‘Should’ve brought the bikes,’ I said, as we got out of the car.
‘There won’t be much time to be out and about,’ said Mike, his feet crunching on the gravel drive. ‘There’ll be loads to do in the house during the building works. Let’s go and get the keys from the neighbour, I hope you still remember some French.’
‘Do you mind? I taught it for thirty years!’ I retorted. The neighbour had a floral overall, white hair scraped back in a bun, and a face which had been set in a scowl for many decades.
‘The Manoir should be left undisturbed,’ she said, her sunken eyes glaring from under bristling eyebrows. I framed a polite reply, and waited for clarification, but she handed over the keys with gnarled fingers, and closed her front door firmly.
‘Typical. They’re probably all Vichy French round here,’ I muttered.
‘Oh, don’t start, you know perfectly well they’re not,’ Mike soothed me as we walked back up the lane to the Manoir. It had pointy slate-roofed turrets, and looked romantic in the late afternoon sun.
‘Shall we use the tradesmen’s entrance?’ he said, turning the huge iron key in the kitchen door at the side of the house. The door grated on the stone floor as he pushed it open. It was dark inside, and he turned on the electric light and opened the windows to push the wooden shutters back. Golden sunlight flooded in. The kitchen had painted wooden cabinets, a farmhouse table, and a range cooker in the huge fireplace, which I looked at anxiously.
After a cuppa, we explored the house, Mike doing his retired history teacher bit, and chattering about Vichy France and the Second World War.
‘I bet the Germans would have been here,’ he said, ‘It’s the sort of place the Gestapo would have had as their HQ. Imagine them interrogating captured Resistance fighters, or rounding up people to send to the concentration camps. History comes alive.’
I wasn’t sure I wanted history to come alive, but I followed him through the hall. We found three large salons, a grand dining room, and an orangerie. We left the shutters closed, flicking the electric light on long enough to show a clutter of furniture shrouded in dust sheets, faded damask curtains, and cobwebbed chandeliers hanging from ornate plaster ceilings. Old portraits hung on the walls, and our faces gazed at us from gilt framed mirrors. A grand piano lay in state in the far salon.
‘No TV then.’ said Mike. He peered around another door and down into darkness. Cold air flowed out.
‘Hmm, no light switch in the cellar,’ he said. ‘Smells damp as well.’ He closed the door. The orangerie was a huge empty space, with ornate white ironwork framing the glass and a black and white chequered marble floor. We looked out across a weedy terrace to a neglected garden and turned back into the hall.
‘I’m sure I shut that,’ Mike said, closing the cellar door again. A musty smell lingered in the chilly air. There were eight bedrooms on the first floor, but we chose one in the attic to be out of the way of the builders. I opened the shutters. Dust and cobwebs lay everywhere.
‘I wonder where the vacuum is,’ I said.
‘I think it’s in a kitchen cupboard,’ said Mike. ‘Shall I fetch it? ’ He rattled off downstairs.
‘That bloody door!’ I heard him say.
I ran a finger along the windowsill, watching the sun sinking over the orchards. I heard Mike come back up the stairs. Looking at the thick dust on my fingertip, I asked if he’d mind fetching the bedding from the car. There was no reply.
‘Mike?’ I said. I turned round, but there was no one there. I shivered in the suddenly cold air.
‘Mike!’ I shouted. I heard a reply from downstairs.
‘OK, OK! I’m doing it!’ Mike shouted back, and appeared after a few moments, lugging the vacuum.
‘Sorry, I’m not nagging, just – oh nothing.’
‘What?’ he said.
‘No, it’s nothing, I must be tired.’
As dusk fell, I switched the lights on, but they seemed too weak to reach into the corners of the rooms, where shadows lurked. I had a sense of being watched, and disliked. Mike banged about cheerfully in the kitchen, getting the range cooker to work, and making spaghetti Bolognese.
Mike has always been cheerful. Wiry, talkative, and dark eyed, he likes dogs and horses, and cannot stay in one place. The number of times we moved house when the children were small was unbelievable. After we retired, he became restless. He spent entire evenings reading road maps, and even suggested selling our house to buy a motorhome, but I refused. Then a friend suggested house-sitting and recommended an agency. We couldn’t believe our first job, a fortnight in a mansion in Hampstead, with two resident chocolate Labradors. We looked after the dogs as tenderly as if they had been infants, and kept the house and garden immaculate. A few weeks later, Mike was reading his emails.
‘Wow! Nicky, look at this!’ I looked over his shoulder at a photograph of a beautiful manor house.
‘It’s in Normandy. They want someone for a month, starting next Monday.’ Mike scrolled down. ‘It’s being renovated and they need house sitters to keep an eye on things, the owners, Mr and Mrs Woodrow, are in Dubai. What d’you think, anyway?’
‘I’m off to pack my bags!’ I’d said. And so, here we were.
‘Are you happy sitting in the kitchen?’ said Mike, after I’d washed up. ‘We can exhume some of the sofas in the other rooms, if you want.’
‘No, I’m fine here,’ I said, peering in cupboards to see where to put the plates. ‘It’s not very welcoming here, somehow. It’s the atmosphere in the house.’
‘I know, it lacks the lived-in feel, doesn’t it?’
‘It feels distinctly unfriendly,’ I said. I nearly told him about the footsteps on the stairs, but doubted he would take me seriously.
‘Well, tomorrow, we’ll have nowhere to sit,’ Mike said, ‘according to the emails, the house clearers are coming in big time, and once they’ve finished, the builders are going to be knocking down walls, pulling down ceilings and all sorts. The whole lot’s got to be rewired, central heating system installed, en suite bathrooms, replastering..’
‘I hope they aren’t going to take down those lovely ceilings,’ I said.
‘Modernisation is the order of the day, I believe,’ said Mike. ‘Money no object, and a contemporary look. Burnt orange, zebra stripes, lime green things – who knows? The interior designer’s going to be here tomorrow, Katja somebody.’
That night, I woke with a start. The bedroom window was wide open and the shutters had drifted apart, starlight filtered through the thin curtain, which billowed into the room on a cold breeze. I was sure I had closed everything before going to bed. I got up and closed the shutters and the window, and groped my way back to the bed in the dark, trying not to wake Mike. I felt a cold breath on my neck. Then I knocked my knee on the bedpost, and cursed.
‘You OK Nicky?’ muttered Mike. I crept back under the covers and huddled up to him.
‘I had to close the window again,’ I said, ‘I don’t know why it came open.’
‘Funny, that,’ said Mike. ‘They need better catches in this house, the cellar door keeps opening as well. Hopefully the builders will sort it once they get going.’
He went back to sleep and I lay awake, listening to the floorboards creaking, and wishing I had the courage to get up and go to the loo.
Katja was tall, blonde and Polish, with tall black suede boots. She crushed her lipsticked cigarette out in the kitchen sink when I told her we weren’t allowed to smoke in the house. As men with white cotton gloves carried ornaments and furniture to a fleet of lorries bearing the name of a famous auction house, she explained in her smoky voice that her brief was to make the house look ‘on-trend’.
‘We will have bold colours and strong textures, simple lines. I have to drive these ghosts away!’ With a flourish of red fingernails, she indicated a portrait in a heavy mahogany frame, being carried by two workmen. Some of the smaller bedrooms were being converted to en suite bathrooms, and all the window frames and shutters were being renovated. The builders arrived in the afternoon with four tipper trucks and a chute and started to put scaffolding up at the back of the house.
By the evening they had all gone, and the house was stripped of most of its furnishings. A silence descended as darkness crept back into the corners of the rooms. They had left us the kitchen table and chairs, and we had managed to get to a supermarket. We had a decent bottle of Cahors with our supper, and by the time the washing up was done I was feeling unsteady.
‘I need to relax a bit,’ I said. ‘I feel I’ve done nothing but vacuuming all day.’ We took our wine glasses through the empty salons, looking for somewhere to sit. The grand piano was still there, awaiting a specialist firm the next day. I sat at the piano stool, under a single light bulb which had replaced the chandelier. A book of Chopin was still in the music holder.
‘Number One, in B flat minor, Murmures de la Seine,’ I said. I began to play, Mike leaning an elbow on the polished surface and turning the pages for me.
‘I was absolutely right about the Gestapo!’ he said. ‘You know, Patrice, the red haired lad who works for the scaffolders, he lives in the village? He reckons the house is haunted! He said that the Gestapo were actually here in this house in the war, and they buried bodies under the cellar floor, quite a few people disappeared, apparently…’
I shivered, played a wrong note, and stopped.
‘I really didn’t want to know that, thank you,’ I said, with a reproachful glance. ‘This place is creepy enough as it is.’
‘Sorry!’ Mike said, with a grin. ‘You’re a sensitive soul, aren’t you? I think it’s a gorgeous house, I love it. An old house is bound to have a bit of history.’
‘Well maybe that’s why the cellar door keeps opening,’ I said, ‘pushed by an unseen hand. It smells all mouldy and horrible as well.’ I concentrated back on the music.
‘Or maybe the latch is weak,’ said Mike. ‘Anyway, cellars are always damp. You don’t expect an old place like this to have a damp course, do you?’ He drained his wine glass as I played to the end of the sheet.
Then, the page turned over by itself.
I went cold, but someone else’s will kept me playing, my hands seemed to be out of my control, and I played automatically, frozen to the seat, the pages turning at just the right point in the music, until I played to the end.
‘That was marvellous.’ Mike was still leaning on the piano, his eyes half closed.
‘Mike,’ I recovered my voice, clearing my throat. ‘Did you see what happened then?’
Of course, he persuaded me that I’d had too much to drink. When I asked him how I’d played the whole piece, he said I’d played Chopin for years, and didn’t need to read the music anyway.
‘You look exhausted,’ he said. ‘Go up and have a bath, there should be lots of hot water. I’m going to read for a bit, I’ll be up shortly.’
I didn’t really want to go upstairs on my own, but I had to get the dust out of my hair. There was no shower, so I filled the tub with warm fragrant water and lay back like Ophelia, letting my hair float. Suddenly, all the lights went out. I sat bolt upright in the bath, splashing water over the floor. The bathroom door opened, a cold draught flowing through it. I could see the landing was in darkness too.
‘Mike!’ I yelled.
‘It’s a fuse,’ he yelled back, ‘Did we bring a torch?’
I got out of the bath in the freezing air, struggled into my dressing gown, and groped my way down the unfamiliar stairs, dripping water from my hair. The stairs seemed to creak behind me. I saw a faint light coming from the kitchen, Mike had found a torch.
‘I bet the fuse box is in the cellar,’ he said. It’ll be the old type with wire, I expect. I think my tool box is in the car.’
Damp and shivering, I went out to the car with him, pretending to help. Then we came back in and opened the cellar door.
‘Yup,’ said Mike, shining the torch on a row of wires leading down the wall. He began to descend the steps. ‘Ugh, it stinks in here.’ I stayed by the door watching him silhouetted against the faint light.
‘Nicky!’ he shouted up. ‘Come down and look at these racks!’ I quailed. What had he found, instruments of torture, a catacomb of rotting bones?
‘No, I’m OK up here,’ I called down.
‘Look!’ He played his torch over rows and rows of wine racks, full of cobwebbed bottles.
‘Never mind that, sort out the fuse box.’
‘You’ll have to come and hold the torch.’
I really did not want to go down there. What if the door banged shut and we couldn’t get out? But it was that, or no electricity. Trembling, I forced myself to do it.
‘I don’t think I can stay here, Mike,’ I pleaded, watching him examine the fuses. ‘It’s too spooky, I was terrified when I was on my own in the bath and all the lights went out. I don’t like the idea of living on top of a pile of bones, either.’
‘Oh, I expect they got dug up after the war and had a decent burial,’ said Mike. ‘How else would people know about it?’ He replaced the melted wire.
‘Mike, I just don’t like it here,’ I said. ‘It’s the way the place feels, the atmosphere. Tomorrow you’ve got to get on to the agency and tell them.’
‘OK, OK. Look, the lights are on now. No more panic, back upstairs we go. I’ll ring them in the morning.’
The following morning Mike was on his mobile, while the piano movers worked on the grand piano and the builders started drilling and banging upstairs.
‘I said we’d hang on until the owners can get back on the 25th,’ he said apologetically.
‘But that’s two weeks away!’ I objected.
‘Well someone’s got to be here, we can’t just leave.’ He looked at me pleadingly. ‘I like it here, Nicky. Honestly, I think you’re making it a bit more than it is. It’s not that bad, no-one’s harmed us, have they?’
Sun streamed in through the kitchen windows, and birds sang outside. I felt a bit silly, perhaps I’d had a bit too much wine the night before. So we stuck it out. I went out and bought camping lamps in case of power failures. The weather turned warm, and we spent the evenings on the terrace outside. Strange things continued to happen: a tin of écru paint left by the decorators was found spilled out; dark mould sprouted in the corridor outside the cellar door and a damp specialist firm had to be called in; pools of icy water appeared mysteriously on the floors. Katja tripped over in the orangerie and sprained her ankle, but that was due to her stiletto heels.
‘In England she’d wear a hard hat and work boots,’ chuckled Mike. ‘No hat, no job, you know?’
I gave him a Gallic shrug.
John Woodrow was a tall Texan with a thin grey moustache. He called me ‘Ma’am’. His wife Françoise was svelte, with dark arrogant eyes.
‘This house has belonged to my family for more than a hundred and fifty years,’ she informed us, with hauteur reminiscent of a French General. ‘It is absolutely untrue that it was used by the Gestapo. German Army officers were billeted here in the War, but the Gestapo were in the Mairie. And that is that, c’est ça.’
That was when the knocking started. We were in the kitchen, and it seemed to come from the room above.
‘I thought the builders had all gone to lunch,’ said Mike.
‘They have,’ I said, shivering with the now familiar cold air sensation. The knocking went on. It sounded like someone banging with a walking stick. Françoise glared at the ceiling.
‘Maman!’ she said, and turned abruptly out of the kitchen. We followed her at a distance as she marched upstairs. The rapping stopped, and we could hear some sort of discussion going on in the bedroom. Françoise seemed after a while to gain the upper hand. Then there was silence, and she emerged and closed the door.
‘She never liked my taste in décor,’ said Françoise, shaking her head.
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