The traffic wasn’t going anywhere. The Harrods sale had just started and it had taken George twenty minutes to drive twenty inches. The fan was useless: blowing warm air, making the sweat on his forehead dry and prickle. George regretted his choice of a flannel shirt he’d chosen for its bold checks and smart country appearance. Now, with the fabric sticking clammy to his chest, he had all the time to wonder if flannel, the shirt, was named after flannel, the washcloth, for its moisture-loving properties.

When George had woken up that morning, there’d been nothing about the elements to suggest a nice day in the offing. It had been drizzling when he eased himself from under a layer of sleeping bags in such a way as to minimise aggravation to the knee that wouldn’t bend. It had been raining when he’d got two telephone calls. The first was from Murray at the hospital with his wife (mysterious female bleeding), saying it was in God’s hands when he’d next be able to work. The second was from Emma, reminding him to pick up Stephanie on Friday, something he hadn’t forgotten but had put on the ‘back shelf’, a place in his brain where he put all difficult tasks. It had been full-on pouring up until only a half an hour ago, when a near- miraculous parting of the cloud revealed a punishing sun that was now grilling the side of his cheek.

George nudged the van forward, braking suddenly to allow two young women to cross the road. He watched them go with a fascination that bordered on disbelief. They were different from the females he knew: they were both careless and groomed, unburdened by kids and mortgages, and ex-husbands with spreading waistlines. They brushed past into a shop selling suede coats in the middle of August, without so much as a glance at him for his small act of gallantry. It gave him little satisfaction that on the sides of their shopping bags they’d taken with them streaks of Kentish grime from the front of his old Vauxhall van.

He was finally in Belville Place, two hours late. He cruised slowly, ignoring the bloody-minded honks of the cabbies behind. An exotic-looking woman was idling on the pavement with a Pekinese dog, waiting for it to go. She seemed to be all buns: two roundels on her cheeks and one on her head.

‘Can’t for the life of me find number four,’ he called to her through the window.

‘Here. Here,’ she emitted like a squeaky toy, waving him into a disabled parking bay, in front of a double-fronted house that he’d wrongly assumed was a hotel. She pipped again that he could park there, that the traffic wardens around were ‘nice’ and ‘feel sorry for the family’, a possibility George thought doubtful.

‘Miss Regina keep an eye out for you,’ she added, nodding toward the house.

George followed her glance and saw a woman standing in the swagged proscenium of the window. She was watching and waiting, like a diva anticipating her cue.
George weighed up the possibility of a clamping, that venal hostage- taking of the wheel, against the thought of putting his back out, carrying stuff miles down the road. As he was seriously late, he decided to take his chances, park, and get on.

He pressed the bell and waited on the doorstep. He was admiring the hefty ball-and-claw knocker, the panel marked ‘visitors’ and ‘tradesmen’ (no doubt about which one to ring), when he caught sight of himself in the polish of the fittings. Even in the burnish, his unhealthy sheen and slackening features were unmistakable. A pang of regret, and he was back, replaying the morning’s conversation with Emma, which hadn’t gone well. When he’d told her that he couldn’t pick up Stephanie on Friday – ‘I’m working all day in London, and getting out will be a bloody nightmare’ – she’d gone silent and he assumed that she was counting – a ‘coping’ technique she’d learned at one of her groups. So while George waited for her to finish, he tried her counting trick. He’d got to seven before realising she’d already hung up.

Emma’s reaction to his change of plans was typical of the new Emma. When she wasn’t coping, she was showing zero tolerance – buzz words that sounded suspiciously like foreign imports. Emma’s cool awareness had another effect on George. It made the old days, the old-fashioned way of his mum and dad, of rowing for two days and making up for one, seem affectionate and quaintly passionate.

Emma’s behaviour seemed all the more unreasonable given that Stephanie was sure to be glad of the reprieve – he imagined his daughter jumping for joy when she heard. George knew that their visits had to be as testing for her as they were for him. Why else would she slouch around the flat, mute, lift up objects then put them down, and wipe her fingers afterward? (As a rule he kept the goods in the barn: they soon found their way up to the flat.) Then she’d park herself in front of the television and play video games that involved horrendous driving and the elimination of anyone who tried to stop her. George was surprised that Emma permitted Steph such violent content; at the same time he was grateful for the relief it afforded: relief to go in the kitchen and eat whatever he wanted, without provoking looks of disgust from his supercilious daughter. One of the more disarming changes he’d witnessed in Stephanie recently was a pickiness about what she ate. Time was that she’d eat anything on offer: outings to the chippy and conversations about the differing merits of the ‘Reel Deal’ versus the ‘Happy Meal’ were what tided them through the weekend. Ever since she’d started wearing tops that showed her midriff, all she’d eat were greens with no dressing, but she showed no interest in accompanying him to get them at the salad bar at Safeway.

George comforted himself, looking up and down the mansion’s handsome exterior. Gavin Bell’s assistant hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said the job was going to be ‘significant’. First there was the house – enormous by anyone’s standards – that had defied the fate of each of its neighbours of being divided and subdivided into dental clinics and soft-carpeted consulting rooms. Then there was the family, the Bratbys, whom George had looked up on the Internet the night before. A quick glance at search results pegged the first Lord Bratby as the illustrious one. Born Stanley Munster in Connisbrough, South Yorkshire, he was a man of vigour and industry. It was in his towering iron furnaces, later steel mills, that the family’s fortune had been forged. He was also a talented silversmith as well as businessman. He’d found favour with the young Princess Victoria through gifts of silverware he’d crafted for the table of the royal doll’s house. A specialised link praised the superb quality of the service. It said that if you were to take a magnifying glass to any platter, goblet, or feather- patterned knife, no bigger than half your fingernail, you would have seen the royal crest etched perfectly into the surface. A gift of one table setting per annum for twelve years to his royal friend had been enough to ensure the ambitious Stanley Munster lasting favour and a peerage by the age of thirty.

Reading about the subsequent deaths in the Bratby male line: war, plane crash, war again, and an extremely dodgy accident, made it seem all the more remarkable to George that the Dowager Lady Bratby had died only a few months back, while she was sleeping in her own bed.

The woman from the window – Miss Regina – opened the door.

‘George Barrow. Clearance Company,’ he said, trying to project cheer, at a time when his credibility was about to be flushed down the toilet. It was a disaster because not only had Murray let him down, but his other regulars, brothers Joe and Jim, had told him just the day before that they were setting up shop on their own, thanks very much. Short of picking up someone off the street, it was hard for him to find replacements at short notice. Without their hulking manpower, George was well and truly stuffed.

‘Your appointment was at twelve noon,’ Regina said in disappointed tones, reminding him of every teacher he’d ever had. By virtue of her height, she was looking down on him.

‘Sorry. The traffic was murder.’

George had to force himself to look up at her, to meet her imperious gaze. She had no eyebrows, only pencilled arcs. Her impatient squint told him that any further explanation would not only be pointless, but irritating.

Now she was looking behind for his nonexistent team.

‘I’m just going to do a walkabout today, make an assessment. Maybe start if I can,’ he bluffed.

Regina looked unconvinced, knowing that hadn’t been the plan at all. But now her attention was taken by the sight of his van, a filthy monolith next to a sleek bullet of a Porsche.

‘Is that your vehicle?’ she asked.

Before he’d had a chance to answer, she’d reached into the secretaire and taken out a disabled parking permit.

‘Make sure you return it when you’re done,’ she said, passing it to him, making George think she wasn’t such a dragon lady after all.

The entrance was set with murals in amber tones, depicting pastoral scenes. It took a second glance for George to register that they were Spanish and early, and made out of embossed leather. Mottled Venetian glass, fashionable with decorators of a certain period, continued where bucolic scenes left off. The vestibule then opened into a large hall, with a staircase that went up and up, and was lined with ancestral prints.

Regina led George like a fifties model: shoulders back, hips forward, swishing a maroon pleated skirt as her curiously large feet pointed the way forward. George followed with a swaying gambol-cum-fast-walk he’d developed to avoid putting too much weight on his right side. He would have happily lingered to take in a portrait of a flushed youth, some lovely porcelain, a spectacular chandelier, and all the plush furnishings he could wish for, tagged and ready for pickup by Gavin’s crew, but she was moving too briskly. He glimpsed a belter of a long case clock (he’d always respected clocks; they embodied a stately certitude lacking in his own life), but a sharp backward glance from the Eyebrows told him not to be so nosy and to keep his eyes to himself. They passed through a door and were on the back stairs, bare and austere after the opulent front. The staircase narrowed as they descended. The scratched wooden steps gave way to weathered York stone, smooth from a century of feet scurrying attendance on the troubled Bratby family. The smell of must and damp flagstones, recently washed with just a hint of bleach, mingled with the sweet odours of roast chicken and two veg. He felt his shoulders loosen and his soggy chest lift and expand. Even though he’d never been there before, he had a sense of return. Like a badger to his set, basements were his habitat. A place where he belonged.

George had come to his line of trade after a two-year stint working at his father-in-law’s newsagent’s, something he hadn’t enjoyed. He’d found it claustrophobic dealing with customers all day: the pensioners who’d come in for the newspaper and wouldn’t leave, spending the day bending his ear, making him reach for another Twix. Then there were the lippy light- fingered kids who’d arrive like a plague, reminding him of school, where he’d been miserable because chubby boys were expected to be jokers or play silly buggers, and he’d lacked the personality to do either. George would sit paralysed behind the counter, stricken all over again, as he watched the boys cavort around in the aisles, stuffing Cadbury’s down their shorts. George turned a blind eye rather than risk confrontation, but he was left in a constant state of panic, knowing the books wouldn’t add up come stocktaking time. When Emma’s dad finally installed a security camera, George knew it was time to move on. He scoured the employment pages of the local newspapers and answered an ad: wanted – man with a van. A week later, after the quick purchase of an eighties Vauxhall, George was working for Monty Castle, who did house clearances.

We go in after the family have squabbled over the furniture and the antique dealers – bloody crooks – have cherry-picked the best bits and everyone is too shagged to care about the rest.

It was George’s job to get rid of the stuff that no one wanted, usually after a death, divorce, or bankruptcy, enabling his clients to start a gathering and accumulation of their own, so that the process could be repeated by their children or executors in another sixty years.

George quickly learned that stuff no one wanted had a surprising value, once you’d sorted what was unsalable. Stained mattresses and mildewed books were worth zero on the retail scale; likewise newspapers and magazines dated after 1945 were for the dumpster. Curtains with sun or water damage weren’t worth bothering with, and Monty had never had luck with clothes, unless from the sixties or earlier – they were taken straight to the charity shop. The money was in the remaining items: ceramics, paperbacks, utensils, side tables that just needed a lick of paint, tarnished metalware that cleaned up nicely, even old postcards and photographs, if they were sold to the right collector. Sometimes, in the bigger jobs, a large object – a plain Victorian nursery cupboard worth a few hundred quid – would be left because no one wanted the hassle of moving and consigning it to a lesser showroom, so it would be left for the clearance people, a bone for the dog.

Meeting Monty was more than fortuitous, because at Castle Clearances George discovered something he could do. His taciturn nature was suited to handling and sorting, and he had the nose and instinct for the hunt: all he needed was a whiff of possibility and he’d be off in dogged pursuit, until something worth finding would be found and a monetary killing would be made. But his interest wasn’t only financial. George had a deeper connection with his work. There was an absorbing mystery attached to an object: stripped of context, with its history forgotten, all that was left was the thing itself, it became pure again – pure as when it had first been made. And yet, very occasionally, with certain things, George felt something more: the residue of the previous owner, imprinted in the gnarled fabric of a child’s toy or the whorls of a tortoiseshell hair ornament. When that happened, George was warmed by the knowledge that probably he alone recognised the special significance of the item. These quiet moments gave George confidence and pride. They were, for him, an occupational privilege. Even as a child George had been drawn to the cosy clutter of a local junk shop. On his way home from school, he and his sister, Katy, would linger outside the store, Katy to smoke by the racks and catcall to the boys as they went past, George to view the wonders of a basket marked sixpence: a glass decanter stopper, a frayed leather purse, a domino, and a bead that looked like a sapphire. The owner had taken a liking to George. He never liked Katy – didn’t trust her darting eyes and cadging ways. He let George polish fenders in return for a free dip at the basket. George chose the sapphire first, followed by the purse. His innate savvy told him not to choose the domino.

It was directly because of Monty Castle that George was doing the Bratby residence today. Just as Joe and Jim – navvy bastards – would go on to exploit contacts they’d made working for George, it was through Monty that George had met Gavin Bell. They’d met on a job in Chelsea. George had gone with Monty to do a flat, a redbrick affair that belonged to a ‘rich old bird’ who’d ‘hopped’ (Monty’s words). As usual, probate had been done; the relatives had marked objects for keeping with coded stickers. The best pieces had been designated for sale by the auction house: Castle Clearances was to handle the rest. George and Monty had picked their way through the usual bric-a-brac: tourist souvenirs culled from warmer climes. They had managed to score with some decent Regency washstands. In the sitting room, they found a pile of mawkish paintings, most probably done by the deceased because they had been marked for the tip. (‘We simply don’t have the room,’ the daughter sighed.) Also in the pile was an oil sketch of a middle- aged woman with lively eyes, which George had a feeling about. So at the end of the day when Monty was out smoking, George went in search of a higher authority, which he found in the shape of Gavin Bell (in those days a lowly sale-room assistant recently down from the Courtauld, not the senior player he was later to become). Gavin had just finished the catalogue and was getting ready for his bike ride home. He was bending down, strapping a herringboned leg inside its cyclist’s clip, when he saw (upside-down, as it were) George’s lumbering figure coming toward him, the picture pressed to his chest. The sketch was presented to Gavin. Gavin, dizzy from standing up too quickly, cast an eye over it before agreeing that, perhaps, it deserved a little further research. When the picture was later revealed to be the ‘old bird’ herself by Augustus John, the family was thrilled. The credit for the discovery went to Gavin, and George, whom Gavin now regarded as very honest or very stupid – it didn’t matter which – earned himself Gavin’s loyalty. From that point onward, George Barrow became his clearance man of choice. This minor discovery gave George the confidence to set up on his own in a barn adjacent to a petrol station off the M25. Emma was pregnant with Stephanie and pressuring him to give up his gypsy existence for ‘a proper job’. A proper job, by her definition, was never going to happen, but starting a small business felt like a step in the right direction. Although his new enterprise lacked the regularity of a nine-to-five position, George was glad to be his own man.

Regina led George along a corridor snaked with pipes and wiring, past a mahogany box housing the old servants’ bells (‘Lord Bratby’s Dressing Room, Lady Bratby’s Bedroom’), turning right where the passage branched into two. There were three doors on either side with a barred exit to an outside stairwell at the end. She opened and closed the three doors on the left, giving him a heart-thudding preview of the scale of his task; it was massive – far bigger than he’d expected. Each room was filled with a century’s detritus. Then Regina turned and opened the three doors on the right.

She was in the last of the rooms and didn’t look up when they entered. Half-obscured by boxes and packing cases, she was kneeling in the corner reading a letter. Nearby, George saw a fitted cupboard hanging open. It was stacked with dusty papers – more letters judging from their size and the way they were bound. From what he could make out in the half-light – the windows at the back were filthy and the room’s subterranean aspect ensured it would be perpetual dusk in there – her hair was bark-coloured and had a shock of white at the front. He thought she looked about the same vintage as he, which was forty-odd. For George, forty was a great leveller; anyone over was plodding or jogging (for the super-fit) the same path to the same destination, whereas anyone younger was dancing, recklessly, in whatever direction they fancied.

George immediately saw the containers had recently been rifled: the overflow was much cleaner than the remaining jumble of defunct electrical goods, ubiquitous beds (there must have been five), and packing cases that were layered with dust. He guessed the last time these quarters might have been inhabited was before the war.

‘That’s the last one,’ Regina said, and closed the door behind them.

Usually George and Murray had a system. They’d start outside and work inward, hauling the large items to a skip to get them out of the way. But today, there was no skip because there was no Murray, Joe, or Jim. After showing the rooms, Regina had told him, ‘The Trustees expect George Barrow Clearances to have completed services by the end of the week’, a sharp reminder of the hopeless reality of his situation. He sweated anxiously before quickly resolving a plan. He had to at least try to create an impression that inroads were being made, so he decided to work as long as possible and then later – he had no choice – he’d trawl the pubs and enlist anyone who had two arms and a leg to come and help the next day.

On his way back upstairs, George took a wrong turn and ended up in the kitchen. It had long pantry cupboards and an antique iron range. With the exception of a few electric appliances and the Belling stove in the corner, it was like viewing a scene from the beginning of the last century.

The Bun Lady was apparently cook as well as dog walker. She was there, stirring something on the stove.

‘Just trying to find my way out – get some dustbin bags out of the van,’ George told her.

She reached into a drawer and pulled out bag after bag, flourishing them like a magician with scarves. ‘You like the house?’ she said. The glint in her eyes told him she knew the answer.

‘Fairly impressive, I have to say.’

‘Lady Bratby like a mother to me. She say “Don’t go until they gather me up.” So I stay until she die. You need more?’ She proffered the box.

‘If they’re spare, thanks.’

She handed him the whole box, extravagantly, as if rubbish was no object.

‘I leave tonight and no come back. After tomorrow, they come and take everything. It no be the same.’ She screwed up her nose with displeasure. On hearing the words ‘they take everything’, George could only wish that included the shitload of stuff in the basement.

George opted to start in the far corner room on the right. It was the most densely packed – a question of tackling the worst first. He sidled to the end, sucking in his girth to navigate the tighter spots. His intention was to start black-bagging newspapers (why did people hoard them, a known fire hazard? and beds, when they took up so much room? It was something of a nonstarter, the chance that long-departed family and friends would suddenly appear for a massive sleepover). He was scooping up his first armful of newsprint, pondering the relationship of the Bun Lady and the expired dowager, this Lady Bratby, who had been as beautiful as Louise Brooks in her youth, and formidable as Margaret Thatcher in her old age, when he heard a groan.

He stopped.

Then another.

There it is again.

He’d been so preoccupied that he’d forgotten all about the lady in the corner. It was incredible to think he must have walked straight past her! George felt blood rush to his face. Was she ill or having some sort of reverie, presumably of a private kind? Her moans were low and insistent. To his embarrassment, it was a bit sexy, like a porn star’s pleasure (yes, he’d watched the dirty videos that he’d found at the back of many a cupboard).

‘I knew it,’ she whispered to herself. ‘Here … all this time.’ Her words sounded like exhalations of shock and disbelief.

George caught the unhappy tremor in her voice. It cut through any fantasy that she might be giving herself a good time. As she clearly didn’t know he was there, George thought it time to make himself known. He grabbed a chair with the intention of using it to scrape back and forth to make a noise, but succeeded only in destabilising a mattress, that fell on a lamp, that knocked into a tower of boxes, one of which toppled into her corner.

He heard her give a more prosaic oof of surprise.

Now the cardboard wall was half down, George could see her flush with annoyance.

‘You all right?’ he asked, feeling like a prize chump.

‘Fine,’ she snapped, giving the box an aggressive shove back into its place.

George reckoned the woman had to be Lady Miranda, Lady Bratby’s only child. He hadn’t read up on her – not that there’d been much to read, cyber-wise. He recalled that she was made out to be something of a recluse-slash- bag-lady, the kind that aroused a mixture of pity and disdain in the popular press. There had been plenty of info about her mother’s colourful life, and lurid accounts of her father’s death in a bizarre autoerotic mishap. He recalled there was something about Lady M.’s engagement, some twenty years before, but couldn’t remember seeing anything about marriage or kids.

‘This is hopeless – to be reading here,’ she said, and then asked him for help.

She carried one stack of letters from the cupboard, and he the remainder, cradled in his arms. They went upstairs, the labyrinthine back way. He trod carefully: he didn’t want to fall and damage the correspondence: it looked brittle enough as it was. He did manage to peek down as he went: the letters were addressed in feathery hieroglyphs to Lord Bratby of Belville Place. Where the ribbons had loosened around the knots, he could see a true apricot colour, budding in the grey.

By the third floor, the carpeting – a velvety wall-to-wall in dusty rose – signalled they were nearing the private areas. One more corridor, and sure enough, they were in a large room that had to be the master bedroom and must have therefore belonged to the late Lady Bratby. The walls were hand painted with birds that swooped up and down, ribbons and bows in their beaks, rising to a crested heart above a voluptuous super king. The canopy matched the pale flounces on the dressing table.

She told him to put the papers down there, on the bed. ‘It’s the only surface that isn’t being sold.’

It was awkward being with her in the bedroom: too intimate and feminine to be appropriate – it was like accidentally straying into the ladies’ room. So when she smoothed her hair and thanked him – tantamount to a dismissal – George was only too happy to go.

He went back down to the basement, managed fifty bags, and was halfway up the stairs, struggling with numbers fifty-one and fifty-two, when Regina appeared on the top landing. She’d changed into a long dress and had put makeup on, her eyelids painted an iridescent turquoise. She was back in dragon-lady mode. She ordered him to leave: she was locking up.

Lady Miranda must have been in the kitchen because she was suddenly at the bottom of the stairs, calling up, ‘He can stay as long as he wants – the night, as far as I’m concerned.’

Her intercession was stunning.

Equally surprising was the way Regina ignored Lady Miranda and turned on her heels, without acknowledging her suggestion.

George’s first reaction was that Regina must have taken offence at being overruled in front of a tradesman. His next thought was that there was some sort of bitch-feud going on – that much was clear from the way the ladies wouldn’t even look at or speak to each other. Whatever it was, for once George wasn’t blaming himself. He was already overloaded with crap. He was fed up, full up – no room for any more. Instinct told him he had nothing to lose by the situation, so in a moment of fantastic boldness he stammered, ‘Actually, it would be great if I could stay – if it’s no trouble, that is. I’ve got loads to be getting on with and it would save a lot of time on the commute.’

George saw Regina stop in her tracks and slowly turn. By the time he saw her face, her pencil-brows were up at her hairline. A vein, the same colour as her eye shadow, had popped like a lightning bolt across her forehead, and there was another zigzagging across what looked like an Adam’s apple. George thought she might explode.

Instead, Regina laughed, a deep and throaty laugh, and said incredulously, ‘You want to stay the night?’

George nodded meekly, his nerve quickly failing.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘It’s not as if we don’t have enough room.’
Then she strode back upstairs, leaving George, gobsmacked, to get on with his work. When he looked back to thank Lady Miranda, she had already gone, he assumed, back to the kitchen, to do whatever she was doing before – maybe eating, if she had any sense.

An hour later Regina returned and took him to the top of the house. On their way, they met the Bun Lady coming down the stairs. She was buttoned into an unseasonably thick overcoat and was carrying two small suitcases in her hands. She didn’t stop. Just muttered a quick goodbye as they passed. She seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

Regina and George continued up, until they reached what must have been the old nursery floor. At both ends of the landing, he saw low wooden safety gates, and something about the wallpaper – faded cherries – made George think of children. Regina then showed him the bedroom where he could sleep. It was small. It had a single bed with a cambric bedspread, a dresser, and a sewing machine that still had a spool of pink satin thread in it. She showed him the bathroom a few doors down, and told him that she’d set the alarms at midnight and not to do any ‘wandering’ after that. (Her eyes might have twinkled, but he couldn’t be sure.) Regina told him there was food in the kitchen, that he could help himself if he liked. George was relieved to hear that. He could go long hours without eating, as long as he could make up for it later.

‘Thanks very much,’ he said, genuinely grateful.

He worked until 11:30, then went into the kitchen and nibbled on some bread and cold chicken that had been left out on a plate. He was uncharacteristically un-hungry, probably from nerves and the strangeness of it all. Then he went upstairs and ran himself a bath, stealing a drop of Floris Ormonde from a bottle in the cabinet.

Floating in the water, George inhaled the steaming aromas. His eyes were closed: he never looked at himself if he could help it. The heat of the water was calming and helped ease the strained muscles in his back. Lying in the dark, he could almost convince himself that everything was going to be all right.

He hopped back to his room, a towel around his waist. The sheets were cold and starched and he shuddered as he slipped naked between them. Just before midnight, he turned off the lights. A minute later, he heard a robotic voice: the sound of the alarms being armed.

He smiled to himself. Regina was true to her word.

He wasn’t sure how long he was asleep before she came in. He woke up and saw Lady Miranda standing at the foot of the bed. She was in a smocked nightgown that reminded him of a shepherd he’d seen in the murals downstairs.

‘Could I come in?’ she asked. You are in. ‘Yeah, of course,’ he said, quickly gathering his senses.

She moved around the side of the bed. She looked younger than he’d first estimated – maybe as much as ten years, possibly more.

‘You must think I’m mad, barging in …’ ‘No, I wasn’t asleep,’ he lied, pulling up the sheets to his neck. ‘I can’t sleep. It’s coming back here … you leave a place for a reason.’

George nodded. He thought he knew what she was getting at about the house. It felt abandoned. Not that it bothered him: pathos was part of who he was and what he did.

She stared at him – rather, in his direction. Her eyes looked out of focus, as if she was looking at some other thing in her eyeline, and he just happened to be in the way.

In the absence of words, George nodded again, like a bobbing dog on a dashboard. He was trying to look sincere, in an effort to distract her from an erection that was lifting the covers from his thighs.

He saw her shiver. It was hot in the day but the temperatures plummeted at night.

George felt he couldn’t lie there, watching her tremble in the cold. He had to do something to comfort his insomniac visitor. There was nothing for it but to lift the covers and offer her the warmth of his own body – even if it meant exposing his baser nature.

She looked at him, impassive. She went to him: sitting first, before folding up her legs and lying down, her back to his side

It was minutes before she spoke again.

During that time, thoughts came flickering to him: the yellowed letters, the dragon lady (she a bloke?), Emma’s eternal rage (justified, of course), Katy (she’d almost be an old lady if she were alive), and Steph (hope she does better in life than me and her mother). His thoughts returned to Katy, as they nearly always did. Katy, who loved to do the undoable, say the unsayable. He’d often wondered what her life would have been like if she’d survived.

He had two portraits of her in his mind. The first was of a cleaned-up, mellow old girl, living in a cottage somewhere, doing something wholesome such as baking, gardening, or knitting. In this honeyed version, it didn’t matter whether she was single or divorced because she was all right in herself: she’d got her act together and was finally taking care of business. The other Katy was a more alarming prospect, probably closer to the truth of what she would have become: a ranting, raven-haired witch. She was alone, not through any choice of her own. Her caprices had long stopped being amusing to anyone other than herself. He saw her lips, puckered from incessant smoking. They were still angry, full of trespass and regret. The lips she used to press into his when she wanted him to keep a secret. So many secrets.

These images came to him, and, mercifully, they went.

Finally, she spoke.

‘It was up here, in this room, where I found him.’ (The words ‘found’ and ‘him’ were enough to clue in George.) ‘She made it look as if it was an accident. A mistake. He would have left her if he’d survived.’

Apart from her articulation of ‘mistake’, which she made sound like a sharp cutting instrument, there was little emotion in her voice.

‘I knew all this time, but the letters prove it. They’re written to my father by his lover of ten years. Replies to his, except the one he wrote the day he died. He promised to join her later that day – said he was leaving this house for good. My mother found out and stopped him. The letter was never sent. Someone hid the letters who knew the truth, understood their significance – who realised they must be preserved until it was safe.’

George pondered the scenario. He agreed that if you were eloping with someone, stringing yourself up for a bit of autoerotic satisfaction wouldn’t naturally take precedence over getting the hell out, but then again, as George knew, the human heart and all its recesses could be an unfathomable and darkly illogical place. Hadn’t the letter said something about leaving the house for good? Whether Lord Bratby’s death was a suicide, accident, or murder, George understood that her accusation befitted the trauma she must have suffered all those years before. Her scars were familiar, the kind he lived with and took everywhere he went. Like hers, they were formed by loss. Hers, from loss and a terrible suspicion. His, from the loss of Katy.

George was ten when he and his sister had taken a detour home from school. It had been her idea not to go the boring pedestrian route but to clamber along the bank of the railway instead. Where the tracks met the overpass, Katy had made him wait by the signal box, while she climbed up and shimmied across the narrow sidings of the bridge. He’d had serious misgivings but done nothing to warn her. He knew how caution always had the opposite effect on her intended – he already had the sense that she was challenging him not to stop her. She was smiling at him and he back, when she’d leaped to her death onto the tracks below. It happened so quickly that when he heard her body hitting the ground, a deflated crunch as bones and organs compacted, George’s face was still creased in a stupid grin. In all the time that had passed since her death, George’s relationship to it had shifted only in that he’d stopped asking himself why he hadn’t been able to prevent it: he’d come to believe there had been a certain inevitability about the event. The questions that stayed with him, that undermined him still, were the same ones he’d asked himself over thirty years before: why Katy had felt the need to hurt herself, whether puncturing her arms with nail scissors, or making welts on her thighs with a scented candle from Boots. Or her final dance on the bridge that felt so much like an act of defiance. Defiance of what? The why of it had never been answered by the explanation that she wasn’t normal. That Katy wasn’t like anyone else.

The cold seemed to emanate from her body.

‘You’re freezing,’ he whispered, turning toward her.

He was just about to say it but she said it first: ‘We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want’ – an uncanny echo of his thoughts.

He did want. But he knew he would suppress it, as was his way.

Her hand, so cold, reached behind and found his arm, gently bringing it forward, wrapping it around her shoulder and tucking it under her breast like a comfortable blanket. He went limp – which was more than fine – it was enough to be so close to her and feel her warming in his arms. More wonderful was the sense, as he fell into a deep, contented sleep, that he could have told her anything: his fantasies or failures. But there was no need. Somehow, she already understood.

George woke up early and she’d gone. He wasn’t surprised. With the first light of day, he’d had an uneasy dawning – it came slowly at first, creeping across the back of his consciousness. It was a feeling that hardened into certainty that something was not right. Something was amiss.

He was still putting on his shirt as he went down the stairs, stumbling two steps at a time. Only later did it occur to him that he might have set off the alarms if they’d been armed on the back stairs.

But he wasn’t thinking about alarms.

He was thinking about the cupboard in the last room.

The cupboard was locked: the doors sealed over with layers of paint, as George suspected. He found his crowbar and forced the doors open. The wood cracked and splintered, releasing a thick, fungal dust as it gave. He coughed, his lungs rejecting the dust. When he saw what was inside, his stomach sickened.

The letters were there – covered in a layer of thick London soot, untouched since they’d been put there more than half a century before. He stared at them, while his heart that had so recently felt a fullness of possibility drained and emptied. He didn’t need to go back online to check, because there on his back shelf was the obituary of Lady Miranda Munson he’d seen two nights before. It was only one line, with her birth – 30 November 1931, and her death, 30 November 1980 – no mention of the cause, just a line indicating a link to more information, but he’d skipped over it in favour of the one about Princess Victoria’s silver.

His head was beginning to throb, heavy with the sensations of his encounter.
She was right about the house. It wasn’t good for anyone.

He dropped to his knees, the same spot where he’d first seen her kneel (his right knee, no choice but to buckle with him). He set to work on the cupboards. He ignored the papers: they were work for an archivist and weren’t what he was looking for in any case. Reaching inside, his fingers explored up and under the fractured door, searching for hidden ledges on which valuables might have been secreted. Experience had taught him that people hid things: for safety (ha!) or as an act of control or power. He was sure he’d find something; that his hand would soon close around the cool facets of a stone, or some other rare and precious thing.

It wasn’t only his head that was pounding, but his heart. It was doing a demented dance. Boom tiddly, boom- boom.

Bloody dust.

It was making him wheeze, but he knew he would find something if he kept going.

He’d find something, maybe to give to Stephanie.

Something worth keeping.

Even if it killed him.

Ether: Seven Stories and a Novella by Evgenia Citkowitz is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (paperback due in April 2011).

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