Everything depended on it still being there.
They walked up the weed-peppered drive to a front door swinging gingerly on rusty, warped hinges. Cobwebs hung like gossamer in the porch, punctuated with flies wrapped up like black pearls, awaiting their fate. Anna and the agent sidestepped the jagged holes in the splintered porch, every step they took creaking mournfully. Empty birds’ nests, their job done for the year, hung precariously from the eaves. An umbilical cord of ivy wound up the sides of the house, creating a tracery of green over the red brick walls. A shell of a house, empty of furniture, full of memories. Her memories.
She sighed inwardly, swallowing her sadness, recalling when this house had belonged to her grandparents. Her nervous terror while playing hide and seek or tag in the garden; scaling gnarly old fruit trees which scratched and scraped her bare arms and legs; and making secret dens in the rickety outbuildings. In winter, snowball fights - her brothers always threw the snowballs too hard so that they would hit her face with a sharp sting. They built snowmen so tall she couldn’t reach up to push in the carrot nose, even on tiptoe. Walking into the kitchen, she could almost smell the lingering wet-dog odour rising from their woollen mittens as they dried in front of the range, while she and her siblings scoffed their grandmother’s legendary breakfasts: local free-range bacon stacked atop home-made crumpets, fresh from the griddle and dripping with butter. Her hatred of intensive farming methods had caused her to become a vegetarian for many years now, but the aroma of grilled bacon tasted like sheer ambrosia, a reminder of those halcyon days. In the evenings they would huddle round the fire toasting their toes, the hot, steaming cocoa burning their lips while they spotted shapes in the flames. A cat on the hearth.
Her eyes darted left and right, up and down, discovering long-forgotten nooks and crannies: the hidey hole under the stairs, and the dim, cavernous pantry, where granny would store her home-made jams and pickles on the top shelf, tantalisingly out of reach. She salivated as she recalled their night raids on the pantry, teaspoons in their hands.
Up the stairs to the landing now, the scene of countless whispered secrets. How many times would she peer down between the stair rails, consumed with curiosity, eavesdropping on the adults long after she had been tucked into bed. There was the ‘secret room’ behind a panel in the main bedroom, where she and her sister would play for hours, undisturbed. She thrilled at the memory of sliding down banisters which smelt of beeswax polish; all the more fun because it was not allowed. Looking up, she noticed the trap door to the attic, an entrance to another world: a world of forgotten curios, cobwebs and bird’s nests. Every time she went up there she had pretended to be Alice going through the looking glass. Was the box still there now, she wondered, deliberately delaying the moment.
‘I think you’ll like the bathroom,’ enthused the estate agent. ‘A tasteful blend of original features and contemporary touches.’ He went on to wax lyrical about the original roll top bath and fashionable subway tiles. Cut the rhetoric, thought Anna, suddenly feeling a strong resentment for this man, this stranger who purported to know everything about the house. How dare he be so proprietorial about something which meant no more to him than the considerable commission he would earn for its sale?
‘I’d like to see the gardens alone, if you don’t mind,’ she announced, inhaling the fresh, damp air then exhaling a deep sigh of relief at having achieved a few moments of intimacy with her past. A physical pain shot through her when she saw Grandpa’s vegetable plot in such a sorry state –skeletons of French beans, bolted beetroot and raspberry canes running rife over the once-manicured lawn. Oh, the hours she would spend joyfully picking fruit and veg, then racing into the kitchen with a loaded wicker basket full of the goodies they would eat later that day!
Next, holding her breath in expectation, she headed towards the pet’s cemetery at the end of the garden, adjacent to a little copse of beech trees where her grandfather had constructed a rudimentary tree house – their Noah’s ark. The flood had swept it there, he told them. It was long gone, but the stone flags which marked the animals’ graves were just visible when she scraped back the mossy turf with her foot. Hot, salty tears rolled down her cheeks, blurring her vision, stinging her eyes and her heart. Maisie, dear gentle Maisie the Border Collie; Tom, the feral ginger cat and numerous guinea pigs and budgerigars rested in peace here.
Ducking under the trees she came across the summerhouse which, though dilapidated, still sheltered an old stuffed chair: grandpa’s favourite. She touched it fondly. The fabric crumbled under her fingers and the stuffing was now nesting material for mice and other rodents, by the look of it. The characteristic stuffy, foetid odour filled her with a clash of distaste and nostalgia. She could sense the ghost of her grandpa sitting in that chair with his pipe and mug of tea as she and her sister played chase around the beech trees on sunny summer days. Sometimes he dozed off and they would sneak silently up to him: BOO! He would jump as though someone had thrown a hand grenade at him, then chuckle and gather the girls tightly in his arms: ‘Give us a kiss!’ As she closed her eyes a lump rose in Anna’s throat. She would do anything to feel his arms around her again. The whole building pulsed with his presence. She wanted to stay here forever, reliving those bittersweet memories.
Flicking the cobwebs out of her hair, she looked back towards the house. The estate agent stood in the doorway, glancing at his Rolex, car keys jangling, impatient to get to his next viewing. Had he guessed her connection with this dilapidated property which had been on their books for far too long? Probably not. Her viewing was just another tick on his ‘to do’ list. Let him wait, she decided. She needed to check the attic.
She was less than five minutes. Grandpa had told the truth. The end of the rainbow was there, waiting for her. She was about to make the agent’s day.
He turned to her, a smug expression on his face, ‘So, what do you think?’