The house was boarded up. I wasn’t expecting that but was grateful nonetheless, not that it did much for the neighbourhood. Round our way, there’d be tutting and letters to the local paper.
I’d been concerned about squatters but looking at the well-tended front gardens and immaculate churchyard of Little Splitting, I could see that my concerns were unfounded. Behind every twitching lace curtain lurked a pair of watchful eyes and almost every window seemed to sport a neighbourhood watch sticker.
I wasn’t sure who was responsible for the boarded-up windows. I certainly hadn’t instructed anybody to do it and my grandfather’s solicitor hadn’t mentioned it. It wasn’t something I’d thought about getting done, truth be told, but then I’d expected to be able to visit the house much sooner. I would have to make enquiries, I supposed, and repay whoever had arranged it. Perhaps there’d be an invoice awaiting me inside. Quite a large invoice, judging by the number of windows. It was a much more substantial house than Mr Drysdale, the aforesaid solicitor, had led me to expect, nor had the single photograph I had been sent given an accurate representation of the scale of the place.
A scale neatly summed up by George as we pulled up outside. ‘Ye gods,’ he said. ‘It’s vast.’
‘It’s certainly quite a big house,’ I replied. A knack for understatement was a trait of mine.
‘It’s not a house. It’s a mausoleum.’
‘What’s a mausoleum?’ asked Sophie, drowsily, from the back seat. ‘Is that where you go to look at old stuff?’
‘No, that’s a museum, sweetie,’ I said, turning to look at her. She was yawning and rubbing her eyes. Beside her, three-year-old Lucas slept on, Draper the cockapoo slumped across his lap, tail wagging desultorily. It had been a very long journey, which was one reason why it had taken a month to organise.
George, despite several hours behind the wheel, was still his normal sprightly self. He fairly jumped out of the car and flung open the passenger door with a flourish. ‘Your Majesty, your palace awaits,’ he declared with an extravagant bow. Any bow would have been extravagant. As I say, I’m more for understatement than grand gestures, myself.
‘Come on guys,’ George continued. ‘Last one in’s a ninny,’ and he mock-sprinted up the long front path, Sophie running after him and Draper gambolling madly around and about the two of them and, having run three times as far, reaching the front door first. Meanwhile, I followed more sedately, carrying Lucas.
‘Are we there yet?’ he asked in the plaintive tone of young children everywhere.
‘Yes, sweetie. Do you want to walk?’ For answer he clung more firmly round my neck. I handed my bag to George as we arrived at the door. ‘Key’s inside the zipped pocket,’ I said.
‘Do you want to do the honours, love?’ he said, finding the key. ‘It’s your mausoleum, after all.’
It was indeed my “mausoleum”, but actually, as we discovered during the course of the afternoon, mansion would have been a better description. It seemed to go on for ever. I counted six bedrooms (‘seven, I thought,’ said George) all chockablock with ancient, heavy, dark-wood furniture. The kitchen contained no appliances dating from the 21st century, nor even the later decades of the 20th, and beyond it there was a scullery. A drawing room, dining room, billiard room (ye gods), music room replete with grand piano, study and a library containing several hundred books, although not a single paperback, revealed themselves as I went around removing dustcover after dustcover, whilst George busied himself deboarding the windows. There had been no invoice.
In the scullery, hanging on a hook beside a door into the garden, there was a six-inch wide, iron key ring with more than a dozen keys hanging from it. I could see no possible use for most of them but it was true that a house this size would likely require more keys than the single Yale for the front door which I had been given by Mr Drysdale.
Two hours in, with all of us bar Sophie and Draper exhausted, George had made a pot of tea and we were slumped in the drawing room attempting to take stock of what I’d inherited and what the hell I was supposed to do with it.
I had never known my grandfather, or not this grandfather anyway. George’s dad, Grandad Joe, had been very much in evidence until his death three years ago. However, my mother Marilyn had passed away whilst giving birth to me on 2nd May 1985, and from that moment on, all contact with her side of the family had been abruptly severed. I didn’t know why at the time, but later, when I‘d broached the subject with my father, he’d said there were only a couple of busybody old aunts and we were far better off without them.
So now, thirty-five years later, the letter from Mr Drysdale hadn’t come so much as a surprise as a complete shock. George had arived home to find me as white as a sheet. I’d handed him the letter silently.
‘What?’ he’d said. Then, ‘Who?’ which was understandable as I’d never talked about my mother’s father. There had literally been nothing I could say about him. I hadn’t even known his name. ‘So your grandfather, this Albert Cadwallader, has left you his house in his will?’ It sounded like a question but really wasn’t, the letter was as clear as day and I had, being very thorough as well as understated, already phoned Mr Drysdale to confirm its contents.
Even being unaware of exactly how immense the house was, we’d known that an initial inspection would be more than a job for a single afternoon. We’d made up the beds in a couple of the six or seven bedrooms, and now George was searching on his phone for somewhere to eat dinner.
‘I suppose we’d better call on a couple of local estate agents in the morning,’ I said, wearily, drinking my tea. ‘Somewhere that does house clearances too.’
George peered at me over the rim of his teacup, eyes twinkling. ‘Let’s not be too hasty,’ he murmured. ‘Perhaps we could think about living here. It’s a lovely village. And Birmingham’s, well, Birmingham after all.’
‘But Birmingham’s our home,’ I said. ‘Your job’s there. My friends. Sophie’s school. There’s nothing here. It’s almost in Scotland for goodness’ sake.’
I was just about to add the words, ‘it’s out of the question,’ when Sophie came rushing in with Draper bouncing alongside to declare: ‘There’s a church in the garden!’
‘I’m sorry, darling, what?’ I said, managing to put grandfather’s bone china teacup onto its saucer without breaking either.
‘A church!’ she repeated, blue eyes wide. ’But I can’t get in. And there’s a tomb inside!’
I felt that my six-year old daughter being unable gain entry to a “church” to look at a “tomb” was probably a good thing in the circumstances, not that I had any idea what she meant. Perhaps grandfather had been so religious he’d had a private chapel installed. If so, it was something else Mr Drysdale had omitted to tell us.
‘I knew I was right about the mausoleum,’ said George, jumping up. ‘Come on, Sophie, show me.’ He grabbed her by the hand and headed for the door. ‘Are you coming, people?’ he called over his shoulder. Draper barked and rushed after them and once again I found myself bringing up the rear. Lucas, with copious amounts of lemon squash and a slice of cake inside him, had by now perked up, so trotted happily beside me as I made my way to the garden.
It was a lovely summer’s afternoon, with a pale blue sky dotted with the sort of fluffy white clouds that you don’t really see in Birmingham. The chocolate boxy upper floors and slate roofs of neighbouring houses peeped over the neatly trimmed hedges (trimmed by whom? I wondered) running down both sides of the garden and ahead of us over the recently mown lawn (again, mown by whom?) I saw George, Sophie and Draper disappearing into what looked like a small copse at the far end. I hadn’t noticed the copse before but as the garden must have extended to at least an acre and with my concentration fixed firmly on the house itself, that was hardly surprising.
Well, it wasn’t a church, although the large stone cross over the gated entrance would have suggested so to six-year old eyes. In actual fact, it wasn’t even a building as such. Buildings tend to be three-dimensional, whilst this was merely a frontage. A large, ornately carved stone frontage to be sure, with an archway set dead centre. Unfortunate choice of word, I thought – “dead” – as, joining George and Sophie at the iron gate set into the arch, I could see in the dimness within, not one but two sizeable tombs or sarcophagi.
‘What we have here,’ said George, ‘is a crypt, a burial vault.’ Stepping back, I could see that the arch and its stone surrounds were set into a bank, whether natural or man-made it was hard to tell. The bank had once had a grass covering but was now overgrown with weeds. Whoever had been mowing the lawn had not ventured here. ‘We need a key,’ said George, ‘and I’m betting there’s one on that key-ring we found in the scullery. Poppet,’ he said to Sophie, ’run back and fetch it would you?’
Sophie returned, puffing, five minutes later with Draper, as ever, dancing close attendance. The fifth key we tried worked, although not without some effort. The gate creaked alarmingly as George pulled it open. Switching our phone torches on, we walked carefully inside, ducking under the low arch. Draper, surprisingly, decided not to join us, and sat down at the entrance, looking mournful. ‘Come on, boy,’ said George. ‘It’s only an old crypt.’ Both Sophie and Lucas tried to pull him in but he was immoveable.
A crypt it definitely was, albeit not a particularly big one, no more than fifteen feet square with a low roof on which George, who isn’t especially tall, managed to bang his head, not once but twice. There were just the two sarcophagi. ‘Shall we?’ asked George. I found myself shivering, the temperature inside the crypt being at least ten degrees lower than it was outside.
‘It’s cold,’ declared Sophie. ‘I’m going to play with Draper.’
‘Me too,’ said Lucas. They both ran out of the crypt.
‘Stay in the garden,’ I called after them.
As sarcophagi go, these were unremarkable, really quite plain. Not like some ornately carved examples I’d seen in the British Museum at any rate. However, they both boasted inscriptions. George shone his torch at one.
Albert Fairweather Cadwallader
Alderman and Philanthropist
Born 14th April 1925 – Died 2nd November 1977
‘What?’ George said. ‘But that’s your grandad, isn’t it? How can he have died over forty years ago…’
He left the sentence unfinished, so I finished it for him. ‘… when he’s only just left me the house in his will?’
I moved to the second sarcophagus. There was something different about this one and then I saw what it was. The lid was not completely in place; it was slightly skewed. I looked at George and he shrugged and shone a light on the epitaph.
Marilyn Fairweather Cadwallader
Born 17th June 1956
‘My mother,’ I whispered. ‘But the inscription’s not complete. She died the day I was born.’
On a whim I put my shoulder to the lid and heaved. It moved surprisingly easily; either that or I’m stronger than I thought. It crashed to the ground, bringing the children running and setting Draper off barking.
George and I shone our torches into the coffin.
It was empty.