The other house

I can still hear them, the footsteps on the pavement, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Percussive echoes of stiletto heels. A magical sound inseparable from the grown-up sophisticated world to which I dreamt of belonging one day.
The owners of the footsteps wore crimson lipstick and bleached their hair the colour of my breakfast cereal.
I remember vividly the day they moved in. The old house opposite us had been empty and neglected for as long as I could remember, until one day a gang of workmen moved in and restored it to its former glory.
It was fit for royalty.
On that fateful day which was to change my life, I went to school as usual and came home at my normal time. As I turned the corner into our road I saw a vast removal van parked outside our house. Not associating it with the other house, I rushed home, and was relieved beyond belief that we were not having our possessions pushed and heaved into its confines.
No furniture at all was going into the van, but plenty was coming out of it. Beautiful period pieces wrapped lovingly in blankets were being carried like children up the driveway and into the other house. I stood transfixed until the stares of the removal men started to embarrass me. I ran home and into our kitchen and waylaid my mother, who was busy with some chore or other.
I bombarded her with questions, but I don’t remember much about what she said in reply, except that now two people would be living in the other house, a mother and a daughter.
I remember thinking how nice it would be to have someone across the road to play with. In my childish mind all mothers were about the same age as mine and their daughters about the same age as me.
Soon it got dark. Watching through the landing window, I saw the van move off and could hardly contain my curiosity about the new residents across the road. I asked if I could knock on their door, but my mother forbade it and I was sent to bed because I looked flushed.
Next morning I waited at our gate for the little girl I thought lived there to come out of the old house and run to the school bus with me. But she didn’t, and in the end I had to rush like mad so as not to miss it myself.
Then school took over my thoughts until it was time to walk back up our steep road at my usual home-coming time. I didn’t cross at my usual place, but instead walked very slowly past the other house and tried to peer into the grounds without turning my head.
Imagine my disappointment when I saw that the French windows had all been hung with thick impenetrable lace curtains.
There was no sign of life.
I said nothing to my mother, for fear that she would again forbid me to do what I wanted. I had already decided to ring their doorbell if the little girl didn’t come to school next day.
Accordingly, when I came home the following afternoon I threw my satchel behind our hedge, pushed the wrought iron gate of the old house open and crept stealthily up the driveway. I swung the polished bronze door-knocker until its eyeless gargoyle hammered against the newly varnished front door.
I was still aghast at my own audacity when the door was opened from within and a beautiful lady came into view.
I hid my hands behind my back and held my breath. I had never seen anyone so immaculately dressed and painted. Almost immediately, a second lovely lady, somewhat older than the first, appeared behind her.
I waited tongue-tied and fidgety for something to happen, dizzy from the indescribable fragrance which emanated from the house and drifted into my numbed brain.
Our house usually smelt of cooking and washing and I couldn’t imagine what lifestyle could have induced that smell of orchids and mimosa which exuded from the rose-coloured entrance-hall behind the two angels.
Had my feet not been stuck to their step, I would have turned tail and fled.
Over the shoulder of the younger lady, the more mature one asked me what I wanted in a kind, amused tone of voice.
I took a deep breath.
“Can I play with your daughter?” I ventured, addressing my query to the younger lady, as she seemed a more suitable candidate for the role of mother, though I couldn’t really imagine either of them having time to do anything else but take care of themselves.
The younger lady burst into laughter like a tinkling bubbling cascade, which I might have likened to the chinking of champagne glasses, had I had any experience of such things.
My own mother laughed contralto when she could find anything to laugh about, and all the other women I knew from my mother’s sporadic social work or family visits performed a repertoire of tee-hee-hees which did not sound remotely like this spontaneous explosion of joyfulness.
“Isn’t she quaint?” remarked the laughing lady to the other one.
Then she turned back to me and said in a regretful voice,
“I haven’t got a little girl.”
“But my mother told me a mother and her little girl had moved in here, so I thought…..”
I tapered off, not being able to think of anything else to say.
“Ah,” intervened the older lady. “Now I understand.”
I waited with baited breath for her to continue. I was transfixed by her sky blue unwavering eyes. She chose her next words carefully.
“This is my daughter,” she said slowly, resting a caring manicured hand on the younger lady’s silken shoulder.
I don’t know how I got back home. My eyes were brimming over with tears of disappointment and humiliation and I was in a terrible quandary because that very morning I had told everyone at school that I had a new friend, but was keeping her name a secret for three days as part of our vow of eternal friendship.
Now I would be exposed as a liar. Everyone would jeer at me and ridicule me and refuse to play with me.
Or would they? What if I were to keep up the pretence until a suitable moment arrived when I could safely dispose of the myth?
I rushed up to my room to rehearse what I would say at school next day. I stood in front of the wardrobe mirror the way I always did when I was solving a problem. When I was satisfied with my performance, I washed my tear-stained face and went down to tea.
After school next day I walked very fast as I approached the other house, then I dropped my satchel deliberately right in front of their garden gate. I knelt down to pick everything up and while I was doing this I peered through the wrought iron bars, hoping against hope that the front door would swing open and give me a glimpse or a whiff of the objects of my curiosity and admiration.
But nothing happened. The other house was as silent and motionless as a graveyard.
Next day it was Saturday, and as usual I was sent on errands by my mother, who never managed to get everything she needed when she went shopping herself. I had to hurry, because sometimes she would remember even more things she couldn’t possibly do without. I would trudge up and down the road three or even four times, until nothing else came into mind and the weekend round of cooking and baking could safely begin.
As I was turning the corner into our road for the third time that morning, carting a bagful of carrots and cooking apples and puffing and blowing from the long drag up the steep road, I was amazed to see the two ladies just in front of me. I slowed down so as not to overtake them, and observed them from the perspective of silk stockings with miraculously straight seams and elegant high heels which reminded me of shoe adverts.
There they were, strolling home, admiring the front gardens as they went, pointing to shrubs and flowers, discussing their merits, comparing and adjudicating. They were in perfect harmony with each other, sharing the burden of a heavy shopping basket which looked to be full of wine bottles and cellophane-wrapped goodies. They opened their gate and walked up their drive, unlocked the front door and disappeared from view.
Still tingling with excitement, I walked past the other house again instead of crossing the road further down, as I used to do before they moved in. There was neither sight nor sound of anyone, but I could swear that the aroma of their hypnotic scent still filled the air they had so recently breathed.
From then on, I took pains to time my errands so that I could see them every Saturday and started to think seriously about whether I should ask them if I could run some for them, too.
But as the weeks went by, their twosomeness became more and more mysterious. They were quite unlike anyone else I knew. I had never before shown any interest in any of our neighbours. But then, they were only ordinary people, like you and me.
The two ladies, on the other hand, were unique. I could not imagine why they had chosen to come and live in our boring little town. I started to speculate as to where their husbands might be. After all, in American films the beautiful women had gorgeous husbands, one after another, not to mention all those other mysterious strangers who crossed their paths and who were called lovers by everyone except my mother, who refused to call them anything at all.
To add to the overall enchantment, the spell-binding quality of the two ladies grafted itself inexorably upon their house. The images became entwined. The other house gradually became as secretive as its occupants.
Spring turned into summer, and summer into autumn, but I still hadn’t plucked up courage to ask the ladies if I could help them with their shopping, such was my awe of them.
Their garden, tended by unseen hands, had burst into a blaze of tropical flowers, the like of which I had never seen before. To my childish mind it seemed that everything the two ladies touched turned into something magical.
All that was missing from their lives, and therefore from mine, were the heroes I had read about clandestinely in “True Story” when I was supposed to be fast asleep.
Little did I know that my romantic curiosity was soon to be gratified?
~
On a bright October Saturday, as I was trudging home with all the extras my mother couldn’t possibly do without, I was astonished to see a large black limousine parked in front of our house. A man was knocking at our front door, and presently I saw my mother pointing him in the direction of the other house. By the time I reached our gate he had disappeared up their driveway and into their hall.
I asked my mother about him, but she shrugged her shoulders and told me to mind my own business, so I went up to my room and asked my mirror what this event could possibly signify.
When I had rehearsed as many explanations as I could think of, I went downstairs, looking out of the landing window as I did so. The car had vanished.
“Where’s it gone?” I asked my mother.
“Where has what gone?” replied my mother. “Don’t talk in riddles,” she scolded.
“The car. You know, the one belonging to the man who knocked on our door.”
“Oh, that car,” she said. “Well, I haven’t got time to stand at the window all day and you should keep your nose out of what doesn’t concern you, young lady. If you’ve nothing to do, read a book.”
I resolved not to ask any more questions. There’s nothing more frustrating than asking sensible questions and getting stupid answers. My mother simply didn’t share or even understand my interest in our neighbours.
Come to think of it, I didn’t really understand it myself.
The car came and went several times during the following weeks. Fortunately it rained every day, so I didn’t have to think up any excuses for not going to play tennis and my mother was thrilled that I was at last taking more interest in my piano practice, even if she was not quite in agreement with my having a large mirror hung up above the piano instead of her favourite water colour. I told her that if I caught myself looking into it, it meant I was not concentrating on the piano, and she believed me. The truth is that I was able to observe the other house through its reflection. This was the single most fantastic discovery I had made since the two ladies had moved in.
My speculations about the identity of the well-dressed driver of the car soon occupied me day and night.
At first I thought he must be a film producer, come to take the daughter to a film studio, where she would become world-famous. I bought film magazines with my pocket money, but I couldn’t find anything about either of them.
So I decided he must be a renowned specialist come to treat the mother for her severe heart complaint. But when mother and daughter went shopping together without showing any signs of fame or fragility, I was forced to admit that he was a sneaky confidence trickster come to extort money by menaces.
Should I warn the ladies before it was too late?
The man’s next visit ended with both ladies coming out of the house and waving goodbye from the comparative safety of their front garden, looking happier than ever before.
That was really the confirmation of my latest intuition that the daughter was going to marry the romantic stranger, who was now going ahead with plans for their honeymoon in Florida. It didn’t worry me unduly that they hadn’t kissed when they parted, because I had only read about or seen on celluloid such open demonstrations of affection. They were the exception rather than the rule in our family, where what my mother called “sloppiness” was avoided whenever possible.
Soon, however, I was forced to admit to myself that I had been a little too hasty with the honeymoon theory.
The following Sunday had seen me, as usual, getting my father the Sunday papers from the railway station newsagent’s. I hated having to do this. My mother had been talked by her elder sister into thinking that it wasn’t Christian to support Sunday working and as this included paper deliveries, we had stopped ours. This made it easier for my mother to get on with my aunt, but more arduous for me, because I had to empty all my school things out of my satchel and go to get them, always taking the risk that my aunt would be going to or from church. The fact that she never failed to read those papers when she just happened to drop in later in the day, did not stop her from preaching regularly about the sinfulness of modern Sunday customs.
Mission accomplished for that morning, I was just passing the other house when I heard strange sounds.
I immediately dropped my satchel and crouched on the pavement where I could not be seen.
Someone was screaming in a high-pitched voice. Then there was a dull thud. The screaming stopped, and somebody started to cry bitterly.
In a state of shock I picked myself up and ran home.
Even standing in front of my mirror, I could conceive no explanation for what I had just heard. An inner voice commanded me to search for one. I found a tennis ball and went out to play on the road between our houses.
By pure chance I hurled the ball so hard that it flew over their hedge and bounced across their lawn, ending its flight at the side of the other house. Since I could not go on playing without the ball, I simply had to retrieve it. Accordingly, I pushed the wrought iron gate open and crept stealthily towards the ball.
Someone was still crying, but hardly had I reached the ball, when that crying stopped. I closed my eyes and held my breath until I could hear my own heart-beat, but I could hear no more sounds from within the other house.
Then something – or somebody – must have propelled me back into the safety of our own garden.
Fear had overtaken me. The frightened face in my wardrobe mirror was the only confirmation I needed.
By the time the feverish spots had receded from my cheeks and my pulse had steadied itself, I was convinced that the stranger must be son and brother, who had squandered all the family’s wealth at the race-course and in gambling dens. He had come back to tell them they were ruined.
But in that case, where was the car?
Autumn was now turning into winter. The trees had been stripped of their last leaves by the swirling November winds. It was very cold, which gave me an excuse to run past the other house on our side of the road. I tried not to think about the two women, whom I hadn’t seen since that fateful Sunday. But I did not confide in anybody.
Then, the following Thursday afternoon, as I was rushing home from school, I saw that a hole had been dug in their garden, exactly where I had stooped to pick up my tennis ball. Why, oh why had they dug such a deep hole …… deep enough to bury someone in?
I vowed that if they were trying to keep a terrible secret, then I would learn to keep it with them. In front of my mirror I rehearsed not giving the game away until I could have told any amount of untruths without turning a hair. Then I went down to tea.
My mother took one look at me.
“Have you been up to something?” she conjectured. “You’ve got a guilty look about you.”
I muttered something which seemed to appease her. It was vital to put her off the scent, so after eating three slices of bread with something on it, I told her I was going to read the book about saints that her sister had given me for Christmas, and thus escaped to the privacy of my room and the scrutiny of my mirror to decide on a plan of action.
By then it was much too dark to see the hole, and next morning it had been filled up again. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I couldn’t investigate because it was only Friday, and I had to catch the school bus.
All day I thought about the hole and its probable contents. I was so busy with my thoughts that I was detained for lack of attention and forced to write a hundred lines of “procrastination is the thief of time” and travel with the later bus alongside all the boys who had had extra football.
It was almost dark when I turned the corner into our road, and I must confess that I stopped thinking about the hole in the unaccustomed warmth of my mother’s relief that I had come home safe and sound.
Next day the whole family went shopping in the car, as it was now high time to do the Christmas pre-baking, for which the recipes were hopelessly complicated and required thousands of ingredients.
After we had unloaded the car and dispatched the Saturday fry-up, I was obliged to help my mother all afternoon, stirring puddings and cakes till my arms ached, and cutting stars and moons out of pastry I would preferred to have eaten raw. I even had to guard the oven to make sure that everything turned the right shade of golden. It was nearly five o’clock by the time I escaped to submit to the inner compulsion I felt to take another look at the flattened earth where the hole had been.
I could hardly believe my eyes. On the flattened ground exactly over the hole there was now a prefabricated wooden garden shed. I stood shivering in the gloom. I was defeated. Now there would be no way of finding out what had happened.
Suddenly the front door of the other house opened, and the two women emerged. They were wrapped in long black fur coats and wore headscarves the way the royal family do when they go for country walks with their dogs and horses. I thought their faces were tear-stained. Their lips looked like ugly red gashes slashed across their snow white skin.
They locked their front door and hurried down the road. Fortunately, they hadn’t seen me cowering behind the gatepost.
When they were almost at the bottom corner of our road, I started to stalk them, glad that I was wearing the crepe-soled shoes I usually hated. I wasn’t really sure why I was doing this, but it seemed to be my only alternative.
By the time they passed the public library, which was open until six on a Saturday, I had resolved to take some form of action. Leaving the women to go wherever they wanted to, I went into the library and straight to the crime section.
There, I read my way along the titles until I found what I was looking for. The librarian was not very happy about lending me that particular book until I assured her that my father specially wanted it for criminal research and promised not to read it myself. I hid it inside my coat and managed to reach home and the seclusion of my room unnoticed.
Within an hour the book had provided me with the solution to the whole mystery. I didn’t want to believe it, but it there it was in writing, the only possible explanation of the goings-on at the other house.
I knew now that I should call the police, but I couldn’t possibly use our phone for fear of arousing suspicion. I would simply have to wait until next morning, when I went to the station for the papers.
It wouldn’t matter, I told myself. The murderers – for that is what I was forced to call them now that I knew the terrible truth – the murderers still thought they were completely safe after disposing of the evidence. Therefore, why should they try to escape?
The main proof of guilt was obviously going to be the garden shed. Why had they put it up in such a hurry if not to hide the corpse which was now buried in the hole underneath it? And since the victim had already been disposed of in this way, there were no grounds for further action. And if they had kept a cool head, then so would I.
Then a thought occurred to me. I looked hard into my mirror and it told me that if they were wearing black, then they must be in mourning. Was it not possible that there had been a terrible accident? And in that case, had I a right or even a reason to interfere?
To be truthful, the whole affair was becoming an intolerable burden, and I was starting to wish I didn’t know their awful secret.
The other conundrum was the identity of the corpse. Now I had seen the two women, I realized that it must be the stranger. But how could I report him missing when I didn’t even know his name?
On the other hand, I was quite sure in my own mind that he was the unfortunate occupant of that improvised tomb. The question was: how could I prove it?
Did I want to prove it?
Sunday was interminable. I pretended to have a sore throat so that I would not have to go to the station for the papers and would therefore not have to decide about the phone call to the police. I lay in bed with a stinking onion poultice round my neck, my French vocabulary book propped up against my knees and the forbidden library book under my pillow for safe-keeping. I tried hard not to think of the tomb.
My father went for the papers and when he came back I overheard him telling my mother that he had seen next door’s limousine parked on the station forecourt with a parking ticket on the windscreen.
Did I need any more proof?
On Monday I was well enough to go to school, but my mind was far too full of fresh forensic knowledge to leave room for trivialities like French grammar or historical dates. Once again I was detained, only this time I had to write two hundred “procrastinations” and sharpen all the teacher’s pencils.
It was very late when I got home and my mother was standing at our front door, hovering somewhere between anger and anxiety.
“You naughty girl,” she scolded. “Where on earth have you been?”
“Missed the bus,” I lied.
Ignoring my reply she burst out, “They’ve gone!”
She sounded strangely excited.
“Gone?” I gasped. “Who?”
“Next door. To Australia. I didn’t see the ladies, but the packers came this morning and put everything into crates and onto a huge removal van.”
I was justifiably bereft of words.
“And your father has had a wonderful idea.”
My heart sank. I couldn’t remember when my father had last had an idea my mother approved of.
“We shall buy the other house,” she announced, and a cold shiver sped up and down my spine.
“Your father’s gone to the house agent’s to fix up a time to view it.”
I wanted to stop what was going on, but my mouth was dry and my lips wouldn’t even part.
“There should not be any difficulty in getting it, with your father having helped the agent with his tax returns all these years. The other house is much more spacious than this one and the garden is in such good condition that even your father will be able to cope with it. There’s that lovely new garden shed to put all his tools in and you will love living in a place which once belonged to such nice people, won’t you?”
She went on and on about the house until I started to feel dizzy.
“I just cannot understand why they had to leave in such a hurry.”
I could.
“Why, goodness me,” said my mother, suddenly noticing my unaccustomed silence. “You’re not sickening for something, are you? I knew you should have stayed home today. Those onion poultices always bring things out,” she deduced. “Off to bed with you this very minute. I’ll be up soon to see how you are.”
Without so much as a glance in my mirror, I threw off my outer garments and slipped thankfully between the cool sheets. There I should have finished being shocked in privacy, but instead I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
I must have slept for at least fifteen hours, for the next thing I heard was my mother shouting:
“Get up and look! There’s smoke coming out of the old house.”
It was broad daylight, and she had already been shopping. She hadn’t even got me up to go to school.
My father explained later that there had been a short circuit in the wiring. It was nothing that couldn’t be put right, and there was no reason to think it would happen again, once we had checked everything and repaired the fault.
I stayed in bed, because there was nothing I could think of to get up for. My parents were hatching plans for where our furniture would fit, and if we could afford to buy a new three-piece suite. I stared at my French vocabulary in between fitful naps. My mother brought me light snacks and aspirins and felt my forehead to see how I was feeling.
“What a good job we hadn’t signed the contract of purchase for our new house,” she told me at some point. “The previous owners will have to pay for any damage caused by that electrical fault.”
“What do you mean, previous owners?” I asked. “Surely we don’t have to go on buying the other house now it’s nearly had a fire.”
“But of course we do.” My mother was adamant. “Why shouldn’t we?”
I buried my head in my pillow and my mother decreed that I should spend the following day resting by a nice warm fire in the sitting-room.
“Just read your book and don’t get up,” she warned me. “You still look peaky. I’ll get you some more aspirin while I’m in town.”
~
While she was out, the other house caught fire and burnt to the ground.

~

The other house

Faith Puleston

Herdecke, Germany

  • Artist
    Notes

Artist's Description

This is a fictional piece based on memories of neighbours. They really were the way I have described them. I leave to your imagination how much more of the story is truthful!

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