I had been searching the property website for several months when I spotted my future home. It was in the right area and price range, and when I saw the pictures, I knew that I needed to view it. I rang the estate agent and arranged a viewing for the following Sunday. I kept reminding myself not to get too excited that, often estate agents took their photographs from deceptive angles, made the most of the most flattering weather conditions, and could be inventive with their descriptions. But still I was unable to completely suppress the fizz of excitement, which kept bubbling up in my stomach whenever I thought about Daleside.
When Sunday arrived it was overcast and grey with a typical Cumbrian mizzle falling on the car’s windscreen: not quite enough to need the wipers going, but too much to completely ignore. My drive was punctuated with the occasional rhythmic thump, thump as I activated the wipers. I drove with my head lamps on, the road stretched out before me, a slick, convoluted eel, the cars in front illuminated by two points of red, and the oncoming traffic monsters with dual sparkling eyes. Eventually, I pulled off towards Staveley and the road immediately became a narrow, single track lane, the damp vegetation grazing my car as I cautiously passed along it. I drove slowly, keeping a look out for the house’s driveway, until I saw the name ‘Daleside’ burnt into a bole of wood, and a grey gravel drive beside it. I indicated and pulled into the entrance. Although, I was fifteen minutes early, a shiny, black hatchback was already there, and I could see the back of a woman’s head in the driving seat. I took a few minutes to look around and orientate myself. Dry stone walls surrounded the garden, and there were several mature trees at its end. There was a lawn, lush and green in the day’s dampness, what looked like a vegetable patch, possibly planted with leeks and onions and maybe fruit canes. There was also a rockery and several flower beds. I could imagine that in sunny weather it would be pretty, and offer some shade in the height of summer. The house itself sat more or less centrally in the plot, and was constructed of the local grey stone with a dark, slate roof. It was not attractive in itself, but the bay windows gave it an almost smiling aspect. The owner had added several attractive features, such as lantern outside lights, and a front door glazed with bottle bottom glass.
I opened my car door and stepped out. The air smelt fresh with a damp, mossy, pine tinged aroma, and the drive’s gravel crunched satisfyingly beneath my feet as I walked. As I approached the rear of the hatchback, the driver’s door swung open and a trim woman got out. At a guess, I would say that she was in her early sixties and she was elegant in the extreme. From her white hair, pulled back into a traditional chignon and pearl stud earrings, down to her trim ankles and black patent court shoes, everything about her gave the impression of understated good taste. As she shook my hand and asked.
‘Dr. Theobault? I’m Jane Abbot from Murdoch and Dillys, estate agents.’ I was surprised that she spoke with a local accent, somehow I had expected her to be more Sloane Square. She motioned for me to walk in front of her towards the front door, and unlocked it for me. As I passed her in the doorway, I caught a whiff of Chanel no 5. The entrance hall was light and airy with a stairway leading off it. Jane asked me how I would prefer to conduct the viewing, she told me that the owner was happy for her to wait in the hall, whilst I looked around unsupervised, or if I preferred, she could give me a guided tour. I chose the first option, and she said just to ask if there was anything that I wanted to know. As I wandered from room to room, inhaling the delicate scent of lavender, which pervaded every corner, I soon became convinced that this could be my new home. I felt comfortable here. It was not big, consisting of two double bedrooms, and a small box room, which I would use as my study – you see already, I was planning how I would utilise the space when I moved in, a combined sitting and dining room, a sun room and kitchen with built in white goods. Jane told me that the asking price included these last items, curtains and carpets, although if I preferred the owner would remove them. As I stood in the centre of the kitchen, taking in the granite work surfaces and the gleaming cream fitted cupboards, she added.
‘She’s left a book with lots of handy information: local tradespeople, how many rolls of wallpaper each room takes, sizes of the windows, all things like that.’ I know that it wasn’t good practice, that I should have told the estate agent that ‘I would go away and think about it.’, but I had already made up my mind. ‘Yes, I’ll buy it.’
‘You mean, you’d like to make an offer.’
‘I’ll pay the asking price.’ To which Jane replied. ‘Some houses choose their owners themselves.’
Within twelve weeks, I was moving in. A removal firm transported my few pieces of furniture from my Lancaster flat to Daleside, and placed them where directed. When they left, I realised that my box of Christmas decorations and a suitcase full of old family photos were in the middle of the spare bedroom floor. I was determined to keep my new home tidy, so unlatched the loft hatch with the stick provided, pulled down the ladder and hefted both items up through the hatch into the loft space. The previous owner had been thorough in clearing out her home; they were the only two things up there.
I soon settled into Daleside and the routine of my daily commute to Lancaster for work. One weekend, I decided to cut across the adjacent fields into neighbouring Staveley. I had a few provisions to buy, but also wanted to arrange for The Times to be delivered at the weekends. It was a pleasant walk, and once in the village, I entered the dingy interior of the newsagents. The bell above the door jangled as I went in. Directly opposite me was a counter laid out with the day’s newspapers. Displayed along the front, held in place by what appeared to be curtain wires was an array of comics and magazines. Behind the counter were shelves holding old fashioned sweet jars, containing every imaginable confection, from lemon sherbets to liquorice allsorts. Around the shop’s small interior were stands of greetings cards and postcards, paperbacks, maps and stationery. There were several nets suspended from the ceiling containing tennis balls, fluffy toys and cheap dolls and toy cars. The place was a treasure trove of light entertainment.
‘Morning, I wonder if I could arrange for newspapers to be delivered at the weekend, please? I politely asked the overall clad woman standing behind the counter.
‘Certainly, what address, please?’
‘Mrs Caldecott’s place! I was wondering who’d moved in there. How’re you finding it?’
‘I love it.’
‘She’d be pleased that someone’s living in it, not using it to let out to holiday makers or anything like that.’
‘You knew her then?’
‘Oh yes, everyone round here knew her. She was quite the pillar of the community. Ran our little theatre for us.’
‘Ah, she was a thespian.’
‘She liked to act.’
‘Oh yes, she could take on any part, but she also did all the scenery, made all the costumes and everything. Fair broke her heart when she knew that she had to sell up and leave us.’
‘She was getting on a bit, and last year took a bad bout of the flu. After that, she said that her son went on and on at her, telling her that she needed to move nearer to him and buy something smaller. She didn’t really want to go.’
‘That’s sad. I know it’s selfish, but I’m glad for me, because otherwise I’d never be living in my lovely home.’ To which the shopkeeper morosely replied as she solemnly shook her head. ‘Some houses choose their owners themselves.’
A few weeks later, I was laying reading in bed when I thought I heard movement. I lay quite still and listened intently. It was a windy night, so I thought that it may have been the branches of the trees rattling against each other. There it was again! It wasn’t coming from outside, it sounded more like it was above me. It was a shuffling sound, like something being dragged. I wondered if there were some loose tiles on the roof, and the gusty wind was lifting them. I could do without the expense of having the roof looked at, at the moment. I continued to lie there, listening, until tiredness overcame me, and I must have dropped off to sleep. Two hours later I woke up. My bedside light was still on, my book open on my chest. It was the early hours of the morning and the wind had dropped. The noise had stopped.
The garden was beginning to look untidy. With my daily commute, and the long hours I worked as a hospital doctor, I was finding it impossible to keep on top of everything. I did not want any aspect of my home to look uncared for. I decided that I needed to employ a gardener, and where better to start my search than Mrs Caldecott’s little book of helpful hints. There, sure enough, under the list of tradespeople was an entry for ‘Ed – gardener.’ I rang the given mobile ‘phone number.
‘Hello, is that Ed?’
‘Hello. My name’s Dr Theobault. I’ve recently moved into Daleside.’
‘I think you used to be the gardener there.’
‘Aye.’ Ed was obviously a man of few words.
‘I was wondering if you’d be prepared to help me out, and be my gardener, please?’
‘Aye.’ With that Ed terminated our call, and I was left wondering what to do next. I needn’t have worried, because the next Saturday morning an elderly man appeared in the vegetable plot. He was hoeing when I spotted him. Bent over the hoe, bearded and sporting a peaked cap, he wore a tweed jacket at least two sizes too big for him, and baggy workman’s trousers, enormous, muddy wellingtons on his feet. I went out the back door, into the garden to greet him.
‘Hello, you must be Ed.’
‘I wasn’t expecting you today.’
‘Always do Mrs Caldecott’s on a Saturday.’
‘She always makes me a cuppa too.’
‘Oh. How many sugars do you take?’
‘Two. And I likes it nice and strong.’
A few minutes later, as I handed Ed a stripy mug filled with strong, sweet tea, and placed a plate of chocolate digestives on one of the stones surrounding the vegetable patch, I ventured to ask him about the noise from the roof that I had heard during the week.
‘Likely be vermin, mice or pigeons or summat. Could put some traps up in the attic if you want?’
‘No, it’s ok thank you, I can manage.’
‘You is living in the country now y’know.’
‘Yes, I know, thank you.’ And then he said something strange.
‘Some houses choose their owners themselves.’
A few weeks later, as I sat at my desk, typing up the day’s case notes on my laptop, I was sure I saw reflection of movement flit across the screen. I sat up, rubbed my eyes and stretched. It was late, gone 11.30 pm, and I needed to be up again at 6.00 am to do it all over again. I decided to turn in for the night, but as I crossed the landing to go to my bedroom, I again heard movement. There in the dark corner of the landing was the black, figure of a man crouching in the shadows. Don’t be ridiculous. The intruder alarm hasn’t gone off. You’re over tired and imagining things. Now get to bed.’
Whilst looking in Mrs Caldecott’s book for a gardener, I noticed something else of interest. It said ‘Stef – Available for regular housework, support with catering for dinner parties etc., or large, one off jobs such as cleaning the cooker.’ The inside of Daleside’s windows badly needed cleaning, and I just didn’t have the time. I rang Stef’s number and introduced myself.
‘Oh hello My Lovely. I’ve been hoping you’d call. Heard you’d moved in from Mrs Hutchins in Staveley News. Yes, I’d love to come and help you out. And so it was that Stef arrived into my life. She was plump with masses of brassy, auburn curls and a rather bright taste in make- up. I’d learnt from my initial meeting with Ed, and offered her tea straight away. She took up the window cleaning challenge with alacrity, and talked volubly and non-stop as she rubbed away at the window panes. As we chatted, I mentioned how tired I was feeling, and the imaginary man on the landing. Stef was sympathetic, saying.
‘I know there’s so much to do when you first move into a place.’ And then she added ‘Some houses choose their owners themselves.’
Fatigue was becoming a feature of my life. One evening, I came home late from work to discover that I’d left the backdoor unlocked. In this area, it wasn’t too much of a risk; locals often left their doors unlocked as a matter of course. But I had always been extremely careful about security. Another time, I realised that I’d left the kitchen light on all day. Again, no big deal.
There it was again! As I lay in my bed, I definitely heard footsteps overhead, and it wasn’t the sound of small rodents scuttling around, or pigeons roosting. My heart was thumping, but I was determined to get to the bottom of this. I got out of bed, pulled on some jeans and put my mobile ‘phone in a back pocket. Out onto the landing, then opened the loft hatch, pulled down the ladder, and up I went until my head and shoulders were through the hatch and into the loft space. I reached up and switched on the light, all was as I’d left it. The box of Christmas decorations were there, the suitcase and the mousetraps, but as I caste my eyes around, I realised that there was something wrong with the proportions of the space. It was smaller than it should have been, and the lengths of two opposite walls were unequal. I pulled myself up, onto the boarded floor and went over to one wall. It wasn’t real brick; it was wallpaper with a brick pattern. Tapping it, I was unsurprised to hear that it sounded like wood. As I looked closer, I could see that at the wall’s top, were two small loops of rope, just the right size to be handholds. Stretching up, I took a loop in each hand, braced my legs, leant back and gave an almighty tug. The whole expanse of wall came swinging down towards me, causing me to run backwards towards the centre of the loft. It landed with an almighty thump, the sound reverberating round the hollow roof space. It was constructed of hardboard, and covered in wallpaper to make it look like a wall.
It had concealed a small area, which to my astonishment, I could now see contained a shabby armchair, upon which sat an elderly lady. Her white hair fell onto the shoulders of what looked like a fluffy dressing gown, and on her feet she was wearing slippers. Over her knees there was a blanket, and it looked like she was reading a newspaper. She continued to calmly sit there as the false wall collapsed and I looked at her agape. She looked up from the paper and regarded me with her clear blue eyes. She looked vaguely familiar. Finally, she spoke.
‘My dear Dr Theobault, I’m so sorry about this.’
‘Who are you, and what the hell do you think you’re doing?’
‘I didn’t mean for this to go on as long as it has – living up here like this, I mean. You see, my father was a builder, and built Daleside for me, and gave it to me as a wedding present. I’ve lived here all these years until last year I became unwell, and my son, David, decided that I needed to move. He would not let the subject drop, so I put the house on the market, hoping that it wouldn’t sell. But then you came along and offered the asking price. I thought that once I had the cash it would be easy to find somewhere else to buy, so decided to wait and look for something once the sale had gone through. Hiding was quite easy really. I organised myself a P.O address, and put my things into storage. I already had a house key and knew the burglar alarm code. You work such long hours that during the day I had the run of the house and garden, and only had to hide up here during the night when I sleep anyway and weekends. My theatrical background helped me to make the false wall, and take on the other personalities. I truly didn’t mean to stay as long as I have done, and suppose that I really must go now. After all, some houses choose their owners themselves, don’t they?
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Amazing story. Love your descriptions especially the traffic ones, my personal favorite "the slick convoluted eel." Dr. Theobault was easy to like. She stayed in character throughout. I love how you set us up using Mrs. Caldecott's book. How we learned more about her by meeting the people she knew. The only thing I found hard to believe was that her son would not know she had sold the house and had no place to stay. He seem so determined to move her I thought he would keep a close watch. Suspense built to the end but in an interesting way. T...
Thank you so much Joan.