Somewhere on the edge of town, a telephone rang in a windowless office.
Bob lifted the receiver. ‘Good afternoon, Excelsior Windows?’ he said.
‘Hello, is that the glazier?’
It was a bad line and the voice was faint. It sounded like the voice of an old lady.
Excelsior did indeed carry out window replacements. Was it a double-glazed window?
‘A what, dear? No, no, I do not think so,’ said the voice. ‘It is a bay window. Very old. It is all broken. Terribly broken. Can you help me please?’
Bob would certainly pop round. What size was the window, roughly? Eight across, four high – okay. Feet, presumably. Now, if he could just take the address and postcode …
‘It is Kiln Lodge. Kiln Lane, Woodcross.’
‘And the postcode?’ asked Bob. This was more out of habit than anything else. He’d been living in the area and working for Excelsior since February. He passed through Woodcross every day. Thirty-seven years ago, he’d been born somewhere around here – though his adoptive parents had never told him the full story behind that.
‘Kiln Lodge, Kiln Lane. At the end, dear. You will see a green gate on the left. The house is Kiln Lodge.’
The clocks had just gone back, and it was dusk when Bob locked the office. He hoped the Woodcross appointment wouldn’t take long. Tonight was Halloween and he’d promised to cook dinner tonight while his wife Anne went trick-or-treating with Jack and Sarah, their two young children. Superstitious nonsense, but it was fun for the kids – they jumped at any opportunity for a bit of dress-up. He heaved several large sheets of plywood into his van. He’d probably need to board-up the old lady’s broken window for now.
A heavy mist was settling. Twenty minutes after leaving the industrial estate, Bob parked at the end of Kiln Lane. He could see no gate, only unkempt hedges spilling onto the paving. Exasperated, he checked the notes that he’d written just three hours before. Definitely Kiln Lane. Definitely a green gate – at the end, on the left. He dialled the customer’s number on his mobile phone. After four rings it went to a generic voicemail message. He pulled a torch from the glovebox, climbed out of the van and fastened his fleece jacket against the dense evening air.
Thinking that the old dear mightn’t know her left from her right, he shone his torch along the hedges on each side of the lane. He couldn’t see a green gate. Convinced that the daft biddy must’ve been mistaken in her directions, he was about to try phoning her again when, glancing down at the paving to his left, he noticed a slight interruption in the hedge line. Shining his torch into the leafy billowing branches, he saw the green painted timbers of a garden gate. He found a latch, and, with some difficulty, he forced open the gate and scraped himself through. This was surely a wild-goose chase, he thought – but perhaps there was another entrance that he’d missed? He’d leave the materials in his van for now.
His torch lit up an uneven path that led through a group of trees and onto a flat area of grass. Through the mist he could see the dark outline of a building. He shone his torch around, looking for a door. Before him was a Victorian Gothic revival style lodge – not overly ornamented, but it was certainly substantial. There was a pale light in an upstairs room. He saw an arched entrance to a porch, above which was a three-faceted oriel bay window.
With its crumbling decorative pillars and its smell of damp masonry, the porch felt like the entrance to a church. Bob knocked at a solid timber door and stepped back. Time passed, then he saw a faint light in a downstairs window. He heard a heavy key turning in an old lock.
‘Are you the glazier?’ A woman appeared, half in shadow behind the door. ‘Come in, dear, come in.’
Although she’d barely glanced at him, Bob had an impression of agelessness. The smell in the house was alternately captivating and repellent. Somehow, it seemed familiar – but he couldn’t quite place it.
Bob followed his customer up a narrow turning staircase. He didn’t like the way the stairs creaked under his fifteen stone weight, so he stepped only on the edges of the treads. The place was obviously neglected. Poor old dear. The woman opened a door and switched on the overhead light – a tungsten bulb in an old-fashioned cylindrical shade. She led Bob into a stark and sizeable bedroom. Inside the room were several pieces of plain mahogany furniture – a wardrobe, a dresser and a solitary bedside table between the two single beds. Ahead of him was the oriel bay that he’d seen from outside.
While his customer waited by the door, Bob walked over to examine the window. It was by far the stand-out feature in the room. Probably got half a million in the bank, he thought. The overhead light flickered and buzzed, then came back to strength. ‘Oop!’ he said, nodding up at the light, ‘That’s not long for this world.’
‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ said the woman. She was still standing by the door. ‘That’s Mister Thomas, you know.’
‘Don’t know him,’ Bob replied. ‘You need a new bulb in that, though. It’s about to blow.’
The glazed area was divided into three vertical sliding steel and timber sashes. All thirty-six panes of glass were intact. There was chipped and peeling paint on the steel window rails – and the timber was a tad moist along the leftmost sill – some sanding back, filling and repainting to do here and there – but, all in all, it was a most attractive window bay.
‘To be honest, love, I was expecting to see shattered glass,’ said Bob, ‘but this all looks in fair order.’
‘It is broken,’ she insisted. ‘Look properly.’
He tested the opening sashes – these were stiff in operation, but that was to be expected. He looked at his crosshatched reflection, then he cupped his hands around his eyes and peered into the darkness. Outside, the mist was turning to a dense fog. It’d be a slow journey home, and he still had to stop somewhere to buy the kids their Halloween treats. Fruit Gums for Jack (though he’d accept Fruit Pastilles) and Smarties for Sarah. Something for Anne too, maybe – she’d been a bit frosty this morning. Bob ran his finger along a putty bead, and he was surprised by how pliable it felt. He was surely mistaken, but it felt as if the whole bay window was pulsing. It had been a long day, and he needed to get home. The overhead lamp flickered.
‘Do you see now, dear?’
‘Can’t see very much, love. Not really. Little imperfections in the glass, maybe … stiff sashes … some condensation damage … but these are old windows. Original, probably.’
‘It is an old house,’ she said. ‘A house in need of warmth and clear new light.’
‘No float glass in those days. Old glass was rolled and polished. It’s never perfect. Always distorts. You’d pay extra for that now. Adds character.’
She sighed. ‘It is all most terribly broken. I am afraid that this is a rather cold house.’
‘I’d need to see it in daylight, love, but this is probably a listed building, so we’d be limited on what we could do.’
‘I’m on a list?’
Bob smiled. ‘I could make the sashes work better … and maybe put in secondary glazing, though. Keep you a bit warmer?’
‘Oh, I’m not sure about that, dear.’
He needed to extract himself. ‘Tell you what, love. I’ll come back tomorrow, first thing. Have a proper look. Measure up and give you a quote. How’s that sound?’
She seemed disappointed. ‘You have no new windows for me, then?’
‘I’d love to,’ said Bob, ‘but I don’t see it getting past planning. Not if this place is a grade two listed, as I suspect it is. You’re looking at repairs, really. Otherwise, you’re into silly money on likey-likey.’
His customer moved across to an inner corner of the room, shaking her head.
‘Secondary glazing could work,’ he suggested. ‘Glass panels that fit across the reveals.’ He waved his hand across the span of the bay. ‘Gives you an air gap – keeps out the cold. Quite a difference.’
‘It must all be replaced,’ she said. ‘I can barely look at it now. It is just too sad. I fear … well, that it might all be too late.’
‘Tomorrow morning. First thing,’ Bob declared. ‘I’ll have a proper look. Check with planning.’ Jack and Sarah would be bouncing around in their Halloween costumes by now, eager to get going, testing Anne’s patience. ‘Don’t worry, love,’ he said. ‘Eight-thirty sharp. I’ll see myself out.’ He walked toward the door.
She shuffled over to the bay, slowly shaking her head. ‘You don’t understand,’ she sighed.
He stood by the door, fumbling with the torch in his pocket.
‘It is all so static now,’ she said. ‘Cold and still. Do you not think so, dear?’
She stared out of the bay window. Beyond her slight figure, Bob saw a three-way reflected image of himself in the room. It was then, under the dying light of that flickering tungsten bulb, that Bob made an unfortunate observation. The old lady cast no reflection in the glass. She turned to face him. For the first time, Bob saw his customer in full view.
‘First thing!’ he blurted. Against what felt like magnetic resistance, he forced open the door. Letting gravity lead the way, he tumbled down that wretched turning staircase, with the old stairs collapsing and splintering under his feet. He groped for balance as fleeting bannisters disintegrated and fell away to sawdust in his hand. Nightmares of his childhood came reeling home. This was a house of living pulsating tissue. The smell was the smell of … oh no. Oh, good God, no. It had come back to him now.
Bruised from his fall and retching from the horror, Bob scrabbled at the heavy timber door. To his immense relief, its iron handle responded to his shaking grip and he stumbled away from the old dark house. He ran, and he did not look back. Somewhere on the broken paving beyond the trees, he dropped his torch, but he just kept running – across the divide and toward the hedge, toward the outer threshold of this twisted world. He hurled himself through the jagged tentacles of that bristling billowing hedge, and he jumped back into his life.
A mile from Woodcross, Bob pulled in under the bright canopy of an Esso filling station. He walked into the shop and scanned the confectionery display. He couldn’t remember what the kids wanted. There was too much choice; too many colours.
‘You alright there, sir?’
Bob looked up and saw a new cashier.
The little old chap smiled from behind the counter. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
Bob grimaced. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’
‘Oh aye?’ said the cashier. ‘Trick or treat, is it?’
‘Just weird,’ Bob said, ‘the weirdest call.’
‘Go on, sir.’
‘You know Woodcross? Kiln Lane?’ asked Bob.
The cashier’s smile vanished. ‘I’ve lived around these parts for seventy years, sir. Oh, I know Kiln Lane.’ The man’s tone sharpened. ‘And I’ve heard the stories. Load of cock and bull, if you ask me.’
‘Stories?’ asked Bob.
‘Load of cock and bull. There’s nothing there.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean to say that there’s nothing there,’ insisted the cashier. ‘No ghosties, no ghoulies, just a sad old story. Best we all move on, eh. Now then, what can I help you with? No fuel today?’
‘Please,’ said Bob, ‘I need to know. The story. Please.’
‘Better not, sir. Better not.’
‘I was there – on a call-out. Just now. Please.’
The man gave Bob a long and flinty look. He examined Bob’s face. When he spoke again, his voice was almost a growl. ‘A most distinguished lady perished in that fire, my lad.’
‘The lodge,’ said Bob. ‘Kiln Lodge.’
‘Aye, yes, yes. Thirty-seven years ago, on this very night. Look through enough windows, eh?’ He paused. ‘No fuel today, then?’
Story © A.W. Brown, 2019