The monster in the basement goes thump thump thump to remind me it’s still there. As if I need reminding. As if I could possibly think of anything else. At night-time, instead of sleeping, I float through billowing rooms, tiptoe on carpeted floors and go out to the gardens to scream. Eventually I collapse into sleep until the thump thump thump comes once more and I am forced to rise and move on to another part of the house. Oh, the house. The lawns swoop and slide. The gravel whispers. The high arches loom. The gate and the pillars. The flowerbeds kept neatly by the head gardener. The panelled doors and high ceilings. The bustle in the servants’ quarters. The library. The drawing room. The fireplaces. The long drive up to the house and the mature trees. And it has been twenty-one days since my father died and the peerage and the house and drive and the gravel and the lawn have passed to me thump thump thump.
This morning the valet dressed me in my father’s fine tweed suit and shoes and pocket watch. He hesitated first and wondered aloud whether I would feel uncomfortable wearing the clothes of a dead man. I reprimanded him for his impertinence but what I didn’t say is that I was used to it. There are photographs of me as a baby on my mother’s lap, in clothes already embroidered with my older brother’s initials. They didn’t think anything of dressing me in the clothes he had died in thump thump thump.
The house needs a woman. That is clear. The maids do their best but really I need a wife. I need someone who knows how to run a house and who can deal with large estates and monsters. Things are changing and shifting. Thump. The house has come into my possession at a very difficult time. Thump. I just don’t want to be the last. Thump. I send out some letters with instructions to find me a wife and my friends and colleagues return with letters of their own and photographs of beautiful young women through which I sift. I arrive at a shortlist of three and so I go to London on a short sojourn to meet them and their families and to judge their interest. All three ladies are lovely and appropriate but there is one in particular who catches my eye. She is pretty as a button and smiley and light and everything I am not. She even lived in Dublin briefly as a child, when her father’s work brought the family there. And she tells me that their house in Yorkshire has a monster in the lake so that sort of thing doesn’t bother her. Over a nightcap with her father we arrange everything. I return to Ireland and she follows soon after as my bride. Our wedding is small but expensive (as is appropriate) and my wife is beautiful in milky foamy white. I give her my mother’s ring and it fits perfectly.
From the outset I know I have made the right choice: the house is reborn with her just being here. The dust clears, the rooms are brighter and the staff are energetic. Her father is a very modern sort who believes that his daughters should be well educated and able to hold their own in dinner-table conversations, so I am never bored. She also rides horses, plays a little piano and speaks good French. She has settled in very well; she has made friends locally and so I have made friends too. The doors of the mansion are open to all for dinners and dances. And it is good having a wife in these uncertain times. She keeps things going. She keeps me going.
My wife is so busy organising the household that she doesn’t seem disturbed by the monster. Doesn’t even seem to hear the thump thump thump. She says she is willing to go down to the basement and to deal with the thing once and for all if it is bothering me that much but I tell her not to. I don’t know what kind of monster is down there yet. She might not be safe. She suggests sending down some footmen instead, which I think is a better idea. I choose two who look robust and then lead them downstairs. I grab hold of the metal ring, lift the trapdoor open and send them off with a general warning to watch their footing. They descend the steps warily with lamps in hand and I can hear some splashing of water when they reach the ground below. That’s interesting: maybe it’s some sort of sea monster. Needless to say they don’t come back, but I think I’ve learnt something.
Because my wife organises the servants and travel and all the household bits and bobs I have so much free time now. She is nearly too good at her job. Thump thump thump. I busy myself by going on lots of walks. I tramp through fields until I get lost. I survey the land: 300 acres of undulating parkland dotted with oak trees. I talk to men about animals and crops. I spend a lot of time in the gardens. It is a relief that I can’t hear the thump thump thump from out there, but as I walk about the gardeners stop their work and take off their caps and it becomes too distracting. I tell them to carry on and to pay me no heed, but they can’t of course and there is a part of me that appreciates this instinct for propriety at whatever cost. Instead I take to waiting for them to leave in the evening and then I walk around in the dark with an oil lamp. The flowers look so delicate in that light. The blades of grass are black beneath my feet and the trees are vast and fill the sky. I have also decided to re-organise the library. When my books were originally brought over from England I did not have sufficient time to slot my more modest collection in amongst my father’s grander library. They remain separate but I will rectify this: I like the idea of my books and his jostling together. Sometime soon I hope that these books will all be mine. That I will not be able to see the join between mine and his. I like finding doubles: those rare occasions where our tastes overlap. I notice the differences too: the places where we are at odds and I wonder whether my brother would have liked this novel or that poem. Would he have read books at all? Would we have been alike? Every book placed on a shelf fills a space he could have inhabited. The dust does bother me a little: my eyes water and my throat scratches and so I take plenty of breaks where I sit by the big window and sip tea brought up by a maid. I look out over the estate. I was born here of course but was soon shipped off to boarding school and so this house became a distant place full of funerals and Christmas trees and faces I didn’t quite recognise. And now it is mine and I can feel it slipping from my grasp. Thump thump thump.
The monster has been incredibly boisterous this week and I am afraid that it might ruin my wife’s birthday party. We are having people over to join in the celebrations and I can’t have it spoiled. I love to see my wife happy. She is so good with people. Social occasions look well on her. When it’s just me and her here for a while I notice that the colour goes out of her cheeks and she becomes subdued and so it is very important to me that things go well. Luckily, the head gardener’s cat has had kittens and so on the morning of the party I chuck a couple of those through the trapdoor to satiate the beast. I go to my office to work in peace but within an hour thump thump thump and I know it hasn’t worked so I have to send two maids down instead. That keeps it busy for the rest of the night and thankfully my wife has raucous fun at the party. Never-ending champagne and cocktails. Dancing and sing-songs. The kitchen outdo themselves and serve us a wondrous meal of cucumber, gin and mint sorbet; haddocks grilled with tomatoes; sweetbreads served with claret; curried pheasant and braised veal; buttery vegetables; cauliflower salad; devilled sardines; apple charlotte and jelly orange. My wife dances into the early hours and the guests all go home happy.
We are getting through staff at an awful rate—I barely recognise the footmen these days—but that’s a sign of the times I suppose. Our ways are becoming less and less. We are full of worry. The ground is crumbling beneath our feet and we are grasping at something just out of reach. But soon we will have something to keep our minds occupied: my wife is pregnant. The doctor has ordered her to bed and so I have taken on the role of wife, instructing the servants and bringing up her tea. I will not take any nonsense from the monster while she is in this state. I don’t want to hear one thump thump thump and so I regularly send delivery boys and footmen and the odd travelling beggar down to the basement. I will not have my wife disturbed under any circumstance. I’m not sure what we will do when the baby is here and we need him to settle. We need to start breeding more animals perhaps. Bigger animals. Ones with bulk. I have to go to London soon and I am worried for my wife being alone in the house with the monster. I suggest to her that I could come up with some excuse to stay but she reassures me that she will be all right. My father never mentioned the monster when he was alive but then we didn’t have the closest of relationships. There were lots of things we didn’t talk about.
London is how I left it: energising and depressing in equal parts. I had initially looked forward to meeting old friends and to enjoying sophisticated conversation, but instead I am only reminded of why I was so happy to leave. Ireland seems like heaven now when stood in soupy London streets. I perform my political duty reluctantly but diligently and I also manage a couple of dinners and drinks with colleagues. They talk about things that I can’t imagine being interested in now. Their lives and mine have diverged. I find myself instead gravitating to those who also have big country houses that burden them. We mutter blackly between ourselves. When I arrive back home—home, such an odd word—my wife has a baby in her arms. She had sent a telegram, she tells me, but we must have passed each other. The baby had come early but everything is fine. She is sturdy and sleeps well and has been named Christabel in my absence, after her grandmother. She is soft and pinkish and when she yawns my heart smiles. She looks like my wife, I think. She has her eyes. My wife says that the monster has been quiet all this time, that it has not made one thump while I was away. Even while she was labouring it stayed quiet. It was so quiet in fact that she thought it might have gone. Hoped that maybe it had found a way out through the drains. I send down a maid to check and she doesn’t return. It was too much to expect I suppose. I go to my library to read for a while and I must have fallen asleep because suddenly I am jolted awake by the thump thump thump. My head feels light on my shoulders. All my aches and pains are gone. There is an odd light coming through a gap in the curtains and thump thump thump the baby is crying in the distance. I stand at the trapdoor and stare into the blackness and the blackness stares back. It seeps into my eye sockets and clouds my brain. I am mesmerised by it. I might have fallen in except the butler disturbs me and I snap back into myself. He has tripped, I think. Or something. Down he goes. He yells and then there is some splashing and I close the trapdoor once again.
I retreat to my library each night though I can still hear the thump thump thump. My wife says she misses me and I miss her. But what can I do? If only this monster could be satisfied. If only it would let me go. I read for a bit and then fall asleep and then the thump thump thump and then some more reading and more sleeping and it goes on like that until the servants wake.
My wife decides to take the baby to visit her parents in England. She urges me to come with her. She says I need a break but I have to stay in the house. It’s a busy period in the year, I tell her. My paperwork is piling up. I have so many things to do. Thump thump thump. She is disappointed I know, but there is nothing I can do. There is nothing I can do. I promise her that I will be safe. I will stay inside and read and write and do my work. Thump.
It gets worse when she is away. Can it sense when she is not in the house? Thump. Can it tell when I am on my own? Thump. God, I just need some peace. I need a rest. I try to send someone down to the basement but the servants are beginning to notice the disappearances. I wait until I get one of the newer footmen on his own and manage to lure him down there for a few hours’ rest. When the thump thump thump comes again the next day I bring in one of the gardeners. He gazes into the hole and I give him one hard shove. Still, I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept in days. I think it knows when I am sleeping because thump thump thump. I know it can’t see me. I know it can’t but thump. I try to read. I try to walk. Thump. I try to admire the flowers. Thump. One day I cry and cry in front of one of the maids. I try to take her down to the basement but she tugs herself free from my grip and runs off. The gardeners no longer doff their caps as I walk. They keep their heads down and thump thump thump I can’t get away from it. It follows me thump thump thump. It knows me thump thump thump. My paperwork continues to pile up and I can’t bear to thump thump thump. Even outside now I can hear thump. I am so happy when my wife finally arrives home though I know she will be upset once I tell her that the housekeeper has run away in the night. And we are down to the last few maids. My wife asks a priest to come to see if he can help us. But she is forgetting: he is just a man. And men are fallible. He poses little threat to the monster.
My wife needs some company. She needs guests and so when friends of ours write asking to come and stay I immediately say yes. They have been drifting since their own house stopped being theirs. They are unsettled. They need some respite and so we welcome them into our home. My wife has the remaining maids up early to air out the guest bedrooms and to fill the bathrooms with unguents and lotions and perfumes. We get in the most expensive poultry and game and my wife instructs the Cook to pay extra attention to the desserts. Wine is ordered by the crateful. The good china will be used. My wife will play some piano. I will be in a good mood. I want this to go well. For my wife’s sake. And for my own. I take the man out to see the gardens and survey the estate and my wife stays inside with the woman and they talk or do needlework or whatever. The man talks about his own garden with a sort of wistfulness. Things will never be the same. Things have changed. He talks of lawns and steps and rugs and memories. We try to keep their spirits up as best we can. They have a good time. In fact I do too. I forget about everything. I drink port and smoke and get full and fat. Thump thump thump. It starts on the second night while we are having drinks before dinner. Thump. I suggest to them that they might like to meet our monster and of course they are away from home and their blood is heavy with alcohol and so they happily follow me down to the trapdoor. They walk of their own accord. I can hear them laughing down there for a while before they suddenly stop and I replace the trapdoor. My wife won’t look at me.
The baby is in her cot. She is sleepy but not sleeping. She looks up at me and blinks and yawns her tiny yawn. I realise that I don’t know her at all. She is a stranger to me. She kicks her legs up in the air and one knocks against the bars of her cot. Thump thump thump. Her little leg keeps kicking. Thump thump thump. She looks like my wife. Thump. She has my wife’s eyes. Thump. She has her smile. Thump.
My wife is quiet during breakfast the next morning. Something has changed between us. There has lately been some alienation of affection. It is my fault. I should have protected her from this but it is too late now. I will leave her alone today. I will give her that at least. I will ask cook to make her favourite dinner and I will make a toast to her. I will kiss and hug her. Thump thump thump. It is bright and I go and walk around the estate. I fill my lungs with damp air. The gardens are looking a little untidy. Walls have collapsed. The tulip tree has borne no flowers this year. Mud gets on the legs of my pants and I do not care. Still, there remains that lingering sense of purpose. Thump thump thump. I meditate on endings. Thump. There is a finality to this day. Thump thump thump. Of course this shouldn’t be me at all. I was meant to stay in England and be carefree while my brother dealt with things. I was supposed to remain unfettered by life’s responsibilities. It is a nasty trick of fate. Thump thump thump.
In the end I can’t really bring myself to push my wife down there. I couldn’t do that to her. Not after all we have been through. She has tried her hardest. She has done her best. So I throw the baby down instead, knowing that my wife will dive down after her. The nursemaid and the driver have long since run away. There are only two gardeners left and one kitchen maid. The cook will be the last to go. I need her still. Though of course her time will come too. Thump thump thump.
I change my clothes and then I walk around for a while: I amble through rooms. I open and close doors. I take off my shoes. I explore the gardens. I sink my feet in the fen. I sit in my library. I sleep. I think of my mother. And my father. I go to the top floor and look out over the estate. The lower fields are flooded. The gates open wide. The pillars cracked. The pathways overgrown. The car rusted. Clouds hang low. It is cold: there are no maids to set the fires. The windowpanes are marked by fingertips. And the house has suddenly become very quiet.