“I’ve got something to tell you,” said my mother, on the phone, “you remember my Auntie Shirley? She was at Nanna’s funeral.”
I remembered: a little woman, wrapped around in trailing layers of black drapery. Above her pinched face, a shabby fur pillbox hat, brownish and sparse around the edges. When I took her hand, it laid passively within mine; it was curiously clammy, as though she’d been wearing wet gloves. Close up, there was a wood-litter smell of damp.
“Yes, I remember,” I said.
“Oh.. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. I didn’t know her very well. But there’s good news for you. Auntie Sylvia says she’s left the house to you.”
“What?” I looked around our tiny kitchen, with bills and junk mail and half-empty packets of biscuits piled on every surface, and the pans that had to live on the draining-board because there was nowhere else to put them. Janine said, once, “We can’t stay here. We need more space for the baby,” and I said, “Ok, short of winning the Lottery, you got any great ideas?”
“But doesn’t anyone else want it?” I said.
“Stephen, there isn’t anyone else. There was only Shirley and Nanna. Shirley didn’t have any children herself, of course. Then there was only me and Sylvia. And Shirley wouldn’t have left anything much to Sylvia. She was jealous of her.”
Auntie Sylvia spent the 1980s building up a modest cosmetics business whose value multiplied after the A-list discovered her Wonderfull Instant Lip Lift; she sold it to L’Oreal and bought an estate in the Cotswolds. You still sometimes see adverts for Wonderfull in airports.
“I dare say there’ll be some money to pay,” said my mother, “what-do-you-call-it, death duties or whatever. But anyway.. it’s not even very far from where you are now, so.. well, talk to Janine..”
“She’ll be over the moon,” I said.
“You don’t sound it yourself!”
“No.. it’s great news. Amazing. Totally. Just all a bit of a surprise. Might need a while to get my head round it.”
Am I making it up, or did I have an idea, even then, that it wasn’t as great news as all that? If I did, I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. I’d already shaken Janine out of her little cocoon on our bed, and I was telling her, wake up, listen, we’re moving house!
It wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course. There were legal hurdles to leap over, and things to sign, but eventually we got the keys to the house. Janine would have been about six months gone by then. We drove straight over, giggling.
It had been a wet summer and the street, with its trees in full leaf, had a dank, halflit air about it. The end house, with its slightly flaking olive-green door, was ours.
The first thing that struck me, once we’d got through the resisting door, was the cold smell of neglect. I remembered it from last time we were flat-hunting: the places where the previous tenant had flitted, or the owner had let it stand empty. Sometimes it’s masked by cleaning products, but it’s always there.
In the hallway, a snail trail snaked across the tiled floor. The once-floral wallpaper was beginning to peel away from the walls; one corner hung down like a dog-ear in a mistreated book.
“Needs a bit of an airing,” I said, “it’ll be fine when we’ve got the heating on.”
But there wasn’t any heating. There was one of those old-fashioned gas fires in the living-room, with jets in a grubby whitish matrix. After a bit of fiddling around it lurched into life, but only half of it came on.
Mum and Sylvia had removed anything they wanted themselves, and anything that was beyond use, so the place was sparsely-furnished. There was a sagging brown sofa in the living-room; an empty bookcase and a wobbly wooden bedstead in one bedroom; a tall, dark, coffin-like wardrobe and an iron bedstead, its springs deeply hammocked, in another. On the second floor, there were two more rooms under the eaves. In one, there was a bent-wood rocking chair, and a child’s bedstead with a painted motif on the headboard: a little boy, cartoonishly drawn with goggling eyes and two hot red spots on his cheeks, offering a bunch of lilies to a little golden-haired girl, who turned away, smirking.
“This can be the baby’s room!” Janine said.
“You reckon?” I looked around it. There were tangled clots of cobwebs on the window, and fingers of ivy reaching up to it on the outside, so that the room was half-lit. I tried to open the window, but it was stuck fast.
In the next room there was nothing but cardboard boxes, trunks and suitcases, piled high upon one another. They seemed to be full of books and loose papers, yellowing round the edges; a musty reek hung in the air.
“Let’s have a look,” said Janine. She’s a beachcomber; she looks under rocks, not because she necessarily thinks there’s going to be treasure underneath, but because it would be such a shame if there were, and she hadn’t thought to look. She was already on her knees, leafing through the first box.
“Gas bills.. boring. Christ, they go back years. Why do people keep all this rubbish? ‘Leccy bills.. she kept them down, didn’t she? Oh, God, she was one of those people who never gets rid of a receipt. I mean, who could be bothered? They just.. expand. Oh! Look, photos.”
She was holding up a dusty album, dark brown in colour, with black corners, and the word “PHOTOGRAPHS” embossed on the front. Over her shoulder, I caught glimpses of tall-haired women standing rather stiffly in formal clothes, next to vases of flowers; wedding parties with the bride, centre-left, a ghostly presence among her black-clad family. There was an ornate shop front, bearing the words “W.WRIGHT, GROCER”; before the window, a moustached paterfamilias, his wife with a baby in her arms, and men and girls in long white aprons. Nanna’s father’s shop.
Janine flicked on for a bit. “Oh!” she said,”is that your mum?”
She was pointing at a picture of two little girls, their bobbed hair rather severely parted and secured with hairbands of ribbon. The younger was smiling broadly into the camera; the older one looked sternly into the middle distance.
“Erm.. no, can’t be,” I said, “looks too early. Maybe it’s Nanna and Shirley.”
The next page showed a surprised-looking baby, perhaps a few months old. It had been propped into a high chair for the photo, but didn’t look comfortable. It was slumped over sideways, as old people in nursing homes sometimes sit.
“One of them?” asked Janine.
“Must be,” I said, “I bet it’s Shirley. She doesn’t look happy.”
There weren’t very many more photos in the album: a few more of the girls, carefully brushed and dressed; and then a picture of the shopkeeper, in the uniform we know from the films: Nanna’s father on his way to war.
“I don’t think he came back,” I said.
After that, there were a few blank pages before the end.
We moved in properly a couple of weeks later, when the lease on our flat expired. We bought a mattress and put it in the iron bedstead, but it dipped in so badly in the middle that Janine and her bump kept on rolling into me in the night, and we would wake up stiff and squashed, each of us trying to push the other uphill; so we put the mattress on the floor.
One morning, soon after we’d moved in, I woke up to hear the rain battering against the windows. They rattled in their frames. Janine, curled next to me, muttered “Nooooo!” and huddled within it again. A few minutes later, when she’d had to come up for air, she said,
“Look! The wall’s weeping.”
“What do you mean?”
“Weeping. Like a graze. Look -” she pointed over to the bottom of the wall, underneath the windowsill. In among the faded rosebuds on the wallpaper, there was a rough band of glistening droplets; as we watched,they seemed to grow fatter and heavier, like tears welling up, and two of them merged together and slipped away to the skirting-board.
“We’re going to have to do something about that,” said Janine. “If it’s like that now..”
She gets things done, does Janine, when she’s on form. She did a bit of googling and a bit of ringing-round, and that afternoon she’d got someone to look at it.
His name was Aaron. He was one of those men who looks like they’ve been stretched, and haven’t enjoyed the experience: all bones and knuckles, with dark lugubrious eyes gazing out of a long, semi-shaven face. Christopher Ecclestone painted by El Greco. Without explaining himself, he paced through the house, tapping on walls, and at times pulling aside the wallpaper to inspect the plaster behind. When he did so, a crumbly whitish substance fell off the back of the paper and scattered on the ground.
“Just bought it?” he said.
“Inherited. From my great-aunt.”
“Ah.” He went on his way without speaking – tapping, probing, feeling – up to the attic floor. We stood on the landing, wondering if we should follow him and potentially look mistrustful, or stay behind and look witless.
Eventually he reappeared. “Well,” he said, “it’s difficult to tell.”
“Tell what?” said Janine.”
“What’s the root of the problem. It might be rising damp; but depends if there’s a damp-proof course. If there is it’s probably not that. First thing is to see if there is. But the plaster’s damp throughout the house, so there’ll be work to do on it whatever. Might be coming through the walls or the roof or the windows. Won’t be cavity-wall insulation, this age of house.”
Change began quickly. Aaron returned with instruments which he stuck into the walls at various heights; he returned with a whole team of men and started stripping the plaster away from the walls on the ground floor. It fell away from the walls in slabs, and crumbled like stale biscuits. If anything, the house felt even damper.
“Soaked through,” said Aaron. “Probably been like that for years. No central heating. You want to get someone to look at that gas fire. Might be dangerous.”
He arranged for someone he knew to inspect the fire, who condemned it. Now, as the nights closed in, we shuffled from room to room, toting electric heaters. Our bed felt clammy, so we slept in tracksuits. We were slow and melancholy, and trailed blankets. We were turning into Shirley.
“That’s the thing about houses,” said my mother. “They stay the way they are as long as you don’t poke around in them. Then things come out of the woodwork.”
Things weren’t just coming out of the woodwork. Rain was weeping through the walls; ivy was pushing through the windows.
Janine developed a persistent cough; when she was struck by a particularly violent paroxysm her bump shook. “It’s making the baby jump,” she said. At night, her breathing was heavy and rasping.
The very next week, she went into labour. She managed very well, with much less swearing than you would have thought justified.
“Can we call him Peter?” she said. The two of them had been cleaned up a bit and were lying wrapped in fresh sheets; the baby looked more exhausted than she did.
“Don’t see why not,” I said, “any particular reason?”
“Oh, he just looked like a Peter to me. Don’t you think?”
“Peter,” said a passing nurse, “aah, that’s my dad’s name. You’ll be looking forward to getting home, won’t you?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Janine.
Within a couple of days of our return to Auntie Shirley’s, the place was full of washing. Tiny jumpers and sleep-suits and muslins hung over the banisters and the backs of chairs. Alongside its usual smell of mould, the house took on an extra reek of milk and urine.
Peter wouldn’t sleep; at night one or the other of us would walk him round the house. “This is going to be a nice, warm, tidy house when you’re bigger,” I told him, “and this” – pushing open the door of the attic bedroom with my foot – is going to be your room. Look at that funny bed with that silly boy on it! And this “ – taking him into the box-room – “is full of boring old paperwork, which you can’t read anyway, but it’s really boring if you can. But there’s some pictures in this book which you can look at. Look, here’s your great-Nanna and her sister –”
Peter howled as loudly as I’d ever heard him, and deafeningly close to my ear. “Ok, ok,” I said, “no need for that. No need at all. Let’s go back downstairs.” In trying to close the album, one-handed, I dislodged the baby photo, which landed face down. I picked it up and read, in pencil on the reverse, “Peter, 1938.”
For some reason – sleep deprivation, anxiety, whatever – this terrified me; I shoved the photo roughly back between the pages of the album, and then I took Peter, our Peter, downstairs, and to my relief he stopped crying almost as soon as we had left the boxroom.
The wall continued to weep. “If it was just the DPC you’d expect it to be getting a bit better by now,” said Aaron. “Might want to have a look at the windows. Could be leaking from the outside.”
So the plaster around the windows came off, too; beneath the ones in the attic room and our room, there were narrow gaps, only the breadth of a little finger, through which a cold draught ran. “I’ll have to have a look at that for you,” said Aaron. He looked mournfully at Peter, momentarily silent in Janine’s arms. “I’ll try to get it sorted quickly’s I can,” he said.
We moved our mattress to the other bedroom; when we lifted it, its underside was deeply stained with concentric patterns of damp, like sickly flowers.
That night Peter started to cough, too. It kept him awake, so it kept us awake, too. I found that he was calmer when held upright, so I sat in the bent-wood rocking chair in the attic room with him slumped on my shoulder, breathing heavily into my neck.
How was the water getting in, I wondered? Was something actually funnelling it through? Or was it slipping around the window-frame, somehow?
Clutching Peter to me with my left hand, I leant forward and reached into the gap below the windowsill. There was something there that wasn’t bricks, I could feel it: something smooth and flattish, pushed into the gap. I fumbled around for a bit and eventually pulled it out.
It was a little hardbacked notebook, its cover as damp as everything around it. Opening it, however, I saw that its pages were relatively undamaged, except at the edges. It was full of writing in a messy, childish hand. On the page where it fell open, I read:
“27th August 1938
Today Mummy took me and Martha to the park and we played on the swings.”
It was Shirley’s diary.
I sat back down in the rocking-chair, Peter gently snoring in my ear, and continued to read.
It was an angry little book. Some entries, like the first one I read, were dutiful accounts of family life, but they were short and sporadic: Shirley’s heart just wasn’t in it. What she really wanted to write about was conflict.
Martha made us both late for school today because she woudnt put her shoes on. Mummy scolded us both. I said it was her fault but Mummy said I shoud have helped her because I’m bigger. So I must just be bad without having done anything bad because I didnt make Martha PERFECT.
I heard Mummy and Daddy quareling in their room after we were in bed. Daddy said Mummy was spending too much money on clothes. Mummy said but Ive got to look nice and Daddy said Well you can mend things carnt you? She dosent look nice in her new hat the bits on the side look like fruit salad.”
When she was particularly angry, Shirley would press harder with her pen and underline various words multiple times. Towards the end of the year, the focus of her anger shifted dramatically.
I dont like Peter. All he does is CRY.”
Christ, I thought, hugging my child to myself.
“And he smells funny and we always have to be quiet when hes asleep even though he cries all nihgt.
Mummy dosent take us to the park any more she says its getting cold. I bet she takes Peter when were at school. Its not fair. And he wont even like it all he does is cry.
Peter always gets a fire in his room. Mummy says he’s delicate. All he does is cry and he wont stop coffing. I hate him.”
I didn’t quite have the heart to read any more. I carried my Peter, who had fallen asleep, thank goodness, back to our room, and managed to put him back in his carry-cot without waking him up.
The next day, Friday, was filthy. As I returned to our street at the end of the day, the wind was stripping half-dead leaves from the street trees and whipping them against my face.
Janine met me at the door, Peter in her arms.
“All he does is cry,” she said, “and he won’t stop coughing. He needs a doctor.”
“Can you get him an appointment tomorrow?” I said, keeping my voice as calm as possible. “If it isn’t better by then.”
It didn’t get better. We ate a takeaway in shifts in the kitchen, taking turns to hold him upright. Then we bathed him in the sink, thinking that might help; it didn’t. We finally got him to sleep, propped up a little, at about midnight, and Janine and I fell into exhausted, but fitful, sleep.
I was chipping away at the plaster upstairs, trying to find the source of the damp. But every layer that I peeled off revealed another one behind it. There were flat-bodied centipedes and worms between the layers, which slipped away like quicksilver. Each layer was darker and damper than the last; they overlapped like Auntie Shirley’s mismatching layers of black drapery. Some of them had writing on, and it said, “All he does is cry and he wont stop coffing.” I could hear the coughing close at hand. It would never stop.
I snapped awake; but I could still hear the coughing. Of course, Peter, my Peter, really was ill, right now. I slipped out of bed and picked him up; so as not to wake Janine, I took him upstairs to the attic room, and sat down in the rocking-chair, patting and shushing him until he calmed down a bit.
Some awful fascination led me to pick up Shirley’s diary again, even though its malevolence repelled me. I felt, I suppose, that a bit of the story was missing, and that I had to know what it was, however awful it might be.
I heard Mummy and Daddy quareling agian. Mummy said But im so tired so tired and I carnt sleep for two hours together. Daddy said well why dont you take one of your pills then you never used to find that difficult. I know wich pills he means their the ones in the red box.
I took one of Mummys pills out of the box erlier and hid it. If Peter wakes me up crying tonihgt I know how to make him go to sleep agian.”
The rest of the page below that was scribbled all over with heavy black pencil, as though Shirley had written something else and then worked really hard to cover it from view. She had pressed down hard, so that the page was deeply scored and cockled.
The next page said:
Since I did that bad thing Mummy wont stop crying. Nobody knows I did it. I want to tell Peter Im sorry but Mummy says dead peopole are in heaven and we carnt talk to them. I want to tell God Im sorry but I dont think he woud lissen because Im bad as bad.”
That was the last thing in the book; the other pages were blank apart from damp stains and foxing. I shut it and sat listening to Peter’s laboured breathing and the rain throwing itself against the window.
I heard footsteps; Janine was standing in the doorway, her hair dishevelled around her shadowed face.
“Give him to me,” she said, “you shouldn’t bring him in here. It’s too cold. And it’s – nasty. And there’s a hole in the wall.”
I passed him over. As I did so he coughed again, feebly. Janine put her ear to his mouth; then looked up, fear written deeply into her face.
“Didn’t you notice?” she half-yelled, ”he’s hardly breathing. And you just – sitting here – I’m going to call an ambulance.”
She disappeared next door, and I heard her panicky tones on the phone: “my baby’s hardly breathing.. been coughing a lot.. four weeks.. hasn’t been feeding.. just get someone here..”
Shirley’s book lay in a pool of light cast by the street-lamp outside. All else was dark, and the wind rattled the window-frame as if a frenzied intruder were trying to get in.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Shirley,” I said aloud. “You didn’t know what you were doing. You do now. You don’t have to do it again.”
There was a fresh assault on the window; it sounded like handfuls of gravel flung at the pane.
“You aren’t bad as bad, Shirley,” I said. “Nobody is. It’s just easier for you to believe you are, isn’t it?” The trees outside lurched and bucked in the gale, and the wind, passing through the gap under the windowsill, set up a low, unearthly note, like a groan of pain.
“You think that if you’re so bad you’re bound to kill Peter, my Peter, now,” I said, wildly, “that it means you didn’t have a choice about killing Peter, the other Peter, back then. Then neither’s really your fault. But I tell you, you always have a choice. You did and you do. And if you hurt my baby –”
God knows what threat I was going to make, but at that moment, the sound of sirens approaching, followed by flashes of blue light on the ceiling, told me that the ambulance had arrived.
It was bronchiolitis, they said; quite a common illness in children, but it might have been made worse by the damp. So, once Peter was better, we went to stay with Janine’s parents for a bit. Perhaps we stayed there longer than they’d have liked. But I had a dread of the place that could not be shifted until it had been exorcised – that is, when the musty papers were gone, and all the windows repaired, and the dark-spotted wallpaper and crumbling plaster replaced with dry, smooth walls, pink like sandstone in the sun.