So this is an unedited piece of writing which I wrote as a possible piece for a possible novel. And it’s NaNoWriMo so here I am being brave by sharing it. Be gentle!
Just as people have histories that they carry hidden within them, affecting their character and behaviour, so do bricks and mortar. Humans create buildings for their own purposes and in the process they imbue them with a spirit of time and place. In a way you could say that buildings are created with a personality; and this personality will remain no matter how the human use of the building may change.
Have you ever been into a house that made you feel welcome as soon as you stepped over the threshold? As you walk in the faded beige wallpaper reminds you of your favourite auntie’s old cardigan, and the dilapidated décor evokes an urgent desire to make it better (rather than immediate frantic calculations about the added costs to make it fit for habitation). Suddenly you find you can’t bear to be parted from your new friend, your soul-mate, no matter how shabby or dishevelled they are. It’s why “shabby chic” was invented – to hide the blushes of once grand homes which may have fallen on hard times but nevertheless have retained their virtue and sense of decayed gentility. All your friends suddenly start to visit more often, and the house wakes up to new life and laughter; endless pots of tea or coffee, cakes baking, soup bubbling, noisy parties and lazy Sundays.
Or perhaps you have visited friends who live in a place that gives you chills down your spine, no matter how brightly and desperately they have tried to cover it up with cheerful wall art, primary-coloured cushions and the children’s school paintings on the fridge? No matter how good the central heating and the double glazing, there are draughts and shadows; no matter how hot the day the rooms are cold and damp. Your friends tell you increasingly bizarre stories about ailments they have begun to suffer, sleepless nights and new allergies. You prefer not to venture into their cavernous old bathroom and arrange to meet them in town for coffee instead.
In the end no one will buy that house to use it as a family home, and it sits on the market for years, decaying gradually and nursing its malevolence. Local children start to dare each other to go in, but in the end even they decide to move on to more prosaic frights; the old house is just too strange, even for a generation raised on vampire stories and impossible ghosts.
It was a house like this that the Council eventually acquired as premises for a homeless hostel in the early Eighties. Council officers are a special breed and don’t worry about fanciful ideas concerning the personality disorders of human constructs. They have to deal with too many personality disorders in actual humans to have much time to spare on anything else. Modern bureaucracy is the saving of bad-tempered and curmudgeonly edifices.
In the early nineteenth century rich merchants and traders wanted to build their elaborate homes near to the workforce so they could keep an eye on things and make sure no one was stealing the odd bolt of silk or crate of cinnamon. The East End is dotted with such memorials to their hubris, and if you are a pragmatic council officer they are affordable opportunities for operating services to those citizens with restricted resources and limited choice.
This particular house was built by a wool merchant whose parents had found refuge in England during the French Terror. The merchant was born in England but always felt he had to prove his Englishness to his business associates, and in a fit of patriotic fervour named his new house Waterloo House after Wellington’s great victory. The merchant was possessed of a mean streak as well as a fortune. He beat his wife, terrorised his children and raped the maid. In the eyes of Georgian London he was no worse than many a gentleman and no better than he should be; indeed his greatest misdemeanours were in failing to share his allegedly excellent cognac, believed to be smuggled across the Channel from his grandfather’s estate in France during the flight from Robespierre, and in failing to pay his tailor. The locals despised him for being tight-fisted rather than heavy-fisted, and nicknamed the house “Frog Hall” to goad him. His wretched temper and feeling of inferiority percolated the house and seeped into the plaster.
His son followed fashionable pursuits and gambled away his father’s fortune so that the house passed through a number of hands. By the 1880s it had had several owners when it was acquired by an engineer who made his fortune in railways, and he renamed it Myrtle Lodge in honour of his wife; what she thought of the architectural monstrosity is not recorded but the staff at the hostel liked to play a pub game imagining her reaction. They would pull faces reminiscent of the Hunchback of Notre Dame or a particularly scurrilous Richard III and exclaim in shrill falsettos “Why, sirrah! ‘Tis the very epitome of hell!”, or if a little later in the evening more daringly, “Lawks, sir! You appear to have the most monstrous erection!”. This usually happened after the first few rounds had been consumed, and everyone then would fall about laughing, wish each other good night and wobble to the tube in tipsy good humour. If they knew how keen a houses’s hearing can be, it is likely they would have found a different game to play, as they were basically kind people who don’t want to hurt any feelings, whether of their clients or their workplace.
It is said you should not judge a book by its cover, and this is often true. In the case of Myrtle Lodge though, the exception proves the rule. It was the ugliest house for miles around and I am sorry to say its character was well-suited to its appearance. Myrtle Lodge was ill-tempered and malicious, with a nasty extension of low cunning. It had been built by a local despot on the kind of soil that brings about bad-tempered brick, as it soaks into the lower courses and makes its way to the roof as human generations pass.
And it was a house with a secret.