It took three and a half weeks for 24, Fell Street, to go searching for its absentee owner. If it had been a detached house, or even a semi, it might have set out sooner, but a terraced house has to think long and hard about upping sticks.
On an autumnal Tuesday morning, with neighbouring 26 grunting “Good Luck”, and 22 chirping a hearty “Go get ‘im!” as they braced themselves, Number 24 carefully disconnected the gas, water, and electricity before tearing free from its foundations, leaving behind the hollow it had inhabited for over a century.
As 24 headed down Fell Street, windows twitched and front doors gaped in astonishment, wondering what could have prompted their neighbour to go walkabout. Letter boxes rattled as they chattered amongst themselves. Terraced houses that had never dreamed of going anywhere found they had itchy lintels. But, once the peripatetic three-bedroom had turned the corner onto Molyneux Road, they settled back into their comfortably static existences. Maybe, in another hundred years…?
On Molyneux, Number 24 encountered traffic for the first time. It and a Number 46 bus engaged in a stand-off as the bus driver tried to work out how he had gone so far off course that there was a house in the way. Number 24 pondered the strange object in front of it. Which street had it come from?
After a while, the bus backed into a side road and 24 continued on to a cacophony of car horns and gears squealing in rapid reverse. It studiously paid no attention as it continued downhill, picking up speed.
As Molyneux plateaued and ended at a T-junction, Number 24 slowed, torn between roads east and west. Neither of them felt quite right. Straight on was what its joists told it, but that wasn’t an option. An imposing, four storey, modernist, concrete and glass structure stood solidly in its way — something called “Waverley Council Office”. 24 paused, taking in deep breaths, the slate tiles on its roof rippling.
“Hello?” it called out and upwards.
Waverley Council Office ignored it.
“Hey! Down here!” 24 shouted, setting off a brace of car alarms.
A pair of panoramic windows blinked myopically. “YES?” a nasal voice rumbled.
“Ah, hello! Sorry to bother you. My owner, Mr. F. Patel, Esquire, is missing. He’s, um, a foot shorter than my front door, his roofing is flecked with mortar-grey, and he wears a pair of reading windows with metal-rims–”
“AN ABANDONED PROPERTY, HEY?” Waverley Council Office interrupted. “FILL IN FORM H-29B, WITH A Y-3-11 AMENDMENT, DETAILING TENANCY STATUS AND LENGTH OF VACANCY, AND WE’LL ALLOCATE A SHORT TERM COUNCIL–”
“I don’t want a new occupant! I want to find my old one.”
“HIGHLY IRREGULAR. AND WHAT IS THIS F. PATEL? OWNER-OCCUPIER? TENANT? SUB-TENANT? HAVE YOU BEEN REPOSESSED?”
“No!” 24 exclaimed, shocked.
“DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHERE THE DEEDS TO YOU ARE?”
“Well, I…” Number 24 shifted uneasily from side to side, deciding that, on balance, either east or west would do.
“BEST GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM, LITTLE HOUSE. GO BACK AND DO AS YOU’RE TOLD, LEST YOU INCUR MY OFFICIAL WRATH. NOW, RUN!”
Number 24 ran. Not back though; east, and not for long, the vibrations playing havoc with its guttering. As it slowed, air wheezing down the unlined chimney, it spotted a south-facing turning, vaguely in the desired direction, and taking it entered a street of tightly packed, three-storey, Georgian town-houses.
“Ooh, look at that!” the first of them heckled, nudging its neighbour. “Foundation loose and fancy free! Why are you so empty, little house? Haven’t lost your owner, have you?” The ripple of surprise, of condescension, of judgement, raced down the near identical town-houses as they stood shoulder to shoulder, terraced houses in all but name. By the end of the street Number 24 was running again, not looking where it was going, blundering over another crossing to the clamour of horns.
Before it quite realised what it had done it entered an eerily silent street, squeezed narrow by hoardings and chain-link fences. Beyond them lurked twin terraces, facing off across the divide, houses not so very unlike itself. A little plainer, perhaps, but no older.
All was still as 24 crept along. There were no cars, no bicycles, just scraps of paper and plastic drifting across the deserted tarmac and collecting at the kerb. Something was terribly wrong. Many of the lower windows and doors had been bricked over or covered by metal grills, spray-painted in half-hearted graffiti. The upper windows were broken, or dark and empty. The chimneys and gutters sported bristles of buddleia and even the moss and lichened roofs looked askew. In one case, slats showed between the turmoil of clay tiles — a shocking head wound left untreated.
“Um, is everyone alright?” Number 24 asked, tip-toeing on.
A pair of pigeons took flight with a clap! of wings. Somewhere something slid, and fell, and shattered.
“No,” an emotionless voice intoned. “We’re not ‘alright’.”
“What… what happened?”
“Can’t you see? We’re derelict. Empty. Unloved, unwanted, and under demolition.”
24 shuddered. How had they got this way? Where were the owners? Once, these houses had been homes. Families starting out, pensioners settling into cosy retirement. How did all that become… this?
“I’m sorry,” Number 24 whispered.
“And you?” the voice like wind through an ill-fitted door. “What are you doing here? Come to steal our original features? Our fireplaces? Our antique floorboards?”
“No! No, of course not…”
“You’re too late anyway, they’re all gone. Ripped out or perished. But you… that bay window of yours… very nice.”
“With a frontage like that I would never have been abandoned…”
Number 24 moved hastily through the chorus of creaks and groans, as it was weighed and dissected by the grim-faced facades. At the corner, trembling, it took stock.
“YOU THERE! HOUSE THINGY. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
Number 24 peered at the corner pub. Once it must have been attached to the terrace behind. The amputation had left a naked brick wall reinforced by tie-rods; heavy metal bolts through its thick neck.
“I’m looking for my owner,” Number 24 said, subdued. “Perhaps you’ve seen him? A Mr. F. Patel, Esquire. He’s a foot shorter–”
“WHAT NEED HAVE YOU OF AN OWNER?” the public house scoffed. “AREN’T YOU A FREEHOLD?”
24 wilted under the stern gaze. Leasehold, freehold… it vaguely knew their meaning, but wasn’t sure they applied here.
“AND WHATEVER YOU MIGHT BE, STOP ALL THIS COMING AND GOING, DISTURBING THE PEACE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY. I’M TRYING TO GET SOME KIP BEFORE THE EVENING RUSH. TSK! IF I WERE YOU, HOUSE, I’D–”
Number 24 didn’t wait to find out what the pub–improbably named The Happy Man–had to say. The nagging thought came that while it was away… what if its owner returned? To find nothing but a gaping hole?!
And yet, to return, empty… To wait, for who knows how long? To slowly fade away as those sad, derelict houses had, their fate inevitable without someone to look after them, to give them a reason to exist.
Something in its core, in its load-bearing walls told Number 24 that despite its travails it was getting closer. Though this part of the city might be alien to 24, there were traces of F. Patel here, memories, like woodsmoke at the beginning of autumn. 24 eagerly followed the scent, and found itself in a small park. Surrounded by greenery, 24 felt a pang for the small yard it had left behind. Nothing more than a set of square flagstones enclosed by red-brick walls, a padlocked wooden door onto the alleyway running down the back of the terrace, a mystery known only by its choir of yowling cats and the rare passing-through fox.
The yard contained a collection of pots that grew year on year, erupting in a splash of bee-soaked colour in the spring. A wooden bench, varnished religiously every second autumn.
Number 24 felt guilty for delaying its mission, and cast around for where it should head next. To one side lay a forlorn playground, with rusted chains on the swings and yellowed leaves stuck to the slide. Here the traces of F. Patel were particularly strong, though he hadn’t been here for years. Or decades.
Time was a tricky concept for a Victorian terraced house, its passage measured in irregular cycles of DIY. And owners, of course. 24 remembered them all. There had been families before F. Patel, and Number 24 secretly hoped there might be families in the future. It would be good to be a proper home again. As far as it could tell, F. Patel was still young enough to start one, though 24 was a bit vague on the exact mechanics.
Number 24 moved quietly on.
The trail was strong in the streets beyond the park and soon 24 stood in front of 37, Toft Close. It was strikingly like the terraced houses in the derelict street: plain-fronted, with an air of more recent neglect, flanked by livelier neighbours looking askance at the unheralded visitor, fluttering net curtains and tutting towards signs for the neighbourhood watch.
Number 24 stood a while, excited but nervous. Its owner had been here. A recent echo, as well as one much older, strongest in 37’s small, second bedroom, now full of dusty suitcases and piles of photo albums and scrapbooks. A kitchen door-frame bore pencil marks, his heights and dates marching upwards.
The excitement faded. Number 37 was dark and empty; behind half-drawn blinds a few sorry plants withered, the letterbox stuffed with uncollected mail. 37 itself, the simple terrace, the bricks and joists, the insulation, the woodwork and panes of glass, seemed devoid of joy, starved of life.
Number 24 summoned its nerve. “Excuse me? I’m sorry… Do you know a Mr. F. Patel, Esquire?”
“Faz?” the answer drifted out as the house shook itself from its melancholy. “Yes… He was born here.”
24 felt a brief dart of jealousy. “Um, do you know where he is now?”
“He used to play in the street, with the neighbour’s kids. A serious little boy, at times. A reader.”
24 thought of the bookshelves that spread across and up its walls. Every couple of years there was a new one, filled almost instantly, the Rawlplugs and screws that held them tickling as they were drilled in. Wistfully, it wondered if, when F. Patel–Faz–would return to put up more shelves.
“He was here about three weeks ago…” 37 mused.
“He was? Yes!” Number 24 had felt it. The trail it had followed was true. But where was he now?
“He and my owner went away together,” Number 37 said, the air of misery a heavy blanket that sucked the spirit from the sorrowful terraced house, the faint tick, tick from a hallway clock the only sound.
“I think,” 37 said, after so long a pause Number 24 had thought nothing more was forthcoming, “they headed towards the edge of town.”
Another pause, another age went by. “He came back once, a week later, alone. Used her key to get in. Gathered a few things of hers, plucked a few pictures from my walls… and then left again. I’ve been empty ever since.”
“Come with me,” 24 suggested, not really knowing what else to say. “We’ll search for your owner and my owner together.”
Number 37 shook its chimney stack and 24 heard the rattle as masonry fragments clattered into cold fireplaces. “My owner isn’t coming back. Ever.”
“Perhaps you’ll get another?” 24 said, though the very thought tugged at its heart. It wasn’t ready for a new owner; certainly not without saying goodbye to the current one.
24 turned to go, then snapped back at the soft call of its name, brushing against an outraged lamppost with a pained squeal.
“Good luck 24. And if… when you find your owner, when you find little Faz, look after him, yes? Protect him. Love him?”
“I will,” 24 solemnly promised, as the lights dimmed in Number 37’s windows. An easier promise it had never made.
Number 24 skirted along a ring road, on the other side of which there were fields whose docile occupants, chewing on grass, eyed the terraced house’s passage. Signs above the road shouted the names of other towns, other cities. The day was getting late when the road swung outward, making room for an odd little cluster of twisting streets and aged houses, some of them sporting thatched roofs. A town on the verge of being swallowed, the sharp steeple of a church towering high above.
Saint Christopher’s, it was named, its ancient stones still wearing a black cloak of the soot that no longer choked the air around it. The sight reminded 24 of its own beginnings, of coal fires replaced by gas fires replaced by central heating, of the way so much had changed in the city over even its lifetime. In the lengthening shadow the old church cast, Number 24 felt tongue-tied and uncertain.
“Yes, I have been here a long time,” the church said, as though reading 24’s thoughts. “Seen many a priest come and go. Many a parishioner too. Some of them didn’t go very far.” It pointed a weathervane towards the crowded graveyard at its rear. “But I’ve not seen many wandering houses such as you, Number 24.”
“Ah, yes, well, you see I’m looking for–”
“I know. He’s been here. Inside me.”
The church nodded, gently, bells in its belfry clinking, but not quite ringing.
“He lit candles. Prayed. Wept.” Saint Christopher’s paused. “I’m afraid it’s never a very good sign when they do that. They don’t live very long, these owners, these priests. They come to me for nourishment, and I am happy to give whatever benefits my long experience can offer.
“Though, I admit,” the church went on with a wry glint in its rose window, “that in all my years I’ve never travelled quite as far as you have.”
Number 24 gulped. “But you have then? Travelled?”
The bells clinked again, amused. “I haven’t told a soul this for over a century… When I was younger there were fields between my hamlet and the town. Then, the town grew into a city, and threatened to swallow us up.
“So I moved us all, up and over the hill, to where we are now. Not far, but I regret even that. I used to have such a lovely view, all the way to the sea on a good day. And the city kept growing, a tide of new houses coming over the hill, and now they almost lap at my walls! But I don’t mind. That’s where my parishioners come from.
“And now, I think you need to complete your journey before night arrives. It isn’t far. You’ll know it when you get there. So off you pop, and mind how you go.”
The hamlet wasn’t very large. 24 had to suck in its bay window to pass down some of the narrower streets, as the old houses stirred and grumbled at its passing. And then they thinned out again. The destination was near, it was sure.
It was also so very, very tired. Its ground floor ached and, when it looked back the way it had come, 24 could see scratches in the road where it had dragged its foundations. It couldn’t go on much further; not without ripping up its floorboards.
At long last it came to a wide gateway. Beyond it, a curving drive and, at its summit, glimpsed through the dark woodland, a grand old house. Is this where F. Patel had been all this time? What if, in a choice between Number 24 and this mansion, with grounds that stretched forever, Faz chose the mansion? It hesitated. The gateway was wide enough, but not quite tall enough for 24 to pass. The metal arch overhead would play havoc with its chimney stack. It lingered as the day faded, certain that crossing the boundary would be a breach of manners; that the house and grounds beyond were private, and sacrosanct.
Blue lights blinked and a vehicle trundled down the drive towards it. The sweeping headlights lit the sign by the gateway: St Joseph’s Hospice; Palliative Care and Family Accommodation.
The ambulance trundled through and past, and Number 24 was glad it had stood to one side, off the road itself.
Dusk gathered around it. Maybe here was good. Maybe it would stay, on the edges of St Joseph’s. It could settle on this grassy verge, to be slowly reclaimed by nature.
A dark figure moved despondently along the drive, following in the ambulance’s wake, but in even less of a hurry.
Number 24 sat up straighter as he approached, a small suitcase in his hand. It flicked its porch light on, to see more clearly. The light refused to work — it had left the mains behind in Fell Street. But the noise of the switch was enough to attract the man’s attention. Mr. F. Patel, Esquire, squinted at the terraced house where none had been that morning.
“Oh, hello,” he said, voice infinitely solemn. Faz glanced at his free hand, as if astonished to find it empty, upset to find no other hand there to hold, however fragile, however cold. He sighed, looking rather dazed. “I was about to head home, to you. I didn’t expect you to come meet me; but I’m very glad you did.”
He patted his pocket and the familiar sound of 24’s keys sparked a surge of warmth that swept away the chill of the autumn evening.
Faz Patel glanced back the way he had come, up to the hospice and its many lights, each one a soul nearing their end, the luckier ones with relatives in attendance. And then along the night-black road towards the church, and the hidden city beyond the hill. “We should probably get you back where you belong.”
One of many things to attend to, before he could pick up the pieces of his life. Pieces that would never again quite fit together, would always leave something missing.
There was the final gathering of friends and family. The emptying of the house he had been born in, the merger of things he wanted to keep with his own belongings. The division and dispatch of keepsakes, the rest to charities and recycling.
And then the mournful burden of the sale of 37, Toft Close. The final reckoning of the finances; such a meagre balance for an entire life. Surely enough though for a memorial bench in the neighbouring park? Or perhaps a small bequest to renovate the playground for the next generation of local kids?
He looked up at 24, at the window to his bedroom, tiredness rolling off him in waves, a tiredness matched by every brick of Number 24’s two storey body, though it was ready and willing to follow its owner wherever he went.
“Not tonight though,” Faz said. “In the morning, yes?”
Number 24 Fell Street half yawned, half nodded, and softly opened its front door.
∼ HOME ∼
“Up Sticks” © Liam Hogan. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, April 28, 2022
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk
illustration by Fran Eisemann; stock used from public domain