Bones in the Attic
By Robert Barnard
Published by Scribner
April 2002; 0-684-87379-6; 272 pages
"It's a good size for a dining room," said the builder and decorator, who had said to call him Tony. "But then, I don't suppose you have family meals anymore. No one does."
"Sunday," said Matt. "And anytime there's something on offer the children particularly like."
"How many you got?"
"Three. They're my partner's."
The man nodded. He was used to all kinds of permutations and variations. In fact, he often reckoned the decline of the stable family had been wonderful for his business.
Matt stood in the center of the big room, unconscious for the moment of Tony, or of anything else except the house. It struck him that he and the house were at a crucial moment in their existence: the house had nothing of him, or of Aileen, but it did have him there, considering, determining its future. And his own.
He loved it. Standing outside in the lane waiting for Tony he had felt his heart contract at the mere sight of the stone. Stone. Solid, thick, permanent stone. Outside he had heard a radio, loud, from next door through an open window. Inside he heard nothing. And here it was, waiting, with its wood-burning fireplace, its bell push to summon the long-gone servant, its tentative moves in the direction of Art Deco. Eighty years old or more. Waiting for what he, Aileen, and the children were going to make of it. A strange thought struck him. He wondered if a stone house like this might have kept his marriage together.
Thank God it hadn't.
"What color were you thinking of?" Tony asked.
"I thought blue -- not too strong. The windows aren't that large, and it's a long room, so we need something pleasant and airy."
"Blue. You're thinking of paint, then?"
"I'll have wallpaper if I find something that I know is right -- something that grabs me round the throat. Otherwise I'll have paint till I find something. Anyway, I like paint: clean colors and clean surfaces."
Tony nodded, and as they went into the hallway he said, "I wish I could say I'd seen you play."
"Why would you? You'd be a Leeds United man. There was no great reason seven or eight years ago to make the effort to see Bradford City play."
"Seven or eight years ago there was no great reason to go and see Leeds United play. Dullest football in the north was what they served up then." He thought, and then added, "Mind you, the new manager's making a world of difference."
"He's good with the media too," agreed Matt. "Does one of the best interviews of anyone in the Premier League."
Tony shot him a quick look, then slapped his thigh.
"Got you! You're on Radio Leeds. Matthew Harper. I was thrown by the 'Matt.'"
Matt smiled and nodded, used to the delayed reaction.
"That's right. I thought I'd take my full name, especially once they started using me for ordinary news-reading and chat shows."
"I don't hear it that often, I must admit. I go more for music, me. And I never connected the name with the footballer. But I have seen you now and then on 'Look North.'"
Matt noted that the man, who had shown since he had arrived the sort of casual deference usual to a customer, was now positively respectful. Matt knew from experience that anyone involved with the media, on however low a level, received the degree of deference formerly given to members of the professions. He had got beyond the phase of feeling flattered by unearned respect, so he said briskly, "Let's go upstairs, shall we?...I won't be getting the bedrooms done till we're well settled in. I may even try to do some of it myself, maybe get the children to help." They had gone round the bend in the staircase and were standing on the landing. Tony poked his head into the bedrooms, bathroom, and lavatory.
"Best leave the bathroom to professionals," he said. "Too fiddly by half. The bedrooms won't present too many problems. Stick to paint there, if you want my advice: then if the children keep wanting theirs changed it won't come too expensive."
"Yes, I'd already thought of that. Knowing my lot and their clothes and toys and reading matter and habits, they'll want them changed at least once a year."
"By 'eck, they have it made, the young 'uns these days," said Tony with feeling.
"Yes, I'd love to know who starts each new vogue. What infant genius suddenly decrees it's yellow this year, and Aussie soaps are out, and shoe soles are three inches high, and the whole childish world bows agreement and starts pestering parents."
"Probably some future Richard Branson," agreed Tony. "Anyway, you've got four very nice-sized rooms here. That's the advantage of these older houses: you're not squashed in like sardines. When was it built, did you say?"
"About 1920, the estate agent said, or maybe a bit earlier. Did you see the bells downstairs to summon the servants? I suppose the First World War or its aftermath did away with all that."
"Happen. Anyway, the kids who go into these new estates won't get bedrooms like these -- cubbyholes more like. And certainly not one each."
"Hmm. I was hoping to keep one of the bedrooms for my study. You might not think it to listen to, but a lot of the things I do on Radio Leeds need preparation. It would be good to have somewhere I can shut myself away in."
"So, two of the kids sharing a bedroom, and one having a bedroom to him- or herself. Sounds like a recipe for nonstop guerrilla warfare to me. And I speak from experience."
"I was hoping to bribe them by promising them the attic as a games room."
Tony still looked skeptical.
"Have you looked at it?"
"Just poked my head through the trapdoor."
"Attics are fine for games rooms if you are thinking of things like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit -- things you can play on the floor. They're pretty useless for snooker tables, or anything you have to stand up for, even supposing you could get a table up there. Want me to have a look?"
"Would you?" Matt took the pole with the hook on the end, clicked open the trapdoor, then pulled down the metal stairs and tugged at the light cord. He led the way up.
"There's proper flooring down, but it's pretty old, and I don't know that I'd trust it."
He stood at the edge of the trapdoor, but Tony, coming up behind him, strode out onto the floor.
"Sound as a bell. They used good materials in them days. Hasn't been used much, by the look of it. You can see the problem with a games room, can't you? Put a snooker table in the middle and the kid might be all right potting the balls, but he'd hardly be able to straighten up."
Matt saw his point.
"It was just an idea. I've never heard our lot express a wish for a snooker table. I might be able to persuade one of them it would be exciting to have one of the bedrooms up here."
"You might. How old's the eldest?"
"You might have more luck with a boy. Still, teenagers like to get away from the others. The young ones may think it would be exciting, but when it comes to it, they get nervous. You might be able to block a small part of this attic off. In fact, it's practically been done for you."
Tony pointed back toward the trapdoor. Just beyond it was a low piece of brick walling, and when Matt's eyes penetrated the gloom, he could see another one beyond it. He hadn't noticed that section when he'd made a quick exploratory visit before.
"Roof supports," explained the builder, putting his hand on the rough piece of brick walling. "They've just continued up with the walls from either side of the landing below." He looked down across the roughly constructed brick wall and toward the far wall. "Hmm. They haven't bothered with flooring here. Plenty enough space in this half, I suppose." He climbed carefully over, and walked along one of the beams, Matthew following behind him. "You could make a real cozy little bedroom in this far bit, if you put a window in the roof." He and Matt came to a rest by the second brick wall. Matt looked to either side, where the wall was supporting the base of the roof. It and the other one they'd climbed over rose about eighteen inches for the whole breadth of the house.
"You could pull a few bricks out to make a door," said Tony. "Wouldn't affect it as a roof support, or cause any other structural problems...Hello! What's that?"
There was something against the far side of the wall, on the rough and dusty felting that had been laid over the ceiling below. It was dusty too, but a lighter color gleamed through, and as their eyes became accustomed to the gloom they thought that whatever it was, was assuming a definite shape -- a shape they were reluctant to acknowledge.
"It looks like...like a skeleton...a little skeleton," said Matt at last. "It can't be."
"Got a torch?"
"Sure. Downstairs. The electricity wasn't turned on until yesterday."
He made his way back along the beams, down the metal ladder, then fetched his powerful torch from the kitchen. By the time he got back to the attic he thought he had got his ideas in order.
"You know, it's got to be some kind of animal," he said. "Maybe a squirrel -- got in here and couldn't get out."
He turned the torch on the little pile.
"Big squirrel," said Tony disbelievingly. "The bones look human to me. Could be a child, quite a young one. But too large for any animal I could imagine finding its own way in here."
His matter-of-fact tone brought it home to Matt. He gripped one of the beams in the ceiling, and turned away from the sight. The pathos of the little tableau had seized his mind. A dead child, brought up here and laid out where no one would find it. Or worse...But here his mind refused to contemplate the more horrible possibility. He walked away, back to the floored area, back to the safety of proper lighting.
"You're right," he said to Tony, who had followed him. "It looks like a human skeleton. Playing football you get to know about the human body. So much of you gets bruised or broken that you spend half your time under the doc or the physio, looking at X rays of one part or other of yourself. It looks like a little body, laid out there and left."
"Not newly born, though," said Tony. "Not a secret, unwanted baby."
"No, not a baby."
"What are you going to do?"
Matthew thought. He came up against all sorts of odd eventualities vicariously, through reading the news and interviewing people for Radio Leeds.
"Doesn't seem to me I have any choice," he said. "If those are human bones the police have to be informed."
"Use my mobile if you like."
Matt took it, but then on impulse turned and climbed back down again and then down the stairs to the kitchen. He wanted to put as much space as possible between himself and that horrible memento mori in the darkness above. He dialed 999.
"Hello. I think I need the Leeds police...Well, I suppose I want to report a suspicious death."
Matt looked at the house, at Elderholm. He had loved these houses as soon as he saw them, and had begun to feel he belonged there even before he moved in. Now he just had to hope this was not going to cause a revulsion. His eyes traveled around his new home. There were two stone terraces in Houghton Avenue, four houses each -- solid, roomy houses, sitting square on earth and telling the world they were built to last, as a house should be. He had not met any of the neighbors yet, but he felt that he -- that they, he and Aileen and the children -- would fit in. Surely the houses weren't going to disappoint him? A figure loomed, standing back from the window, upstairs in the house next door. He was being watched.
On cue something was provided to make watching worthwhile. A police car nosed its way round the lane leading from Houghton Avenue, and on a sign from him drove forward and drew up beside him. A tall black man got out and extended his hand.
"I'm Detective Sergeant Peace."
"The footballer. I thought it might be you when they gave me the details. I've heard you often on Radio Leeds. It's nice to hear about things going on locally that aren't criminal. And is this the house where you made the discovery?"
"That's right. You'd better come in."
They went through the kitchen into the hall. Charlie looked around him appreciatively.
"Nice and spacious, even if it does need a lot doing to it. You've got children?"
"Not of my own. My partner's. Maybe we'll have another. I love children. That's why --"
Sergeant Peace cut in.
"Yes. It must have been distressing. My wife's just had our first. But let's not jump the gun, shall we? Lead the way."
Matt started upstairs again, then up the retractable staircase to the attic. Advising care, he led the way across the beams, and then took up the torch he had left on the low brick wall. The two men, standing together, looked down at the collection of bones, somehow forlorn in the beam of light. Sergeant Peace suddenly turned away.
"Ugh. Brings it home to you. So you think it's a child, do you?"
"It's all I can think it could be."
"I'm pretty sure you're right. When you've got a baby to look after, you often think how fragile it is, how defenseless, but this..."
"Looks as if it's been here a long time," said Matt, eyeing the layers of encrusted dust.
"Yes. But that may be deceptive." Sergeant Peace paused, thinking. "I tell you, I'm used to bodies, but this is way outside my experience. We're going to have to wait for a full forensics report and not jump to any conclusions...I feel like getting out of here, don't you?"
When they were down again in the large old kitchen, complete with Aga stove and a greasy area on the wall behind the hot plates, Sergeant Peace got on to headquarters, reported the finding of what was apparently a child's skeleton, apparently a long-dead one, and requested a forensics team. When he had told them as much as he knew, he said he'd wait for backup and signed off. Then he turned back to Matt.
"Now, Mr. Harper -- "
"Matt. I'm Charlie. And we're both from London, I can hear, though we've both covered it up."
"I'm Brixton. Come up when you signed for Bradford, did you?"
"No. We moved to Colchester when I was a boy. But I've never wanted to go back."
"Me neither, though I'm not sure why. I thought London was the bee's knees when I was living there. Sheer ignorance, I suppose. Now, are you the owner of this house?"
"That's right. As of last Friday."
"Who was the seller?"
"Man called Carl Farson. Son of the actual owner, Cuthbert Farson, who's a man of nearly ninety."
"So the son's got power of attorney, has he?"
"Any idea how long the father lived here, if he did?"
"No idea, but he did live here. I met the son briefly at the estate agents'. He's a man of around sixty himself, and he said he didn't grow up in the house, though he visited his dad here often."
"I see. Who were the estate agents handling the sale?"
"Sewell and Greeley, in Pudsey."
"Right. So you were just looking around, were you?"
"Yes, with a decorator, name of Tony Tyler. We were planning what needed doing, and wondering whether the attic could be used as a bedroom or a games room. I'm beginning to think we'd better put any plans like that on hold for a bit."
"Yes. The kids are bound to find out."
"And children have very long memories," said Matthew thoughtfully. "About some things, anyway."
"They do. Looked to me, at a glance, as if the attic hadn't been much used."
"That was our impression. Maybe one end, near the trapdoor, had had a few tea chests there, or ordinary luggage, or just this and that. It was less dusty there. But anybody clearing them out wouldn't necessarily go to the far end, where there's no flooring, in fact, there'd be no reason for them to do that at all. We only went because we were wondering about this bedroom."
"I'm sure you're right. Now -- oh, that looks like the team." Outside two police cars were drawing up in the lane. "There's not much you can do here for the moment, Matt. Could I have a home and a work telephone number for you?"
"Sure. Home is 2574 945 and at Radio Leeds it's 2445 738."
"Right. I'll be in contact as soon as I know anything. If I get your partner, she'll know about it, will she?"
"Aileen's away at the moment. I plan to tell the children tonight if circumstances are right."
"Fine." Charlie opened the door to the forensics team and directed them up to the attic. He was silent until he was sure they were well out of earshot, then he turned to Matt.
"In confidence, Matt: if we're right that this was a child, but the bones have been up there a long while, this is not likely to be a high-priority investigation." A grimace passed over Matt's face at the thought of the child's brief life being considered of so little account, its death -- its murder, or whatever it turned out to be -- passed over so casually. "I know, I know," said Peace. "It's sad, and I know what I'd feel if I'd made the discovery. It's a question of priorities, of the likelihood of getting results, of police resources and budgets. You're into news gathering. You'll know all about the pressures on us. I'd be willing to bet the best we can hope for is putting a name to him or her. OK, I hope we can do better than that, but I'd be wrong to make any promises."
"Right," said Matt with a sigh. "I'll be off."
"Good to have met you," said Charlie, shaking hands. "I'll be in touch as soon as I have any concrete information. And of course I'll tell you the moment the forensics people have finished and the house is your own again."
Matt thanked him, but a flash through his brain asked the question whether the house would ever be his own. He put the thought from him. Of course it would. It would have to. He slipped out the back door, dodging another carload of policemen and -women clad in white overalls, and went out the little back gate and toward his car.
Matt turned round and looked down. A small man had come out from the house next door to his, and was standing beside him looking up. He was about five feet four, thin and weedy in appearance, with sparse hair and frown lines in his forehead. There was a sort of self-importance about him that was neither comic nor impressive.
"Yes?" The moment Matt said the word it sounded ridiculously cold, and, concealing a degree of reluctance, he held out his hand and said, "You must be one of my new neighbors. I'm the new owner of Elderholm. I'm Matt Harper."
"Ah...Edward Cazalet. I believe I should have heard of you. The estate agent has mentioned it to someone. You're some kind of footballer."
Matt, mischievously, decided to take him literally.
"Center half as a rule. My footballing days are over now. I work for Radio Leeds and 'Look North.'"
The man nodded. Those two things had swum within his ken.
"Ah...I -- I hope there's nothing wrong?"
He cast a limp hand in the direction of the police activity, as if he was nourishing the hope they were rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance. Matt felt a strong disinclination to give him a reason for their presence in Elderholm.
"I hope not. That is what the police team is here to find out."
"My wife and I do hate any unpleasantness."
"No more than I do myself."
The little man shook his head, as if that was impossible, and to show he had dire forebodings.
"Such a bad way to begin."
"Very true. It was a great shock, finding what I found."
"Ah. This concerns something that you found, or say you found?"
"Something that I found. Not something I could conceivably have brought with me. I am not at liberty to say what it was, of course."
"N-no, of course not."
"But it is something that has been in the house for a long time."
"Oh. Oh, dear! Well -- I don't know what to say."
And he retreated back behind his little gate.
Getting into his car and driving away, Matt felt dissatisfaction with the encounter, and with himself. He had always thought of himself as good at reading signs, judging people by their outward appearance and behavior. This man he could hardly even guess the age of. He looked the sort of person who, even in his cradle, had seemed worried by the human condition, or perhaps the state of the property market. And as a consequence, now he could have been forty, sixty, or any stage in between. Querulous, pernickety, with an old-fashioned concern about keeping up appearances. He couldn't hide it from himself: he didn't like the man. And Cazalet in his turn had seemed determined from the start not to like him.
Then he shook himself. What did it matter? He was only one of seven sets of neighbors in the old stone houses. And he could well have a pleasanter side to him that did not show through on a first, casual encounter.
Still, there was no disguising the fact that this rated very low on the thermometer of warm welcomes.
© 2002 Robert Barnard
Matt Harper, a television and radio personality and a former professional soccer player, has just bought Elderholm, an old stone house in Leeds in the north of England. It's ideal for him, his partner Aileen, and her three children. Even the attic space seems just right -- the perfect place for a game room or a children's retreat.
But as Matt and his decorator tour the property, they find something that will put the attic off-limits for a long time to come: a tiny child's skeleton that has clearly been there for years. What happened to the child, and how did its skeleton get into the attic?
Detective Sergeant Charlie Peace and his forensic team think the child's remains have been in the attic for thirty years. Thirty years? Matt remembers that time. It was 1969 and he was seven years old. He was in the neighborhood, spending the summer with an aunt. That was the summer that Elderholm's owner left her house empty when she went to visit a daughter in Australia.
What happened that summer? What memories lie deep in Matt's consciousness? Where are the other children from that summer who now, of course, are adults? Who killed the little child and why was he or she never reported missing? And who has now written to Matt, assuring him that he had no part in what occurred, that he had gone home to London before it happened?
As Matt struggles to recover his memory of that strange summer, both he and Charlie Peace ponder what it means to love and lose a child and how one thoughtless decision can change a life forever.
Richly evocative and deeply poignant, The Bones in the Attic is crime writing at its best from one of the great contemporary masters of mystery.
Robert Barnard was born in Essex and educated at Balliol. He had a distinguished career as an academic before he became a full-time writer. His first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat, was written while he was professor of English at the University of Tromso in Norway, the world's most northerly university.
He is a writer of great versatility, from the light and satirical tone of his earlier books to the more psychological preoccupations of recent ones, such as A Fatal Attachment. Under the name of Bernard Bastable he has also written novels featuring Mozart as a detective, and is the author of many short stories. He has created several detectives, including Perry Trethowan and Charlie Peace.He is the winner of the prestigious Nero Wolfe Award as well as Anthony, Agatha, and Macavity awards. The eight-time Edgar nominee is a member of Britain's distinguished Detection Club. In 2003 he was presented with the Crimer Writers Association Cartier Diamn Dagger Award for nearly 30 years in crime writing, in which he has written around 40 books. He lives with his wife, Louise, in Leeds, England.