The Face at the Window of Number 16 by Audrey Lindsay
The Face at the Window of Number 16
by Audrey Lindsay
Standing on a quiet corner, situated within a Victorian square in south London, a one-time four storey family home now stood empty. A couple that had married as the Second World War ended raised five daughters there. Then one by one over the years, family members left, never to return. This once- vibrant, noisy house now stood empty for the first time in seventy-five years.
Only, sightings of a little girl dressed in Victorian clothes standing at a window at the top of the house began being reported to the office of the landlord, old Mr. Capon. Removal men sent in to collect the last of the furniture that had been left behind, and many of its neighbours, swore they had seen her in the last few days.
Mr. Capon knew it must be nonsense. However, he also knew he just had to see for himself…
Despite the icy pavement underfoot, a decided risk given his advancing years, he decided to walk to the square. As he entered it, he was almost knocked over by a woman draped in scarves. She was pushing a pram containing a screaming baby, and was being trailed by an assortment of children.
Mr Capon had been brought up to raise his hat when passing women, but alas he had left his Homburg behind in the office. His freezing ears did little to alleviate his grumpy mood.
“Madam!” he expostulated. Flustered, apologetic, the woman continued her dogged march around the square, and thankfully the baby’s wails began to diminish. He had recognised the woman immediately as the new tenant of the top flat at Number 14 whom he had interviewed two months ago. “Ms Purdey” he reminded himself (he prided himself on his memory).
He was now outside Number 16, and tutted at its obvious deterioration. Flaking paintwork, missing tiles on the path, and a dead plant in the front window. As he fitted the key in the lock, he realised that he hadn’t visited the house in person for over twenty years. Young Derek Pratt now dealt with most of the secure tenancies.
The door was initially resistant. With a forceful shove of his shoulder, aggravating his arthritis, he managed to get it open. He stepped inside, and was pleased to see the house still retained its highly theatrical air. There was a tiger’s head mounted on the wall, a dusty chandelier hung from the ceiling, and the hallway was lined with framed posters. He went closer and peered at one of them. Five glamorous faces looked out. “The Sensational Sullivan Sisters!” screamed the tagline.
It had always been one of the firm’s selling points – their properties were good enough for the famous Sullivan family. Even after their talents had brought them such enormous success, the girls had eventually all returned to Number 16, usually prompted by divorces. Number 16’s final inhabitant had been the youngest sister Maisie, who had died some months previously.
Although he was not someone who could ever be described as skittish, Mr Capon’s creaky tenor unexpectedly began to pay homage to one of the Sullivan Sisters’ hits:
“I’ve got my lipstick on, and my hair piled high”…
Suddenly, and without warning, the stiff front door slammed shut. The wintry light which had been filtering into the hallway was extinguished and Mr Capon found himself in almost complete darkness. The faint squalling of the baby from across the square cut out.
Mr Capon had been a dedicated Boy Scout during the fifties and still lived by the motto: “Be Prepared”. He pulled a torch out of his pocket and pressed the switch. Nothing. He tapped the torch against the wall. The darkness engulfed him, and a little stirring of unease began to prickle at the base of his skull.
He was not impressed by the silly hysteria which the supposed sightings of a Victorian girl had occasioned in the neighbourhood. Mr Capon put most abnormalities down to female hormones or gastric disturbances. But this sudden slamming of a door on a windless day had disturbed his equilibrium.
Ahead of him in the hallway he could just discern the foot of the main staircase. He aimed the torch at the head of the stairs and pressed the switch again.
It lit up for just a second, and in that instant he saw a flash of movement at the top of the stairs before the darkness descended once again. Mr Capon stood stock still, trying to process what he had just seen. A dress, a cape, a bonnet – a slight figure which had flitted across his line of vision and then disappeared…
“Who’s there?” said Mr Capon. Then, vexed by the quavering note of fear in his voice, he called out more strongly: “who’s there?”
Mr Capon felt his way up the stairs, with an unpleasant unease in his stomach which he really could not attribute to the previous night’s dinner. Over the years, Mr Capon had dealt with trespassers, squatters, and once a group of local teenagers who had mounted a three-day rave. But this was the first time he had encountered something he could not readily explain.
As he reached the top of the stairs, the house’s theatrical air seemed to mutate into something otherworldly and strange. The dim light distorted the objects on the landing, and gave each one a sinister bent – surely there was someone hiding behind that vast aspidistra, the eyes of the Sullivan girls (for yes, there were more posters up here) now seemed to be moving, and the silence was oppressive and almost tangible.
Mr Capon’s stubborn spirit refused to countenance anything supernatural, and he found himself calling out “whoever you are, show yourself”. But the house remained closed and silent, and all he could hear was his own heartbeat.
He was suddenly feeling every one of his 76 years. His own father had died at this age, he recollected; the father who had built their family’s property business and taught him everything he knew. Mr Capon wondered briefly if this was where it was all going to end. And he felt a sudden spark of sorrow that now his train ticket down to Eastbourne this coming Sunday would be wasted.
At that moment, as he stood paralysed, he heard a distinctly recognisable noise above his head – footsteps. Light, almost noiseless, footsteps as someone rapidly ascended the upper staircase of the house.
Mr Capon suddenly demonstrated surprising spriteliness for a man in his late seventies. Ignoring the risks of taking the stairs in almost total darkness, he raced up to the second floor, and continued up to the third. Then he knew there were no more stairs to climb; he had reached the top of the house.
There were four doors leading off the top landing, and one of them stood slightly ajar. Pausing, panting to catch his breath (he hoped he was not going to have a heart attack) Mr Capon pushed it wide open.
At the far end of the room was a fireplace. And in the centre of the fireplace, with her back to him, was a young girl who seemed to be burrowing into its depths.
Mr Capon did not like children at the best of times. He liked ghostly apparitions of children even less. However, by this point, it was dawning on him that this phantom was all too real. He adopted his “commanding” voice, the one which made Young Derek take notice.
“Come out of there at once”.
The girl stopped moving. Mr Capon took a step closer, exclaiming with annoyance as he banged his shin against an old travelling trunk which had been left inconsiderately in his path.
“Come out of there, I’m not going to hurt you”.
The girl shuffled back towards him, then gathered up the folds of petticoat and skirt fanning out around her, and got to her feet. She turned towards him, with obvious reluctance. Mr Capon stared at her bemusedly. She was wearing an old-fashioned costume far too big for her, and a Victorian bonnet pulled low over her face. He guessed she might be ten or so.
“What’s all this nonsense?” he asked with asperity. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
Shuffling movements, but no words he could distinguish.
“Take that hat off and answer my questions”. The commanding voice was having little effect, so Mr Capon attempted to moderate his tone. “I’m not cross” (untrue – he was).
The girl pulled off the bonnet and looked up at him with dark, fearful eyes.
“I weren’t doing any harm, I were just dressin’ up. I found ‘em in that box”.
She indicated the trunk. Opening it, Mr Capon could see it was indeed full of clothing – hats, scarves, brocaded jackets and fringed skirts. He supposed they must belong to the Sullivans – they had spent years performing in variety and would have amassed hundreds of costumes.
“But how did you get in?” he asked. “This building should be secure”.
She looked away guiltily. “We’ve moved in next door. And I found the way in ‘ere soon afterwards. You can crawl through the two fireplaces, you just ‘ave to move some boards”.
“Well!” Mr Capon was so shaken he closed the trunk and sat down on the lid. How had such a security breach been missed? He was going to have to have stern words with Young Derek.
“What’s your name?” he demanded.
“Amaya,” said the child, in an agony of reluctance. “But please don’t tell me mum about this. She is always saying she has enough to worry about without me addin’ to her burdens”.
Of course. This child belonged to the woman with all the scarves, who even at that moment was perambulating around the square with her screaming baby. From up here, the sound was once again faintly audible.
“Well, the thing is – Amaya – I have to tell her, because you have been very naughty, haven’t you? Breaking into someone else’s house and using their things. That’s wrong, isn’t it? So I will have to inform the police”.
At this threat, Amaya opened her mouth and began to howl. She cried so messily that he was forced to give her his freshly laundered handkerchief. Her little face became so alarmingly red that Mr Capon grew quite worried.
“There, there,” he said, waving his hands ineffectually. “I don’t suppose I have to tell anyone after all”.
And slowly Amaya’s sobs diminished and she told him the whole story. How the top flat of Number 14 was so crowded and noisy, and how excited she had been to find the way into Number 16, and how much she loved exploring all its secrets, and finally how wonderful it had been to discover the trunk with all its beautiful clothes.
“I love dressin’ up in ‘em” said Amaya, with a deep sigh. “I just love it. I come here an’ do it every day”.
Mr Capon could not really understand the appeal of putting on someone’s else’s dusty, moth-eaten clothes. But to do him credit, he tried to understand.
“What do you like so much about it?”
“Well, I can be someone else! Like one of them Sullivans”.
Mr Capon was still unable to comprehend.
“Why would you want to be someone else?”
Amaya drooped miserably. “Dunno. I just don’t want to be me. Why would anyone want to be me?”.
Mr Capon gazed upon the wilted form before him and words sprang unbidden to his mind, words which he had not uttered since he had taken off his olive-green uniform for the last time: “a Scout’s duty is to be useful and to help others”.
“Amaya, it’s fine to pretend to be someone else every now and then. But you must never not want to be you. Personally, I think you are….hrrumph…” (here Mr Capon’s new-found nerve began to fail him slightly) “I think you are a very nice little girl”.
Amaya turned watery eyes upon him. “Does that mean we are friends?”
Mr Capon harrumphed again. “Yes, yes, of course”.
“And I can keep coming here and dressin’ up whenever I want?”
A silence, while Mr Capon contemplated how he might explain a small costume-wearing apparition to any prospective tenants. Then the answer came to him. An answer which was not “financially prudent” (as his father would have put it), but which would fill the house with life and laughter once more, and preserve the wonderful heritage of the Sullivan house.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just lived here?”
Five minutes later, Mr Capon and Amaya stood in the doorway of Number 16. Her mother spotted them as she was completing her fifth circuit of the square, and she came towards them, alarm on her face. But Mr Capon stepped forward, and spoke first.
“Ms Purdey, I have a proposition for you…”