Talk of the town, it was. The old Swanson place had finally sold. Three years it had been on the market, its balconies covered in gull mess and the gardens creeping over the gravel chips in the driveway. Dusty bay windows looked out over the estuary, bulging and blank, as though unable to bear the sight of the cheaper dwellings at the bottom of the steep hill. Then one day the estate agent’s sign was gone, rotten stake heaved out of the ground.
A foreign investor, went the rumour in Sally’s Café, someone looking to develop as soon as the weather turned and renovations could begin. The Bull Inn had it different; Tim Gillian had heard that it was a banker from the big smoke come to start a family after having made his money when the markets crashed. Phil Murphy was trimming a customer’s sideburns and telling him that the new owner had only bought it for tax purposes. Phil did not seem to be able to elaborate on what these purposes might be.
Winter passed, and summer. The tide went up and down the estuary hundreds of times, breathing salt air over the damp slate roofs of the town. Men in suits were seen at the mansion, pointing up at the east wing with furrowed brows as they discussed and discussed and shivered in the breeze.
Planning permission was the issue, Mrs. Henderson told the boys and girls in her English literature class. The new owners were trying to make changes that would Compromise the Historical Integrity and Period Features of the house, and that simply wouldn’t do.
Ivy crept over the roughcasting and rust ate into the ironwork of the gates as autumn approached again. Storm winds shrieked underneath the eaves of the old house and the single-paned windows rattled in their frames. The nights drew in and Graham Houston, on his paper round, saw headlights swinging over the gravel. Still the windows remained curtainless and the takeaway leaflets piled underneath the letterbox.
The new owner’s wife had miscarried shortly after having moved in, Constable Taylor told Constable Bellingworth as they sat in a layby on nightshift, looking up at the dark mass of the house silhouetted against the sky and sipping coffee from thermos mugs. Hadn’t been able to spend a night in the place since, he said knowledgeably. All she had been able to hear throughout the cavernous rooms were the sounds of a baby crying.
Christmas lights were slung between lampposts. Snatches of carols made their way to the base of the hill but no further. The saltwater in the estuary was steely grey, mercury sucked in and out of a test tube. ‘No trespassing’ signs were chained to the gates of the house.
Torchlight had been seen glaring from the upstairs windows of the property, Mrs. Grey whispered to the occupants of the church pew behind her during Evensong. Down at the swings in the playpark, Charlotte Roxburgh passed a bottle of cider to Stephen Dailly and told him that her friend Tamara Manning had heard that shouts had been heard from the house at night. Pupils from the private school had seen a woman dressed all in white at one of the windows. Stephen swigged from the bottle and asked her which window, what pupils, and on which night. Charlotte had reached for the bottle and kissed him.
The low spring sun was glinting off the estuary when Graham Houston wheeled his bicycle into the newsagents after his paper round. Interesting news, he had told the shop owner. A ‘for sale’ sign had been planted in front of the old Swanson place. Offers over. Viewing by appointment only.
***Thanks for reading, folks. Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia and https://www.countypress.co.uk ***
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order