Living Between the Lines

Do houses have souls?

My mother was speaking to my daughter, Zoe, the other evening. The conversation began like this,

Mother: “I haven’t seen Lesley since she fell through the ceiling,”

Needless to say, there were then hysterics on both ends of the line as the enormity and the humour of what she’d said, sank in.

If you ever see a novel written by me beginning with those words, you will know to what it really relates. Yes, my eldest sister did actually fall right through the ceiling.

Of course, one shouldn’t laugh, she is currently black and blue and in considerable pain but rather remarkably and thankfully, no bones were broken.

I should elaborate of course. You may want to know which ceiling she fell through, how and why?

Well, it all began when we put my late sister and brother-in-law’s house up for sale. Lesley has always spent a lot of time there and has always been very fond of the house both for the memories it holds and for its own sake. We knew she’d be very sad to see the house go. Over the last few months, she has ensured the large garden has been kept neat and the house itself kept clean and presentable while it was on the market. She has met gas men and gardeners, electricians and estate agents as needed.

After months of stagnation, the house has seemed to breathe again, readying itself for a new era.

We all hold memories of happy times spent there. We remember Christmases, with a sumptuous feast set out on the enormous, antique table. There was always a calamity of some type, involving my brother-in-law. There was the year he left us all mid morning, to go to Church, returning just before lunch in a state of great agitation,

“There’s a bird in the church and I need a fishing net to catch it!” he shouted as he routed around in the shed for his son’s net, the type hanging from a long pole. Off he went, on Christmas morning, to capture or rescue the bird that had dared fly into the church’s eaves. My sister held Christmas dinner up for as long as was possible, serving it with a tight smile when her husband finally returned.

She had single handedly decorated and prepared the house for nine visitors, cooked a four course meal for twelve, served drinks and nibbles, accepting only a little help from us, her guests.

By the time we all sat down to eat, she was quite exhausted.

Stuart, my brother-in-law, rushed in and sat down, telling us all about the bird, a sparrow he thought, he had set free. As we ate the last morsel, Stuart leant back in his chair and turning to Beverly said without a glimmer of humour,

“Well, Beverly, that was – very disappointing. I thought the dinner was a bit cold.”

We were horrified. I fully expected my sister to tip the rest of the gravy over his head. She didn’t.

How she kept her cool I do not know but the story has been told and re-told ever since. Perhaps they had words later because, believe me, Stuart never made the same mistake again.

We had five children, my sister just the one yet she found room for us all and made us feel welcome. We remember tucking small children up in makeshift beds and sleeping bags, the eldest often sleeping at the foot of our bed on a rolled up eiderdown. We remember Summer afternoons, lazing in the garden and winter evenings, spent sitting by the log fire, reading or watching favourite films on television. Such was the welcome the house seemed to give that we all looked forward to our visits. Of course, it was my sister and brother-in-law providing the welcome wasn’t it? The house is only a pile of bricks and mortar. Or is it?

Their untimely deaths, only four years apart, were shocking but it has taken a year to get everything sorted and the house on the market.

The house was snapped up quite quickly by eager buyers. We had agreed that the desired work, to install a new heating system, could be carried out once contracts were exchanged. Hence, my husband went up one last time to check everything was ok the other weekend, in readiness for completion. Lesley, wanting to say her own goodbye, took a last look round on the Saturday. She says she felt she really did not want to let the house go.

Exactly what happened next is a bit of a mystery, even to her.

We do know that the floorboards on the landing had been removed to allow access to pipes. Lesley saw this and as the gap blocked the way to the main bedroom, decided not to go any further. She turned to leave. That’s when it happened. Somehow, as she turned, she slipped and toppled backwards, twisting in mid-air so that she did not fall headlong into the hole. Instead, she found herself hanging, one leg marooned between floors, the other dangling below, wedged between the joists. She told me afterwards that she did not know whether to push herself through and fall to the stone floor, risking breaking both legs if not worse or whether to haul herself up. This would be a considerable feat for an able bodied person but my sister, in her sixties, does suffer from arthritis amongst other things. After some time, she thinks perhaps half an hour, she managed to heave herself out of the hole and stagger downstairs.

She phoned me when she got to the safety of the ground floor. I was horrified of course. It didn’t help that on that same day, a friend of mine had persuaded us to let her practise Christmas dinner on us because she’d promised to cook it for her pensioner parents this year, for the very first time. I was supervising a crucial part of stuffing the turkey when the phone call came and completely unprepared for the news that my one remaining sibling had fallen through a ceiling.

Having established that she was not seriously injured, I had to ask, was the house trying to swallow her up or spit her out?

Not wishing to risk A&E on a Saturday, she took herself home, not getting to the hospital until the following morning whereupon, they immediately strapped her into a neck brace for two hours and carried out a series of X-rays, believing she had broken her pelvis and shoulder. Neither turned out to be the case, nor had she broken her spine but the bruising and swelling are so bad that even now, over a week later, the bruising is still coming out and her right leg is black and her shoulder is stiff.

Having been so reluctant to let the house go, for so long, Lesley now says she never wants to see it again.  So perhaps the house was forcing her to quit in the only way it could, which brings me back to my original question – do houses have souls?

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Hilary

    Hi Deborah … I’ve no idea … but what an incredible saga – and perhaps the house did want its new owners badly!! However I hope Lesley will fully recover – but a tale to tell. How on earth your sister kept a straight face when her husband said the dinner was a little cold and he was disappointed I don’t know … I cannot imagine me being that polite and calm!!!

    Cheers and good to read the post – Hilary

  • Liz

    Hi Deb how I enjoy your posts – your stories transport me ‘metaphorically’ away from the turmoil of my own life.
    I look forward to your book.
    Best wishes Liz

  • Teresa

    Oh my goodness – your poor sister! Thank goodness she wasn’t too badly hurt. I loved your account of the Christmas dinner.

    I definitely think there is something more than bricks and mortar to a house, whether it’s something the occupants leave behind or the house soaks up, I don’t know, but I do think that house could have found a kinder way to make Lesley let go! x

  • babiesandbulldogs

    Another beautifully written bitter-sweet anecdote mother dearest. Whilst I will obviously never forget my gorgeous auntie and uncle, I will also never forget that house. Even now I can smell the nigella-esque feasts being prepared and see the amazing wall colours and fabrics that were like something out of country magazine – I think it was the people living there that gave it it’s soul! Love you

  • patricia

    Our house definitely has a history and it shares it’s treasures just when we least expect it even after a huge remodel! And we have a house in the neighborhood that folks fall in love with it, buy it, have a new baby to save their marriage, divorce and then sell it again…6 times now? What is this

    I so enjoy your story telling and think your book will be a great source of tales told.
    I hope your sister is soon recovered and how fortunate the injuries were not awful…close buy just enough to let go.

    thank you for your good words

    • Deborah Barker

      Six times? Same thing happens? Oh dear, do you warn prospective occupants? We once stayed in a house that seemed to wrap itself round us. We were very glad to leave it! So, maybe the answer is, we give houses their souls Patricia. Glad you enjoyed this interlude in my November writing challenge!

  • John Cowton

    Thank goodness your sister managed to haul herself back up. I’m currently in the process of laying floor in my loft. Should I worry?
    As for the question, you’ve come up with a corker of a question this time Deborah. Do houses have souls? I wouldn’t wish to live in one that has no soul.
    A few years back my wife and I passed a new development in the middle of nowhere. It was a large estate, where previously there had only been open ground, and no roads. I tell you, driving around on this pristine network of roads, with brand new school in mock Victorian style, and mock Tudor houses on some roads with mock regency houses on others, was spooky. I said to Karen, this place has no soul, a notion that was quite discomforting. Shades of “Stepford Wives.” came to mind.
    I’ve never been inclined to all things paranormal, and it’s not specifically my writing genre, but it is something I have partially explored in my writing.
    So here it is, here’s my answer. I believe houses have souls and the older the house is the more spiritual depth there is. Go to an old building like Edinburgh or Warwick Castle, find a point of interest to fix your eyes upon, a painting might do it, never mind the people around you, let your mind shut them out for a few minutes. I challenge anybody to try that and say they felt nothing.
    My current project is set in Ephesus. Having been there I came back charged, and began writing about it. Sites of ancient civilizations are high voltage.

  • Julia Thorley

    Yes, houses have if not souls then at least ideas above their station. I posted a blog a few weeks ago in which I said I was convinced my house was cross with me. I love your reminiscences, especially the one about shortening the wrong end of the door. My mum once spent an evening shortening the legs on my dad’s overalls – only to discover she’d actually taken several inches off the sleeves.

    • Debbie

      Oh my goodness, the sleeves? That made me laugh! I once worked in an old cottage that served as offices where, on the day we moved out to go to brand new premises, I swear the building was whispering to me, “get out, get out!” and couldn’t wait to get rid of us. Was it sulking or do I just have an over active imagination?

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