Belgrade, 2:30 Monday morning, in an apartment on the 7th floor of a building resembling something from the movie REC. The staircase of this soviet style structure is in the centre of the floor plan with all the apartments surrounding it. There are no other ways to get in or out. The old school ‘open the door yourself’ elevator hasn’t worked since we arrived a few days ago, and perhaps it never does. The eerie quiet of this tower along with the unreliable and sporadic turning on and off of motion sensored lights as you go up, make this difficult climb a bit unnerving. On floors 4 and 5, the lights don’t work at all, demanding a cautious ascent in almost complete darkness.
At 2:30 a.m. we aren’t in the stairwell. We are safe in our apartment, sound asleep. This bed is so comfortable and this is so important these days without a place to call home. Belgrade is asleep as well, as we can hear nothing from outside on the second last floor. I am dreaming of places I’ve never been, speaking to people I’ve never known about a situation I will never find myself in. The light phase of sleep, REM sleep.
B R R R R R R I I I I I I I I N N N N N N G! Like a long single ring of those classic rotary telephones we all had as kids. Unmistakable.. not part of the dream.
We are awake now, but in that drowsy state of confusion where it’s hard to put together proper thoughts. What was that? I’m sure it was an old style doorbell. I’m certain it was ours even though I have never heard it. It was way too loud to be the neighbour’s bell. I don’t want to believe this though, so I search for alternatives. First off, the time. It’s 2:30 in the morning. Oh Boy..
I whisper to Sylvie “does your phone have an alarm set by accident?” We check our phones and find them featureless.
Then, reaching for the stars I am seeing, I think that maybe the water heater has an alarm that fires off when it’s been left on too long. In this old apartment, we have a switch to light up the hot water tank for showers and dishes. Something we aren’t used to. We must have left it on. Across the room, I can’t see the red light shining. Damn. We’re out of options and a shiver shoots it’s way down my back. It was an old school doorbell and it was ours. Did I lock the door proper? It’s a three stage deadbolt that I usually turn only once.. sometimes not at all. These Euro doors lock automatically with the handle, but the real security comes from the deadbolt. I’m afraid, Sylvie is confused.
I muster some courage, cautiously get out of bed and sneak to the door to listen. I’m in my underwear and feeling pretty vulnerable. The damn bathroom fan I left on for “sleep noise” is humming away and I can’t hear anything else. This door is well made and I can’t see anything underneath it either. There is a peep hole, but I am not ready for this yet. I need something I can swing.
Hoping my hard working feet don’t crack on the way, I head over to the kitchen. I don’t want to start opening creaky drawers in fear of alerting the ringer that there are people inside. There is nothing laying around I can hit someone with. Not even a pot or a frying pan. The chairs are too awkward and large for the entry way, I’d never be able to swing one.. lion tamer style at best.. no good. A stick, a bat .. The mops in the bathroom! Plastic dollar store crap. I scan the dark bedroom of this studio and see only blankets, beds, a tv and our bags. Absolutely nothing. I go back to the bed and explain to Sylvie my thinking, not wanting to scare her, yet wanting her to be aware and ready for anything. She thinks I am paranoid.. she’s not even sure the bell was real. I am.
We sit still and wait a bit. It’s been maybe 5 minutes since the bell rang. That’s enough time for someone to react to a doorbell. Surely, our ringer has moved on. And if they haven’t…
Very nervous, I go back to the door. I look at the switches outside the bathroom wall and try to remember which one is the fan. The right one. Correct. The immediate silence is terrifying. I can hear something outside the door now. Someone walking slowly right there, a few feet from me outside the door or possibly on the central staircase. I am definitely not ready for the peep hole.
My heart is pumping hard. The possibilities are racing through my mind but the next step is clear as I wish it was day. I must lock that door and it will make such a loud noise that our anonymity will be blown. We will be playing a whole new game after this. I reach for the key which is already in the lock .. where I left it, where I always leave it. I grab hold tight to mute any warning jiggles of the other keys. Then as fast as I can TLOCK .. 1 .. TLOCK .. 2 .. and TACK, the sound it makes hitting the end meaning it won’t go any further. No more secrets. We are in here. Our door is locked. We know you are there.
Reinvigorated with courage, I open the latch to the peep hole and look through. I can see the staircase. I see nothing else. Then, cutting the complete silence into shreds, I receive 3 slaps to the face..
B R R I I I I N N N N G G G G!
B R R I I I I N N N N G G G G!
B R R I I I I N N N N G G G G!
OMG. It’s on! Sylvie is on board now, sitting up in the bed, frozen in silence.
I have to respond. I have to deal with this and I can not show fear. In my sternest ‘I’m mad at you’ teacher voice, I blurt out “Who’s there??” … like it matters? I should have said “Get the hell out of here!” .. Jerk store!
2 very long seconds pass. An unknown is revealed with a soft quiet female voice with a very subtle Slavic accent that answers “a neighbour”. I feel no relief by this. A neighbour?
“What do you want?” loud and booming.
2 seconds pass. “I was sent here”. Another long cold shiver runs it’s course through my spine. I am creeped right out. What kind of answer is that? Like some medieval undead summoning.. she was sent here??
I look again through the peep hole which gives a blurry fish eyed field of view that amplifies any horror movie visuals I am already imagining. 10 seconds pass and then a female figure limps by… dark hair … dark jacket or sweater .. no details in the face.. her hand oddly held up beside her head, fingers curled. She walks by the peep hole and stands to the right of the door facing it. I can’t see her face, only her weird clasping hand. I can’t think of what to say. My curiosity takes over my fear for a split second and I spit out “Who sent you?”
“I was sent to you”. A stalling unhelpful answer. I start remembering the movie Hostel.. Is some cruel man waiting on the left side for me to open this door? Is this a homeless person wandering the building looking for hospitality? Is this some creepy advance from a local prostitute that knows this apartment to be frequented by travelers? Is this some evil super natural being that needs to be invited in before entering? My heart is jumping out of my chest. Shut this down. Denial of service.
“Goodnight!” as stern as I can.
A few seconds pass. The figure wobbles into view. I am still not able to see any facial features. Soft and innocent, “Are you British?”
I pause, considering the question. Considering the motives. This can be thought about later. Snap out of it! A bit calmer but more final, “Goodnight.”
A long pause from the figure outside, her hand still curled beside her head. Is it curled or is she holding something? “It” wobbles a bit, then begins slowly walking to the right towards the staircase. The quiet voice returns with a slight echo from the hall. Her leaving words will haunt me for hours, “I am afraid actually .. as you are..”. And another shiver consumes me. Probably the single best clue as to what had just happened. I see her limp and wobble down the stairs to the next level. I spend the next 10 minutes glued to the peephole waiting to see her accomplice come out of hiding and pass by the door to confirm nefarious intentions. Nothing.
The entire episode lasted a solid 20 minutes from start to finish. Or was it finished? We were leaving the apartment at 6:00 a.m. to catch a train out of here .. that was a mere 3 hours away and it would still be dark out .. dark in the hall.
I’m afraid actually .. as you are.. whoa!!