The house is nothing like I imagined. It’s grey and gloomy, grovelling under a shadowy canopy of trees like something out of a Victorian Gothic novel. Its thick stone walls are mottled with centuries old grim, the paint around the windows faded and flaking and what passes for a garden is under siege from a legion of thistles and nettles.
‘So?’ Justin asks, bubbling with excitement. ‘What do you think?’
He cranks on the handbrake and releases his seatbelt, swivelling around and pointing his knees towards me.
‘It’s the old gatehouse lodge,’ he explains, black eyes wide and unblinking. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’
I bite my bottom lip as I stare out of the passenger window, trying to summon up some enthusiasm.
A few roof tiles are missing, along with a section of guttering, but I don’t want to burst my husband’s bubble. The last time I saw him this giddy I was in labour with Sebastian. Thank god it hadn’t been a long, drawn out birth, like Felix’s. He might have burst.
‘It’s incredible,’ I say, forcing a smile. ‘It has so much character.’
The house is in the back end of nowhere, down a network of spiralling lanes with no sign of civilisation for miles around, but how can I tell him I think it’s too remote? Too isolated. It’s at least half an hour’s drive from Falmouth and the nearest village is more than two miles away. It’s not exactly the image of Cornish living I thought we were letting ourselves in for.
When Justin first suggested moving here, I’d pictured some quaint stone cottage on the coast, in a chocolate box village with fishing boats bobbing in the harbour and wide, sandy, vanilla-coloured beaches with views over big skies and dark seas. Not this, a haunting and foreboding relic surrounded by nothing more than woodland and open countryside. I bet it’s cold and damp inside. God knows what it’s going to be like in the winter.
Justin snatches my hand out of my lap and squeezes it tightly. ‘I knew you’d love it,’ he says. ‘Isn’t it funny how your memory warps things though? I could have sworn there were at least two chimney stacks. And there used to be a big oak tree over there that we used to climb.’ He points through the windscreen. ‘The house looks smaller, too. It seemed enormous when I was a kid.’
‘Maybe you’re just bigger,’ I suggest.
Justin couldn’t believe his luck when he found the house after all these years. He used to come here for holidays with his family, but now the owners rent it on a long-term tenancy. Justin thought it was fate to stumble across it on the internet, just when we were looking to move.
A wistful mist glazes his eyes. ‘The summers here seemed to last forever and ever,’ he says with a slight shake of his head.
I glance up at leaden skies and the thick, black clouds chasing over the tops of the trees. The only family holiday I could remember spending in Cornwall had been marred by lashing rain and shivering in thick jumpers on the beach.
‘How old were you when you were last here?’ I ask. He’s not told me much about Treloar, other than that the lodge forms part of a large country estate that’s been owned by the Carlyon family for years. Apparently, they still live in a big manor house somewhere further along the sweeping drive the lodge overlooks.
He shrugs and pushes out his bottom lip. ‘Sixteen? Seventeen? I can’t remember exactly. A long time ago.’
‘We’ll build new memories,’ I tell him. It’s what he wants to hear.
‘We will.’ He squeezes my hand tighter. ‘It’s going to be a new start for us. A place where we can both heal. Come on, let’s take a look around.’ He dangles the keys we picked up earlier from the rental agency in front of my face. ‘I can’t wait to see what it’s like inside.’
Justin had been so excited about finding the house, and so worried we might lose it, that he’d called the agents straightaway without even talking to me and told them we’d take it. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in person, and the first time Justin’s been back since he was a teenager.
‘Leave the stuff in the boot,’ he says, hauling himself out of the car. ‘I’ll bring it in later.’
We don’t have much. Only a couple of cases of clothing. Not much to show for twelve years of marriage. The fire robbed us of so much, and not just materially.
I follow him through a picket gate and along an overgrown path to a heavy, wooden front door, trotting to keep up with him and his long, enthusiastic strides.
‘Welcome to your new home,’ he beams, slotting the key into the lock. It’s one of those big, cast iron keys with an ornate shamrock bow. He struggles to turn it, shifting it back and forth in its housing until it eventually catches and the door falls open.
I resist the urge to wrinkle my nose as we’re assaulted by a waft of musty damp air. The house has clearly been left shut up and empty for a long time. The first thing I’m going to do is throw open all the windows and give it a good airing.
Justin pushes the door fully open, revealing a gloomy hallway. An old coir matt lies slightly askew in the entrance, disintegrating, shedding brown, wiry fibres across a cracked, terracotta tiled floor patterned with a floral mosaic. The tiles need a good sweep, but they’re a beautiful original feature.
I’m about to step inside when Justin bends down and scoops me up like a baby. I squeal and giggle nervously as his arms shake with the effort of holding me up. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed at anything.
‘What are you doing?’ I scream.
‘Carrying you over the threshold.’
He staggers through the door, my head narrowly missing the frame. He dumps me unceremoniously back on my feet, huffing and puffing.
‘Silly bugger.’ I punch him playfully on the arm.
He grabs his lower back and winces. ‘I thought you were lighter than that.’
I cast my eyes down at the floor, stung by what I’m sure he thinks is a harmless joke. I’m painfully aware that I’ve put on a few extra pounds in the last year. But who could blame me? For a while I had no appetite at all, but then food became a comfort. It’s not helped that I’ve not exercised for almost a year. There didn’t seem much point. Maybe he’s right. This move can be the beginning of something new. For both of us.
‘Oh, Megan, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean —’
‘It’s okay,’ I mumble. ‘It’s fine.’
‘I know it all feels weird at the moment, but this house is going to help us to reset and find ourselves again. It’s going to take time, I know that, but just look outside. There’s nothing and no one for miles around, apart from trees and fields. I can’t think of anywhere better we could be.’
I reach up on tips of my toes and plant a kiss on his lips. ‘I know,’ I say, raking my fingers down his chest.
I hadn’t quite appreciated how much this house means to Justin. The memories it holds. The place it occupies in his heart. But I can see it now written across his face. I apprehensive when he first proposed the move, taking us away from the city to somewhere so quiet, but he’s done it with the best intentions. For me. And for the sake of our marriage which has been creaking under such intolerable strain. If that means embracing a new life here in Cornwall, in a strange house, removed from the familiarity of our old lives, then that’s what I’m going to do. Justin deserves that.
He reaches for a light switch and flicks it on. But nothing happens. He tuts and rolls his eyes. Not a great start.
‘Listen, why don’t you take a look around while I check the fuse box. I expect they’ve switched off the electrics while the house was empty,’ he says.
He stalks off, heading for the cupboard under the stairs with the torch on his phone creating long shadows.
I leave him to it and poke my head into the kitchen, the first room off the hall. It’s plenty big enough and are there loads of cupboards and a wide expanse of worktops, but it’s in desperate need of modernisation. Not a patch on our kitchen in our old house with its sleek lines, crisp white surfaces, integrated appliances and state-of-the-art, eye-wateringly expensive boiling water filter tap Justin insisted we had installed when the kitchen was refitted. I loved that kitchen, but it was only wood, plastic and metal at the end of the day. If the last ten months have taught me anything, it’s how pointless it is to attach emotionally to stuff that has no real sentimental value.
The lounge is another room that feels stuck in the nineteen eighties, but with a large fireplace and a woodburning stove, it’s actually pretty cosy. I can imagine us curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine and the fire blazing on a cold autumnal evening.
It’s a far cry from the life we used to have, but we’ll get used to it. It’s going to be good for us. An our opportunity to reboot. We can’t remain stuck in the past forever, no matter how painful it is to move on.
A series of thuds and bangs comes from the cupboard under the stairs, and Justin swears loudly.
‘Everything okay?’ I call out.
‘Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,’ he shouts back.
I’ve learnt it’s best if I don’t interfere with these things. I doubt there’s anything I can do to help anyway. Electrics aren’t my area of expertise.
I trudge up the stairs, keen to check out the state of the bedrooms. It’s supposed to be a three-bedroomed property. Too big for the two of us really, but at least we’ll have the choice of rooms. I only hope the beds are half decent. I draw the line at a lumpy mattress, although beggars can’t be choosers. We lost everything in the fire, so we had no choice but to take on a fully-furnished rental until the loss adjustors have approved our insurance claim and we can start over. In the meantime, it means we have to put up with someone else’s furnishings.
The treads creak and moan under my feet as I ascend and a cool breeze grazes my face. My heart patters in my chest, although not from the exertion of climbing. A niggle of anxiety tightens in my gut, but I’m not sure why.
I hesitate, listening.
Another loud thud comes from the cupboard below and Justin whelps in pain. I filter it out, cocking my head to one side.
Why do I have this unnerving feeling we’re not alone?
I’m being stupid. There’s no one else here. It’s obvious the house has been empty for months from the dust and the smell of damp. It’s just my mind’s silly reaction to moving into a strange old house, although I’m not usually one to believe in all that nonsense about ghosts and ghouls and bumps in the night.
I climb the remainder of the stairs slowly.
Come on, Megan. Get a grip.
The banister on the landing wobbles unnervingly when I grab it, and for a second I fear it’s going to come away in my hand. I’ll need to get Justin to take a look at that later. It’s downright dangerous.
There are five doors off the landing. The first one I peel open reveals a small airing cupboard housing an ancient-looking boiler shrouded in solidified foam. The door alongside it is open and inside is a bathroom with ugly green tiles and a mould-speckled shower curtain hanging limply over a wood-panelled bath.
I assume that means the door at the far end of the landing leads to a bedroom at the front of the house, one that by rights should have the best views across the valley. It’s the one I want.
The handle is stiff and creaks noisily. The door opens a crack and I’m struck by a new smell. Not the damp and mildew I detected earlier, but something more human. Sweat. The sour stench of body odour, the kind that lingers and makes you gag. And stale cigarette smoke.
I cover my nose and mouth with my hand and hold my breath as the door swings inwards achingly slowly. I swallow hard, but my throat is dry. Adrenaline races through my veins. My heart pumps faster, the tips of my fingers as cold as icicles.
I stare into the room and gasp.
‘Justin! JUSTIN!’ I scream, paralysed, my feet rooted to the spot. ‘You’d better get up here. You really need to see this.’