I’d passed the old place so often as a kid, I didn’t take much notice of it any more. It was a two storey house with a third bit which had obviously been added before the planning regs were so strict. The third bit was about the size of a large garden shed so much shorter than the rest and it didn’t match any of the earlier structure. It was an eyesore to say the least, and even as a kid I could see it was the ugliest property in the area. Put that together with the neglected hedges and trees in the unkempt garden and you get the picture. None of us complained about the hedges, unless you had to duck to walk past them, or got dripped on when it rained, because it hid part of the house from the road, the ugliness screened as if nature had decided to protect our eyes and senses from the dreadful bricks and mortar.
As teens we used to dare each other to go in the garden, and once or twice some big boys grabbed the ball we were playing with and threw it over the hedge into the garden before running off. Melanie and I got the job of finding it and getting it back. I can still remember how we squeezed past the heavy, rusting wrought iron gates, our dresses catching a little as we did so, and I hoped it wouldn’t tear the cotton in the fabric of mine.
It seemed to take us forever to find the red ball in the bushes and weeds and just as we spotted it, I had an overwhelming feeling of being watched. I glanced back, grabbed the ball and pointed at the old lady standing in the window. She banged on the glass and we ran squealing for all we were worth, squeezing back through the gate as fast as we could and that time I did get a small tear on the back of my dress, which of course Mummy told me off about.
“So, Nessa, how did you manage to tear it this time?” I was a bit of a tomboy in those days until I discovered real boys a few years later and went all girly to attract them, but that’s another story.
For some reason, I told her the truth and she wasn’t very pleased. “You stay out of that old place, it isn’t safe for young ladies–do you understand?”
“But the boys threw my ball in there, Mummy.”
“I don’t care, I don’t want you near the place again–got it, my lady?” She always called me that when she was telling me off.
“We saw the old woman,” I said and her expression was hard to read.
“Oh, what did she look like?”
“Grey hair and specs, she banged on the window and we ran–that’s when I tore my dress–the gates are all rusty.”
She checked my back to make sure I hadn’t cut or scratched myself because she believed if you did on dirty metal you could get lockjaw. I found out later I’d been inoculated against it when I was a baby anyway, so should have been safe.
“You promise me, you won’t go near the place again, won’t you?”
“Why is everyone so scared of it?” I asked, being nine years old was nearly grown up after all. Sophie Middleton is only ten and she’s got tits starting to grow, but she’s much bigger than I am. She calls me ‘shrimp’ and I call her ‘elephant girl’ when she’s far enough past me not to hear.
“Never you mind, you just stay away from there.”
Being a good girl–sometimes–I did mostly stay away but once in a while if we were feeling brave we’d trespass and the old biddy would bang on the windows and shout at us and we’d run away squealing; squealing even louder when we got to the gate and couldn’t all get through at once.
As I grew older, my attention was taken by other things so our torment of the old woman in the strange house faded. I’d developed some curves at last and enjoyed using them to tease boys instead–far more satisfying–as most of our gang of four would testify, we were all at it.
It was a few years later, when I came past the place and fire engines and police cars were outside and a horrible smell of recent fire–a mixture of wood and plastic and other things. Jason Burland was walking me home from the bus, we’d been to a dance when we happened on the flashing blue lights and the emergency vehicles.
A small crowd of people gathered to watch but we had better things to do than stand about in the cold like ghouls, we’d have a tongue wrestling match in my front porch, until Mum realised we were there and she’d switch on the light. That was Jason’s cue to go and to be fair he took it in good part. I’d wipe off what was left of my lip-gloss and go in.
Mum was always waiting to meet me, even though it was after eleven–she couldn’t go to bed until I was home, the worst part of being an only child and Dad was away with the RAF–he was a squadron leader, or ‘squabbling bleeder’ as his men termed it. That night, she welcomed me and asked if I’d seen what had happened as she’d heard sirens for the past hour or two.
“The old woman’s house has caught fire,” I told her looking to see if we had enough cereal to have a bowl before I went to bed.
“What old woman, Mrs Smithson, you mean?”
“No, the one who lives in the strange house.”
“A fire you say?”
“Yeah, there’s police and firemen all over the place–two fire engines.”
“Oh,” she said and continued making the tea.
“Why were you always so worried about us going in there as kids?” I asked pouring the muesli into a bowl.
“I wasn’t.” She blushed a little as she spoke, so was obviously lying.
“Yes you were, remember when I tore my dress that time, you played hell with me, telling me it was dangerous.”
“Did I, I don’t remember.”
“Come on, what was so dangerous?” I poured the milk on my cereal.
“The garden was all overgrown, I worried you could fall over a tree root and lie there unconscious and never be found.”
“I was always with Melanie, Diane and Judy, so that was like gonna happen, wasn’t it?”
“Well, it was creepy and you could have caught something.”
“From a harmless old lady–oh yeah, what–scabies?” I chuckled.
She looked seriously at me for a moment. “I suppose you’re old enough to know the truth now.”
“Truth, about what? The old lady–what is she a mad axe murderer?” I laughed and nearly choked on a sultana.
“It’s not funny.” My mother’s face echoed her statement.
“She isn’t an old lady,” she said and blushed to the roots of her hairdo.
“What is she then, an old man?” I laughed.
“Yes,” she said and the blush got deeper.
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