‘Unfortunately, there is no mistake,’ she said, closing the file.
He stared at the woman, wondering whether she was enjoying this, his particular case.
She continued, ‘The insurance lapsed at the end of May. We sent you three reminder letters and one of our representatives tried to call on-,‘ She opened the file again, ‘April 30th, May 10th, May-‘.
The drone of the voice continued. It was warm in the room. A far from unpleasant numbness oozed through his body, meandering like some unctuous brook towards the extremities of hand and foot. A moment later and feeling vanished from fingers and toes. Anaesthetic. His mind now liberated from the drag factor of the body, he watched the woman’s lips move with fascination. He watched the mouth open to reveal its twin rows of white, then shut to enclose the white rows in pinkish red covers. Opening to reveal, shutting to enclose. Opening, shutting. Opening, shutting. White bone, pink flesh. White bone, pink flesh.
Time slipped away. He was back, back to the day when they found the house. Its unglazed windows stared uncomprehendingly at them, robbed of sight. The roof beam sagged in the middle, crippled. Great jagged cracks forked up the walls like dark lightning, harbinger of who knew what structural violence. There was no doubt about it, the house had suffered. Blinded, crippled, wounded, it endured, hanging on by the merest filament to the changing century. But beneath it all, underneath the dirt and the disease and the detritus of the years something remained. Something rich, something vital. They had both felt it immediately.
His wife’s unspoken question: Can we? His unspoken response: Should we? Each enabler to the other’s compulsion – hers to rescue, repair, his to collect the rare, discover beauty in the most unlikely places – they had gone ahead and done it.
‘Cinderella’, she joked.
‘Poor Cinders’, he commiserated.
It had been an unfortunate choice of words. The vision flickered, weakening and he was back in the small hot office. He watched the lips pause. Twin rows of white bone gleamed. But, mercifully, they started moving again a mere moment later, pinkish red covers alternately enclosing and revealing white bone. He let the banal drone wash over him, enjoying the way in which feeling vanished from fingers and toes as the aural anaesthetic took hold. The present bled into the past like paint meeting turpentine and the vision solidified.
They had done a lot to the house. A lot, and more. Everything, in fact. Stripped it down to the bare bones. Old bones, dry and brittle. Too dry. The specialist had explained to them about dry rot. The money had been found, somehow, and the brittle skeleton had been massaged with exotic chemical unguents. No expense had been spared. The cure had taken and the bones regained their former pliability, their give. The house had perked up. The specialist had shaken his hand – careful to take the cheque first – and wished them the best of luck.
Next had come the sanding. His wife jokingly called it ‘exfoliation’. They peeled off the old paint layer by layer: mellow cream for the nineties, unremitting white for the eighties, brown and turquoise for the seventies, bright orange for the sixties, crocus yellow for the fifties, camouflage green for the war years, midnight blue for the Art Deco thirties, wine red for the roaring twenties. Beneath it all, the ur-layer, they found the remains of a sumptuous black and gold paper in the Japanese taste from the high Edwardian age. At great expense, they had a wallpaper specially made to the same pattern and material and had papered the drawing room and the dining room.
The house seemed to regain its lost vibrancy, something of that privileged youth whose memory had been all but erased. The newly-stripped-and-varnished doors would slam at all hours of the night, as if some house party for gilded age socialites were in progress. The second floor corridor was alive with footsteps. The guest bedrooms echoed to the creak of beds being climbed out of and climbed into and the giggling of young wives permitting themselves a lapse from marital duties whilst husbands did the same with their wives’ friends. They had soon got used to it. Besides, their bedroom was not troubled with such ghostly extra-marital toings and froings and so they were content to live and let live.
But the house had other ideas.
The change had been almost imperceptible at first. Perhaps a door slamming shut a little more forcibly than they had been used to. It was difficult to say with any certainty when exactly it had begun. Up to that point though, they had been happy. Completely and unfashionably happy. The house had become everything to them, a joint venture into which they had sunk their entire capital, an artistic collaboration into which they had poured all their creative energies. In return, the house needed, demanded, appreciation. They had complied, inviting existing friends over, and, when this source had been exhausted, reacquainting themselves with former friends with whom they had drifted out of touch.
So friends of various hues had duly come, dined, stayed over, breakfasted and lunched, then left, their journeys back home tinged with envy as they remembered this or that architectural feature, this or that decorative touch. On returning to suburban driveway, or urban street, memory of the house, the proportions, the resurrected grandeur of an age long gone haunted them, taunting their tawdry domesticity.
Other symptoms of the change were not long in coming. One night, sitting in their newly decorated drawing room, lazily dipping into their books, glancing up every so often to admire the way a detail in the black and gold wallpaper gleamed as it caught the dancing flame in the grate or the flicker of candlelight as it bounced off the crystal lustres of the chandelier, an intense wave of cold had suddenly gripped them.
‘Brr’, he said half-jokingly and put another log on the fire.
They swapped their armchairs for the hearth rug, leaning towards the fire. But to no avail. The wave of cold grew and grew, moving from the merely towering Alpine to the positively Tsunami-like Arctic. And before it intensified to who knew what depths of coldness typical of the interstices between the stars, throttling the life from their bodies like some ice giant, they had fled from the room.
On the other side of the door, they stared at each other as their body temperatures slowly normalised and their breath gradually ceased to frost out before them. From behind the door came the tinkle of glasses and laughter trickling like liquid gold. He turned the handle, but it wouldn’t move. He tried with his shoulder to the door. Same result. It was shut fast. Behind the closed door the sounds of the ghostly cocktail party continued. They stood there, feeling like wayward children banished from the presence of the grown-ups or, worse, servants that had been sent below stairs out of the sight of their betters.
It was shortly after this incident that the whispering started. No longer did the second floor bedrooms creak and groan with bed-hopping and the half-stifled laughter of socially-accepted adulteries. Instead, from behind the closed bedroom doors came the rustle of whispered conversations. As they got close, bending ear to keyhole the whispering would stop, only to restart as they moved away. The house brooded, pregnant with plot. They lay awake in bed, desperately listening as the night hours lengthened and dawn poured grey light into the room.
They didn’t have long to wait. The house struck one Sunday. They had been for their usual walk down to the village. They were glad to get away. It had been a tough week, one in which the house moved from a state of brooding to one of outright depression. Even the whispering had stopped. With the walls pressing in on them, they hadn’t been able to face lunch at home, so they ate at the pub, hardly speaking. She had knocked a glass off the table and burst into tears. He had snapped at her not to make a scene and then they had looked at one another. His wife’s unspoken question: should we sell it? His unspoken question: can we sell it? They had made their way back to the house like they were going to a funeral.
‘How strange’, he was trying to turn the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t budge.
‘Here, let me,’ she tried, but to similar effect.
They looked at one another.
‘Lock must be broken. I’ll try the backdoor. You stay here.’
He went round the side of the house and into the kitchen garden. He stood next to the scullery door and selected a key. Inserting it in the lock he tried to turn it. But it was as if the lock was frozen shut, just like the front door. As he walked back through the garden, he felt his stomach churning as the memory of the incident in the drawing room chimed uncomfortably with the recalcitrant locks. He got the strangest feeling that they were not wanted.
‘Nothing doing there either’.
She looked at him, lost. In a fit of anger he went to get the ladder. He remembered he’d left their bedroom window slightly open to let in the air. He positioned the ladder so that the top rested slightly above and to the left of the bedroom window and started climbing.
It happened when he had just drawn level with the window. It was difficult to describe exactly what. It was as if the space inside the room suddenly condensed into a small ball of compacted energy. Then, moving like a juggernaut, it raced towards the outside wall, unfolding as it went. Where it struck, the outside wall bulged out, pushing away the ladder in a brief intense pulse. He managed to grab onto the stone window ledge, feeling his feet kick at empty air.
‘Vicky, help! Vicky, the ladder. Quick!’
She came running. A minute later and she’d got the ladder up next to him and he managed to get first one foot then the other on to a rung and climbed down, legs trembling. He sagged at the middle when he reached the ground, the breath punched out of his body.
He shook his head.
‘Tonight we sleep in the guest cottage. Tomorrow I call a locksmith.’
Settled into the living room in the lodge cottage, he had the impression that the house was happy with the new arrangement. It was as if some antiquated social hierarchy had been restored.
That night they watched as light blazed from every window of the house and the sound of laughter winged its way across the dark grounds.
Looking back at it now, he saw it for what it was. A grand send-off. A final hurrah as the old order yielded to the new.
The fire began as the sky was punctuated by the first pink and yellow flush of dawn. Flame leapt lustfully, flame conceiving flame. The fire, perhaps kept at bay for decades through the house’s sheer will to live, that it might indulge in one last great wickedness of sin and champagne and lubricity, ate greedily, devouring wood and plasterboard, lapping softly at carpet and curtain before sucking them up whole in one flaming inhalation. The fire spared nothing, neither gold and black wallpaper, nor crystal nor glass nor chandelier nor porcelain nor tapestry nor painting. Omnivorous it consumed everything like some leviathan from the days when the world was young and the seething land had bred forth monsters.
For the whole day the fire held the house tight in its embrace, perversely seeming to feed and grow stronger on the water sprayed from the assembled fire engines like some thirsty plant. As darkness rolled in from the fen, they heard voices come from out of the flame, laughing voices, voices vivacious with youth and strength and privilege. Voices that had not known worry, or fear, or doubt. The sort of voices that had once been heard all over the globe, in the pale pink patches that denoted Empire. Dark shapes cavorted in the depths of the inferno like salamanders. Groans and sighs came from the empty roofless space which had been the second floor as if spectral wives coupled with spectral husbands, spectral husbands with spectral wives, wives with friends’ husbands, husbands with friends’ wives.
By midnight it was over. Where the house had once stood smoked a charred wreck.
Their cheeks flushed with the fire’s heat, they had listened through the night to the pop and crack of the embers. They had watched dawn break over the dirty cinders and charcoaled timbers.
Later, their eyes had locked and their mouths had framed unspoken speech. His: why? Hers: I’m sorry. With the house gone, there had been nothing to hold them together any longer. The house’s self-immolation had broken their mutual dependency once and for all in a way neither of them could have found the courage to do themselves.
That had been the last he had seen of her, there, standing by the blackened wreck with the dawn breaking pink and yellow in the east.
Self-immolation? Oh yes, there was no doubt in his mind that it had been suicide. The house had taken that final irrevocable decision. Better that, evidently, than to live some ghostly half-life of resurrected grandeur in an age given over to the functional, the banal, the utilitarian. Perhaps if they had been different, able to truly own the house, live it, live up to it, live beyond it, then who knows? Maybe it might all have ended differently. But that was pure speculation. He had long since reached the simple conclusion that they were who they were, that people don’t change, no matter what might change in their individual circumstances.
The anaesthetic was wearing off now. Pink flesh, white bone, white bone, pink flesh. The memory faded like a watercolour left out in the rain and as the colours leached away he was once more back in the ugly little office in that nondescript town on an unpleasantly hot afternoon and he listened as the comforting drone resolved itself into words.
‘I’m sorry. There’s just nothing we can do. You didn’t renew, you see?’ The woman looked at him, ‘I’m sorry.’
She closed the file and stood up to signify the meeting was over. He took her hand and shook it enthusiastically, scarcely knowing what he was doing, anything to get away and never have to come back.
‘Thank you, thank you so much. Until next time-‘, he laughed, ‘-I mean bye, just goodbye.’
He got the lift down and stepped out into the guts of a muggy afternoon. He took a left and walked downhill towards the main road. As he passed by a corner building, the tinkle of laughter trickled down from a second floor window like silver tinsel. He looked up in surprise. But it was only a couple of employees stood next to an open window flirting over the photocopier.
He made his way through the dusty streets back to his hotel.
Matthew John Fletcher
Matthew John Fletcher graduated with an MA in English and German Literature from the University of St Andrews. He currently resides in Athens, Greece, where he is working on his first short story collection.
If you enjoyed The Renewal, leave a comment and let Matthew know.
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