House of Horror

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Published in The Guardian Saturday magazine on 01 Mar 2023

Matt Blake knew the place he’d just moved into wasn’t his dream home. But what he didn’t know was that its history would give him nightmares.

Credit: Nicolas Ortega/The Guardian

In January 2021, 18 months after a sticky divorce, I bought a house. I bought it partly because I could – my ex-wife and I had got lucky on the property ladder and walked away with enough money for a deposit each. But also, I bought it because I was desperate. With shared custody of our two-year-old daughter, I needed a place where she could be happy and where I could get back on my feet.

It wasn’t my dream home. The bay window had been replaced by a PVC box, the walls were wonky, the windows were draughty and the pipes groaned whenever I turned on the heating. It was freezing in winter and, I would learn, had a slug problem in summer. On a road in Walthamstow, north-east London, lined by Victorian bay-windowed terraces, mine stood out like a cracked tooth.

The divorce had hurt. After a decade together, five of them married, there had been no emotional or physical abuse, no infidelity; love just curdled. Plus there’s nothing like new parenthood to expose cracks in a marriage. “Daddy,” our daughter said one bedtime soon after the separation, “when I’m a baby again, will you and Mummy live together like you did when I was a baby before?” Turns out explaining to a toddler that time runs inexorably in one direction is far easier than explaining why two grownups can no longer share a home.

So the first time I turned the key on that grey January day, at the height of the pandemic, I felt elated. This house represented a new future for us both. I never once thought about its past.

‘There’s something wrong with your boards,’ my brother said. As we pulled up the carpet we saw it – a big black patch

“The first thing you do when you move into a new house is wipe all memory of the previous owners,” my brother, Nick, said a few weeks later. “And we can start with that disgusting carpet in the front bedroom.” The carpet was a browny grey, like rat’s fur. And it clung stubbornly to the floor. But with a crowbar and brute force, it slowly began to submit. Suddenly, Nick stopped yanking and stood up. “There’s something wrong with your boards.”

The more we pulled, the more we saw it – an amorphous black patch, about the size of a double bed, in the centre of the room. Some of the boards appeared chewed up and peppered by flecks of white and grey where there had obviously been some kind of fire. My homebuyer’s survey had mentioned nothing of this. While the damage was cosmetic, it didn’t take a joiner to see the boards needed replacing.

Most fires start in kitchens, not bedrooms. This one had obviously been small, on the exact spot where a bed must once have been, and where my bed was now. The next morning, I looked back at all the images ever taken of the house on Google Street View. One, from August 2008, showed the house just as it is now except for corrugated iron sheets where the windows should have been. Above the window frames sooty marks curled up the front of the house like eyelashes. The gutters were melted, mangled, and the facade’s white render was peeling.

“The first thing you do when you move into a new house is wipe all memory of the previous owners”

I sent a freedom of information request to the London fire brigade, asking for a list of every call-out to my street in the past 20 years.Since 2000, almost a third of the 20 calls to which firefighters had responded were to one address: mine. Four “malicious false alarms” and two “primary fires”. Stranger still, five of those incidents (including both fires) had taken place within a seven-month period, between February and September 2008. The fire brigade wouldn’t tell me whether anyone had died, or been hurt, and the police wouldn’t help. A trawl of the local paper from the time yielded nothing.

I went outside and looked up at the house. It had clearly been repaired. Two doors down, I saw Jackie – who has lived on the street for 20 years – smoking on her front step. I asked if she knew anything about the fires. “Oh yeah, we all used to call yours The Fire House,” she said. Jackie also told me she remembered the man who had lived there at the time; he used to light fires in the bedroom, then sit on the wall opposite to wait for the fire brigade. “One fire was so bad,” she said, “I thought it was going to take our house down with it.”

She tapped ash into a flowerpot. “Of course, he’s in prison now for raping those women. He murdered one in the playground round the corner. The papers called him the E17 Night Stalker.”

This story was originally published in The Guardian Saturday magazine. To Continue reading, click here.