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House-Sitting: Leave Without A Trace

I didn’t want to live as a student again. But I’m not quite equipped to be an adult yet either. And, both of those living situations are pretty unaffordable in the area around Winchester where I’m studying Creative Writing and working as a freelance copywriter. This is how I’ve come to spend my days and weeks living in other people’s houses: looking after their pets, houseplants and piles of post until they get back from their luxurious winter holidays.

But don’t you get lonely?

What if you destroy their house?

Can you eat their food?

It’s a bit like browsing houses on Rightmove, but going one step further and actually moving in. And then keeping your fingers crossed that everything holds together and that you, the house, and the animals all survive until such time as the owners get back.

Undisclosed Village near Winchester. 29th March - 5th April 2019

2 small dogs

1 cat (without a tail)

1 hamster

Thursday 28th March, 8pm - The Day Before

Armed Police?

I didn’t think too much of it when she was showing me around the house for my pre-stay visit, but now I’m packing my things in preparation, ‘armed police’ seems quite excessive. I didn’t even know there were armed police in Hampshire. I bet it would take them ages to get there, winding along country lanes in the middle of the night. I wonder if anyone in the house has ever called them out. She definitely did say ‘armed’ because I’ve checked and it’s written in my Welcome Pack: “there are three panic buttons in the house, linked directly to armed police.” Two red buttons must be pressed simultaneously so that you can’t set it off by accident. Still, I’d think it’s risky having them within arm’s reach of their seven-year-old son. I wonder if the children know what the buttons are for. Is there something specific that we should be panicking about?

Security buttons aside, it is the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen in my life. Elegant Georgian windows flood light into perfectly (expensively) curated interiors. From the orangery doors a lavender-lined path divides the front lawn into quarters, and low box hedges hide the swimming pool when it’s not being used in the winter-time. A rusty white gate at the bottom of the garden would be easily scalable by unwanted intruders in the middle of the night, but the household’s main concern seems to be securing the property from the inside. The fluffball cockapoo puppy is eleven months old and prone to escaping. Logs have been taken from the dry-store and propped in between the gaps in the rusty railings, and I do wonder why they haven’t just got themselves a new gate. I’m sure they could afford it.

With the house itself not excessively secure, I begin to wonder if the people inside consider themselves under a specific, panic-worthy threat. Even in a property as lucrative as this, armed police seem over-the-top. Or is that the kind of service that money can buy? I’ve Googled the owners of course, but I won’t tell you what I’ve found because that wouldn’t be fair and wouldn’t make me a very good house-sitter.

I’m leaving at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning to get to their house at 9. They’ll have left by 4.30am to catch an unsociably early flight to go skiing, and I won’t see them until they return, goggle-tanned, in a week’s time.

Friday 29th March 2019, 11am - Arriving

I’ve been in the house for half an hour when the chirpy young gardener calls out from the back door and the dogs go running. I introduce myself and we make small talk about where I’m from and what I do. I don’t ask him in return, because I can see what he does and presume he does it here, so the conversation is rather one-sided. Learning that I’m a writer, he eagerly asks me for book recommendations, adding that he’s ‘not literary or anything’ but has just finished The Plague by Albert Camus. The trouble with studying literature is that people assume you must know all the authors and have read all the books. When I say I’m not familiar with Camus, he tells me it would be ‘cam-us’ if it were ‘pronounced in English’. I’m none the wiser and we both awkwardly accept the fact that I must be some kind of incompetent fake. I wonder if he knows all the plants in the garden. He probably does.

Once he goes back outside I settle into my new writing spot at the long white table in the orangery. I’m trying to think of novel recommendations which he will ask me for when he leaves at 12 o’clock. Everything I’ve read recently has been distinctly ‘feminine’, and I feel silly recommending Sally Rooney or Emma Healey to a grown man. I wonder if men ever think like this; ‘She won’t like that book, it’s too manly.’ I expect not. When he returns, I offer my suggestion of ‘anything by Ian McEwan’ and restore some credibility in my subject knowledge when he asks if that’s Inspector Rebus. My kind correction that he’s thinking of Ian Rankin restores all faith in my ‘literary knowledge’ and he seems content, writing the correct Ian down in the Notes of his phone. I’ve never actually read any Ian Rankin, but he recently came up in conversation on The Bookseller Podcast which I listen to when I can’t get to sleep.

Friday 29th March, 11pm – Night Cap

My first night alone in the panic-mansion; feeling a little on-edge because there are so many windows without curtains to cover them. Black glass has always made me uneasy, even in my own home. Mum told me that I used to go around the house locking doors as soon as it got dark in the evenings, usually after I’d been reading too much Harry Potter. The atmosphere of a novel always permeates my mood, and if it’s a really good book I even start thinking in the character’s voice. Switch off myself for a little while. Elizabeth is Missing put me in the strangest moods and I started thinking my thoughts in the tone of a little old lady who can’t quite remember what she stood up to do. That was an excellent book.

After eating dinner I hover in the expansive kitchen, debating between making myself a gin or a hot chocolate. They’ve got tons of milk to use up – delivered by the milkman in neat glass bottles with round silver tops. I’d only be using up a spoonful of cocoa powder, but it’s not the sort of house to have a microwave, so I’d have to warm the milk on the AGA which is a bit of a faff. I know I’d prefer a gin, but something about the alcohol makes it seem more likely to be off-limits. Perhaps that’s a hang-up from childhood, or something to do with the cost-per-unit. I take down the bright blue Bombay from the decorated shelf of spirits; safer than risking some kind of irreplaceable £100-a-bottle or home brewed magic. One shot of gin won’t be missed I’m sure, but as I’m pouring I begin to wonder if they have security cameras inside the house. I haven’t noticed any lights or lenses twinkling in the corners, but then I imagine they’d be well disguised: blended in like the custom-made bookshelves and the sensor-triggered lighting that clicks on whenever you enter the bathrooms in the dark.

Saturday 30th March, 6pm – The Luxury Bathtub

I have just seen the most incredible bath and I really, really want to use it. Tucked between the inter-connecting master bedroom and dressing room is the en-suite, with a magnificent roll-top bath standing proudly in the centre of the cream carpeted space. In front of a large open-fireplace, the bather would face a wide oil painting of a reclining nude in muted tones. Several clues have suggested that the lady of the house might be a fine artist as well as interior designer: charcoal sketches framed on walls, drawing lessons done with the children. On the dining room table there are three pencil sketches of the stuffed owl which keeps watch from the mantlepiece. A rainy day drawing exercise perhaps, practising a still life with Mummy.

Just like the gin, I’m not sure if the luxury bathroom is off-limits. This house is a test of temptations: take the safe option and resist, or challenge my moral compass and push the boundaries of what might be allowed. On my pre-stay tour I was waved towards the end of the corridor; “and there’s a bath down there if you prefer that to a shower.” I know she meant the family bathroom, but the door to the luxury en-suite has been left open so it’s plausible that I could have come across that first and misunderstood. As I run the water I consider the triviality of it all. Would they even care which bath I use? It’ll be left immaculate by the cleaner either way. I soak in aromatic frangipani and orange-blossom, the simple act of bathing enhanced by the novelty and rebellion of living inside somebody else’s life.

Surely they wouldn’t have cameras in the bathroom?

Tuesday, 2nd April. 9am – Meeting the Staff

Jill the cleaner arrived at 7:35, and looked exactly like the housekeeper in the original Mary Poppins. I was still in bed when her car pulled up, unaware that it was only 7:35 because my phone had run out of battery after falling asleep to the Guardian Books podcast. Was it an acceptable time to still be in bed or not? I padded down the stairs to greet her in my pyjamas and she chattered at me, making herself a cup of tea and beginning to empty the dishwasher. She tells me she’s known the family since their youngest son was born, which according to the colourful cards on the mantlepiece is almost exactly seven years. She’d be a good person to ask why they have direct links to armed police, but there isn’t a suitable moment to drop it into conversation. Will try again when she comes on Thursday. I’m not sure what additional mess they expect me to have made my then…

Once she’s run out of small talk I start to prepare for the event this evening. It’s an ‘end of course celebration’ where I agreed to read my work because I thought everyone else had too. It turns out to be only twelve of us who agreed, but it won’t be a big audience and apparently there will be drinks and nibbles provided. I read aloud to myself in the bedroom, hoping the cleaner doesn’t hear me and send reports of lunacy back to the home owners.

Sitting cross-legged and surrounded by paper and pens on the enormous bed, I reflect on how my writing confidence has grown since the start of my course in September. Six months ago I’d never read aloud anything I’d written, and to be honest I hadn’t written much. Not ‘creative writing’ anyway, I was full of academic essays and copywriting slogans. Now I’ll happily read my work out loud, but I still prefer to be asked than volunteer myself. Reading when requested is a passive and complicit engagement with the group, without any expectation of good reception or praise. Actively volunteering means you’ve decided that your writing is important enough to take up several minutes of another human’s time and attention. Very un-British behaviour indeed.

Wednesday 3rd April, 10am – All About Timing

The reading went well and all the animals were still alive by the time I got back. I enjoyed listening to the other speakers and managed to get through my piece without too much mumbling and stumbling. Also ended up with a small cameo in James’ comedy sketch, because it was a script and he thought it wouldn’t work quite as well if he’d had to do all of the voices himself. I was very glad of a chance to read it through before ‘performing’ – so much of comedy is about the timing.

Plan to stay in the house today and catch up on some client work I’ve been neglecting. Re-writing website copy for an ex-army lady who teaches some kind of ‘extreme health and safety’. I bet she could answer some questions about panic buttons.

Wednesday 3rd April, 11pm – Snapped and Shaken

One of the dogs just snapped at me and I’m all shaken up. This is quite pathetic because she’s a fluffy cockapoo who’s about the same height as my knees. The calm and gentle animal pulled back her lips and snarled, leaping up at my right hand because she thought I was trying to take away her bone. I wasn’t; I was only trying to get her to bring it inside so that I could lock the doors and go up to bed. Having spent ten minutes traipsing around the gardens in my pyjamas looking for her, perhaps she sensed that my tone was a little off.

Thursday 4th April, 5pm – Not Flipflop Weather

Pouring with rain and freezing cold. All day. “We’ve turned the heating off now for Spring” it says in the Welcome Pack, which I think is a little premature for the first week of April. Cold stone floors mean I’ve taken to wearing flipflops around the house because I didn’t think to bring any slippers. In an attempt to stay warm I’ve shut all the kitchen doors and opened the lid of the AGA, sitting at the island counter with my back to the heat whilst I’m writing. I think about the famous places where great novels were written, and imagine the children of the house saying ‘part of xxx was written here.’ Except I only have 4000 words so far and no title, so the likelihood of publication is probably on a level with my Grandma’s latest shopping list.

I’m going out in an hour to hear three writers talk in Winchester, launching their latest books in a panel discussion called ‘Dark Thrillers’. It’s not my usual genre of choice and will probably freak me out again about being in the house alone. Claire Fuller’s novel is set in an old property on the outskirts of Winchester and tells tales of dead bodies and haunted corridors. I wonder if I could use this house as an interesting story setting. I might draw a floor plan and make notes before I leave.

Friday 5th April, 8am. – Escaping Unscathed

I’m leaving the mansion today but not until late afternoon. Unlike my previous house-sits, there’s nothing to clean because the cleaner’s done it all. I strip my bed and nearly break the washing machine door, then take the dogs for a long walk before I say goodbye. I’m always extra cautious on the last day; it’s always at the end that something disastrous is likely to happen.

I stop and wonder if life has always been this anxiety-inducing, and also whether I ought to have had some kind of non-liability contract drawn up before they left. Not that I have much they could sue me for. The trouble with house-sitting is that you could float around for ten years, and then turn around and realise that you haven’t left any trace at all.


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