Permission. What a bitch. Jonathan Stride, Mr Stride to you, or maybe even Sir to be on the safe side, glanced down at the thick sheaf of paper on his desk. The final deeds for Lot 2574, West Acorn Street had been his for over a year, but wrangling an agreement for its development had taken all his patience and guile, as well as a few less noble qualities. Still, the residents’ petition had been finally silenced, the local Council placated, Government regulations for affordable housing circumvented, and now all that stood between him and a dozen luxury apartments was this guff from the Historic England Society. Whoever the fuck they thought they were.
With the agreement that all fixtures, fittings, exterior features and points of special interest named hereafter in this document be preserved…
What a load of sentimental crap, Stride thought, switching the document to his left hand, to allow his right the freedom to rummage idly at his scrotum through the blue wool of his trousers.
….and where possible returned to a state of best condition, both aesthetically and in their assigned functions….
All this time that would be wasted, fixing up broken fireplaces and seeking out just the right kind of screws to put up some tired old wall sconce. Still, that would be a problem for his head of works to deal with. Stride didn’t have to concern himself with the finer points.
…a legal obligation to the guardian of this historic site…
He had a legal obligation all right. To the shareholders, his backers and the wealthy individuals who preferred sleek new kitchens and picture windows to flaking plasterwork and draughty floorboards.
…applied to all named fixtures without exception….
* * *
“Dan, could you come and look at something?”
Dan Kemp, Head of Works for Stride Associates, was having a bad day. Lot 2574, West Acorn Street was in a far worse state of dereliction than he had been anticipating, and his heart was already beating tensely against his ribs at the prospect of informing his boss of the necessary budget revisions. Mr Stride thought that the best way to deal with a problem was to rip it out and apologise insincerely to whoever kicked up a fuss. That was usually Dan’s job.
“What is it?” He called, restraining himself from adding “This time.”
No answer was forthcoming, so Dan headed in the direction of the shout. Lot 2574 was a vast echoing shell, set in overgrown grounds a little way back from the road. Its original function had been as a sanatorium, back in its Victorian past, and subsequent development had been simply to divide the large, high-ceilinged rooms cheaply and quickly. Dan walked past abandoned reminders of previous occupants. A wall of peeling paper, printed with faded balloons for a child’s nursery, or a stack of home-recorded VHS tapes, the labels covered in multiple crossings out.
Jan’s Birthday 1994. Grandstand.
Dan called again when he reached the first floor, and heard an answering shout from above. He made his way up the second flight of stairs, an incongruously grand sweep of marble bisecting the bottom two floors of the building, and then up the back stairs to the very top of the house. These must once have been the servants quarters. Kieran’s worried face was on the lookout for him, and he started to talk as soon as their eyes met.
“Sorry to bother you, Dan, but you need to take a look at this.”
Dan slid past him into an apartment. It was narrow and faded, with the same heaps of rubbish and air of neglect of the rest of the building.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to do – ” Kieran gestured awkwardly at the doorway to one of the rooms. Kieran was young, and a talker, which annoyed some of the older site workers, although Dan always let the constant chatter simply wash over him, recognising it as friendly rather than an irritant. “Sorry to bother you, but I was clearing out the top floor and, well, you’ll see – ”
A filthy floor-to-ceiling window filled the room with a diffuse light, striking a haze on the dust in the air and making Dan blink after the darkness of the hall. When his eyes adjusted, he could make out a high backed armchair, the upholstery bulging and ragged, the pattern long since silted over with dust. In it sat a little old lady, her gaze on the window and the ruin of the garden below.
“ — and I mean, what’s she doing here?” Kieran finished, hovering at Dan’s elbow. He dropped his voice, although the woman gave no sign that she was aware of their presence.
Dan ignored the question, and approached the small shape in the chair.
“Excuse me? Madam? Hello?” Getting no response, he knelt down and gently touched her arm. She was tiny, a little faded bird of a woman, her body a collection of angular bones under a printed cotton dress. “Excuse me?”
The old lady turned her head and looked at him. In her pale blue eyes he could see curiosity and slight surprise, but no alarm.
“Sorry to bother you,” he began awkwardly, “But we’re here to renovate this building. You have to leave.”
She did not speak, but gazed at him with a look of fondness.
“Is there someone we could phone? To come and take you home with them?”
“Home, yes.” Her voice was the softest, powdery creak. She patted his hand and turned back to the window.
“Is there someone we could call?” Dan spoke slightly louder. She might be deaf. “A daughter, perhaps? Who looks after you?”
She laid her hand, a tiny, bulbous claw, the blue veins showing clearly through the skin, over his. It was surprisingly warm.
“Home,” she repeated with a smile.
* * *
Dan was not impressed. Mr Stride had said nothing at all about sitting tenants, and evictions were the least favourite part of his job. It was always messy and unpleasant, turfing people out of their homes, and the names they called him in the course of his work would come back to him when he lay sleepless in bed. Sometimes, when it was just him and no one would know, he had found himself sniffing back tears. Stupid, really.
“What should we do?” Kieran asked again. His only contribution to this latest problem had been to carry a cup of tea, brickie-strong and slopping out of the mug, up three flights of stairs from the works kitchen portacabin. When he saw that it was too heavy for her to lift, he had gone through her cupboards and decanted some of it into one of the fine china teacups he found there. She had smiled and patted his arm, having seemingly used up all her words on Dan and with none left to either protest or thank him.
Dan did not reply. He was going through all the paperwork again, but under ‘Tenants’ none were listed. The building had been cleared of all occupants, and no mention was made anywhere of a little old lady in a faded floral dress, sitting by a window.
“Miss Davis, her name is,” Kieran continued. “I found it on an old letter when I was in her kitchen. And when I say old, I mean old. Nineteen-fifty two. Something about her ration being increased. Mad to have kept it all these years.”
“Increased?” Dan felt his muscles unclench a little. Maybe that meant a baby, meant children, meant someone who could be called up to come and get her. That or a visit from social care to get her into a shelter. Dan preferred to think of her being collected by family.
He rifled uselessly through the Historic England’s regulations. No mention of tenants there either. But then something caught his eye in a long list of fixtures and architectural features for the third floor.
Miss Virginia Davis
* * *
“The thing is, Mr Stride, it’s not that simple.” Dan’s hand was sweating against the phone clutched to his ear. This was going as badly as he’d anticipated.
“She’s a fucking squatter,” the voice continued. “Police matter. No different to those druggies we found in Talling Park. Give her twenty-four hours then send the boys in.”
“The problem is, she is on the documents. She’s a…feature.”
There was a pause.
“A fucking what?”
Dan could picture his boss working up to one of his finest rages, spittle collecting whitely at the corners of his mouth.
“She’s listed as a feature. Legally. So we can’t get rid of her.”
“What are you suggesting then? Wall her up inside that stinking hovel of hers and pretend she doesn’t exist? Talk sense, man.”
“It’s more than that, Dan ploughed ahead. “We have an obligation to – renovate her.”
“I’m not wasting my money on tarting up some old biddy’s bedroom.”
“No, Sir. It doesn’t mean the room.”
* * *
The opening of the Oaklands Superior Housing Complex would be a triumph, Dan thought, although he never felt at his most comfortable in a suit. The renovations had gone way over budget, and he doubted whether Mr Stride would want him for future projects. But the building itself was beautiful. And maybe it was time for a change.
In a few hours, the first of the prospective buyers would be shown around. They would be stunned at the sweeping marble staircase and the pristine grounds, then ushered gently up to luxury apartments, slick with chrome and black countertops. Who could remain unmoved by the Japanese-style wetrooms, the walk-in closets, the artful spot-lighting? Much would be made of the light, the space, the whimsical touches that nodded to the building’s heritage.
But Dan suspected that they would never be allowed a glimpse at his favourite part of the house. Miss Davis’s flat had been lavishly remodelled, with underfloor heating and a bath like an enormous oyster shell. It was fit for a queen now.
And it had its reigning monarch. Miss Davis herself still sat in her chair (only now it was one with a button to gently lower her to a sitting position) with a view of the freshly-landscaped garden. Her clothes were the epitome of Thirties chic, each piece a vintage original, painstakingly sourced and altered to fit. As Kieran pointed out, she had to be restored in keeping with her historical era, and spent hours with a stack of magazines from each decade of her life, slowly leafing through and waiting for a response. Her eyes lit at the sight of CoCo Chanel.
Kieran had, in fact, taken to the renovation of Miss Davis as though he had been waiting his whole life. He found a podiatrist, who made weekly visits to trim, buff and massage her feet. An optician had suggested glasses for reading, although her eyes were in surprisingly good health. A girl came to the house twice a week to gently shampoo and dry her white hair, as fine and delicate as a baby’s, then coax it into a neat helmet of finger waves. Kieran insisted that maquillage be kept to a subtle minimum, although on Friday and Saturday nights she seemed to like a touch of red lipstick to go with her dark cocktail gown. Her meals came ready to be heated, sprinkled with fresh herbs (supplied) and presented on her original china dinner service by the home help. And at every stage, Kieran had chattered away to her, talking about what had happened, what was happening, what would happen next. She seemed to like the sound of his voice, although she seldom replied. Her reaction to these ministrations was never one of surprise or fear, only gracious and silent acceptance.
Dan climbed the final flight of stairs, and tapped softly at her door.
“Miss Davis?” The door was unlocked and she never moved to answer it, but he wouldn’t have dreamt of simply barging, as he had done all those months ago.
“How are you?” He knelt beside her, catching a whiff of Number Five. “I just wanted to let you know that some people are coming to look at the house today. Everything’s finished, so you’ll have some new neighbours. But don’t worry, nothing will change here for you. This is your home.”
She turned her head to look at him, the white fur of her wrap brushing against her chin. She laid a hand, the wrist encircled elegantly with pearls, on his arm and smiled the same sweet, curious smile she had given him the first time they met.
“Home, yes,” she said, and turned back to the window.