The house came to me when my Mum died. Not immediately, of course; the solicitors took their time. But the ink on the deeds dried long before my tears did.
I remember the first time I saw it. From the road, it resembled a UFO, the sharp angles of its black roof rising just over the trees. I was young – very young, perhaps five – but at the sight of the house, even I began to think about money. How much of it my parents had, how much we’d always had - and how impossible it was that there was more. More wealth. More stuff. Hiding out here in the woods.
Years passed, then decades. I grew up, left home, and then I never went back to the house. Even though I would have liked to – even though its sprawling, palatial grounds persisted in my dreams and memory. The next time I saw it in person, I was being given the keys.
I stood at the gate, looking up at that black roof, and thinking, again, about money. But, for the first time in years, the thought of it didn’t fill me with dread.
I had the house. Finally, I had the house. I would never have to worry again.
My uncle came out to meet me. His smile was thin as he gave me what was rightfully mine. I think both of us had tears in our eyes.
“You want me to show you around?” He asked.
This was my house now. I didn’t need a tour. “That’s alright.” I told him.
“No, now, come on.” He raised a shaking hand to beckon me. “Let me show you around.”
We passed along the hallway. The carpet, so soft and thick, accepted my weary feet as easily as if I’d never been gone. I saw the entrance to the dining room, where my Mum and I had played board games for hours. Then the kitchen, where I’d tripped on wet linoleum and broken my nose, leaving me with a fear of freshly cleaned surfaces and an asymmetrical face.
This is my house, I thought. It is so my house. How could it ever have been anyone else’s?
At the end of the hallway, there was a wall of glass that looked out onto the lake. This was the living room window. My uncle walked right up to it, until his face was mere inches away.
I followed him. Right to the edge. And when he looked down, I did the same. Down and down and down, down the sheer white cliff, all the way to the shore.
Later, my uncle’s tour took me to the kitchen. I wandered through, taking my time, soaking in the sleek marble surfaces. My uncle was talking to me about the house – maintaining this, resurfacing that. His tone was stern and portentous, but I wasn’t really listening. I was enjoying the house, and how different it was to the pokey, sallow space I’d called ‘home’ until that day.
“You’ll need to get a housekeeper.” He insisted, amongst other things.
A housekeeper! I remembered one we had when I was a kid. A young man – kind. Funny. He and I used to play checkers together. What happened to him?
As my uncle rambled on, my hands found drawers, cabinets, shelves. I made my way along, hardly noticing the objects I discovered, until –
There. In the bottom of the drawer I’d just opened. Something was producing light… A little screen, maybe?
I leant down closer to it. Yes, it was a screen. It emanated bright green light. And it seemed to be built into the drawer.
“What’s this?” I asked.
My uncle’s jaw tightened with indignation. I suppose he’d been mid-sentence when I asked my question. Oops.
“What’s what?” He retorted bitterly.
“This.” I pointed, ignoring his tone. “Is it an energy meter?”
He looked to where I was pointing. Then he saw it – and his expression changed. It was like the anger had been washed out of his face. He looked numb.
He sounded numb, too. “Oh. Yes. Don’t worry about it.”
Odd thing to say. He’d been so insistent about ‘teaching’ me everything else. I peered further into the drawer, hoping to see the thing a little better.
That was it. Just a little green screen. But now I could see there was a number on it – its meaning indecipherable to a layperson like me.
“I guess the fact that it’s green means that everything’s fine.” I joked.
Then I looked up. There was rage in his expression, now; his cheeks were red with it. I felt suddenly uncomfortable making eye contact with him. Not in all those years of family disputes – the screaming matches and months-long silences – had I ever seen him like this.
“I think you should go.” I muttered.
To my relief, he replied: “Me too.”
I followed him to the door. He knew his way there better than I did. As he reached it, I caught up with him.
Before I knew it, I had blurted out: “What is your problem?”
My uncle turned to look at me.
“Am I not worthy, is that it?” I yelled. Long-forgotten emotions were now rising to my throat. “Still? After everything?”
My uncle laughed, but there was no humour in it. “Keeping a house like this is a big responsibility.” He said. “And you don’t do responsibilities, do you?”
I choked in shock. “What? I – my flat, my job –”
“No.” My uncle interrupted me. “I mean real responsibilities. Do you have any idea how much time, effort and money has been poured into this house? You can’t imagine it.”
Now he stepped closer to me. “That thing in the kitchen. What was the number on it? Do you even remember?”
I stammered blankly for the answer. “I think – three, zero, two…”
“You don’t know.” He sounded bitterly disappointed.
I hung my head.
“Many years ago,” My uncle continued, “One of your parents’ staff got quite upset. He was visiting home – somewhere south of the equator – and his friend’s little daughter got sick. Malaria, I think it was.”
He took another step closer to me, resting a large hand on my shoulder.
“Nasty disease. Like the flu, at first, but then you keep getting weaker…” He left this sentence unfinished. “Anyway, the staff member – a housekeeper, I think – started begging your parents to help out. Give money to whatever country it was. Stop the scourge. And they were supportive, you know – they thought it was a good cause. Always said they would give.”
My uncle shrugged.
“And then they built this house. And it consumed everything – all the money, all the time, all the energy. They started to fob the housekeeper off. How much could they do, anyway? Foreign aid is a joke. Their money would fall into a black hole if they gave it away.
“The housekeeper left eventually. But not before leaving your family a little present: that thing in the drawer. Actually, there were a lot of them – all over the house. We got rid of the ones we found, but there always seemed to be more. He wanted your parents to really see it, you see. Be haunted by it. The number of lives they could save if they got rid of the house.”
He stood back from me now, his expression bordering on triumph.
“The house is worth – what, thirteen? Thirteen million? So that money, if donated, could save quite a lot of people. A lot of children. That number is the number on the screen.”
I stared at him. The shock was only just beginning to hit me. And not only shock – at the sight of his smug face, I felt something approaching rage.
“Why are you telling me this?” I snapped. “Now it’s mine, you want me to sell it? Is that it?”
My uncle scoffed. “Well, I’ll buy it if you’re selling it.” He smiled a little, then realised what he said, and started to backtrack. “But really, I doubt the number even means anything – and I don’t care if it does. I just want you to know – you have been given a tremendous gift.” The last few words caught in his throat. “The least you can do is look after it. Make good decisions.”
“OK, I get it.” I sneered. “Now get off my property.”
He nodded at me in comprehension. Then he turned and left. His parting words to me were: “Just try to grow up.”
I was left, choking on my rage, in the doorway to the big, empty house.
I didn’t stand there for long. Slamming the door felt unsatisfying – even though I had slammed it very hard indeed. Above the clamour of rage-filled thoughts – how dare he? How could he? – one question dominated. What was the number on the screen?
I couldn’t tell you why exactly – perhaps it was just morbid curiosity – but I found myself hurrying to the kitchen. I scrabbled at the drawer like a raccoon. And when it came open, I stared intently inside.
That was it. 3,524. There on the screen, like before.
When I saw it, I have to say, I felt relieved. How could I not have done? It was so small. Charities always talk about ‘£1 to save a life’ and all that. But that, clearly, was nonsense.
I sighed. My uncle had been trying to scare me. And was that what I’d felt, as I ran to the kitchen – fear? No, it couldn’t have been. What was so frightening about a number?
A thought occurred to me: was there more to it? I felt a thwack of anxiety in my chest. I tapped the screen, waiting for it to respond to my touch. But nothing happened.
That was all it was: a number. And a small number at that. Thank God. But – no – why thank God? Why did it matter? If I’d seen some awful figure with six zeros at the end – which, come to think of it, I’d been half-expecting – would that have changed anything?
In a way, I thought, it being a smaller number was worse. The smallness and the specificity of it – why not round it up to the nearest hundred? - inspired a weird kind of trust. And it made it easier to imagine… all those children…
I could feel the guilt, like a fungal infection, spreading fast. I tried to calm myself with logic. Surely this was just a stupid prank by a disgruntled employee. The figure was probably meaningless. And even if it wasn’t…
A jolt of anger shocked the thought out of me. This was my house. At last. And even now, other people were trying to ruin it.
How dare they? First, my uncle. I’d always known he was a snake. My father and he had been in league – scheming against me, seemingly from the moment I was born. But now, this housekeeper. It was incredible how unkind his actions had been. Had my parents been hurt by his ‘message’? In the rare moments of peace and quiet afforded her, had my Mum stood over the kitchen drawers and fretted about the number, too?
At the thought of this, my chest grew heavier. My Mum was dead. She – the only one who cared for me. The only person in my family who knew how to love me for who I was.
And Mum had wanted me to have the house.
I nodded, satisfied by my reasoning. This was my house. Rightfully mine. And no one would take it away from me.
The house became a home very quickly. At first, my paltry possessions took up very little of the space, so I found myself buying more.
I didn’t hear from my family at all. But friends I hadn’t heard from in years began filtering back into my life. I found myself throwing parties; inviting people round by the dozen. My old flat had been such an embarrassment that I never let people see it. But now, laughing and drinking, surrounded by the warmth and chatter of others, I realised I had been missing out on so much.
And the things that I bought, and that my friends bought for me, began to fill up my cabinets and drawers. Very quickly, the little green screen with the number on it became obscured by fine china and cutlery.
I was pleased by that. I didn’t want to have to look at it anymore. As much as I hated to admit it, the number had taken up space in my mind. Mostly, of course, I didn’t think of it. But sometimes – when I heard someone grumbling about “dozens” of people in a queue, or “at least a hundred” crammed together in a tube carriage – I would find myself thinking about numbers. 3,524 people – what would that look like? If they all stood together in one place?
Then, one night, a friend of mine grabbed me as she descended the stairs.
“What’s that thing on the wall?” She asked, pointing.
“What thing? Where?”
“In the bedroom on the end. Is it an energy meter?”
I felt the familiar sinking feeling in my chest. I knew what she meant – even if I didn’t want to admit it. No, please, not another one.
My friend seemed to notice my discomfort. “Doesn’t matter.” She assured me. “It’s just – it started flashing while we were in there. I thought I might have broken it – does it always do that?”
“Uh, sometimes. Yeah.” I lied.
My friend looked relieved. “Well, good.” She continued, “Look, sorry for being nosey, but I didn’t realise how massive this place is. I was thinking, you’ve done well out of the housing boom, haven’t you?” She laughed in a way that seemed fake. “I can’t imagine how much it’s worth now. Quite a bit more than when you inherited it, yeah?”
I didn’t feel like answering her. I waved her comments away. “Yeah, maybe. Hey, don’t worry about that meter thing. I’ll take a look.”
I left her, downed my drink, and hastened up the stairs.
The room was dark. And quiet - very quiet. None of my other guests had ventured this way. The only sound was the muffled thud of music from the floor below.
I had memories connected with this place. I knew I did. But with the space being as dark and unfurnished as it was, it was hard to recall them. It had once been my parents’ bedroom; now it was a dumping ground for furniture that didn’t fit in the rest of the house.
In the dim light, I saw the flashing immediately. Bursts of green light pulsed from some unseen point behind a cabinet. I noted the marks on the carpet; clearly my friend had moved the furniture to take a better look. Bound by curiosity, I found myself doing the same.
There it was. Another one of the damn things. This time it was stuck onto the wall.
It was flashing, as my friend had said. And the number…
My eyes widened in disbelief.
The number was going up. Fast.
My friends smiled politely as I stumbled down the stairs.
I entered their conversation with a question: “What does 4,000 people look like?”
I looked up at their friendly but bemused expressions. It occurred to me that I should rephrase – and try harder not to slur my words.
“Like, what’s a place – or a venue – where you could fit 4,000 people?”
Then the answers started coming:
“A mid-sized concert venue, I guess.”
“Maybe a ship? A really big ship?”
That one drew some laughter from the group.
Then someone’s partner, to whom I hadn’t spoken before, chipped in. “My school has 1,000 pupils, if that helps.”
This one piqued my interest. “Your school?”
“Yeah. I’m a teacher.”
“Which school is it?”
They smiled self-effacingly. “You wouldn’t know it…”
“Maybe I would.”
“It’s in London.”
“I used to live in London.”
My sentences were coming out as barks. Why on Earth was I so agitated?
Whatever was going on with me, the person I was speaking to could sense it. Smiling nervously, they told me: “Highgate Grammar School.”
Highgate Grammar School. Of course I knew it.
What were the odds? Fairly high, I suppose, considering my friends and I all used to live in Islington.
I knew Highgate Grammar School because I lived in the next road down. Every morning, as I slogged back from my miserable night shift, I would see the kids in their uniforms. Some bright and cheerful, giggling with their friends. Others hanging back, their heads down, their shoulders slumped under their rucksacks.
There were so many of them. They clogged up the streets, made it impossible to get by. It used to drive me up the wall.
And that was what 1,000 kids looked like. Just a quarter of the number I was looking for.
My eyes had glazed over. The conversation that was happening around me was now the least of my concerns. But then I heard something that brought me back in the room.
“That’s a wonderful school.” Someone said. “Great location.”
“Thank you! But no, the location is terrible.” This was the person I’d been speaking to. “Really unsafe for kids. One of the girls got hit by a car the other week.”
A chorus of ‘oh no’s and ‘aww’s.
“Is she OK?”
Then, there it was: “She died.”
The group reeled in shock. But I found myself feeling quite numb. Maybe it’s because I was drunk. But I just couldn’t cope with this at all. To be reminded of death – of the dying – was too much right now.
“She was so young. Only fifteen. She had her whole life ahead of her.”
“Her parents were devastated. Destroyed.”
Just one child.
“And her friends, too. I found her best friend crying in the corridor. We’ve offered her counselling, but I’m not sure it’s enough.”
‘Just’ one child. And I had the power to save thousands. But instead I had chosen to do nothing. To be happy in my big, empty house. But how happy? 4,000 lives-worth of happy?
“Are you alright?”
My friends were looking at me, concerned. I blinked back the tears that were gathering in my eyes.
“Excuse me.” I said simply.
I told them all to leave after that. And before long, I found myself alone, in the bedroom, staring at the blinking light on the wall.
I swirled my drink in its glass, glaring across the room. I hated the screen. How I hated it.
I was so sick of being told I was a bad person. And that’s what it was doing – make no mistake. It was a standing refutation of the idea that I could do anything good, or right, or not selfish. Look at it - sneering at me. Just like my uncle. Like my Dad.
I felt a burst of rage. It had no right to be in my house. How was it even here? What was keeping the damn thing on the wall?
Then I set upon it. The fury was too much; I couldn’t contain it. I was clawing and punching at the screen. Grasping at its edges and pulling with all my might – all while the number kept rising, tauntingly, one digit at a time.
Then, in one sudden movement, it came off.
The little metal screen popped off the wall and fell, clattering, against the floor. I looked at it, amazed. I had defeated it.
The obnoxious green flashing had stopped. The lump of metal was lying on the floor, the wrong way up, with blue and red wires trailing out of it. It looked like a gutted animal.
I knelt beside it and stared. Squinted at the metal. In the dim light of the room, I could only just about see it. But I could see that there was something written on the back.
It was a telephone number and a name. I recognised the latter.
It was the name of the housekeeper we’d had when I was a kid. He must be the man who made the screens – the damn tormenting screens.
An idea occurred to me. How nice would it be, I thought, to give the man a piece of my mind. To cuss him out. And – maybe, you never know – get him to admit that it was nonsense. That the number was made up – pulled out of thin air. That it wasn’t that easy to save lives with money after all.
Before I knew it, I was typing his number into my phone, grinning into the harsh blue light.
Now it was ringing. There was something so real about the sound. Like: oh, God, this is really happening. I began to pace.
The ringing stopped, and I stopped, too. Then I heard a man’s voice on the line:
“Hello? Who is this?”
I hesitated. My throat felt strangely dry. Then, finally, I answered him. I told him who I was.
He sounded surprised, but not displeased. “Oh! Hello there. It’s good to hear from you.”
Good? Really? You wanted to hear from me: the spoilt rich kid who never lifted a finger for anyone? I felt a rush of anger, but before I could start my tirade, the man continued:
“How have you been? It’s been years.”
Funny. He sounded so old. I remembered that it had been years; many, many years. Plus, there was compassion in his voice. Real warmth. In that respect, he was just as I remembered him. Was this really the same man who’d made the screens?
No. It was him. It had to be.
“I’m fine.” I snapped. “Look, I’m calling about these awful screen things you had installed in my house.”
“Oh, it’s your house now?” He sounded calm. Even upbeat.
Again, I hesitated. Then, with effort: “Yes, it’s mine. I inherited it.”
“I… thank you.” Another pause. “Look, I want rid of the screens, OK? You had no right to do this at all. I always thought you were a nice guy,” I had more difficulty here. I seemed to be sobering up with every word. “But you’ve been emotionally blackmailing my family. With fake numbers. And it stops now.”
There was silence on the end of the phone. Then the crackling of a long, drawn-out sigh. “They aren’t fake numbers. I put a lot of effort into getting them right.”
My heart thudded. He sounded so disappointed.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told your father.” He began. “I just wanted to give you all some perspective – like putting on glasses, right? The numbers on the screen, they make it easier to see what’s happening a long way away. I said this to your father when he called me years ago. But then again, he immediately sued me, so… maybe I need a better defence.”
He laughed sadly. It was difficult to hear; he sounded so old. So tired.
When I said nothing, he continued: “I guess the fact that you’ve inherited the place means that you’ve lost your Mum. I’m so sorry.”
At first, when I heard this, I bristled. How dare he – this was a private, personal matter. But then it occurred to me that no one had talked to me about my Mum in months. And I had missed it – I’d needed it.
“Thank you.” I managed at last.
“You know – and it’s not my place to say this, maybe, but – she loved you so much. She really did.” He sniffed on the end of the phone. “You were everything to her.”
That last phrase took me back in time.
The room I was in sprang to life. I remembered the furnishings from my youth – back when the house wasn’t just for me.
One of the few times I was allowed in my parents’ bedroom was when I was sick. And one time, when I was nine or ten, I was very sick.
I remembered my Mum standing over me, her face pale with worry.
“It’s going to be alright.” She told me, over and over again, as if she herself needed the repetition to believe it.
As I grew weak and shivery, and vomited until there was nothing left to come up, she hovered over me, soothing and caring.
When they took me to the hospital, she never left my side. I never saw her crying – but her cheeks were often wet with fresh tears.
When I was discharged, at last, she took me back up to the bedroom and held me very tightly.
And that was when she said it: “You are everything to me.”
Now, she was gone, and I was sat in the space where we had stood. And my eyes were wet with tears. And I was broken. But it was a natural kind of heartbreak, at least. Death from old age is the best kind of ending one can have.
No parent, though, should have to lose a child.
The old housekeeper must have heard me crying. He tried to soothe me with kind words and obsequies. But I found myself talking over him.
“Oh!” He seemed surprised by my directness. He sniffled, blew his nose. “Well, it’s relatively cheap to prevent. You can save the most lives with your money.”
I nodded to myself in the dark. “And wasn’t there a girl – your friend’s daughter? Who got sick?”
There was another sigh on the end of the phone. “No, not exactly. There was a girl, but I didn’t know her. I was checking the news one day, and I read her story.”
Again, I nodded. I saw now why it didn’t matter if he knew her or not.
“What was her name? Do you remember?” I asked.
There was a pause.
“You don’t have to give everything away.” He said suddenly. “It’s not all or nothing. Just £5,000 can save a life. That’s all you need.”
“Yeah.” I mulled it over for a moment. “But I have a lot of £5,000s. And thanks to you, I know exactly how many.”
It took months. I hired financial advisers. Did research. And after all that combined effort and thought, we decided to sell the house ASAP. The housing bubble was at its peak. Best to act now and get the best price for what I had.
I called my uncle that day. He didn’t pick up, of course. So I left him a voice message offering him the chance to buy the house. And at that point, of course, he called me.
I didn’t offer him a discount. I squeezed every penny out of him - but that wasn’t just because I hated him. The profits were going to the charity, and I wasn’t messing around.
A year or so after I called the old housekeeper, I found myself unpacking my things inside another pokey, sallow London flat. As minimal as it was, though, I felt satisfied. It wasn’t pretty, sure, but it was enough for me.
The sound of the doorbell knocked me awake from my reverie. I rushed to answer it.
And there was the old man. In the flesh. After all these years.
“You still need help unpacking?” He asked.
“Thank you.” I said, and hugged him tight.