House Clearance by D. R. Hill

West View. Strange name. There was no view.

The charged stillness of the house enveloped you even as you stepped into the open wooden porch. Piles of rotting leaves disguised the intricate floor tiling, and there was a shudder as the front door swung open to reveal evidence of activity abruptly abandoned. It was as if the occupants had simply got up and walked out, in response to some catastrophic emergency.

It was a time-warp. A spectacle case lay open on the dark wood stand in the hall, glasses nearby, one lens covered with sticking plaster, concreting the cracked glass. There was a harsh, almost malevolent ticking from an imposing grandfather clock, partly visible on the landing as I shifted my gaze to the wide stairway and polished wooden balustrade. The hall walls and rise above the stairs were busily decorated with pictures and trophies including a broken deer skull and antlers, out of context in an Edwardian villa – who had furnished and decorated this dark, sombre space?

Clocks everywhere. In the rear dining room, a huge circular oak table, and a decrepit piano with yellow sunken keys, like the worn, stone steps of a medieval castle. Drawers which opened to reveal war medals carelessly thrown in alongside bottle tops, broken pocket watches and gaily decorated matchbooks. A small carriage clock on the mantel, neighboured by old cigarette and pastille tins. Carefully I opened one; it was stuffed with what I took to be pubic hair. A love memento? Or something more sinister? I dared not open any more.

The rear kitchen was a little more homely, with an old-style radio and a breakfast table covered in a shiny, orange, chenille cloth, edged with tassels that were pleasing to the touch. A tabloid paper was open with a half-completed crossword, pen thrown carelessly to one side as the occupant had  apparently negotiated their escape. A Pools coupon. Door in the corner, opened with a shove to reveal damaged red brick steps down to a cellar pantry, at least six inches deep in filthy water.

Retracing to the front room there was a little more light and less of a chill. A beautiful French skeleton clock sat in a broken glass dome, held together by peeling sellotape. A book of savings stamps was open on an antique side table, curiously out of place. Someone had been saving for a cheap consumer gift, carefully licking the stamps and pressing them on a 17th century table that was badly scratched and marked. A cake stand in the corner of the room. How many cakes had been eaten during afternoon tea, and by whom? When did it last host a Victoria Sponge?

I am simply a house clearance operative.

I am familiar with neglect, with mould and decay. I have seen ruinous interiors defiled by animals and slovenly people. But this house spooked me. It combined the ambience of a museum with that of a ghost train. It had a strong presence with a sense that pulling back just one minute might spring the house and its occupants back into life, in whatever tragedy they were playing out. I wondered why my customer, Maxwell, would not meet me in this strange place, but rather passed me the keys and indicated he wanted total clearance and an empty property.

Surely he might have wanted to explore some of the objects here, some of the closed drawers and secrets that this house might reveal. I understood it had been a family home. Would that not mean special memories and even family heirlooms? There was a treasure trove and a junk shop intertwined and dissolved together in a potpourri of poignant artefacts, textures, colours and smells.

Maxwell himself must have been here, and recently; there was no accumulated post inside the door.

Upstairs felt cold and damp. Five bedrooms. A small box room, perhaps the servant quarters a hundred years ago. The grandfather clock loud and sombre, dominating the stillness. Bathroom quaint and old fashioned. No modernisation here. This had been the home of an elderly person. Maxwell’s father? Grandfather?

In one bedroom more pocket watches, an ancient bed warmer, and architectural plans – a prison. Plans of a Victorian prison judging by the date. Why were there plans for a Victorian prison strewn on a wicker laundry basket in a back bedroom at West View? One room with wardrobes filled with women’s clothes, musty old clothes, out of date clothes, looking as if they’d been there for years. A Girl Guide Leader uniform. In another room the smell of an elderly woman. How do I know that? Experience perhaps. Back on the landing an attic entrance in the ceiling, clearly sealed, unused. At least there was no additional baggage there for clearance.

Ha. West View would soon be bustling, with those who know the value of a pastille tin and broken pocket watch. Good luck to them.

I made my escape, looking back at the box room window as I started my car, convinced I could see a watching face. A little boy?

Let the auction commence.

West View had been left to itself, unoccupied for months. Maxwell had dutifully visited on a fortnightly basis, briefly dealing with the post; checking there had been no intruders; and ensuring that hard winter frosts and subsequent thaw had not damaged water pipes or led to serious flooding in the damp, pre-Edwardian cellar.

Each time he visited he cautiously ventured upstairs. It was only to open the long case clock face and swiftly rewind the pendulums, a mechanical action like his father and grandfather before him, a routine and habit repeated, usually on a weekly basis, for a hundred years. Now it was fortnightly and often the clock had stopped. Still, Maxwell unerringly but unwillingly climbed the stairs and brought the clock alive once more. Out of habit he glanced upwards and shuddered, registering the cobwebs festooning the old attic entrance.

Sometimes, if he stayed awhile, he heard the clock jarringly announce the hour. It was an unpleasant, almost aggressive metallic chime, and always then he felt a nauseous wave of intense fear, disappointment and sadness, a muscle memory.

Meanwhile, Maxwell’s father lay wrapped in a cocoon of coughing and confusion in the hospital dementia ward. He did not have dementia, but he could not return to the house.  He lived out his last weeks between certainty he was at home and, in moments of clarity, angry uncertainty about his treatment at the hospital.

But the house lived on, both in the father’s temporary and ultimately final absence. It had been the home where he had been a child, and where he had returned separated, middle aged, and as he turned into an elderly man. Dying where he started. The house had changed little over those eighty plus years.

It was a place that was stuffed, with an ancestry going back beyond Maxwell’s father to his father before him. A place where no one dared make change, a place that housed and hid many secrets.

Whilst making a half-hearted attempt to sort through his father’s possessions – the album of railway postcards, the busy stamp collection, the tins of ancient coins and newspaper cuttings, the fob watches, mantle clocks, and wrist watches – Maxwell came across the tiny diary. It was for a year that he remembered well, even though he had only been six years old. The year that he had lived at West View, whilst his parents attempted to sort out their messy matrimonial life. It was his grandmother’s diary.

With the aid of that diary he could now place a specific date and time on the incidents that were so alive in his emotional muscle memory.

He knew that the Chinaman climbing the rope had come first. For years he’d had nightmares about going upstairs at West View to cajole his grandfather down for supper. On the landing he’d seen legs ascending into the ceiling and through the hole into the attic he’d seen a Chinaman climbing up a rope and scowling down at him. It was a recurring dream.

Then he had been sitting with his grandmother in the rear kitchen. A fire in the grate. As usual she was engaged sewing and spoke little. He knew to be quiet. The doorbell rang. You could hear it in the kitchen. An old wind up doorbell, loud and insistent, echoing down the long hall passageway. She had looked sharply at him and then rose to answer the door, taking an eternity to walk the long dark hallway to the front door. Maxwell got down from his chair and quietly reached up to open the kitchen door, a crack. At the end of the hall he could see the deer skull on the wall and his father, taking off his overcoat and hat, placing them on the coat stand. Not a word spoken at first. Finally: “This is a bad business,” he said. Then he went upstairs and Maxwell’s grandmother followed him slowly behind. Even from the kitchen Maxwell could hear the sharp ticking of the grandfather clock. He stood and waited, waiting for his father to reappear and to walk down the hall to see him, to hug him and to tell him he was loved and that everything was alright. To tell him that he could come home, did not need to stay in that dark, dead, chilling house any longer. But, when he did reappear, he came swiftly down the stairs, retrieved his hat and coat and left, without a single glance down the passage to where his son stood expectantly in the doorway, tears rolling down his face. The grandfather clock remorselessly chanted the hour as the front door slammed shut.

Slowly Maxwell pushed the kitchen door shut once more and went back to his seat crying into the tassels of the chenille cloth, trying to hide his tears as his grandmother re-entered the room.

She sat down and picked up her sewing, a flickering look catching and disturbing him from time to time. He stared back. Finally, she said: “Your grandfather has gone to a better place.” She paused. “He was a good man despite everything.” Then she added: “The Chinaman has gone now. You should forget him. It was a bad dream”

The moment was an imprint. It was like teetering on the edge of a cliff and it determined the rest of his life. Sanity meant accepting a different version of reality. Love would mean falling over, succumbing to weakness and savage vulnerability, the way to destruction. Even at six years old Maxwell knew to step back, to harden his heart, to deny the knowledge and needs that otherwise led him to the abyss.

He looked up and faced his grandmother’s icy stare. She dropped her gaze and carefully continued sewing. Maxwell remained clenched and dry eyed. “We’ll have chops for tea,” she said, and continued with her work. Nothing would be the same again, not at least in this dimension. 

Sixty years later, Maxwell sat in the very place at the kitchen table where he had been frozen in perpetuity all those years before. The diary was on the table in front of him. He had read the short unsentimental entries with references to his grandfather’s increasing ill health and his parents’ disagreements. There was a strong sense of disapproval in the carefully constructed and chilling sentences. It was also clear that Maxwell had not been a welcome guest at West View. His grandfather’s subsequent suicide, by hanging from a beam in the attic, was briefly and brutally referenced. No reference to the Chinaman! There was much repressed anger in the diary entries. The tolling of the grandfather clock interrupted his reverie.

Maxwell put the diary in his pocket, stood and opened the kitchen door, looking down the long passageway to the front door. Above the door the deer skull stared back at him through sightless eye holes. He still found it necessary to keep it in his vision as he walked along the passage, fearful it would come alive if he dropped his gaze. As always he stepped backwards up the stairs until the skull was out of sight.

In his father’s bedroom, that had been his grandfather’s before that, he carefully inserted the delicate bureau key and clicked open the folding lid. The bureau was surprisingly ordered. His father’s last will and testament had clearly been written some years before. The instructions were clear. The property and all it contained had been left to his only son, Maxwell, provided he moved into the house and retained the contents. There was no specification as to what was meant by the contents. No inventory. Otherwise the will stated, the property and its contents were left to an obscure animal charity.

The bureau also held a large package wrapped in string, carefully tied. Maxwell sat on the bed and opened the package. The contents were architectural plans. They were plans and design for a prison, a well-known prison, notorious now for its squalor and its isolation cells, and also for the flawed design that had sought to maximise construction profit above design quality and health and safety. The architectural practice was identified: it was his grandfather’s business and his prison design, a business that Maxwell’s father had inherited and briefly maintained until damning revelations made it impractical to preserve the legacy. The business was no more, but the prison…..

Maxwell threw the plans onto the laundry basket and intuitively picked up the walking stick that his father had depended on in his last few years. He found himself hobbling along the landing to the grandfather clock, opening the case and furiously winding the pendulum to its maximum height. The clonk of the weights brought him back to himself. Still clutching the stick, he shook it in the direction of the attic entrance and then walked back down the shiny stairs, careful not to fall, as his father had done only a few months before. In the hallway he stopped, looked up at the deer skull, and with a strong swing of the stick smashed the skull where it hung.

Away from West View, Maxwell came to a decision.

He approached the nearest house clearance firm and without seeking a quotation placed the operation in their hands. He instructed them to put the house contents up for auction, keep nothing.

Six weeks later Maxwell returned to West View. He calmly walked upstairs, nonchalantly stepping into each room, and closing the doors quietly behind him. Everything had gone. In the kitchen there was no remnant of the table, the chenille cloth or the ancient radio. Standing in the kitchen, the door slightly ajar, Maxwell put his hand in his pocket and recovered the little diary that his grandmother had kept.

He could still hear the deadly tick tock of the grandfather clock even after the clearance. With a last wave of anger and antipathy the clock, which wasn’t there, struck violently again and again. Maxwell counted beyond a hundred before the rage died and the noise ceased, forever.

Maxwell walked briskly down the hall, opened the front door, stepped out and shut it for the last time. As an afterthought he took the diary from his pocket and posted it through the letterbox. Without looking back he stepped out of the drive and walked down the road to the High Street, where he would leave the keys with the selling estate agent. He whistled softly to himself as he went.

About The Author

D. R. Hill initially studied Drama and English at Hull university and subsequently worked in theatre as an actor, director, and writer. He has also completed an MA Acting at East 15 Drama School. Job roles have included being Artistic Director of Theatre Station Blyth in Northumberland, Associate Director at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (where he produced and directed, amongst other works The Official Tribute to Dennis Potter) and Marketing Director at Birmingham Hippodrome. His published work to date includes the non-fiction works Under Scan and Voices of Culture. In 2019 D. R. Hill was shortlisted as one of three writers for the Eyelands International Book Awards, for his collection of short stories

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