THE HOUSE WITH NO DOOR
We played there as children, innocent and excited to be anywhere that wasn’t home. Somewhere a call from mother couldn’t be heard. It was ‘off the beaten track’ as I’d heard adults say about places that were hidden.
Thirty years later, this house is hiding from itself.
The seventies in rural Cornwall was a life in the slow lane. Too far for Londoners to make a short visit and enough sea that those from nearby France didn’t bother to enter England via our county.
It was, and still is, a quiet place.
Back then Bramble House had been a farm-worker’s cottage on the lower hills of Dartmoor. My sister and our neighbour, George, would wait for the old man who lived there to go out to work. In summer, that gave us almost twelve hours of undisturbed play, make-believe in a theatre of our own where bricks walls and algae-covered windows were the only audience.
We hid in blackberry bushes in his back garden and listened for the put-put-putt of his grey tractor to know he’d left for the day with lunch in his canvas bag. A bag which looked like something a soldier might have carried in a long-ago war.
We would let ourselves in through the back door. The latch, quite stiff for small thumbs, would eventually release with a loud clack. I picture that green painted door, where now bricks fill the space, crude cement squeezed and dripping like ice-cream on a hot day forever captured in concrete.
Inside, every room used to smell of smoke because the old man ate tobacco instead of food (or so we concluded when we were eight).
That was all before the police had stormed the place.
My navy suede loafers crunch on ancient gravel. Tangled climbers - enormous waves of vines - snag my clothes as I walk between the house and trees no longer tended. A jumble of rusted metal is all that’s left of a white painted bench we used to sit on and pretend to drink gin from the plastic lids of tartan-print tin thermos flasks. Gin took its time, but finally killed my father five years ago.
The kitchen window seems smaller than I remember. To me then, it had been enormous. I look through it and see the cavernous white sink still sitting on its wooden frame. I wonder if there remains the rhythmic drip from a copper tap which had stained the white enamel with blues and greens of peacock feathers.
It made the news. The lone occupant using a firearm as a warning to defend his home against intruders. He’d done it before, only this time, he’d shot one. A woman. Part of a criminal gang moving through the rural counties, taking advantage of an area where many folk never locked their doors.
Through a pane of glass I see a cupboard door swing open. Stepping back, I hold my breath. The bricks, grey and dotted with moss, feel damp as I tell myself I’m seeing things. The back door too is cemented and closed to visitors, invited or otherwise. I walk on around the perimeter.
At the east-facing wall, elder suckers have launched their own attack and obscured what I know lies beneath its slim limbs covered in frilly white flower-heads.
Pulling back ivy intent on smothering the wooden doors, I reveal an entrance to the cellar, not unlike those at pubs for the delivery of beer barrels. A catch which gave up decades ago comes away without resistance. I pull at one of the doors and the plank between my fingers splinters from its neighbour. The resulting space offers a better hold and with a little effort, I’m able to lift the whole door, tearing sinews of ivy, snapping tendons of brambles.
My heart lurches as I instantly recognise the concrete steps disappearing into darkness, the place we used as a school room. My sister had always been the teacher, borrowing the farmer’s reading glasses which he left in his porch every morning, folded closed on that day’s paper. She would wear the glasses on the end of her nose and command we do our spellings again and again, hitting the workbench we used as a desk with a length of hose she’d found on a shelf. She was the loud one, while my head would be in a book, so she was the natural leader when it came to lesson planning. Other times, she would make me sing. George conducted proceedings with wild arm movements and closed eyes, making my sister laugh until she couldn’t breathe.
I descend through the space with care, noting moths which escape into the light I leave behind. A stench of smoke? No, it’s soot and it wallows in the depths of the basement. Each concrete step is darker and not from lack of light, but from layers of the black stuff. The smell is disgusting and I cover my mouth with my hand.
There is furniture I don’t recall, damp and grit on the floor. Lengths of wood once piled now fallen and dotted with evidence of woodworm, litter the floor like a crude game of pick up sticks. I step over them to another set of concrete stairs which lead up into the centre of the house.
The place has been empty since the farmer was sent to prison to run his own gauntlet amid criminals who condemn men for shooting a woman. That also made the news. Funny how inmates can still act upon certain morals.
I use the torch on my phone and carefully place my suede-covered toes on shallow steps. They match the navy dress I’m wearing through which I’m shivering with more than cold. See light from above through the open doorway to the hall. A hall with doors into reception rooms, once the heart of this home. Though not the farmer’s. He was single and always had been. A loner, they named him in newsprint.
I take the final step up from the cellar. The front door should be straight ahead but grey breeze blocks highlight neither an entrance nor an exit. I turn left into the kitchen and am instantly eight years old and being served a school lunch from the farmer’s fridge. George would wrap a tea towel around his waist and play dinner lady, dishing out with a flourish squares of bread and soft cheese triangles wrapped in foil. He grinned and said we were eating like queens.
There is still a fridge in the corner and its door is half open. I pull the door fully open and recoil from what lies within. Some type of rodent nest, with dead embryonic rats or mice laced through with twigs and moss and bits of something else. My sister might look like this now. While her body is missing, I can believe she’s still breathing.
My phone pings the arrival of another useless email but before I can read it, behind me there’s a noise. I spin round in time to see an animal facing me. And it’s very much alive. I move and it flees, claws scraping as it slips on cracked terracotta tiles. George, now a flooring salesman, would laugh that these were still here and inform me their colour was ‘rust’. He’s somewhere in Leeds, moved there with his boyfriend who became his husband. I’d been jealous of his happiness but never expressed those feelings. Learning to keep your opinions to yourself proved to be a great attribute for a lawyer.
I follow the animal which had evidently been on its way back to the kitchen and the cupboard with the open door. At the other end of the hall is a small bathroom with a frosted glass window, locked from the inside. Behind the toilet flow away pipe, a small shaft of light ruffles a cobweb and on bending down, I see the animal’s entrance, no larger than a couple of missing bricks. She too, has found a place to come and play out of the elements.
As an adult, I know that playing in this house was trespass, but as a child all I felt was the excitement at daring to go into a stranger’s home, trying not to be caught in case your parents gave you a hiding. Now it just feels sad.
I’m no longer innocent.
I’m no longer a lawyer.
Stripped of that title, and the privilege to represent in court never mine again, I watch dust motes disturbed by my presence and wonder what possessed me to use client funds to fuel my habit.
I could sit here all day and no-one would know I was missing from that life, the theatre in which I carried out my dreams and my failings. Here, among the dust and grit, no-one will chase me for a case update, nor be annoyed I’ve made them wait to start proceedings. My daily emails have been reduced to circulars from charities and the supermarket offering home-delivery slots.
The fraud was enough to end my career. Gail behind the desk at the Bookies confirmed my regular visits and I admitted liability.
I’m a free woman, but bound by guilt. My sister’s death while on holiday in Greece should never have happened. Would never have happened had I agreed to go with her the month before to Africa, which is where she really wanted to go. But I’d told her I needed to be at work to sign off articles for my assistant. It was the truth, but looking back, it was pathetic. I was pathetic and always had been. I read to my mother in the home, but she hasn’t recognised me since dementia flooded her world ten years ago.
Bramble House is in no fit state to be sold, but clearly in the derelict category, hiding in the undergrowth. It is starting to feel inviting. I walk to the hallway window and look at the army of dead flies which once were buzzing against the glass, convinced there was a way out. There are ladybirds too, huddled in a corner - friends, neighbours, family all on top of one another - the very threads of humanity I no longer have.
Back in the kitchen I twist the tap but nothing comes out. Even the drip has dried up so I turn it the other way until it won’t turn any further. It squeaks a middle C. My vocal chords have not vibrated nor created for days. I wonder if they eventually fail if never used. I search for and find the note and fill the kitchen with a tune I remember singing for my sister.
Soon, I cough and cough and cough. Into my cupped hands covered in dust. I sneeze and my body convulses as terror engulfs me, disguised as tears. I’m no better than the mammal with long claws.
I lean back against the wall and slide my body down until I’m sat. Where did the dreams we have as children go? Surely George couldn’t have taken them all with him to Leeds; I must have had other dreams than the one involving him and a bar in Greece.
I can’t blame my successful sister either. Her hard work and studies paid off and her rise to Headmistress was deserved. As was her desire to go and photograph big game.
The animal’s snout nudges into the room, its whiskers testing for danger. I keep still and hold my breath. The only living thing to come within a few feet.
I watch and wait. It snuffles at the ground and takes tentative steps across the kitchen floor, moving towards the cupboard. A regular haunt where it must feel safe and useful. Did the farmer feel safe and useful while he lived his lonely life, I wonder.
To my left is a box made of wicker. Leather straps hardened with time hang from the lid. I lift it at the front and small creaks gain the attention of what I’m assuming is a ferret. It pauses, looks at me, and then continues on its way to the cupboard before disappearing through the open door.
I rise to my knees and push the lid to the wall. Beneath a scratchy great blanket full of holes are old books and leaflets. Rusted staples harbour yellowing ration book pages. Forward-leaning words in blue ink a hint at a post-war past. Further down are novels, many of which are classics. This surprises me, though I’m unsure why. The flat cap, the unrefined lifestyle. Why should the farmer not have been well-read. I flick through titles I’ve read, loved and re-read over the years and sadness takes over pity and I know instantly what I can do.
My first shift at the prison is well-attended. There are seven men in the room waiting for me to read. The sessions have been organised as part of their rehabilitation programme.
One clears his throat at regular intervals, and spits on the floor.
Another is busy chewing his way through a pencil. And swallowing.
The prison guard is sipping coffee at the back of the room.
The true owner of the books I’ve brought with me sits in silence in the front row. He is older than the photofit which went viral, and there’s a lot less of him than I’d been expecting. His grey round neck sweatshirt is thin and beneath it, a body with dwindling purpose is no more than a skeleton wearing skin.
‘Get on with it.’ calls out a man with tattoos across his face and a patch over one eye.
I stand up and walk slowly on silent soles between the tables holding a copy of The Samurai’s Garden. The guards had checked my shoes on arrival to ensure I’d adhered to their NO HEELS rule. He’d nodded at my faithful navy loafers.
‘What Japanese crap is that?’ Tattoo moans and I stop at his table.
The guard looks up.
‘It’s a love story.’ says a voice behind me. The farmer.
‘You know it? You can read?’
I turn around. We all wait while the farmer leans back in his chair and slowly nods.
‘What the fuck you doing in here then. She’s here to teach us idiots to read!’
‘Actually,’ I correct, ‘I’m here to read to anyone who feels they will benefit.’
‘Well, crack on then,’ Tattoo puts his feet on the table in front of him and laces his fingers behind his crewe cut. ‘I’ve got Dancing on Ice catch-ups to get through.’
I read the first two chapters of Gail Tsukiyama’s tale about Stephen, a young man sent to stay in with the family servant in Tarumi on the Japanese coast in 1937. He meets Matsu who is guardian of the family’s second home, and a lot more besides.
When the time is up, Tattoo yawns and asks what the point of the story is.
The farmer remains seated. ‘It is a love story. Matsu is fighting to save the home he treasures. The surrounding area and woodland holds his heart and he will never move anywhere else, even when a tsunami forces its way in.’ before he’s finished speaking, chair legs scrape the floor as they leave the room.
I put the paperback down and retrieve the form the Prosecution Service gave me. I will need the prison director to sign it after each session over two years’ of weekly visits. Punishment for the fraud.
I look up to find the farmer standing next to me. His eyes move to the paperback on the table next to my bag.
‘It’s yours. Please … take it.’
‘There’s no point.’
‘I can’t read. That’s why I’m here.’
‘What? You know the story though…’
He puts his hands in the pockets of the matching grey sweatpants and stares out the window. ‘It was my brother’s. It was his, as all the books were in the box he gave me when he went off to war.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘He didn’t make it.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘His possessions became the only thing I cared about.’
We let a silence fill the room, both picturing Bramble House being taken over by a Tsunami of green nature, safe on the high ground of Dartmoor.
‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘Your reading glasses. We’d see them, on the newspaper every time we came to your house.’
He shook his head. ‘My brother’s glasses. He used to read the paper. Every day. He would read me stories and add extra facts to entertain me. I never needed to learn. I kept the land fit for sheep, kept the stone walls repaired, kept the barn watertight. I didn’t need to read for that.’
‘We had plans you know.’ he looked at me, his eyes small and the cracks in his weathered skin deep like a landscape beaten by the sun. ‘for when he came back from war.’
‘And he never did.’
‘You all done here?’ a second guard was back from taking the other prisoners back to the canteen. It was lunchtime. The first guard swilled the last of his coffee down his throat and nodded.
‘Look,’ I say, ‘I’m coming back next week. You can tell me more than. I’d like to hear about your brother.’
‘What does it look like?’
I put the strap of the bag on my shoulder. ’What does what look like?’
‘Come on, mate.’
The guard steered the farmer out of the room and I watched his slow progress down the hall. I thought about him waiting for his brother’s return from war. And I thought about Matsu, protecting his sanctuary like there was no other place on earth he’d rather be.