I’m editing a book of short fiction; it comprises some stories I’ve posted here. This is one such, but I don’t think this works completely. I’m not sure why. Does anyone have any suggestions to improve it?
I’m not sure if anyone will read this. If they do, say I’m sorry.
I’d been looking for a house for ages, ever since I came to this part of the country. A new start, none of the old associations. I always wanted something I could work on and this place was perfect, in a right old state and cheap. The agents didn’t even know they had it on their books; I found their board in the overgrown front garden. It took them ages to find the key and the woman who showed me round that first time – she couldn’t have been more than eighteen – stood by the door while I explored. They couldn’t find the particulars, not that it mattered. After that they gave me the key and let me go on my own. I even did the legal work; after my experiences with lawyers, I wasn’t about to use any of those crooks. I expected problems with the seller’s lawyers, but they never answered the phone, dealing with everything by letter. Not that they said much, not that I cared. When we completed the agents couldn’t give me the keys quickly enough. The guy who owned the agency couldn’t look me in the eye. Maybe he’d heard about me. Reputation works like that sometimes.
The house wasn’t special; a bland mid terrace in a still grimy part of South London. 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. It was full of rubbish which I understood would be cleared but wasn’t. I didn’t care. It was like I had much of my own, just a sleeping bag and a two ring stove. Not even a toothbrush. They don’t give you much and my money was all dedicated to the house. It spoke to me, told me it needed me and I it.
I’ll never forget the first night. It was nothing special until I turned out the light and lay down. Then it turned into the set of a horror movie, with wind whistling through cracks in the sash windows, yowling as if demons were chasing their prey through every room. 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.
That decided my first job; fix the bloody windows. There was this fusty old general store on the High Road and the chap there had a book that told me what to do. He even had a bag of old tools that eh said someone had left to give to deserving cause and he let me have them. Wouldn’t take a thing for them.
I knew I’d be making mistakes; you learn by your mistakes, right? By that measure I would be getting a fantastic education.
That first afternoon, I set about the window in the back room. It was easy. I won’t bore you with the details. I don’t have the energy. 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 restrung the window and filled in the cracks with the putty I’d bought, before applying a top coat. It was February day, though 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.
I worked my way around the first floor and after three days I only had the master bedroom that filled the whole of the front of the house. The room was the most impressive on the house: it had a beautiful plaster ceiling rose, the most spectacular fireplace and a view over the city and west end of London that was to die for. But it was so cold, that room. That was the reason I rarely went into it, even though I knew it was the room with the noisiest, rattliest windows in the place. I’d told myself to get the rest sorted that when I did these I’d notice the quiet. I didn’t know the truth of that, not then.
I’d fixed the two windows either side of the central picture window and stopped for lunch. The weather had begun to threaten; you could see it coming from above Hampstead and Highgate to the north of London, rolling towards me like a grey blanket. I took a breath and prised the beading away.
That was earlier today. Or yesterday. Maybe. It’s difficult to be sure. My memories are episodic. I’m fairly sure it was as I lifted the weight’s box that the newspaper cutting fluttered loose, 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 used to love reading those old news items and must have stopped to read it.
On one side was an advert for an auction of household goods, listing some items with the time and date and venue. It was a house sale and it was this house. It didn’t say why the sale; maybe the then owner had died. The date stuck though. The date mentioned was exactly fifty years before that February day. Today, or yesterday. I think.
On the other side, was a notice announcing the death of someone called Arbuthnot – some of the notice had been cut off – and there was a contact detail for someone called George Arbuthnot. Below it was another notice of a funeral of another person who’d died that day, or so it said. This person was called Mabel Constance Viziard Martindale and she’d died intestate. Someone had scoured out her surname, though you could still make it out.
I know that was the moment when everything shifted. I went to put the weights back, my mind in turmoil but something was in the way and the window refused to fit. I knew I should fix it, find out what it was but by then the skin on the back of my neck prickled and I felt like I was being watched. I knew there was something familiar about that name and I left the window as it was; I’m sure I did, intending on coming back to it as soon as I’d satisfied my curiosity.
Taking my time – I don’t know why but rushing didn’t seem appropriate – I walked to the back bedroom. My few bits were there with the rubbish from the previous owners. Under some crumpled clothes I pulled out a cardboard box – my filing cabinet. Still taking my time I dug around for the letter from the seller’s lawyer. It was the one letter which contained any information. It was a packet of old deeds that came after the sale closed. 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 one Mabel Constance Viziard Arbuthnot neé Martindale, late of this house I now owned transferred this house to her husband, one Peter Harold Arbuthnot.
I took a breath and sifted through the file. The land registry entries were there. They show the property details and the owner who sold to me. It was a George Arbuthnot and according the entries I held in a shaking hand, George Arbuthnot had been registered as owner exactly fifty years before. My head spun and I sat back heavily ion the ancient piece of carpet. My fingers rubbed at the material which felt matted. Something made me sniff the tips and I recoiled.
The smell. I was still processing when I nearly had a heart attack. The front door bell rang; I didn’t even know there was one. It certainly brought me back to the moment.
My head was still full of the carpet as I headed downstairs. These 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 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 wore in photos taken over him in the sixties. The man 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. ‘You’re the new owner. My name is George Arbuthnot and I thought we should meet.’
I managed a nod.
‘Splendid.’ He looked up, towards where the window sat, waiting to be restored to its rightful place. ‘Have you found my mother yet?’
I think he took my arm and helped me back to that front bedroom, but things are unclear. The woman made some tea and we may have replaced the window though we had to shift the obstruction first. At some point, one of them brought in the carpet from the back bedroom and used part of it to wrap up whatever was blocking the sash. They left the rest.
That’s where I am now, lying on the carpet. The windows no longer rattle and it’s warmer. The smell is still there though. It’s definitely blood.
And there’s a lock on the door. They tell me it’s to help me feel safe. I’m used to locked doors.
I’d better put this away now. I’m not sure they’d like me writing it down. I’ve been writing it as small as I can – there’s not much space on the old advert and my blood soaks into the old paper if I’m not careful. They showed me a picture of their mother. Today? Yesterday? They say I need to look out for her. She looks just like the estate agent, just as anxious. Maybe she didn’t want to come into the house either.