The first of our featured short stories to be contributed by our readers. I have been entranced by Pat’s short stories for some time – I always look forward to her links to her latest when she posts them on twitter! This is one of my favourites. Enjoy!
It was raining again, she looked out of the window and the puddles looked more like little turbulent oceans as the raindrops and wind battered them; Olivia sighed no one would be coming to view the house today. It was such a shame that the rain put people off, she supposed the fact that there wasn’t any heating on in the house didn’t help as the estate agents couldn’t dry off by leaning against the radiators while prospective buyers looked round, perhaps tomorrow.
The house was getting dusty and was beginning to develop an air of neglect, but there was nothing she could do about it she thought as she sunk dejectedly into her armchair. It was such a shame; this house had been filled with the laughter of children and the busyness of the grownups. The
fires had blazed merrily in the grates and candles and later electric lights had made this a welcoming place for all.
Olivia had been one of six children who had been born and raised in this house, the children had been looked after by two nannies and a
couple of nursery maids, the whole brood of them had occupied the top floor and rocking horses, dolls houses and train sets still sat in the play room, now all old and neglected as there had been no children in the house for the last sixty odd years and the grandchildren and great grand children had thought them old fashioned and preferred electronic or more modern toys.
She could remember her brothers on the rocking horse with cowboy hats on as the girls were dressed as red Indians with little bows and arrows. The nannies were not too happy with this, little girls should play with dollies and not act like little boys, but she and her sisters had watched all
the cowboy films and loved playing like this.
In fact it had inspired Olivia to become involved in feminism, oh she hadn’t gone on many of the demonstrations, but she had taken a lively interest in the rights of women much to the annoyance of her husband who had been brought up like her brothers to be the head of the household in all things. It was the second time he struck her that she reacted; she had moved back here with her two children and taken over as housekeeper for her elderly parents.
Her parents were horrified at her act, but did not deny her a home but as a housekeeper – not as a daughter, it was not in their moral code to do this. She and her two daughters had occupied the third floor, but she hadn’t minded that, they were safe there and overseeing the housework was no different from overseeing the housemaid at her husband’s home. The real difference was that there were no nannies for her daughters, but she coped and looked after them, encouraging them to have their own lives and she had pushed their education.
Olivia had certainly succeeded in this as her eldest daughter retired as a head teacher despite having her own three children, of course times had moved on and university education was standard for girls – not like in her time. Her younger daughter however had decided to stay at home
after marriage and raise her brood of four children, but she had married well and had travelled the world with her husband.
Looking back, Olivia thought that she hadn’t done too badly by her children despite having very little money, her parents had only paid her a pittance, considering that housing, feeding and clothing them enough, but at least they had left her the house.
Oh yes, they had left her the house and a very small allowance, the bulk of the money was left to her sisters and one remaining brother, two had been killed in the wars; so her sisters had been quite wealthy women in their own rights, but she had been forced to take in lodgers. They were less demanding than her parents had become and her eldest daughter was away at university, so keeping three bedrooms for her and the girls, Olivia had discreetly advertised for paying guests for the other four bedrooms.
She had decided against letting the third floor and kept those rooms for family use so that the best parlour, breakfast and dining room could be used by the guests without interference. The morning room she had kept for herself, it wasn’t a large room but the sun filled it with warmth and light in the morning and she could sit for an hour after the guests left to read the newspaper and pay the tradesmen’s bills.
At first it was genteel ladies, forced to find employment in the city as widows or mourning fiancées of men killed in the war, these had been typists or sales ladies and were quite happy to live in her lovely if slightly old fashioned house and paid two guineas for breakfast and evening meals with clean sheets once a week. A light lunch on Sundays was offered for one shilling, and Olivia worked hard to keep the home clean, polished and the meals tasty.
Old fashioned ladies
Her daughters had found these ladies old fashioned and frequently giggled about them, safe in their own sitting room on the third floor; but times changed as they married and moved on and the guests had become more working class, which Olivia accepted but did not approve and now the house was empty.
She had decided that she was too old to continue running around after her lodgers as she now considered them and as rooms had become vacant she had closed them up and the last one had left about twenty years ago and now at – how old was she – the house was empty.
Olivia had not been in close contact with her sisters and remaining brother since their parents’ demise and had even less contact with their children; she knew that her siblings had all passed on as she had received the black edged cards announcing the departures but had not attended the funerals; she had not felt as if they had wanted her there.
Her husband, her parents had not allowed her the dignity of divorce, had managed to get a post in the army that secured his safety as such in the city and had never had to fight, typical she had thought at the time, and so his sudden death on a dark night on a side street had come as a shock to most. His will had left everything to her daughters and other relatives and she had accepted this, she wanted nothing from him but at least her girls had a more secure future.
She was surprised he had lost so much money, he had been an extremely wealthy man when her parents had pushed her into marrying him and was shocked to find that his will denoted only about one tenth of that wealth remained, including the house – but it was still a substantial sum for her relatively poor daughters.
Olivia had researched this anomaly a little, although the street where he had died was known for its houses of ill repute and illegal gambling and drug dens; he had always been a womaniser and gambler which was why votes for women and women’s rights had interested her so much. Privately she was also relieved that she had not caught a disease from him as several of her former acquaintances had been rumoured to, how embarrassing that would have been; she was so pleased to foreswear the company of men and had worn her wedding ring as protection.
He had, it seemed spent thousands of pounds in the brothels and when the death was investigated, cocaine and other drugs were found in several rooms of his home; her husband, it appeared, had degenerated into a drug riddled, drunken lothario and the world was a better place without him. It was rumoured that there had been worries about him mixing with undesirables, the police had called them “possible fifth columnists” – yes the world was a better place without him.
As Olivia had sat in her chair reminiscing, the clouds had retreated and finally the sun had emerged, lighting the cobwebs in the corner of the room it was a shame that she couldn’t clear them away. Yes the house needed a family in it to fill it with the life, love and laughter she remembered as a child. She hoped that this would happen, she didn’t want it to be split into apartments, it was a home not just a building; but she didn’t think that speculator would be back – she had sent him away with a flea in his ear!
The man who wanted to turn it into an hotel hadn’t fared much better, a guest house wouldn’t have been too bad – but a soulless plastic hotel – no never! She could never see her beloved home turn into that with fake paintings and faux leather – oh no! The man had looked at the paintings on the wall and sneered!
She’d given him sneer – they were all originals, not very well known artists, father would not pay extortionate amounts for “decoration” as he called it, but they were not prints. He had left with his hair standing on end.
Two other people had come and looked, but they were voyeurs, wanting to see beyond the gates and high hedges, she remembered the grass needed cutting, and no one had bothered since …, it was a shame really. The lawns used to be immaculate and the rose garden needed seeing to as well, she hoped whoever bought it would look after the grounds where her mother had meandered selecting flowers for a centre piece for the dining table.
She heard the jangle of keys in the front door as it opened and she heard a voice “Well here it is, it’s a bit neglected I’m afraid, but would be ideal for your purpose”
Purpose, what purpose? She hoped that these weren’t more speculator types.
“Oh, it’s lovely” came a woman’s voice, “Why didn’t the family want to keep it?”
“Um, too big” was the dubious reply of the estate agent.
“Oh?” another male voice chipped in “I had heard that the family had upset the old lady and wanted rid of it”
The voices faded as they went up the stairs, Olivia silently followed them, making the estate agent shiver, weedy little man, she thought, as he looked behind him. The man and woman didn’t notice anything as they explored the bedrooms and the two bathrooms, admiring the views from the windows and looking in cupboards.
She still hadn’t found out what their purpose was, but smiled as they laughed happily at the old toys in the nursery and the old fashioned furniture there and then asked if there would be any problems putting more bathrooms in up here, the Weed shook his head and explained that it would be fine. They looked at the pictures on the walls and remarked on how nice it was not to see prints on the walls, everything here they said looked original.
Olivia felt as if she could like these two, but still wanted to know what their “purpose” was, and continued following them as they went into the cellars. The cellars consisted of three rooms and they walked through them talking about table tennis and snooker and other games. When they got to the final cellar, they found a large cupboard which was locked, Weed found a key to open the doors; it appeared empty apart from a large sock which had a bulge in the toe and looked as if it had rusty brown paint on it.
The man picked it up and weighed it in his hand, he looked inside and found that it contained a heavy solid brass door knocker, “If I didn’t know better, it looks like a homemade cosh” he said “and that could be blood!”
The woman shuddered but still kept staring at the sock but then her attention was drawn to a piece of paper which lay on the cupboard shelf near to where the sock had laid, she picked it up and held it to the light to read the faded writing.
“I think you may be right” she said, “this is a report of a murder in 1944, it says the man was bludgeoned to death, but no weapon was found”
Olivia stood very still, well it didn’t matter now really it had been so long ago, her husband had deserved to die; he had threatened to take the children away from her unless she had helped him by taking some parcels to the post office as if they were from her. She had guessed that they were full of spying information although he had denied it and she wondered what he had been paid for this – or what someone had over him to make him do this and she didn’t care.
Having lost a brother in each war, the youngest at Dunkirk, she had no intention of helping him in this foul deed, however she had agreed to meet him in that corrupted area of the city and take the parcels, but she had arrived early and secreted herself in a doorway and used her cosh as he walked past; she had hit him at least three times and had rushed home with the parcels and burnt them – they had help light the fires in the grates for several weeks.
The man was speaking again, “Did this man live here”
“No, but his widow did with her children, there were no records of him ever living here”
Olivia watched them talking and followed them as they went back upstairs, they were discussing whether to take it to the police or not, she hoped they wouldn’t – it wouldn’t be fair on her daughters. The Weed hoped they wouldn’t because it would mean he would still be stuck with this place and he didn’t need that he wanted the commission Mr and Mrs Gould were the best option yet, he hoped this wouldn’t put them off.
Still discussing the cosh and the cutting, they went out the front door and Olivia sighed, she had hoped that perhaps they would be the ones – she should have put her letter of confession there as well, she called herself a few stupid names for forgetting that she had hidden those things there and went to find the letter where she had put it all those years ago.
Her memory must be going, it took forever to find it and persuade it to lay next to the cosh in the cupboard, but she did it and just in time as the keys jangled once again as the Weed opened the door and let in four people; Olivia recognised the couple from before but didn’t recognise the other two and followed them back down the stairs to the cellar and watched as Weed fiddled with the key and unlocked the cupboard.
One of the strangers reached in and picked up the cosh, “Hmm, yes that does look like blood” he remarked as he weighed it in his hand, “whoever put the door knob in it had chosen the right thing to hit someone with – it’s quite heavy”
The other man picked up the cutting and studied it, “It’s dated April 1944 and that was the woman’s husband, hello what’s this?”
He picked up the envelope, “I don’t remember seeing that” commented the woman as she studied the cupboard, “look there’s dust under it, there wasn’t any under the other two things!”
They all looked and asked if there were any other keys to the house, the Weed replied that he didn’t know of any which puzzled the group,
“Perhaps it was underneath the press cutting and we disturbed it yesterday” suggested the woman, it is in a brown envelope and we didn’t have a torch with us.
Seemingly satisfied, the group moved upstairs to the morning room where Detective Johns opened the envelope and peered inside; it contained
one sheet of expensive writing paper and the writing was ornate. Removing it, he scanned through and then read it aloud. “Well that solves that – if it’s genuine” he replied looking at the Weed – he didn’t trust this estate agent as far as he could throw him.
The two detectives left, taking the three items with them and the Weed hoped that this would not put them off buying this house; “Would you like a further look round?” he enquired sheepishly.
The man glanced at his wife who nodded and demanded to know why he hadn’t told them the house had been on the market for so many years and also why other people had run from the house screaming.
Olivia was astounded; the house hadn’t been on the market that long had it? She remembered her 99th birthday and then she had felt unwell and gone to bed – but she was OK now and … come to think of it – had she put the house up for sale? She couldn’t remember.
“Look, we have started a charity to help and house damaged and trafficked kids and if there’s something we ought to know about this place, then you’d better tell us now – or we go” the man demanded.
Weed sighed and sat on the little sofa by the window, “The last occupant was Lady Olivia Hancock, widow of Sir Walter who was killed in 1944. She was found dead in bed three years ago – but she had been gone for at least three months before anyone found her. Her daughters who are both in their seventies decided to sell it, they had tried to persuade her to move to an old people’s home, but she refused. They all fell out over it and had not spoken since; neither of them wanted the place, it was far too big for them…..”
Dead, she was dead! No she can’t be – she was still here wasn’t she?
“… some prospective buyers have looked round the place, but – it’s as if her ghost is still here – because if they say they are going to convert this place into an hotel or something, the room goes very cold and they feel like they are being shouted at and – well – they run from the place”
Ghost, who was a ghost, she stood up and moved over to the Weed to look at his clipboard, it had the date on it 19th July 2011! Perhaps she was dead, perhaps she was a ghost – it was too much for her and she sank down on the sofa next to the Weed who shivered and jumped up.
“She’s here, she just sat next to me – can’t you feel how cold it is?”
The couple looked at each other and shook their heads; the room was quite warm and welcoming as far as they were concerned. The man’s phone rang and he answered it, moving nearer the window and listened for a few minutes and with an “I see, thank you”, he turned the phone off.
“That was the police, they haven’t checked it all out yet, the records have got to be dug out and the paper checked but as far as they can tell it’s genuine. Lady Olivia Hancock who lived here most of her life was born in 1909, married in 1928, died in 2008 and her husband was found murdered, although to be quite honest it sounded like he deserved it and as her letter states probably was trying to spy”
The woman sat down on the sofa and felt a presence next to her, “Hello Lady Olivia”, she said “my name is Mrs Anne Gould and with my husband we want to set up a respite centre and home for children who have been badly hurt by adults in this world. Would you mind us doing it in your lovely old home – it does need a clean doesn’t, but I suppose it was all too much for you”
Weed thought she had gone mad and was trying to back out the door when it slammed and he scurried to stand by Mr Gould, meanwhile Anne was still sitting on the little sofa with a big smile on her face.
“Lady Olivia seems happy with what we want to do, dear” she laughed, “I’m feeling warm and hugged as if I was a child and my mum had just cuddled me. Yes I think this would make a perfect house for our purpose and no doubt Lady Olivia will oversee all the work and let us know if she doesn’t like anything”
Her husband smiled and bowed to the sofa, “A pleasure to meet you Lady Olivia and I hope you will keep making us welcome in your home”
Two years later as another scared, beaten child was brought into the morning room, Lady Olivia sat beside her and let her feel the warmth of her love as Anne Gould wiped her tears and spoke to her. Olivia smiled as her home filled with the noise of children playing and one more little lost
soul who needed her comfort smiled for the first time in several years.
To read more of Pat’s stories, visit her website http://madkentdragonstories.wordpress.com/
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Image credit: Africa