She stood looking up at the house. At the blank grey walls, the shuttered windows with empty boxes on the concrete sills, the stern front door. The house said nothing about what it was or what took place inside, it was unassuming and nondescript and uninviting. She'd come here several times before, but never got the courage to go in. Now, there was no choice. The deadline was today, no last chance of a reprieve or change of heart. If she was going to do it, it had to be now. She shivered, chill from the sudden drop in temperature now the light was fading, or from excitement or from fear, she didn't know. Also, the sense of possibility that, by pressing this suburban doorbell, her life could - would - alter for good. But still she lingered on the unwashed step, picking at a thread of wool come loose from her glove, caught between the girl she was and the woman she might be. A deadline she never thought she would face…
Get. Out. NOW.
The words echoed in her mind. Here, in their place of origin, they were almost palpable. The experts seemed to agree that going into the house would represent moving forward. If only they really knew what had gone on here.
Detachment was how she existed. It worked; for the most part. If she kept up the façade, no one would see the person she really was. It was out of choice. The need for control they so readily attached to this place.
She rang the door bell. She wanted to double-check that no one was in. She knew the tenants – her tenants – had been served their notice and would have vacated. No one would be in to answer the door. Still, she wasn’t brave enough to feel into the warmth of her pocket and retrieve the keys.
She moved away from the front door and towards the garden she had never seen. This could be classed as progress. The tightly trimmed Leylandii trees, the neat borders, the sun-scorched lawn. She followed the gravel pathway along the side of the property. She may not know the outer limits of the place but the inside was so familiar she could easily trace her way to the room she wanted to see. It was clear out here why he had selected this house. Not unduly overlooked by nearby neighbours, the sounds of the nearby motorway drowning out any noise. Isolation.
The familiar odour was strong as she got closer. It didn’t surprise her that the basement window was not visible. It was covered by a rudimentary box fashioned together with wooden boards. She’d never known exactly what the stench was but somehow the rotting compost told her she was home.
Knowing she was all alone, Jemima dared to take off the gloves that she only ever removed in private. Slowly, she threaded her fingers into the dewy mulch. She took handfuls and raised the smell to her nostrils. The aroma took her back into the room.
The compost was not fresh. The gardener who she had employed, but never met, had been given strict instructions. To mow the lawn, to dig up weeds and keep the paths clear but he must never tend to the rose bushes. It was her misplaced attempt at rebellion. She did not wish to continue her controller’s obsession.
Every week, a single stem rose would be left in her basement room to flourish and wilt. He would explain to her the perfection of the folding petals. Then tell her that nothing stayed perfect as he compared it to the rotten roses that remained. Whenever she found an imperfect petal she would press it into her hidey-hole. It was an attempt to prove him wrong. That you could start out in the world with imperfections.
She let the compost drop back into its container. She felt dirty. This was why she didn’t want to come here. Just the smell had taken her back to being eight-years-old all over again. She used the compost as a punch bag. The top layer was hardened from neglect and it did not yield to her angry efforts. So she grabbed at handfuls of the earth-like substance. Piece by piece, she hurled chunks at the bland, grey walls.
She wanted it to stick. She wanted the world to know what this place really was. Furiously, she worked at the mound. Shouted. Screamed. Cried. And still the dirt refused to cling to the wall. So she stopped. What was the point? In a few hours she would sign this place away. Its destruction would make way for a new housing estate and put old secrets to rest.
She should never have come here.
No questions had been asked when he’d left her the house in his will. The consensus seemed to be that leaving her the property was his attempt at remorse. That somehow, wealth would make up for all the wrong-doing.
She let her knuckles scrape along the edge of the splintered wooden box. The veneer of the make-shift structure was faded. At the base the wood had decayed. One good kick and it would collapse. She let her fingers trace the bumpy peaks and troughs that marked her palms. When she pressed hard enough it felt like the thorns were still under her skin. The pressure brought the pain back so readily. She kicked the compost box. The structure broke easily ... how easy it would be for her to break with it.
She had always known this house was not a gift; it just wasn’t within him to need her forgiveness. In the soft glow of the evening light the remains she had just uncovered confirmed that, even in death, he still wanted to play mind-games.
The deadline was just hours away. She would get her solicitors to delay the cut-off. She would stall them by making demands for more money. It would give her the time she needed.