Two white cats sat either side of the gateposts, like sentries. Their eyes reflected in the headlights. And when I got out of the car and crouched down to stroke them, they fled.
Pete was in his garage, dressed in blue overalls spattered with oil. He raised a hand. 'Welcome, welcome.' He wiped his hands on a scrap of an old shirt, then threw it on the bench beside him.
'Yeah, little bastards.' If people match their pets, Pete was the exception. Large and dark, his stomach straining at his overalls, one strap tied in a knot to the bib where a button had come off. 'You got your keys?'
'Yes, thanks.' I started to unload my bags from the boot and the back seat of the car.
'Let me know if you need owt.' He turned his back and carried on pottering.
I couldn't stay in the house I'd shared with James, and Ivy Lodge was vacant and cheap. There wasn't a lot to unpack. I'm not one for trailing a childhood teddy bear, and it was a relief to walk away without the drag of marital furniture and dinner services; just a suitcase or two with my clothes, and my laptop. Ivy Lodge was furnished, so no worries about finding a bed or sofa, and the TV I could do without. Maybe I'd start reading all those books I'd never got around to. Join a reading group, perhaps.
I pushed against the heavy front door, a shoulder against it, my arms full of stuff. Pete peered across – halfway towards walking my way, but I shook my head, mouth set, lips pushed hard against each other, as if that would help the physical effort of opening the door. Remember to breathe, that's what they say in Pilates, breathe your way in to the pain, the posture, and as I breathed out, the door jerked slightly open. A heavy curtain hung behind it, too long for the door, gathered to one side and pooled across the floor like a bridal train. A pile of junk mail, too, was causing it to stick from underneath. Leaflets for Chinese and Indian takeaways and pizza houses, an A5 photocopied and stapled parish newsletter, which I put aside, and a couple of envelopes addressed to Sarah Flowers, who must have been a previous tenant. One looked like a bank statement, and I wondered why Sarah Flowers hadn't had her post redirected.
I tried to rearrange the door curtain to make my exit easier. It wouldn't draw completely to one side. I reached up to pull the rings over a connection in the rail. There was a slight rust to the copper-coloured rings. As I opened the door, one of the white cats slipped in, and ran into the bedroom. I decided to leave it for the moment, and left the door open as I brought Sarah Flowers' letters over to Pete.
His fingers were in a glass jar of metal washers, nails and screws. He raised his head, open-mouthed, as I approached, and showed him the letters. 'Oh, right. Just leave them there.' He nodded towards a space on the bench next to an oil can. A white cat snaked between his legs, its chin rubbing against his shin. He seemed unaware, as if it were an extension of him.
'The other one's come into the Lodge,' I said, gesturing towards the cat, now curling at his feet.
'Yeah, they do that. Any chance. Throw the blighter out.' He reached down and scratched the cat's ears, leaving a sooty mark on the white fur. The cat raised its head to meet his fingers.
'What are they called?'
'This one's Oscar, the other one's Fred. Fred's got a nick in one of his ears. Battle scar.'
Fred was curled on the bed when I returned to the Lodge. I shooed him away, but he just opened his eyes, then half-closed them, and settled down again. 'Come on, boy, you can't stay here.' I lowered my hand to scratch his ears, as I had seen Pete do with the other cat, but he reached out with his claws and scratched the back of my hand. I tried to open a window, so the cat could leave when he was ready, but the window wouldn't budge, so I called on Pete. Fred purred and rolled over to show his belly. Pete scooped him up, holding him like a baby. Fred narrowed his eyes at me as I showed both man and cat out the door.
'Oh, I might as well put these leaflets in the recycling bin,' I said.
'Green bin out the back of the garage,' Pete said. As I lifted the lid, I saw the letters addressed to Sarah Flowers sitting on top of a pile of newspapers.
That first night in the Lodge, I had the strangest dream, though I didn't seem to be asleep. A weight was pinning me down, as if a creature were crouching on my chest. I wondered if one of the cats had somehow got back in, but there was no cat, nor anything else to cause that sensation. Logic told me it wasn't real, that it was a hangover from a dream that I couldn't quite recall on waking. But I had to admit that a sense of doubleness had been with me a while, an 'other' to the left of my vision. Perhaps my dead marriage was the cause, seeping in during the hours of darkness, catching me unawares when I thought I was doing so well on my own. I was cold, as I lay awake; it was so much colder in that room than the rest of the Lodge. I gathered my bedding and took it to the sofa. After that first night, I slept on the sofa every night, leaving the bed unused.
The hallway was dark; the front door had no window, and the only natural light came in when the doors to the other rooms were ajar. The bedroom was first, on the left, the bathroom a little further, on the right, and the living room straight ahead, with the kitchen branching off it. The windows were tall, sashed, and painted shut. The kitchen, with its cupboards and fittings crammed in, made me tense, like the feeling you get in a maze when you can't find your way out. At times, I felt squashed against the cupboards, the cooker, and the fridge, as if pushed slightly off-balance by unseen hands. There was a bricked-up doorway in the kitchen. Back in the days it was in use, it would have made the room all doors, with precious little space for anything else, but then there would have been another escape route, especially as the kitchen door handle often jammed, trapping me in the room.
I didn't mention the night visitation to Pete, or the feeling of confinement in the kitchen. But I did complain of the cold in the bedroom, of the doors sticking as if someone were pushing against them when I tried to open them.
As I put my key in the lock when I came home from work on evening, Pete opened the door. I complained that there was no rush for him to do the repairs, but he said he was just up the drive, and had nothing else to do that day. I got the impression that most days were like that for him. 'Well, young lady, I came around expecting to have to take the door off and plane it, but it opened as smooth as a swan on a lake.' He swung the door open and shut it several times to demonstrate. 'And the kitchen door handle … seems fine to me.' He beckoned me towards the kitchen; the handle that trapped me in there when I was alone dropped and rose with no resistance.
'Oh, I'm sorry to have bothered you,' I said, feeling foolish.
'No worries; that's what I'm here for. Funny thing is, the other girls who lived here, tenants I've had before you, complained about the door … and the handle in the kitchen.'
'Sarah Flowers? Did she complain?'
'Yeah, her.' He sniffed. 'Anyway, I've never had a problem with the doors. No meat on you, that's what it is. Need building up.' He smiled and winked. 'While I was here, I bled the radiators, but the one in the bedroom's proving stubborn.'
'It's always colder in there,' I said.
'If I can't manage to shift it, I'll get a plumber in.' He knelt on the floor, and gathered his tools into a canvas bag. He struggled to his feet. The folds of fat on his belly wobbled as he did so.
'Oh, the cupboard in the bedroom, it won't stay closed.' It was a ridiculous, shallow thing with a couple of hooks at the back.
'That one's a mystery,' he said. 'I've tried to take the door off and put some shelving in the alcove, but the screws in the hinges won't loosen.'
'I think it's damp,' I said. 'I hung some scarves in there and they got mottled with dark spots.'
'Same thing happened to the last tenant's stuff. But my dampness meter shows no damp.' He shrugged. 'You've got the wardrobe, though, haven't you? I'd just avoid using that cupboard. I like to think I'm Superman,' he raised his arms in a muscle man pose, 'But it seems I can't do everything.'
The cats were sitting on the outside sill of the bedroom window, pawing at the glass. 'Better go feed them, I suppose.' They jumped down, and were waiting outside the front door as Pete left. They tried to walk in, but he gently deflected them with a kick.
I joined a Pilates class. I had seen it advertised in the parish newsletter. Thought it would help tone me up, and maybe I'd meet some new people. Friends who knew James and me, as a couple, took sides when we split, or revelled in the drama of it all – terrible sympathy in their eyes, a touch on my arm. Unanswered calls, curt replies to emails saw some drift away. New start, new friends, but it turned out that the Pilates ladies were all friendly with one another. Five minutes before class was like the playground cliques at school; huddles formed around the hall, and whilst there were a few glances in my direction, it was as if there were 'no vacancies' signs posted by each group.
I returned to a cold house. I missed the welcoming light of the television; even the lights left on in all the rooms that drove me mad when I came home to James. He used to say that in every relationship there is one person who leaves all the lights burning while the other goes around switching them off. I now kept all the lights on, even in the rooms I wasn't using, as if the light could chase away the feelings of dread, discomfort. As if what happened in the dark, in that bedroom, could not be given dominion under the blaze of an electric light.
I went to the kitchen to get a snack: a couple of digestive biscuits with chocolate spread. I stopped by the mirror in the hallway first, looked at my profile, and sucked my belly in. The leggings and T-shirt I'd worn for exercising showed every lump and bump.
The biscuits looked bare, and not enough, so I tipped several more onto the plate, added peanut butter to those, sliced a banana and arranged the circles on top. I looked in the fridge, and there was a tub of double cream. I wouldn't have bought that – ever. I'd ordered online, and put the shopping away fast; maybe I didn't notice it, mistook it for my usual low-fat yogurt. It seemed a shame to waste it, and after all I had been exercising. I piled it onto the biscuits, and then spooned the rest of the tub of cream into my mouth.
The next day was tough; my manager was off sick, and I had to cover her phone, her work, as well as my own. But when I came home, the door didn't stick at all. At least something had gone right that day.
I dumped my bag and coat on the bed. It was still so cold in the bedroom, even though it was June. I guessed these old buildings take a while to warm up, even in the summer. North facing, probably.
I noticed a letter, caught in the folds at the foot of the curtain that hung at the door. The postmark was from the week before. The seal on the envelope was bumpy, as if the glue had come away, and it was only stuck at the point of the flap. I recognised my Aunt Tina's handwriting. She was one of the few people who still wrote by hand, never quite trusted the new; emailing wasn't her thing.
I sat with a coffee, and tucked my feet up beside me on the sofa, ready for a newsy read. Pages later, I learned that she was coming to stay at the weekend. I phoned her, said I'd only just got the letter, and asked if she was still coming, as she hadn't heard from me. 'I've no spare room,' I said, hoping to put her off.
'You have a sofa, don't you?'
'A sofa bed, yes.' My bed. I'd not slept in the bedroom since that first night.
'I'll see you on Friday evening. The sofa bed will be good enough for me.'
I decided to sleep in the bedroom that night; it was time to toughen up. But when it came to it, I chickened out, and slept on the sofa as usual. I'd offer Tina the bedroom; insist on it.
I ordered some extra shopping online, and it arrived early on the Friday, just before I left for work, so I put the carrier of chilled stuff in the fridge, and dashed out the door.
Tina arrived before I got back from work, and Pete spotted her sitting in her car. He asked her if she'd like a cup of tea at the big house, which she declined, but accepted his offer of letting her into the Lodge with his key. She told me later that Pete was a little too familiar for her liking. He had followed her in, showed her around, then sat chatting on the sofa until I came home. Both cats had trailed after him, and had leapt onto the kitchen surfaces, sniffing in the Sainsbury's bags of shopping I had left that morning.
'He seems rather comfortable in your house,' Tina said. 'Too comfortable.'
I shrugged. 'He's been in a fair amount to do some maintenance. He's all right, really.'
'Hmmm. Does he not disturb you? When you have, you know, company?' She winked.
'Oh, there's nothing like that. No-one.'
'You're a young woman. Don't deprive yourself. Not that there can be many opportunities to meet men out in the sticks. Or maybe Pete thinks he's in with a chance?' I laughed. 'He might not be your cup of tea,' she said, 'But you may well be his. I would watch out, if I were you.'
When I unpacked the food delivery, there was stuff I hadn't ordered. The deliveryman must have given me a bag of someone else's shopping by mistake. But there were things in there that Tina and I enjoyed that evening: chocolate, strawberry cream tarts, crème caramels and wine. Well, the wine I had ordered, for sure. And we sat up late, talking, snacking and drinking. There was some haggling over the bed, but Tina agreed to take it, in the end, and left me to the sofa.
During the night, I saw a parallelogram of light cast from the bedroom onto the hall carpet. I heard Tina use the bathroom; saw her stand a while in the hall, then the light diminished to a thin beam as she partially closed the bedroom door. The light stayed on all night, and when I asked her how she had slept, she said she'd had a bad dream, so she'd sat up reading. She looked pale, her eyes circled with dark, and I nearly said something, nearly asked about the dream.
'Look, why don't I treat us to a night in a hotel?' she said. 'It would do you good to get you out of here for a while.' She meant get you out of this dingy place. I could tell what she thought by the way her nose wrinkled, her frown. The air was stale. I'd become used to it, the mustiness. I hate those scented fresheners, and I did get some air in through the slim window in the bathroom, which was jammed open, though the ivy from the wall outside was inclined to creep in.
I shook my head. 'To be honest, Auntie, I've got a lot of work to catch up on; my manager's been off sick, and I'm covering for her.'
'Never mind your manager; you're not looking so well yourself.'
'I'm fine,' I said. Knowing that the reflection in the hall mirror told me otherwise.
'To be honest, love, I don't know what you're doing here. There's something … uncomfortable about this house. It's sucked you in, the idea of deprivation, of living like a student with a creepy landlord.'
I wasn't offended by what she said, just kind of blank about it. She gave me a hug, and suggested I look for somewhere to stay on my 'online thingy'. She'd seen a bed and breakfast sign not far outside the village, and we quickly found the number and booked.
It was rather lovely to sleep in a proper bed that night, with clean sheets and fluffy towels in the en suite, and in a room with a window that opened to let the air in. Tina and I shared a room, and even with her snoring gently in the next bed, I slept better than I had in months.
I opted for the full English at breakfast and several cups of tea. 'Now you look better,' Tina said, and I managed a smile.
I'd seen the landlady in the village shop, and she too recognised me. 'You're fairly new, aren't you?' she said. I nodded, said I'd moved into Ivy Lodge. She stopped clearing the plates from the table for a second. 'Oh … how are you finding it?'
'It suits me for now,' I said. Tina grimaced, and exchanged a glance with the landlady.
'It's just … and perhaps I shouldn't mention it … that quite a few young women have rented the place. They don't stay long.'
'Yes, she was there before you. We used to have a chat in the shop. Nice girl. Left all of a sudden. And others before her.' She stood for a moment by the table, as if there was more to tell, then quickly gathered the rest of the crockery.
'I really think you should move on,' Tina said.
'I will, in time. But I've signed a contract. I can't leave yet. Besides, I don't know where I want to be.'
When I returned to the Lodge later that day, there was more post for Sarah Flowers. I added the envelopes to the pile of letters I had collected, intending to mark them 'return to sender'. Then I went to the fridge. We hadn't eaten half of the food I'd got in for Tina's visit, not to mention the extra stuff that was delivered by mistake. I threw the cream cakes in the bin. I knew I wouldn't eat just one, it would be all four, so it would be better to get rid of the lot. Later, I picked the box out of the bin and ate them all.
I tried to sleep in the bedroom that night. The temperature had risen in the other rooms, as the summer progressed. But there was still a chill in that room, so I kept the winter duvet on. During the night, it felt as though a hand suddenly snatched the cover from the bed. I could still feel the weight of it on me, and more, as if a there were a pile of duvets on top of one another, on top of me, but I was shivering. And when I went to pull the duvet tighter around me, it wasn't there at all. It was heaped on the floor.
I decided to move the furniture around. Perhaps by tackling the bedroom I would get rid of that feeling of dread, the reluctance to use it. There wasn't a lot to work with in the Lodge, not much space, and the furniture was heavy. So I called on Pete to help.
Oscar followed Pete in, and while we moved from one room to another, discussing where to put the furniture, I saw the cat squat on the bed and piss on it. 'Pete, quick,' I shouted. Oscar yowled as Pete chased him into the hallway and shooed him out of the front door. 'Little bugger,' Pete said.
I filled the washing up bowl with water and disinfectant and scrubbed at the mattress. 'Least I can do is get you a new mattress,' Pete said. 'And while we're at it, we'll give the room a lick of paint.' I sighed, close to tears. 'All a bit much, is it, love?' He offered me a greying handkerchief. 'Could you manage on the sofa a night or two?' he said. I nodded, sniffing back my tears. 'Right, let's go and choose some paint, and make a start today.'
Pete and I tipped the mattress this way and that as we struggled to get it out into the narrow hallway and through the front door. Pete said he'd move around the chest of drawers and wardrobe as he painted. There was a mark on top of the chest – a scratch like claw marks, quite deep, and a stain on the wall behind it, dark and indistinct. The shallow cupboard would stay as it was; maybe he'd hammer it shut, Pete said, or put the wardrobe in front of it.
When we shifted the mattress out of the house, the postman handed me a letter. 'Who's that from?' Pete asked.
'Shan't know until I open it,' I said, placing it on the coffee table. When I came to read it later, it was in the kitchen, next to the kettle. It was from Tina. She was offering me money, enough for a deposit on a house. 'No point keeping it in the bank when you could do with it,' she wrote. 'Besides, I'll look on it as an investment; I'm counting on you to look after me in my old age!' I mentally filed it as something to think about after the decorating was complete. I had little time on my own, to think, as Pete was around for several days.
He finished the skirting boards on a Saturday afternoon. There was just the doorframe to do, and he said he'd work on into the evening. 'I'm going to the chip shop,' he said, and he came back with a large piece of haddock and a mega size portion of chips that we split, eating from the polystyrene carton with wooden forks and swigging from cans of Coke that he'd carried in the pockets of his fleece. I found a tub of ice cream in the freezer, which we polished off between us, and sat in companionable fullness for a while before he got on with the work. I was in joggers and an old T-shirt, not wanting to get paint on my good clothes, but my good clothes were getting tighter in any case. It mattered less, how I looked, as the months passed. I'd been working from home – a new policy of hot-desking meant I'd lost my base in the office. Days could go by without stepping outside. I forgot to brush my hair unless I caught my reflection before I had to go to a meeting.
I'd emptied the wardrobe to make it easier to move, and piled the clothes onto the floor. The white shirt and black trousers I'd worn with James on our last anniversary, when we had sat on opposite sides of a restaurant table, and had nothing to talk about; the mistake of the dress bought for a wedding with the large blue roses printed on it. And there were so many skirts that had once sat loose on my waist, which I could only do up with the aid of a large safety pin across the gaping top of a zip. A charity collection bag came through the door, and I filled it, plus two black sacks besides. Perhaps I would become like whoever had lived in the lodge in the olden days. Two dresses, worn in rotation, hung on the hooks at the back of the cupboard.
'This wardrobe, it takes up so much space,' I said to Pete as he worked around it to paint the wall.
He turned as best he could to look at me, with the wardrobe in his way. I noticed the stain on the wall, which still showed through where Pete had painted; it would need another coat. 'Hmm, it's been here as long as I remember, that wardrobe.' He kicked the back of it with his heel. 'Maybe I'd get a bit for it. Some people like this old stuff. Get you something modern, lighter.'
I placed an ad on Gumtree, and a couple came to collect the wardrobe. I wondered how it had ever got into the room; furniture didn't come flat-packed in the days when that was made. Try as they might, it wouldn't go through the bedroom door and turn the corner down the hallway. Pete had to refund the money, and the wardrobe stayed. The stain on the wall had been resistant to three coats of Raspberry Diva paint, so the wardrobe was placed in front of it. Lifting the carpet had also revealed that the stain spread to the floorboards below the wall. It spread as far as where the bed stood.
The room smelt of fresh paint for a while, but the mustiness didn't lift. On the night when I made up the new bed and slept in the room, there was a feeling of closeness, like the days before a thunderstorm when heat builds and you long for rain. It felt like anger.
Marks appeared on all the clothes I hung in the wardrobe, as if the stain on the wall was transferring to them. I scrubbed them, put stain remover in the washing machine, but they wouldn't come out. There was nowhere outside to hang washing, so they were draped over an airer for days, and never felt fully dry.
'You can use my washing line if you like,' Pete said, one day, as I was setting off for a meeting. 'I went in to see if I'd left my hammer behind, and saw you had wet clothes hanging indoors.' The dress I was wearing was pockmarked and smelled of mildew. I was ill-prepared for the meeting. Sleep had left me; I rested on the sofa in a half-doze at nights, getting up to the fridge for snacks that I hardly remembered eating. The floor would be strewn with wrappers in the morning, and I would scoop them into the bin. Waking and sleeping became one. Pete had entered my dreams, with the white cats trailing behind him as he wandered through the Lodge.
More letters arrived for Sarah Flowers. A small pile of them accrued, and occasionally they would disappear, after Pete had let himself in under some pretext or other. Tina's letter also went missing; it had been at the bottom of a number of bills and letters offering me loans and credit card balance transfers.
A month went by before Tina turned up at my door. By that time, I'd become obsessed with the wardrobe. How had it ever got into that room? It creaked, and once there was a scratching from within. When I opened it, a cat flew out. Fred – I noticed the nick in his ear that distinguished him from Oscar.
'It's the wardrobe,' I said to Tina, before she had the chance to say hello. 'Maybe someone added a hollow panel at the back; there will something in there, I swear.'
Tina took off her jacket and draped it over a chair. 'What are you on about?'
'Yes, what about it?'
'It got bigger. That's why we couldn't get it out of the room.'
She frowned, and looked me up and down. 'Will it set your mind at rest if we check?' I nodded. 'Tape measure?' There was a metal rule, the kind that retracts into a case, which Pete had left in the Lodge. Tina measured inside the wardrobe, from the door to the back board, then along the outside. The difference was negligible. 'It was built in this room,' she said. 'They probably didn't think about getting it out. Furniture was made to last back then.'
My shoulders drooped. I'd imagined a hidden space, something within that would explain the goings on in that room.
'But I didn't come to talk about wardrobes,' she said, heading for the kitchen to put the kettle on. 'My letter; you haven't replied.'
'No, sorry.' I had put it to the back of my mind. When Pete wasn't around, I'd mainly thought about the wardrobe, or if the cats were a malign influence.
'I've brought some house details. That's if you want to stay in the village. Might be better to move on.'
It seemed impossible to leave; Ivy Lodge contained me. Pete brought me takeaways, so I hardly shopped for food anymore. The kitchen bin was overflowing with foil containers and lidded plastic pots. I forgot to take the rubbish out in time for bin days; I forgot which days the bins were emptied. Work was getting impatient. There was talk of disciplinary proceedings. My boss suggested I see a doctor, but that would mean leaving the house.
'It's not what you imagined, this life of freedom, is it?' I shook my head. 'But it will be … you just need to get away from here.'
We returned to the B&B that night, after Tina had helped me clean the kitchen and take the rubbish out. She closed the doors firmly on the wardrobe and the bedroom before we left. She spoke to Pete before we set off. I remained in the car, but could hear them talking. 'How could you let her get like this?'
'She's huge, for a start, and she hasn't seen daylight for weeks.'
He picked up and put down a succession of tools on the workbench, avoiding her gaze. 'Looks better with some weight on her, if you ask me. I bring her food, keep an eye.'
'You know the story, of course,' the landlady of the B&B said as she served us breakfast next morning. 'Servant girl, all but held captive, back in the day.'
'No, I had no idea,' I said.
'Oh yes, it was quite a horror story. She worked for the man at the big house; only went between Ivy Lodge and the house, never any further. And the man … forget his name … well, they'd call it coercive control these days. Fed her, clothed her, locked her in the Lodge, had his wicked way with her. She'd come to depend on him, see? Found dead in the end.'
Tina went pale. 'How did she die?'
'Bled to death. A baby's corpse was found in the wardrobe, wrapped. Stillborn, they reckon. I doubt she had any help with the birth.'
'Gruesome,' said Tina. 'Poor thing.'
'A couple of cats found her, they say. Some exotic breed owned by the man at the big house. They kept scratching at one of the windows – it wouldn't close properly, as the ivy crept in from the outside wall. The clattering of the window catch brought the gardener to it, and he saw the poor girl through the bedroom window.'
'You felt it, too, didn't you?' I said to Tina, after the landlady had cleared the table. 'When you stayed over. In that room.'
Tina stared at the table cloth. 'Let's go and see some of these houses,' she said. She'd brought the brochures to the breakfast table. 'And then we'll go and pack your things.'
As I rose from my chair, the fluttering that I'd felt in my belly for some weeks became a definite kick.