Things were starting to get a little exciting! 118,000 – getting near my limit now but i still had some wiggle-room. I waved my brochure in the air, praying that nobody else would want to fight things out to the bitter end. I cast a look towards my main adversary, the chap in the corner, dressed almost entirely in expensive tweed. He certainly looked the part, easily passing for Edwardian country gentry, even down to the deerstalker and handlebar moustache. I could picture him in the house – they suited one another.
He’d been my only serious rival for the past few bids – I was sure he’d have no trouble keeping pace with me, well beyond the point I could afford to push my resources. He caught me staring at him, perused me for a moment, then smiled, a look of benign resignation on his face. Perhaps he’d recognised the silent plea in my eyes? In any event, he shrugged and settled comfortably back in his seat – when the auctioneer looked his way, he responded with a solemn shake of his head.
“Any more at one hundred and eighteen thousand pounds?”, I heard the auctioneer say. The hammer fell – the house was mine!
I wouldn’t say it was my dream house – it was one of those places that estate agents describe as ‘having potential’ and ‘in need of sympathetic renovation’, but the minute I’d seen it in the auction house catalogue, it was as good as sold. It was the house I’d always wanted and the location couldn’t be better: A little market town, picturesque and prim, with half-timbered shops and more churches than pubs. Small enough to still have a sense of community, but big enough to merit its own Tesco Metro – it couldn’t be more perfect.
The catalogue was a little sparse on the details – the house appeared to be just a shell, although that was part of the attraction – a completely blank canvas to paint my own story upon. In the days running up to the auction, I’d done my own research but the house remained somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, the place had lain empty for over ten years, allowed to fall into disrepair and dilapidation; almost completely gutted when its previous owner had been forced to leave rather abruptly – a solicitor by trade, whom it seems, found himself on the wrong side of the dock and was now spending his days at Her Majesties’ pleasure. Details on his identity, or for that matter his misdemeanors, were a little sketchy – all I had been able to piece together was that the matter was so scandalous that the small community had rallied together to gloss over the sordid details. I found it amusing and couldn’t help wondering whether he’d have got off, if he’d only employed a better solicitor! Whatever its previous owner’s woes, the house had lain empty and forgotten ever since, until now… and now, it was mine, all mine!
A good month had passed since the auction – it always takes longer than expected to put one’s affairs in order. Renting temporary accommodation had proven easy enough; I’d even managed to find digs in the High Street, within spitting distance of my new acquisition. Sorting out my everyday affairs however had been less than straightforward – there had been diaries to re-arrange, agents to placate and last-minute adjustments to schedules – take it from me… putting one’s life on hold for eighteen months is an exercise in restraint that would try the patience of the most benign saint. Yet, despite all the drawbacks, here I was, seeing my purchase in bricks and mortar, for the first time.
I just wish I could have picked a better day for it. The drizzle had been constant all morning and, as I stood there, ineffectually pushing at the stubborn wrought iron gate, insidious trickles of cold rainwater dripped from the brim of my hat, to run down my neck and trickle along the length of my spine. A final heave and the gate shuddered open with a grating squeal, careening into the overgrown bushes to reward my efforts with a spatter of wet spray in my face. Not an auspicious welcome to my new home. I stepped through the gate onto my property and looked up at the imposing building before me.
Set back, somewhat, from the High Street, the house somehow afforded a degree of privacy that others along the busy road lacked. I doubted that many passers by paid much attention to the place: Its imposing, yet mellow, stonework and tall windows which wouldn’t have looked at all out of place adorning a country mansion, somehow faded into a kind of obscurity for those who bustled past daily on their way to the market. You might have said it was a grand façade, yet nestled between the buildings on either side, it seemed to exude a muted reticence to show itself, almost an apologetic embarrassment to appear in any way brash and expressive. The swoosh of car tyres, as they passed by in the wet street behind me accentuated the feeling of distance… out there, beyond the iron railings lay another world; in here there was a feeling of solemnity and composure – at once both pleasing and a little unsettling.
A sudden blatter of rain disturbed my reverie. Fumbling with the keys in the unfamiliar lock, I eventually managed to open the front door, stubbornly resisting me as the accumulated debris of junk mail, pizza menus and the usual detritus that finds its way through the letterbox of empty houses, piled up behind the door like a paper bow-wave attempting to escape an oncoming ship. I squeezed through the opening, cursing the junk-mailers, before sweeping as much of it as I could manage clear with my foot. I closed the door behind me: I was home.
It’s a funny thing, walking around your future home for the first time – all that stored-up excitement, the plans and ideas tend to float away when faced with the reality of an empty house. It’s difficult to visualise how it might one day look and all you really see is empty, unfamiliar rooms, dirt and damp, windows without curtains and bare floors. There’s that strange, hollow sound that the rooms have – not quite echoes, but a sound that speaks of emptiness and loss… here is a place, it seems to say, that is devoid of warmth and comfort.
The reverberating sounds were right – the place had that damp chill that comes from years of neglect and cold. It would be some time before this house could speak of any comforts. It would be some time before it was even remotely clean! It’s always surprised me how an empty property can become so grimy when it’s unoccupied. The photographs in the auctioneer’s catalogue hadn’t even come near to depicting the true state of the rooms: Peeling wallpaper, black mould and ugly patches and marks throughout. The bathroom and the dining room, at the rear of the house, were by far the worst though.
Bearing in mind the length of time the property had been empty, I certainly hadn’t anticipated the bathroom being sparkling clean, however the appalling state of affairs that was revealed when I opened the door made me heave. It was a large bathroom, the sort that you don’t find in modern houses, with an old-fashioned cast iron bath and chunky white porcelain fittings. The bath itself was foul – it looked like something had died in there – a thick brownish-grey sludge caked the tub and smeared the tiled walls surrounding it. The dry, caked muck had peeled away in places, flaking into translucent scales… and there was more of it in the sink. At one end of the bath, a steady drip of rainwater stuttered in rapid patters from an ominous wet bulge in the plaster of the ceiling above. Where it fell, the sludge had liquefied, forming a gungy jelly-like mass and from this arose a faintly rancid smell that turned my stomach. Surprisingly, the toilet was pretty clean, although I didn’t really investigate that closely. This room would need gutting completely before I could even consider what to do with it.
Although less foul, the dining room was equally offputting. I surmised that the previous occupant had been some sort of motorcycle enthusiast – the sort that thinks nothing of stripping an engine in the back bedroom – when he wasn’t embezzling his clients! Or perhaps he’d been a failed DIY-er, maybe he was both? Whatever his hobbies, they’d left their mark in this room – great gouges ripped out of the floorboards and scratches decorated the walls, whilst oilstains described ugly blotches over the floor and sprayed the wallpaper with their own fountain-like patterns. There was even an oily handprint in a corner of the room… some people have no respect for their dwellings. The room was pretty much a right-off, as far as I was concerned: Part of one wall had been partially demolished, exposing wooden laths and black mortar – presumably a failed DIY attempt – maybe he’d been hauled off to prison before he’d had a chance to really get started, I thought charitably! The big sash windows in this room had been boarded up and beneath one of them languished a stained and filthy mattress; idly I wondered if perhaps the guy preferred to sleep within arm’s distance of his beloved motorbikes?
The realisation that I was all alone in this empty house – the house that nobody ever noticed – suddenly hit me. Memories of the Suzy Lamplugh story played across my mind… seeing the boarded-up windows and that filthy mattress unnerved me – dammit, girl! What are you playing at here on your own? What if there’s squatters or druggies around here? Now thoroughly spooked, I fumbled in my handbag until I felt the reassuring shape of the rape alarm in my hand. Slipping the cord around my wrist, I clasped the small plastic box in my hand and resolved to think things through more carefully next time.
Of course, then I got all self-righteous – this was my house, dammit! No-one was going to dictate to me here! With my resolve somewhat stiffened, I made my way to the back door… I wanted to see the garden, squatters, muggers or druggies not withstanding!
Rather bizarrely, the back door was secured with a sturdy padlock, on the inside. I had no problem finding the chunky key on the bunch supplied by the estate agents and, once I’d freed it, the door swung open easily enough, revealing the reason for the padlock. At some time in its past, the door had been forced open using considerably more force than I’d exerted, splintering the frame and leaving the deadlock hanging uselessly from its screws. I made a mental note to put it at the top of my list of urgent repairs – however, the padlock would have to do until I could get around to sorting things out – it wasn’t important at the moment; I wanted to see my garden.
The catalogue had said half an hectare – I had no idea how big that was, if the truth be known, I only had a vague idea of what an acre looked like, so when it came to hectares I was completely in the dark. I admit, I was a little disappointed at first – not by the size… it was huge; but it was so overgrown, my heart sank as I looked around the dank and wet undergrowth. I’m not sure what I’d expected, conservatories and winding pathways, perhaps? What I got, was a confusion of bushes, shrubs and scrubby grass, a plastic greenhouse, full of old growbags and the dry remains of ancient tomato plants, a broken-down shed, leaning at a crazy angle and held together only by the creeping convolvulus that almost completely covered the structure. Then there was the awful patio, possibly the biggest I’d ever seen: It spread, like a concrete abscess from the rear of the house, across the whole width of the garden – the plain, grey slabs were the cheap and nasty kind, poorly laid and finished with a wall made from those ghastly decorative pierced concrete blocks. The whole thing was rounded off spectacularly by a poorly executed reproduction of the Pissing Boy, his left hand and genitalia, snapped off and lying in the concrete bowl beneath him. Stood there, in the rain, I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for: It didn’t take long to find out!
My visit to the property hadn’t really worked out as planned: I was feeling a bit despondent now and the thought of going back to my rented room and going through builder’s estimates really didn’t appeal. I struck off down the High Street and found myself loitering in the Market Square… thoroughly cold, wet and miserable, I made a beeline for the little, Victorian-styled tea rooms – a haven to dry out and take stock.
“Hello, luv”: The plump woman who attended my table reminded me of a Dickens’ character. The cafe was empty, the rain seemed to have kept all but the most determined shoppers at home, so I was blessed with her undivided attention. I didn’t mind; it was good to see a warm and friendly face.
She chatted away as she disappeared behind the counter to serve up my pot of English Breakfast and home-made flapjack. “Are you visiting?”, she burbled happily, “we get a lot of visitors here, especially in the summer time… shame about the weather though!”
“Actually, I’ve just bought a property here, in the High Street. I’m going to renovate it and, eventually I intend moving here permanently.”
She bustled across, carefully placing the pot of tea and a small china jug of milk on the table in front of me. The cup rattled gently on the saucer, a result of the tiny tremors in her right hand… no doubt, that’s why she didn’t use a tray: I tend to notice little things like that in people.
“I’ll just get your flapjack, pet”, she said, turning and making her way back to the counter where she’d left the oaty snack, sat on a delicate china plate. “Did you say the High Street, luv? Not the flat above the post office, is it?”
“No”, I replied, “It’s the old Edwardian House, with the iron railings… the one set back from the road”.
You know those things that people only do in movies? – Well, she did one of them…
She gave a little gasp and the china slipped from her fingers, to shatter on the tiled floor – an unexpected explosion of noise in the quiet shop – I was on my feet in an instant, instinctively reaching to support her, as she swayed on her feet. Guiding her to a spare chair at my table, I eased her onto the seat. I’ve never seen anyone go pale in quite the way she did.
The poor woman really didn’t know what to do with herself… “Eee, I’m sorry, luv… it’s just that terrible place… my word, if you only knew what went on there”.
Outside, the rain re-doubled its efforts, I slipped out of my seat and peered out through the door – the street was empty and the old dear was in no state to be serving customers; her right hand was now trembling violently and she’d gone the colour of the grey, overcast sky outside. I turned the ‘closed’ sign to face the outside and slipped the latch before walking slowly over to the shattered plate on the floor. Crouching, I scooped up as much of the broken crockery and crumbs as I could and placed them on the counter. Taking a spare cup from beside the till, I sat back down and poured us both a cup of tea.
“Now then”, I said, “I think you’d better tell me all about this house”.
She talked slowly, picking her words with care and sustaining them with frequent sips of tea, occasionally glancing at me with an apologetic look, yet mostly staring at her hands. The story that unfolded took some time but it told me more than I ever could have known.
The house had once been the offices of a firm of solicitors: Wilmslow, Hurst and Blagdale, eventually passing for some inexplicable reason into the hands of junior partner Jacob Hurst when old man Wilmslow retired from practice. At the time, Hurst – a young man of 20 years – had barely qualified and there was talk of blackmail. The resulting partnership between Hurst and Blagdale was somewhat strained, with stories of ‘differences of opinion’ between the two men rife in the community. Turns out Hurst was having ‘private consultations’ with Blagdale’s wife, culminating in a public showdown at the Town Hall, when the two came to blows and ended up spending a night in the cells to cool off. That spelled the end of the firm – Blagdale just disappeared one night and was never heard of afterwards, whilst Mrs Blagdale set up home with Hurst in – it was rumoured – Blagdale’s old suite at the office.
It seems Hurst had a cruel streak – the ex-Mrs Blagdale became well known at the doctor’s surgery and stories of beatings were the stock-in-trade around the town square and local pubs on market day. Even so, she stayed with him and, eventually, they had a daughter, Emily. Over the years the gossip continued… rumours of Emily being locked in the cellar, screams being heard from the old Edwardian house in the evenings and such like were widely discussed but rarely was anything done about them.
Around the time that Emily would have been twelve years old, events took a shocking turn. A wild-eyed ex-Mrs B., clothes torn, bloodied and bruised, was found wailing and screaming at the foot of the town cross, the attempts of onlookers to assist her were beaten off, as she lashed out blindly at all who came close. Over and over, she kept repeating, “he went and took her, he did, he done away with her!” According to those who witnessed the scene this continued for some time until, with an almighty scream, the woman took off – tearing down the cobbled streets as if the hounds of hell themselves were snapping at her heels. She was never seen again, nor for that matter, was Emily.
There was a police enquiry, of course. A distraught Hurst was hauled in for questioning and later released without charge – the official story was that the woman had gone quite mad, inflicting terrible injuries upon herself and had now been discretely secreted away in a country sanatorium, far from the public gaze. Emily, fearing for her life, had fled and now was nowhere to be found – indeed, she never was found. The following day, Hurst closed the practice, becoming a virtual recluse, with barely any contact at all with the outside world. At least, that’s how it appeared.
“Oh, miss… they say terrible, horrible things happened at that house.”
If anything, the tremor in the woman’s had had grown more pronounced: I gave her a tight-lipped smile, patted her hand gently and busied myself for a few minutes preparing a second pot of tea. Looking at the shards of china I’d left on the counter, I decided I would have a flapjack after all… I could do with some carbs inside me. As i laid the tray, I looked across at the woman – she was in a terrible state – and I pondered those words… “terrible, horrible things…”
She looked gratefully at me, as I poured her another cup of tea. “Thank you, luv. You sure you want to hear about this?”
I nodded. “I may as well know the worst”, I replied.
Within a few short weeks of Hurst’s self-imposed exile, it became clear that all was not right at the old house. Neighbours complained of bangings and crashings at night, of shouts and screams being heard from the back of the house. There was the occasional broken window and, for no apparent reason, the reclusive Hurst seemed to have taken a sudden interest in garden living – at least, that’s what the frequent deliveries of concrete slabs and the sudden appearance of a large and ugly patio in the back garden seemed to point to.
Then people were found to be missing.
Concerns were voiced about a young farmer’s daughter when her market stall was left unattended for several days, the produce spoiling in the boxes. A newly-wedded couple, taking their honeymoon in the Dales, failed to return to their hotel – the search was called off after three days… someone suggested they had fallen foul of the weir and been swept away, presumed drowned. The child who never arrived home from school; the vicar whose congregation were left waiting, one Sunday morning… the list grew, as the months passed.
Over the course of that year, more people were pronounced lost or missing than in the previous hundred years. Then the community was rocked to the core by a horror, revealed right in their midst.
A pair of teenagers, parked up in the castle grounds, away from prying eyes to enjoy each other’s company were brutally attacked by an assailant who wrenched their car door open, dragging the young girl, kicking and screaming, by her hair out of the car and on to the ground. The girl was quickly silenced by a bone-cracking kick to the face but her attacker had failed to account for her boyfriend. The lad fought valiantly, until he was felled by the sickening thud of a large stone against the back of his head: The assailant limped into the shadows, dragging the girl with him but that lad’s pluck had been rewarded. The following morning, when he was discovered, barely conscious by Fritz, the Cairn Terrier – closely followed by George Farlowe, his owner – the boy was in no fit state to speak, however, the silver fob watch that lay beside him spoke more concisely than any words might have.
The watch, engraved, “To my very own Jacob… our secret, always. Celia Blagdale”, led the police straight to Jacob Hurst and the house in the High Street. The girl was found, tied in a squalid back room, lying on a filthy, blood-soaked mattress – the windows, firmly boarded showed evidence of struggle, as did her torn and splintered hands. Both her ankles had been broken, along with several ribs. The room itself was plastered with bloodstains – later investigations revealed numerous blood and tissue types, although no other victims were ever formally identified.
When the girl had sufficiently overcome her ordeal – which, it must be said, she never fully did – she gave the police her statement. Hurst denied nothing. He’d told her that he would break every bone in her body and that when he had finished, he would sever her head from her body with piano wire. No-one would find her body… as she awaited her fate, Hurst informed her he was preparing an acid bath; his intention was to ‘render her down’. He boasted that both his wife and daughter had met the same ghastly fate, along with numerous other hapless individuals whose paths had crossed with his. As the girl screamed for help, he made good his word, shattering first her ankles, then her ribs with a claw hammer. The police caught him in the act, not a moment too soon for the poor girl. A quantity of rusty piano wire was recovered from the property and choking police officers were forced to wear respirators to combat the acrid acid fumes that billowed from the bathroom.
“I’m sorry, luv”, the woman whispered,“you must be appalled by all this, but it’s only right you should know the truth about what you’ve bought yourself”.
She was right, of course; it wasn’t exactly the sort of information that could be gleaned from an auction room catalogue!
“They hushed it up… ’twere only a couple of years after they caught Sutcliffe – no-one wanted another ‘Ripper’ case so soon after: It would have killed the tourist industry round these parts. The police wanted it kept quiet too – they’d already been proved incompetent and they didn’t want to go down that route again.”
I sipped my tea and grimaced: stone cold!
“In the end they could only get him on kidnapping and attempted murder. They never found his wife or kid, nor no evidence of any of the other missing people: Went down for a good long stretch though… I remember it like it were yesterday, what that judge said”.
Her voice had dropped again; I leaned forward, the two of us like co-conspirators in a spy novel.
Her voice was a whisper; “‘Jacob Hurst’, judge said, ‘Jacob Hurst, you are a vile and evil man. You have shown a callous and inhuman disregard for your victim with no regret or remorse for the crimes you have committed. I have no doubt that you have perpetrated many others and it is my hope that you will one day stand trial for those also and pay the full penalty for your despicable outrages. I sentence you to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that you serve the maximum time permitted by law”.
A loud rattle on the door behind me startled us out of our conspiratorial huddle. A large gentleman wearing a bright yellow mackintosh was staring through the glass panels of the door and gesturing at the latch.
“My husband”, explained the woman, apologetically, scrambling to her feet and scuttling over to unlock the door. I gathered my things together, dragging my still-wet coat across my shoulders, the unpleasant clammy wetness causing me to shudder. The woman returned, hovering anxiously at my elbow: “Are you ok, pet?”
I nodded and fished my purse from my bag, then that wobbly right hand was on mine; “Please luv, there’s no charge”. I nodded, dropped the purse back into the bag and snapped the clasp shut. “You will be alright, won’t you luv?”; a pained look on her face. I smiled consolingly and made my way to the door.
“Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be just fine – thanks for the tea!” I opened the door and stepped out into the rain.
The next eighteen months were extraordinarily busy and more than a little frustrating. In between the complete strangers who would turn up on the doorstep with their ghoulish fascination for the macabre, I had dreadful trouble with builders. The local firms wouldn’t touch the place, particularly when it came to lifting the patio – all terrified of what might be discovered beneath – nothing was, of course. Builders from further afield were unreliable and expensive and, when they got wind of the house’s history, they wanted bonuses and their own little bit of celebrity. One bunch of Irish lads thought they’d hit paydirt when bones were discovered, wedged inside the black mortar of the dining room wall. Yet more delay and inconvenience as forensics moved in and the builders had to move out… the results? Inconclusive: the remains were of bovine origin and, unless Hurst had undertaken the odd bit of butchery in addition to his other ‘talents’ – which I doubted – the likelihood was that they’d been used as a cheap form of infill when the house had originally been built. The Irish crew were bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t stumbled across a major crime scene – I bought them a crate of Guinness to make up for it and was rewarded by the best bit of plastering you could wish for!
Of course, no-one knew about the cellar – that was my little secret. It had even escaped the notice of the police during the several investigations that had taken place; the dilapidated garden shed had received short shrift. A cursory glance inside had told them all they needed to know… a rusty lawnmower, dusty plant pots and some old chicken wire fencing… nothing to see here. I grant you, it’s unusual to have a cellar accessed from the back garden but I’m no architect, so who am I to comment? The padlock was easy enough to prise from the rusty access hatch, with a bit of help from the pickaxe I’d ‘borrowed’ from Sean, the friendliest – and thickest – of the Irish builders and, to my great surprise, the cellar was in excellent condition, in fact, of all the rooms in the house, it was probably the only one not suffering from terminal dampness. It was cool and dry and perfect for what I intended… I’d always wanted a wine cellar and now I had my wish. I decided to hang on to the the reel of piano wire I found down there; you never know when something like that might be useful.
All of that seems so long ago now. What is it… ten years, maybe a few more?
The old dining room, where I now sit and write is pleasant and warm – the comfortable furnishings speak nothing of its sordid past. The bathroom too is transformed and although the original fittings were replaced, I kept the bath… well, it’s an antique! It’s down in the cellar, perhaps it’ll be resurrected one day.
Emily and Celia are here, as is – ironically – Mr Blagdale. Their sightless eyes watch me as I write. I’m so glad the cellar was well built: The heads stayed remarkably well preserved, but then Jacob was exceptionally good at his craft. They’re all up here now, sharing the house with me… how I wish I knew all their names but, for now, I have to make do with nicknames. Maybe Jacob can cast light on their identity when he comes home. There’s the Blagdales and Emily, of course, then there’s Chuckles and Homer, Titch and Squinty, the beautiful Cleopatra and ugly Ermintrude. Mr Puzzles sits at the top of the stairs, his permanent frown almost comical as you pass, then, in the bedroom – Princess; Letitia; Rose Red and marcus, (always with a small ‘m’ – that’s the way he likes it).
In the front bedroom are the Hobbits – all six of them – their dessicated, shrunken features, like so many monkeys; oh, let’s not forget Spud! The poor chap, with half his face eaten away by mildew! Watching over me in the kitchen is Reverend Millikins, the only other one I’ve been able to identify – I’ve often wondered whether he’d fancy a trip back to his old church as he watches me prepare Sunday lunch.
As I sit and write, the wizened faces scrutinising my every move, I tell Jacob how carefully I have cared for his friends, all these years; how I brush and comb their hair, make-up the girls so prettily and give them all a tender kiss goodnight when I switch off the light. We have corresponded now for over thirty years and yet, we have only met briefly – just the once. I needed a good solicitor and he rode in, my knight in shining armour and, ever since that day, we have shared this bond.
In my letter, I tell him of the acid I have stored in the cellar below and how the old bath now gleams and sparkles – I can’t wait until we can put it to good use, once more – I tell him that it won’t be long now, maybe next year and then parole, and freedom.
I shall meet him at the prison gates and drive him to the town, where we’ll stop for tea and a flapjack at the Tea Rooms, where I can introduce him to plump Betty – perhaps he’ll take a shine to her and invite her to supper one evening… what fun!
Then, we’ll walk arm in arm through the square, stopping to admire the old cross – the same cross that bore witness to Celia, that night she tried to sell him out – before strolling along the High Street, until we reach the imposing cast iron gate to the fine Edwardian house, set back from the road and unnoticed by passers-by. My home… our home.
And, I’ll hold him close and whisper: “Welcome home, my Jacob.”