“Sorry, it won’t budge.”
“Here, let me.”
The antique dealer pushed hard at the door, kicking at the bottom where it was sticking, and it finally shuddered open. He moved forward into the dark space of the hallway, trampling over the yellowing junk mail and wrinkling his nose at the smell. Amy followed him, her face pale and anxious. She still wasn’t sure whether she wanted to do this. He turned and stared back at her.
“You said this is your aunt’s house? How the hell did it get like this? Couldn’t somebody have helped her clear it out or something?”
Amy bit her lip. He hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. Not by a long way. At least you could get through the front door and stand up in the hallway. Maybe she should have tried to clear up a bit before she contacted him. He turned and looked back at her, frowning.
“What was she? Some kind of bag lady?”
Bag lady? Anything but. Amy thought back to the time when she used to come to the house regularly to visit her Auntie Vi. It had all been very smart, when she had been growing up. You never even had a biscuit in here without a plate to put it on. The dealer looked at her face anxiously, searching for signs of distress.
“I’m sorry. My big mouth.”
“Never mind. It is a bit of a dump. She died three and a half years ago.”
“And this is still her stuff, right?”
He whistled softly.
“It must belong to somebody. Why has it been left like this?”
Amy froze. She hadn’t been expecting him to ask the question so directly, not so soon at any rate, and she wasn’t ready for it. She was going to have to tell him, or nothing would get done. That was why she had brought him here. Wasn’t it?
“It’s my fault. It belongs to me. I just sort of couldn’t cope really.”
He shook his head firmly, already assessing the possibilities hidden in the piles of objects filling the room. This was always his favourite moment.
“Don’t worry. Houses like this can be little goldmines. I’ve seen worse.”
She held her breath and followed him down the hallway, past the carefully folded newspapers, piled up higher than her head, which were leaning in rows against the thick cream paint, clinging in rumpled layers to the side of the stairs. She was glad that he had gone that way, rather than straight into the front room.
The doubt in his voice came from the fact that it wasn’t easy to see the table. Amy followed his gaze as he looked around, it was almost as new to her as it was to him. The six chairs around the dining table were all piled with old clothes which had once been clean and folded, waiting to be ironed. Now they were grey with dust and spread out across the dark polished wood of the table, mingling with the piles of old bills and receipts, hiding its surface.
“Please don’t ask any more questions, not now. It’s all a bit much.”
He put his hand lightly on her shoulder, still scanning the room as he listened.
Amy watched him as he began to move around the chaos, lifting things gently and putting them back down. He was younger than she had expected, much younger, even if he did dress as if he was middle aged in faded cords and a linen jacket. The name on his card said Rufus Carter. He was probably not much older than she was, and far too good looking, quite tall and skinny. The shine on his dark hair was picked out in a shaft of dusty sunlight when he pulled aside the lace curtain and his eyes were alight with interest behind rimless glasses. In better times she might even have fancied him, especially if she had realised that he had already been admiring her long red hair and pale skin and taking long hard looks at her when she was distracted and wouldn’t notice that she was being stared at. Amy had always attracted attention, especially from men, and her total unconcern just made them try harder. She sat down on a chair arm and tried to pull herself together, attempting to work out for herself all over again how a home could get into a state like this. Her own flat in Scarborough was a simple, modern box, inserted into a Victorian chapel, which she kept tidy and spotless, and any history which it may once have contained had been erased, sacrificed in the name of comfort and convenience. It was exactly the opposite here. Any kind of comfort there had once been in this place had been sacrificed in the name of history. The past was everywhere, eating into the present and destroying it. Someone- her Aunt Vi presumably- had not been able to stop that happening and this was the result.
Slowly she began to see beyond the confusion and pick out the remains of what had been. It was all still here, frozen underneath a protective film of dust and guarded by barricades of random objects which had once had a home, but now lay helpless, strewn around the floor. She began to realise that nothing had been moved from the time when the room had last been decorated. Judging from the startling striped wallpaper and the wide floral border which blazed its way across one of the walls that must have been sometime in the nineteen eighties. Not that it would have looked as bad as this for a while of course. That would have taken time, years of despair maybe. If you cut a way through it, clearing and sorting, you would be able to find your way back through the years to the point when things went wrong. She was in no doubt now that something must have gone very wrong. Very wrong indeed.
The dealer picked up a trilby hat which was lying pointlessly in the middle of the floor and shook off the dust. If he hadn’t seen the dark ring of grease around the band inside it he might have thought about putting it on to try to cheer her up. She wasn’t going to be in a mood to sell anything if she carried on like this and he had seen a few potential good buys already.
“Your Aunt go in for hats did she?”
“That would have been Uncle Tin Tin’s.”
“That was my nickname for him. He used to read me the stories. He died in 1987.”
He set the hat down at a jaunty angle, topping off one of the piles of clothes. Amy stared at it sadly. 1987, and his hat was still there in the middle of the living room floor twenty six years later. Unreal.
“Were you close to her?”
She shut her eyes. This was at the heart of it. This was why she had been unable to come through that front door for three and a half years. This was why her mother had driven her crazy with every nagging phone call demanding to be allowed to get in here with her and “bottom it”, until she had been forced to leave the answering machine on and choose her own moment to ring back, usually at a time when she knew that her mother would be out. Nothing her mother said had been able to make her come to this house, her powerlessness a final proof that, at nearly thirty, Amy was no longer a child. Its existence had become a shameful secret, covered over by silence and a light dusting of fear. Until today.
“When I was growing up I was. We lived in York and coming over to Malton on the train to see her was always my biggest treat. I used to beg to stay. I had my own box of toys here, and a second hand bike that she bought me. Then I moved away to uni, lost touch, and when I moved back up North I just never got round to ringing her up. I don’t know why. I feel bad about it now.”
He shrugged, unconcerned.
“It happens. Things change, people move on.”
The truth was that Amy just hadn’t cared enough. He was right, she had changed, moved on, but Aunt Vi never had. She was always cheerful and controlled, always neat. You could never imagine her living like this, ever. She would never have asked why the visits stopped, she never complained of anything. If Amy had come to see her there would have been no recriminations, no pointed remarks, and yet she still hadn’t done it. Not once. The quiet little market town with its grey stone church, quirky shops, local characters and small narrow streets had seemed boring and claustrophobic to an older teenager who was ready to break out and find a life of her own. Her aunt and uncle had been part of the place, thanks to the butchers shop on the main street which had been in her uncle’s family for as long as anyone could remember. You couldn’t go out of the front door without being stopped by someone who wanted to talk, especially if her uncle was there. Shopping took forever. Amy had hated it. Aunt Vi had died here too. She had died in a nursing home, hidden behind a massive yew hedge and she had been well cared for. The news of her illness had been given to most of those who knew her only when it was too late for embarrassing visits and condolences. She never quite lost her pride. It must have killed her living like this.
Amy’s eyes began to burn as she held back tears.
“Aunt Vi didn’t forget. She never forgot.”
She pointed silently at a photograph on the stereogram, half hidden by a pile of James Last LP’s. The dealer picked it up, wiping the surface with his hand and a child’s face appeared out of the dust, a chubby little smiler with cropped hair, cut out sandals, a sensible navy cardigan and over large national health glasses. It was barely recognisable as the young woman standing next to him.
“You’ve definitely improved with age. I’d stick with the contacts if I were you.”
Rufus Carter was used to making light of things, skimming over the surface of life and batting aside emotion with a joke, kept afloat by his good looks and a ready smile. You could always be sure that if you tried to get him to think too deeply about anything he would flick his tail like a small silver fish and swim for the shallows. Usually customers liked this, and most people found it charming, but at other times his flippancy could be irritating beyond belief, and Amy was upset enough to tell him so now, stranger or not.
“Are you always so rude to people you hardly know?.”
He was taken aback, used to being liked and indulged.
“What have I said? Come on, lighten up a bit. Let’s have a look upstairs. And my name’s Rufus by the way, you are allowed to use it.”
“Lighten up” was one of Amy’s most hated phrases. It was always a bad sign when she heard it.
She followed him up the staircase, negotiating her way past loose rusting stair rods, and onto the landing. There were five doors leading off it and she didn’t want to go through any of them, but Rufus had the bit between his teeth now and he was enjoying himself. He tried the nearest first. Amy stopped him.
“You won’t get in there. She slept in the one at the end. And the second one is the bathroom.”
He pushed at the door, and there was a cracking sound as it burst open into the room.
An old green Lloyd Loom wicker chair, which had been holding the door closed, had disintegrated into a pile of sticks. He kicked it to one side and squeezed himself into the small space which it had left. As Amy stared past him at the piled up furniture and random belongings filling the space the first thing which came into her mind was the famous photograph which had been taken looking into the antechamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Only these were not wonderful things, just dross. Rufus grinned back at her over his shoulder.
“You are going to need a very big skip sunshine.”
“Just shut the door will you.”
He picked up a glass lampshade lying on the fading lino and turned it round in his hands.
“This is very nice, deco, shame you haven’t got the original fitting. I wonder if it’s lying around somewhere.”
Suddenly she was shouting.
“I said shut the door!”
He closed it quickly. She leaned her back against the wall and sank down it with her face hidden in her hands. He bent down in front of her, wide eyed and anxious.
“Sorry. This is all too painful for you, I should have realised, but I get carried away. There are a few things here that I like. I get over excited when I’m looking round a place like this, tunnel vision, you know?”
Amy rubbed her arm across her eyes and shook her head.
“I need to get out.”
He swore under his breath.
“OK. We can come back though? Another day?”
“If you like.”
He straightened up and held out his hand.
“Come on. There’s a decent coffee shop in town. Give you time to catch your breath. I’m buying.”
Amy was too distracted to notice him helping her up. If she had seen the look in his eyes as he put his hand in the middle of her back, guiding her gently towards the stairs, she might have wondered what was going on. It wasn’t only the English delft blue dash charger leaning against the wall in the corner of the dining room, the grubby little regency overmantle mirror hanging at the back of the bedroom whose door had just closed, and the Arts and Crafts Tudric pewter clock sitting in the dust of the hallway that he had noticed, he had also taken note of Amy’s tiny waist, untidy long red hair and gentle green eyes, and all of it was very interesting to him.
She looked at him blankly and shrugged.
“Good. Come on then.”
* * * * * * * *
Amy didn’t know Malton well, but Rufus clearly did. He was a regular visitor. There were the kind of shops scattered around the smaller streets where interesting things might lie hidden. It was a place that he wandered round quite often when he pulled off the A64, usually on his way somewhere else, looking for a bargain. The coffee shop he chose was new to Amy, although the town itself had changed little. It was privately run and stylish, with a good range of coffees, cakes and biscuits. Rufus ordered two double expressos and they sat down in the window looking out across the market place towards the church.
“I always come in here. There are no pictures of the food and you can’t buy chips.”
It was good coffee, and as Amy listened to Rufus talk easily about all kinds of things, without giving anything away about himself, she began to relax. She told him about her job, teaching infants in a small village school up in the hills behind the town, and he looked interested. He even managed to make her laugh when she opened a pot of UHT cream badly and spilled some on the clean white cloth, when he took another one, pushed his glasses down his nose and showed her, mock seriously, how to do it properly. He listened as she explained about the small children she taught and laughed in the right places, making sure that she was single without letting her know what he was doing and spreading the warmth of his personality over her like fairy dust. Finally he asked the question which was hanging in the air, waiting to be asked.
“So what are you going to do with all that stuff?”
Amy looked at him sharply, but she could only see honest concern in his face.
“No idea. Shut the door on it again for another few years maybe.”
“You can’t do that.”
“I think you’ll find I can.”
Rufus leaned forward earnestly. For once he was being serious.
“No, you can’t. There are some good things in there. Really good things.”
He grinned suddenly, unable to stop himself.
“I wouldn’t tell everybody that of course.”
Amy grinned back. He did have nice eyes.
“I bet you wouldn’t.”
“I mean it though, you really can’t. Beautiful things need to be looked at, admired, thought about.”
“Well it just looked like a whole heap of mess to me. Nothing beautiful about that.”
“You’d be surprised.”
There was a pause while they both sipped at their coffees and Rufus wondered whether to say what he wanted to say. In the end, as usual, he did.
“I could help you if you like. When you’re ready. You let some of the trade in there and they’d rip you off without you ever noticing, I promise you.”
“And you wouldn’t?”
“No. I wouldn’t. There are some people I’d rip off without thinking twice about it, but you’re not one of them.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you didn’t ask what anything was worth, not once. You still haven’t.”
“That’s because I thought it was all worthless.”
“No you didn’t or you wouldn’t have asked me in to have a look. Anyway for 90% of it you’d be right.”
“And the other ten per cent?
Rufus put his head on one side, stuck his index finger on his chin, and stared into space, frowning.
“Yes you are.”
“You have to guess. When we go back in.”
Suddenly things were moving just a bit too fast for Amy.
Rufus watched her face carefully.
“Yes, when. You have to. I’ll hold your hand.”
There was a silence. Finally Amy caved in.
“You mean now?”
“Well we both happen to be sitting down the road from the house and I’ve got my notebook in my pocket. Do it now. It won’t get any easier. I’ll help.”
Amy was lost. Even though she had only met the man a couple of hours earlier she trusted him. There was no point trying to work out why. She just did.
“Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
He beamed at her, knowing that he had won.
“No I haven’t. You’ll see why when we get there.”
So it was settled. They made their way back up to the house. Rufus refused to say anything else until they were back in the dining room. He settled himself in the only empty chair, long legs stretched out in front of him, and folded his arms.
“OK then. Which of the things in this room is worth at least £10,000 on a bad day in a specialist auction?”
Amy stared at him.
“Come on, I’m waiting.”
He shook his head.
Amy glared at him and he reassured her with a quick nod.
“I mean it.”
She looked around helplessly.
“£50 if the buyer thinks that dial will clean up. £10 if I admit that it won’t.”
“Dark brown, big, heavy. All no no’s. You’ll be lucky to find a buyer at all.”
“That picture of the waterfall?”
“Oh dear. You’re not very good at this are you?”
Rufus got out of the chair deliberately slowly and stretched himself.
“Just move around and I’ll tell you when you’re getting warm.”
“Oh come on, do I have to?”
He sighed and flapped his arm lazily towards the far corner of the room.
“You’re no fun. It’s over there leaning against the wall.”
Amy reached into the corner and picked up a white plate with thick blue dashes around the edge and a roughly painted figure of a king on a rearing horse splashed across it.
Rufus quickly put his hands underneath hers.
“Yes. For God’s sake don’t let go. Let me take it.”
Amy let him take it and watched as he turned it in his hands, completely absorbed in what he was doing and blind to the dust which was beginning to cover his hands and jacket sleeves.
“You did mean it, didn’t you? It looks a bit rough to me.”
“English, made around 1690. Probably in London or Bristol. Can’t see any damage either, but I’ll need to look at it in a better light.”
He took a blouse from the pile of clothes on the table and wiped the surface of the plate gently.
“This plate has been around for over three hundred years. I’d have thought it deserves a round of applause for that. You’re not gasping or anything. Very disappointing.”
He turned the front of the plate round to face Amy and held it out.
“Don’t you think it’s charming? Look at his face. He looks pretty fed up with himself. The horse is having a good time though.”
Amy took it and smiled.
“I suppose it is, if you like that kind of thing. Ten thousand pounds? Are you sure?”
“As eggs is eggs. What are you going to do with the cash?”
Amy laughed and laid the plate down on the table, still struggling to believe him.
“I could get to like this game. Are there any more surprises?”
Rufus pointed up the stairs.
She followed him carefully through the three bedrooms, watching as he wrote in his small black notebook with an ancient looking ink pen, knowing instinctively not to interrupt his train of thought by speaking. He worked quickly, scanning things with his eyes and checking details with a small maglite. Sometimes she picked things up when he had moved on, wondering what he saw in them. After examining a tiny leather sewing case on the dressing table in the front bedroom she began to see what Rufus had meant about good things needing to be looked at and admired. It had been made to go inside a handbag and it was embossed in colour with the festival of Britain logo and filled with a few tiny needles and a selection of simple threads in shades of brown. It was probably worth very little, but still someone had chosen it, given it as a special gift or brought it home to treasure. The fact that it was lying here unwanted, its story forgotten, was a reminder of her own fragility. Nothing lasts forever, she thought sadly. She slipped it into her pocket. It felt like stealing.
Finally Rufus turned to her.
“Well, apart from the bathroom that’s about it for up here.”
He ran his eye down his list.
“You’ve got about eight hundred pounds worth of stuff from the bedrooms which would sell easily at auction. That’s if you’re lucky of course. You can never tell.”
He held out his notebook.
“Want to have a look?”
Amy looked down the list.
“Is this how you normally do things?”
“Afraid not. Normally I tell people what I am prepared to pay, which is not the same thing at all.”
“And that’s how you make a profit.”
“Not exactly. It depends what I can sell them for.”
He leaned across and picked up a tiny ornament, a battered porcelain cat sitting on a plinth.
“One of my regular customers has a cat fetish. So I’d buy this knowing I could sell it on quickly, and maybe offer the seller a better price. That Staffordshire sheep over there is probably worth more, but it’s ugly and it would almost certainly sit around for a while. So I’d want to buy that cheap, as a kind of compensation for having to put up with it for six months if you like. It’s not an exact science and that’s what keeps it interesting. It’s all about turnover.”
Amy gave him back the notebook.
“You have a shop then?”
“My father had a shop. I have a website and a double lock up garage, and I do the rounds of the smaller fairs. Saves on overheads.”
Rufus turned the full heat of his charm towards Amy for the first time. She wilted in front of it.
“You’ll have to come along to one of them. It’s mostly at weekends.”
She heard herself saying that she would like that. He didn’t seem surprised.
“Good. We’ll have fun. You can attract the customers with your womanly charms and in return I’ll help you clear this lot. Deal?”
“Do I have a choice?”
He reached out and touched her cheek gently.
“There’s always a choice.”
If his mobile hadn’t rung Amy had a feeling that she might have kissed him, and she didn’t really go around doing that kind of thing. He looked at his watch.
“Damn, I should have been on my way, didn’t realise. Listen I’ve got to go. You have my number. Ring me. Or I’ll ring you.”
He set off down the stairs two at a time, fumbling for his phone.
“We’ll do the downstairs properly next time. Take that charger home. Carefully!”
She ran down the stairs and stood in the doorway watching as he disappeared through the gate, already out of earshot, heading towards his car and talking into his handset.
“Hi, you OK? Afraid I’m running late. I’m still about half an hour’s drive away from the school. I know I said I’d do it, but is there any chance of you picking the kids up?”