The Bostocks were moving from the pretty Lancashire village of Brampton to a house slap bang in the middle of the town, and Lawrence and Julia didn’t like it one bit.
Julia was ten, and had lots of friends at her primary school. Why go and buy a house miles away in horrible, dirty Darnley-in-Makerfield? You couldn’t hear the birds sing there because of all the factory noises, and you had to keep your eyes peeled wherever you went, for fear of walking under a bus. ‘It’s not fair,’ she pouted, watching her mother wrap up china in newspaper and pack it in cardboard boxes. ‘I hate the new house.’
‘I hate it too,’ said Lawrence. He was five and he always copied what Julia said. Secretly though, he felt rather excited about moving. It meant he would go to school at last, and he’d been promised his own bedroom too. In the cottage he had to share with Julia. Besides, Great-aunt Annie was already living at the new house and Great-aunt Annie had a sweet tin.
‘You can’t hate what you’ve never seen,’ Mrs Bostock said wearily. ‘Dad’s offered to take you to see Baillie Square half a dozen times now it’s all been redecorated, but you just won’t go.’
‘Well, I still don’t think it’s fair,’ moaned Julia. ‘I like the country. Darnley’s dirty, and it smells.’
Her mother abandoned her china-wrapping and sat down on the floor. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘First of all, Darnley doesn’t smell, and 19 Baillie Square is a beautiful house. It’s all been cleaned up and the factories aren’t allowed to have smoking chimneys anymore.’
‘But I won’t have any friends. People don’t live in places like Baillie Square, right in the middle of towns.’
‘That’s not true either. There are the Wilkinsons two doors away, and the Shaws just opposite, and the three vicarage children on the corner…’
‘Yuk! That’s another thing, Aunt Annie’ll make us go to church. She’s church-mad.’
‘Remember what the doctor told Dad,’ Mrs Bostock reminded her. She’d gone beyond the red-faced arguey stage now and looked all set to burst into tears. ‘He ought to give up the long drive into work. It’s miles from here to his office, love, and when there’s a hold-up on the motorway…’
‘But why couldn’t we just buy somewhere nearer, in another village? Why Darnley? Ugh!’ and Julia did cry now.
‘Well, it’s only an experiment. We’re not buying the house from Aunt Annie yet. We’re just renting part of it, and if it doesn’t work out we can come back here, to Sweet Briars. Dad’s only letting the Jacksons use it for a year.’
A year. It felt like forever to Julia. ‘Some experiment!’ she said rudely, glaring at all the packing cases. ‘I’m going to see Charlotte. It’ll probably be my last chance,’ and she stormed off.
Lawrence cuddled up to his mother. He didn’t like it when Julia shouted. ‘Is there a fire station at Aunt Annie’s?’ he said timidly.
Mrs Bostock hesitated. Just before Christmas he’d managed to find some matches and started a blaze in the garage. Two fire engines had come over from Headingford and he’d been fascinated by them. He’d not understood that he could have burned Sweet Briars to the ground, only that two gleaming red trucks and eight men with shiny yellow hats had come tearing up their lane. And all because of him. Since then all matches had been kept hidden. But Lawrence was still fascinated by fire. Only last week they’d caught him fiddling with a cigarette lighter.
‘There’ll be one in Manchester,’ she said cautiously. ‘That’s a very big city. We could go there on the bus. There are lots of shops in Manchester, and cinemas, and a skating rink, and there’s a famous orchestra called the Hallé.’
But his glassy eyes told her that he’d not heard one word about Manchester. All he cared about was living near the fire station.
‘I can smell something burning,’ Dad said. ‘Have you left the milk pan on, Auntie?’ It was eleven o’clock and Mr and Mrs Bostock were having a late-night drink down in the basement flat. Julia was there too. Her official bedtime was eight thirty, but she came down most evenings complaining that she couldn’t sleep. She’d started off in the big back attic, next to Lawrence, but that had only lasted a week. Her bedroom was on the floor below now, next to Mum and Dad. She said she felt ‘safer’ there.
‘Safe from what?’ Dad had said rather grumpily, watching Mum trying to manoeuvre a mattress down the narrow attic stairs. He wasn’t allowed to lift heavy things, since his illness.
Julia wouldn’t tell, except that she thought Aunt Annie’s had a ‘creepy feeling’.
‘Stuff and nonsense. It’s a lovely old house.’
Great-aunt Annie was eighty-one. She was still very fit but she did get muddled about things. ‘It’ll be them students,’ she said, as Dad went to investigate the smell. ‘They’re up at all hours, cooking.’ The Bostocks exchanged glances. Four students from the Polytechnic had rented rooms at 19 Baillie Square last year but they’d left months ago.
‘I’ll just go up and check in our kitchen then, Auntie,’ Dad said. ‘There’s certainly nothing on in yours.’ And he climbed the stairs to the ground floor. Mum and Julia followed and they all stood together in the long narrow hall with its pattern of black and white tiles, tiles that had been washed morning and evening, years ago, by a little servant girl, according to Aunt Annie. She’d been born in the house, and her father before her.
The smell was stronger here. Julia ran into the front room where they’d had a fire burning in the grate. But nothing remained of it except a heap of reddish ash and anyhow, the big fireguard was firmly in position.
‘It’s upstairs,’ Mum said, turning very pale all of a sudden. ‘It’s . . . Lawrence!’ And she began to mount the staircase, two steps at a time.
Julia shoved past and was in the attic before her mother had reached the second-floor landing. Dad, who wasn’t supposed to rush anywhere, made his way up more slowly.
‘Well there’s nothing burning,’ Julia said, coming out of the tiny back bedroom. ‘It’s all OK in here, and Loll’s fast asleep.’
Nothing could be seen of Lawrence except a little mound of bedding. The room smelt of fresh paint and wallpaper but the scorching, burning smell was much stronger now.
‘There must be a big fire in town,’ Dad said, puffing slightly as he appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘I didn’t hear any sirens though.’
‘Well, Loll must have because he’s not in this bed.’ Julia had deliberately sat down right in the middle of the hump, just to annoy him, and discovered it was empty.
Mrs Bostock tore back the covers. All she found was a collection of stuffed toys, half a biscuit and an old comic. He wasn’t in the attic and he wasn’t in the rooms down below. Loll had vanished into thin air.
Back in the hall Dad pulled open the heavy front door and looked out. A small five-year-old surely couldn’t have climbed up, unbolted it and slipped through, yet he was starting to panic. Loll was drawn to fires like ducks were to water.
As he stood staring up and down the street Great-aunt Annie suddenly rapped on her basement window. Dad looked down the grating in the pavement and saw her smiling, and pointing at something. She’d got Loll in her arms, wrapped up in a blanket, and he was waving a picture book.
‘Lawrence!’ Dad went back inside and took the phone off Mum. She was nearly in tears now, and in the middle of dialling 999. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘He was with Aunt Annie. Don’t know how on earth he slipped past us.’
‘Perhaps he was in that little loo on the second- floor landing,’ she sniffed. ‘He likes that game. I never thought of...’
‘No he wasn’t,’ Julia interrupted. ‘I looked in there.’
‘Now come on, Loll, this is naughty. You’re keeping Aunt Annie out of bed.’ Down in the basement sitting room Dad took him into his arms, restored the tatty nursery rhyme book to its shelf and went to the door. ‘I’m sorry, Auntie. This won’t happen again.’
‘It’s all right, chuck, I don’t mind. I wasn’t in bed any road.’
But Lawrence had started to howl. ‘I want to see the lady again, I want to show you that lady.’
‘Tomorrow. You can come down for a story tomorrow. Listen, we should all be in bed by now, it’s nearly midnight.’
‘But what about that smell?’ Julia started, the minute Aunt Annie’s door was closed. Mum, following her up the basement stairs, gave her a sharp dig in the back.
‘It was obviously outside,’ she whispered. ‘It’s gone now anyhow. Listen, let’s just keep quiet about it. I think Loll’s getting over that fire thing so the less said at this stage the better.’
Dad was making his way upstairs to put Lawrence back in bed and Julia was following, with her mother. But at the part where the stairs widened out, on the first landing, she suddenly stopped dead.
‘Come on, Julia, for Heaven’s sake. I’m tired. What are you doing?’
‘I don’t like going past here at night, Mum. This is the creepy part.’
‘Darling, it’s not a bit “creepy”. You love Aunt Annie’s old rocking horse don’t you? And it’s just the place for it on this landing, much better than where it used to be, in that poky back room.’ But she’d noticed that Julia never sat on the old black horse now, or threaded ribbons through its mane like she used to.
‘I get a funny cold feeling when I go past this bit,’ she said in an embarrassed rush, grabbing at her mother’s hand. ‘You can say I’m silly, Mum, but I do. And I wish we could go back to Sweet Briars like you promised. I don’t want to stay here for a whole year, I just don’t!’ And she ran into her bedroom and slammed the door.
Gradually, though, Julia stopped complaining about living at Aunt Annie’s. Nearly all the children in the square went to her school and they fell over themselves to be friendly when they knew she was the great-niece of old Annie Birdsall. She’d been on telly last year, on Look North. It was her eightieth birthday and they’d had her talking about her house in Baillie Square. Her grandfather had bought it when it was brand new and the Birdsall family had lived in it ever since.
Lawrence loved school. It was nearly all play for the infants and at twelve o’clock Mum took him home for dinner and a little sleep. On his very first Friday he got a book out of the story box called Our Friend the Fireman.
Mum frowned when she saw it. She really thought Loll was getting over his fascination with fires but that night she realized she was wrong. There was a sudden terrific smell of burning in the house as she stood in the kitchen, drying the bedtime mugs before going upstairs. All the windows were closed and there’d definitely been no sirens in the street. This time she ran down to Aunt Annie’s flat first. The old lady was nodding in her chair, making gentle snoring noises. No fumes down here though, no smoke, no smell, no Loll. Mrs Bostock tore up through the house, flinging all the doors open as she went. Her husband was already asleep in the large front bedroom. Julia was asleep, too. There was nothing burning in the back attic though she kicked aside all the empty boxes they’d stored in there, just to make sure, and Lawrence’s room was in perfect order for once. She’d given it a good clean-up while he’d been playing in the square that afternoon, with Julia and her new friends.
Even so, she tugged the wobbly old wardrobe away from the wall and looked behind it, pulled out drawers, and ripped back a bit of the carpet in case the floorboards were smouldering, the smell in the room was so overpowering. Nothing. But when she turned Lawrence’s covers back, to check that he was safe under his usual mound, she found the bed empty. It was just like the first time.
Instinct told her that he’d somehow slipped past and gone down to see Aunt Annie again. The big attraction was her sweet tin and all her old-fashioned picture books. Since the move Mr and Mrs Bostock hadn’t had much time for reading to Lawrence, but Great-aunt Annie had all the time in the world. She loved children. Julia got a bit irritated when she repeated all the old Baillie Square stories, and she didn’t much like being told to ‘say your prayers’ every night. Loll didn’t mind though. He said little prayers with Auntie Annie, after his story and his sweet.
When Mrs Bostock got down to the basement again she was out of breath. There were fifty-six stairs between Loll’s door and Aunt Annie’s and she’d run down every one of them. There he was, sitting on his aunt’s knee, with the little ginger cat on his knee, and they were all looking at nursery rhymes.
‘Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber...’
‘That lady, Auntie, that lady,’ he was jabbering excitedly. ‘That one in the funny hat…’
When she saw Mrs Bostock Great-aunt Annie looked slightly guilty. ‘I’m sorry, chuck,’ she said, ‘but he just came down, all on his own, and I thought one little story wouldn’t hurt, to settle him like.’
‘It was a lady brought me,’ Lawrence said sleepily, yawning and sticking a thumb in his mouth.
‘It’s a funny hat isn’t it, Loll? Just like a pair of frilly knickers put on upside down.’ Great-aunt Annie giggled. ‘Everyone used to wear them caps in the old days, everyone in service.’
‘What’s that she’s got?’ Lawrence was as well practised as Julia in spinning out bedtime and he’d turned back to Goosey Goosey Gander.
‘It’s a candlestick, chuck. In the olden days, when there was no electricity…’
‘Goodnight, Aunt Annie,’ Mrs Bostock said firmly, shooing Loll up the stairs. She didn’t want him falling asleep thinking about candles and striking matches.
That night she put a spare mattress on Julia’s floor and he slept on it. The strong scorching, burning smell had evaporated as quickly as it had come but unless there was a fire in the town there was obviously some problem with the electrics in this old house, and that was dangerous. In the morning she’d ask Mrs Watkins over at the vicarage for the name of an electrician. The wiring ought to be inspected for faults.
When Loll was asleep she went downstairs one last time to check round. As she climbed back upstairs the great black horse loomed up at her out of the darkness, stopping her in her tracks. There was a kind of coldness on this landing, but it was probably an ill-fitting window, or a damp wall. Even so, she shivered slightly as she stood there, thinking how Julia had grabbed at her hand.
The night it happened Mum and Dad were out at a special dinner in the Town Hall. Aunt Annie was ‘babysitting’, not that she had anything to do. Julia always put herself to bed and she got Loll organized too. They weren’t babies.
At half past ten, just before she had her milky drink, Great-aunt Annie came all the way up to the top of the house to say goodnight to them both. Julia was amazed. Surely she couldn’t manage the steep attic stairs on those stumpy little legs of hers?
But she did. Julia heard ‘Goodnight, chuck,’ and Loll’s door being pulled shut. Then there was a kind of heavy thud. She was puzzled. Great-aunt Annie was quite fat but it wasn’t the repeated thudding of someone lumbering down bare wooden stairs, just one big thud, then silence.
She forgot all about it in the embarrassment of the goodnight kiss. The old lady waddled across the room and thrust a slightly prickly cheek up against Julia’s. ‘Night night, chuck. Have you said your prayers?’ She hadn’t, of course, but if she confessed Aunt Annie might kneel down and start praying there and then.
‘Goodnight, Auntie,’ she said sleepily and ducked smartly under the covers, just in case another kiss was on its way.
The church clock woke her, St Christopher’s on the other side of the square, striking one. She sat up in bed and looked through the window. In the broad cobbled lane that ran along the backs of the houses there were spaces for people’s cars but theirs was empty. Her parents must still be at the Town Hall.
She was trying to get back to sleep when she smelt the burning. She sat up again, pushed the window open and sniffed. It was a definite city smell, car fumes and factories and dogs, not fresh like the country. But there was no smell of fire. This smell was coming from inside the house, like the other times.
She ran into her parents’ bedroom and switched on the light. Nothing amiss in here, just Mum’s jeans hung neatly over a chair and Dad’s clothes in a heap on the floor. He was messy like Loll. She and Mum were the two tidy ones.
Loll. Mum thought he was over his fire thing, but Julia wasn’t so sure and she began to climb the attic stairs. Every single Friday he brought the Fireman book home from school. They all knew it off by heart. He was stuck on two things, that book and Goosey Goosey Gander in Aunt Annie’s collection. His favourite picture was the girl in the knicker hat looking into dusty corners with her candlestick. ‘My lady!’ he shouted, whenever they got to that page.
When she reached the top of the stairs Julia stopped stone dead. Mum always left Loll’s door open at night but Aunt Annie had closed it and now it wouldn’t open again. She wrenched at the handle and pushed and kicked and yelled, but something heavy had fallen against the door from the inside. She hurled herself at it bodily, making it move a fraction of an inch, and through the crack smoke came curling, thick grey smoke that got thicker and darker by the second. ‘Loll!’ she screamed, then ‘Lawrence!’ And through the crack she heard his voice, tight and high with terror, ‘Julia!’
The nearest phone was in their kitchen. She almost fell down the attic steps then started on the main stairs. They were splintery and cold to her bare feet. As she reached the rocking horse landing she drew a deep breath. She’d never, ever, come as far down as this so late at night and, as she hurled herself past, the cold rushed out at her, just as if she’d opened a freezer cabinet. The flaring wooden nostrils of the great black wooden charger breathed winter, turning the inside air to ice.
As she picked up the kitchen phone she thought of that strange thud, just before Aunt Annie’s whiskery goodnight kiss. Now she knew what it was. The electricians were going to start rewiring next week and they’d been humping all the furniture about in the attics. Aunt Annie must have banged too hard when she shut the door. That wobbly old wardrobe must have fallen against it.
Julie heard herself telling the man on the other end of the phone that the fire was at 19 Baillie Square and would they please hurry. A child was trapped and she couldn’t get the door open, and her aunt was old and her mum and dad still at the Town Hall. Her cool calm voice didn’t sound a bit like her normal one. She felt separated from that cool-headed grown-up Julia by a thick wall of glass.
‘Julia!’ Loll’s shrill scream of terror rang again in her ears.
‘They’ll be with you in a minute, love,’ the man on the phone said calmly, but a minute might be too late. She scrabbled under the sink, found Dad’s big hammer and made her way back upstairs. She’d once seen someone smash a door in with a hammer on TV. If she could make a big enough hole in one of the panels she could climb through and pull Loll out. He was only little.
She’d just reached the rocking horse landing when she heard a voice in the hall. ‘Auntie Annie’s gone to sleep,’ it said blearily. ‘You read it to me, Julia, I want to see my lady.’ She spun round and almost fell back down the stairs. Lawrence was standing on the black and white tiles, his eyes still gummed up as if he’d been roused from a very deep sleep, the old nursery rhyme book thrust out hopefully towards her.
She’d not even reached him when there was a great hammering on the front door. ‘’Scuse me, love,’ three firemen shoved past and pelted up the stairs. Outside they could see three more, uncoiling a flat white hose, and a ladder was being unfolded in gleaming sections and propped against the house. Loll dropped his book and crept out on to the front doorstep, his eyes shining. ‘Now then, back inside, little feller, you’ll catch your death out here,’ and a policeman was sweeping him up in his arms and carrying him into the kitchen.
Quite suddenly, Mum and Dad were there too. Mum had her arms round Julia, telling her she was a brave, sensible girl who deserved a medal. Dad, who’d been down to check on Aunt Annie and found her peacefully asleep, was asking the fireman what was happening upstairs. Mum had forbidden him to go rushing about, because of his illness.
‘Panic over,’ someone said a few minutes later, coming downstairs. ‘Sorry about all the water, sir. It always makes the biggest mess.’ His hands and face were black and he’d left big splodgy footprints all over the bare boards. ‘The blaze is out anyhow. It was in the eaves cupboard, just a load of old newspapers. Must have been there for years, from the look of them.’
‘How did it happen, though?’ Mum said. She wanted to cuddle Loll but he seemed quite happy with the policeman.
‘Old wiring, from the look of it. It all needs ripping out, I’d say. Half the house fires we get are electrical. Good job there was nobody sleeping in that room. An old wardrobe had fallen against the door. It could have been a death trap.’
‘But someone does sleep in there. Loll, our little boy…’
‘He’d gone down to see Aunt Annie as usual,’ Julia said firmly. ‘He wasn’t there when the fire started.’
But he was. She’d heard him screaming on the other side of the door. How on earth had he escaped from that blazing attic? She’d not seen him slip past.
‘It was the lady,’ Lawrence said sleepily, finding Goosey Gander in his book, to show the policeman. ‘She took me to see Aunt Annie, she takes me lots of nights. But Auntie was asleep,’ he added reproachfully, ‘and I’ve not had my sweet.’
Dad was sitting on a kitchen stool with Julia on his knee. Now the fire was out and Loll was safe she’d started to shiver. ‘Your feet are cold,’ her father said, chafing them with his big comforting hands. ‘No wonder, walking up and down those stairs. I really must give the carpet people another ring, you’ve got some nasty splinters. And I’m getting another electrical firm in tomorrow, Mary. Harrisons should never have left the attic in that state. I feel like suing them.’
‘This little chap’s as warm as toast,’ the policeman said suddenly. ‘His feet aren’t cold, and I can’t see any splinters. Funny that, when he’s been running up and down the bare boards,’ and he handed him back to his mother. It was true, Loll’s feet felt like two tiny hot water bottles all pink and clean from his bath, not grimy and grey like Julia’s. It was just as if someone had scooped him up from his bed, before the fire took hold, and carried him gently down to safety, so gently he’d hardly woken up.
As the last of the firemen shut the front door something rolled into a corner. Julia, who was wide awake now and looking forward to milk and biscuits before she went back to bed, bent down and picked it up. ‘Where’s this come from?’ she said, taking the old bent candlestick and putting it on the kitchen table. Her mother shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before. Perhaps Aunt Annie put it out for St Christopher’s jumble sale last week. I could polish that up. It’s brass.’
Before the new electricians did the rewiring the attics were cleared out completely. Lawrence slept with Julia and although he’d loved his tiny room under the roof he didn’t argue. It was all black now and it had a horrid burny smell still. The lady didn’t like it either. She never came to see him anymore, or carried him down to Aunt Annie.
The fireman had dumped the old newspapers in the middle of the floor and hosed them down. Dad, anxious to rescue what he could, went through the remains very carefully. Old papers fascinated him, and these were all local.
One rainy Sunday afternoon he looked up from the kitchen table, where he’d been piecing them together, and handed something to Mum. ‘Read that,’ he said, and his voice was strangely excited. Mum fished in her handbag for her glasses but Julia was already staring at the old yellow newspaper. At the top it said in Gothic capitals ‘Darnley‑in‑Makerfield Examiner, 27th March, 1888,’ and underneath she read the headline.
Coroner Warns about the Dangers of Reading in Bed
Sir Austen Greenald, Coroner for North West Lancashire, warned yesterday of the dangers of lighted candles in confi spaces. He was presiding at the inquest on Jane Heslop, chambermaid of 19 Baillie Square, Darnley, who had been found dead at the house on 19th February. The court listened to his summing up in which he conjectured that the deceased, described by her employer, Mr Albert Birdsall, as ‘a most dutiful and honest girl, and one anxious to extend her education’ must have been reading late at night and, exhausted by her day’s labours, fallen asleep, letting her lighted candle drop to the ground. Bedding, drapery and matting were all consumed and it is thought that the deceased, overcome by smoke before she could reach door or window, died of suffocation.
‘19th February,’ Dad said quietly. ‘That was the day we went to the Town Hall.’
‘Oh yes,’ Aunt Annie said when they showed her the newspaper. ‘Poor little Janey Heslop. She was a right marvel she was, my mam told me all about her – up every morning at four, carrying hot water cans, blackleading all the grates, washing them tiles down. No wonder she fell asleep at her books, poor little mite, she were only fourteen. My dad gave her a proper funeral apparently, horses and all. She hadn’t got no family. They put her little coffin up on the first landing, so folk could come and pay their respects. There wasn’t room in the hall, it’s that narrow. Oh aye, my mam told me all about little Janey Heslop. They never let servants sleep in them attics after. Then my father had the gas put in.’
The Bostocks stayed on at Aunt Annie’s and Julia got to like living in Baillie Square. She got to like her new friends and her new school. She even got to like the house. They had a deep red carpet laid on the stairs and that awful cold feeling by the rocking horse never came again. Great-aunt Annie said it was because poor Janey was at peace now, she’d just had to ‘stay on for a bit’, till Loll was safe. They’d said a little prayer for Janey one night, after his story and his sweet, because she didn’t come to see him anymore and he missed her.
Six months after the fire Julia got a medal and a special certificate from something called The Royal Humane Society, because she’d been so brave on the night it happened. Loll was a bit jealous: soldiers had medals and this one was very big and shiny.
Still, he’d got his candlestick and that was shiny too now. Mum put it on his bookshelf with all his very special things and when he got frightened in the dark he switched his light on and looked at it for a minute. It reminded him of the lady.
The story of the servant girl who died while reading in bed is true. The original story appeared in the Oxford Times more than a hundred years ago. She lived in St John Street.