The villa with which the street resumed after the T-junction was of a type common to Edinburgh’s suburbs. It was graceful in its classicism and gaunt in its old age. Its stone had been originally a lion-colour and it almost still was beneath the century’s worth of grime and soot. The fanciful Victoriana accumulated in a small, showpiece Italianate tower, with rooftops wrapped around its first floor like furs. One would initially admire this villa as a standalone mansion until they realised that there was actually another house rolling out along the road behind it. The building was semi-detached.
It was presently abandoned. Jenny had once related the story behind this to Amy, nodding in that emphatic, absent-minded way of hers that always reminded Amy of a needle dipping with a thread. She had met a journalist at a speed dating night and somehow, on learning where she lived, the journalist had squeezed the entire story into their three-minute slot.
An old man lived in this house and one morning he had suffered from a seizure. The roof had collapsed, yes that was it, or even a tree might have fallen in through the ceiling. An ambulance had arrived and, after the old man had been stowed inside, it had driven off and promptly crashed. The old man had miraculously staggered out of the ambulance and flagged down a taxi to the hospital. The Edinburgh Evening News had wanted to run with the story but the old man had threatened to take them to court. He was a banker, or something, and they never want their faces in the papers.
This had occurred last October. Jenny thought that there might have been scaffolding over the house for a week or so – presumably whilst they were plugging the roof – but from then on it had stood uninhabited. In her escape from Jenny’s cottage, Amy fled straight to this villa. It was the only place that she could think to go. There would be doubtless a garage or a shed in the side garden where she could hide for a while. The wound that had been inflicted on her was like a black lake and she wanted to sit undisturbed on its shore, alone and silent with its immensity.
As Amy hurried across the road, she was almost stopped in her tracks by the frankness of the house’s enormous face. She lowered her gaze guiltily. As she proceeded around the side of the house, she stole a look through a passing window. The interior was disconcertingly pristine, with a kind of desolation in its radiance that the recent building work could not account for. The room was furnished but without, it seemed, any consideration that it might be lived in. Amy was reminded of that way in which a dentist’s antechamber will be fitted out to superficially evoke a household sitting room.
Amy passed a small door and she automatically tried the handle. She was scandalised – the door opened in her hand. After staring around her wildly for a second, as if she might really connect with some evil face that was watching from the shrubbery, she bolted inside.
The room that she had just invaded was a kitchen and this too was a façade. The workstations gleamed as if not a single spot of sauce had ever dropped on any of their surfaces. Ahead, the sofas and armchairs in the living room flashed with newness, like knives in a shop floor display.
Amy wondered without conviction whether this kitchen might harbour any non-perishable food. It swooped down on her viciously. The large cupboards with the swing doors were obviously empty, but when she opened them, there were shiny apples and loaves of fresh bread and a bunch of bananas.
Should Amy leave at once? She went to the living room and studied its layout. There was nothing to confirm that anybody had ever lived there. This house had no more experience of human beings than a bear in the depths of virgin forest.
Amy climbed the stairs, faintly troubled by how relaxed she felt at cutting off her exit. All of the rooms up here were as dustless and disinfected as those below. She opened a wardrobe and there was a row of white shirts that she knew in the pit of her stomach had been never worn. The smooth sheets on the beds had been not so much as sat on. The two bathrooms, at either end of the maze of rooms, were so perfectly dry that they could have never splashed with running water.
Amy was climbing up and up, following a corkscrew staircase and unable to see more than three steps ahead. She recalled the tower and realised that she must be in its shell.
There was a bedroom on the second floor where the windows opened on to the slates of the rooftop below. The roof was narrow and slippery but hospitable enough for somebody to be able to manoeuvre along it.
Amy saw that there was a large walk-in wardrobe in the bedroom for her to hide in. With the roof outside, she had an escape route only a step away. The bedroom contained an oak dresser and, above it, there was a mirror as wide as an eagle’s wings. She contemplated the unused bed and decided that it would be safer to sleep on the floor of the wardrobe.
There was nothing hanging inside, though there were shelves at head height that were piled with identically folded fluffy towels. There was an indefinable chemical perfume inside the wardrobe that could have been simply newness. Amy sat down on the floor, keeping the door of the wardrobe and the door of the bedroom both open so that she could listen to the house downstairs.