Emma left yesterday. The first to go, thinks Rachel, the first supporting wall yanked out. The five of us no longer solid and inevitable and filling the spaces of this house, but exposed as what we always were, lives that briefly ran parallel but are now diverging, individual vessels loading supplies and preparing for voyage. No, worse than that, already prepared for voyage without her having realised it. That vague, dull, treasonous talk that she’d mostly ignored, of job applications, travelling or simply slipping back into the home towns that at heart they’d never really left, has somehow hardened into action. Posters are being taken down, leaving Blu-tack outlines like murder victims. Bags are packed, photos posed for, rash promises made.
There was some kind of leaving ball that Rachel didn’t go to, telling herself she had a headache as the others piled into the taxi in heels and lipstick, tuxedos and bowties. Listening in the dark as they returned in the early hours, piecing together their movements from the sounds and vibrations of the air in the old house; a burst of loud male voices as the living room door swung open while Dominic and Jamie carried on their celebrations; the discreet, urgent rhythm of last-chance sex with someone or other from Emma’s room; and faintest of all, a whisper of Natalie crying quietly and privately. Rachel felt closest to Natalie, but she could tell from the tone of the muted sobs that she wasn’t looking for anyone here to confide her sadness in; even quiet, hard-working Natalie has already mentally slipped her moorings, and this house and all its occupants are moving from present to past.
Tonight, pretty much the last night, everyone is in the small living room, packed in watching TV like so many times before. They talk, optimistically, but the silences in between are charged and eloquent. We’ll meet up soon, maybe in London? Maybe we’ll all end up living together down there one day? Do it all again only with real jobs and our own money coming in? Nonsense of course. Only Dominic’s actually off to the capital. Jamie will be teacher training back home in Newcastle. Natalie’s got her MA place up in Scotland. Emma’s already home, she’ll be heading out to Australia soon with old friends we never met. And what about me? Rachel wonders how people get to be so certain, so decisive. You are young; limitless time and limitless energy are yours. But one false move and you’re looking at a lifetime of resentfully trying to row back to this weightless, paralysing moment, dreaming of it on a packed commuter train or in front of a sink of filthy dishes. Rachel knows she has been deflecting or avoiding any questions about what comes next, tomorrow or the day after or the day after that. Why not stay? The thought is both transgressive and comforting. Why not just stay here, the only place you’ve ever felt like you are even the beginnings of yourself, for as long as you can?
Natalie is talking about the house now, and not for the first time. She’ll miss everyone, but not this place. It’s just too big, too old, its Victorian hall and stairwell and high-ceilinged rooms too disproportionate and shadowy for you ever to relax should you be on your own here. If you’ve grown up in a clean and regular modern house on a clean and regular modern estate, the dusty gloom and scuffed grandeur is oppressive, especially if, like Natalie, your bookshelves, now decanted into a cardboard box, are heavily furnished with gothic novels and vampires. Twice, she now admits, she’d almost seen something.
A suggestion, a glimpse in the corner of her eye, like a figure moving silently through the gloaming of the upstairs corridor. But more than that, she’s always had a sense of something’s awareness, constantly scrutinising her, not malevolent, just present. Maybe it is just the size and irregularity of the house, compared to the right angles and double-glazed windows of home, a bright space with no hiding places, no secrets, while here the sense of things out of sight, of hidden rooms and concealed spaces, is inescapable.
Dominic responds with the kind of crass joke that none of them will miss, but Jamie unexpectedly agrees, he’s less concerned at incurring his friend’s mockery now they’re parting ways. He’s had some weird moments here too. If you are on your own, you can’t help but imagine the house as aware and patiently waiting, perhaps once we all leave it’ll wake up properly and get back to whatever it was doing before we came along, whatever it does all the long summer when it stands empty, voids of air whispering to each other from room to room. Something suggests that there’s more to it than is visible, he often dreams of hidden attics and cellars that even late-night drunken incursions behind the landlord’s locked doors haven’t found access to. But when we’re all here together it never scares me, he says. It stays out of our way. Who knows what’ll happen now? Once we break the spell.
Rachel isn’t sure where she stands. This is the first place she’s ever felt at home, but she knows there is a truth in what they are saying. The house, at least a hundred years old, radiates tireless solidity from its thick Victorian brick walls which, mercifully for their neighbours in the terrace given some of the parties they’ve had, seem to swallow any sound. Yet the inside spaces can feel distorted and disorientating, she has had moments when they seem to open up to great distances and in the same instant be closing in around her, trapping her beneath that crushing weight of brick and timber and slate and time. And yet she is not afraid of it at all.
But sometimes, when she sees them all as if from a great distance, the laughter and the shifting alliances, she feels like it’s not for the first time. Of course generations of other students have come and gone over the decade or so this house has been rented out, but it’s more than that, sometimes she can almost see the faces of the others who’ve passed through, each of them living in the bright joy of the present while the future is lapping and tugging at them through the heavy walls, haunting each of them in its own way. If anything was buried here, she thinks, it’s the lives that you abandon once you step through the door for the final time into the one that’s actually waiting for you. All those lost possibilities left wandering the halls and peering out from behind net curtains. Maybe everyone has a place where they feel they left something vital behind, a place that they’ll always be bound to in some way. And yes, maybe we’ll be reunited, maybe in twenty years, when we’re tubby and balding or grimly gym-skinny, or crackling with resentment at the kids we have or the kids we don’t have. Or even worse, hatefully happy in our grown-up lives, calmly reconciled to everything that we once gave up.
Natalie admits to a recent nightmare – the night of the ball after she’d cried herself to sleep, though she doesn’t mention that – of being sucked down through the floors of the house into a labyrinth that crawls beneath the foundations of the whole long once-grand terrace the house sits in, under the whole city, burrowing deeper and deeper through fathoms of damp stone, old bones and the slime of centuries, opening up vaster and more complex the deeper you went.
Over the next few days, the others go one by one. The silences in the house deepen and grow. Rachel makes up excuses and stories about what she’s planning, she’ll get picked up by her parents in a day or so and write to them all about what her plans are and about getting together one day soon. Maybe soon she’ll be watching the moon rise over the Outback or a Thai beach herself. Maybe she’ll be swept along the bright hard London streets on a tide of black and grey suits. Maybe she’ll rekindle a spark with an old flame and leave these last few years to quietly decay in a dusty storeroom of her memory. Or maybe she can reject the choice, or at least delay it indefinitely. Why not just stay?
Natalie takes a last look around from the doorway, smiles sadly at Rachel then scurries out of the door as though she’s still fearful of the place. The front door shuts firmly behind her, daylight slants through the stained-glass panel above it to diffuse into the hall’s twilight. Rachel is fully alone.
She camps out in the living room, lets the rest of the house settle into silence behind closed doors. What residues remain of the others, chemical traces in the dust and smells on the air, are walled up and left to slowly expire. Takeaway menus silt up the doormat on a daily basis, she hears them drop through the letter box but remains where she is. She loses track of the days, watching the ebb and flow of the TV’s light with little interest in its content. After all, there’s nowhere else for her to be, she knows that going home is not a possibility. No welcoming childhood bedroom or circle of old friends to catch up with down the pub, no bank of mum and dad.
The curtains stay tightly shut as summer gets into its oppressive stride outside. The air is thin and musty and hot. This is a city built on rivers, where slow-moving water constantly whispers in the restless ears of the sleeping inhabitants of other places, other possibilities. The house settles around her, its timbers expand and contract in a daily rhythm; she tunes in deeper to the tiny movements of air, learning to sense the spaces all around as though she sits at the centre of a web of information made of tiny draughts, breaths and creaks, her nervous system expanding and entangling with the house. When she tries to remember the faces and voices of the others, they are already becoming blurred with the faces of those she dreamed or imagined or knew lived in this house before.
The TV sometimes shows her a woman, grown up, wearing her life in her face. Sometimes she flares with joy, the decades fall away and Rachel almost recognises her (is it Natalie? or someone else?), sometimes the years lie heavy, she is searching in the grey analogue clouds at the edge of the image for something out of sight. Sometimes there are other men and women, hints of their lives. They are people she feels she knew once, but that steadily ageing woman recurs the most.
The TV screen now shows her the empty rooms all around, the point of view lingering closely on each one, some looking as though their occupant had simply vanished, the posters still on the walls, the books piled on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor, but some are stripped clean, bare mattresses on broken beds. Some are filled with decades of dust and cobweb. (Wasn’t the TV in the living room Dominic’s? she thinks from a great distance. Wouldn’t he have taken it home with him, however long ago they left?)
The perspectives shift, one image flows unhurriedly into another. But there’s a sense of intent behind it, of a purposeful progression through the house. Now it shows the stairwell, descends gradually into the hallway. The field of view rotates slowly, passing across the front door where the light trickles through the stained glass, almost caressing the shut doors to the downstairs bedrooms; now it turns down the hall to settle on the door to the living room itself, the door whose other side she can see a few yards away from her. She can feel the house all around her but she is not afraid. She has grown to know its every breath and movement.
The view moves to the door. The TV’s eye is outside, a few inches away. Rachel’s eyes go involuntarily from the screen to the door handle then back. Then it moves forward and travels through the door as though there was nothing there and, at the moment when she would surely have seen herself, she catches only a glimpse of an empty room. Then the door and the screen become one and the same, the distinction between outside and inside vanishes. She is everywhere and nowhere, at home and lost forever.
Somewhere, sometime, Natalie stirs in her bed, thinking of a house she once knew, a rough stone of loss in her heart, a weight that will always be there.
Rachel stands in the living room of an empty house. She shifts the remaining furniture and rolls back the carpet as far as she can. Outlined in the floorboards is a trapdoor which she levers open, moving with calm certainty. A breath of cold, damp air wells up from deep below, welcoming her. She lowers herself through. It is pitch dark but her senses are tuned to new frequencies now and she can feel the tunnels radiating away, slanting down into the earth, running beneath the houses, running beneath the city, deeper and deeper under everything, like the ties that bind across time and through space. She is the house, she is the city, she is stone and brick. She is the weight of years and the lapping of water.