re not real.”

As one they cocked their heads.  Even though they had no eyes, they stared into my soul.  In unison, they laughed.  Cackled.  Screeched.  Thundering down, like a freight train, shrieking through a tunnel.  I whined, as they grabbed onto me.  Their bony fingers pinching my flesh. 

They grabbed onto my nightie and ripped it off.  I shivered.  I was completely naked and alone.  Where were David and Sophia? David said he would protect me.  Where was he? I tried calling out, but the shadows swallowed my voice up.  They stopped laughing.  Whispering.  Silence.  Silence replaced by squeaking.  One single squeak.  Followed by another and another.  From the back of my room, moving forwards.  Rippling like a wave along my floor.  Scurrying onto my bed.  Rats.  I couldn’t move if I wanted to.  Frozen in place.  Shivering.  Praying, the rats would run away.  But they marched across my body.  Sniffing.  Nibbling.  Moving on.  One rat sat on my chest.  Peered up at me.  There was nothing I could do.

I closed my eyes and waited.  But I heard them scamper away.  I allowed myself to breathe again.  Maybe the shadows would leave too? But they grabbed onto me and lifted me like a ragdoll.  I cried out, as they carried me through the home.  Out the front door.  Into the high street.  Laying me on a bench.  Holding back my arms.  David saw me and pointed.  He giggled, before exploding in laughter.  Joined by Sophia.  Everybody laughed at me.  Jeered.  Chanted.  Pushing me down.  Pinning me to the spot.  What could I do? I couldn’t crawl away, let alone run.

The shadows picked me up again.  Paraded me through the high street.  I couldn’t break free.  I twisted my head back and saw the Village Green.  Blackened trees and burned grass. And at the end was the stagnant pond.  All of the colour drained from my face.

“Please not the pond.  I can’t swim.  Please.” I wriggled, punched, scratched, but they were too strong.

“Please don’t.  Not the pond.” I stared at the green water, moving closer and closer.

“I beg you.  Please stop.  I’m sorry.” We stopped by the edge.  They swung me back and forth.

“Ten,” they chanted,

“nine. 

Eight. 

Seven.

Six.

Five. 

Four. 

Three.

Two.

One.”

I howled, as I flew through the air and crashed into the icy water below.

I screamed myself awake.  The tears erupted out, waterfalling down my face.  Snivelling, crying, shuddering and shaking, as I bawled and howled.  As my stomach turned.  I threw up over the side of my wheelchair.  David ran in and took hold of me.

“Get away from me.”

“It’s David.”

“You lied to me.  You said you would protect me.  They almost killed me.”

David stroked my shoulder.  “I’m here now to look after you.”

“You did this to me on purpose.  You’re all jealous of me.  This all started when I came to the Willow Tree.  I wish I had never come here.  I want to go home.  I want to go home.”

I broke down crying again, flinching away from David.  I looked up, as something clinked on the table.  Sophia had put down a cup of tea.  I stared at her.

“You stupid girl.  You really think a cup of tea is going to make me feel any better? The Men Downstairs almost killed me.” I threw the tea against the window.

Sophia sighed and crouched by me.  “I’ve spoken with the nurse.  He thinks your medication might be causing this.  He’ll review them.  For now, let’s investigate into these Men Downstairs.  Right now.”

I looked at Sophia and David.  They had lied to me before.  How could I trust them now? But what choice did I have? I nodded and David wheeled me to my room.  Grimacing, I looked around, expecting to see shadows jump out at me.  Hear the squeak of rats.  But everything was how it should be.

“Do you hear the voices every morning?” David asked.

“Morning.  Night.  Doesn’t matter.  They’re always whispering.  Always talking to me.”

“Do you just hear them here?”

“I hear them everywhere.  Anywhere.”

David looked at Sophia, before crouching by me.  “I think I know what you’re hearing.  There are two floors at the Willow Tree.  You’re on the ground floor.  What you’re hearing are the residents upstairs.  Should we go check?”

I looked away and nodded.  David wheeled me to the lift and punched in a code.  The doors whooshed open and we entered.  A few minutes later, we were on the first floor.

It looked much the same as the ground floor.  The same boards with pictures of residents and staff.  The same yellow toilet doors.  I swallowed, as David pushed me along.  They talked to me, at the base of my skull.  I breathed out.  I needed to be braver than this.

We stopped by the bedroom that was above mine.  Sophia knocked, but nobody answered.  She opened the door.  The room was empty.

“That’s all you’ve been hearing.  Just the TV.” David turned off the TV.

“You sure? What about the lounge? The dining room?”

David wheeled me there.  The TV had been left playing in the lounge and the radio was on in the dining room.

“This is all you’ve been hearing.  Does that make sense to you?”

I thought for a few seconds.  Was it really as simple as that? Was it just the TV and the radio? What about everything else? The rats? The shadows? Had I imagined everything? Maybe that was the answer. I was a foolish old woman. I was losing my mind.

“Laurie?”

I looked at David through my bleary eyes.  “I’m alright, darling.  I guess it makes sense.  I’m just letting my imagination get the better of me.”

We headed downstairs and into the lounge.  Everything had been tidied up.  I looked up at David and Sophia.

“Thank you, both of you.  You two are the best carers here.  I’m sorry for what I called you, Sophia.  I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting.”

David hugged me.  “We can’t imagine how terrified you must have been.  You’ve nothing to be sorry about.” He clicked on my wheelchair brakes.  He pulled up a chair and held my hand.  Sophia brought me a cup of tea.  Red-hot and very sweet.  Just the way I liked it.  She took my other hand.  I smiled.  I would be alright.  I would get through this.

“We’re coming for you, Lauren.”

Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

“You’re a stupid bitch.”

Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

“You’ve been a bad girl, Lauren.”

Squeak.  Squeak.  Squeak.

I squeezed onto David and Sophia’s hands.

“What’s the matter?” David asked.

I looked at him and screamed, as his face had gone.  Replaced by a grey shadow.  Sophia was gone too.  Two shadows.  Staring into my soul.  My heart raced as I screamed and screamed.  This wasn’t real.  I was imagining this.  I would overcome this.  I would get through this.  Wouldn’t I?

*Author’s notes*

The fourth of my stories set in the Willow Tree care home.  Like One Final Dance, King’s Street and Claire, The Men Downstairs is based on my own experiences in working within a care home.  Lauren is a real resident of mine.  And trust me when I say that for her, the Men Downstairs are very real.

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