I know blog posts are supposed to be short and snappy, but this is more of an essay, a confession, a short story, about me. And seeing as three of my fellow Naked Authors are connected to the law, perhaps Patty, Paul – and especially Jim - should not read any further (I know they will now ...). But anyway ….
I’ve not seen the movie, The Bling Ring, but I remember reading about that LA teen gang in the newspapers – and how they broke into celebrity homes, taking belongings that the likes of Paris Hilton never even missed. And in the same way that a person might taste their first glass of wine and know it would take just one little tipple too many to turn them into an alcoholic, I understood that, when I was their age, had I taken my little hobby of entering empty houses just one tiny step further, I could have been a bling ring girl.
I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with empty properties. They don’t have to be posh, upscale homes, but they need to have something interesting about them – griffon statues at the gate, a pile of old, yellowing mail easily viewed on the front doormat, or something left in a room, visible when I pressed my nose to the window and cupped my hands around my eyes to get a better look into a shadowy deserted spaces. I was raised in a community where there were many interesting houses, from the manor house, to grand estates, to medieval farmworkers cottages and terrace homes constructed for the men who came to build the railway in the mid-1800’s. And it wasn’t unusual for those homes to remain unoccupied for months at a time, because so many of the locals were elderly – when they died it took time to sell the house, or remove the contents for another tenant to move in. My brother and I were the only kids in that hamlet, so it was a distraction to go looking into empty houses – it was for me, anyway. I could make up whole stories about who had lived there and what had come to pass in that house.
I wonder, now, when it was that I first began finding ways to enter an empty house - and when I say, "empty" I mean a house with no current resident, except, perhaps, the ghosts. I think it was a deserted cottage in the Bedgebury Forest – a place that always held a fascination for me, not least because there was an ancient wishing well deep in the woodland, a place where I had divested myself of half my pocket money on many an occasion in my quest to have a horse to call my own by any means. I wish I knew then how much pocket money it takes to keep a horse!!!
People can get careless about empty homes. Perhaps not those in a sub-division, where there’s a real estate agent’s lock box on the door, neighborhood watch and burglar alarms, but in quieter areas, or even in the middle of cities you’ll find that people can get careless. It was the open window that called to me, and I remember shimmying up the gutter down-pipe, and pushing the window wide open, clambering in and feeling as Alice might have felt when she slid down the rabbit hole. I discovered old newspapers from the days of rationing, and a collection of letters from a sweetheart at the Western Front in the Great War – letters I read and put away with care, tying the ribbon in exactly the same place where the knot had rippled the fabric. I took nothing, and left all as I found it. But I spent as much time in the empty cottage as my bravery would allow. Then I oozed myself out of that small window, slid down the pipe and was away on my bike before anyone knew. Luckily, being a country kid, parents never asked how you managed to get scrapes on your elbows or knees, or cuts and bruises – it was part of the business of adventure, and adventure was always encouraged in our house, as long as you didn’t have to pay for it.
The Georgian house at the end of the lane at the edge of the hamlet was another target almost as soon at the family moved out. They’d been London people with notions of living a country life at weekends, but soon the business of having two homes bankrupted the upwardly mobile townies, and the house was abandoned in a moonlight flit. People moving fast tend to leave more behind. I remember pushing against the back door until it eventually gave way to me – I could tell the lock hadn’t done its job because the wood had shrunk in the hot summer sun. The floor in every room was uneven, so if you placed a bead at one end it would roll towards the other. A bead? In the back bedroom I found a necklace of oval wooden beads stained in deep burgundy. The string was broken and several beads had come free, so I ran them across the floor to measure the grade. I wondered if everyone in that house felt ill all the time, because I felt pretty weird. A pile of bills, unpaid, past due and with the promise of legal action emblazoned in red had been left on a kitchen table still bearing the stains of cups and plates. I thought they were dirty people, these London stockbroker types. I left the house by the same door and pulled it back into its uneven place. It was the only time I ever came away with treasure – one of those burgundy beads.
Now, you would think I would have grown out of this little failing of mine, wouldn’t you? I have remained fascinated by the idea of being in other peoples' houses, uninvited and alone, as if I were some latter-day Goldilocks. Did you ever see The Bee Season, with Juliet Binoche as the woman who collected a whole storage locker filled with glittery things taken from homes she had calmly walked into and out of without being seen? That is the slippery slope, and I think I might have come close to the edge before pulling myself back. I remember, when I was in my mid-twenties and a sales rep for an academic publishing company, I traveled extensively staying for several days in university towns throughout the UK. It seemed fun at first, living in hotels, doing this great job that I loved. Then with winter, the loneliness set in, and I would often take a walk after my work was done, stepping out into the cold evening air in a strange town, stopping in my tracks to look through windows into warm houses, at the families together eating supper or watching TV. Sometimes there would be an empty house with just one light on, a room waiting for an owner not yet home, and I would wonder what it would be like to just find a way in and sit in a cozy chair until I heard a key in the lock, at which point I would sneak out the back door. Of course, I never crossed that particular threshold.
It was a couple of years ago, while out biking with my friend, who shall remain nameless because she’s a teacher, and it wouldn’t do to out her on this, that we discovered we were both drawn to empty properties. It started when we passed an abandoned house and she said she had always wondered what it was like inside. So had I. Like a pair of kids we hid our bikes around the back, and then, seasoned breakers-in that we were, we both eyed the same unlocked door and entered the house. We only stayed about five minutes, or was it ten? Enough time to study each room, wondering how anyone could have read books like that, and to open a few closets – there’s often a gaggle of empty hangers in the closet of a deserted house, and perhaps two or three solitary polyester dresses dating from the 1970’s or, curiously, a tuxedo with dusty shoulders. Then we closed the door and went on our way. Another house we came upon was probably the most interesting we’ve found – an old stone cottage with a lock box on the front door, but the back entrance left ajar. We crept in and found that the adult children of the deceased had obviously taken everything they thought was of value, but left so much that was interesting. A pile of magazines from the 1950’s with one thing in common – the same stunning blonde on the cover, head back, lips pouting. There were photos of the woman in the garage, and we soon realized that, yes, it had been her home and she was a debutante, but clearly one with a career in Hollywood's early glittering heyday. We found two guns leaning against a sofa, and that was when we decided to leave. This time we took care to do what no one else had done – we locked that door. The house was too close to a high school, and those guns were quite visible from the windows – so we set them down so no-one could see. We wouldn’t want a youngster to give in to temptation.
I've not entered an empty house unbidden in a while now, and I probably never will again. But that’s not to say that I won’t think about it. It’s the fascination with abandoned places and the people who were there - the storyteller in me likes to give them a past. It’s been said that writers begin as curious children, but perhaps it begins with being just plain nosy.
If my brother reads this post, he will laugh, I know, though he still blames me for the telling off he received from a policeman when we were discovered in the old abandoned railway station close to our home when we were kids. I told the policeman that I only went in to find my brother, who was trying to rescue an injured cat. John says it was the way the lie just tripped off my tongue that almost made him faint, especially as it was he who received the stern warning about entering railway property, derelict or not. He was five years old. I was nine. It had been my idea to go in via a broken window. Yes, me, The Original Bling Ring Girl.