Twelve: Abandoned Halls
There was a double door that opened to the stairwell that led to the third storey. On either side of the broad stairway, a window let in light. We could look out over the back gardens from there, trees blocking the view. The windowsills were pretty dusty, and the sheets covering the chairs and tables in the waiting area at the bottom of the stairs were grayish. The staff was not expected to come in there often; I'd received the key to the third-floor entry from Redell, who frowned thoughtfully as he gave it to me.
"Grandmother Claire says that a long time ago, before her husband was born, the family had a lot of relatives living here, and a lot of guests, too. But after a while, there just wasn't enough family left to keep the floor open and available." The stairs climbed apart at the first landing and Aunt Sully took the left side while I took the right.
We met at the top in a wide area that could have been used as a kind of parlor. Off one side was a small room with a sink with smooth white wings adrift in dust. A small cupboard above it was empty; a hutch-like structure faced it on the opposite wall, and a table stood beside the window, shrouded, as was the hutch. Aunt Sully looked out the window at the garden. All we could see was the tops of trees tossing in the wind. "My God, what a view," she said softly. "This is like what is now called a 'wet bar'," she commented, turning the faucet handle. Nothing happened. "Water to this storey has been turned off, I guess."
We left the little room and turned off to the right to start our tour. On either side of the long halls were suites of rooms, each with its own bath, sitting room, dining room, and bedroom. Or bedrooms. Some of the suites were huge, some small. All of them had furniture in them, all covered in dusty sheets, and all had astounding views to the outside through the dirty windows. There were no carpets on the floors, though, and our footsteps echoed in the rooms. In spite of the November rain, however, it wasn't very cold.
"Houses like this weren't built for heating efficiency," Aunt Sully said. "Look, there aren't any electric baseboards like there are downstairs at all. There aren't even radiators from the old oil-furnace days. The big rooms have fireplaces, but I'll bet that once upon a time, enough heat came up here from the ground floor that they didn't need a heating system."
The paint was flaking off the walls, and the walls that had ancient fading wallpaper were shedding it like peeling sunburn.
The westernmost suite was not the largest one, but it had a huge sitting room, a large dining room, and two bedrooms, as well as four windows on the west wall. "This is my favorite," I said, having saved it for last.
"You come up here often?" Aunt Sully asked.
"No, not often. I got permission to come up here to look around a couple times this past summer. Before that, I once went into Redell's office and took the key -- he was sick -- that was about a year or so ago. I think that I'd like to move out of our wing one of these days, and have a place of my own -- these rooms -- so that I'm not constantly tripping over Michel and the girls, or having them pester me. Our wing was originally guest rooms, I understand. So was your room. Your study was Great-grandmother's office."
"So Claire has told me." She smiled, looking out the windows at the rain.
"What do you think? Would it be feasible?"
"Feasible? Yes, I think so. Additional staff would have to be hired to take care of this floor properly; it's obviously been neglected as far as regular cleaning goes. The structure and plumbing should be inspected. Some of the windows need recaulked -- or replaced. Most of them are so old you can see the glass distortion in them, sinking toward the bottom of the panes. One wrong hailstone and they'll shatter."
She peeked underneath a sheet at the table. "All the furniture will need to be examined and evaluated. Some of it seems quite old, and may be worth more as antiques than as usable pieces. Unless you're into antiques," she added.
"I'm just into having my own space," I told her. "I've had Marca call me 'Pissy-Sissy' one too many times."
"I understand, though I also remember that you've teased her since you were able to talk."
Well, I could hardly argue that point. Oesha and I got some real zingers on her at times. Kelsa and Michel didn't push their luck. They were still young enough to want Marca on their side in a pinch. "Less teasing than acute observation, that's how I'd describe it," I informed my aunt loftily.
She tried not to laugh, and to keep from encouraging me, she changed the subject. "You should have brought a notebook along. If you're serious about moving up here -- and I can't say for sure that your mother or Bodie will go along with that, let alone Redell, who sees himself as the Responsibility for the Estate -- then you have to make sure you understand what all that will entail."
"Cleaning it would be a first step, right? I think I'd have a professional cleaning company come in with industrial equipment and do the whole floor, walls, windows, fixtures, everything." I had done some thinking.
"Electrical and plumbing systems checked and updated," Aunt Sully said, tapping her fingers to count items. "Antique appraiser to examine the furniture -- as old as it probably is, some of the items will need to be restored to bring them up to full value."
"Windows, you said ... repaired or replaced," I nodded.
"Chimneys inspected," she mentioned, looking around the rooms. "Owen, did you say that there was an attic, as well?"
"Yes! I almost forgot that, come on! It's not very big, not like this floor -- I only went up there once, and didn't even go in very far. No electricity up there. But it does have windows on either side." I led the way down to the opposite end of the floor, to a door in a dim little alcove. It wasn't locked. The stairs were sturdy, though old, and they turned at a dark landing, leading upward.
"Shit," said Aunt Sully, forgetting herself, "I sure hope we don't fall through and kill ourselves."
"They'll send out a search party after a couple hours," I said in a low voice. "Mounted police and searchlights."
When we felt our way to the top of the stairs, the light from the little windows (four on one side, four on the other) did little to illuminate the space. They looked like white lights, and the stuff in the attic stood out only in silhouettes. Mounds and mounds of silhouettes.
"My God, what is all this stuff?" my aunt gasped. "I thought you said this was a small space!"
"It is small, compared with the other floors. I don't know what that stuff is. This is as far as I ever got."
"I'm suddenly overwhelmed, Owen. I want to go back down." Her voice was shaking a little.
"Okay," I told her. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. I'm all right. We need to talk to your mother."
"About me moving up to the third floor?"
"No, about the attic. She's an archeologist, you goof. That attic is like a dig. She'll know how to tackle it and see what the -- what the heck all is up there. I wonder what all Claire knows?"
"Shall we go ask her?"
"Ask her what? We have to know what questions to ask before we can go bounding in and say, 'Claire, dah-ling, what all is buried in your attic that you've never seen fit to mention to us?' She may not even know." Aunt Sully walked out of the attic-way and into the dim light of the long hallway. She had a dark, sooty streak across her nose and cheekbone, making me think of war paint on a very unlikely red-haired Indian. "No, we'll talk to Jesse first. And we're not going back up there without some major flashlight equipment, either. God knows when the last time was that either the roof or the attic floor was inspected. I haven't heard Jesse bitch about it since Charles died, so I doubt seriously it's been done in all that time."
My aunt had a focused look to her, as though she was seeing something inside her head that superceded her surroundings, even as she talked ... not to me, actually, not to her doting nephew ... I felt at that moment that she was talking to me like I was an equal, a member of the same team. I liked the tone of her voice this way; she was hiding nothing from me, not filtering her words to be suitable for a kid. I noted that she had shrunken again recently; I was actually looking down at the bridge of her nose. Not a lot, but she wasn't the same height as I was any more.
With a sudden prophetic blast, I had a vision of one day being able to be treated as a complete equal, an adult, a responsible member of the family, a decision-maker. Looking out the windows as we made our way back to the stairs to the second storey, I had a rush of feeling. I belong up here, above the treetops.
Oblivious to my epiphany, Aunt Sully continued to think aloud. "I've never thought of what was in the third floor and didn't even know there was an attic storage. Your father never mentioned it, your grandmother never mentioned it, my sister doesn't even know there's more to the estate than the rooms she lives in and the driveway to take her to the university. How long has that all been locked up? I knew there was an abandoned third floor, but I just thought of it as a duplicate of the living quarters on the second storey, only empty."
"It's filthy, but I love it already," I confessed.
As I locked the door to the stairwell, Aunt Sully patted my shoulder, nodding. "It's incredibly beautiful up there, Owen. Thanks for sharing it with me."
"You're welcome," I replied, and then, in that sweet moment of mental accord, slipped in the question that had been bugging me since I had said good morning to my family. "Did you buy that crock about Aunt Andersol bolting first thing in the morning to take pictures?"
"On such a cloudy, rainy day? No, unless she was going somewhere to take pictures indoors ... like the museum, but that wouldn't have opened until mid-morning. But just to be on the safe side, I'd avoid calling it a 'crock' until we get the chance to talk to her in person and ask her what she's been up too."
I knocked on Redell's office doorjamb yet again. When he looked up, I handed him the key. "Thanks, Redell, we had a great tour."
"Redell," my aunt said, in a strong, authoritative voice, "do you know the last time the roof was inspected?"
"Was there water damage?" he gasped, standing up.
"No, none. Do you have records?"
"There's a walk-through of the third storey done every April and November, checking for leaks on the inside, and an exterior examination in November as well, looking for broken or fallen roof tiles. I have those records, to be sure."
"By what, helicopter?"
"How about an inventory of the contents of the third floor, and the attic?"
Redell was always proud and a bit haughty when he dealt with me -- not a lot, but always ready to let me know we were supposed to be a cut above everyday folk. It was a surprise to see him stammer and blush before my aunt.
"No, Ms. Ambris, I'm sorry, I don't have that. The upper storeys were kept locked and ... well, abandoned before I came to this job."
"I think that will be done soon," she said. "But have a look through the old records and see if there isn't something in there, would you? Thanks, Redell." By the way, there's no evidence of water damage on the ceilings of the third floor, even in this rain, so we may have dodged a bullet there.
He nodded, already turning to the file cabinets.