Nine Empty Rooms by Fiona Marshall

*Please note, this is written in the British style. 

‘The house,’ said the estate agent firmly, ‘is empty.’

Mother and daughter looked at him. They were sharp Londoners, able to sniff out ambiguity in a trice, and not to be put off with half-truths.

‘Do you mean today, or permanently?’

‘Permanently.’

‘Vacant possession, in fact?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘And it really has nine bedrooms?’

‘Three on each floor. Here are the keys.’

‘You not coming with us?’

‘Sorry. Rather busy this morning.’

The two women looked round Mr. Michael’s empty office with its beige filing cabinets, black dial phone, and vintage toaster computer.

‘Oh…’

‘You know where it is, don’t you? Bang on the seafront, just opposite Baretti’s, the ice cream parlour. Two minutes from here. Can’t miss it. Number 15. Marine View. Palm tree in the front garden.’

And Mr. Michael closed the door swiftly after them, relief on his face.

‘He doesn’t look very busy to me.’

‘No… wouldn’t have hurt him to come. If it’s only two minutes. I feel quite rejected.’

‘Get real, Mum. He’s a real estate agent.’

‘Quite fit, though, isn’t he.’

‘Mmm… bit bulldog. – Thought he was a bit off, actually.’

‘He could have shown us a bit more attention.’

‘Please. Let’s not go there. You do pick ‘em, Mum! – Personally, I’d steer well clear.’

‘Look, that must be his car. Very swish.’

Indeed the sleek black car parked outside was in some contrast to the battered, 1980s-style office they had just left. So was Mr. Michael himself, still standing in the doorway, looking down the street after them. Suave and smooth like his car, he seemed to have an undertow of danger, as if he might suddenly break through the glass door. In his dark suit, too smart for this rundown seaside town, there was about him the suggestion of a mutinous undertaker, longing for fisticuffs with death.

‘Smell that air! It is hard to get lost here, I agree… sea’s at the end of every street. Now. Marine View…’

It stood in a terrace of other guest houses with peeling paint, the only difference being that the windows were whited out and it had no flag. Nothing stood between it and America but the shallow pebble beach segmented by the groynes, and Baretti’s Gelato, the long, low café that was all windows anyway. The windswept round this south coast of England that had been eroding for thousands of years, and seven miles out to sea stood the wind-farm, too far on this grey, tumbling day to see if the blades were turning. The sound of whistling followed the two viewers along the prom, where they stood regarding the house.

‘Plenty of it, that’s for sure.’

‘It’s massive.’

A slight movement at one of the upper windows caught their eye, and mother and daughter looked up as one. The mother at 44 still had the mobile, slightly pudgy face of youth, with a rounded, obstinate jaw, and a rather brassy bob, tortoiseshell sunglasses perched atop. She was a nurse and had the air of being on calm alert. The daughter was in her first full glory, hair tumbled arrogant down her back. With the same measuring gaze, they assessed the house from the prom.

‘Someone’s cleaning the windows.’

‘That’s the house next door, isn’t it?’

‘It’s stopped now.- Mum. Let’s not bother. This is a silly idea. I don’t want to run a hotel down here.’

‘We’ve got to invest the money somehow, Cally. It’s what Gran wanted us to do.’

‘Where are the clientele going to come from?’

For the long promenade was empty but for two or three dog walkers, and the slow sibilance of the unseen whistler. Beyond the seawall, the pebble beach stretched for miles either side.

‘Yeah, but nine bedrooms! Could make a nursing home.’

‘What – in the middle of a stretch of B&Bs? Don’t think so!’

‘But look at that sea! You got space here at least.’

‘Yeah – plenty of space and nowhere to go.’

‘Take your pick – nine bedrooms here or a shoebox in Tooting. It is cheap, Cally.’

‘It’s cheap for a reason, isn’t it! Vacancies all the year round!’

It was all that the brochure said: an impressive Victorian terrace marine residence formerly run as a highly respectable and successful Bed & Breakfast overlooking the seafront with sea views. Mother and daughter hesitated on the threshold. The expected stale air came out to meet them, and there was the expected boarding house carpet with its mustard-orange pattern like nothing on earth. The whistling from the prom floated in and percolated up the stairs.

‘Doesn’t exactly feel like home the moment you step in, does it.’

‘I’m freaked already, Mum. No wonder it’s been on the market a long time.’

‘Come on. We’ll have a quick look. We’re here now.’

They tiptoed in. There was the grim lounge, the awful sandbagged sofa with dark green cushions and matching curtains falling dead to the floor; a Formica coffee table with faded brochures of events long since past at the Kings Hall and Winter Gardens. The dining room stood stiff and empty, the air tinged with the ghost of dead breakfasts, the little square tables with chairs tucked primly in. Cally paused at the bottom of the stairs.

‘Do we have to go upstairs?’

‘Don’t be silly!’

The bedroom walls were painted a bleak, lido blue and if you rubbed off some of the whiting from the front windows there was a view of the ice cream parlour and the pebbles and the jetty trailing forlorn into the sea. The beds were dank, bare, with yellowed pillows.

‘No prizes for the décor…’

‘Ssh! Do you hear someone whistling?’

‘It’s outside… So what do you think, Cally? Not as much needs doing as I expected.’

‘You serious, Mum? I can’t wait to get out of here.’

‘Well… I’ll just run up and look at the next floor… Here we go, numbers 4, 5 and 6… Much the same – come and look, Cally!’

‘I’m here, Mum.’ Cally had mounted the stairs swiftly.

‘Oh God – then what – ’

For both women had heard footsteps on the floor below, and the closing of a door.

‘The wind,’ uncertainly.

Slowly they emerged onto the landing and looked down the stairwell. The bathroom door was shut and there came the sound of running water.

‘Sounds like – someone’s having a bath…’

‘Hell… I thought no one was supposed to be here!’

‘A guest?’

‘No… place has been empty for ages.’

‘Did we leave the front door open?’

‘No. I made sure to shut it. Besides, I – I didn’t hear anyone come up the stairs.’

‘Janitor?’

‘But there was nobody in those bedrooms a moment ago. – I’m going to go and have a look.’

‘Don’t, Mum. Please!’

 

Cally pulled her back, then froze, looking up the last narrow flight of stairs to the attic floor where the brown, stick-on number plates marked rooms 7, 8 and 9.

‘The whistling again,’ clutching her mother. ‘It’s coming from up there. I can hear something shuffling around, too.’

‘Seagulls.’

‘Or rats?’

‘Oh my God!’

‘That’s not birds or rats.’

They stood looking up to the top landing. The rush of running water continued below. Suddenly the door of Room 9 opened and out came the last person they expected to see: Mr. Michael, whistling vacantly. There was nothing remarkable about him; he looked exactly as he had looked in the office 15 minutes earlier, bullish and dogged in his slightly too well-cut, too taut, funereal suit.

He greeted the two white-faced women with raised eyebrows.

‘Well?’

And as they continued to gaze at him, ‘What do you think of the house?’

The mother was nudging the frozen Cally down the stairs, one by one, but she turned and faced him, defiant.

‘Not for us, I’m afraid.’

Mr. Michael took a few steps down towards them. Despite his prize-fighter shoulders straining at his jacket, he moved quietly, lightly.

‘You don’t like it? Couldn’t be tempted to put in an offer? Shame. No onward chain, you know. Like I said, the house is empty now. No one lives here anymore; not even me’ – taking another step or two down towards them. ‘I used to. Then I found I couldn’t manage it any longer -’ a few steps down and nearer; the women still edging away. ‘No, you couldn’t call it living. You got it in one when you said vacant possession. That about sums it up, really.’

They had reached the second floor again, and the persistent sound of the bath being filled. Mr. Michael had caught up with them. He reached out a hand to the bathroom door and stood there, barring their way.

‘I didn’t show you round the house because I wanted you to see it empty.’

‘But it isn’t empty. Is it?’
The mother was holding Cally tight by the arm, poised for flight. But she faced Mr Michael, and something about her out-thrust jaw matched the bulldog hang of his.

‘You live here, don’t you, Mr. Michael. Permanently.’

Very slowly Mr. Michael was turning the knob. The sound of running water grew louder as he opened the door a crack. The two women stood braced. Behind him were the stairs, the long entrance hall with its dry potted palms, and the front door. He sighed.

‘It was my last house. I bought it as an investment. Didn’t work out. The market changed. I lost a lot of money. I’m going back a long way, of course, to the days of negative equity, in the early 1990s. Those were harsh days. Unfriendly. The weather’s changed since then. Those were the days when winters were really cold, cold enough to freeze your heart. It was one of those winter evenings I drowned myself in the bath. Had a few drinks and pills first. I wanted to be sure, you know. I laughed at the time, thinking of all the water just outside. But I thought it was tidier than the sea. I didn’t want to cause any more grief. Washed up on the seashore, a public nuisance. It was bad enough as it was. Estate agents, you know. Got a bad name, not very popular. I had no friends. It took them two weeks to find me.’

Mr. Michael opened the bathroom door another inch.

‘Would you like to see?’

‘Not now.’

‘Scared?’

‘It’d take more than a naked man in a bath to scare me. I’m a nurse, remember.’

Her hand was still tight and urgent on Cally’s arm, holding her back.

‘Ah… I should have met you earlier. – I knew I’d never been able to sell it.’

‘You can’t sell a house if the previous owner’s still living in it.’

‘But I told you – it’s not really living… Are you sure? I’d take an offer.’

‘No thanks.’

Again his hand fumbled at the doorknob and his fingers were white and puffy, bloated. ‘If you’re not frightened… Won’t you just have a look?’

‘Sorry. We have to go,’ and with a touch of compassion – ‘You should go, too. Get away from here.’

But Mr. Michael, with the fatal self-absorption of ghosts, had flung the bathroom door wide and was staring in.

‘The house,’ he said with the firmness estate agents assume when telling a lie, ‘is empty.’

Now, Cally, now!’ For he had turned his back to them as he opened the door. But he never moved a muscle as the two women rushed through him and down that last flight of stairs and were wrenching at the front door. The sound of whistling floated through the hall and out onto the prom, and seemed to fill their ears as they ran along the seafront to their car.

Cally drove like the devil, never slackening until they reached Bexley, but her mother sat silent and tearless all the way as if she had refused an appeal.


Fiona Marshall is a writer and editor based in London. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets including Aesthetica, Ambit, Ink Sweat & Tears, OpenPen, Phantom Drift, Prospect Magazine, The Royal Society of Literature Review, the London Journal of Fiction, Poetry Pacific, Sheila Na Gig, and Theology.

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