Rhoda Neville has lived in several old houses in Scotland, England, and the States. She’s taken in hand the renovation and preservation of several of them, always sensitive to their relevance as living histories of the people who have occupied them.
Much of Rhoda’s writing—she started using her grandfather’s Hermes Rocket field typewriter at thirteen—has been steeped in a sense of the uncanny, although she also writes science fiction, satire, and poetry.
At graduation from high school she was presented the school’s English Award and then took an English Literature degree at Pomona College in California. She’s farmed organically in Perthshire and, later, provided customers with sustainable living choices in her shop in Arizona. Now, a few decades later, she’s completed the MLitt course at the University of Dundee and looks forward to growing her dissertation into a novel. She lives by the Tay in a house not unlike Drumdonie with two dogs and, sometimes, two daughters.
Extracts from Drumdonie are from Chapters 5 and 6.
The removal man arrived at Ailsa’s flat at half eleven on the day she agreed to take on Drumdonie. She’d little furniture in her boot-box flat and had made taking it with her to the house a condition of her contract. Although she could have done without the pull-out sofa she’d bought for occasional visitors, she wanted her own bed. There had been too many properties in which the condition of the mattress was more frightening than the goings on in the building. So it was, the lot was to go to the house, most to be stored in a room over the old potting shed.
By two o’clock she was standing in the reception hall, her bed, still in pieces, thrust in the room she’d chosen to sleep in and the removal man out the door. All the time he and his helper were there, they commented on what a fine house it was. Still, they did not linger.
—Pffft. Ailsa looked about her at the scarred floors and dust-stained walls. Above each of the elderly radiators was a bloom of soot, rising a couple metres up the wall. Some of the furniture wore dust covers, other pieces were bare but for an even grey coating. The smell in this room suggested rot, and she had been relieved when inspections had revealed only the wet kind.
Ailsa crossed to a wall and touched buckled beige paint with the tips of her fingers. She murmured, –You are fine…and will be tidy. Thanks to Rankin’s generous budget.
She’d been in the house only once before, a fortnight ago when she met Brown, the owner’s solicitor, a dour young man who seemed suspicious of her intents.
– You know, the Rankins have been with my practice for many years. It had sounded like a hanging admonishment, the way he’d said it. He had looked her up and down as if he’d never seen anyone wearing jeans and a baggy jumper before. She’d almost expected him to “tut” at her, but instead, he compressed his lips, turned on his heel and led her, stiff-legged, round to the side entrance and into the house. He started the meeting looking grounded enough, but as he toured her about the place an agitation seemed to grow in him, and he finished up shifting from foot to foot whenever they paused. The longer they were in the house, the paler and damper he looked. When they left, she’d heard him take in a great gulp of air.
Yesterday, she’d visited the solicitor’s Glasgow offices to collect the keys. There, a chatty receptionist had mentioned the firm was a family business and young Brown was the newest generation to pass his exams. That explains his youth, although not him being so haughty. At least he’s no Dorian Grey, the way he was pontificating.
Brown had spoken with Rankin and thawed enough toward her to tell her more about the situation. As Ailsa only knew that Rankin feared the house from his emails, she was interested in learning more about him. Brown repeated much of what Rankin had already said to her: the previous owners were distant cousins. The couple had travelled extensively on business and not lived in the house for at least forty years prior to their deaths. Rankin, himself now in France, was looking forward to the results of Ailsa’s renovations. He had told the solicitor that he had a dust and mould allergy that prevented him from going near the house.
Ailsa raised her eyebrows a nanometre and thought, I wouldn’t tell him about my darkest fears, either, if I were him. Neither she nor Brown mentioned his apparent unease in the house the previous fortnight. Instead, he presented her with the results of two structural inspections he’d ordered on Rankin’s behalf and a list he’d taken it upon himself to draw up of repairs. She accepted the packet and went back to her flat, where she read the inspections with interest. His list amused her as all his improvements were superficial. In the morning, running short of newspapers, she’d reached for it to wrap her charity shop glasses.
As Ailsa went into the hall, she caught her breath all over again.
Here, in the heart of the house, was the sight which had removed any doubt from her mind the previous fortnight that she wanted to assist this place. There was the stone staircase, which, although mostly a straight climb, succeeded in exuding that rare illusion of floating up in a graceful arch toward the top of the double story. She’d seen it in a handful of Scottish houses of the Georgian period. Once upon a time, when she was still married, she’d felt the strongest of pulls to purchase a house with just such a staircase, literally rotting though the house was. Her husband’s “good sense” prevailed and they’d passed it by. She was crushed when she later heard the house was pulled down by its next owner. For years, she dreamed of that staircase, suspended pristine and hopeful in the middle of dereliction.
Later, when she’d lost all desire for ownership of property, she still thrilled at certain architectural features in buildings, like this staircase, an airy cupola, or how a stone kerb had been carved out to allow an open courtyard gate to snug into it. She often chose a new job that was otherwise back-breaking because of such things.
Ailsa set her foot on the first step, placing her hand on the curving mahogany bannister, and started up to put together her bed. It occurred to her now, as she trailed her hand along the rail and took each rise slowly, that there was poetry in the two staircases; one from the time when she’d believed in princes slaying dragons and the one now when she knew those sorts of fairy tales didn’t exist, but that an expansive “otherworld” was right here paralleling this one. She shook her head. Now wasn’t the time for writing and besides, now that the thought was here, it would grow.
As she climbed, she considered the mood the house seemed to hold. To her, there was a gentle melancholy and a breathless sense of pause. No, that wasn’t quite right. She’d get it in time. Whatever it was, it didn’t feel forbidding.
She was having these soft thoughts when she entered her room and felt a wall of chill greet her. –What’s up? Have I thought too well of you too fast? She kept her voice gentle, empty of accusation.
Then she saw the casement window on the east side leaked air between its edges. She laughed and shivered at the same time, picked up the bed spanner, and set to work.
The first night at Drumdonie was cold, and beyond cold, it was dim. As Ailsa switched on lamps and overheads in the dining room to try to beat back the dark, many of the bulbs popped or fizzled out with age. She ended with two globes burning in a single table lamp set on a tilt-top table. She drew a chair close by it for warmth.
The kitchen proved to be in far worse condition than it had appeared during her hasty visit the previous fortnight. Ancient tins of foodstuffs, cannisters of flour rancid with age, bottles with dubious gelatinous looking oils lined the cupboards. She had managed to scour out the ovens in the AGA and scrape the plates, de-crust the enamel and then light the thing, but she reckoned she’d need a technician in to give it a service. She’d made the sinks clean enough to wash dishes in; liberated cupboards and larder of the iffy foods; and scrubbed a saucepan and enough crockery from which to eat her evening meal.
Her first spoonful of the tinned soup she’d prepared on the AGA warmed its way through her body, cold with fatigue. She stared at her reflection in the big window, draped as she was in several layers of jumpers and a blanket. What she saw reminded her of Austen’s Emma and Mr. Woodhouse supping at their small table of an evening. Except they would have looked clean, tidy, and refined. When she had tried to close the shutters for warmth the one on the left had threatened to topple from its hinges, and she’d thrust it back in its casing, at the same time dodging the shower of dust and moth wings its movement let loose.
She’d brought her meal into the dining room as a form of ceremony to acknowledge the rooms of the house for what they were made, and to be near the river. Besides, the kitchen, despite hours of cleaning, was sad, with large leaves of grease-yellowed paint threatening to fall from the walls and ceiling.
The window glass before her shuddered lightly in the fresh spring breeze coming off the Tay. The sun had gone an hour or more ago, and she could only think of the river down there beyond the tangled grass of the strip of lawn that separated the house from the crag on which it sat. She knew it would be ebbing at this time of night, but what attitude would it wear? With this wind, she pictured it steely-grey and streaming with taffeta ripples.
When she finished her soup, she set the bowl aside and allowed the blanket to loosen as the warmth of the food took its effect. She blinked at the woman in the glass. She realised she hadn’t avoided the dust shower as well as she had hoped. She’d wash that off before crawling into her nice clean bed.
Ach, I forgot about the bathroom. Never mind, I’ll have to sponge off in the kitchen, she thought, and pushed the inconvenience away. Even though it wasn’t late, it was too dim to read. She’d have no WiFi for at least three weeks as her service company had told her with ingratiating smugness, and she was low on data, so the thought of bed enticed her. A place she could relax and get warm. She’d have to suffer getting chillier, bathing in the kitchen, before she could look forward to her bed. She wanted a bit of time to get the impetus, so she sat a bit longer, her muscles feeling drained, and relaxed in a short-term limbo.
Lethe, she thought, Hmm. Briefly, she toyed with the idea of comparing the Tay outside with waters of Lethe. She wondered where to find a pen. Her handbag in the cloakroom, or the study next door. She didn’t move, just mulled over Lethe. –I don’t think the Tay is like that, at least not here at the busy end. But it’s certainly worth playing with. She thought she’d remember something like Lethe and the Tay. Or the Water of Leith, and the waters of Lethe?
The night was almost black against the pane. Lights across the river glowed yellow, one on the street below cast a muted glow. Ailsa shifted her attention to the objects around her, reflected in the trembling glass. The small round oak table she’d set her bowl on, the fine dining table behind her, the miscellany of silver and ceramics on the sideboard seemed to grow brighter while the lamp, in some trick of her mind, appeared to sprout two candle flames, which flickered and danced making the room merry, the gilt of painting frames shine, and the walls look blue. She thought she heard the murmuring of voice, a tinkle of laughter or glass.
She shook her head and the room returned to what it was. A place of long neglect. She almost wished she’d let the illusion continue, then squinted her eyes in concentration – where did that come from?
There was no answer. So, she gathered her bowl and plate and walked through the dusky house to the kitchen, to prepare for bed.