Children played here once. The remains of a coloured football lay like a spoiled soufflé in the corner by the wall among a pile of dark, sodden autumn leaves.
There was other debris too, the rusting wheel of a scooter emerging from the long grass onto the pathway – a death trap if you didn’t spot it – and an old fashioned doll. She was sat looking out from behind the window, and her sightless eyes followed the path all the way down the garden to the rotting wooden gate, as though she was waiting for someone.
She had matted chestnut hair and only one foot, and I had a sudden and terribly strong image of a warming fire in the hearth, and a little girl in a tearful tug of war with a playful puppy, and I found myself smiling benignly at the doll through the filthy glass.
After I had fought with the stiff and creaking lock, finally turning the key with what seemed a peculiar ease when I had almost given up, and then with the door itself, which had seemed determined to keep me on the outside, I stepped gingerly into what might once have been the kitchen. Much of the ceiling now lay shattered on the floor, exposing the faded wallpaper and ornate ceiling rose of the bedroom above.
There was little else in the room except for a large porcelain ‘Butler’ sink and over it a brass tap, its end discoloured green. A solid oak table stood in the centre, a thick layer of dust covering the well-worn surface, upon which a message, clearly written with a finger, said ‘Welcome Home Darling’ which was not shocking in itself, but for the fact it looked as though it had been scribed there in the dust only moments before.
Dismissing the small shiver in my spine as somebody ‘walked over my grave’, I crossed the kitchen floor towards the cellar door. Like the last one, it would not budge, resisting every turn of the handle, every push or pull. Eventually I decided a shove with my shoulder would do it, but just my left shoulder was about to make contact with the grimy peeling paintwork, the latch clicked and the door swung open.
Most people might have been a little frightened at this point, but I had never held any belief in ghosts and such like; it always seemed like a lot of nonsense, and anyway I needed to get down into that cellar, measure up and check for moisture content and any obvious signs of flooding. A property of this age and this close to the underground river may stand on very perilous ground, and if, as Mr Connolly had implied, all three terraces were to be bulldozed in order to rebuild, then as the surveyor, it was very important that I got the water levels correct in my report.
I was down there for just a few moments, ten at most, when I became aware of a sudden, strong feeling of sheer, utter joy; the trouble was I just couldn’t have truthfully said it was mine. The feeling stayed for about three or four minutes, and it was so lovely I smiled as I made my notes, and when I went up the stairs I found to my delight that I was whistling that old World War Two song ‘We’ll Meet Again’, and I had a spring in my step I hadn’t found in quite a while, at least not since the divorce. Twenty-three years of marriage and every one of them had choked and squeezed the joie de vivre out of me. Trapped, that’s what I was from the moment I said ‘I do’ and signed my life away in the Register.
I shut the cellar door behind me, walked across the kitchen to the back door I had entered through, and turned the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. No matter how much I tried, the thing was completely stuck. The tiny windows would be impossible to get through and there was no other way through the rest of the house, the property having been condemned some time ago.
Just seconds before the ceiling fell I sensed it, but there was simply nowhere to go. The whole place must have caved in as the last thing I saw as I looked up was that beautiful plaster ceiling rose falling through the gap in the kitchen ceiling.
Sometime afterwards I became aware of myself once more, and I must admit to feeling a little wobbly.
It’s very strange, but the ceiling is back where it should be, and the kitchen feels warm and oddly familiar, I just can’t put my finger on it…
…but then it’s just so difficult to write in this dust.