His boss called it the Witch’s House, and Philips could see why. It was a little cottage in a council estate on the edge of town, a Bavarian-style place of wood and stone, with two high gabled roofs, shutters at the windows and an ornately-carved veranda that ran along the front of the house – an anachronism among the pre-fabs and council flats of the rest of the estate. He flicked through the agent’s file. Three bedrooms, walk-through kitchen, dining room, lounge; ten rooms in total, plus attic, plus garage. A six-man crew at most; a day’s work, assuming the old man wasn’t a hoarder. A standard house-clearance, in other words. Certainly nothing to explain why his boss was involved.
“The owner’s dead, I take it?” said Philips.
“No,” said his boss. “Moved into a home. Or was moved, rather, by Mental Health. Alzheimer’s or dementia or something, poor guy.” His boss made a sad face, which Philips saw was entirely insincere. “This was months ago, but it’s only now that we’ve been allowed to do anything.”
“Who’s the client?”
“The son. Lives in Australia. Clearly there’s no love lost between them, because the son’s not visited the UK since dad fell ill. But he’s spent four months getting Power of Attorney over dad’s affairs, so you could say he’s taken some interest.” He said this with a nod of approval, as if admiring the son’s cunning. “It’s all had to be sorted out long-distance, so you can imagine it’s been a bit of a ball-ache for him.”
Philips flicked through the file. In one of the photos he could see a grandfather clock, dusty and spotted with verdigris, and in another a roll-top writing bureau, ornate, old-fashioned. Nothing else of value that he could see. He always felt a strange kind of melancholy, looking at their clients’ houses. Sometimes you’d find nothing but junk – chipboard and plastic, piles of crumbling paperbacks, dusty photos of long forgotten people – and then it was as if the whole person could be summed up the possessions they left behind. It was a sentimental thought, he knew, but he always hoped the owners had lived fuller lives than their homes suggested.
“I take it son wants some of dad’s stuff?” said Philips.
“God no,” said his boss. “He’s happy if we chuck the whole lot out. I’ve asked him if we can auction off what we find. I don’t think he cares, frankly.”
Philips frowned, unsure of why he’d been called in. “You want me to prepare a quote?”
His boss paused. “Not exactly. “ He motioned at a chair. “Sit down for a minute, take the weight off.” He stood and moved some papers on his desk. He was a big, fleshy man in a striped shirt and club tie. Philips found him demanding, but his demands came more from what he didn’t say than what he did. ”The son’s asked for a favour…”
He sighed, as if owning up to a minor indiscretion.
“There’s a box of possessions somewhere in the house, about so big,” – he made the shape of a shoe box with his hands – “The son has asked if we can find it and keep it for him.”
Philips shrugged. “Why didn’t he just tell us that when he booked us?”
“It seems that these possessions are a little – delicate – in nature. He doesn’t want the men to stumble across them. He’s paying us a bonus if we can keep this between ourselves. You’re the only person I’ve told about this, so I’m relying on you to find this before the men do and bring it back to me. Clearly I can’t do it myself…”
Of course not, thought Philips. Why have a dog and bark yourself? “Any idea what these possessions are?”
“He wouldn’t say.”
“How do I know when I’ve found them?”
His boss brushed away the question. “Just bring back whatever you can find. We can sort it out here.” He looked at his watch. “I would go now, before the men get started.”
“Today?” said Philips.
“Yes today. Go, now.”
Philips stood and made for the door. His boss called him back.
“I appreciate your help,” he said sombrely. “But sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” said Philips, “sorry.”
He stopped off at his desk for his things and left through the back entrance, with the curious feeling that he’d just had a telling off. In the car, taking the long way to avoid the roadworks on the high street, he sunk into his usual melancholy. It was October, and people were already wearing their winter coats. He hated this time of year and the long, slow descent to Christmas. Soon it would be January again, and nothing had changed. He was still in the same job, still paralysed by the fear of moving on, of taking a gamble and losing it all. If he was single man things might have been different, but you couldn’t take chances when you had kids. All his life he’d had a fear of being unemployed, and after four redundancies, he considered himself lucky: in the whole time, he’d only been out of work for two weeks. The next job had always materialised, somehow, and he’d always taken whatever he was offered. But he was getting older and his luck wasn’t going to last forever. Work was a constant worry. Most of his friends had been more successful than him in life, but what could you do? He was beyond jealousy now. Most of the time success was just a fortuitous collision of luck and circumstance anyway.
He parked on the estate, and made his way across the rutted and weed-strewn parking bays to the front of the house. The clearance was already underway. A lorry was parked with a ramp leading up to the side door, and a tarpaulin was spread over the lawn, a few items already placed on top. He went into the hall, where two men were manhandling a wardrobe, and he stepped outside again to let them past.
“Office boy,” called a voice. “What do you want?” Philips turned. Heading towards him from the road was the supervisor, a fat ball of a man with a droopy, bloodhound face and a reputation back in the office as an argumentative prick. His heart sank.
“Just checking a few things,” said Philips vaguely.
“Spying on us then,” said the supervisor sourly.
“Not at all. Just thought I’d come and see you in action.”
“Blimey,” he said, “Make sure you have a little lie down later. It’s no good for you, hanging out with the plebs.”
“I’ll be gone soon.”
The man shrugged and turned away. “Do want you want. Just don’t get in the way. Some of us actually have work to do.”
Philips ignored him and went inside. For twenty minutes he went through the house from top to bottom, making a mental inventory of where a shoebox may have been kept. The attic, he discovered from one of the men, was a tiny crawl space with little more than old Christmas decorations and a box of school books inside. He located the box and put it on the veranda, with an instruction to the men not to touch it. Several tea chests had already been filled and stacked in corners, waiting to be moved. He lifted off the lids and started picking through the contents – vases in bubblewrap, ornaments and trinkets wrapped in sheets of newspaper – but the chests were a metre deep, and it was going to be difficult to unpack everything again. If the worst came to the worst he’d have to do it, and he was sure the boss would support him, but he dreaded having to explain it to the supervisor.
Towards lunch, he went out into the garden where some of the larger items of furniture now stood, numbered and colour coded with little stickers – green for auction, yellow for recycling, red for landfill – on the lawn, like a piece of modern art. He opened a wardrobe and looked inside.
“Don’t touch that,” said the supervisor. He came treading heavily over the lawn with two of the men, wheezing with every step. He looked angry. “What are you doing?”
“I’m just interested. What do you do with the contents?”
“Oh I see,” he said. “You think we’re thieves. Did you hear that lads? Head office thinks we’re stealing from people.”
“Not at all. I’m just interested in the process, that’s all.”
“You won’t find it in a fucking wardrobe.”
Philips sighed and started back towards the house.
“It’s not the process that’s the problem,” the man called from behind him. “Did you hear that lads? That’s what we are now. A fucking process.”
He went upstairs and stood on the landing. He felt shaky and miserable – no not miserable, angry now. Angry at this job that forced him to lie to people and sneak around behind their backs. Angry at a job that sent him on a ridiculous hunt for god knew what, in fear of losing a job that he never wanted in the first place. He liked most of the lads. Individually he got on well with them. But collectively they had to take sides, and Philips was on the wrong one. It was like being forever tested and never measuring up, always in contravention of rules that had never been explained and were always changing.
It was there, on the landing, that he spotted the airing cupboard. Hiding in plain sight. He rummaged through it and, under a pile of towels, found a shoe box. He took it into the back room where, from the window, he could see that the other men had stopped in the garden for a break. He could hear the voice of the supervisor, loud, wheedling, and knew that he was being talked about. He knelt on the floor and opened the box.
It was a memory box, full of letters and photos and keepsakes, valueless in themselves but clearly meaningful to someone. He took a stack of photos from the top and angled them towards the light. The first photo showed a man sitting on a bed in his underwear, his arms around the shoulders of a young boy. The photo had been taken from an odd angle, as if the camera had been placed on the floor. The next one showed the same boy lying down, the man now facing away from the camera, his hairy back white in the light of the camera’s flash…
He dropped the photos in disgust.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Philips gathered the photos up frantically and shoved them in the box. Then the supervisor was at the door. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing here,” he said, “But you need to get out. I’ve spoken to head office, and you’re not even supposed to be here.”
Philips tucked the box under his arm. “I have to take this back to the office,” he said. He got up and tried to push past the supervisor. “Client’s instructions.”
“You’re not taking anything,” said the supervisor. “We got no instructions. You’re not even supposed to be here.”
“Speak to Harry,” he said. “I’ve got specific instructions from Harry. If I don’t look after this for the client it’s not me he’s going to be sacking, do you understand?”
The supervisor looked furious. He took out his phone and dialled. After a muttered conversation he motioned to Philips and stepped aside. Philips hugged the box to him and made for the stairs. He walked through the kitchen and out into the garden, where he could sense the eyes of the other men on him as he left through the gate.
In the car he phoned his boss. “Did you know about this?” he said. He felt shaky, as if it had been his own face in the photos. The box was next to him on the passenger seat, an intensity to its presence, like something radioactive.
“I don’t ask questions,” said his boss.
“Maybe you should,” he said.
“It’s none of my business. It’s none of yours either. We’ve been asked to do something for our client and that’s what we’re doing. Just bring it back here and we’ll talk…”
“There’s letters,” said Philips. “From other men, like him. Wanting photos…”
“I know. Horrible. But its not our problem. The son’s paying us a lot of money. I mean a lot. A hell of a lot.”
“We need to go to the police.”
His boss sighed. “For god’s sake. Who’s going to gain from that eh? Not me. Not the guy in Australia. Not the bloke in the home, though I’m not saying he don’t deserve it. Not you either. And for what? A few warm and fuzzies because you did something good? Well done. Gold star.”
For a second there was only his boss’s heavy breathing on the end of the line, which indicated to Philips he was attempting to control his anger.
“Ask yourself,” said his boss. “Can you really afford to get on your fucking high horse about this?”
Philips said nothing.
“Look, just come back to the office and we’ll talk. I’ll see what I can do for you…”
Philips ended the call.
He would need to phone his wife. She wouldn’t be happy, although she might just understand. They had debts, plenty of them. He couldn’t afford to be out of work. He was getting older, and his luck wouldn’t last forever. Work was always a worry. But there was something he could see now, a glimmer, like something moving in the dark: a bit of courage.
He sat watching the house. Then he picked up his phone.