The first thing was that Ellie went missing. Her mother was frantic. It was their first morning in the house – early. The sun was only just coming in the windows low down on the seaward side of the house, casting a honey glow on the white walls. It was going to be another beautiful day and Ellie’s cot was empty and the wooden stairs were steep and the back door did not lock properly and there were miles and miles of marshes all around. She could be anywhere. She could be lost. Poor little round-faced Ellie - adventurous, trusting, self-contained. She might have been taken.
Down through storeys, four in all, airy and white, calling ‘Ellie! Ellie!’ No answer. She must have wandered off again, her sister says, to play with the birds. It wouldn’t be the first time. She must be here somewhere. ‘Ellie!’
Chalk white and pinewood boards, watercolours and prints on every wall - originals. Huge windows. Canvas and tapestry, oak and cedar, silks and batiks, paper shades and rainbow kites, raku pots and masks from Bali, aloes and palms, driftwood and sea-glass. Such lovely things, thinks her mother. They loved this place so very much. So very sad. ‘Ellie!’ she calls, ‘Where are you?’
Father carefully moves a ceramic puffin and a carved wooden dragon aside and crouches in a window niche. He undoes the catch, leans out three floors up and looks down at the ground – lyme grass and shingle, timber and mud, a rotting boat and a rusting bicycle. The single-track road and the shacks further on, the gift shop and the beach cafe. He calls ‘Ellie!’ and a gull comes and holds on the buffeting wind not five yards out, disinterested. He looks up. The October sky all but blue - just a wisp of ice in it. He holds his palm to the white clapboard side. It’s warm to the touch already. Nobody about. ‘Sunday’ he thinks.
The pudgy blue elephant fits in her palm. Ellie holds it up to look as her mother rushes in and gathers her up.
‘Be careful’ Ellie scolds. ‘You’ll hurt Sally.’
Sat across her mother’s lap, one sock on, held tight, her Mother’s tears dot her brushed cotton shoulder. Ellie holds the little round elephant up for her father to see and her sister goes back to her room, muttering.
The girls’ play room. Of course. They hadn’t thought. Four floors down and Ellie so small and yet here she is. Last night’s arrival, too late to explore. Just a quick story and brush your teeth and then all week to play. But no, Ellie couldn’t wait.
Her father slumps in a big orange cushion and looks out the window. It’s still very quiet. A heave of nostalgia – the muslin tent ceiling, the apricot glow. Bears and rabbits, books and crayons, posters and stencils, a tinkling mobile. Warm and alive. And now they’re all gone. Unbelievable.
‘Let me have a look darling’ he says.
The lapis blue elephant is hand-hot soft and sports a saddle and a skull cap in red and white beads, and tiny black beady eyes. ‘What did you say her name was?’ he asks. ‘Sally’ says Ellie and he looks at his wife. Had Ellie ever met her cousin? He doesn't think so.
‘It’s ok’ says the mother. ‘She must have heard us talk about her.’
Out all day. Back at five. Tide marks on their feet and salt in their skin. A bucket of cockle shells, a feather and a piece of drift wood with a hole in it big enough to put your finger through. A burger at the café and a paperback from the post office. A sunglasses and fleeces sort of a day. The girls are tired but it’s still light out. Father looks at a shelf of books. Walnut, he thinks. Beautiful. It had only been a few years and the place had been a wreck. His sister Jennie and her husband Mike worked for months non-stop. He had thought them insane but at least it was better than that mouldy flat in the city. What had this place been before? Some sort of warehouse before the river silted up and the curlews moved in, or maybe one of those high wooden structures for drying nets? He’d meant to ask before – before the accident. Jennie and Mike and their two children, Sally and Millie, in a car. So pointless. So stupid. He picks out a book and flicks a page and Mike is there with him, alive, he could swear. He lived for his books did Mike – trains, boats and planes. Jennie was the artist. She is everywhere. He looks about the walls and an orange light floods the room from the west and the shadows move in. ‘Jennie?’ he says, and puts the book away.
‘They’re all still here’ says his wife, in bed. He settles down beside her and looks. The low angled ceiling up under the roof, the girls next door. ‘I can feel them’ she says, ‘everywhere.’
‘They loved this place’ he says.
‘I hope they don’t mind us being here.’
‘Of course not. They’d understand.’
In the morning the father goes down to the car and fetches some of the cardboard boxes, a big bundle, flat pack, he can hardly handle them. His wife makes coffee. The girls play in the decomposing rowing boat at the back with toys from the play room. Ellie builds a house for the plastic farm animals from bits of wood to keep them safe while her sister sets up a spa for Millie’s Barbies. Her spa specialises mostly in mud baths. She thinks Millie would like a mud bath. She saw it in a programme once. The ladies came out all clean and relaxed.
The father stands in the middle of the living-room-come-dining-room-come-kitchen that fills the entire third floor and looks at all the things his sister and her husband collected. His wife hands him his coffee and looks too. Two hours later they are still looking. It’s not that nothing has happened. They have tried to take down the pictures, to wrap the china in tissue, to bag up the books and records - Uncle Mike’s jazz and Auntie Jennie’s classical. They just can’t seem to be able to do it. They have tried to prioritise. They have tried to think just one thing at a time, but as soon as they start the room looks so forlorn, so lost without them, as if it just doesn’t understand why its things are being taken away. So they go back where they belong and the father and his wife stand, fresh coffees in hand, and can’t decide what to do. Even the kitchen utensils object.
‘If only we could take the whole house, just as it is’ he says.
‘We’ve talked about this’ she says softly, stroking his arm.
So the things go back to where they live.
As it begins to get dark the girls come in and take the Barbies and the farm animals in the bath with them and wash them scrupulously and dry them and put them back where they live. They’re never so careful with their own toys at home.
Tuesday is the same. The girls play in the mud and the adults try to make a start packing up. The autumn sun illuminates Uncle Mike’s carefully worked and polished banisters and furniture, and Auntie Jennie’s intricate needle-work and neither of them can bear to take any of it away. It’s as if it doesn’t understand why anybody would want to come in and change things. It doesn’t seem to understand what’s happened.
It was early on the Wednesday when the break-in happened. Nobody had ever heard Ellie scream so loud. She’d sneaked back into the play room in the small hours and was there when the men got in through the window. Her father appeared in the doorway armed with a golf club and managed to crack one of the intruders hard across the back of the head as he fled. In the quiet aftermath Ellie was understandably shaken in her mother’s arms but more than anything she was worried for her cousins. The intruders had left a terrible mess. Ellie had hidden among the bedding when she first heard the breaking glass and she’d witnessed the kicking about and trampling that went on. She only screamed when they talked about heading up into the rest of the house and her mother told her she was a very brave girl indeed, for raising the alarm but it didn’t console her. Her cousins’ things were torn and smashed – the dressing-up box, and Sally’s paintings. One of the men had stood laughing and weed on them.
The father phoned the police and in the morning the window was boarded up. Ellie, her parents and her sister sat in the lounge with their breakfast drinks. The room in the dim morning light seemed to cower down around them. Ellie said something about Sally being hurt and wanting to go down to help her. Her father said that where Sally was she couldn’t be hurt any more but they all knew it wasn’t true. Jennie was down there in the playroom holding her crying children as Mike stormed about the place - his normally placid face wrung with anger and disbelief, and the entire house and everything in it groaned in pain and humiliation with them - every blanket, every spoon, every paperback book. In every speck and button they lived, and now it had been defiled, their refuge, their nest, their lives’ work, and there was nothing they could do about it.
And they knew it would continue to be defiled. They knew, even if not by criminals there would be estate agents and developers, letting agents and art dealers, house clearers and refuse collectors, come to break it up, break it down, over the coming months, gradually tearing it apart, this thing they had made, that had become them, with their love and optimism, and turning it into just a pile of random stuff to be bought and sold or thrown away. It was impossible.
Just before dawn of the following day Ellie, her sister and her mother were standing a safe distance along the road beside their car as their father walked briskly toward them from the house. He was putting something in his pocket. Already black smoke was beginning to waft from the garage door and pretty soon an orange flame emerged too. They stood and watched as, for a while nothing more happened, and then there was a rush of fire from a first floor window and after that the fire spread rapidly up into the rest of the building. By the time the fire engine arrived there was nothing to see but a tower of flames. They all stood and watched together. The girls cried a little but there was no need to explain that this was the only thing to do. They understood completely. The police tried to move them along but the father insisted on staying a little longer just to see that his sister and her family got away safely.