By Elizabeth Simpson
Difficult to say when it started, or in which house. Probably in the dry-rot invaded brick walls or mushrooming damp plasterwork in the basement of number 72 in the 1840s-built terrace backing onto a stinking canal close to the City of London.
In the 1960s the house was acquired by a Rachmanesque landlord. He rented it out, at exorbitant rates by the room, to chancers and drug dealers. The neighbours turned a blind eye.
In the 1970s, after extensive building works sending clouds of choking black dust into the streets, number 72 changed hands, bought by a man who made considerable further renovations before moving in with his young wife. She bore him three sons under that roof, while he laboured in a merchant bank in the city.
From his office he could walk home, but more often he returned very late, by taxi, for a brief night before the rattle of the exchanges started early next day. He had one hobby, singing, his rich tenor voice spilling into the street on Saturday mornings, or after lunch on Sundays when the family was at home, but they often went away. They barely knew their next-door neighbour, Henry, at number 70; he was so small and quiet it was easy to overlook him. He had retired from his job as archivist at the British Library.
After Henry’s sudden death, the merchant banker’s wife urged her husband to add number 70 to his portfolio of possessions, and create space for their growing family by knocking the two houses into one. Further building works ensued, more dust, more noise. The neighbours were increasingly discomfited.
The lady next door, at number 68, was incandescent with rage, her appeals to English Heritage mysteriously dissolved by some unknown force. She suspected money – the merchant banker must have been doing well – he’d bought a country house for his family, where they spent weekends and school holidays, leaving him to his labours in the City for their benefit. He continued to sing, oblivious of the ominous mushrooms that re-grew behind a panel in his newly refurbished bathroom.
When the lady at number 68 decided to move to a smaller house (her family having grown up), the merchant banker’s wife urged him to buy that house too, so her aging mother could be accommodated close to them. Further building works were carried out, dividing walls pierced or removed, sturdy RSJs taking their place to create a mansion from the three modest terraced houses. The building inspectors nodded their heads.
At the turn of the century, one stormy night, the whole terrace collapsed. Roofs, walls, ceilings, furniture and sleeping people tumbled into the basements. Darkness reigned, and there was a faint whiff of escaping gas.
The banker searched for his wife in the remnants of their triple mansion. He’d had increasing difficulties in communicating with her recently, since a letter from their oldest son in Australia, saying he was gay. The two younger boys had gone into farming partnership in a remote part of Wales, refusing offers of financial backing from their parents, ‘we’re going back to ploughing and harvesting with old tools – much cheaper, and that way we can employ local people’. His wife pursed her lips at that news.
While he was searching the ruins, in a rather half-hearted way – he’d not told her about the collapse of his bank, with it all their savings, leaving them only the mortgages taken out for endless rounds of house purchase and renovations – he bumped into the ghost of Henry, his former neighbour at number 70. ‘I’m looking for my wife,’ the banker said.
‘Never had the taste for them,’ replied Henry, who had a gay disposition, ‘music was more in my line.’
‘Ah, music – mine too – the human voice – I love singing.’
‘I heard that when I lived next door.’
‘Oh dear,’ the banker answered, ‘I didn’t realize the sound carried through brick walls.’
‘Ah, dust and ashes, no need of them now, but you can still sing,’ he said gnomically, before evaporating into the miasma of dust as dawn light filtered through. A pale disc of red appeared in the east, beyond the spikey new buildings in the city, the Gherkin, the Shard and others hiding the squat dome of St Pauls.