Natalie hadn’t wanted me to stay at the house, in case I encroached upon territory she regarded as her own. But I defied her. I walked from the station late one night to find the house she’d described to me – a tall, narrow Georgian terrace overlooking the beach. I could smell the exposed floor of the bay as the tide came in, lifting all the toppled boats.
A small solar-powered Buddha waved from the windowsill as I rang the bell. I watched the Buddha greeting me in darkness, fuelled by the day that had passed.
‘Alright,’ said Natalie, opening the door a crack. ‘Keep the noise down, yeah? I’ve just got Fergus to sleep.’
She had no choice but to let me in.
‘Toseley doesn’t write in here, obviously,’ explained Natalie, gesturing around the room. Red wine slopped out of her glass. ‘Says she can’t concentrate in a place devoted to concentration.’
‘That explains it,’ I said, looking at the chuntering chest freezer in a corner of Toseley’s study. A face painted on a paper plate, with curly pasta hair glued around the rim, glared at us from the mantelpiece. From my prone position on the velvet settee, I lifted one leg and dislodged the plate with my foot, sending it rattling down behind stacked cardboard boxes.
‘Is she moving?’ I asked.
‘Might be. Maybe into a hospice,’ sniffed Natalie. ‘It’s still up in the air.’ She managed to imply that she was a trusted confidante, a member of Toseley’s inner circle. Neither of us, at twenty, appreciated the gravity of Toseley’s situation. We imagined dying as something old people took up, recreationally, like golf – although poor Toseley was only our senior by just over a decade and half.
Toseley stored her wine in the cupboard under the stairs. Natalie and I made our way through a good quantity of it. We moved from the study to the drawing room, to sprawl on two ornately ugly armchairs.
‘Plenty more underneath,’ she said, cocking her head towards a bookshelf.
‘What do you mean?’
‘In the cellar,’ she said, in the sly tone I knew so well. I could sense that she’d developed a fixation with the house: in her mind’s eye she was decorating and furnishing it, believing her destiny to be entwined with it in some way. I knew that she intended to insert herself in Toseley’s life, then subtly manoeuvre until she’d displaced the great woman. That process was quite advanced, I guessed, and she had not been pleased to see me, in case I interfered.
I got up and walked towards the bookshelves, pushing against the one Natalie indicated.
‘Pull,’ she said, and as I did the whole shelf swung towards me, disclosing a twisting stone staircase leading down.
‘No way!’ I breathed.
‘There’s a light switch.’
I found it. A pale bulb glowed somewhere underneath the house; I followed the staircase down and around until I saw it, suspended from a bowed ceiling.
There was a wet, uneven earthen floor. Many rooms led off from this one; Natalie kept close behind me, whispering about a kitchen with a wooden drainer, and a scullery, coalhole and meat safe in the absolute blackness beyond. Cases of wine stood cooling alongside some grey filing cabinets, and old suitcases mouldered in a doorway, their contents surely rotten.
‘What a hell-hole,’ I said, and Natalie nodded. She selected a bottle with a golden seal to take back up to the drawing room.
I slept badly that night, on a bare mattress at the top of the house, dreaming of the cellar fifty feet beneath me as the sea trickled across its sandy floor.
Fergus woke me the next morning by marching into my room and wrenching open the curtains. He stared down at me, a stranger, half-asleep in crumpled clothes, and then dropped his picture books down upon me from the greatest height his four-year-old frame could muster.
‘Story!’ he demanded. I sat up, cast around for my glasses, and wrestled with the first of the books, which was all hard corners and neon colours, and concerned a mob-capped goose in a state of anxiety over her eggs.
Fergus interjected whenever I, dry-mouthed, stumbled over my words, but for most of the reading he stood staring out to sea with his hands folded behind his back, like a captain assessing conditions for sailing.
‘He’s confident, isn’t he?’ I called to Natalie, as Fergus and I made slow progress down to the kitchen. He jumped from step to step, bringing both his feet together before making the next leap. I wondered how Fergus fitted into Natalie’s conception of the future – if the house was hers, would he then become her adopted son? I could see her gathering acolytes rather than having a family of her own. She was essentially a collector, choosing or discarding people according to the profit they yielded. I suspected that I was useful, but of little value, like a washing-up sponge, or an everyday plate that would not be missed if it smashed.
‘He’s used to different people looking after him,’ she called back from the kitchen. I could hear music from the radio, and the sounds of a lavish breakfast being prepared. Breakfast was the one meal Natalie condescended to make, and she did it with aplomb – I remembered the warm smoked salmon bagels she’d conjured up in our student digs.
‘Toasty soldiers, Fergie?’ she offered, as he crashed into the kitchen. He swarmed over a wooden bench and up to the dining table, which was covered with his drawings and Lego bricks. Toseley’s typewriter sat at one end, uncovered, looking like an old-fashioned till. I touched its keys, and shivered.
The kitchen was the most grotesque of all Toseley’s rooms. A previous owner had kitted it out to resemble the bar of a provincial golf club, with horse brasses studding the dark brown cupboards and fake pewter mugs hanging from eye-level hooks. Work surfaces were covered in maroon tiles, so that years of grime had accumulated in the grouting, and a broad wooden sill behind the sink was saturated with water sputtering from a rusted mixer tap. She’d been ambushed by illness, I guessed, before she’d had a chance to make improvements. It was the room most suggestive of death, I thought – the most hopeless and abandoned of all the spaces, worse even than the cellar. Toseley’s faded handwritten Post-It notes were stuck around its doors, reminding her to pick up dry-cleaning and speak with the humanist celebrant. She’d jotted a list of deadlines and stuck them in the microwave, and I stared at that underlined word, Deadlines, feeling for the first time the force of Toseley’s mysterious sardonic atmosphere. How had it felt to form the word with a blunt pencil; to be a writer, a dying writer, writing that word?
Natalie was spooning a poached egg from a saucepan and laying it over hunks of crusty seeded bread. She pricked the yolk with a fork, and watched the golden liquid flow around the plate.
‘I thought we’d take His Majesty to the bus station,’ she said. ‘He likes it there.’
And sure enough, Fergus hurled his Lego bricks in the air, and we all laughed as they ricocheted off the ceiling and rained down into every crevice of the room, even getting wedged between the typewriter’s keys.
Natalie and I sat underneath a Perspex shelter, watching buses chuntering into formation. Neither of us had money, although she was paid to babysit Fergus while his mother was away. I suspected that Natalie’s boyfriend in London received most of her wages, to spend on his fledgling band. There was heat in the sun, that day, and we were hot in our enclosure. We wiggled down the straps of our tops, trying to catch a tan.
‘The Guardian rang earlier,’ said Natalie, for perhaps the fifth time that morning. Natalie had mouthed ‘The Guardian’ to me, back in the house, pointing at the ‘phone cradled against her shoulder. ‘Wanting to know when Toseley’s latest piece will arrive.’
This was her new affectation: to posture as Toseley’s literary agent, apparently on intimate terms with editors. Natalie might have inveigled her way into that role for real, given time – I imagined Toseley returning to find her house occupied, her son commandeered, and her career mysteriously annexed.
Fergus was enraptured by the buses as they reversed into angled ranks. Turning to look at us over his shoulder, he confided that he liked to line up his toy cars. And although I was too young and callous to be touched at the time, I’m touched now by the thought of that boy – living in chaos, on the brink of a greater chaos – tidying a corner of his small world.
It’s sad to think what became of him, in adulthood. I try not to think about that at all.
We took Fergus to a café, and let him draw in the condensation covering the windows; then we walked back along the seafront. There was a rectangular concrete sea-bathing pool on the beach directly opposite the house, and it filled with smoke-coloured water whenever the tide came in. Fergus had picked up a length of flex from somewhere, and when he tired of slashing the sand he dipped the end of the flex into the bathing pool.
‘Come on, Monkey,’ called Natalie, over the traffic noise. She stood and wiggled her fingers until he abandoned the pool and put his hand in hers. We navigated speeding cars to cross the beach road, and I think now how casual we were, how utterly unqualified to protect a toddler. Natalie implied that she’d been especially selected for the job by Toseley herself, who had recognised a kindred spirit, but I knew that Natalie had answered an ad, and was merely one of many assistants appointed by a stern committee.
We watched TV in the first floor drawing room that overlooked the sea. Books and framed photographs slid along the sloping shelves.
‘Do you feel this house is subsiding?’ I asked.
Natalie shrugged that yes, maybe it was a bit.
‘It’s old,’ she said. ‘Old things sag.’ She poked my chest, and laughed.
‘I heard it creaking in the night.’
I had various mystical ideas about houses; I believed the house was dying along with its owner. Although the place still stands, and has become notorious in connection with its former occupant, deterioration had indeed begun. An extraction was about to take place, and I have come to think of it as a fatal procedure, although I cannot say exactly whose life was ended.
We thought of Toseley as a great figure, even in her lifetime, despite her reputation as an oddity. She was someone who nearly was; might have been; promised to be – and when she’s praised now it’s always with the caveat that her one masterpiece is so mysteriously flawed.
‘She just ran out of time,’ people say. ‘She needed an editor.’
She had an editor, of course, and he contributes to the flow of memoirs that are constantly produced about her. She’s remembered for her wild swimming, her solid oblong body encased in the black costume she wore underneath every outfit, in case an opportunity arose. She apparently spent hours in the sea-bathing pool, toughing it out alone through freezing mornings. Friends recall her climbing the cobbled streets of Positano all night, worrying at a short story in her head. She would sit Fergus in a box while she worked, and settle him to sleep in a drawer. She seemed never to listen to anyone – she never visited her parents, and was estranged from her sister. No-one knew for sure who Fergus’s father was. That was just another peculiar gap in his life; one more absence.
Natalie and I stood in front of the sliding mirrored doors of Toseley’s wardrobe, sorting through the velvet dresses and loose trousers slung over wire hangers.
‘That, for example, is something she should never wear,’ said Natalie, tutting at the emerald jumper I held against myself. ‘Not with her colouring. She’ll look malarial.’
Natalie did not permit any fawning over Toseley. She could be close to greatness without assuming a subordinate position.
The jumper still had its label attached – £4.99. Toseley seemed addicted to cheap, brightly coloured garments which she bought in bulk and never wore.
‘Hang onto that,’ suggested Natalie. ‘A memento. She won’t need it.’
I rested the jumper on a pile of jeans. I was thirsty, and we hadn’t checked on Fergus for at least an hour, so I trudged down the switchback stairs. I found Fergus playing with his cars on the floor, his face level with the filthy rug. He made gentle rumbling engine noises.
‘Drinky?’ I offered. He nodded, absorbed, already adept at solitude. He’d overlaid a new mess on the squalor all around – I noticed, for example, that the keys of Toseley’s typewriter seemed to be smeared with marmalade. The concealed door to the cellar had swung open on its hinges. ‘Dangerous,’ I muttered, turning to close it – but as I moved, I kicked one of Fergus’s cars and sent it rolling forwards.
The car seemed to accelerate until it hit the first of the stone steps. I could hear Fergus yelping behind me – a cry of loss I do not like to recall – and I hurried to stall him before he clambered after it. I saw the car roll and bump, roll and bump, and then it disappeared – fallen into the cold pit beneath us. Fergus began to cry. I thought – God, you’ve got loads of cars, what’s special about that one? But I sensed that I’d have to retrieve it, or we would have no peace. So I told him to stay there, in safety, while I went down into the cellar.
I kept my hand on the newel post. The orange bulb sent out its little burr of light. The sandy floor stank, and I pictured the seawater sloshing around the concrete pool, wondering if it surged through this space too, while we moved and ate and slept in the house above. The wretched car somehow picked up momentum over the hummocky ground, and then hit a slope and rolled towards a filing cabinet.
Yes, I do blame the car. I’d never have gone near the cabinet otherwise. I would never have set foot in that place ever again, if I could have avoided it. But the damned red car rolled on until it hit the cabinet with a dull chink, and as I bent to retrieve it I choked on the thought of Natalie and her superiority – her boyfriend in a band, her glamorous job ministering to a tragic genius, and all the distinction that would come her way – ‘Oh yes, she knew Toseley; they say she was with her at the end,’ – while I scrabbled in the dirt for nothing. And as I stood up I hooked one finger into the curved handle of a drawer, and pulled it open.
I found paper-clipped bundles of pages within the hanging files. There were about ten bundles, I think. Well, I know. I took one bundle at random and looked at its covering page. Chapter Four. Interesting, I thought. With Fergus’s car in one hand and the bundle in the other, I nudged the drawer shut and turned to go upstairs.
Fergus’s face peered down at me.
‘Car!’ he yelled, holding out a starfish hand and grabbing at the air. He was so happy to have his car back that he didn’t notice anything else. He looked at me with his grateful green eyes, then dropped to the floor to reunite the car with its fleet. But he must have seen me; he must retain in some un-visited mental archive the sight of me emerging from the cellar, holding that bundle of papers against my chest. That must be the vision he’s tried to summon through hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, and all his lifelong voyages into the subconscious and the past. That must be why he’s lived as a hermit in that house, dismantling its walls and ceilings. He’s been looking for – me, walking upstairs; me, slotting her manuscript into the bag resting on an ugly armchair; me, stealing a chapter of his mother’s only copy of her only novel, and thereby robbing her of the reputation she deserved to have.
Well, I was only one of many people who lodged in that house. No-one even remembers me. I’m sure that Natalie – who of course still boasts of her hand-maidenly summer – has edited me out of the story. Suspicion must have fallen upon her, but no individual could be blamed, and any disgrace she felt must have been brushed off by now.
I suppose I might have made a fortune if I’d come forward with the missing chapter, but I lost it in some move or other, shuttling between the shared flats of my twenties. Perhaps someone else picked it up, and they have it now, stacked in their attic or garage along with old road atlases and out-of-date guarantees. I hope so: I’d like Fergus to find some peace.
I kept the emerald jumper, though. I wear it whenever I read Toseley’s book, as though it is a hair shirt. Scholarly introductions always dwell upon the lost chapter, and there’s even a fashionable school of thought that it was a deliberate omission, a textual trick designed to keep us puzzling.
I might write something of my own, one day. I’ll set it in a tall, narrow house full of grey light borrowed from the sea. There will be a small boy watching an egg yolk oozing over bread; a small boy wrapping himself in a length of muddy flex. And underneath him there will be a deepening emptiness, sighing and shifting with the tides – a place where his life disappears.
Louisa Barnes is the pen name of Josie Turner, who lives in a small town outside London and works for the UK’s National Health Service. She has had short fiction published in journals including Mslexia, Crack the Spine and The Frogmore Papers, with a story forthcoming in The Vignette Review. In 2016 she won the Brighton Prize and received the Sue Lile Inman Award for Fiction from the Emrys Foundation.