The Holiday Home

Atlantic House 1988

THE HUSK OF A DEAD FLY LAY DRY AND BRITTLE on the sun-bleached oak window sill.

The house was silent and empty in the drowsiness of the bright spring morning. If its almost three-hundred-year-old walls harboured any memories of previous occupants, the weddings and wakes, conceptions and christenings that had taken place here, there was no sign. Where rich brocade curtains had once hung from the tall windows, there clung trailing cobwebs. The days when handsome young men in tight breeches and high-collared frock coats had wooed maidens in muslin dresses were a thing of the past. Maybe the rustle of petticoats along the top landing could still be heard, but only by the tattered moths. In the musty bedrooms, patches of insidious damp crept ever outward, their spread unobserved and unchecked. In the cellars, the dark, dank, seaweed-scented stone walls were covered in a glistening silvery scrawl, marking the passage of slugs and snails. The worn steps, hewn out of the rocky floor, descended into darkness and the sound of the waves lapping against the walls of a natural cave beneath the house. On moonless nights, two hundred years ago, smugglers would time their arrival for high tide, steering their vessels through the opening in the rocks on the beach where the waves surged in, on into the torchlit cavern where their cargo of contraband brandy, tobacco and lace would be unloaded, away from the prying eyes of the revenue men. Only the odd holidaymaker ventured into the cave nowadays, but a rockfall twenty metres from the beach entrance prevented them from reaching the forgotten cave. The sea, however, continued as it always had done, ebbing and flowing into the recesses below Atlantic House.

In the old days, the gentleman of the house would welcome his gang of smugglers and lead them up the stone steps into an innocent-looking outhouse. A fortified wooden door opened into the garden. To the left was the back door of the house, now stiff with salt and age, which led into the kitchen. In front of the old hearth and chimney, still blackened by the fires of countless cooks, smugglers would have their wounds attended to by the lady of the house. And if the revenue men whose guns had caused the wounds came knocking, the fugitive would stay hidden in the cool of the pantry while the gentleman and his lady entertained them.

Today the ancient range, once the beating heart of the house, was cold, its doors seized with rust and its hot plates covered in soot falls.

Out in the garden, wild with broom, tamarisk, escallonia and fuchsia, the lawn bore no resemblance to the croquet pitch it had been between the two world wars; these days it was a Cornish meadow giving on to a buckthorn and gorse hedge. The weathered wooden gate, which had once banged so gaily on its sprung hinge with the constant traffic of beach-bound children, now drooped sadly.

As he placed the heavy key in the lock, estate agent Trevor Castle took in the commanding elevated position overlooking the much-sought-after Treviscum Beach. The key refused to move. Trevor leaned against the studded oak front door, gave the key a twist, and tried again. Still nothing. Bending down, he laid his clipboard, camera and retractable tape measure on the worn flagstones. Using both hands now, he managed to get the reluctant key to turn. As he pushed open the heavy door, a horrible squeal of protest from the unoiled hinges gave him a little fright. He steadied himself and carried on pushing. Something was blocking the door. When he had created a big enough gap to squeeze his head through, he paused for a moment, bracing himself for the prospect of a rotting corpse on the other side of the door. To his relief, when his eyes adjusted to the darkness he made out a pile of faded circulars and junk mail wedged against it. Chuckling at his stupidity, Trevor bent his full weight against the door and heaved until the opening was wide enough for him to step into the house. He stooped to clear the blockage and then returned to the porch to collect his estate-agent tackle.

With the door now open wide, the sun poured in, lighting up the impressive oak-panelled hall and spilling into the open doorway of the grand drawing room ahead with its breathtaking view down to the ocean.

‘Wow. Hello, House,’ Trevor said out loud. He stepped into the hall, stirring aged dust motes.