The two-storey farmhouse was at the top of a bare hill. The long gravel driveway wound upwards from the road, through dry, patchy grass until it reached the front door. As Susan drove to the top, she saw a dam in the valley beyond, surrounded by trees. The view impressed her with its undulating hills and differing shades of green, framed by a cloudless blue sky. Is this my escape, a comfortable home? she wondered.
Susan parked the car on level ground and looked at the unimposing entry of dull brickwork and unpainted wood. She walked across weeds growing between uneven flagstones to the porch and weather-beaten front door. She knocked as loudly as she dared without getting a splinter rammed into her knuckles. It had taken an hour to drive from the nearest town. The hurly-burly of market day was replaced by this rural solitude, the kind of serenity where sounds are muted by immeasurable distance.
She knocked again. No dogs barked and nobody stuck their head out of a window to ruffle the stillness. As the real estate agent had predicted, the part-time caretaker was not on duty today. The key, thought Susan and went back to the car to collect it. Her daughter, Audrey, was stirring and finally woke up. She looked around, stretched and asked if they’d reached the right property.
“Finally,” confirmed Susan. “We’re going to let ourselves in.” Audrey peered upward from the car window. “The place looks creepy”. “No,” said Susan, “just unloved.” She found the door key in her bag. Audrey hopped on one foot, pulling on a shoe, as they walked to the door. The big old key fitted perfectly and the solid door swung open.
Inside the house, the air was dry and cool. To Susan’s surprise the entry foyer was small but, as she expected, empty. After a debate on direction, they decided to head to the right into an unfurnished, echo-filled living room with faded remnants of mauve wallpaper. “Tiny flowers.” Audrey spoke in a whisper. “It must have been pretty once.”
“Such wonderful windows,” said Susan. She decided to call out in case the caretaker happened to be lurking nearby. “Hey––anyone here?” Her daughter jumped. “Give me some warning next time!”
Susan headed towards an archway at the back of the room, in the direction of what she presumed was the dining room and kitchen beyond. Audrey pulled her back. “Let’s go upstairs.” They went back to the staircase located unassumingly in the foyer. It was narrow and went straight up without a curve. The treads were worn and uncarpeted. On each step, dust rose from under their shoes.
Once upstairs, they split up and walked quietly from bedroom to bedroom, each imagining what the rooms must have been like fully furnished. Susan glanced into a bathroom situated on the corner of the house, hoping for a hint of décor. Sunlight struggled through gritty windows and filled the room with diffused warmth. A large bath dominated the corner and looked out over the landscape. Susan could almost see clouds of steam and fluffy towels and smell the hint of lavender soap. The beige tiling around the bath was unstained. “That’s a good thing,” she said to a beetle on the edge of the hand basin.
Audrey called to her from another room. Susan almost tiptoed down the hallway as it resonated around her, boards creaking. On the way, she noted a single, closed door before locating her daughter through a small doorway into the toilet. “It’s positively ancient,” said Audrey. “What a scream.” Susan stepped inside.
The plumbing was exposed and badly fixed into the sloping floor. A watery noise came from the cistern. The porcelain, off-white and topped by a cracked wooden seat, had a window behind it that was so large it allowed expansive views of the countryside. “That vision works both ways, doesn’t it?” Audrey said. “I wouldn’t want anyone watching me.” Susan laughed “They’d need binoculars.” Audrey said doubtful “A nice curtain would fix it.”
Susan moved aside to let Audrey leave the dismal space and tried to gauge the size of the window. Suddenly the room began to slip. The sloping floor moved under her feet, causing her to slid towards the window. She was unnerved at how quickly the momentum grew. Susan felt as though she was now being sucked towards the glass panes. The pitch of the floor became steeper and steeper until she was hanging on to the metal door handle, desperate to save herself from falling.
Susan scrabbled frantically, breathless and unable to shout for help. She pulled herself up until she found a firm foothold against the doorframe and the hallway floor. With a heave, she pushed herself back through the threshold and stumbled into the hallway. The door swung back and forth a few times as if laughing before it slammed shut.
With a pounding heart and blood was rushing through her body, roaring in her ears, Susan dusted herself off with shaking hands. She was unsure if she’d imagined it. She couldn’t force herself to look back, afraid of what might spring out from behind the door.
Audrey came back. “You look awful. What happened?” “Heaven knows,” gasped Susan and bent double. “I don’t think that toilet likes me.” Audrey’s eyes widened as she peered around the door. “The floor is on a terrible slope.” Susan wrinkled her forehead. “More to the point, why?” Her daughter had a vivid imagination. “I’m going to wait in the car.”
Susan waited until she heard Audrey walk downstairs then watched her through a front window as she got into the car. As she recovered from her slippery encounter, an inquisitive streak in Susan overtook her common sense. She dismissed the toilet’s poor carpentry under the heading of old age. She wanted to see if any rooms at the back of the house were habitable. Without deliberation, Susan turned the knob on the only unopened door in the grimy passage.
Inside, the air was warm and fragrant. There was a riot of colour throughout the room. Rainbows sparked out from a crystal lamp shade. Floral drapes trailed across the floor and plump cushions surrounded children who played on woven purple rugs, unaware of her presence. A large stone fireplace glowed at the far end of the room and, to the side, a cat slept in a sagging armchair.
A man was talking to a woman while he carved roasted meat at a table covered by a velvet cloth and laid with silver cutlery. The woman, wearing a vivid red blouse, saw Susan first and waved cheerfully. She beckoned at Susan to enter. A jolly couple nearby chorused the woman’s cries of “Come in, come in.” The first thought to enter Susan’s mind was that she had intruded. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your meal.”
“Nonsense,” they said and waved steaming mugs of drink. The man carving the roast waved his knife, gesturing her into the room. Better not join them, thought Susan, anything could happen. She looked longingly at the food-laden table then backed out of the room, smiled as politely as she could and shut the door. She hurried out of the house, confused over what had occurred. She locked the front door, slipped the key into her pocket and patted it for good measure.
“You look funny again,” said Audrey and brushed a cobweb off her hair. “I think,” Susan paused. “I think I just met the original owners.” Audrey groaned “Not again?” She pouted and said she didn’t believe her mother this time. As far as she was concerned, except for the toilet, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the old house. Susan rose to the challenge and gave her a lucid description. “They’ve never spoken to me like this before.”
After listening and thoughtfully tapping her chin, Audrey picked up the real estate prospectus and quickly thumbed through it. She held it up and read aloud, “The premises has facility for oil heating.” She snapped the brochure “There’s one way to find out if they are ghosts or not. We can look for smoke coming from a real chimney.” Audrey had jumped out of the car and was walking around the corner of the house before Susan could gather her wits and follow.
Apart from several outbuildings, the back of the house was as barren as the front with no evidence that a garden may have grown there. In an artistic way, Susan found its uncluttered drabness pleasing. She imagined lavender bushes growing here, out of the wind. With a nudge, Audrey brought her out of her landscaping reverie. “Nothing!”
Susan looked up. Between the blank walls and windows, the trace of a thick scar ran down from the upper wall to the ground where brick masonry had been patched with concrete. “Removed?” she said. “I’m almost disappointed.” Audrey gave her a lopsided smile. “You’re either going mad or someone is trying to scare us off.”
“Why don’t you go back inside and have a look?” said Susan. “You are mad.” Audrey tossed her hands in the air. “I wouldn’t go back inside if you paid me.” She stomped back in the direction of the car. “That’s another property crossed off our list.”
“We’ll just have to stay in the house your Dad built,” sighed Susan, “if he’ll let us.” Audrey’s look eloquently conveyed the words fat chance.
Susan guessed the real estate agent would be starting to get exasperated with her. Every old house they had inspected and all the auctions they had attended, finished in the same way. The first owners still occupied their premises. Strangely, except for Susan, no-one else could see these deceased residents. In the beginning, she had thought she could live around them but that didn’t seem right. It was like house-sharing, not home-ownership.
Susan started the engine. “I’ve had enough of intruding on these people, going into their homes uninvited and catching them off-guard.” Audrey pointed her thumb over her shoulder at the house. “From what you said, that lot seemed okay.” With a grimace, Susan said “Forget it, tomorrow we’re looking at brand new townhouses.”
Susan swung the car around and drove slowly down the dusty driveway back onto the bitumen road. That room had such a happy feel, she mused, perhaps the house isn’t unloved after all. As the trees in the valley closed ranks, the house began to disappear from view until only the rooftop was visible. Susan took one last look and noticed a thin trail of smoke rising into the still air.
AUTHOR NOTE: For those readers who like a possibly more romantic ending, the second part of “Home Comfort” follows:
Susan did not want to be drawn into a lengthy discussion with the real estate agent over the suitability of the old farmhouse. She rehearsed her opening line. “It’s obvious why we rejected it.” Her voice lacked conviction. “Decrepit,” said Audrey and gave her a sideways glance.
To Susan’s relief, the real estate agent took the house key without a word. He was ducking and diving between filing cabinets and stationery drawers, hunting for a pen. In the absence of his receptionist, he was attempting to enter data into an unwilling computer and answer the phones. Audrey took pity on him and answered a call, taking a message. Susan was mortified but the realtor took it in his stride.
“We’re returning to the city tomorrow,” said Susan and thanked him. “I regret the unsuccessful outcome,” he said, parrot-fashion but not without sincerity. “Did you see the local caretaker?”
“I saw a family.” With a hint of a smile, Susan added “I’ll let them rest in peace.” The agent was not listening. “It is rather quiet up there, isn’t it?” He started searching for a paper clip and sent a sheaf of papers cascading onto the floor. Audrey cried out and pounced onto a pale grey sheet of paper. It had been folded and unfolded many times and was fuzzy around the edges. “Townhouses,” she read. “Just what we’re after!”
“Selling like hotcakes,” mumbled the real estate agent. “I’ll give Ben a call. He can give you a guided tour.” Within an hour, Susan and Audrey were standing on the lawn outside a new townhouse built in the style of a much older terrace house. The wrought iron lacework would look great with a flowering vine, thought Susan.
Ben was tall and friendly and had a disarming way of staring deeply into Susan’s eyes as he spoke. Nothing else existed while he told her about the suburb and mod cons of the townhouse, the last one at the end of the terrace row. “It’s the only one left for sale,” he said. His smile made her feel absurdly warm. Also, he looked vaguely familiar. Susan blinked a few times. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Have we met before?” Ben’s tanned face looked as though he was having difficulty pigeon-holing her and he rubbed his jawline. “Did you go to the furniture auction at Lavender Lane farm?” Susan wondered if this was his favourite pick-up line. “That name doesn’t sound familiar.” She tried not to catch Audrey’s eye because she was fairly sure Audrey was winking furiously and just short of nudging her in the ribs. “Do you live there?” she asked.
“Generations of my family used to own it.” Ben described the route they had driven earlier in the day. He outlined a house on a hill. His description of a hillside once covered in lavender bushes made tears form in Susan’s eyes.
“She’s going all mushy,” said Audrey. Ben shuffled his feet. “Are you allergic to lavender?” Susan gave a weak smile and tried to quell her emotions as she searched through her handbag for a tissue. “I’ve got a bad case of ESP.” Ben gestured towards an outdoor seat. It reinforced Susan’s vision of another beckoning man. Audrey let out a squeal. “Oh, you mean the ghost house!” Ben’s face lightened. “They do reckon it’s haunted.”
“Your relatives still live there,” said Susan. Weak-kneed, she sat on the bench. She grasped an old tissue and, as she pulled it out, the much-folded piece of paper flipped out onto the mown grass. As before, Audrey swooped down and picked it up, only this time it was blank. In a hushed voice, she explained to Ben that it was a leaflet advertising the townhouses, “But the words have faded away.” Ben frowned “We didn’t print leaflets.”
Susan reacted by slapping her own knee. It broke the sombre mood and cleared her head. “I think we’ve been set up,” she said. Ben turned the ragged piece of paper over and over in his hands. “By my family?” He appeared sceptical, unsure about the motive behind Susan’s words. “By a set of coincidences,” replied Susan. “Let’s go on that guided tour.”
Audrey was on the doorstep before she had finished speaking. Ben ushered them down the corridor, through the freshly-painted townhouse. “First, I have to show you the rear garden.” The curtains were drawn so he took them to the back door. “Normally you can walk straight into the garden through the French doors.” Audrey sighed and stared at the back of Ben’s head. “How romantic.”
With a flourish, Ben stood back so they could precede him. His smile was as radiant as the rows of fragrant young lavender bushes lining the path in the cottage garden. “Cultivated from the original farm plants,” he said with obvious pride.
Susan was momentarily lost for words. Her mind was in turmoil, alternating between the real and the imagined. Slowly the distinctive perfume wafted around her. She breathed deeply and let the lavender soothe her. An inner calmness gradually infused her muscles and she relaxed. As they stood quietly in the warm sun, Susan tapped her shoe on the paving. “I recognise the brickwork.” Ben smiled “It’s from the old farmhouse chimney.”
Audrey moved between Susan and Ben and linked arms. Her look was innocent. “Did we follow Lavender Lane to a dead end?” Susan laughed. “I think it lead us home.”
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
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