Every person who passes through a place leaves something of themselves behind. A memory, imprinted within its four walls, woven eternally into its fabric.
It’s something I’ve always been able to sense. It’s what I love about old buildings: the atmosphere, the sense of time, of history, of memories. I can feel them all around me, the whispers of long-forgotten ghosts.
This house is no different.
When I first saw the name in the advert – Heron’s Roost – I knew I had to have it.
And when the woman in the agency hands me the bundle of assorted keys; some modern, others antique wrought iron, promising tantalising glimpses of long-ago times, I know I was right.
‘None of them are labelled, I’m afraid,’ she says. ‘The old ones are for cellars, outbuildings, that sort of thing. The old lady was housebound and rather eccentric: her son said they haven’t been opened in decades. He was too busy sorting out the care home to play Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps a project for you?’
The iron lies cool in my palm as I dream of slumbering rooms, frozen in time.
‘Shouldn’t be any bodies or anything in there. He promised me that!’ The woman laughs.
No bodies. I already know that. Heron’s Roost is a happy place. I could feel that as soon as I viewed it. None of the swirling, invisible miasma that betrays foul deeds, unhappiness or pain. No unwelcoming, unseen eyes. No silent screams jarring the air. Rather it seemed to sigh in welcome as I entered its doors, as if greeting a long-lost friend. Heron’s Roost was longing for me to come here as much as I was.
My brother helps me haul the last of the boxes and suitcases out of his van. He surveys the house with raised eyebrows.
‘Bit over the top, ain’t it, Chloe? I mean, I could bring all of my lot to stay and you’d barely notice.’
He dumps my carefully packed china tea service in the hall with a ghastly crunch. I cringe and try not to protest.
‘Is that the idea? Hit him where it hurts, eh? Not that he’d notice a few grand a month going from his account.’
‘Steve, it’s not costing that much! It’s so run down, they had to let it cheap. I just-’
How could I explain? ‘I fell in love with it. And yes, now darling Perry’s traded me in, I deserve a bit of compensation.’
‘As long as you’re getting your due.’ His smile turns grim.
‘Look, I’m more than capable of handling it. I don’t need big brother to send the heavies round. Don’t worry, I know how to get what I’m entitled to.’
Steve checks his watch. ‘I’m supposed to be seeing a client in half an hour. You’ll manage these boxes and stuff? I can pop back this evening if you need a hand.’
I try to imagine his builder’s hands arranging my delicate china and suppress a shudder. The gentle touch he isn’t blessed with.
‘No, that’s fine, thanks. I’ll manage. I’ll call you when I’m sorted, we can have a barbie or something.’
His van roars away in a fug of exhaust fumes and I turn back to my new home. My eyes flicker between the jumble of boxes and suitcases, denoting my half of a once-shared life, and the enigmatic bunch of keys thrown on the table. It’s hours yet until dark.
I pick up the keys and go out into the autumn sunshine.
Fiery leaves crackle underfoot as I cross the lawn, tended from necessity rather than love. A brick wall flanks it, entirely shrouded by ivy and a wayward rose, a few orange blossoms still clinging to its stems. Only one flowerbed, the other side of the house, is still tended. The old lady’s window had overlooked it, apparently, so the guy who cut the grass made some effort with it.
I push the ivy away from a rusty iron gate. It opens reluctantly and I slide through the gap to see a handful of buildings strewn across a paved yard, now overgrown with grass and weeds. Stables. A cart shed, now full of rusty farm machinery. A few more buildings with solid wooden doors. A broken fence separates it all from the surrounding farmland.
I crush a trail through the weeds and look over the top of a stable door. It still contains a layer of dirty, cobweb-riddled straw. A few wisps of hay cling to the rack. It smells of dust and abandonment.
I imagine its heyday. Horses snorting, teeth champing on hay, whistling men rushing here and there, hooves and hobnails loud on the stone. It’s like the silence, the present, has been simply laid over it. A veil just waiting to be peeled back.
The paint of the next door is peeling away in strips, and cobwebs fill the key hole. I choose a likely key. Nothing. I try two more before the lock clicks open. I lift the latch.
The air is musty, vaguely smelling of pine. As my eyes adjust, I see I’m in a wood store. A trace of light slips through the grimy window, in feeble competition with the open door.
I stand and inhale the building’s soul. It speaks of a long sleep, forgotten by the world. The rough-hewn beams are hung with blankets of opaque cobwebs. I sense inquisitive eyes turning towards me.
The bricks are crumbling with age, barely a trace of the whitewash remaining, and my eye is drawn to some scratched writing. I pick my way closer. A log crumbles under my foot like honeycomb.
Frank Wright, I read. The name seems very familiar. The name of a schoolmate or someone similarly far forgotten? Frank Wright, Frank Wright, I repeat.
I shake my head, annoyed. I hate it when I can’t remember things.
It’ll come to me, I reason, and force the thought aside as I go back into the sunshine. A robin trills from a fencepost and I jump. He flits off as I try the next door, partly covered with ivy. I have to tear a good chunk away before I can find the lock.
It’s a tack room. Pieces of dusty, brittle harness still hang from rusted nails. Inside I immediately sense peace. A soothing welcome. There is something intensely familiar about it. It’s not just the archaic aroma – leather, dust and crumbling wood – or the museum-like atmosphere. There’s something else as well. It’s so intense that an image comes to me of a bustling workroom. A man whistling as he polishes a saddle. Another stokes wood onto the tiny fire.
From a film, maybe? A documentary?
Whatever it is, it’s gone almost at once, as if knowing it’s hopelessly out of place.
I stand there for an age. There is such a sense of lost history. The place seems to have slumbered in contentment, replete with its vestige of memories. This was a building where people were happy, something its walls have never forgotten.
I rub at the filthy window, leaving a trail of streaks through the grime. I pull a handful of grass and manage to clean the panes fairly well. I unearth the catch from a mound of dusty cobwebs and wrestle it open. Sunlight floods in and lights the airborne dust.
Then I notice the writing on a beam.
Very faded, but I recognise Frank Wright again. The rest is indecipherable.
The sunlight is illuminating a glass-fronted cabinet on the far wall, something I’d barely noticed before. Though a broken pane I can see pieces of card in faded colours. I open the door as carefully as I can.
It’s full of rosettes and certificates, grimy and ragged. The Shire Horse Society, and other local horse shows. All dated to the 1920s and 1930s. Testimony to a man’s pride and joy. How long since they have been seen by human eyes?
Among them is a photograph. A young man in a rough jacket and flat cap, grinning proudly, one hand resting on a shire horse’s gleaming shoulder. Is that Frank, I wonder?
I stare at his merry, cheeky face. He seems so familiar. But how? Why? How could I have known him – or someone very like him?
Even the black and white picture can’t hide the magnificence of the horse’s presentation. As if I’m there I can see the jaunty colours of the ribbons and brasses. The rosette flutters in the breeze as the horse tosses his head. He’s done well, and he knows it. He stares at the camera almost disdainfully.
The man – Frank, I’m sure of it – is about to speak. Captured mid-word, a moment of his life ensnared forever. How true it is that the camera steals your soul. I can see everything in his mind and heart, laid bare in his face and his posture. The honed strength of a man used to physical labour. The easy contentment of having everything he needs. The straight-backed pride from knowing he’s achieved his potential. A hope and excitement for a glittering future. I feel I know him so well.
The light fades. Frank returns to the shadows.
I look over my shoulder and see the sun is no longer shining through the newly-cleaned panes. How long have I been in here?
From the door I see the sun has sunk below the bank of trees across the next field. Great bundles of nests balance precariously in the tops of several of them. Perhaps they’re the work of the herons after which the house is named.
A chill ripples through the air and motes of sunlight dance through the last clinging leaves. It reminds me that autumn is here. I shiver and close the door quietly, lock it again and go back onto the lawn.
It feels brighter, warmer, more vibrant, as if I’ve stepped out of a time capsule. I can’t get my mind off the face in the picture. Frank. Already it seems as if I’ve known him forever. Did he live in the house, I wonder? I feel a tingling in my fingertips, a yearning as I think of him.
I walk up the steps, reach for the door handle and leap back, my hand to my mouth. ‘Oh!’
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.’
The man detaches himself from the shadows of the porch. ‘I’m Finlay. I do the gardening here.’
‘Um, Chloe. Nice to meet you.’
His hand is calloused and warm under mine, and I feel that tingling again. Must be carrying too many boxes. He’s about my age, carefully scruffy, a swathe of designer stubble across his face.
‘I saw you’d finally arrived, thought I’d pop over and say hello.’ He looks into the shadowy, cluttered hall. ‘That your fella with the van earlier?’
‘No, my brother. He’s helping me move.’
‘So you’re living here alone, then?’
I glance back down the path. Finlay’s waiting. The silence draws on.
‘I’m getting divorced,’ I relent.
‘Oh really?’ He can’t disguise the flash of interest. A provincial’s nose for gossip. I expect it’ll be all round the local pubs later.
‘Anyone lined up to take his place?’ His smile is cheeky, wicked. Almost attractive if I wasn’t so put out. A thousand retorts come into my mind.
‘No. Look, I’ve got a lot to do…’
‘Well, I’ll be around the next few days, if you need a hand. Boxes lifting, wardrobes moving, just give me a shout.’
That smile again. Anything at all, day or night. Especially night. His gaze lingers a second too long before flickering over my body. I can see the naked light of approval, of admiration, of attraction. It’s ages since anyone looked at me like that. Not even Perry for God knows how long. I hate myself for the delicious warmth spreading through my body.
His eyes draw back to mine for an instant, then he nods and strides into the shadows. The place is suddenly empty without him.
I go inside, turn the lights on, then go upstairs to choose a bedroom. Four of them to pick from, all still furnished. Steve was right: it is a bit over the top. Perhaps I could have his family to stay for the summer holiday.
I pick a room and spread sheets over the mattress, but I’m not happy. None of the rooms seem quite right.
I decide to explore the attic. Narrow, twisting stairs lead to a tiny, low-ceilinged room. An iron-framed single bed with a night-stand. It’s free from dust and spiders, and feels homely, cosy.
From the window I see the silhouette of the herons’ trees. The horizon is faintly marked by deep blue, the last trace of day. The view in daylight would be incredible.
I breathe in the warmth that still lingers under the rafters, and my decision is made. Silly, I know, to live in this wonderful house then decide to sleep in the attic, in a former maid’s bedroom, but perhaps I just want something that feels secure.
I unpack the necessaries, warm a tin of soup, then feeling suddenly exhausted I stumble back upstairs. Sleep claims me within minutes.
I’m pushing open the whitewashed door again, peeking inside expectantly. I’m greeted with the familiar rich tang of leather, polish and horse sweat, all mingled with a hint of wood smoke from the tiny hearth.
A bit further and I see him, sitting on a bench, his cap pulled low, concentrating on cleaning a metal bit. I try to tiptoe in but my shoe scuffs on the floor. He looks up at once, grins his lovely cheeky smile.
I’m blushing as he comes towards me, wraps his hands round my waist and twirls me round. He plants a kiss on my cheek.
‘Frank! Give over! What if someone sees?’ I giggle as I push him away and smooth down my apron.
‘There’s no one here, and you know it.’ He tugs me over to the bench, dusts a space for me to sit.
‘How have you escaped the house then?’
‘Her Ladyship’s gone walking, taken Miss Arabella and the guests. A fine day for taking the air.’ I imitate her well-heeled accent and we both laugh.
‘I’ve dusted the drawing room, laid the fires, aired the bedlinen, and with nobody to ring for tea my absence will pass unnoticed.’
‘Well, you can help me here for a while. I’ve got all this harness to polish ready for the show tomorrow.’
‘Don’t be a fool! I can’t go back to the house smelling of leather polish, can I?’
He leans his head on my shoulder, burrows his face into my neck. I half-heartedly try to squirm away but he holds me tight.
‘You smell of Pears soap, roasted meat and beeswax.’ He kisses my ear.
‘I thought you had work to do.’ I try to sound stern. He reluctantly lets me go and picks up his brush.
‘Who are you taking to the show?’
‘Old Misty. Hereford County Show, can you imagine if we win? We reckon she’ll outclass the lot, and she knows it too.’
‘You’ll be famous. You’ll have job offers from across the county!’
‘Me and Jack were curry-combing her all morning, you’ve never seen her look so smart. Mr Edwards says we’ve got ourselves a winner for sure.’
Frank looks at the rows of prizes in the cupboard as he starts to scrub the leather nose band. ‘Her brasses gleam, her plumes are all spick and span. I can’t wait to be there, walking her round the ring in front of all those people. You think you’ll get a chance to come?’
I shake my head. ‘Her Ladyship’s ordered a picnic for tomorrow afternoon, what with the weather being so fine. We won’t none of us get the afternoon off, more’s the pity. A dozen hampers to pack, the parasols, blankets, folding chairs, we’ll be wanting Misty to carry it for us.’
I pick up the gleaming bit, use its reflection to tuck a stray strand of hair back under my cap.
‘If we get top prize, Mr Edwards has promised us a guinea each. He’s determined that the Heron’s Roost horses will top the shows from now on, like in the old days. It’ll be more money towards our marriage.’
A thrill races through me at that magical word. His face is now serious, warm and tender. My heart skips as our eyes meet.
‘I can’t wait till we’re married. I love you so much.’ His smile turns wicked again. ‘I’ll show you just how much.’
He jumps up, takes an awl, dips it in the tack oil and begins to scratch something on a beam.
‘Frank…’ I protest.
‘It’s all right, no one will ever see it. I’ll hang the harness back over it in a minute. It’ll be our secret.’
He carries on writing. ‘There! Our names, side by side. Now we’ll be together forever.’
I awaken to a shout in the distance.
‘Hey up, there!’
I hop from my bed and hurry to the window, the floorboards cold under my feet. I look down, hoping for a glimpse of him, but it’s still too dark to see. They had to leave before dawn – it’s around a ten mile walk to Hereford – and then they need time to curry the road dust from Misty’s coat. I hear the jingle of her harness as she tosses her head impatiently. I can just make out the gate to the stable yard, but there’s no sign of him.
There’s something blowing across the gateway. Ivy? That can’t be right.
Something I recognise, remember, refusing to return. I look round my room. It seems at once familiar and alien.
The veils slip from my mind. I remember where I am, who I am. And when.
I feel disorientated, not just by the unfamiliar room. I check the clock. Quarter past five.
I lie down again and try to rest, but just end up thinking about everything that’s happened in my life lately.
At the first sign of light I get up, make coffee and begin unpacking. All my possessions hold memories: memories of me and Perry, of our friends, of nights out. Things once happy, now bitter.
My favourite Laura Ashley top. I wore it on our last evening out before I found out about her.
The earrings he gave me for our fifth anniversary.
The album of snaps from our holidays.
My grandmother’s fruit bowl, her own wedding present, which had crowned our dining room table to the admiration of all. Even her.
It seems as if my life holds as many whispering memories as Heron’s Roost. How can I keep them quiet? How can I silence the voices of loss and regret?
I kneel on the floor, surrounded by the past. I can’t bring myself to unpack any more.
The sun tiptoes through the window, beckoning me outside. Somewhere nearby, birds are chattering. I know where I want to be.
The tack room. Frank’s room. My own memories are replaced by the happy memories of Heron’s Roost and its occupants, and the melancholy slips away. I pick up the photograph again, run my fingers over his face.
Then I see it, in the corner of the cabinet. A red rosette, curled around the edges, the gold lettering still clear. Hereford County Show, 1923.
A certificate pinned next to it. First Place. Misty from Heron’s Roost.
The past washes round me. The breeze wafts though the open window, tickles my earlobe like a lover’s breath. I hear its whispered words.
It’s a long time before I can go outside.
A lawnmower is droning. I hesitate, wonder if I can get back to the house without Finlay seeing me, but then shake my head and walk through the gate onto the lawn.
He sees me at once, cuts the engine and comes over. He touches his flat cap with a salute and offers to show me round the once-exotic gardens. Cold frames, hot houses, a pineapple frame, a bronze water sprite. It’s actually rather enjoyable.
‘How about some sandwiches, or some tea?’ I ask eventually.
‘Sure. Mowing this lot’s damned hard work.’
‘I’ll make us a picnic, then. The house isn’t fit for guests yet.’
‘What, underwear and corsets scattered everywhere? That’s OK, I don’t mind untidy.’ He hops back as I cuff his shoulder.
My dream comes back to me as I fold a blanket and pack a few sandwiches into a Tupperware box. How much simpler things are now.
‘You married? Family?’ I offer Finlay the box.
‘No.’ He picks a sandwich and almost devours it whole. ‘Never met the one, you know?’
‘What brings you to work at Heron’s Roost?’
‘I do gardening jobs all round, but this place is special to me. My grandfather worked here before the war, you see. I’ve tried to keep it up to scratch for Mrs Wolverton, but it’s really work for three people.’
The autumn air laps at my skin, sending it into goosebumps. ‘What did your grandfather do here?’
‘Started as a stable boy, aged twelve, worked his way up to be head of the stables. Married a housemaid who worked here too.’
The breeze ripples through the trees, whispering silent words.
‘What was his name?’ My voice catches in my throat.
‘Frank. Frank Wright, God rest him.’ Finlay studies his mug and puts it down. ‘The horses were requisitioned in 1941 for the war effort. Broke his heart, it did. Left and never came back. Ended up on the railways instead. Never got over it, he died when I was four.’ He looks into the distance.
‘But you know, I feel close to him here. It’s why I’ve kept this job on. I feel like he’s still around.’
The air is still and silent. Listening.
‘I went into the old tack room yesterday,’ I find myself saying. ‘There’s some rosettes and certificates and things, from before the war. I reckon they could be his.’
He looks surprised, then nostalgia seeps through his face.
‘Come and have a look.’
He is absorbed by the display, so still I can hear his breath. ‘Grandpa,’ he whispers. He lightly touches the photograph.
‘To think all this was here, just locked away, and I never knew. It’s incredible.’
‘Perhaps you should take them,’ I say reluctantly.
He shakes his head slowly. ‘No, they belong here. This is their home. They’re happy here, with their memories.’
When we go back into the sunshine he places his hand on my arm. ‘How about we go out for a drink later? You haven’t seen the local yet, have you?’
There is something else in his expression now. Something I like.
‘That’d be nice.’
‘I’ll call round about seven, then? I’m off to another job now, but I’ll be done by then.’
‘Sure.’ I smile as he walks away.
The doorbell goes and I jump, nervous as a teenager on her first date. I smile calmingly at myself in the hall mirror before I open the door.
Finlay’s standing there, his cap in his hands in mock supplication. He’s shaved his designer stubble off. Looks better for it.
‘My Lady.’ He presents his arm.
I lock the door and start down the steps. Finlay puts his cap back on.
I stop and stare at him. I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. Frank’s face is looking back at me.
‘What? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!’
I try to laugh and shake my head. It just seems so weird. With a sense of inevitability, I take his arm.
As we cross the lawn I look back towards the stable yard, filled with its happy memories. I think I’ll leave the past in peace now, to slumber on through the years.
Hannah Spencer asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work