The Empty House

by Barendina Smedley

“So, how was Suffolk?” 

Chloe was still busy taking off the multiple layers of wool, technical fabrics and reflective gear that enabled her to cycle into central London from her flat in a hipster enclave some way to the east. Mathilde, already seated at the tiny table in a corner of the cramped and somewhat steamy Bloomsbury café, found herself wondering, not for the first time, about her old friend: her ability to manoeuvre in these small spaces without knocking things over, the fact she was still as slim as she had been when they were both at school, the self-confidence underpinning that casual, unabashed imprecision.

“Norfolk, actually” said Mathilde. “North Norfolk. Right up on the coast.”

“Skinny decaf flat white, not too hot, and can I have a gluten-free flapjack, and is there somewhere I could put this?” 

The waitress cradled Chloe’s various belongings in her arms like cherished infants and turned her gaze pointedly to Mathilde.

“Strong latte, please. Thank you.” Mathilde’s coat was hung over the back of her chair. She worried that it was in someone’s way, although it probably wasn’t.

“Sorry, yes, Norfolk,” said Chloe. “I knew that. Rupert’s got family there, right?”

“Dead family. There are whole churchyards up there bursting with them. Unfortunately, the ancestral home was redeveloped — ‘redeveloped’ in the sense of being flogged off, knocked down and made into that ghastly thing that won the RIBA prize, you know the one I mean — so we stayed in a hotel. It was nice enough, even though we were the youngest people there by at least three decades. The breakfasts were enormous, which the boys obviously enjoyed.”

“Oh wow, great!” Chloe’s face, ostentatiously free of makeup, beamed luminous positivity in the general direction of her old friend. “That’s amazing!”

“It was good to get away. Rupert was on the phone a lot, but for once he didn’t get called back to work, so that was something. We went on various excursions — old houses, big houses, that sort of thing. Old churches, too. Sam and Toby insisted on going swimming in the sea, which was nice for Rupert — he had done the same thing when he was little, you see.”

“Incredible! Wow, that must have been really special for all of you!” 

Chloe had hoped, as it happened, to move the conversation swiftly on to more Chloe-centred content — her forthcoming presentation before the parliamentary committee, her training for the triathlon, and of course the granular detail of her never-ending divorce — but there was something in Mathilde’s face that made her pause for a moment. 

“It was special, right? I mean, like you had a good time?”

Mathilde cradled her mug of latte between her long-fingered, rather weathered hands, as if taking part in some sacerdotal rite, and stared vacantly at the smooth taupe surface of the coffee, deciding what to say.

“It must have been so cool to have some time together as a family, right?”

“There was a thing that happened.”

Around the two women, leaning in towards each other at their tiny table, sounded the usual clatter and uproarious life of the café— the loud voices, laughter, even the noise of the traffic in the street outside the big shop-front window. But in the midst of it all, there was a little island of absolute silence. Chloe and Mathilde experienced the silence for a moment, contemplating its range and possibilities. Finally, Mathilde spoke again. 

“It’s really difficult to explain. It isn’t anything about Rupert and the boys — well, not really. Of course I told Rupert about it, but — well, you know Rupert.” 

A smile linked them in their shared understanding of Mathilde’s husband — his kind nature, his reliability and his affection for his family, but also his total immersion in his work.

“Come on. Tell me, please?”

“Well, all right, but you’re going to think I’m totally bonkers. It’s — it’s a strange story. 

“I told you that we were staying in a hotel. It’s right by the sea, or at least the marsh — there’s a big tidal marsh separating the sea and land there. Anyway. First thing in the morning, before the boys were up and while Rupert was doing his emails, I’d aways go running.”

“Good for you” said Chloe, encouragingly. “Great effort!”

“Well, I’m not exactly a proper competitive athlete, unlike some people I could mention, but I’ve been good about running this year, and I didn’t want to lose the momentum. And while I can’t write while on holiday, at least I could think about the book when I was running. I love being with Rupert and the boys, but at the same time, it felt important to clear my head a bit.

“There were basically not that many routes away from the village. We were there for a fortnight, and after a few days, I was convinced I’d found the best one. It ran up the high street, which is on a massive hill — Norfolk isn’t remotely as flat as legend has it, by the way — past the church, then down the hill to the next village inland. From there, the route went across a little stream — grandly called a river — past another of those insanely vast churches, then back up another enormous hill to the hotel again. 

“I learned that if I went running just before dawn broke, which is about 6.45 am this time of year, there wasn’t too much traffic, but I also didn’t have to run in the dark. So that’s what I did.

“After a while I had got used to all the sights along the way. I won’t bore you with all of them, but here’s the point — in the first village inland there was a house that I used to pass every morning. The village itself is, like all those villages, ridiculously smart these days. Nothing sells for under £800k — believe me, Rupert was obsessed with looking at the property listings, so I know far too much about property prices there.”

Chloe perked up at this. “Would you buy a house up there? Wow, wouldn’t that be brilliant? You should do it! Buy a house!”

Mathilde’s rather pale, slightly drawn face reshaped itself into an expression that was somehow hard to read.

“Just let me finish this story. 

“So the village is incredibly smart. I mean at one level it’s a normal, north Norfolk village — all that flint and pantile roofs business — but everything has been done up within an inch of its life. It’s like a Farrow & Ball look-book — the most ordinary little cottages have Plain English kitchens and wall lights from Soane. The bathrooms squeezed into pokey old outshuts are all done by Drummonds. 

“All of them except one. There was a house along the route that I spotted the first time I ran past it. It’s right in the middle of the village, too, but set back behind a brick wall. There are some farm buildings — brick, mostly derelict — the roofs falling in, that kind of thing — and then, right at the edge of it, abutting the main road, a big farmhouse.

“Oh, the farmhouse had the flint walls, brick jambs, pantile roof, the whole shooting match — but unlike everything else there, it hadn’t been done up. Not at all. Not the tinest bit done up. No, It wasn’t ruined to the extent that the farm buildings were, but you could see that the glazing bars in the windows had rotted away, that the roof was sagging, and that the whole thing was covered in ivy. The entrance was through a gate in the brick wall — the gate was hanging off its hinges. 

“There was a little garden, and then fields running off up the hill, towards the down. The garden was a wilderness. In a way it was beautiful — there were actual wallflowers, yellow and pink, growing on the wall, and big old apple tree with so much rotten fruit fallen on the tall grass underneath — but also, in another way, it felt really sad. I don’t know why it was sad, really — why should an abandoned garden make one feel sad like that?”

Chloe knew her old friend well enough to see that this was a question that demanded not so much an answer as a tactful pause in which Mathilde might seek out a way through this narrative that was more comfortable to her — and also, that just some people are blessed with perfect pitch or a good nose for wine, her old friend had an intrinsically fine ear for melancholy. 

“Anyway, the place stuck in my mind because I couldn’t understand why it was right in the middle of a smart little village but also deserted like that. I used to look at it every time I ran past. The windows were always dark and there was no one in the farm buildings either. 

“Then one morning, as I was running past, a bin lorry was coming the other way, so the only thing I could do was to duck into the gateway, so that I was in the little yard in front of the house. I stood there looking at it for a minute or so. It was such a nice house, like a child’s picture — door in the middle, windows set symmetrically above and about, a tall chimney at the peak of each gable — but the windows were pitch-black, the door looked a bit rotten, and the ivy seemed to be swallowing it up, almost as I watched.

“That night, when Sam and Toby had gone to bed, I asked Rupert about it — whether he knew the story behind it. He knew the house, all right. He’d spent his summers in the next village over and had friends all over the place, and they cycled round all the time, so he’s seen every corner of that part of the coast. But as far as he knew, the house had always been like that — empty. And here’s the odd thing — he didn’t seem to find anything strange about it. He just seemed to accept that it was like that. He was like, you know, ‘oh yes, you mean that empty house’ — and that was it. No curiosity at all.”

Here Mathilde shook her head gently, and sought in her mug for a last drop of the café latte she had consumed some time ago, with a sort of resigned wistfulness that seemed to encompass both the coffee and her husband’s lack of engagement.

“Well, I kept running past the house. But now and then, I’d stop for a moment and go into that little yard, and just look at it. And then once I went through the other gate, so I could look into the tiny stable yard, in the middle of the farm buildings. I could see that the farm buildings must once have been rather good — there was a Diocletian window you’d have loved — but now they were collapsing into themselves. There was an old rusted auto in one of the sheds, where the roof had literally fallen in on it. And then there were these endless wallflowers growing everywhere, some of them in bloom. But I didn’t go properly into the stable yard — I just looked at it.

“We got to the end of the holiday. And yes, we did have a good time, to answer your question. A very good time. It’s nice for Rupert to get some time with the boys. They enjoy that, and so does he — it’s been such a busy time for him recently, with Ukraine and everything. It’s good for him to get away.”

Chloe nodded enthusiastically — and then, because it seemed to her that Mathilde had been talking for rather a long time, she seized control of the conversation once again.

“Amazing! And it must be so cool for Rupert to be back where he grew up! He must feel, like, the most incredible bond with Suffolk — I mean, Norfolk.”

Mathilde considered this. “Yes, he does feel a bond. And it’s funny for me. You know my family moved all over the place when I was growing up — typical Army story — so until I went away to school I was never in the same place for more than a year or two. Maybe that’s part of why I like to write — because I’ve always carried my home around with me inside my head.

“But for Rupert, it’s totally different. North Norfolk really is his place, and those people really are his people — much more so than our home here in London. It’s strange — it’s as if he becomes a different person when he’s there — or as if he becomes the person he really is. I can’t really explain it. Well, you’ve lived all over the place too, so maybe you understand what I mean? It’s as if he sort of — I don’t know — as if he fits there, somehow. Like a piece from a puzzle. Or a key in a door. Sorry, I’m talking nonsense, aren’t I?”

Chloe, whose ever-shifting consultancy career mostly entailed a life lived out of immaculate and expensive yet blandly interchangeable hotel rooms, privately felt that her old friend was indeed talking nonsense. At the same time, she had the wit to view this for more or less exactly what it was, which was a touchingly genuine tribute to the age and strength of their friendship — one that had seen them both through many ups and downs. So it was that she only laughed and shook her head and bounced up and down in her chair encouragingly.

“Come on! I’m still waiting for the strange thing you promised to tell me about.” 

“Ha, yes, you know how bad I am at linear narratives! 

“Anyway, on the last morning I ran my usual route. It was a mild morning for November, but with a lot of mist about. When I got to the village and that house, I thought I might as well stop and take a few photos of it, not for any particular reason — well, really, just because it was one of my memories from that holiday, so why not? 

“So I went into the courtyard. The windows were all just as dark and blind as ever. There was clearly no one about. I got out my iPhone and started photographing this and that — the garden, those insanely picturesque wallflowers, the façade.

“I wanted a better shot, one that had the roof at a better angle. Well, you know me. I wanted the chimneys to line up the right way. The mist was swirling everywhere. I knew they were going to be incredible photos. I was completely in the moment, there — just thinking of the photos and how they were going to look, with all that decay, the sense of loneliness, the mist.

“So I went right around the far corner of the house. I hadn’t actually been around that way before. And when I did, I saw that there was a door on the far side of the house, and it was standing just a little bit open.”

“Oh my gosh” said Chloe. “Oh gosh. You didn’t? You did! I bet you did. Oh gosh, you did, didn’t you?” 

“I did.” 

Mathilde still had her long-fingered hands, complete with worn old-gold wedding band and bitten fingernails, folded around the empty coffee cup, staring into it depths as if she hoped to find answers there. 

“And to this day, I don’t really know why, either, except that it felt like the obvious thing to do. The side door was part way open. There were no lights on — I’d never seen any lights in the house — and no one about at all.

“So I pulled at the door, and it opened very easily, so I stepped inside.”

“Oh my gosh.” Chloe had her hands over her mouth now, so absorbed that she had completely forgotten that she was soon going to miss an appointment with her new therapist, that she had wanted to inform Mathilde all about her new contract, or indeed that she had a date with her ski coach, a glamorous yet interestingly troubled Croatian ex-military type, that very evening.

“The first room was a sort of little boot-room, then beyond that there was a kitchen. The internal doors were open, so I could see quite a way along the enfilade. Beyond the kitchen there was a sort of hall, with nice old stairs leading upwards. 

“In a way the house was just what you’d imagine — dark, but with enough light from the windows that it was easy enough to see everything. Of course it smelled damp and musty, like that sort of house always does. Weirdly, though, it was still full of furniture — normal things like boots in the boot room, an ancient tennis racket in a press, gardening gloves and secateurs — but all dusty, all faded and old and clearly abandoned for years and years. And yet there was no sign that anyone else had been there, which seemed incredible to me — no graffiti, no vandalism, not really even anything out of place. It was as if someone had just stepped out one day, and had never come back. It was as if the house had just been sitting there, waiting for someone, all that time.

“Oh Cloe. I have to admit that I took a few photos. Was that the wrong thing to do? It didn’t feel like the wrong thing to do. There was just something — something so sad about the place, so sad about how it was waiting, how it had been waiting all that time for something that would never now happen. I wanted to capture that. Do you understand? It felt like a metaphor for something. I wanted to capture it. I had to capture it. 

“And then I went through to the kitchen. It was such a nice kitchen! Just my sort of kitchen, really. There was a really lovely old solid-fuel range of some sort, and exposed beams — from the chamfers, by the way, the house must have been seventeenth century, if not earlier — and the beams had things like old baskets hanging from them. There were old prints on the walls, in lacquered frames under crown glass. The floor was covered with pamments — not shiny waxed horrid pamments, either, but the proper old ones, worn where people had walked across them for centuries. And there was a big belfast sink, and an old kitchen table, still with a cookery book lying open on top of it, covered with dust.

“It was all perfect — almost too perfect. So, well, I stopped and I took a few more photos. I took a photo of the cookbook, the faded pages, with that nice elm table underneath. I took a photo of the range. I took a photo of the baskets hanging from the beams, with the light just filtering in through the grimy old windows, catching the edges of the chamfer. 

“And then I noticed something.

“Thrown over a chair there was a cricket jumper.”

Mathilde paused. Chloe noticed that her friend’s perpetually pale face was entirely drained of colour, just as it used to do when she was having one of her fainting fits when they were still back at school. Mechanically, Chloe pushed the last of her gluten free flapjack in Mathilde’s direction. Mathilde, though, appeared not to notice.

“There was a cricket jumper. But here’s the thing. It was just like one from Sam’s school — in his school colours. And you know — obviously his school is in Chelsea, not Norfolk, yet the colours are quite distinctive! I thought this was really odd, so I had a closer look. And there was a name-tape in the jumper. And it had Sam’s name on it. It was literally his cricket jumper — but covered with dust.”

Now it was Chloe’s turn to look pale.

“So I looked around. I looked at some of the other things in the room. And then I noticed that there was a toy on the floor, right under the table. It was a toy horse. It was that ridiculous toy horse that Toby has been carrying around with him for the past few months, the one that he made me buy for him at the National Army Museum. And it was literally the same one, because he chews on it a lot, and this one clearly had the same tooth-marks — but again, it was covered with dust.

“And then I looked into the next room — the hall, the place with the stairs, which I guess were probably mid-Georgian — provincial, but very good. At the foot of the stairs was an old sports bag. Chloe, do you know what it was? It was that bag Rupert uses to carry his work papers, so they don’t look like anything important. I’d know that bag anywhere. And it was that very same bag, but absolutely caked with cobwebs and mildew and dust.

“And then I knew I had to leave, so I turned around, but when I did, because it was dark and I was shaking, I managed to run into a half-open door and knocked something over. And then I heard something — it was a voice — a voice from upstairs — it …”

“No. I’m not sure I want to hear this, Mattie. Oh my gosh. No, Mattie!”

“Cloe, here’s the thing. It was a voice, calling down from the room above. And it said something quite ordinary like ‘don’t worry, hold on, I’ll be down in just a second,’ or something stupid like that. But Chloe — here’s the thing. Here’s the actual thing. It was my voice. Clear as day, it was my own voice.”

Outside the café, a police car passed, siren wailing. People in heavy coats laughed and jostled each other on the pavements, while inside the steamy warmth of the café, a waitress dropped something metallic. Some perfectly competently-played Schubert piano music was tinkling away irrelevantly in the background. The mildly famous journalist at the next table swore self-consciously yet without any real malice.

In the midst of this, Mathilde and Chloe sat silently for a little while, until all the incidental, familiar, inconsequential goings-on around them somehow reached out to them, drawing them back gently into the world of normal, reasonable, explicable things. 

Perhaps inevitably, Chloe recovered first. “Those photos of the house — can I see them?”

“When I went to show them to Rupert, they had all vanished from my phone. Every single one of them. Well, every single one except one photo of the wallflowers, but that wasn’t very good. The light values were wrong somehow.”

Chloe tried one more time. “So, you said that you told Rupert about — about what happened. What did he say?”

Mathilde looked out the window, then at her shaking hands, then at the bit of flapjack lying disregarded on its plate, before at long last turning her grave, sad, far-sighted eyes to meet those of her old friend.

“Well, you know Rupert. He listened, but he didn’t really engage. He just looked at me — half amused, half somehow elsewhere, as per usual. And then after a little while, he admitted that he’d put in an offer on a house up there. 

“He wants to move there for good. It’s where he feels at home, he says, with the marsh and the mud and those famous big skies. He thinks we’d all be better off there. 

“And today, as it happens, the offer was accepted. So now we’re moving to Norfolk for good.”