The key grinds in the lock, but I am reassured by the agent, in the email, that I should expect this and that the key will turn. I push a little harder and after more troubling sound effects the barrel turns. I feel the bolt pull back and the door springs inward about an inch, as if it had been held closed under tension.
I step inside, into the gloomy vestibule, immediately dancing over empty tile adhesive buckets and discarded broken tools. There is a layer of dust that seems to be so solid that it is undisturbed by my arrival. I find myself wondering where has it all come from? No one has lived here for nearly a decade, and is it not true that house dust is mostly dead skin? How can there be so much dust? It is barely disturbed as I step in and push the door closed; I wonder if it will ever be cleaned away?
The stairs are directly ahead and far more inviting than the dark and dreary corridor leading away towards the dark kitchen at the back of the house. The living room door stands ajar, but even though it is barely half open I can see the stacks of newspapers and magazines that I remember from my childhood. I cannot face the paper-stack maze, yet, I need to open some windows and clear the smell of abandonment out of the place. Similarly I am not enticed by the kitchen the other dark and foreboding rooms on the ground floor, so I mount the staircase instead.
I am amazed that the stairs do not creak as I make my way to the upstairs, not even a low grumble from the bannister as I lean upon it trying to keep my steps on the treads as light as possible, though I have no idea to what end. The smell of emptiness, the musty, yet subtle taint of loneliness and emptiness is not as strong as I reach the first floor, but it is there nonetheless. I stand for a moment at the top of the stairs and close my eyes, remembering a time when these walls were covered in framed photographs and press cuttings, a homespun exhibition of parental pride that has long since been taken down and put who knows where.
I turn the corner and the door to the master bedroom is wide open. Afternoon light is streaming in, diffused by an almost complete blanket of cobwebs strung between the panes of the casement window. Scattered onto the ground there is a broken radiator, some rubble, this is little more than a graveyard for memories. Nothing remains. Gone is the beautiful mahogany wash stand that I used to wonder at, with its large jug and washbowl and its intricate backboard, depicting a coastal scene in the Hebrides. The deep pile carpets, so beloved of his generation and so reviled by my own, are clearly long gone and the floorboards are coated in more of the dust that it now occurs to me may be in part made up of the rotting plaster that is falling from the tops of the walls where they meet the ceiling.
I stand there, transfixed by the neglect and sorrow of a window so bedecked with the trappings of time’s passing. Even the most neglectful householder could never allow such an accumulation of dirt, grime and colonisation of spiders. Simply opening and closing the window every now and again would keep the arachnids at bay, and surely everyone would wash their windows at least once a year?
Stepping into the room, I catch a new smell, the smell of damp and I start to realise why the plaster is rotting. The window frame is rounded at its top by stains on the wall, and I am now sure that the water from the gutter, or perhaps just years of inclement weather with no one in the house to see its effects, has been creeping into the wall above the casement and has been working it destructive magic in the way that only water can.
I am hoping to find some trace of him as I cast my eyes around the room, but there is nothing, not even a discarded letter or trinket, let alone the steamer trunk I was secretly hoping to find. The room seems to me as a skeleton picked clean of the meat that made it his bedroom, all distinguishing features and characters lost to plain floorboards and empty walls, nothing but more rubble and another broken radiator, and just the soft, fractured light from the window.
I retrace my steps onto the landing and realise that I will not be opening any windows, if nothing else I am not certain that it would be a good idea if they are in the process of surrendering to the same rot as the walls. I need to be able to leave the place secure, after all.
I don’t even open the door to the bathroom, something tells me that I don’t want to see it, and I listen to that small voice even though it seems somewhat ridiculous at the same time. Why should I fear the room where he died. It was over a decade ago, surely there is nothing to fear, and yet I cannot steel myself to open it and look inside.
The box room is as empty as the bedroom, and I have almost given up all hope that I will recover any talisman of him from the wreck of his home when I remember the attic. Surely there would be things stored away before the end had come that must lie up there, undisturbed?
I reach into my pocket for the torch that I had been mindful enough to bring, and shine it into the gloom of the box room, looking for the attic door. It is there in the left-hand corner, as I expected, and I shuffle through the dust and plaster rubble and pull it open.
The stairs up into the attic – he would have corrected me and said loft – are not so quiet, creaking and groaning as I place each of my steps on each successive tread. I am not worried that it will give out, but I am puzzled as to how one staircase can be so stalwart and another be so lamenting under the same weight.
The light of my torch is more than enough to find my way to the top of the small flight, and then I am on the boarded platform under the pinnacle of the roof line. I turn my light off for a moment and am plunged into darkness; well at least there are not any large holes in the roof.
I flick the small light back on and start to look around, searching for “boxes of treasure”, as he would have called them. On the edge of the boarded area my light plays across a box with “McCain” printed across the side, faded as if stamped there long ago. Closer inspection shows the words “memories and things” scrawled across the side in his familiar script, and I reach out for the box and pull it across the boards to the space by the top of the stairs where I have the most room to manoeuvre.
The box is old and dry and brittle, the way that cardboard eventually gets to be, and so I am cautious and gentle as I lever the flaps open and point the torch light inside.
The box contains a few of the photographs, in their frames, that I had missed as I climbed the stairs, all of them were pictures of my father as a young man. Some of them in uniform, some in running kit, one in mess kit. If all the rest had been lost or given away, then these were the ones that he could not bear to part with, even if they were in a box above his head, rather than on display. An old diary, a Ronson petrol lighter, an old cigarette tin, Capstan “Full Strength” – though sadly there are none inside. There alongside this ephemera is a bundle of letters, tied with a silver ribbon. I recognise the hand, they were letters from his wife, his first wife, who had sent me cards long after she had otherwise left our lives all those years ago. I wonder if his widow knew that he had kept these at all?
I decide to take the box with me, that this is enough, this is what I was looking for, but then as I am closing up the box my torch plays across a small metal box, almost hidden behind a beam. I cannot unsee it, I am compelled to investigate.
I pull it gently from the shadows and set it on the ground next to the box of memories. It is not heavy, about sixteen inches by nine by five, so an odd shape, but not completely strange. Stamped on the top, on either side of a keyhole and between it and a small handle are his initials, “M N”, in faded gold paint.
The box is plainly locked, so I turn my attention back to the box of knick knacks to see if there is a key amongst the treasures therein. It is not hard to find, it is on a string, looped around an ebony letter opener. I take it out and open the box, which unlike the front door opens smoothly and silently, the lock in perfect working condition, as if it were in regular use.
Inside there are three items that surprise and delight me in equal measure. A Webley service revolver that he must have kept from his time in the Army, during the War. He never spoke of it in life, that I know of, so it must have been a very private keepsake. Alongside it is a small box of ammunition, and a leather-bound notebook. The gun feels heavy, suddenly, in my hand, and while I was not completely comfortable to be holding it, I feel pleased to have this illicit item of his now in my possession. I place it back into the box and lift out the notebook. It is wrapped closed with a leather thong, which I half expect to be brittle with age, but as I untwist and then unwind it I marvel at the way in which it feels supple and warm, like it is new and recently handled. The pages are crowded with his distinctive and almost completely illegible hand, and I realise that I will need better light and perhaps some coffee before I can truly digest the contents. I turn it over my hands as I move to close it, and a playing card falls from between the pages and lands face up on my foot. It is not a playing card, it is a Tarot card; The Magus. The edge of the card is picked out in gold leaf, and the face of the card is inhabited by a hooded figure, energy crackling around one hand, a strange sigil held in the other. Unexpected, to say the least.
I am filled with a desire to leave, and the sure, concurrent knowledge that I cannot leave these things here. I hurriedly return the card to its place between the leaves of the notebook, wrap it closed and place it back into the lock box. I lock it up, place it inside the memory box and put the key around my neck and tuck it inside my shirt, hiding it from view. Then I close up the flaps and lift the box up in my hands and carefully pick my way back down the attic stairs.
I glance, quickly, into the bedroom as I pass, but the afternoon light has been diminished, perhaps by a passing cloud, and the odd character of the place is reduced to a sad, empty room. The window is no longer captivating, more simply ordinary and uninspiring. How telling that light holds the key to so much of that which commands my attention. I wonder if I have somehow removed the last of him, or indeed any character from the place, but I push that thought aside and head down the main stairs to the door.
As I emerge onto the front path with the box of memories tucked under my arm I breathe deeply of the fresh, outside air and feel an unexpected sense of relief to be out of his house. I close and lock the door, and head to my car, keen to retreat to my own, living, vibrant sanctuary that is my apartment so that I can investigate his notebook more completely. That and consider what I should do with the gun.
(This story was inspired by an Instagram post, which you can see here -> joannafurniss )