I’ve been away from blogging for a week while I was in the UK. During my visit I stayed in a house similar to the one in this story.
The row houses on the Peth, which is a steep road in Durham city, are mid Victorian with brick facades and bay windows. They perch along one side of the Peth’s steep length like a line of flocking birds. From their vantage point they look down across a belt of trees to an adjacent 1930s through road. We bought number thirty-two hoping to be able to renovate it into something modern and interesting. The hill sloped in both directions giving the house an entry level and basement open to the air to the back, a second floor and an under the eaves attic. I could see that it had potential. As a first step I measured the rooms and drew up plans.
This is when I found something amiss. I could not make the dimensions work, for there seemed to be a void adjacent to the attic bedroom. I rechecked my dimensions and redrew, but when I drew it up the same gap was the only way that the dimensions worked. The next step was to investigate the attic and in doing so we found a door behind some semi built-in bookcases. It was locked. We could have broken it down then and there but it was solid door with mortise dead lock so we decided to get a locksmith and open it calmly without destruction.
The Locksmith was very excited; yes he knew number thirty-two it used to belong to the Richards. They were an odd couple with an only son. And here the locksmith got very animated as he told us that the son had disappeared. He became gleefully convinced that we had a crime scene on our hands. He called the police. This meant that by the time that he arrived to open the door the Peth was milling with people. There was a team of four from the police department, a television crew, several reporters and a crowd of anonymous gawkers. Some-one had even set up a booth and was selling hot tea and biscuits. It felt like a fair ground.
The stairs up to the attic are narrow and steep and so we managed to restrict the crowd to the police, one camera man and ourselves together with the locksmith. He took his time finding the right key and fumbling with the mechanism apparently enjoying being the center of attention. Eventually the mechanism turned and the door creaked and opened. Everyone gasped and strained. We entered a small room about eight by ten feet. The walls were covered with Beetles posters and photographs of airplanes and clothes hung on a clothes rod in an alcove on one side. A mattress lay on the floor. There was no body, no human remains; the crowd sighed in disappointment and began to disperse. They hurried away down the stairs carrying the news of their disappointment.
I stayed to look further and this is when I noticed that there was a hole in the wall behind the clothes. The far side of the gap sported a makeshift trap door. It was unlocked and so I pushed it open. It did not open into Narnia or an alternate universe but into another alcove of clothes. I crawled through only to realize that I had just trespassed into the house next door. Beyond the clothes I found a normal attic room with piano and old luggage. It was the mirror image of the room which we had just found in our new home.
I went down stairs and past the remnants of the crowd to call on number thirty-one. Mrs. McNab was standing by her door enjoying the unexpected activity in an otherwise dull day. I told her what we had found and apologized for my intrusion into her home. Her eyes dampened.
“Ah” She said. “It was Annie’s room.”
“Oh, yes Annie?” I asked as I gazed at her sad face.
“Annie, our only daughter.” she sighed.
“Might I talk to her?” I asked.
Mrs. McNab took a tissue out of her pocket and dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. She took a deep breath and said, “She’s no longer here, gone, gone, gone.” Her voice trailed off.
“Gone as in disappeared?” I asked.
She nodded and so I went on to comment, “That’s odd, because the locksmith who opened up the mirror image of Annie’s room in our new home told me that the Richard’s son also disappeared.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Mrs. McNab said bitterly” those Richards were awful people.” She lowered her voice and whispered with venom, “Papists, Catholics not our type at all – quite unsuitable.”
“I wonder if they disappeared at the same time – might they have been together?” I asked.
Mrs. McNab started and turned as though to go inside but at that moment Mr. McNab appeared. He put his arm around her soothingly and turned to me. For a moment I thought that our exchange was over but he sighed and looked down at his wife murmuring to her, “It is time to talk about it. It might help us to accept.” Then her turned to face me and said, “The truth is that Annie got herself pregnant. “The Mrs.” here he squeezed his wife, “The Mrs. couldn’t understand how she managed for we were very protective, very strict. It is one of life’s mysteries how she managed for we made sure that she never went out alone.”
We all three stood pondering this information and then Mr. McNab added, “And, yes, come to think of it, they did disappear at the same time.”