Alison Crowther-Smith

Archive for July, 2014

The Curse of the House Next Door

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

That is the title of my forthcoming new pattern collection.

It’s not really, but it would be a good old-fashioned, lurid novel title, such as the Nancy Drew mysteries which I used to consume when I was about ten.  I read all the books about Nancy that Wellingborough library had to offer.

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In  my imagination, I was Nancy:  clever, brave, able to solve many more mysteries than her community really deserved, and all whilst wearing a dress. Impressive and stylish sleuthing.

In real life and some decades later, I actually appear to live next to a cursed house.  We have lived here for ten years and in that time, and counting the people who lived there when we moved in, we have had three sets of neighbours.  The first two lots, whom we lived beside for five years each, were definitely odd, though in different ways. The new lot appear to have started as the others left off.

If you’ve been to my house, you will have come in the front gate and through the front garden.  But round two other sides of the cottage, there is a further area – summer house, drive, garage and so on  – and a vegetable garden.  This bit of garden is where I spend a lot of my time, engaged in a ‘Game of Thrones’ style battle with the slugs and snails except less rapey and incestuous.  It borders the garden of our closest neighbours – the Cursed House.

First thing to tell you is that it’s called ‘Whitlow’.  A whitlow is a nasty infection, usually of the finger nail area, or toe.  OK, so now I’d like you to Google ‘whitlow’, click images, *urge*.  It boasts (as estate agents might say) a big rustic style sign that proclaims it as ‘WHITLOW’.  I’m now thinking, as I know you are, of all the other medically inspired names we could call our houses.  Bunion.  Herpes.  Weeping Sore…?  Too far?  But really, why would you call your house whitlow?

So that is a cursed name.

We moved here in July, ten years ago.  It was a warm summer and on the next weekend, Lily and I were investigating the then ‘new’ veg garden.  The neighbours have a patio, on the other side of a tall fence, with a patio door leading (I assume, I have never been inside ‘Whitlow’) to their sitting room or dining room area.  From this open door, drifted the sounds of two late-middle-aged people engaged in a full-blown row.  Language that would make a pirate blush surged out, in a woman’s penetrating screech, interspersed with clearly audible gangster-style curses from a bass-baritone man’s voice.  Occasional pauses allowed for the percussion section – brought to us by china, pots, pans, and door-slamming.

Ripe loganberries paused in mid-air, on their way to our mouths, as my eyes met Lily’s, over the rhubarb.  Lily was eight years old and I’m no angel, but some of these words were, I felt, going to be beyond me to explain for a few more years, so I suggested we went back indoors.

About a week later, and alone, I was again in the vegetable garden, working and trying not to glance at the upstairs windows of ‘Whitlow’.  However, a few minutes later, a knocking on the glass of one of the bedroom windows made me look up.  There, at the open window, waving and smiling as sweetly as a fictional grandmother, was the lady of ‘Whitlow’, who I later came to know as Angie.  Angie was swaying slightly.  I waved back.

Angie was in fact a rather sad woman.  She and her husband (conjecture on my part) lived at daggers-drawn most of the time.  He claimed, though never to me directly, I only heard this after they moved, that she drank heavily and it was then that the arguments began.  Sundays were the prime time, when he came home from the pub at lunch time.  Whether he was less than happy with the Sunday repast that perhaps Angie had prepared, or if it was just her constant habit of bolting the front door and then falling into a dead asleep, thus excluding him from the ‘marital’ home, I don’t know, but he was always madder than a badger on Sundays.

It was, on at least one occasion, the Sunday roast that upset him.  I know this because I, and probably all the houses in Middle Street, heard his review of the meat, it’s tenderness when compared to footwear, the accompanying vegetables and the overall presentation.  It wasn’t favourable.  Angie responded with her customary repertoire of piratical curses and the clash of, I assume, beef meeting kitchen floor.

One day, I was guiding a friend off our drive as she edged her car into the street.  It was a cold, gloomy winter afternoon, with a biting wind.  As the car moved slowly into the road, Angie loomed across the pavement – I hadn’t seen her, nor had my friend.  She fell, with a theatrical swoon, into the road.  I knew the car had not touched her, but I still thought she was dead.  She wasn’t dead; she was just very drunk.  I think she was trying to get to the corner shop.  She was restored to the safety of ‘Whitlow’ to recover.

When they moved, Angie was installed, by her ‘husband’ in a flat over a shop in Brean, which is a ‘resort’ about 12 miles from here, overrun in summer and as dead as a dead thing in winter.  He moved to France, but I hear from the village grapevine that he stays with her regularly, when he is in England.

The house was left in a state of considerable disrepair.  Shortly, a young family moved in.  This cheery new neighbour assured me, on our first meeting, that we would have to endure many months of noise and building traffic as they renovated ‘Whitlow’ to its former glory.  However, and though it was true that the new gentleman of ‘Whitlow’ had an impressive array of powered tools including that most macho (I assume) of playthings for the DIY zealot, a mini-digger of his very own, little renovation took place.

A lot of activity filled the early months.  According to Mark who went inside ‘Whitlow’ several times in this era, all the rooms, which in Angie’s day were already dire, were reduced to the state of barely habitable turmoil, as projects, including re-wiring, digging up floors and gutting kitchens, were begun, but never finished.  Yes.  WIPs.  On a major scale.

This neighbour gardened with a giant blow-torch. He really did have a giant strap-on blow-torch and he literally burned the weeds, grass – anything – right down to the scorched earth.  One side effect of this was that, due I think to the intense heating of the earth, trees and hedges in OUR garden, where it adjoined his, began to die, the roots being severely damaged by the fire.

He and his extended family quickly filled the land all around ‘Whitlow’ with a staggering array of junk:  barrels, gas canisters (bit of a worry when he was gardening with his giant blow-torch), wood, car-parts, sinks, tyres…it  was epic.  The village reacted, and environmental control people came around to talk to them.  He bought an extra piece of land at the end of our garden, and applied for planning permission to build a bungalow.  At this time, his parents were living in a very large mobile home on this piece of land.

Uproar in Puriton.  A public meeting, parish council in a lather.  After the meeting, he came round to see us.  Why, he asked, were we the only ones of his many ‘neighbours’ (in a village, this does not just the mean the people on either side) to not attend the meeting, to not formally or otherwise object to the plans for the house, and not ring up the local council about his tip of a garden?

Why indeed?  In short, he was, despite all the above, quite a good neighbour.  He was very odd, but friendly and he looked out for us, as we did for him.  We were not friends, but we got along as well as you need to.  Good fences and all that.  Sadly he and his wife split up, she and the kids moved out, and his parents moved from the mobile home into the house.  Last month, they sold up and they all went away.  Before he did this, they cleared the land of all the junk and had ‘Whitlow’ renovated. By actual builders.

We waited.  It stood empty, the ‘sold’ sign blew over and was removed.

Very gradually – almost secretly, someone has begun to move in.  First, a car arrived and in stealthy silence, in a dusky evening, someone stole in and then away.  The dogs are ever vigilant.  Then a van, one weekend, it stayed for two days.  Many days have gone by and I think there is someone there some of the time, but we never see or hear anything.  Then one day last week I was in my vegetable garden, and I looked up at ‘Angie’s’ window – well I nearly screamed out loud, for there, hanging from its head or neck in the window, was a toddler-sized figure.  All I could see were skinny, pale pink legs and weirdly tangled feet. Swaying slightly, reminiscent of Angie…It’s a doll of some sort, but by ‘eck, it gave me a funny turn.

When Florence came round later, I asked her to come and look with me.  It was still there. It is, we think, a big monkey toy.  Probably about three feet tall.  It’s always there, hanging in the window, swaying gently as the window is always open, day and night, hail, rain and sun.  The curtains at the back are always open.  At the front, always closed.  Rarely do we see a light from any window, even when a car is there.

Before he left, I asked our old neighbour what the new buyers were like.  He said:  I never met them. They only came round once, with the agent, and we were away.

I am aware that I may appear to be a nosy neighbour.  I am, in a way, because it would be really nice to have a ‘normal’ set of neighbours… and I am baffled by the silence.  Also of course, I am Nancy Drew, solving The Mystery of the Curse of the House Next Door.  Just going to change into my twin-set and pleated kilt-skirt combo.