The House Across the Street by Lesley Pearse

23-year-old Katy is fascinated by the house across the street and the glamorous woman who lives there, Gloria. But who is the woman who arrives in the black car while Gloria is at work?

January 1965, Bexhill-on-Sea

‘Fire! Fire! Get up, get up!’

Katy woke with a start at her mother’s shrill command. She leapt out of bed, grabbed her dressing gown and as she put her feet into her slippers, she heard her father speak.

‘For goodness’ sake, Hilda. The fire is across the street, we aren’t in any danger. Leave the children in peace.’

His plea was one of weariness and Katy’s heart went out to him as he’d been in the office until late for the last few days because his engineering company was having an audit. ‘You wouldn’t think to jump into water even if your feet were on fire,’ Hilda retorted. ‘Lazy oaf!’

Normally such nasty remarks were like a red rag to a bull for Katy, but she just wanted to see the fire.

Rob emerged from his room as Katy passed his door. ‘What on earth is going on?’ he said grumpily, clutching at his pyjama bottoms as if afraid they would fall down. ‘Fire, but Mum’s probably over reacting,’ she replied. ‘Let’s go and see.’

But as they stepped in their parents room they were astounded to see it was as light as day from the blaze across the street.

‘Oh my goodness!’ Katy exclaimed, her mouth dropping open at the scene outside the window. Vivid scarlet and yellow flames were licking up the front of the house and illuminating the whole street. Set against the night sky, it made a terrifying picture. This wasn’t some little kitchen fire, but a real inferno.

‘I can’t believe it,’ Katy burst out, her voice shaking with emotion. ‘Poor Mrs Reynolds, I just hope she isn’t still in there. Did someone call the fire brigade?’

‘Of course I did,’ their father said, pulling his trousers on over his pyjamas. ‘I may be an oaf, but I can manage to dial 999. And now I’m going to check on whether she did get out, and if she has, I’ll be inviting her and the neighbours either side back here.’ Katy heard the steel in his voice and turned back from the window to look at him.

‘Good for you Dad, can I help in any way?’

‘No, you and Rob stay here in the warm with your mother,’ he said, glancing at his wife, who had got back into bed as if nothing unusual had happened. ‘It looks like it’s freezing out there.’

He was right, away from the blaze the pavements sparkled with frost.

‘Please God. Tell me she got out,’ Katy felt faint at the thought of what might have happened. There were a few neighbours out there looking at the blaze, but she couldn’t see Mrs Reynolds amongst them. She turned towards her mother. ‘She’s not out there Mum! Did you spot her when you first saw the fire?’

‘No, but it was already blazing away when I woke, so she probably ran to someone’s house.’

Katy nodded. She hoped that was the case. ‘Usually on a Saturday night she goes to her daughters. Let’s just hope she did this time.’

‘Since when did you get to know that woman well enough to find out her movements?’ Hilda asked, her voice sharp and disapproving.

Katy looked at her brother and rolled her eyes.  It was typical of their mother that she would be more concerned with how her daughter knew someone, rather than expressing sympathy for their plight.

‘Seeing as her shop is only two doors away from the office it would be very rude if I never spoke to her,’ Katy said curtly. ‘I like her, she’s very interesting to chat to, and she’s got two daughters, one’s twenty-three like me. But it’s the older one who she goes to on Saturdays. She lives in St Leonards.’ The bell on the fire engine drowned any response from her mother, and Katy turned back to the window to see more people arriving at the burning house. A police car came right behind the second fire engine. Two policemen jumped out to move the crowd further down Collington Avenue.

The blaze was so fierce now Katy could feel the heat even through the windowpane. As the firemen unrolled their hoses, she saw her father talking to old Mr and Mrs Harding. The pensioners lived in the house attached to the burning one. They were looking fearfully at the blaze, huddled together with coats over their night clothes, clearly afraid their house would soon be consumed by it too. She guessed her father was urging them to come over the road and wait in the warm.

Rob came over to stand beside Katy at the window and squeezed her forearm, his silent way of communicating his disapproval that their mother hadn’t gone out there, too, to try and help in some way.

‘I’ll go and put the kettle on,’ Katy said. She needed to do something, as just standing watching a house burning down seemed awful. ‘Dad might bring people back, so maybe I should make some sandwiches too. Would you like something, Mum?’ she asked.

‘Some cocoa would be nice and a slice of that fruit cake I made this afternoon.’

Katy merely nodded confirmation she’d heard and made her way downstairs. She didn’t understand why her mother was taking the fire so calmly. Even if she didn’t approve of Mrs Reynolds, surely she would care whether she was alive or burned to death? As for the Hardings, they’d lived here for about fifteen years before Katy was born, and she and Rob had often gone to their house after school for tea. In fact, they thought of them as almost stand-in grandparents. At their age it must be awful to think their house and all its treasured contents might burn down too.

As she filled the kettle Rob came down. ‘Sometimes I wish I was still five,’ he said sadly, his mouth downturned. ‘Back then I didn’t know that other mothers cared about others, sang, danced, or chased their kids round the garden. I can’t believe she hasn’t gone out there with Dad to see if she can help. What’s up with her Sis? She must have a heart of stone. Was she born that way or did something happen to her?’

The House Across the Street

The blaze was so fierce now Katy could feel the heat even through the windowpane.

‘I don’t know, Rob,’ Katy sighed. ‘I used to pray at Sunday school that she’d change. The worst of it is that I almost don’t notice how cold and hard she is any more. It’s only because this is something so dramatic, so serious and so damaging for everyone affected that it’s reminded me just how peculiar she is.’

‘I’m definitely not coming back for the holidays any more,’ Rob said. He was in his first year of studying for his Masters at Nottingham University. ‘Each time I come back it’s like a punishment, not a joyful homecoming. I’ll miss you and Dad of course, but I can’t deal with her any longer. She snipes at me, as if she resents my life. I don’t think she’s ever asked about my friends, or how I find the work, or even what my digs are like. All she does is clean and polish.’ Katy saw her brother was close to tears and she embraced him. He was just a year younger than her and they’d always been close. They were not allowed to go and play in other children’s homes when they were little, so they believed all mothers were like theirs. Later when they were allowed to play outside and they learned that wasn’t so, they found their own ways of compensating for a difficult mother who rarely showed any affection.

Rob was clever, he could make things: soap box carts, bows for archery, stilts and many other ingenious toys out of next to nothing, which made him popular. Katy found her niche by being daring, climbing trees, knocking on doors and running away and acting the clown to make the other kids laugh. Although very different in temperament, Rob being shy while Katy was outgoing, they made a good team, supporting each other and sharing their resources.

‘I’ve been considering moving to London,’ Katy admitted. ‘Funnily enough it was Mrs Reynolds who put the idea in my head. She said Bexhill is the dullest town in England and I ought to be whooping it up in a big city. She was right; Bexhill is dull. Dancing at the De La Warr Pavilion on a Saturday night is as good as it gets. The only boys I ever meet are the ones I went to school with, and half of them are married now with a couple of kids.’

‘I’d suggest you come up to Nottingham, as I’d love you to be there, but I don’t think it’s a very good place unless you are at the university. London is where everything is happening now, so I’m told.’

Katy smiled at her brother. ‘I wouldn’t want to cramp your style. And anyway, if I go to London you can come and stay with me.’

As Katy buttered some bread for sandwiches, she thought about her parents. Katy had once got a sneaky peek at their wedding certificate. They were married in May of 1941, and she was born five months later. As she understood it that wasn’t unusual then: they said people lived for the moment and many brides were pregnant. But it was very hard to imagine her mother having ever being swept away by passion. She was so totally disapproving of pre-marital sex. When she’d tried to explain about the birds and bees to Katy, she looked and sounded like she was almost choking at the thought of such things.

So why her dad had ever been attracted enough to Hilda to even speak to her, let alone sleep with her, was unfathomable. Albert was almost the exact opposite to her mum: kind, caring, softly spoken. He was a tall, handsome man with thick dark hair, good teeth and a ready smile.

She longed to ask her mother about those days and her romance with Albert, but Hilda wasn’t the kind to confide in anyone, and she found personal questions an affront, even if they were from her own children.

It was mainly the problems with her mother that made Katy want to leave home. But she also longed for the hustle and bustle of London. Here she felt she was under a microscope. If it wasn’t her mother cross-examining her, it was friends and neighbours constantly watching her.

Bexhill wasn’t just dull, it was quiet too. A story had gone around that the police had once pulled the vicar in for questioning because he was out after nine on a winter’s evening. They were convinced he was a burglar, and refused to believe he was visiting a sick old lady until he took off his scarf and showed his dog collar.

That story had always amused Katy, but despite the town’s shortcomings she had affection for it. Aside from the sea it had wide tree-lined roads, at least where she lived, and more lively towns like Hastings or Brighton were only bus rides away.

Rob had left the kitchen to take their mother her cocoa and cake, and as he came back in Katy was brought back to the present.

‘Looks like the fire is coming under control now,’ he said. ‘But no one in there could’ve survived.’

Katy ran into the sitting room and looked out the window. Rob was right, the flames were no longer licking as vigorously up the front of the house, and the blaze in the front room appeared to have lowered. A lump came up in her throat, even if Mrs Reynolds was safely at her daughter’s, losing her home and all her personal possessions was terrible. But much worse was the possibilitythat such a lovely woman had died in the fire. That was too tragic to even think on.

Rob came up behind her. ‘Mr and Mrs Harding won’t be able to go back in their house,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘It might not be burned as such, but the smoke will have damaged everything. They are old and frail and I don’t think they’ve got any family to go to.’

Katy could think of nothing to say to that, so she pointed out she had sandwiches to make.

‘Are you going to tell Mum and Dad you won’t come home for the holidays again?’ she asked her brother when they’d gone back in the kitchen. Rob was stoking up the Rayburn stove, as she made the sandwiches. ‘Or just make excuses each time?’

Rob looked sheepish. ‘I think the excuses route. I’m not as brave as you.’

‘I think it’s more diplomatic actually. I mean it won’t make Dad so sad will it? I don’t like the thought of walking away from him, but I suppose parents do expect their kids to leave at some time.’

‘Maybe Mum will be nicer to Dad once they are alone?’ Rob suggested.

Almost as if he’d heard his name mentioned the back door opened and Albert came in on a blast of icy cold air. ‘Brrr, it’s freezing out there,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘Mr and Mrs Harding are going along to the Brady’s down the road. They play Bridge with them, so it’s better for them than here.’

‘What about the Suttons?’ Rob asked. They were the couple who lived on the other side of number 26.

‘Well, as their house isn’t attached to number 26 it hasn’t burned. They went in with fireman to check it. They said it stinks of smoke but it’s okay. Anyway, they are going to their daughters until it clears. She’s on her way.’

‘Did the firemen find out if Mrs Reynolds was in there?’ Katy asked.

Albert frowned. ‘They don’t know yet. Mrs Harding said she was in earlier in the evening as she had heard her television. As it went off later, hopefully that means she went out. But the firemen can’t get in there just yet to check, so we’ll have to cross our fingers that she’s safe somewhere else.’

‘Do they have any idea of how the fire started?’ Rob asked. ‘I heard one of the policemen say they suspected arson. But they won’t be able to confirm, or rule that out, until the fire is properly out and the house has cooled down,’ he paused, his dark eyes glinting with what looked like emotional tears. ‘If it was set deliberately and Mrs Reynolds died in there, I would want to personally burn the person that did that to her.’

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