The listing seemed too good to be true. It was for a spacious en-suite room with a four poster bed in a Grade II listed manor. It was called Ramson House and it was located on the outskirts of London, in a woodsy area that seemed more like the countryside than the city. The monthly rent was actually under my budget, so I scrolled down quickly in search of a caveat. There had to be a reason for the rent to be so cheap, and it turned out that I was right.
Most of the manor was in a state of disrepair. The owner, Julius Ramson, was planning to renovate the building as soon as he had the right planning permission. His grandfather had moved in to live with him recently, but since he worked long hours as a doctor, he needed someone to help take care of the old man from time to time. It sounded innocuous enough, so I decided to book a viewing.
Ramson House was everything I expected it to be, from the long gravel driveway that led to the front of the house from the black iron gates, to the thorny rose bushes in the overgrown gardens. It looked like it had been taken straight out of a book-whether fairytale or gothic horror, I had yet to decide.
The man standing by the front door must've been the owner, Julius Ramson. I had been expecting someone who looked studious, maybe even a little worn out from a stressful job, with pasty skin, ruffled hair and thick spectacles to boot, but the man waiting in front of the manor had none of those attributes. He was tall, with unseasonably sun-kissed skin and a shiny crown of golden hair. The downcast day did nothing to dampen his brightness; he practically glowed with health.
I paid my fare and thanked the driver before alighting the cab. He sped away as soon as I was out of the door. It was so typical of London. Everyone was in such a rush. Not Julius Ramson, however. He was smiling at me serenely as he waited for me by the door. If he was bothered by the fact that I was ten minutes late, then he didn't show it. He had his hands in the pockets of his suit trousers, and he was leaning back ever so slightly against one of the marble pillars that framed the door. It was a relaxed yet confident pose. The pose of a man who had all the time (and money) in the world.
"You must be Ada," he said, straightening himself up and offering me his outstretched hand. "I'm Julius. Welcome to Ramson House."
I took his hand. His skin was oven-warm.
"Thank you," I said, smiling, "It's stunning. I couldn't believe it when I saw the listing."
Julius's smile widened. "I'm glad you think so. It's a bit rundown after years of neglect, but at least it has kept its original character. Come, I'll show you around."
The door creaked loudly as Julius swung it open and I followed close behind him. The entrance hall looked even more spacious in real life than it had in the photos. The whole floor was tiled in an Art Deco pattern and high above us there was an electric chandelier. It wasn't turned on, however, so only natural light from the tall window at the top of the staircase illuminated the space. It smelled like dead flowers and dust. In every corner of the hall, there were vases filled with the remains of shrivelled up roses, black and drooping. I wondered how long they had been there for.
"My uncle owned this manor before me," said Julius. "He inherited it from his own father during the '20s. He renovated the entire building during that decade so I hope you like Art Deco." A sheepish smile formed on his face that made him seem simultaneously proud and embarrassed by his family history. Somehow, that made me warm to him even more.
"I love it," I said truthfully.
He gave me a quick tour of the manor. He wasn't lying when he said the place was rundown. There was a chill inside that made me wonder if there was even any central heating. The windows weren't double glazed, that was for sure. My bedroom was lovely, however. It was cozy and quaint with its quilted bed cover and voile curtains, and there was a much needed fire roaring in the hearth. The ensuite bathroom was as antiquated as the rest of the building, with a pull chain toilet that I hadn't seen since my school days. I already knew that the sound of the flush would be tremendous. Julius also warned me that getting the hot water to work might be a problem from time to time as the boiler was ancient.
None of this was enough to put me off. My only real concern was the grandfather that I would have to look after if I accepted the room.
"You said in the listing that the lodger would be expected to look after your grandad a few times a week," I blurted out.
Julius's blue eyes widened. "That's right. It's just to keep him company, really. He gets lonely sometimes, especially as I'm away at work most of the time."
"What's he like?" I asked.
Another smile. "You could meet him now and find out for yourself."
Biting on my lower lip, I chewed things over in my mind. There would be no harm in meeting the old man sooner than later. I wasn't committing myself to anything.
I nodded my head. "Sure. I'd love to meet him."
Julius brought me to the eastern wing of the manor. We passed through a corridor with peeling floral wallpaper where the smell of stale air almost knocked me out. Thankfully, the air inside the room at the end of the corridor wasn't as bad. It was just cold. Colder than any other part of the house despite the flames that flickered in the hearth. The heavy curtains were drawn over the windows, so the only source of light was the dancing fire.
"Granddad, are you awake?" whispered Julius.
I heard the sound of rustling sheets and then a groan. "Yes, Julius," croaked the voice from within the sheets. It sounded scratchy, like an old record. "What is it you want?"
"I've brought someone here to meet you. Her name is Ada."
Julius motioned for me to step forward. My heart thumped in my chest as I moved closer to the bed. When I finally caught sight of Julius's grandfather nestled under the duvet, I had to stop myself from gasping. To describe him as old was an understatement. He was ancient. His skin was so wrinkled and his hair so white that you'd be forgiven for thinking that he was mummified. It didn't help that he barely moved either. Other than the rise and fall of his chest, his eyes were the only other things that moved. They were bluer than blue, just like his grandson, and when they met mine they seemed to pierce right into my soul.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ramson."
A chuckle left his puckered lips, "There's no need to be so formal. You can call me Armand."
I smiled, relieved that he wasn't so uptight.
"So tell me, Ada, do you think you can envision yourself living here? I'm sure spending time with an old man like myself wasn't what you had in mind, but I promise you that I won't bite." He then grinned, flashing pearly white teeth.
I laughed. "I'll hold you to that."
I moved into Ramson House the following week. Julius was tremendously helpful in getting me settled in. He even helped carry my belongings to my room. I'd never received such treatment from a landlord before.
"I work late on Mondays and Tuesdays," Julius informed me, "It's on these evenings that my grandad will need some attending to. All you have to do is keep him company for an hour or so. He likes to have things read to him before bed."
It sounded easy enough and it fit perfectly with my work schedule. My first evening with Armand went smoothly. I got back from work at about 6PM, then I showered and changed before checking up on the old man. It was about 7PM when I arrived outside his door. My coily hair was still damp from the shower and I was in my comfortable cotton lounge clothes. The tray I was carrying held snacks, pretzels and breadsticks, that I thought Armand and I might share. My hand barely made contact with the door when Armand's voice sounded from within. It sounded stronger tonight, more full.
"Come in!" he said.
I went inside, balancing the tray in my hands, and smiled at Armand, who was sitting up in his bed.
"Hello, Armand. I didn't know if you'd eaten anything yet, but I brought us some snacks."
Armand returned my smile. "That's very thoughtful of you, Ada, but my appetite for food has sadly diminished in my old age. Why don't you take that chair over there and move over beside me. I want to hear your voice clearly while you read to me."
I nodded and did as he suggested. Julius had already told me that he liked to be read to.
"What would you like me to read for you?" I asked.
I followed Armand's gaze to the shelves on the other side of the room, which were full of dusty, timeworn hardbacks. He squinted at the titles for a minute before saying, "I've read all of these books before. Is there anything that you're reading at the moment?"
"Yes, I'm reading a domestic drama. It's about a family that falls apart after winning the lottery."
"Good. You can read that to me. I'd like to familiarise myself with more modern works of literature."
I went to get my book and then read to Armand for about an hour, crunching on pretzels and breadsticks all the while. He listened with closed eyes, as if he were sleeping, but he would smile during the funny parts and ask me for clarification if there were things he didn't understand. Overall, it was a pleasant experience, and when I left to go to bed at 8PM, I quickly fell into a deep, peaceful sleep as soon as I hit the soft duvet of my bed.
I was still tired when I woke up the next morning, but it wasn't the normal tiredness that one feels after being awoken by an alarm clock. I felt completely exhausted, as if my body had been drained of all its energy. It was a small miracle that I managed to get out of bed. I took a cold bath to help awaken my senses and then changed into my work clothes. I was running late for work but was in desperate need of a pick-me-up, so I made myself a cup of black coffee before heading out. I decided to have a bit of a gander around the manor while I waited for my steaming hot cup to cool down.
I ended up in a small study at the end of a hallway on the bottom floor. The window provided a view to the field at the back of the estate. Densely packed trees lined the edges of the grounds, like soldiers standing on guard. It was a lovely view, but my attention was quickly stolen by the paintings on the walls of the study. There were twelve of them in total, three hanging on each of the four walls. They were of various sizes and were from different eras, but all of them were of women. I guessed that the oldest must've been from the Tudor period, judging by the frilled collar worn by the pale woman in it.
I jumped at the sound of my name, splashing coffee onto my crisp white blouse. I whipped around and saw Julius standing at the doorway to the study. He looked down at my chest, noticing the coffee stains.
"Oh, I am sorry!"
I laughed. "It's okay. At least I'm awake now."
"Sleep well then, did you?"
"I did. The best sleep I've ever had in my life."
Julius smiled. "I'm glad to hear that. Will you be okay to keep my granddad company again tonight? I'll understand if you're too tired. It's just that he really likes you."
I blushed, oddly flattered. "Yes, I'll be fine. I probably just need to eat more."
"Take care of yourself, Ada. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Wait," I said, glancing at the paintings on the wall.
Julius looked at me curiously. "Yes?"
"I was just wondering who all these women are?"
Julius's eyes roamed over the dozen paintings. "Ah, yes. They make for quite an interesting collection, don't they? I can't say for sure who all of them are, but a few of them are related to me in some way or another. Take the lady in the beaded dress, for instance. She was my grandad's second wife, Mathilda. He actually painted that portrait of her himself."
I looked at the painting of the woman with the bobbed blonde hair. She was sitting on a couch with her legs crossed. The garters of her stockings were exposed and a long tobacco pipe extended from one of her manicured hands. She could've been the poster girl of the roaring twenties.
"Wow," I said. Just how old is your grandad? I wanted to add.
Like the night before, I made my way to Armand's room at about 7PM. I had a small shock when I saw him. He seemed to have turned back the clock by ten years. He was still elderly, yes, but there was more vigour to him. His face was less lined and he even seemed to have more hair. He had looked like he was knocking at death's door only a week ago when I had first met him, but now he looked like a man in the early days of retirement. Old, but still going strong.
"You're looking good, Armand." I said, unable to hide my surprise at his appearance.
He flashed me his teeth. "I feel good too. I dare say your company was just the thing I needed to feel like myself again."
I giggled. "I'm not sure I can claim credit for that."
I sat down and resumed reading for Armand where I had left off. I managed to get through two chapters before I was overwhelmed by sleepiness. It was a struggle to keep my eyes open, but I pushed myself to carry on reading.
"Ada, are you alright?" asked Armand.
I yawned. I was exhausted. Even more so than I had been in the morning, which was saying a lot. "I'm sorry, Armand. I better go. I'm really sleepy all of a sudden…"
I can't remember what happened next. It's like the lights were switched off in my brain. The next thing I was aware of was my alarm going off. Somehow, I managed to return to my room. I didn't like not having any memory of getting into bed, but I didn't have the strength or mental clarity to piece together what had happened the night before. I was still terribly tired, to the point where my whole body ached. It occured to me that I might've been coming down with something, maybe a flu or a stomach bug, so I phoned in sick and then willed myself to go downstairs to make myself a home remedy.
In the kitchen, I began to chop up some garlic. I glanced up briefly to look out of the window, which gave a great view of the rose gardens. The knife slipped from my hand and almost cut open a finger when I noticed movement among the thorny bushes. There was someone outside: a man. I stopped chopping and leaned forward to get a closer look. He was middle aged, with fair hair, and looked very familiar. With a pair of pruning shears, he beheaded some roses. He then turned around and caught me staring at him. My heart jumped in my chest and I leapt away from the counter like a red-handed peeping Tom. The man grinned at me and waved. The best I could do was raise a hand in response.
Such perfect white teeth, I thought.
It was then that I realized that the man was Armand. About 30 years younger.
I heard the door to the kitchen open and I spun around, anticipating Julius. It was him, alright, in his flannel pajamas and robe.
"Good morning," he greeted, turning the kettle on.
"Good morning," I returned.
I didn't know if it was a good idea to mention the fact that his grandfather had done a Benjamin Button overnight. My head was pounding and my body felt weaker yet. I leaned against the counter top to steady myself and I took a deep breath.
Julius came forward and placed his hands on my shoulders. "Ada, you don't look well at all."
I groaned. "I think I'm coming down with something. I don't know, maybe the flu-hence all the garlic." A nervous laugh escaped me. "I think I'm becoming delirious too. Have you seen your grandad this morning? It's like he's aging in reverse or something. Don't tell me I'm the only one who can see it."
"No, I see what you mean. He's getting stronger everyday. He was actually the one who carried you to your room last night. He said you fell asleep while reading to him."
"He carried me?" I said, stunned. It was both thoughtful and unsettling. I had no recollection of being carried, and he hadn't looked strong enough to carry me all the way to my room either. Looks were certainly deceiving.
"You should get some rest," suggested Julius, "I'd recommend you take a multivitamin too. A healthy young woman like you should be buzzing around."
I nodded in agreement. I usually had bundles of energy, but it was being sapped from my very bones. By what, I did not yet know.
"Yeah, I think I'll have a nap." I murmured, moving past Julius. I didn't even bother to clear up the chopped garlic.
"I'll see you later, Ada."
I woke up shivering. How was I so cold? If my body ached before, then it was even worse now. The pain seemed to radiate from within my bones. Something was very wrong. I felt changed, but not in a good way. I reached down to pull the thick duvet over my body, but stopped when I caught sight of my hands and let out a small shriek. They were bony, aged, not the hands of someone in their twenties. I was too weak to get up, but I turned my head to the side and saw that I was not alone in the room. My vision was blurry, but I could see that the male figure standing by the door was tall with blonde hair: Julius. I tried to relax a little. Julius was a doctor. He could help me.
"Julius, what's going on? What's happened to me?"
Julius walked forward until he was right beside the bed where I could see his face clearly. I gasped when I saw that it wasn't Julius after all, but someone who shared similar features to him, most noticeably the blue of his eyes. I lifted my head off the pillow and desperately tried to sit up, but I simply didn't have the strength to do so. I ended up dropping back down on my back, panting for breath as if I'd just run a marathon.
"Armand," I breathed, the penny finally dropping.
"That's right, Ada. I do look an awful lot like Julius-or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Julius looks a lot like me. You know, since I came first."
"What have you done to me?"
Armand took a seat on the edge of the bed. He looked down at me with his shining eyes and let out a deep sigh. "I had to do what had to be done. I would've perished if I had stayed an old man for any longer. You saw me; I was on my way out."
I cried out for help, but the sound that escaped my throat was pitiful.
"There's no point shouting for help. You might as well conserve what energy you have left," said Armand, "I mean, who do you think is going to come to your rescue? Julius?" He actually had the audacity to snort.
Tears of frustration and regret began to slide down the parched skin of my cheeks.
"Shhhh…' Armand hushed, wiping away my tears with the tips of his fingers, "Don't worry, dear Ada. I don't forget the women who I owe my youth to, and as you've been so good to me, I'll take extra care when doing your portrait."