The Face at the Window of Number 16 by Jenny Gammon
The Face at the Window of Number 16
by Jenny Gammon
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…
“Mr. Capon? Mr. Capon…you going in?”
George Capon turned round on the front doorstep of Number 16, keys clutched in his left hand. A few feet away from him on the pavement stood Maggie, his cleaner, tightening the top button of her coat and heaving her shopping basket over her arm.
“Only, I’m done. I’m off. Done enough for one day. As you well know, I hate these final cleans. You never know what you’re gonna find. Fair dooes, though, they left it fairly nice – the family that is – what was left of ‘em. If you ask me it was the removal men what made all the mess. Still, when you’ve got rid of the last of that furniture it’ll be all ready for your next tenants. Just let me know. They might want me regular .”
“What d’you mean ‘last of the furniture’? I thought it was all gone?”
“Nah”, yelled Maggie “they only took what was labelled. “Said someink about the rest having to be dealt with by you or the clearance firm. If you asked me they couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Bye!” With a wave, she set off briskly across the road, barely looking at the traffic and leaving a screech of brakes in her wake. George smiled. He watched a flurry of autumn leaves follow her down the street as a breeze stirred them up and deposited them in the gutter. A further cold blast penetrated his thin jacket and stirred him into action.
He entered the empty house. He had been daydreaming all morning. It was time to pull himself together and get the job done.
He remembered the hall from some years back. Always dark. The only daylight came from the stained glass window on the upstairs landing and from the ground floor rooms if the doors were left open. Which wasn’t often if he recalled. He had visited the house many times with his father when they went to collect the rent. You collected the rent in his father’s day. In person. In cash. Later on tenants’ rents were paid into the bank – first by cheques and then by something called a direct debit which his father could never come to terms with. His father was always considerate if the tenants wanted just that little bit more time if they were ‘short’. He knew they would pay up as soon as they could. They’d borrow some money they’d put by from the gas or the electricity jars or tins they kept for bills. Faced with his irate bank manager on receipt of tenants’ cheques that had ‘bounced’, however, George’s father would go into state of deep melancholy which took several days to dissipate. Thank goodness the family that had lived here until recently never gave him or his father any problems. None that he would admit to anyway. Except for one thing. Their constant complaints about the draught.
Not draughts, as in the plural. Victorian houses were renowned for them even with the installation of central heating, double glazing and draught excluders on all the doors…but ‘The Draught’, as it became known, and as though it had become some endearing feature of the house itself. George imagined the sales pitch on the estate agent’s window. ‘Charming Victorian property in sought after area. Close to good transport connections. Comprises four bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen diner, two living rooms, attic conversion, family sized garden. Period features throughout and comes complete with own Draught’
Comes with own ghost more like it if recent rumours were true, George mused.
He had met some of the Tanner family who had occupied the house since the end of the war but the family before them were a mystery to everyone. George wondered what their story was.
“Ninety five, ninety six, ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine… a Hundred! Ready or Not – Here I Come!!” Pamela (or Pam as she liked to be known) uncovered her eyes and turned round. She took hold of her youngest sister’s hand. Beatrice or ‘Bunty’ as they all preferred to call her, giggled and put her sticky hand in Pam’s and they set off.
“Now, Bunty where d’you think Janice is hiding?” said Pam as they poked their heads round the living room door. Sheila, who was there, was engrossed in a copy of “Valley of the Dolls” with her legs up on the sofa and a cold drink on the coffee table. She sighed wearily. “In the cupboard under the stairs. She always hides in there. So predictable.” Bunty ran off in search of Janice. Pam, putting her hands on her hips said quietly, “Why do you have to be so horrible?”
“What d’you mean?”
“You’re always sarcastic, snooty and a spoilsport.”
“Mum says it’s ‘cos I’m a teenager. Personally I put it down to being constantly shut in the pantry cupboard for years by Jennifer.” Sheila picked up her drink and withdrew behind the covers of the book.
“Don’t call her ‘mum’. She prefers to be called Mummy. Calling her ‘mum’ is common. And don’t blame everything on Jenny. She’s not here to defend herself, she’s at university.”
“Jennifer!! She’s called Jennifer if I remember. Why doesn’t everyone use their proper names around here? Even Janice wants to shorten her name to Jan ‘cos it’s more trendy. I’ll be glad to get out of here. As soon as I can I’m applying to work on a cruise ship as cabin crew.” Sheila sipped her drink.
“Good. I hope they shut you in a bloody cabin or in the hold forever.” Pam just avoided the heavy paperback which Sheila threw at her when a piercing scream came from the top of the house. “Oh God, Bunty!”
Both girls hurled themselves out of the room to find Bunty running about in circles as more screams echoed down from the top of the house. Bunty was crying out, “I want Jan-Jan, I want Jan-Jan!” Sheila scooped her up in her arms and the three ran upstairs together. Sheila wished for once that the eldest, Jennifer, was still at home.
Jennifer had been given the task of mothering them all since their mother’s accident. Alice Tanner, mother of the five girls, had slipped on the stair carpet whilst carrying Bunty, broken her hip and it had never mended properly. To date she had problems walking or standing for any length of time. Jennifer had taken over and now she was gone, the responsibility for running the house was now Sheila’s, she thought bitterly.
They found Janice in the old Victorian wardrobe in what used to be Jennifer’s bedroom. Sheila had problems getting the door open. It was heavy because of the full length mirror set into the door panel and the lock was fiddly at the best of times. Janice fell out onto the lino gasping for breath.
“Blimey, Janice you’re as white as a sheet!” Sheila took off her cardigan and wrapped it around Janice who was shivering so violently her teeth were chattering.
“It was cold in there, cold and there was a white thing…don’t shut me in, please don’t shut me in there…” Janice fell limp in Sheila’s arms.
“Let’s get her down to mum – she’ll be in the kitchen. She’ll know what to do and Pamela don’t you ever shut her in there again. Bring Bunty with you.” Sheila frowned as she lifted Janice off the floor.
“What? I never shut her in there. I’d never do such a thing. And what’s more Jennifer never shut you in the pantry either. Ever. All the doors in this bloody house slam shut whenever that bloody draught comes or they get rammed shut in a heatwave. I got caught in the outside lav once. No wonder mum wants to go and live in a modern bungalow as soon as we’re out of her hair. No chance of her falling on the stairs and no chance of finding some bloody corpse stuffed away in the attic or somewhere. And before you start – I’ll swear as much as I bloody well like – I hate this house. Come on Bunty let’s go down. Dad’ll be home soon thank God.”
George was daydreaming again. He found himself stock still in the middle of the kitchen looking out into the ‘family sized’ garden. In our day it was a plot of green stuff to kick a ball about in, an area where you grew vegetables, side borders where mum grew her flowers and an abandoned Anderson shelter in case there was another war. Nowadays it would be a patio/barbeque area with firepits or outdoor heaters and a summerhouse more likely.
I’m getting too old for this. Let’s get upstairs and see what all the fuss is about. As he climbed the stairs he anticipated the fifth step which had always creaked. Sure enough it still did. Sometimes he’d accompany Stan, who was in charge of maintenance for all his family’s buildings, dragging Stan’s toolboxes or building materials after him like a packhorse. He quite enjoyed snooping in other people’s homes. Over time, out went the old Victorian bathrooms, dated kitchens and in came spanking new things and the gadgets along with G plan furniture, followed by Habitat, IKEA then , believe it or not, back came the Victorian baths, butler’s kitchen sinks and old brown furniture again. ‘Mindboggling’ Stan called it. Dear old Stan. Gone fifteen years now. Cancer.
A cold draught came down the stairs and a door slammed violently overhead. A shadow hovered over the hall window, plunging the entire staircase into darkness. George paused. He took a breath – climbing stairs these days wore him out. As quickly as the light disappeared it reappeared with sunlight streaming down the staircase. George saw moats of dust floating in the sunbeams. It was probably a tree branch blown across the window, he was thinking. Or maybe he was just trying to convince himself that all was well when somehow, at the back of his mind, he knew something was amiss.
George had every intention of putting this house up for sale. Young Henry in the office would get a good commission on it and George could retire with a clear conscience and look forward to his days in his little flat in Hove. He only needed a few more bits of furniture to complete his home. Perhaps there might be something here. Several pieces which had been abandoned were only fit for clearance. Then George came across a fine looking wardrobe in one of the upstairs rooms. A beautiful Victorian wardrobe. Not too big. Small enough for one, he thought. I’ll have that. The handle on the mirrored door turned easily and he swung it open.
Inside, with her legs pulled up to her chin sat a small blonde haired child. Dressed in a frilly white smock like the ones Victorian children used to wear, she was sucking her thumb and gazing up at him with tearful eyes.
“Hello there. What’s your name?” George surprised himself at not being at all afraid or even remotely surprised. He knew it couldn’t be one of the Tanner children left behind by mistake. This girl belonged somewhere else in time it seemed to him. She was almost transparent. “Was that you looking out of the window? People have been talking about you.” There was, of course, no answer. George didn’t really expect one. Not at the moment anyway. “Tell you what. This wardrobe is coming to my new home. So, next time you want to look out of the window, you’ll be able to see the sea. It’s very pretty. Would you like that?”
The little girl took her thumb out of her mouth, stepped out of the wardrobe and took his hand. George couldn’t feel her touch but he smiled at her upturned face.
“Yes please. I’d like that very much.”
© Jenny Gammon