Found and Lost
It was more than a house, it was a presence. An almost-living entity sitting in the landscape, it glared disdainfully out across the North Norfolk coast. An observer with a sunny outlook on life might charitably think it a lonely, grumpy-old-man of a building; more suspicious souls would doubtless find it rather threatening.
In the few places where they showed through the green and ochre lichen that covered the roof, the well-weathered pantiles were a rain-bleached red. Where there was some shelter, moss covered the lichen, and up near the ridges a few wispy strands of grass were growing through the moss. The roof’s unkempt appearance indicated that the place had not been properly maintained for many years.
L-shaped, and with a steeply pitched roof, the building was certainly distinctive. There were two full stories, and a third, attic floor. This last fact was apparent from the tall and narrow windows in the gables at the end of each branch of the L, and also by the unusual dormer window in its crook. The dormer, a convex Cyclops-eye of sea-blue glass, stared menacingly out over the porch and down the path towards the gate.
Even the porch was unusual: longer than it was wide, its oak shingle roof was supported by six weathered oak pillars that funnelled visitors towards the entrance, making the only possible approach a direct one. Walled to a height of three feet and open to the elements above that, it was as if the lonely lychgate of some long-lost church had sidled up to the arched front door in an attempt to protect it from the elements.
The skeleton of the house was a series of black timber squares, each more than a dozen feet across. The timbers were so old and black that the largest of the age-cracks were big enough to swallow fingers up to the first knuckle, if not further. Worryingly, they somehow managed to threaten that--given the opportunity--that’s precisely what they would do.
The flesh between the age-darkened timber bones was provided by handmade bricks the colour of dried blood. There was no doubt that the ancient bricks had long outlived the kiln in which they’d been fired. The dark red blocks were not arranged in English bond, but had been laid between the black ribs in a herringbone pattern. It was a style that had been popular in Jacobean England.
The window frames piercing the brickwork were as black as the timber bones. All--apart from the unblinking blue eye of the dormer--were filled with small diamonds of green-tinted glass. These jade fragments were old and full of imperfections. Some panes glinted brightly in the sun, while their neighbours were dull and lifeless. As the Earth spun, the multifaceted insect-eyes of the property shifted between rheumy, bright, and baleful.
The house, which was set in a triangular garden about a hundred yards long on each side, was surrounded by cropland. It was difficult to see the gardens because of the unkempt hedge surrounding the place. The only access to the property was along a narrow macadam lane that ran between fields of sugar beet, wheat, and barley. It was wide enough for a tractor, but not much more and--according to the name carved on the old wooden sign at its junction with Coast Road--it was called Strangewitch Lane.
Around the house, the countryside was as flat as a flounder. The hedges that enclosed the property, and hid it from the world, were the only impediment to what would otherwise have been an uninterrupted view. Behind the house, to the south, farmland stretched out for miles. In front, to the north, were the waving reeds of the salt marsh and beyond them, the North Sea. A slight fall in the land in the northern part of the overgrown garden meant that views into the site from this direction were good. It was apparent that the windows on the northern gable would have an impressive view of the River Glaven, the marshes, and even the sea, which was more than half a mile away.
The hedges were typical of the area, a wild and thick mix of hawthorn, blackthorn, ash, and elder. Their prickly presence meant that the only way to access the property was from the narrow lane. Even there, access was restricted. A rose-entangled wicker arch formed the only gap in the hedge. The low wooden gate that barred it was no more than a yard wide. Beyond the gate rough, rust-coloured Carrstone cobbles formed a narrow footpath that led through the neglected and weed-choked garden to the peculiar porch which, despite the bright morning sunlight, shrouded the front door in shadows.
Other than the narrow pedestrian gate, there was no way into the grounds. There was neither driveway nor garage; the old house had no parking. Despite this drawback, it was very marketable.
Lester Lubbock scratched his head. Everything about the property was inexplicable. Neither the house, nor the lane on which it lay, appeared on any map of the area. How the Ordnance Survey could have missed not only a house as old and imposing as this but also the lane on which it was situated, was a mystery to him. Even more astonishing, given its obvious age, the property did not appear on the listed buildings register. For such an obviously old building, that was remarkable.
As Lester stood on the roadside, looking through the arched gate, he lifted his camera and pressed the zoom button. It was no use; he couldn’t even get a good shot of the front door. The rooms were dark and the small panes of old and uneven green glass managed to be both too dull and too bright to allow any glimpse into the interior of the property. He could see nothing.
It looked like the property was unoccupied; certainly no one had approached him as he’d walked around the boundary, holding his camera above his head and taking photographs over the top of the hedge. Nevertheless, despite the dilapidation, there was something about the place that suggested a living presence.
As arriving at the front door with a camera around his neck would give a poor impression, Lester returned to his bright red company Mondeo. Opening the door, he placed his expensive digital camera on the passenger seat, next to his laptop.
This was an opportunity for a big commission. He’d found a prime property in a sought-after location, a building that had enormous potential. It was a characterful house that, even in its current rather rundown state, was probably worth in the region of half a million pounds. Imagining a single, frail and elderly occupant (what else could explain the condition of the house and gardens?) Lester decided that he would start by suggesting a four percent commission.
He’d been parked on the lane for half an hour, and in all that time not a single vehicle had driven past. The place was very quiet. “Ideal for those seeking solitude,” Lester began to mentally write up the sales particulars. Opening his briefcase, he pulled out one of the Company’s standard “We are looking for properties like yours” leaflets and stapled his business card to it. Picking up the laptop, he dropped it into his briefcase and snapped it shut.
Although he was confident that there was no need to lock his car, he locked it anyway. Pocketing the key fob, he crouched down, checked his hair and his tie in the door mirror, brushed non-existent dust from his Saville Row jacket, made certain that his brown Italian shoes were clean after his excursion through the fields, and walked towards the gate.
He halted for a moment. Was that someone’s shadow--a child, perhaps--moving across the dormer window? Uncertain, he continued his approach.
As he reached in to open the latch on the gate, a stray strand of rose stem suddenly whipped down, lashing the back of his hand. Cursing, Lester hastily opened the gate and hurried through. As he did so, a second and then a third rose stem sprang towards him. He got through the gate, but not before his expensive jacket had been ripped and he’d received a second cut, this one to the forehead. Thankful for his sunglasses, which had protected his eyes, he stumbled towards the porch, still swearing under his breath. Five percent commission, he thought to himself vindictively.
‘November-Charlie-three-three to Control.’
‘Go ahead, November-Charlie-three-three.’
‘Red Ford Mondeo, index number alpha-uniform-five-six-lima-lima-lima, reported stolen by Anglian Estate Agents, is parked outside that old house on Strangewitch Lane, almost a mile outside Cley-next-the-Sea. Vehicle is locked and empty. There’s an expensive-looking digital camera on the front seat, but no sign of our misper.’
‘Please repeat the address.’
‘I don’t know the name of the property, control, and there’s no sign on the gate. It’s the big old house overlooking the marshes.’
‘There isn’t a Strangewitch Lane, November-Charlie-three-three, not according to my map, and there definitely aren’t any big houses that close to the marshes. I grew up a couple of miles away, in Blakeney, I’d remember a big old house in the middle of nowhere.’
‘I’ve been patrolling this area for five years, Control. This house has always been here, it must’ve been. I’m looking at it now, and it definitely isn’t new! Strangewitch Lane connects the northern part of Old Woman’s Lane back south to Coast Road.’
‘There isn’t a northern part of Old Woman’s Lane, either, Del. It stops when it hits the coast road. What’ve you been drinking?’
‘I’m sober as a judge, Davey! The map must be wrong. I’ll just go and have a word with the residents. From where he’s parked his car, Mr Lubbock must’ve gone to visit them, although the house looks empty to me. Except… Wait a minute…’
‘Control to November-Charlie-three-three. What’s happening, Del?’
‘There’s a round, blue, window jutting out from the roof; I thought I saw movement. No, it’s nothing, but--hang on… I can see something in the shadows under the porch. It looks like a briefcase. It’s just lying there. I’ll go and take a look. Ow! Bloody hell!’
‘Do you require assistance, November-Charlie-three-three?’
‘I’m okay, but that was weird! There are all these roses around the front gate. When I opened the gate, one of ’em took my cap off and another cut my arm. It’s gone through my shirt. Thank Christ for my stab vest, it deflected the stem. Don’t laugh, but those roses have wicked sharp thorns. Hang on, there’s definitely something under the porch canopy. It is a briefcase. I’ll just…’
‘November-Charlie-three-three from control.’
‘November-Charlie-three-three from control. What’s happening? Del? Del! Answer me, Del.’
‘Stop pissing about Del, it isn’t funny.’
Del, if you don’t pick up right now, I’m going to report this as a lost contact!’
‘November-Charlie-three-three from control. Please respond, November-Charlie-three-three.’
‘Shit! ... All units, all units, officer not responding. Contact lost with November-Charlie-three-three, Constable Adrian Boyes. Last reported position Strangewitch Lane, Cley-next-the-Sea.’
‘November-papa-one-nine-er to control. I’m about half an hour away from Cley, but where the hell is Strangewitch Lane?’
‘November-alpha-two-three to control, we’re closer, we’re in Beeston Regis. ETA twenty minutes--tops. Floor it, Jules…’