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Open Features: The House

The old man has left his house to his granddaughter – a bequest that comes as a shocking surprise to his daughter. But has granded left an even bigger surprise?

Judith Jacks tells a splendidly atmospheric tale.

The gas man had ripped up all the floorboards in the hall. I teetered on the front doorstep, unsure what to do next, and stared down through splintered wood into the hole. Somewhere from the dank Victorian underclay, a voice called out, ‘Better go round the back, pet!’

I made my way along the bluestone cobbles of the back lane, ducking under lines of washing pegged out to take advantage of the weak January sun. Damp flannelette sheets reared up like Daz-scented ghosts in a breeze which funnelled down the lane from the coast road.

The shabby back gate to my grandparents’s house had never needed bolting: one shove could slam it immovably shut from the inside. Now, I applied my shoulder and gave it a couple of practised kicks. The cracked wood gave way, catapulting me into the backyard.

I opened the kitchen door and walked into the house. No need to rattle the sneck or give a cheery whistle today. The place felt icy and there was a smell of gas. All the windows were open, shoved up crookedly as though the sash-cords had snapped. Someone had taken the curtains down and the rooms seemed to blink and squirm in the clear wintry light.
Once the kitchen had been dominated by Granma’s stocky-legged Flavel gas stove, bought after the war. Roaring like a paint-burner it had turned out enough milk puddings and bacon-and-egg pies to feed a family twice the size. Sunday dinners were its specialty: leg of lamb with mint sauce and Bisto gravy, spuds mashed with butter and top of the milk, then steamed treacle pudding with Bird’s custard. Granma would bustle about in her crossover pinny, puffing a bit. She never really joined us.

‘Will you sit down...’ Grandad would bark, carving knife poised over the joint. As soon as one meal was cleared away she would set to work on the next.

Now the gas stove looked cold and lopsided. Grandad hadn’t used it much after Granma died and its grey doors and spiked hobs were rusting. The overhead grill stood guard over a solitary piece of blackened toast.

‘It’s a shame to see it like this, isn’t it?’

I jumped. A small man in navy blue overalls had come in through the back door behind me, carrying a metal toolbox. He looked me up and down.

‘You the daughter?’

‘Grand-daughter. Um... who are you?’

‘Electricity Board. We’re switching everything off.’
I winced. No gas, now no electricity.

‘Can’t I at least make a cup of tea first?’

He twisted the single brass tap over the sink. The spout gave off a melancholy sozzling sound but nothing came out. He winked and disappeared into the cupboard under the stairs and began to tinker with the old meter.

Nothing worked any more. It seemed as if the house itself had lost the will to function.

I went upstairs and the cold deepened. The walls of the empty rooms seemed drained of colour. The bedrooms so silent their emptiness created its own sound, a hissing white noise like tinnitus in my ears. I wished that I could step over the void and will back the warmth that used to be here. Surely their voices were still around somewhere, murmuring just beyond hearing, their faces held in a mirror, invisible. If I strained my ears would I hear Grandad riddling the cold grate downstairs, shovelling out the cinders, the mauve ash soft as a glove.

This house was mine now. Grandad’s will was a generous act - and a malicious one, settling an old family score. My mother’s mouth had tightened when she heard what he had done. I asked her what she thought I should do. She shrugged and turned away.

The two men from Gas and Electricity called up the stairs and jolted me back to the present. They sounded panicky.

‘Hello? Would you come back down here please? ‘There’s been some tampering with the supply.’

‘Was he a bit of a do-it-yourselfer, your grandad?’

A death trap, they called it, taping up the front door and setting out cones in the street. I imagined the house exploding, bricks and roof-tiles rising into the air then clattering down all over town. Shattered glass would fall like late snow, a chimney-pot would find its way into the sea, the front doorstep into the churchyard. There would be a gap between number 20 and number 24. The house would be shared out among everybody.



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