I bought my first house in 1985. It was a bland mid terrace in a still grimy part of South London. When I moved in, in a bitter January, the only room with a carpet was, incongruously, the small back bedroom that looked out over the garden.
Pretty much every penny I had went on buying the house so furniture was on the sparse side. No bed for starters, just some old cushions and a sleeping bag.
That first night was like being stuck on a horror movie set with wind whistling through cracks in the sash windows, yowling as if demons were chasing their prey. I lay awake in the moonless gloom and stared at the inky black glass and the impenetrable sky beyond and wondered if sleep would ever come.
The next day, I jammed paper into the spaces around the windows and taped old newspaper over the glazing which may have looked odd from the street but at least allowed me a chance to sleep a little until such time as I might afford curtains.
I had such grand plans – it was the decade of the dooey-uppey and I was a DIY zealot, as well as a novice. But you learn by your mistakes, right? By that measure I was getting a fantastic education.
That winter seemed to be the windiest on record. No sooner had I stilled the gremlins that shook every window to a midnight frenzy than the paper I had used had worked itself loose and my sleep was once more beaten into submission. They began to comment at work and then someone heard me talking about my rattling sash windows and told me how to fix them. He made it sound so easy.
I decided I wouldn’t take any chances that I’d misunderstood and took a book from the library that promised a detailed explanation (with pictures).
I won’t bore you with the details – that’s not the reason for this story. Suffice it to say I had to be brave, prising off the paint-encrusted beading around the frame and loosening the box which contained the weights. I chose a gorgeous late February day when the weather hinted at spring even if the tips of my fingers and the edges of my ears still echoed with the nip of winter.
It was as I was working on the middle (of three) windows in my bedroom that I found it. Caught by the rope that held the weight, it was a newspaper cutting, a small square the size of a classified ad that had been neatly clipped from some unidentified newspaper. It had that orangey yellow sepia tint that you see in old newspapers, like the ones my gran used to have under her carpets in the days before there was such thing as an underlay.
I loved those little trips down memory lane but this one was especially curious. On one side someone had ringed an advert for an auction of household goods, listing some items with the time and date and venue. It was a house sale, the house in question being my house. The owner must have died or something I supposed and someone was selling the contents in situ. The date mentioned was exactly fifty years before that February day.
On the other side were parts of two notices, cut in half by the person who’d cut out the auction details. The top notice made little sense, referring to some contact details – a George Arbuthnot and a PO box – but not the subject of the notice. The bottom notice was of a death with the funeral details, though those had been trimmed away apart from the date which again was exactly fifty years before. The deceased was one Mabel Constance Viziard Martindale who died intestate. The real oddity came from the fact that it was this half cut off notice that someone had underlined, in pencil and not the details of the auction. And that someone had used the pencil to scour though Mabel’s name albeit without apparently obliterating it, despite what looked like some considerable pressure used in the scouring.
Do you have those moments when the skin on the back of your neck prickles and you feel like you’re being watched? I certainly felt pretty spooked. Taking my time – I don’t know why but rushing didn’t seem appropriate – I walked to the back bedroom. I had stored all sorts of bits there, while I waited to be able to afford cupboards and wardrobes. Under some crumpled work shirts I pulled out a cardboard box – my filing cabinet. Still taking my time I dug around for the letter from the lawyer who’d acted on the house purchase. It was from a few weeks before, just before I exchanged contracts and contained some old deeds. I flicked through the pack until I found what I was looking for.
I stared at the page for a long while. I suppose I was hoping it might make more sense, or maybe it might somehow change. But the details remained precisely as I remembered them from when I read his letter through. The document I held was an old conveyance, also dated precisely fifty years ago. In it the executors of one Mabel Constance Viziard Arbuthnot neé Martindale, late of this house I now owned had conveyed the house to her husband, one Peter Harold Arbuthnot.
My head spun. On the same day exactly fifty years before the husband of the previous owner of this house had acquired the house and buried his wife (curiously being called by her maiden name in that notice) while, at the same time the contents were being auctioned off. Either that was extraordinarily poor timing and crass organisation or something more than a domestic tragedy was involved.
It was as I was about to replace the letter that I realised I had dropped the covering letter. I glanced at it. My solicitor was a chatty man, both in person and in writing. As I straightened the sheets of paper prior to dropping them in the filing box the paragraph at the bottom of the page caught my eye.
‘The funny thing is that this conveyance was never registered as it should have been and Mr Arbuthnot never completed his acquisition. A few months later (see document seven attached) Mr and Mrs Arbuthnot’s son Gregory took a similar conveyance from his mother’s executors and it is that conveyance that was registered.’
I sat on the ancient bit of carpet, staring out at the back garden wondering what had gone on those years ago. I must have been day-dreaming because I nearly had a heart attack when the front door bell went, bringing me back to the moment.
I laughed, dumping the papers and heading downstairs. I needed to get on anyway. At the very least I had to get the bedroom window back in place before it got dark or I was in for one cold and possibly, given the weather forecast, wet night.
Those Victorian terraced houses often have two long stained glass panels in the front door and this was no exception. I could see silhouetted against the sunny sky what looked like a man in some sort of hat with a brim and possibly a woman, also wearing a hat but most likely one of those shapeless felt things beloved of my grandmother.
The man was smartly dressed in a suit though on closer inspection it looked fairly faded and the wide lapels spoke of a different age. The hat too, a brown felt trilby was like something my father had had in the 1950s. He had a round smooth face, one of those ageless faces that are difficult to place, though such hair (at his temples) that I could see suggested it was grey. The woman seemed determined to stand behind her man. I caught a glimpse of a red mid calf coat and sensible brown shoes but nothing else.
The man peered past me, staring intently inside the house then slowly brought his gaze back to me, smiling. He had placed his foot on the top step even though he stood on the next step down, making him seem at ease unlike his companion, whose hands – gloved – appeared to be smoothing her coat nervously.
‘Yes?’ I tried for polite, with a hint of firmness; I really wanted them gone and didn’t need to engage anyone in conversation right then.
The man smiled even more broadly and using my name, introduced himself with a small bow, like he was expected. ‘I got your name from the agents. My name is Greg Arbuthnot. I used to live here. I understand you’ve moved in.’
I managed a nod.
‘Splendid. I don’t suppose you’ve found my mother, have you?’