Chapter One – Exploring Heachley Hall

The Will

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.”

― Antonio Porchia

ONE

September 2015

I shortened the lengths of my strides, ignored the numbing embrace of a premature autumn and allowed my senses the opportunity to coax awake quiescent memories.

Years ago, as a young girl, I’d walked the same path alongside my father and knocked on the front door of Heachley Hall. The gardens boasted pungent roses and mobs of fragrant lavender, songbirds chatted exuberantly to each other and there was the crisp flavour of sea salt in the air. The house itself was a blur of grey stonework and slate with an arched porch framing an impressive door. Beyond, a dark wood. The smattering of recalled images, no different from the jumbled pieces of a jigsaw, brought with them a maelstrom of muddled emotions.

Strange how memories lingered in the form of smell, sound and occasionally taste, but visually, they easily faded into a frustrating void. Nothing else discernible remained in those memory nooks. Somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered, was a clearer picture of that day. And the reason why I’d chosen to forget it.

The garden resembled a meadow. Thistles strangled the wild grasses and verdant moss roamed wild. Once a cultivated lawn, the generous frontage had lost its beauty to the unstoppable – time and the seasons. The gravel path scrunched underfoot, leaves rustled incessantly and a crow announced our arrival with a fanfare of squawks. Approaching the weather-worn door, I smelt the decay of mulched leaves. Of the house, especially its interior, nothing came to mind; it was a vacuum waiting to be filled.

The door’s diminutive size surprised me. Where was the grandiose entrance? I had been much smaller, seven, maybe eight years old, when we’d called upon Great-aunt Felicity. The visits were part of that pervasive nothingness that contained most of my early childhood.

Mr Bridge swung the key ring around his little finger. His car, an urban smart tattooed with the name of the estate agent, was squeezed next to a hawthorn hedge just outside the iron gates. He’d waited for me to arrive before crossing the threshold, as if the weed infested driveway, that cut a crescent shaped path through the lawn, was tainted in some way.

While Mr Bridge fiddled with the stiff lock of the front door, I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets and surveyed the ivy that choked the flintstone walls of the Victorian mansion. A cloak of fog swaddled the house, its tendrils swirled around the window sills, rising like a white creeper to the heights of the pointed gables where it stifled the huddled chimney pots. The poor house was smothered by nature.

He pushed the door ajar. ‘So this is your late aunt’s house, I gather? I’m very sorry for your loss,’ he said with appropriate solemnity.

I smiled sweetly. He wasn’t to know the circumstances. ‘Thank you. Sadly, I only found out about Felicity’s passing a few days ago.’ I acknowledged his sympathetic glance before continuing.  ‘She died in February. Mr Porter had problems finding me.’  I’d missed her cremation.

‘Oh,’ Mr Bridge invited me to enter first.

A flurry of yellow leaves followed us into the hallway and added to the detritus accumulating on the tiled floor.

‘It’s empty,’ he explained after an awkward pause.

I nodded. ‘She died in a nursing home. She left me the house, although…’ How to explain the peculiar clauses in Felicity’s will. Mr Porter had told me the details over the telephone. He’d pitched his voice perfectly for the delivery of good news: the timbre lifted almost gleefully. ‘Miriam, I’m pleased to inform you that you are the sole heir to Miss Marsters’s estate in Norfolk.’  I’d insisted the solicitor sent me a copy of Felicity’s will, along with a survey of the property. Neither document had arrived before I left Chelmsford and driven to view the old hall with its six bedrooms and hundred hectares of land.

Mr Bridge thumbed through his notes and referred to numerous – ‘but repairable,’ he assured – cracks in the plasterwork. The damp around the windows – ‘treatable,’ he encouraged. The wires hanging out of the light fittings – ‘a competent electrician would fix that.’ He bounced on his toes and prattled on about the ‘Gothic’ or ‘grandiose’ Victorian characteristics imbued in the architecture. The man was keen to make a swift sale.

‘Such space and light. Given the size of the place, it could easily accommodate four individual flats. That’s one option for a developer.’ He kicked aside a dead mouse with his heel.

‘Yes, I suppose,’ I murmured, turning away from his clipboard to face the imposing staircase with its shallow steps. It seemed surreal to think this house could be mine.

‘So, a month from now, this will be out of your hands—’

‘Not necessarily.’ I whipped my head over my shoulder in time to see his jaw drop a fraction. ‘It would seem the sensible option, given the state of the house and grounds. However, I’m also entitled to keep the property and sell at a later date.’ A later date meant a whole year of living in Heachley Hall. Felicity’s will was specific – a year and a day – and then the property would be mine. Otherwise, an immediate sale would mean forfeiting the income generated and allowing a number of charities to benefit instead.

Mr Bridge’s face perked up at the word sell. ‘Naturally, we’d be happy to arrange an auction at a later time, but the house won’t wait. Since Miss Marsters vacated the property some time ago, it’s quite uninhabitable.’

I ignored his comment about the state of the house and I was also aware of its bleak location. I’d no clue about managing woodland either, but I was a quick learner and having nature on my doorstep, inspiring me to draw, had to be beneficial.

‘According to the figures you sent me, I could be inheriting a property worth a million, potentially, of course. If I did agree to my great-aunt’s stipulation, and if I happened to make it habitable during that period, I could add to the value of the property.’

He furrowed his eyebrows. ‘I suppose that might depend on what you did,’ he stuttered. ‘I’d been given the impression, Miss Chambers, that you had no intention of living here and I, I mean Hardcastle Agents, was guaranteed the option to sell now.’

‘I’ve not made my final decision. No guarantees have been given as far as I’m concerned.’ I’d made no plans based on one telephone call with the will’s executor, who clearly, given his depressing appraisal of my inheritance, expected me to sell and save myself the inconvenience of moving into a ‘derelict’ house. The temptation to hold off selling it lay with Heachley’s potential as a marketable property, not a home. A swell of optimism nudged aside the negativity I’d carried since speaking to Mr Porter and it brought with it an unexpected enthusiasm for adventure. Making money, Dad had told me once during his last visit, was all about hard work. I, however, was a year away from a potential fortune, assuming I chose the path Felicity seemed keen for me to follow. Work, the solitary profession of an artist, I could take with me anywhere.

He began to button up his coat, sensing my views on the house were shifting. ‘I hope you’re right. Without renovations you’ll struggle to shift this place.’ He fumbled in his pocket and dug out the house keys. ‘Take a look around. I’ve calls to make and there’s no signal around here.’

I fisted the keys in my hand. ‘None?’ I’d considered the lack of reliable broadband unfortunate, but no mobile signal was something of a major setback.

While he returned to his car, I began my inspection of the house. The sun had escaped the cloud barrier and warmed the kitchen, highlighting the room’s loftiness. Contrary to Mr Porter’s doom and gloom summary, Heachley Hall wasn’t falling apart at the seams. The fragile house lacked an occupation – an inhabitant. It needed a brave soul to keep it company. Was that going to be me?

Standing by the window I watched Mr Bridge dash through the iron gate, clutching his precious clipboard. The mist seemed to chase after him, shooing him off the premises. Somewhere, upstairs, something rattled. A brief sound, maybe a window fighting the invisible currents of air, which I assumed crept in through the draughty frames. Except, when I looked outside, the tree branches maintained frozen poses and the late afternoon sea mist had reappeared, draping the landscape in further stillness.

Confused by a lack of decisiveness, I picked at the loose paintwork around the window, nudging the wood beneath with my fingertip until it met a robust hardness. I wiped the paint dust off my hands and perched my bottom on the sill. It didn’t creak and the lack of complaining added to my confidence that the house wasn’t as ramshackle as it appeared.

Peering into the porcelain sink, I spied terracotta rust rings around the plughole. ‘Pity,’ I said softly. The white basin, that bore the name of the maker etched underneath the lime-scaled taps, had almost redeemed the dilapidated kitchen.

I opened a cupboard door and it hung precariously by one hinge. I traced a dark whorl ingrained in the broken door – oak. With a decent sanding down and revarnishing, it could be resurrected into a splendid veneer. The sink could also be replaced. I closed the door, carefully realigning it with the cupboard’s carcass.

Around me the house whispered in the language of creaks and groans, as if to encourage me to look past its many faults. Great-aunt Felicity had lived here for decades, possibly loved the place beyond anything else. Even with my scant recollections of her, I couldn’t conceive she would have deliberately let the house fall into decline. I believed she wanted me here for a purpose. The reason why was unknown, perhaps misplaced amongst her vanished things. Lost things can often be found again.

Fortune might include finding a mobile signal. I stalked the ground floor and held the device aloft, hoping for a solitary bar; just a flicker of one.

Dust billowed wherever I traipsed. From the kitchen into the old scullery, then the icy pantry, before returning to the dining room; I kicked it up around my ankles. I relied on guesswork to deduce each room’s purpose; Heachley Hall was a shell and stripped of nearly everything – carpets, furniture, even light fittings.

In the drawing room hung lifeless drapes, presumably abandoned to rot in situ. I rubbed the fabric between two fingers. It possessed a friable delicacy, soft, too. The colour had faded except, buried between the exposed folds, endured a rich crimson. Above me, the wooden pole frowned, as if tired of its burden, or maybe disapproving of the neglect. I sympathised.

A few shelves remained embedded in the alcove of the book-deprived library – such a travesty, I mourned with it. The lingering odour of musty paper persevered and snared itself in my nostrils. A kind of enduring smell that fitted into its surroundings. I ran my finger along a bare shelf and where the sun had faded the wood, I traced the outline of numerous book spines. Book lovers were once part of Heachley’s life. I could make it so again.

Still no signal.

The bang echoed about the room and I clutched the mobile to my chest. ‘What the?’

I stared up at the ceiling, expecting a rainfall of plaster dust, but the air was undisturbed. Draughts. There had to be an open window upstairs. Even with nothing to steal, the house needed to remain secure.

I glided my palm along the banister. A robust staircase that followed the walls of the hall on three sides. I turned each angular corner and wished there were welcoming portraits hanging from the walls. Or perhaps not. That would mean countless eyes tracking my every movement, spying on me. The forgotten residents of Heachley Hall, men with drooping moustaches and ruddy cheeks or elegant women with cinched waists and puppy dogs, all of them judging my decision to abandon the house to strangers.  I hastily ascended.

All the doors were closed. I’d no idea which one had been responsible for the slamming. The landing, without the benefit of a window, was a gloomy corridor. The light from downstairs illuminated the apex of the stairwell, but little else beyond. I inspected each bedroom’s windows for a breakage or opening, while keeping my attention on the little symbol registering the signal strength of my mobile.

Peeling wallpaper hung limply from the corners of every room. The pervasive aroma of damp wafted in tides as I open and closed doors. A cast iron fireplace remained intact in the largest bedroom. Peacocks and birds of paradise flew across the flock wallpaper. Those spies, glued to the walls, kept watch as I examined the sash windows. However, unlike the other rooms, which seemed especially neglected, this one had a residue of comfort. I stared at the overgrown grass and imagined a freshly cut lawn with croquet hoops or maybe a tennis court. The vast garden had the capacity to cater for both and much more.

The grandiose bathroom almost offered the house a reprieve from the decay. It possessed what many modern properties lack: an abundance of space. Although grubby, its potential shone through the grime. The freestanding porcelain tub was supported by brass feet, clawed like tigers and ready to scamper across the floor. Brass fish yawned beneath the taps, their open mouths tarnished by limescale. The marble sink was shallow and simple; quite usable. Above the basin and incorporated into the flaking plasterwork was a mirror, its reflective coating warped in the middle. I appeared distant and distorted; a sepia portrait of vanilla skin, umber waves of hair and copper eyes.

The toilet cistern seemed precariously placed halfway up the wall and from it dangled a hangman’s noose cord. What I saw in the bowl was disgusting. The whole thing would have to be replaced.

Returning to the murky landing, I discovered another set of stairs behind a narrow doorway. The steep steps led up to the attic where two rooms matched the height of the mature cedars of Heachley Wood. Homely, relatively dust free and untainted by mould stains, which given the cold northerly aspect was remarkable. The dormer windows captured the dying dregs of sunlight. Once what I assumed was the housemaids’ domain, I now fancied them as my bedroom and workroom, assuming a bed could be brought up the staircase.

The realisation dawned on me – I’d made a decision quite independently of logical processes. Although I’d been led to believe by the solicitor that there was no possibility of taking up residence here, I’d persuaded myself, purely on the basis I didn’t need much, that the house had invited me to stay. The fledging idea shook off its undeveloped wings and stretched, encompassing more ideas: reclaim the fireplaces, replace a few essential things and renovate what little I could with my limited abilities and budget.

My first priority with the evening approaching was to tell Felicity’s executor about my plans; I’d two days left before the deadline.

However, regardless of where I was in the house, there was nothing to indicate the presence of a signal.

I returned to the first floor and from the other end of the corridor I spied burnt mahogany or dull ebony; either way, the panel was constructed differently to the others. I’d missed a room – its door, both squat in shape and trapped inside a broad frame, emerged from the dark shadows, as if angry that I’d ignored it. From my perspective, the epicentre of the corridor’s lines converged on the doorknob. It couldn’t be a bedroom – there were no more bedrooms to explore. I had no clue as to the door’s purpose, other than to churn up unpleasant emotions. Uprooting my feet I marched toward it; I refused to harbour any fear of an unopened door.

The brass handle reflected the hue of red in my coat. I grasped the icy metal and shivered. I turned it and the catch clicked. A tug. Then a hard yank, but the door refused to budge. I bent and examined the gap between door and frame. The catch had cleared and there was no evidence of a keyhole or locking mechanism. Determined to conquer the slight presence of dread, I gripped the knob with both hands, then rested the sole of my shoe against the doorframe and leaned backwards.

Something gave; a secret release mechanism and with the sudden loss of resistance, my heel slipped on the boards and I fell.

‘Ow.’ I’d landed on my tailbone. The open door swayed slightly and I nudged it further ajar with my outstretched foot. More dust clouded my vision, hiding the interior. I lay paralysed, tongued tied, half expecting a skeleton to tumble down on top of me.

Dust should settle, but when I extracted my mobile, switching on the torch app, the white particles hovered above, as if uncertain of their destination: up or down. An indoor mist had formed to create the illusion of fog or a soft veil of ash. The flurry of powdery dust triggered a sneeze. The violent exhale scattered the peculiar cloud.

I staggered to my feet, crept forward and stuck my head inside the doorway. A closet that continued behind the wall but no more than a metre deep. There were loosely fitted shelves but otherwise it was empty.

Tentatively I touched a shelf and dragged my fingertips along the edge. Redirecting the light to examine my hand, I saw a thick layer of white powder coated the tips. Perhaps the suddenness of the door opening had chased the dust up into one billowing cloud.

I gave the door a tiny shove, and it drifted, almost loathed to respond to my gentle encouragement. Now that it was open, it was keen to stay that way. I started to lean my shoulder against it and with a few centimetres to go, it slammed shut. I knew that sound. I’d heard it before.

I laughed, a nervous titter of bemusement. There had to be an explanation, there generally was for most things, but I’d no time to investigate. The house would have to wait a little longer before I took up residence.

Giving up the fruitless search, I trotted downstairs, the echoes of my heels clattering in time to my heartbeats. I’d seek a signal in the village where I had left my car in the Rose and Crown car park. I locked the front door and dropped the house keys into my handbag. Soon it would be too dark to see the driveway. There were no outside lights, only the luminous presence of the awakening moonlight that chased the silvery cobwebs across the long grass. I hurried down the path, keen to immerse myself in the warmth of the pub.

 

 

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