It’s that time of year when things go bump in the night…well, they don’t really, but even those of us who are logical play along for the fun of it. I have a tendency to ignore Halloween in favour of Guy Fawkes on the 5th: purely for selfish reasons as my birthday is on the 4th and I love fireworks! But I do have a tale to tell.
A number of years ago, my husband and I bought a house that had not been lived in for two years. It had terrible dry rot and damp along with so much heavily embossed anaglypta, some hung upside down, that it was a definite restoration project. It was a 30’s build semi of good size, built in a relatively rural location. It had its own well water system-long since turned into a decoration and a beautiful established garden. The kitchen was the mother of all disaster zones with water dripping from the electric box in the corner. Melamine cabinets and dark wood panels along the main wall which, when ripped off, revealed a passage from the bible scribbled across the wall in pencil. I struggle to remember what it was, it wasn’t a familiar quote and didn’t seem to make any sense to either of us. But once ripped off, there was the strangest smell in the air; old: musty: stale.
The lounge still had some furniture in it; when we viewed the house, it was like the guy who lived there had popped down to the shop. A mug on the table by the side of a chair, a pen and pools coupon nearby and the tv remote. A scuffed path marked the passage of his slippered feet from chair to kitchen and stairs and a dark stain remained in front of the fire. On ripping the carpet up, the same smell emitted from the disturbed threads.
The bedrooms were also an oasis of anaglypta and 60’s pink Vymura , a piece of which I still have; pristine in a frame. The bathroom an oasis of yellow and white ‘thread vein’ tiles that were so popular in the 70’s with a yellow mismatched bathroom suite. Well, it would all be done in time but the basics needed doing first.. the dry rot, damp, electrics oh and the matter of a new roof and damp proof course. The dry rot was worse than feared but we were lucky to save the staircase, but the floor timbers in bedroom three were not so fortunate and needed ripping out. The day we moved in the builders were still beavering away. The only room we could use as storage was the lounge. The kitchen was just a brick hole; no ceiling, no floor joists, no floor and no ceiling above that either; right the way up to the roof tiles!
Once we had crammed the lounge full we had to fill the old garage in the garden. What went in here was prey to the mice we soon found out but as we couldn’t get to the bedrooms due to the slight technical hitch of gaping holes, we had little choice. A bed was hastily made up in the lounge for a few nights when thankfully a friend offered us his house whilst we were having the works done.
We worked around the building site of a house at weekends, [Paul was working away in the week] ripping out rotten wood and stripping the worst of the walls. A layer of brick and mortar dust settle on everything we owned leaving our skin dry and cracked. I gave up trying to clean the place unless it was necessary! Every time we stripped anything, that same stale musty smell was evident. We couldn’t work it out. It began to appear in the bedroom, then bizarrely when I was having a shower, but never when Paul was in there.
In fact, I can smell it now. My nose is wrinking at its sourness, it’s like …oh never mind: I digress.
We continued to make the house into a home and eventually moved in properly. Rescued what we could of the stuff in the garage that hadn’t been used for bedding by the mice, and cleaned everything and restored it in the newly plastered bedrooms. 33m of plaster…now that overcame the musty smell for a while. We had no carpet as yet but as it was work in progress, they would have only been ruined anyway. The hole was blocked in the chimney where the mice lived and came out to play [no joke] and the season passed where the spiders thudded down onto the floorboards from the curtain rail. Our oasis of calm and cleanliness was our bedroom. Dusty working clothes left at the door before stepping into tranquillity. At least now I was only juggling the business and the house not the move of a business, house and project managing the build! The barn owls calling from the roof to the tree and the foxes and hedgehogs snuffling in the garden were a pleasure to see at night fall.
We had a bonfire party for my birthday. A friend pulled me to one side, ‘who’s the old man just gone up the garden?’ I looked around puzzled. All our friends were in sight and the neighbours too. ‘there is no old man?’
She put her hands on hips, ‘I don’t mean for real,’ she said. She leaned in.. ’you have a ghost, I saw him the other week go past the patio doors and earlier he followed Claire upstairs.’
Now, I had been wondering about this as the smell did appear around women more than men but being a non believer, I dismissed it.
The next morning I got in the shower and the smell was there with me, ‘Go away!’ and it did! Hmm. But the smell kept appearing.
Of a weekend when Paul came to bed.
When I went into the shower.
When new friends came around: it was a nosey bugger whatever it was.
Things started to click into place in my mind so I popped around to speak to the neighbour and mentioned the smell. She smiled.
‘The houses were built in the 30’s and Bill who lived in yours, owned both of our houses with his brother. When they were finished he moved his young family in and they had a happy home. Every year they bought a rooted Christmas Tree and after Christmas, planted it in the garden to see if it would grow. Most didn’t but the two you have at 40foot high did, that’s how they come to form the archway. As his family grew up, his children married and his wife died, leaving Bill to cope alone and wander around the empty house. When he died, it pained the children to come to the house of happy memories so it mummified until you brought new life into it.’
I felt there was more. ‘And?’
Sheila took a deep breath, ‘ do you want to know how he died?’ she waited.
‘can I guess?’
‘He had a heart attack as he walked back into the lounge and fell in front of the fire which is where he was found?’
‘Yes. I found him. I came around to bring his tea and he was where you said. Sadly life had left him but I believe he never left the house.’
My husband and I divorced a few years later, but when he was on holiday, he asked me to check the post etc. the smell had evidently gone at this point. I unlocked the door, punched in the alarm code and entered my old house. All was quiet and I collected the mail and placed it on the side in the kitchen. I pottered upstairs and having the need to use the bathroom stepped into the new white and blue sparkling room. It hit me as I did so. That musty old dank nose wrinkling smell.
As I write this now, my nose is wrinkling, you see, Bill has followed me. He’s left the house. Whenever I speak about it and now for the first time as I write about it, he’s here. Hovering behind me, checking every word as I write.