The drive up to Northumberland took almost four hours if you count the twenty minutes break for lunch at a motorway service area. That was a little longer then the three hours Dad had predicted, but I was too tired to bring up that discrepancy in our conversation. In fact, there was very little conversation during the journey, mainly because I was tired from lack of sleep the previous two nights. The seats in Dad's old black Mercedes were very comfortable, and I spent most of the time snoozing, soothed by the light classical music that Dad had put on the CD player.
We arrived at the hotel just after 2 pm and went to our respective rooms to unpack and freshen up. Then we met up again in Dad's room to discuss our plans for the next few days.
"Take a seat," he said when he let me into his room. "I've just been making some phone calls and need to tweak our itinerary."
Sighing loudly, mainly to emphasise the fact that I wasn't happy with the whole situation, I went to sit in the easy chair while he sat at the desk and scribbled on some paper. I resigned myself to the possibility of a long and boring wait because I knew Dad always enjoyed planning everything, no matter how trivial, in minute detail. Maybe that was one of the attributes that had advanced his career.
"Right," he said eventually, "here's the plan. Tomorrow morning we drive round and generally scout out the area, and then after lunch we see two houses. For each house I've prepared a checklist we can fill in after our visit. Distance from my work at Stellar, distance from the nearest school, condition of the house, that sort of thing."
He must have noticed me slumping deeper into the chair with my eyes glazing over because he stopped speaking and glared at me.
"Sorry to bore you," he said sarcastically, "but I thought you might show at least a bit of interest in the choice of a new home."
I sat up in the chair and tried to look more awake. Although I was very much against moving and was still hoping to find a way to sabotage his plans, if I couldn't prevent the move I did at least want to have some say in where we lived. Also, under any other circumstances I would have been really happy to spend so much quality time with my dad, so I tried at least to pretend to show a little enthusiasm.
"I'm not bored, just a bit tired," I half-lied. Then couldn't help complaining, "I've not been able to sleep very well since you announced you were dragging me to live up here."
"You managed to sleep most of the way here," he commented with even more sarcasm.
"Just dozed. I can't get a proper sleep in the car."
"Well," he frowned, "you'd better get some sleep tonight. It's going to be a busy week."
"Yeah," I sighed, suppressing several other less agreeable things I wanted to say.
His frown faded, and it seemed that he, too, was trying to avoid an argument.
"Anyway," he continued, "it looks like we'll fit in all eleven on our list by Friday afternoon, so on Saturday morning we can take a second look at a couple of the most promising places, then drive back in the afternoon."
"And if none are promising, we can go home on Friday?" I asked, trying without total success to keep the hope out of my voice.
He raised an eyebrow at me, but as I expected, he otherwise ignored my question.
"So far there's nothing planned for Wednesday afternoon. Why don't you look through this book and see if it gives you any ideas for somewhere to visit."
He handed me a book that up until that point had been under some papers on the desk. It was one of those coffee table books with lots of illustrations and was entitled 'The Castles and Countryside of Northumberland'. Clearly this was intended as a sweetener for me and it was even more proof he'd been planning all this for some time.
"Apart from places in the book, remember there's Hadrian's Wall and the Roman forts," he said, continuing his attempt at bribery. This confirmed to me that not only did he know exactly the sort of things that would appeal to me, but also that he was prepared to use that knowledge to get his own way.
I flicked through the book while he went back to the papers on his desk. At first, resenting the fact that he was trying to manipulate me, I intended only to pretend that I was looking at the book. Then the pictures grabbed my attention and drew me into reading the brief historical descriptions, and before I realised it, I was really enjoying the book. Later, when I went back to my own room to get ready to go out for dinner, I wondered if my opinion of Dad's motives had been a bit unfair. Yes, there was no doubt that bribery was part of his plan, but as well as that, maybe he genuinely wanted me to be happy.
The next few days passed quickly, but most nights I found time to call Tony for at least a brief chat. Although I'd never admit it to my dad, and was reluctant to admit it to myself, I was actually enjoying the trip so far. The weather was as good as one could expect for an English springtime, the countryside was beautiful, the coastlines were dramatic, and it was nice to spend so much time close to Dad. On the Wednesday afternoon, as Dad had promised, I got to pick what we should do. After much thought I decided on Dunstanburgh Castle. Although partially in ruins, it was still very impressive, perched above the rocky seashore. Had it not been for the basic purpose of the trip, I might have said it was one of the best holidays I'd had since Mum died.
The main point of the trip, though, was to look at houses, and Dad made sure we did that in a very businesslike manner. By Thursday lunch time we'd seen eight houses, with one more planned for that afternoon and the last two for Friday morning. Although I made sure that I found some fault with all of those first eight, most of them were okay, and Dad had patiently made a note of my objections, along with all of his own observations.
One house, though, I totally and absolutely vetoed when we saw it on the Tuesday afternoon. Outwardly it was quite pleasant, built of local stone about a hundred years ago and situated at the edge of a small market town. However, as soon as I went inside the house, I knew I could never live there, and indeed I was immediately desperate to leave. A feeling of dread and oppression overwhelmed me before I could even notice what the interior of the house looked like, so I told Dad I was feeling ill. Then I waited for him by the car while he continued going round the house with the estate agent. When he came out a few minutes later, he asked if I was okay and I nodded my head.
"I thought you'd come back inside when you felt better," he said, looking concerned. "Do you want to look at my notes before taking a look for yourself?"
"I'm not going in there again!" I blurted out, my voice trembling with panic at the very idea. "I'd never live there. Never, ever!"
"Mark, what on earth's the matter?" he asked, startled by my outburst.
At first I had no idea how to answer that. Of course, I couldn't tell him that, for no practical reason I could think of, I'd rather live in a sewer than in that house. If I did that, my logical and scientific father, who probably already thought I was strange, would begin to think I was losing my sanity. For a few moments I myself wondered if I wasn't just a little crazy. Eventually, knowing he would just ask again if I remained silent, I replied as calmly as I could manage.
"Nothing's the matter with me. It's just a horrible house."
He gave me a searching look and appeared to consider the situation for a few seconds.
"Okay," he said, "if you feel so strongly about it we can cross this one off our list. After all, it's not high on my list of possibilities, and there are other places still to see."
Feeling a huge sense of relief, I got into the car while Dad went back to the house to tell the estate agent that we were no longer interested.
On Thursday afternoon we went to see the ninth house on our itinerary, 'Prospect House'. It was way out in the countryside, about six miles from the nearest town of any size, though there was a small village about half a mile away. This relative isolation was one factor that had placed it quite low on our list of possibilities, and it had been included on the list mainly because it seemed to be great value for money. The house was in the middle of our price range but was about twice as big as most of the places we'd listed.
We followed the estate agent's car off the main road for about a half mile to the village, which had a few small shops and a pub round the village green. After passing through the village we turned up a small, single-track, tree-lined road, which I correctly assumed to be the private road mentioned in the printed details. Almost immediately after entering the private road I saw a red brick house on the right, which at once I could see was far too small to be the one we were looking for.
The road, which by now could better be described as a large driveway, bent to the left and continued up a gentle slope, leaving behind the screening trees. Then, for the first time I saw the house we'd come to inspect, and although still a few hundred yards away, it was still an imposing sight. The huge lawn at the front of the house was also impressive, especially if I didn't have to take care of it.
The house that stood at the top of the low hill was made of red brick with pale grey stonework on the corners, along the roof, and around the windows and door. It was three storeys tall and I estimated that the frontage to be about twenty yards. The driveway terminated in a small grey-gravelled area just outside the front entrance, where, following the estate agent's example, we parked and got out of the car.
"Here we are, Professor Kenny," the agent, Mr Turner, said to my dad. "Prospect House is one of the finest Victorian houses in the area. Built in 1892 by William Armstrong, who at that time owned most of the local coal mines. As you can see, the grounds are still extensive although much of the original estate has been sold off over the years..."
While Turner, a chubby red-haired man in his mid thirties, continued giving us a brief history of the house, Dad and I looked more closely at the frontage. The central portion of the house was slightly higher than the rest of the building and the front projected out by a couple of feet from the two 'wings'. Six wide grey stone steps led up to the large varnished wood door, which was set in more grey stone. There was a large fanlight over the door and on the ground floor there were two large windows on each wing.
Then I noticed some small windows, below the level of the door and almost at ground level. That's when I remembered reading that the house had a large basement, which had been one of the things that had been a plus-point for both Dad and me. I was eager to get inside, but the agent was still talking to Dad, and to my annoyance, totally ignoring my presence. I was further irritated by the obsequious way the man kept using my dad's title of 'professor'.
"You will have noticed that the house faces south..." Turner droned on, clearly well into his pre-rehearsed speech.
Actually, I hadn't noticed at all, and I doubted that even Dad had given it any thought.
"There is still an extensive decorative garden by the west wing, though the walled kitchen garden to the east was sold off with the gatehouse in the sixties..."
From this snippet of information I surmised that the small house near the entrance to the private road must be the 'gatehouse'. Looking to the east, I could see only trees, so I guessed that the walled garden, if it still existed, was beyond them. By this time, Dad, who had even less interest in gardens than I had, was getting impatient.
"I'm afraid we've got a tight schedule today," he lied politely. "Do you think we could look inside now?"
"Of course, Professor."
The unctuous tone of the man's response made me clench my jaw as I made my way toward the door. Once inside, however, my jaw quickly unclenched when I saw the huge entrance hall. The walls were painted a pale cream, and it was paved with a chessboard pattern of large black and white stone squares. There was a sense of a huge space, probably because the ceiling was so high, going right up beyond the ground floor to the ceiling of the first floor. Light flooded in through a large window above the fanlight. Even Dad was so impressed that he forgot his usual buyer's caution.
"Are you sure that the asking price is correct on here?" he asked, waving his copy of the house details.
"Yes, Professor. I told you the house is a bargain."
"So, what's the catch?" Dad asked, suspicion narrowing his eyes.
The abruptness and bluntness of the question clearly took the estate agent by surprise.
"N-no catch at all," he stammered. "My clients are just anxious for a quick sale."
Dad raised an eyebrow and looked at the man in silence until Turner realised a more detailed explanation was required.
"Well, the old lady who owned the place died more than a year ago, and her only living relatives, my clients, live in New Zealand. The house needed a lot of work to get it into a saleable condition. Roof, guttering, rewiring, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the old lady didn't leave much cash, so the relatives have had to up-front the money for all that work, and now they need to get a quick return on their investment."
He looked at Dad, clearly hoping this would be sufficient. After a few moments thought, Dad nodded his head, apparently satisfied, at least for the time being. The inspection continued.
About five yards in from the door, a wide set of stairs went up to a landing on the far wall. The stair banisters and the railing on the landing were made from wrought iron with a dark wood handgrip. The landing appeared to be part of the first floor, and below the landing, on the opposite wall from the door, there were doors on either side of the stairs. Two larger doors were on the left side of the entrance hall, with a matching pair of doorways on the right hand wall. All the doors were closed. Turner, having regained his composure but not having lost his obsequiousness, went over and opened the nearer door on the right hand wall.
"This is the smaller of the two reception rooms," he announced and stood aside to let us enter while he read his notes. "This room is approximately twenty feet by fourteen feet."
To me the room seemed huge, with a ceiling that I guessed was well over twelve feet high, and it was even more impressive for being described as 'the smaller'. No doubt that was precisely the effect Turner had intended. Setting aside the fact that I'd taken a strong dislike to the man, I grudgingly began to think that maybe he knew how to do his job.
On the right hand wall of the room, the front of the house, were two large windows and on the wall opposite the door were two much smaller windows. With the afternoon sunshine outside, the room was filled with light. The brightness and the total lack of any furniture, made the room seem even bigger.
There were plaster mouldings on the ceiling, with a picture rail around the walls, and I presumed these were original Victorian features. Although the mouldings were picked out in white, the rest of the room was a drab matt pale green. That, combined with the bare wooden floorboards removed all sense of homeliness.
I moved closer to my dad and whispered to him. "I hope the people fixing the roof did a better job than the decorators did in here."
The acoustics of the bare room made it almost certain that Turner heard me, but he didn't react in any way and instead just continued the tour.
"The door over there." he said pointing to the wall opposite the big windows, leads to the library. There is another entrance to the library from the entrance hall."
At the mention of 'library' my dad's eyes lit up and he smiled, immediately making for the door, with me close behind. If he'd shared my visions of huge leather chairs and walls filled with books, we were both disappointed. Certainly, the walls were lined with fine wooden bookshelves, but there were no books and no furniture of any kind.
Next, Turner led us across the hallway and showed us the other two rooms, which were indeed a little bigger than the first room he'd shown us. However, they were decorated with the same drab paint and, as they were equally empty, I didn't understand why he referred to the one at the rear of the house as the dining room. For me, the main feature of both these rooms was that they each had French windows in what I was now beginning to think of as the west wall. These led out to a small terrace with a low stone balustrade. That terrace overlooked a large formal garden that was tidy but not particularly well stocked with plants. The condition of the garden combined with my memory of the lawn combined to generate a question.
"If the house has been empty for over a year, I presume someone is being paid to keep the garden and lawns so tidy," I said to Turner, but then looked pointedly at my dad. "Do they charge much?"
"Oh, there's a small horticultural business in the village that takes care of the gardens, and I believe the charges are quite reasonable."
"Right," Dad said impatiently as soon as Turner finished speaking. "As I said, we're a bit short of time. Shall we see the rest of the house?"
The estate agent led us back to the hallway and pointed out that the door on the left beneath the stairs led down to the basement, but said that he thought it best to leave that to the end of the tour. Dad and I exchanged glances, both wondering why Turner thought that was best, but we didn't say anything.
We headed to the door on the other side of the stairs and beyond the door we found a small chamber with three other doors. There was a fanlight over the opposite door, so I assumed that it led outside to the rear of the house. When I opened the door I found my assumption was correct, but had a bit of a shock when I saw it led to a small terrace considerably above ground level.
The ground behind the house appeared to have been cut away so that what was the basement at the front of the house was the ground floor at the rear. I guessed that the soil removed from the back of the house had been used to level off the garden area. From the terrace where I stood, a set of stone steps led down to a gravelled path and a lawn. The rough grass beyond the lawn sloped steeply down to a small stream a couple of hundred yards away. As the ground rose again on the opposite side of the stream it became more and more densely covered with trees. There was a brief flash of something blue among the trees, but it disappeared so quickly that I couldn't tell what it was.
Going back inside to the small chamber, we found there was a cloakroom under the main stairs. Opposite the cloakroom was a large bathroom, which was lined with white tiles and had old-fashioned but clean fittings. Suddenly, something Turner said impinged on my consciousness. As if by telepathy, Dad must have had the same thought because he stopped in his tracks.
"Did you say the bathroom?" he asked the estate agent.
"Excuse me?" the man responded, though I could tell he knew what Dad was getting at.
"Did you just say 'This is the bathroom', meaning it's the only one? You really mean a place this size has just the one bathroom?"
"Well, yes. The old lady had lived here alone since the nineteen forties, so she never needed more than one," the agent replied then added, defensively. "The house details we sent to you mention just one."
"Yes, but," Dad sputtered, "I thought whoever wrote that was just emphasising an additional downstairs bathroom, and maybe neglected to mention any others."
"My clients thought it would be best to maximise the potential and flexibility of the layout by allowing the new owners to decide where to place any additional bathrooms."
Dad didn't bother to suppress a derisory snort, so I knew that, like me, wasn't taken in by Turner's bluster.
"More likely," he said, "that your clients ran out of money before they got around to deciding where to put another bathroom."
"As you pointed out yourself, Professor," Turner said, his face reddening, "the house has a much lower asking price than other properties of similar size, and it's still a considerable bargain, despite any small deficiencies. Perhaps we should go upstairs so you can see for yourself."
Upstairs were six very large rooms, three on each side of the house. All had high ceilings and were painted the same pale green. At the northwest and northeast corners of that floor were small doors, each giving access to stairs leading to the top floor. The northwest stairs led up to what had been the servants quarters, and the northeast stairs led up to rooms which Turner said had been the nursery and nanny's quarters.
Leaving my dad talking to Turner, I went off to explore on my own. After going upstairs for a quick look at the 'nursery' area, I came back down and wandered into the nearest room. On entering the room, I suddenly felt disoriented and almost fainted. It was similar to the feeling I'd occasionally experienced when sitting up suddenly after I'd been lying down for a while. Because of the wave of dizziness, I had to grab hold of the doorjamb in order to prevent myself from falling.
For a few moments the room seemed much darker, and I thought the walls seemed deep red. However, my fainting spell, or whatever it was, quickly passed and the room returned to its pale-green brightness. I supposed that maybe I'd come down the stairs too quickly or that it had been a long time since I'd had lunch. Whatever the case, I went to rejoin my dad but didn't mention what had happened.
Although my experience in that room had not been exactly pleasant, a couple of times during the rest of the tour I detached myself from the other two and returned there. The disorientation and faintness did not recur, but instead I felt drawn deeper into the room. When eventually my dad came to tell me they were going to look at the basement, I felt very reluctant to leave the room.
The reason Turner had wanted to leave the basement until last became apparent as soon as we went down there. The estate agent obviously wanted us to end the tour on a high note and leave us with a good final impression. The huge kitchen was on the north of the house and, being effectively on the ground floor, was bright with light from large windows.
Although old fashioned in its equipment and layout, it was spotlessly clean, and there was a beautiful breakfast-dining area that looked out onto the rear lawn. Even the southern 'underground' side of the basement, which had a large walk-in pantry, a wine cellar and a large storeroom, was clean and well lit. I was grateful that the current owners had apparently not felt the need to renovate or decorate this part of the house.
"Well, what do you think?" Turner asked Dad as we made our way back to the car.
"It's certainly got potential, but would need a lot of work..."
"Yes," Turner interrupted, "but it's structurally sound, and it's a bargain price."
"That may well be," Dad responded cautiously, "but we have two more houses to see tomorrow, and after that my son and I will need time to think and discuss things before any decisions can be taken."
Turner threw me a disdainful glance, as if he wondered why Dad would want to let a mere boy like me have any input at all. However, his tone was polite and solicitous when he spoke again to Dad.
"Of course. I quite understand. Anyway, you have my number, so if there's anything you think of that you want to ask, feel free to call me anytime."
Nothing more was said until we were standing by the cars, then Dad brought up one more point. "Do you happen to know anything about the nearest schools and sixth form colleges?"
" I'm not a local man, so I can't tell you off the top of my head, but I can find out for you," Turner responded with a frown, then his face brightened as he seemed to have an idea. "Maybe I can ask Mr and Mrs Crawford at the gatehouse. I believe their older son is at a sixth form college."
Dad nodded and was about to get in the car when the man, obviously anxious to speed up a potential sale, spoke again. "Why don't we stop at the gatehouse on the way back and see if anyone's home?"
"I really don't want to impose..." Dad began doubtfully.
"Oh, I'm sure they won't mind!' the agent interrupted brightly. "And it will give you a chance to ask them directly if you want to know any other details."
Dad hesitated for a couple of seconds before he agreed to the proposal and we got in the car. As we drove the short distance to the gatehouse, I had a little time to get my thoughts in order. My feelings about the house were ambivalent. Certainly, it was impressive, but it had initially struck me as too large, and apart from the kitchen it seemed lacking in homeliness. On the other hand, as a lover of quiet countryside, I liked the large grounds, just so long as I didn't have to look after them. Overall, my reactions to the house were represented by my reaction to that one particular room; there was quite a strong attraction, mixed with more than a little unease.
We stopped at the gatehouse, which on closer inspection I could see was mostly an old Victorian building but with a more modern extension behind. Turner rang the doorbell, and after a brief delay the door was opened by a slim woman of average height and with a ruddy complexion. The fading afternoon light made it difficult to tell whether her hair was light brown or dark blond, but in any case it was her pale blue eyes that drew my attention.
She clearly recognised the estate agent and greeted him politely but cautiously while casting a swiftly penetrating glance at Dad and me. As Turner introduced us and explained the reason for our call, she returned her gaze to him, and from her expression I got the feeling that her opinion of him was as low as mine.
"The nearest high school is in the centre of Moreton," she said in a strong but understandable Northumberland accent. "It doesn't have a sixth form, but the local sixth form college is just the other side of the school."
"Is it easy to get there by bus?" I asked, presuming that Dad would be too busy to take me.
She studied me closely before answering, and although the delay wasn't very long, it was enough to make me uncomfortable.
"Easy enough for my sons to do it every school day," she replied laconically.
When it became clear that she wasn't going to volunteer any further information, I could tell that Dad was beginning to get irritated, so I spoke up before he could say anything.
"How long does the journey take?" I asked in my most respectful tone.
She looked at me as if to assess my age and to judge my sincerity.
"You mean to the high school?" she said. "It's about twenty five minutes once you get on the bus."
Possibly because of my lack of height, it seemed she didn't think I was old enough to go to the sixth form college.
"No," I smiled politely, "I'll be going into the sixth form in September."
"Well, it takes an extra five minutes to get to the college. Look, I don't want to be rude, but I'm in the middle of cooking our tea. If you want to know about the college, I'm sure Brian can tell you more."
She turned her head and shouted into the house, "Brian! Brian, come here a minute!" Then she turned back to us and added, "Maybe I'll see you again."
Before we could respond, she disappeared inside, and almost immediately, a tall boy, maybe a bit older than I, appeared in the doorway. At first he reminded me a little of Tony, with his height and dark hair, but then I realised that the resemblance went no further than that. This boy, presumably Brian, had deep brown eyes, his short hair wasn't curly, and he was much more heavily built than Tony. However, the extra bulk seemed to be all muscle. He was very attractive, and it occurred to me that living at Prospect House might have at least one positive feature.
"Yes?" he asked, looking puzzled.
Whether his mother had really thought he could help us, or whether it had just been a way she could leave us without being too impolite, I don't know. Whatever the case, there was an embarrassing silence as no one had any specific questions to ask him. I was even more selfconscious because I was hoping no one had noticed the way I'd been staring at him.
"I'm sorry," Dad said eventually. "It seems your mother thought we wanted to ask you about college, but it was just a misunderstanding."
"Oh!" Brian frowned. "So you don't want anything else then?"
"No, thank you. Not at the moment," the estate agent said.
Brian, trying to suppress his irritation, looked at us as if we were not quite sane, then shrugged and shut the door.
"So, what did you think?" Dad asked as we drove back to the hotel.
"There's quite a lot to think about," I replied uncertainly.
"It's a big place. Maybe too big."
"But a good price, so probably a good investment," I countered.
"There's no furniture or carpets or curtains, and the furniture from our house would only be enough for a couple of rooms," he said as if he were just thinking aloud.
"We don't need to furnish all the rooms at once."
"It needs a lot of work, and at least one more bathroom."
"And a lot of decorating!" I laughed. "They must have got a huge bulk discount on that boring green paint!"
"You can say that again!" Dad agreed, smiling. After a pause for thought, he added, "Don't you think it's a bit isolated, out in the countryside?"
"I s'pose. But at least it's private, and the countryside is lovely."
"Private apart from the Crawfords. Didn't you think they were a bit strange?"
"Seemed okay to me," I replied neutrally. Then I added more brightly, "And I got the impression that they thought we were a bit strange."
"You're probably right!" he laughed. Then after a brief pause he continued, "Anyway, overall, what do you think?"
"Well, it's the least worst place we've seen so far," I replied, not wishing to commit myself any further.
I'm not sure how Dad interpreted what I'd just said, but his response was equally neutral.
"There are two more places to look at in the morning, so maybe we should just sleep on it and discuss it again after we've seen them."
We were both satisfied to leave the matter there.
Surprisingly, that night I had one of my 'little-waking-dreams'. That's what I called the brief pictures that sometimes appeared in my head just before falling asleep. These 'mini-visions', lasting just a couple of seconds, had occurred once or twice per month since I'd been about twelve. They always happened just before I fell asleep, and up until that night, they'd only happened when I was at home, and even then only when I was totally relaxed.
Until that night the visions had been of very ordinary, boring things, such as a cup on a coffee table, or an empty armchair, or a bedside table with clock and lamp. However, they were also extremely vivid and detailed, so that, for example, I could see the grain of the wood of the table and reflections on the shiny surface of the cup. Always the scenes had been indoors, and they'd never had any emotional content. There had never been any people in those 'little-waking-dreams'.
Mostly they'd been still pictures, as if I'd got a snapshot view of what someone else was seeing, and sometimes there'd been a small shift in viewpoint, as if I'd moved my eyes. However, there was no voluntary control of this, and I was unable to move my dream-head to look around.
Once, a few months after I'd first started seeing the pictures, I just happened to mention them to my dad. He told me they were just ordinary dreams, but that I shouldn't ever mention them again to anyone. As they indeed seemed very ordinary to me, I wondered why he seemed so disturbed and why he so sternly told me not to talk about them again.
The night after we'd been to the house, the mini-vision was unusual in many ways. I wasn't in my own bed, I wasn't particularly relaxed, the scene was outdoors, and it lasted much longer than usual. There was also a moving viewpoint, though as usual I had no control over it. Despite the fact that it was in many ways unlike my usual 'little-waking-dreams', I knew that I wasn't asleep and that it wasn't an ordinary dream.
The unique difference that immediately hit me was the emotional content. Instead of being a dispassionate observer, I felt actually involved, though somehow I knew that these emotions were not my own. I was walking through a springtime woodland on a cool but sunny day, excited and happy, and with an expectation of meeting someone very special. Suddenly, the vision ended, leaving me wide awake, and after that it took a long time to fall asleep.
Apart from the coincidence of timing, there was no logical reason to link the wake-dream with my visit to Prospect House. However, in my heart I knew without any doubt that the vision related directly not only to the house but also to the particular room where I'd experienced the strange disorientation.
The two houses we looked at the next day didn't stand out in any way from most of the other places we'd seen, but immediately after lunch Dad insisted on going through their checklists in detail. Then he compared their 'ratings' with all the others.
"None of them are particularly special," he said with a sigh, "but there are a couple that may be worth a closer look. The only alternative is to arrange a trip up here some other time soon and arrange to see some different houses."
Prospect House was not one of the houses he'd listed as worth further consideration, and I made no attempt to hide my lack of enthusiasm at his suggestion of making another house hunting trip at a later date.
"I don't like either of those two," I replied, pointing at the two he'd identified as having the highest scores, "and I don't fancy the idea of starting all over again."
"Now you're just being negative and obstructive," he said with a frown and a harsh edge to his voice. "We either choose one of these two or start again. There's no other alternative."
"I'm not being obstructive!" I responded defensively and not quite truthfully. "Here's a positive suggestion. What about Prospect House?"
"We discussed that yesterday and decided it was too big..."
"No we didn't!" I protested. "We said we'd think about it."
"But I definitely got the feeling you weren't keen on the place."
"Well, now I've slept on it, I've decided it's the only place I like at all."
The certainty of my statement and determination in my voice left Dad looking startled, and it surprised even me. He sat in thoughtful silence for several seconds before he spoke again, as much to himself as to me.
"The house needs lots of work. That will take a lot of money and time. There's not much time before we have to move. And we still have to sell our house..."
"We could buy it quickly, though," I pointed out, " because there's no one living there at the moment. And they seem so anxious to sell that they may accept an even lower price."
Suddenly, and for no reason I could pinpoint, I felt a desperate need to persuade Dad to buy Prospect House. He looked at me closely and with some suspicion in his eyes, probably wondering if my apparent enthusiasm was some kind of ploy. Whatever was going through his mind, when he spoke his tone was cautious.
"The upkeep on such a big old house would be high. Just keeping it warm in winter could be very expensive, and we'd need a housekeeper and probably a gardener."
"Maybe, but the house will be cheap to buy, the mortgage will be small, your salary will be better than now, and it would be a great investment."
Despite my persuasiveness, I could tell from his doubtful expression that he wasn't very convinced by my arguments. There was a possibility that he was just testing to see if my enthusiasm genuine, but I felt it was more likely that he was going to start throwing out more objections until I gave in. There was one more card I could play, but it would mean total capitulation, so I was reluctant to use it.
"Mark, I know..."
From the way he frowned as he began to speak, I guessed that he was going to set out more arguments against the house, so I decided I had to play my trump card and hope it would work.
"Dad," I said earnestly, "if we get Prospect House, I promise that not only will I drop all opposition to moving up here, but I'll even be as positive and helpful as I can about it."
The solemnity of my tone as well as the words themselves made him pause for some serious thought.
"Okay," he said eventually, "if you feel so strongly about it, maybe we should at least investigate the possibilities. We'll have a closer look at the house, decide what needs doing and get some quotes for the work. Then we need to see if we can find a housekeeper..."
His voice trailed off as he saw my expression of relief, and then he continued in a much more cautious tone. "Look, Mark, I'm not promising anything. I'm just saying that we'll consider it in more detail."
"That's fair enough. But I'm sure we can make it work," I said confidently.
He gave me a concerned look, which was understandable, bearing in mind that I was rarely enthusiastic or confident about anything. The fact that I'd so recently been totally opposed to the move probably made him wonder what was going on. Frankly, I was beginning to wonder that myself.
After our discussion, Dad phoned Turner and arranged for us to pick up the keys to Prospect House. Turner would have preferred to accompany us, but Dad said we didn't know how long we'd be, and he pointed out that the sooner we had access the sooner we could make a definite decision about buying.
We arrived at the house a little before 3 pm, and it didn't take long for us to list the things that needed to be done then arrange the list in order of priority. Top of the list were two additional bathrooms, one of which Dad wanted to be en suite to any bedroom that he would have. So, to make the planning easier, we decided to pick out which bedrooms we would have if we bought the house.
Without giving any conscious thought, I chose the room on the east side of the building that had made such a strong impression on me. Though I still had a vague feeling of unease about the room, it was also mixed with a sort of anticipatory excitement. If there was a tiny element of fear involved, it was the safe-fear one feels just before going over the big drop at the start of a roller coaster ride.
Dad chose the symmetrically equivalent room on the west side. His proposed en suite bathroom would be mirrored on 'my' side of the house, but mine would have an additional door into the corridor so that guests could use it without going through my bedroom. We then made outline plans for decorating our bedrooms and the smaller of the two reception rooms, leaving other rooms until later.
The only thing about which Dad and I had any substantial disagreement was relating to the kitchen. I felt really comfortable with its old-fashioned look, but he wanted all the most modern conveniences. After a lot of often heated discussion we compromised, agreeing to get new equipment but blending them in with the current look, for example by putting the fridge inside one of the many large wooden cupboards.
The next morning, Dad was going to take the list of work round to various local firms so that they could send quotes down to us after we'd returned home. Because they would need to get into the house in order to put together their quotes, Dad had to make sure the estate agent would give them access. We also decided it would be polite to inform the people at the gatehouse about all the impending activity. So, a little after 4.30 pm, we rang the Crawfords' doorbell.
"Back again, then," Mrs Crawford greeted us when she opened the door. Her tone, part statement and part question, was direct but not unfriendly.
"Erm, yes," Dad responded, a little taken aback by her unusual greeting. "We're considering buying Prospect House and thought we should let you know that we expect a few people will be going up to the house over the next week or so."
"Well, thank you for letting us know," she said, then paused to look beyond us to the car. "Isn't Mr Turner with you?"
"No, we came up alone," Dad replied.
"In that case," she said, smiling at us for the first time, "would you like to come in for some tea and home made cake?"
"Yes, please!" I said eagerly before Dad could respond.
Thinking that this might be an opportunity to get another look at Brian, I didn't want to risk Dad declining. Knowing my usually unsociable nature, Dad gave me a look of surprise before accepting her invitation.
As we sat in the comfortable living room eating her excellent chocolate-and-cream cake, she asked us some polite but searching questions, and it seemed almost as if Dad and I were being interviewed. She expressed sympathy that there was no 'Mrs Kenny' and surprise that we were considering buying such a large house when there was just the two of us. However, the flow of information went both ways, and we learned a little about the Crawfords.
Mr Crawford, or 'my Andrew' as she referred to him, was a police sergeant in Alnwick and wasn't expected home that evening until after midnight. Disappointingly, Brian was also out with friends and her other son, Tommy, was 'out as usual'. We were told proudly that the Crawford family have been living at the gatehouse ever since it was built, and that for many years they all worked for the Armstrongs. Even the current gardeners who looked after the grounds were cousins of Mr Crawford. The fact that our hostess had done the housekeeping for the old lady right up till she died prompted Dad to ask a hesitant question.
"Erm, Mrs Crawford, would you consider being housekeeper for the new owners of the house?"
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at us and considered the matter for a couple of seconds. "It depends on who owned the house and if I could get on with them.... and if they treated the house with respect."
"Respect?" Dad echoed.
"Yes. Looking after it properly and not slap cheap paint around like that awful Mr Turner!" She looked sheepishly at us, as if she were a bit embarrassed by her little outburst, but when she continued speaking there was a little defiance in her voice. "You know, that Turner man had lots of beautiful fittings ripped out. And he even suggested completely tearing out that lovely old kitchen!"
Now it was Dad's turn to look somewhat sheepish, and I couldn't suppress a grin. Although Mrs Crawford was definitely not the most diplomatic person I knew, I was beginning to warm to her. That feeling gave me the courage to ask her a question that had been hovering at the edges of my mind since she'd mention the old lady, whom she'd referred to as 'Miss Victoria'.
"Mrs Crawford," I said hesitantly and glanced at my dad to see what he'd make of my question, "which room was Miss Victoria's?"
"Room?" she said, slightly puzzled. "You mean bedroom?"
"Yes," I said, disregarding Dad's frown, "and which room did she die in?"
"Well, young man. Mark," she said as if correcting herself. "She didn't die in the house, she died in hospital. And for the last few years of her life she slept downstairs in the room next to the library. That's where I found her collapsed one morning. She'd had a stroke and died a couple of weeks later. Why do you ask?"
Her tone was kindly, but I felt that she and Dad were both looking at me as if I were some strange creature. Or maybe I was just feeling paranoid because I couldn't think of a reasonable reply to her question.
"Oh, I just wondered," I mumbled lamely.
Easter Sunday afternoon, as arranged by phone the previous evening, Tony came round to my house. I'd suggested that I should go to see him, but he told me he wanted to come over to celebrate the end of his grounding, his 'release from prison' as he put it. In his usual carefree way he was lounging on my bed while I slumped in my armchair.
"At least I had plenty of time to study," he said cheerfully.
"You? Study?" I gasped in mock amazement. "That's hard to believe."
"I said I had time to study," he grinned. "I didn't say I actually did any studying."
He was always joking, and no matter how low I felt, he usually managed to raise my spirits. As so often before, I wondered why he bothered spending time with someone like me. Then a newer thought entered my mind and I wondered what I would do without him.
"Still," I said seriously, "we ought to start studying soon cos it's only a few weeks until the exams."
"Okay, okay, slave driver!" he joked. "But let's wait till after the Bank Holiday. Anyway, have you made up the timetables yet?"
"No, I was planning on doing it tomorrow."
"There you are then!" he said proudly, as if scoring a debating point. "Nothing for me to do till you get yer finger out."
Although I don't remember exactly how or when it started, for the last few years, when exams were approaching I'd been drawing up study timetables for both of us. Strangely, this continued even when we didn't do all the same subjects. Even more amazing was that he usually kept quite closely to the timetables I produced.
"How come I always end up doing your timetable?" I asked with a wry grin, not really expecting an answer.
"Cos you're the clever one!" he quipped.
He often made remarks like that, but of course it wasn't really true. I knew I wasn't more intelligent than Tony, and I was sure he knew that, too. Still, it made me feel good when he said it, and probably that was his intention. In any case, I always took on the timetable chore gladly.
After a brief and friendly silence, he spoke in what for him was a serious tone. "Your Dad still moving, then? Haven't you found a way to persuade him to stay?"
I just shook my head, 'No', so he continued. "Ya know, if your dad goes, you could always stay with us, at least till you're eighteen and go to uni."
"And what would your mum and dad say to that?" I said lightly, assuming he wasn't being serious.
"They said they'd think about it if your dad said it was okay," he said matter-of-factly.
"You already asked them?" I almost squeaked with surprise.
"I just told you that," he said, sitting up to so he could see my reaction.
"Well, erm, where would I stay? You don't have a spare room."
"You could have Sarah's room when she was at college and share my room when she was home." The speed of his answer made it clear that he'd already thought it all out.
His offer and what it said about the strength of our friendship struck me speechless. I was also touched that he'd already talked to his parents and that they were really considering it. Then the thought of living with Tony and maybe sharing a room with him hit home. It occurred to me that it might be like having a big brother. Maybe I'd even see him naked. I blushed.
He was still sitting up on the bed and looking at me closely. I wondered if he would still make the offer if he could read my thoughts. Also, I wondered how I would feel being so close to him and never being able to touch him or even tell him how I really felt about him. Staying overnight with friends seemed relatively common in stories and TV programs from the USA, but in our part of England it was very rare, and I'd never had an overnight stay with Tony. The idea was both attractive and scary.
"Ah, well, thanks," I stuttered eventually. "That's really good of you... and your parents... but I doubt that Dad would allow it."
I was debating with myself whether or not to tell him of the promise I'd made to Dad, but seeing the disappointment on his face, I decided it wasn't a good idea. Also, if we didn't get Prospect House my promise would be null and void, and my dad really would be the only obstacle to me living with Tony. However, even if the promise was no longer relevant, I thought it would be unlikely that Dad would agree to me staying with Tony.
"But you'll try?" Tony asked, interrupting my thoughts and sounding dejected.
"Try persuading your dad to let you stay."
Feeling like a traitor, I sighed and shrugged. "Yes, of course I'll try."
Tony gradually regained some of his usual cheerfulness, and the conversation eventually restarted. I told him about Northumberland, house hunting, and about Prospect House, emphasising to him that we'd been looking at big houses so there would be lots of room for him to stay with us. My description of the castles didn't impress him much, but he liked the idea of being near the sea and seemed vaguely interested in my descriptions of Prospect House.
As he was about to leave to go home for dinner, I was following him from my room when he halted in the doorway and turned to face me. He stopped suddenly, and I was close behind him, so I nearly bumped into him
"If you go, I'll miss you," he said very quietly, his face flushing a little.
"I'll miss you, too. But you'll have lots of other friends still here."
"Yes, but you're more like a brother," he said and turned to leave the room.
As he turned he said something so quietly that I couldn't be sure what it was, but it sounded like 'and my anchor'. Before I could ask what he'd said, he pounded down the stairs and, with a swift 'See ya', he left the house.
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