There doesn’t seem to be a number eleven in this row of Victorian town houses. Number nine’s a hotel; number thirteen, apartments, and between the two, a battered, solid door in distressed brown paint, no handle, letterbox or anything to suggest it might be the entrance to an active place of residence. There is an intercom button, though, tucked away on the left – a simple choice between flat and office. The information I’ve been given is Flat Four – which makes me think something must be wrong. I ring the number I’ve been given, but there’s no reply, so I go back to my car to check with the office.
It’s such a beautiful morning, I use the bonnet as an extemporary desk, and whilst I’m waiting for a reply, look out over the communal gardens in the centre of the square. It’s only then I notice an elderly man studying me just the other side of the hedge.
‘Are you looking for the museum?’
I hang up and move nearer.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Is that number nine?’
He frowns severely.
‘I’m from the hospital,’ I explain. When that doesn’t work, I add: ‘What museum?’
‘Oh, he’s been at it for years!’ he says, as dismissively as if he were describing a burrowing animal rather than the founder of a museum. Then he thrusts his hands into his pockets, puffs out his chest and tips back on his heels, as if he’d explained everything, and that was that.
‘Does anyone actually live there?’ I ask.
‘Right at the top!’ he says. ‘Old Bartleby. Give him my regards, if you see him.’
‘I will. Thanks.’
When I’m walking back to the front door I realise I didn’t ask the man’s name. When I turn to wave, he’s still standing there. I get the impression he’s as much a fixture as the statue in the middle of the square, so identifying him to Old Mr B shouldn’t be a problem.
I ring the buzzer marked ‘Flat’ and after a long wait, long enough to turn and wave twice to the man in the gardens, the lock activates and I push the door open.
You would think the place had been abandoned sometime around eighteen forty. Everything inside, all the woodwork and interior glazing, the lamplights on the walls, the fussy plasterwork high overhead – everything looks original and untouched. The only new feature would seem to be a tall, card model of the house standing just inside the lobby door, an arrow pointing at a slot in the roof, saying Donations.
Everything is dark, locked up. After calling ahead, I start climbing the bare-board stairs.
On the first landing is a dusty ottoman in Egyptian style, on the second, a tailor’s dummy dressed in a brocade dress and ostrich feather hat, and so on up and up through to the very top of the house, where there’s a heavy red rope barring access, and just beyond it, a door marked with the number four, and a plaque marked private.
I hook the rope aside, knock on the door, and go through.
The man in the square was right about Mr Bartleby. He is old – as old as the house, it would be easy to think – and yet, so thoroughly independent and self-contained he must surely qualify as a natural wonder, as worthy of a visit as any of the exhibits below him in the museum. It feels as if he’s keeping himself and the entire house upright by sheer force of will. You can see it in his eyes when he smiles, like looking into the windows of a furnace and seeing the clear, blue flames deep within, animating the machine.
‘Oh – this is just a hobby,’ he says, his voice as delicate as the china cup he sips from. ‘A folly, if you will. I was actually a psychiatrist for many years. I used to love leading the group sessions. They were so interesting.’
He replaces the cup on the saucer, without a sound.
‘They’re all dead now, of course,’ he says. ‘All except one. Now and again the phone will ring and I’ll hear her mournful voice on the other end…’
He reaches forwards, puts the cup and saucer on the table, then leans back again and folds his hands in his lap.
‘But it’s nice to be remembered,’ he says.