The Old Road: a ghost story

by Barendina Smedley

Some things just aren’t meant to be. And other things are, basically, inevitable.

He’d had doubts about re-locating to Norfolk. It had been his wife’s idea, because her parents still lived there, and also it would be cheaper for the kids to go to a good school in Norfolk than it was in London. Before long, they all had friends there, who liked exactly the same things as they did. So it seemed reasonable to stop renting the little cottage and to buy a house instead. And because he’d made some money along the way, he not unreasonably wanted a house that said everything there was to say about himself and his family.

They looked for a house but couldn’t find what they wanted. In case you don’t know this already, the houses in Norfolk are terrible. Most are old and dark, with small kitchens and no room for a gym or a home entertainment centre. Soon, they realised they’d have to build something. And eventually, they thought they’d found the perfect spot.

It was on a hill — the first house anyone saw if they drove into the village from the market town just to the south — and no one could argue that the village itself wasn’t one of the most prestigious in Norfolk. It was expensive, too! Unfortunately, there was an ugly old house exactly where they wanted to build the new house, a pebbledashed horror like something from post-war council estate, with an old-fashioned kitchen and a garage that wouldn’t even have fit one of their new Range Rovers. Still, it would be simple to get that demolished.

They hired an architect who was thrilled at the chance to build a huge, uncompromising, look-at-me Modernist house in such a prominent place. A charming man with excellent local connections, he promised them it would all be incredibly easy. And at first it was. The parish council approved the plans for the new house and they all celebrated.

There were, admittedly, a few minor glitches. The unpleasant neighbours next door kicked up a fuss, and although the fuss didn’t achieve anything — despite fifty messages on the district council website opposing the new building, despite legal action that dragged things out a bit, the plans were still approved — it left a bad feeling, even though he and his wife reassured each other that the unpleasant neighbours were simply envious of the Modernist house, which would show up their own house — a medieval one, although also pebbledashed and unattractive — for the dark, shabby, old-fashioned thing that it was.

Work went ahead. They tore down the old house and built the new Modernist one. The lichen-begrimed old apple tree was cut down because it blocked the view and the fallen fruit attracted vermin. The old roses ended up on a bonfire. The hares that used to play in the garden went away once it was ploughed up to lay the surface for the night-lit tennis court. At least the council archaeologist, on her watching brief, was too tired and overworked to notice anything about the very old road that ran through the property and indeed right under most of the new house. This was good, as anything else would have slowed down the project even further.

At first they loved the new house. They were proud about what it said about them. It was fun to have their friends around for parties that lasted until late, complete with loud music, voices raised uproariously, all the outside lights blazing so that the new house was visible from miles away. Occasionally, they would see the unpleasant woman from next door standing out in her garden, alone in the dark, just staring towards them, silent, impassive. His wife found this unnerving but he didn’t care. The neighbour was obviously just crazy. They knew that already.

After a while, though, there were some problems with the new house.

For a start, it wasn’t sound-proofed properly. The games room and entertainment centre – these were in the basement, which they’d had to have excavated, because the house that was there before hadn’t had a basement, probably because there was the old road surface underneath that cost a fortune to have broken out and carted away — always seemed incredibly loud. Watching telly in the entertainment centre next door, his wife would complain about hearing the boys running around overhead — it sounds like an army! — even when the boys were just in the next room, looking at their iPhones, silent. Or they’d all hear voices talking loudly, or clanking sounds that didn’t seem to relate to anything. They wondered if it was interference on one of their many electronic devices, but it didn’t seem to be.

He got the architect to come around and have a look, and demanded that someone sort it out. Some men came and installed yet more high-tech, costly insulation, and rewired some electronic controls. It didn’t really help that much.

Bad things kept happening, although the banking crash was a distraction, and he couldn’t spend as much time in Norfolk as he’d have liked to do.

His wife’s dog came in one day with injuries. The vet told her that she should be careful because these kind of injuries were almost impossible to avoid if she let her dog run amongst cattle — but the dog hadn’t been near any cattle, so that didn’t make sense.

Then his son and wife both fell ill. They were fine, in the end, because they both got the right antibiotics very quickly, but it had been a worrying time. The doctor was puzzled at how they had managed to contract a disease that is, nowadays, more usually seen in East Africa and India, if at all.

That summer, they decided to have a party, to take everyone’s minds off all the financial problems, the war in the Far East, the riots, everything else.

It stays light in north Norfolk, at midsummer, until quite late — 10.30 or so. He was out on the terrace with his wife and their friends, drinking, music playing, all the usual crazy-fun things happening in the still-warm dusk. ‘There’s someone at the door’ said one of his friends, the one who owns that beautiful new house on the coast road, coming out onto the terrace, bottle of on-trend lager in hand.

He went back into the house to see who it was. The front door stood open even though it’s meant to close automatically. One of the boys must have left the latch off. Or one of the guests. He could see all his friends’ cars parked outside, with the lights of the tennis court beyond shining up into the sky, so that the church tower a short distance beyond was once again invisible. And between the door and the cars, there were people moving, walking — except that when he looked again, it was only the air moving — but how can anyone see air moving? It was cold, though, in the big open-plan living area, and when he threw himself forward to slam closed the door, suddenly defensive and angry at this strange intrusion, he felt the air and the door push back at him, hard — too hard.

Later, he blamed this on a dodgy tablet and also working too much recently.

As the months passed, things got worse. He wasn’t there much because of the money problems, but his wife sent him messages all the time. In the house, football trophies and kitchen appliances kept falling over. Several times, the big televisions screens simply fell off the walls. There were dirty footprints that appeared during the day when the boys were at Greshams and she was there alone. The clanking sounds continued, even after the architect had more work done on the high-tech, environmentally friendly and extremely expensive plumbing. The boat they had stored in the drive ended up full of water one morning — but it was full of sea water, fresh and tangy, not rain. And the house always smelled of cow shit and mud these days, no matter what they did.

The architect had no solution. After a while he got very slow about returning their calls. But then he was a very busy architect, with lots of prestigious awards to collect, all around the world.

They stopped having parties. The dog wouldn’t go out alone and the boys refused to go near the tennis court or to play on the lawn. ‘Is it that mad woman?’ his wife asked them, referring to the unpleasant neighbour. ‘Is she bothering you?’ His wife really didn’t like the unpleasant neighbour. But the older of the two boys denied this. ‘It’s — it’s all those other people,’ the child said, looking down, not meeting anyone’s eyes. No one questioned him further.

It is supposed to be very quiet there, in those pretty little villages along the north Norfolk coast, but the last few times he went up there, he never managed to get a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t just the worries about money or his family, either. It wasn’t just the house. It wasn’t even the neighbour, who for some reason seemed to spend a lot less time out on the lawn staring at them than she used to do.

No, it was the footsteps, the voices, the whole feeling of the house shaking with the rhythm of feet, the echoes of cattle cries, of military levies on the move, of messengers and itinerant madmen all going about their private work, merchants and priests — the sound of lamentations, of carts lurching forwards on wooden axles, the coffins moving, moving up the hill towards their old burial ground by the church — the sharp cries of the mourners hanging in the air — and then, after that, the silence that filled the space that followed the cries, a silence more terrible than death itself — an aching longing for what is lost, what has been broken purposelessly, what has been taken before its time but yet still has enough life left in it to make its absence known, felt, acknowledged.

*            *            *

‘So, what are you going to do with it, now that he’s sold it to you?’ asked the neutral neighbour. ‘You must have spent a lot of time thinking about it.’

The unpleasant neighbour smiled, and the neutral neighbour realised suddenly how long it had been since he had seen her smile — not since the demolition of the old house had been proposed, probably, all those years ago.

‘We’re going to have the new house demolished, and — this is the marginally eccentric part — we are going to rebuild the old house, exactly like it was when it was still the rectory.’

‘What? Like the old house? Pebbledash? That’s brave. Fill in the basement and everything?’

‘Especially, fill in the basement! And we’ll get it blessed, too, if the rector here will do it. And we’ll rename it, obviously.’

‘Obviously. What will you call it?’

‘Holgate House.’

The neutral neighbour looked surprised.

‘Why Holgate?’

‘That was the name of the old road. It was a very old road, you know — the name is actually old Norse, from Viking times — although everyone forgot about it after the road was rerouted during the Enclosure Acts in the early nineteenth century, when drove roads weren’t so important any more. Check out the Calthorpe map of 1769 if you don’t believe me. I can email you a copy if you like. But yes, we are putting things back to how they were, as best we can.’

And she smiled again, quite luxuriously now, feeling the unpleasantness draining from her as she did so, in precisely the sudden and magnificent way in which water runs off the leaves of some types of plants after a hard summer storm.