Adrian and Leonard finally reach the Welsh holiday house.
Adrian woke refreshed but disorientated to the sound of running water. Once his brain made sense of the unfamiliar surroundings, he looked to the bedside table, where the LED lights of the digital clock read seven-twenty. At first, he assumed the noise came from the drone of persistent rainy weather outside the darkened window. After a few moments, he heard variations in the resonance of the falling water, along with a familiar tuneless humming, and only then noticed the empty bed across from his.
Lenny had hit the shower already. Almost by unspoken agreement, they chose to move carefully around each other. The previous night, Adrian had stayed behind and chatted some more to the landlady about the local area, giving Lenny time to get changed and into bed before he came into the room and locked up.
He pulled himself into a sitting position at the side of the bed in his tee and sweatpants and scrubbed his hands through his short hair. Despite the pervasive smell of paint and an industrial adhesive caulk odour he knew well, one he had used professionally when fitting bathrooms, he had still managed to sleep like a dog.
The night before, Adrian had spotted the small kettle sitting on top of the free-standing fridge. In preparation for the morning, he had filled the device with water and placed two empty mugs to one side. With Lenny still in the bathroom, and unsure whether to make him tea or coffee, Adrian opened a single coffee sachet and poured in the grains. Checking the fridge, he smiled when he saw the hotel had provided a half-pint carton of fresh milk. Coffee mug nursed in his hands, Adrian returned to sit with his feet up on the bed and flick through channels on the room television until he landed on a news station.
As Adrian finished the last of his coffee, Lenny appeared in the doorway to the bathroom. Wearing only a white robe, he rubbed his hair dry with a small towel. Even in the towelling gown which reached his knees, he looked good, the dark hair of his chest enticingly visible. Adrian couldn’t help giving him a full appraisal.
“Didn’t know if you took tea or coffee.”
“Nothing for me. Why don’t you go and shower? Then we should head down and have a huge breakfast with decent tea before we get going. Not sure we’ll eat again until tonight.”
“Actually, after you came up last night, I stayed and asked Mrs Llewellyn to arrange flasks of coffee and tea, and packed lunches. To take with us. Wasn’t sure there would be any shops or other places to eat.”
“See? I knew there was a reason for bringing you along. Now go and do your business while I get dressed.”
“Will do,” said Adrian, standing up from the bed and stretching. “And we’re going to need a lot of waterproofs today, from the sounds outside the window.”
* * *
Lenny had been spot on about the distance. With Mrs Llewellyn’s directions and landmarks down small winding lanes, they found the track leading to the farmhouse in about half an hour. Finding the property had been another challenge altogether. Even with the GPS running, they drove past the entrance to Bryn Bach three times.
Patchy satellite coverage in that part of the world didn’t help. With the SUV stationary, the blue dot representing their car moved around erratically like a flying insect trying to decide where to land. What also didn’t help was the lane—more of a dirt track bordered by overgrown shrubs and trees—wide enough to take one car only and providing no signposts. Coming to a dead-end, Lenny displayed skilful driving with a carefully manoeuvred three-point turn, avoiding dropping the car into ditches either sides of the track.
Adrian had to put the light on in the car, to study the picture Lenny had printed off. Nothing at all appeared familiar. The photograph of the cottage had been shot many years ago on a beautiful summer’s day. Hedgerows and trees seemed to be well-tended in the picture. Today, even without being disadvantaged by the dreadful weather and the dull light, greenery crept into the lane, wild and unkempt.
When a streak of lightning flooded the road like a flashbulb going off, Adrian spotted their first clue. A bush had covered most of the white signpost to the farmhouse, but the sudden incandescence illuminated the wooden entrance to a driveway. Three long vertical slats of wood had a saltire diagonal cross, holding them together, while a small waist-high garden gate for those on foot sat fixed on the right side. At any other time, Adrian would have shrugged off the structure as an old gate to a farmer’s field. Putting a hand on Lenny’s forearm, he told him to stop the car.
Togged out in his well-used yellow waterproof jacket and trousers, Adrian jumped out into the downpour. After pulling back branches of the bush, to show Lenny the sign lit now by the car’s headlights, he went over, unhooked the rusty latch and opened wide the long gate.
As Lenny pulled the SUV alongside, he wound down the window and leant out.
“Well spotted, Ade. We may as well leave the gate open. Nobody is going to find themselves down this way unless the poor sods are lost. We can close it on our way out.”
Adrian nodded and got back into the car, even though he felt uncomfortable leaving the gate open. Closing farm gates had been drummed into him as a young kid by his parents and teachers, whenever they visited farms around Drayton.
The short gravel driveway sloped gently down. Untamed bushes and small trees on either side hid the house. Behind a sharp bend, the structure came into view. Due to the endless rain and gloom, the farmhouse appeared like something out of a horror movie, with its slick grey walls and darkened windows. Weeds overflowed from square planter boxes either side of the front door, flaky remnants of white paint barely visible.
They parked up right outside the front porch because of the rain which hissed loudly on the gravel as Adrian pushed the door open. Both of them jumped down at the same moment, Leonard dashed for cover while Adrian took time to survey the house. Even with the reduced visibility, the building seemed sound.
“Come on, then,” came Leonard’s voice. “First impressions. Tell me what you think?”
“Nice.” Adrian strolled to the far end of the house, following the line where the slate roof met the guttering. Large sash windows each composed of twelve square panes sat either side of the front door, while three smaller versions ran above, along the upper floor. “Very nice indeed.”
“So not some pile of old rubble, as my cousin Matthew called it?”
“Absolutely not. At a rough guess, Lenny, I reckon this place would have been built around the mid-eighteen hundreds. No earlier. Something I can tell you beyond doubt right now is that Bryn Bach was never designed to be a farmhouse. Apart from there being no outhouses anywhere nearby and no direct access to fields, the place was carefully designed, either as a permanent home or a holiday hideaway for someone with money.”
“Interesting. How can you tell?”
Adrian turned around and looked back at Lenny in his bright blue cagoule with the hood covering his eyes but with a playful smirk. Was he testing him? Surely Lenny knew more than him about old properties.
“I know my expertise lends itself more to modern construction, but having worked in and around Norwich, you can’t help picking up a few things about old buildings. And I noticed similar designs on the drive here as when we crossed into Wales. Traditional farmhouses, for example, were built to be functional. Most were single storey and built by the farmer and anyone he could rope in to help. Old dwellings—called longhouses—provided shelter for both the family and their livestock, all living under the same roof. Can you imagine the smell? I can probably point a few out to you on the drive home. Those ones had solid walls of natural materials like stone, earth and wood and used lime for mortars and renders. Earlier ones had thatched roofs, but later on, they used the more efficient slate, like this house. These days, they’re easy to recognise because they look as though they’re ready to fall over.”
“The same can’t be said of this house,“ continued Adrian, taking a step back and, despite the rain, staring up at the house and pointing out features. “This building has pedigree. I know the facade appears older—flinty stone in the wall construction—but that’s by careful design rather than necessity. Not just that, but this was built into a slope by engineers, which is not something your average farmer would have dared consider. At least not unless he had no choice and didn’t mind running the risk of the whole thing sliding down the hill in the middle of the night. Especially in this kind of weather, which seems pretty common in this part of the country.”
“I see what you mean,” said Lenny. “This house does seem pretty solid, doesn’t it? Someone spent money on getting the design right. I wonder who originally had it built.”
“Look at those beautiful brick chimney stacks at either end. Definitely Victorian. Designed and integrated, not tacked onto the structure. Features have been carefully planned and incorporated. At a guess, I’d say the grey slate roof and stonework are sympathetic design features, locally sourced materials, to make the structure blend into the countryside. Even the front door is larger than most you would see on local cottages. The portico is a classic design feature of the era but complements the other house materials. There’s nothing shoddy or simply functional about this workmanship. The sash windows, guttering, and downpipes could have been installed later, but I’d bet money they’re original. I’ll also be interested to see the interior layout.”
“Come on, then. I suppose we’d better go inside.”
“Any chance we can take a look around the back first?”
Adrian had noticed an overgrown path of rough stone blocks leading to the back of the building and indicated the direction with his hand.
“Lead the way,” said Lenny.
At the back of the house, tall French doors opened onto a sizeable patio area, moss-covered concrete slabs with grass and weeds rising in the gaps, all bordered by a shallow brick wall. Half a dozen wide stone steps in the middle with an ornate stone handrail led down into the overgrown back garden. Towards the back, the top of a rusted iron frame of a child’s swing rose above the undergrowth. Beyond that, the beautiful Welsh countryside provided a stunning panorama. Adrian’s reaffirmed his original assumption that the house had never been a working farmhouse.
“Well, for a start, this garden’s going to need levelling. Windows appear sound on first inspection, but I’d be concerned about the guttering which looks to be blocked with leaves and overflowing with moss in places. Hopefully, that hasn’t affected the interior walls with damp.”
“My cousin mentioned coming down here every year to check the place over. Not sure what he did, exactly.”
“But I can see how the family would have loved the garden.,” said Adrian, looking out to the view. “Not only the remote location, but the garden alone is a beautiful, safe space for kids.”
“Yes, you’re right. If I’d holidayed here, I’m sure I would have fond memories, too. Maybe my aunt has a point. Let’s go and have look inside.”
Adrian trailed behind Lenny on their way back down the path. Entering behind him through the front door, Adrian had to stop for a moment, while Lenny picked up a pile of mail from the floor. Adrian looked down the corridor into the gloom, wishing he had brought a torch with him.
“At least the postman knows how to find the place,” said Adrian.
In front of him, Lenny laughed softly. He used the light from his phone to check through a couple of the items. Stopping at one of them, he tore open the envelope.
“Will you look at this,” he said, waving a sheet of paper at Adrian. “It’s a bill from the electricity company in my dad’s name. Looks as though he pays all the bills automatically through my parent’s joint account. Try the light switch.”
Adrian reached over and tried the hall light, which came on instantly, flooding the hallway with light.
“That’s going to make checking the place over a little easier,” said Adrian. “I was going to ask if you had a torch in the car. But we ought to make sure the electricity is switched off when we leave. This house would make a perfect home for squatters.”
As they moved forward, the scent of dust and neglect hit Adrian. A narrow staircase with a thin worn carpet led upstairs in front, while doors led off either side at the front and one down a narrow corridor to the back of the house. Leonard took the first door on the right and flicked on a light to reveal a spacious room that ran the length of the building, with a large fireplace in the centre.
Without furniture, the long room appeared neglected and soulless. Apart from the linoleum flooring—the only touch of colour in faded green and grey—the walls and ceiling had been painted in powdery matt white paint, shadowy cobwebs filling the corners.
“Bloody hell. Looks as inviting as a doctor’s surgery,’ said Lenny, somewhat unkindly.
“Don’t look at what it is, look at what it could be, Lenny. That fireplace, for example. With that old three-bar electric fire, it looks like something my great-grandmother would have considered hi-tech. And why paint everything white? Beneath a couple of coats of paint, I’ll bet there’s an old black iron fireplace, and those painted-over tiles are probably originals. I doubt you’d be able to have a real fire now—chimney flues will be blocked off—but there are plenty of gas fires produced these days that resemble coal or log fires. Odd though. Usually, there’d be alcoves either side of the chimney stack, not flat, flush walls.”
Adrian went over, tapped his knuckle on the wall on the right side of the fireplace and produced a hollow clunking sound.
“Plywood. Maybe the previous owner did that to make things easier when they wanted to wallpaper or repaint. Shame though. Little features like alcoves with armchairs or places to showcase an antique chest of drawers are focal points. Looks as though they wanted this place as low maintenance as possible, which makes sense if it was a holiday home. Even with all that, the main thing that strikes me straight away is the light. I know it’s a bloody awful day, but look how much daylight comes into the place from the front and back. Amazing. Imagine this place on a summer’s day?”
For the first time since they had entered the room, Adrian turned to look at Lenny. Arms folded, his lowered glower followed the line of old linoleum which had begun to crack and peel away from the skirting board.
“Hey, Lenny,” said Adrian, catching Lenny’s attention. “Stop picking out details and see the bigger picture.”
“But have you noticed what’s missing?”
Adrian looked at the wide-open space, up at the ceiling with beautiful coving and picture rail. Even the decorative plaster moulded roses around the light fittings.
“I’m not following.”
“Why is there no furniture? Did my aunt not approve of leaving fixtures in the house?”
“Is there supposed to be furniture? Maybe check with your solicitor, in case there’s an inventory” said Adrian. “Perhaps it’s in storage. She may have worried about burglars breaking in and stealing things.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Come on, Lenny. Let’s see what state the kitchen’s in.”
Adrian’s suggestion had been meant to get Lenny away from the main room and possibly brighten his mood, but entering the rounded archway into the kitchen left Adrian speechless. Probably last remodelled back in the eighties—maybe before that even—the long room had teal painted units and kitchen backsplash tiles in orange and brown which might have been tasteful once, but Adrian seriously doubted it. Nevertheless, a couple of things stood out for Adrian. An original fixture, the square sink of thick white porcelain appeared solid and on a quick inspection, flawless. If Lenny did decide to keep the house, the basin had to stay, Adrian would make sure of that.
All of the countertops had updated electrical sockets. Some houses he had worked on in Drayton had old round pin plug sockets. On the plus side, this meant Lenny might not need to rewire the whole house.
Also, the ancient refrigerator was almost as tall as Leonard, and the four-ring gas stove and oven, although old and, in all honesty, in need of replacement, looked in working order.
When Adrian walked over and opened the fridge door, he instantly regretted his action and slammed the thing shut. By then, the acrid smell of staleness filled the air in the room.
“We’re going to have to give that a thorough cleaning before we switch the thing on to see if it works. If you want to keep it, that is.”
“It’ll do for now. But put cleaning equipment down on your mental list.”
“Done. How about we take a look upstairs.”
Upstairs turned out to be pretty standard with minimal decoration. Two larger bedrooms and a smaller one, together with a family bathroom. Each of the rooms had similar metal bed frames with stain-mottled mattresses that had seen better days.
“These are king-sized frames. Nothing special, cast iron, robust enough,” said Adrian. After surveying the room, he lifted the corner of a mattress to check the state of the base, a criss-cross of metal links. He had seen similar designs in some of the houses he had renovated, sturdy and well made. When he turned to Lenny to speak, he noticed him on the far side of the bed and hesitated. Lenny’s eyes scanned the light fitting before moving towards the window at the view beyond.
“Amazing view, isn’t it?” said Adrian. “Even with those storm clouds.”
Lenny didn’t answer but kept his gaze on the panoramic scene in the distance. Eventually, when spoke, his voice sounded strange, soft, but troubled.
“Do you think this is where he did it? Luke?”
Adrian hadn’t thought about the cousin, had been so caught up with the features and condition of the building he had forgotten about the story told them the previous evening. Lenny continued standing there, his arms folded around his stomach, staring out of the window. Adrian could not help the compassion that hit him. Without thinking, he moved over and put his hand on the back of Lenny’s right shoulder and squeezed gently.
“I wonder,” Lenny continued. “If we’d had the chance to know each other, would we have been good friends? Would I have been someone he could have talked to?”
“You can’t think like that, Lenny. What happened, happened. It’s in the past and all the ‘what ifs’ in the world will never change a thing.”
Lenny’s head fell forward then, and Adrian felt like pulling him into a hug but instead left his hand on his shoulder.
“I just hate to think of someone being so miserable, so low and desperate. Having no friends to talk to, that the only solution left was to take his life.”
“Didn’t the landlady say he had friends locally?”
“She did. You’re right. I wonder if any of them are still around?”
“Ask her later. Come on, buddy,” said Adrian, squeezing Lenny’s shoulder again and then letting go. “No point dwelling on the past. He’s no longer in pain. Hey, let’s go and see what kind of state the bathroom’s in.”
Fortunately, the bathroom wasn’t in too bad a condition, just dusty and dated like the rest of the rooms. Inside, there stood a hard plastic bathtub—a full-length tub in light pink surrounded by a wooden frame—next to a small matching hand basin, and matching toilet. Adrian managed to turn on the water main. From the remains left in the cistern, the toilet flushed fine, and the sink seemed to drain okay. Once again, linoleum had been used to cover the floors, this time a deep forest green, cracked and splintered in places. Everything would need updating should anyone want to buy the home. Adrian watched amused at the disgust on Leonard’s face when Adrian turned on the sink tap, heard a choking gurgle before light brown water spat a couple of times before running clean and clear.
“Why in God’s name would someone buy a matching pink toilet, washbasins and bath?” asked Lenny. “Do you think they were colourblind?”
“You have an issue with pink?”
Lenny grinned then.
“Not in the slightest. Just not something I would have in my bathroom.”
“But orange and brown tiles in the kitchen are fine? Honestly, Lenny, your family had some seriously dubious tastes in decor.”
This time Lenny laughed.
“No argument from me there. But, come on, you must admit. Plastic tubs are bad enough, but in pink?”
“What can I say? Maybe they had a special offer on bathroom suites back in the day. Or maybe it was all the rage in Wales back in the seventies or eighties. Who knows? I told you. Look at what it could be. First off, this bathroom space is huge. You could either turn this into two smaller bathrooms and make one an ensuite or create one amazing single bathroom. Although, if you’re going to do that, I’d suggest putting a shower in here too and maybe a half bathroom downstairs.”
Leonard always seemed to listen intently to Adrian’s suggestions, this time nodding with his hands on his hips, while screwing his nose up at the bathroom furniture.
“Best of all, it’s your place, so you get to have the first whack with a sledgehammer if you decide to decide to keep the place. Get rid of some of that mother tension.”
Lenny chuckled again.
“Never thought of that. You should have been a psychiatrist.”
“Of course, the other alternative is to leave everything as it is and let your aunt, or whoever the new owners are, decide what they want to do.”
“You know,” said Lenny, stopping a moment and looking around. “In spite of the dreadful decor, I kind of love the vibe of the house. Even in this shitty weather. So I can only imagine how much better this would be in the sunshine with a fresh coat of paint.”
“You’re going to keep the place then?”
“What do you think?”
“Your choice, Lenny. But if you’re asking my opinion, then I’d say you’ve got yourself a nice piece of real estate here. I bet you could have this place looking amazing if you’re prepared to spend a bit of money.”
“I know what you mean. And that’s not the issue. It’s whether I have the time to take on a new project.”
Adrian watched as Lenny went over to the bathtub and turned on a tap, then checked the connection to the shower over the tub. Satisfied, he sat down on the edge of the tub and critically surveyed the whole room. Right at that moment, the ring tone of the song Master and Servant by Depeche Mode sounded on Lenny’s phone. Even before he pulled out his phone from his jeans pocket, his eyes went to Adrian and briefly raised to the ceiling.
Adrian carried on looking around the room while Lenny took the call. He ran a hand over the pipes from the ceiling to the lavatory. Whoever had initially plumbed in the bathroom had not been professionals. Pipes ran outside the walls and along the floor, roughly painted over, with nothing concealed. While checking the work, Adrian couldn’t help listening in to the call. After a while, he got the gist of the conversation. The aunt had been on the phone, pestering his mother about the farmhouse that was not a farmhouse.
“For heaven’s sake, Mum. I’ve only just got here. This is the first day we’ve had to check the place over. Can she not give me a chance to look around before I decide?”
Adrian opened the wall cupboard in the corner which probably housed towels and other toiletries. A layer of dust covered all the shelves. Yes, they would need plenty of cleaning materials if Lenny decided to keep the place.
“Well, if I’m going to be honest, I’m leaning more towards keeping rather than selling. Not only is it beautiful, but I know Dad used to come here for holidays as a kid. Yes, the place will need a lot of work, but I think it could turn out to be a good little investment.”
Adrian smiled his agreement. Even the windows—lead framed and cracked in places—could probably do with updating, but the potential was excellent. The only challenge he would have would be in checking over the electrics, but there was bound to be someone locally they could employ. Or better still, he could bring one of his reliable contacts from Norwich down for the week, once they had gutted the place. Adrian could hear Lenny getting agitated by something his mother was saying.
“She said what?”
A moment passed before Lenny spoke again.
“Listen. If she keeps pestering you, stop answering her calls or give her my number? I’ll be more than happy to speak to her if it means avoiding solicitors getting involved.”
This time, Adrian sat on the lid of the toilet and made no pretence about listening to the conversation.
“Fine. In which case, I don’t need Dawson. I have my own solicitor. I’ve been using her for years.”
Once again a short silence ensued, during which Lenny caught Adrian’s eyes and mouthed a quick ‘sorry’.
“Well, if she does, you can tell her from me that the place is mine, to do with what I want. If that means putting it up for sale, then that’s what I’ll do. And if she wants to challenge the will, then please tell her to go right ahead. But she’d better bring her best game and get herself top representation. Because, believe me, I will, Mum. As Dawson said, she’s going to have a rough time if she does down that route. Okay. Got to go. Bye, Mum.”
After a few moments of thought, he turned to Adrian and thrust his phone away into his pocket. Adrian had never seen the look on Lenny’s face before, but a fierce determination had replaced the usual calm expression.
“Would you come down here and help me? I mean, would you be prepared to give me a quote on what needs to be done, and work alongside me to do the renovations? Maybe provide me with some of your ideas and suggestions about how I could improve the place?”
“I’d be honoured. And I’ve already got some ideas of things you could do to modernise this place without losing its uniqueness. I’ll make a few sketches when I get back. But right now, I’m going to fetch my notepad from the truck. Then we can continue making a list of what needs to be replaced and where any structural changes need to be made.”
“Good idea,” said Lenny, levelling his gaze at Adrian. “You’d think finding family you never knew you had would be a good thing. But it turns out my father was a better judge of character than I ever appreciated. And, fuck it, not only for him, but for me, too. I’ve just this second made up my mind. I’m keeping the place.”
An additional offering this week for those patiently following this story.
As always, would love to hear your comment, ideas, or suggestions for how you see this story developing.