Yvonne’s plans for a new kitchen go awry with the discovery of an historic ice cellar under the house. However, she knows money, power and greed will ensure she gets her own way…or will it? (Winner of the Margaret Oliver Award and runner-up in general section, 1997 Fellowship of Australian Writers Short Story Competition, Moocooboola Chapter)
“What do you mean, it can’t be done?” Yvonne almost yelled, but the cowed look on the little man’s face tempered her howl of rage by a couple of degrees. “We know we can get council permission to pull the back of the house off. We’ve already won that battle. It’s not the original timber, it was totally replaced in 1928 so therefore it isn’t heritage and therefore the old timber extension can come down and the new brick extension can go UP!’ Yvonne felt herself almost foaming at the mouth. Taking the advice that things couldn’t be done didn’t come naturally to her. Most things, in her book, COULD be done. You just had to find the right price.
The little man – his name was Johnson and he looked uncannily like Mr Sheen – patiently put two sets of drawings in front of her. He was used to women like Yvonne Masterley. His own wife made him feel guilty for simply drawing breath; Mrs Masterley’s targeted rage was a good mood in comparison.
“This is what you want to do, but you and your architect don’t realise the extension was built over the top of an ice cellar. An historic ice cellar,” Johnson said, not daring to meet Yvonne’s eyes. He stared at the drawings instead. “The plans of the existing dwelling which reside with Hunters Hill Council are not the original plans of the house dating to 1888, but the plans submitted in 1928 when the extension was re-timbered, the wine cellar put in under the dining room and the boat house enlarged. They don’t, and we don’t know why, show the ice cellar. It would have been on record if the cellar had been filled in. Your plans, as they stand, would necessitate filling in some if not all of the cellar. I have some plans from the archives here and you can see where the cellar -”
“So show me the bloody door to the bloody ice cellar, then,” snapped Yvonne. “I bet they filled it in in 1928; they must have had a fridge in this joke of a kitchen by then.”
They were standing in Yvonne’s despised kitchen, built in 1928, renovated in 1968 and currently decorated with yellow formica benches and lime green patterned wallpaper. Along with the leaking roof it was, she felt, the reason they were able to buy the waterfront mansion in one of Hunters Hill’s most prestigious streets for under $3M. The design she’d planned would take whatever advantage possible of their Lane Cove River views. No way, no way whatsoever was some mouldy bloody mice-infested ice cellar going to stop her!
Johnson hesitated. “Er.” His eyes swept the room wildly. “It must be under the lino. Mrs Masterley, Hunters Hill is full of historic houses. They’re one of the suburb’s main features. It’s important that rarities such as original ice cellars are maintained. There aren’t many of them around. Your new extension could be changed in shape and situated a few metres to the east of where it is now…”
“Then the boat house and the sheoak tree get in the way of the view,” snapped Yvonne. “We’ve planned this extension to take maximum advantage of the river views and enhance the value of the house.” She tapped her acrylic nails busily on one of the benches then ran her long white fingers through her streaked blonde bob. She could feel a headache coming on; or a gin. The former would probably lead to the latter.
“Mrs Masterley, in view of these original plans you’ll have to submit new plans to the Council,” Johnson said bravely. “I’m sure everyone can come to an amicable agreement which not only keeps the historic ice cellar but adds value to your house.” He gathered the plans together hastily as the murderous look on Mrs Masterley’s face was all too familiar. It was the one his wife wore when she was about to start throwing things. Johnson had a feeling Mr Masterley was another man who knew flying saucers really existed. “Good afternoon.”
Johnson galloped out of the house, past the shiny black Range Rover with the personalised YM plates, and locked himself in his Commodore. Just once, he’d brave going home with beer on his breath. He deserved it. Johnson took off for the Woolwich Pier.
“An ice cellar!” gasped Madeleine. “Cool!”
“Wonder if it’s got ghosts?” Zachary mused. “Just think, we could be haunted. You could wake up in the middle of the night and see this person at the end of your bed, Maddy, with no eyes and blood oozing out of its mouth and maggots in its nose and – ”
“Zachary!” shrieked Madeleine and hit him as hard as she could.
“Madeleine!” thundered Yvonne, whose headache had got worse after five gin and tonics.
“He started it!” Madeleine’s big navy blue eyes brimmed; she could cry on demand.
“Oh, go outside and play, both of you!’ snapped Yvonne. “We haven’t got ghosts. We haven’t got a cellar. End of story.”
But of course they had a cellar, Yvonne knew it deep down. When Eric arrived home from work in the black Range Rover with EM plates, he heard the story from Yvonne, sank a G&T in two gulps and then rang the architect, who promised to investigate.
As they were aware, the old wooden kitchen had been built pretty roughly and sat close to the ground, which explained the rising damp and which was why they were desperate to pull it down and build something better.
The next day Yvonne surveyed the wreck of her kitchen: 1960’s yellow vinyl floorcovering and wood strewn all over the place, grimy fingerprints on the cupboards, dust everywhere. The architect had spoken with the builder, who had sent along his foreman Bry, a tireless, muscly man in his late twenties with a body that did peculiar things to Yvonne’s hormones and who yanked up vinyl and board with a satisfied grunt (which also sent her hormones out of whack).
“Goddit!” Bry flicked his black, sweat-slicked forelock out of his eyes and grinned at Yvonne. “Here’s yer cellar, Missus Masterley! Look!” He proudly flung two sheets of board against the yellow formica doors and revealed a trapdoor set in the stone floor below, like something out of an old movie.
Triumphantly Bry grabbed the rusty iron ring and pulled the door open, making the hinges shriek and Yvonne flinch. She seriously expected a flood of cockroaches, a giant spider or a mutant tribe of angry mice to surge out of the hole, but all they were aware of was a musty, damp earth smell.
“Godda torch?” said Bry, rubbing his hands in anticipation. They could see a set of rough brick stairs heading into blackness.
Wordlessly Yvonne produced a torch and let Bry gallop down the stairs with schoolboy eagerness.
“Nothin’ down here,” came a disappointed voice from under the floor. Yvonne wondered if Bry, like Zachary, had expected a dead body at the very least. “Doesn’t look very safe. Earth walls held up with wooden beams, a few wooden beams across the ceiling and a couple of brick pillars in the middle, spiderwebs all over the shop. Bitta seepage. I’d be worried about it caving it if it was my house.”
Yvonne’s spirits picked up. No vintage stone walls! Wooden beams which were probably rotten! The cellar could, and probably should, be filled! She could feel a renovation coming on!
Yvonne wondered, as she hosted visits to the ice cellar by a range of people from the Council, the National Trust, and building inspectors, whether she and Eric had done the right thing by buying the old stone house. She could have bought a modern mansion two streets down with a slightly inferior view but no renovations needed, but she’d always fancied living in an old house: exposed stone walls adding character, fireplaces everywhere, marvellous solid wood in the stairs and doors, an attic for the children to play in… providing it was all modernised, that is.
The final consensus was that the cellar should be filled in as it wasn’t of stable construction and probably, sadly, unfortunately, of little historic value when all was said and done. In fact, its instability could affect the foundations of the main house itself, which everyone agreed, eyeing Yvonne and Eric balefully, should be preserved at its historic best at all costs.
Yvonne had been into the ice cellar several times now and, as Bry had said, the place was totally empty. Piles of earth on the floor on the eastern side showed where the walls were disintegrating. The brick column in the middle had a definite list to starboard. It wasn’t a big room. If you were the type of person who gets a kick out of swinging cats you’d be bashing the cat’s head against the walls most of the time.
Naturally Yvonne was hoping that the plans could now be approved and renovations could commence as the kitchen looked like it belonged in Beirut, but her ice cellar was achieving local fame. Word of its discovery had made page three of the local paper in a quiet news week, and Zachary and Madeleine had suddenly achieved immense popularity, with shrieking children dashing in and out of the kitchen each afternoon, begging to go into the cellar. The Masterleys had received several unsigned notes in their letterbox accusing them of destroying local history by filling in the cellar, and someone had egged Eric’s Range Rover the one night he’d left it in the street. Finally Yvonne blew her stack at the next council meeting, which earned her another paragraph in the Weekly Times and left councillors feeling like they’d been run over by a one woman tank battalion.
“I wish she’d go back to bloody Edgecliff,” cursed one councillor under his breath.
“I can’t take much more of the bitch,” agreed another.
“Let the bloody building go through then?” suggested a third.
“Anything to shut her up,” someone else whispered.
The Masterleys received plan approval shortly afterwards and earned a couple more eggs, this time thrown at the front door.
“It’s MINE, Zachary!”
“I found it!”
“But it’s mine! It’s a girl’s thing!”
Yvonne heard her children fighting secretly, hissing at each other like angry geese. Any minute there’d be a smacking sound and one of them would be in tears, cursing the other. She sighed and prepared to mediate.
“What are you fighting about?”
They were huddled over something in the bathroom sink, their hands muddy. When they looked up their equally grubby faces were extremely guilty. Zachary dropped whatever he was trying to wrest from Madeleine, and Madeleine’s hands whipped behind her back.
“MADeleine,” threatened Yvonne. “Show me your hands!”
Dutifully Madeleine held out her hands. They were empty. Yvonne turned her daughter around and delved in the back pocket of her overalls. Her fingers touched something wet and metallic and she drew out a broken gold chain.
“Where did you get this?” Yvonne demanded.
Madeleine silently studied the floor. Zachary, his face so red his freckles looked pale, muttered,
“The ice cellar. We dug it out of the wall.”
Madeleine glared at him, her mutinous tight-lipped face a smaller version of her mother’s.
“You KNOW you’re not supposed to go in there!” thundered Yvonne. “It’s not safe! What if it falls down on you?”
“It’s been there a million years,” grumbled Zachary. “The chances of it falling down when I’m in it are about the same as Elvis landing in a space ship on Loch Ness and killing the monster. Who WAS Elvis, anyway?”
“Don’t change the subject,” snapped Yvonne. “You’re both grounded for a week and you are NOT, repeat NOT, to go into the cellar again. It gets filled in next week anyway. Go to your rooms.”
Madeleine was brimming again, but Yvonne heard her say to Zachary as they trudged down the hall, “Why does she say grounded? We’re on the ground. We can’t fly.”
Yvonne adored jewellery and usually wore enough gold at any one time to buy a lifetime’s supply of food for an African family. Considering herself an expert on the subject, she inspected the chain and decided it was probably an antique by the workmanship and the clasp itself. A thought struck her.
“Madeleine! Zachary! You’re not to tell anyone about this chain, understand! It’s a family secret! Not your schoolfriends, not anyone! Or you’ll be grounded for years!”
If the word got out that the cellar contained buried treasure, there’d be no end to it. She’d never get the renovations done!
Yvonne assessed the demolition work from an upstairs window. Surveyors’ pegs and string showed how big the new kitchen would be, almost twice the size of the old one. Her kitchen had been ripped down by Bry and the boys yesterday and she’d enjoyed the view as they worked. They had cleaned up admirably after themselves and a skip sat filled with all that dreadful yellow formica. They had also lifted up a lot of the sandstone pieces and a pile of stone waited to be made into a garden wall. The trapdoor felt the first rays of sunshine in a hundred years.
The gold chain had been at the back of her mind constantly. What if there WAS more jewellery there? If someone had used the cellar as a kind of safe? She’d been toying with the thought of carrying out a little search ever since the kids had found the chain, but had initially dismissed the idea as fanciful and childish.
She reconsidered. The kids had left for school and the workmen would be here shortly. It was her final chance to…just SEE. She’d always wonder if there was something really valuable in the cellar and they’d simply concreted it in. Yvonne, in the first impulsive thing she’d done since she borrowed her father’s Porsche when she was twelve, galloped down the stairs and out through the garage, picking up her weeding trowel en route.
Hesitantly she picked her way to the trapdoor. The workmen had been tramping in their size ten boots all over the place yesterday so obviously it wasn’t going to fall in right away. Yvonne opened it up and moved carefully down the stairs.
Much more earth had fallen from the walls and the ceiling at one end was a lot lower than she remembered. She shone the torch where Zachary had described finding the chain, and swallowed as she realised it was where the walls were the most precarious.
“Five minutes,” Yvonne whispered to herself with a gulp. “Just five minutes. Just so I KNOW.” She picked gently at the wall with her trowel, and then more quickly with excitement when she heard a metallic scraping noise. Heavens, she felt like a child again!
Yvonne brushed the soil away with her gardening gloves and saw a glint in the torchlight. Carefully she eased the small object out of the wall and rubbed the earth from its surface. It was a gold locket – which must belong to the broken chain. Yvonne grinned with satisfaction. Was that all that was buried in the wall?
She dug the trowel in more vigorously and felt another scrape. Her heart beat a little quicker. Prodding with the trowel, it seemed that this object was quite a bit larger. Family silver, maybe? Eagerly Yvonne dug around it, not caring that mud was cascading onto her suede Italian loafers and slowly burying her feet.
The trapdoor, which didn’t open to lie flat against the floor, creaked in the wind and made Yvonne shriek. Her heart absolutely pounded and she realised when she tasted dirt that she’d instinctively put a hand up to her mouth.
“Idiot woman!” she scolded herself. She put her hands both sides of the mystery object and began to tug. It didn’t want to come out at first and then things happened with the awful clarity that defines some instants for eternity and is usually portrayed in slow motion by Hollywood.
The object left the wall with a pop that made Yvonne lose her footing and slip on the damp earthy floor. She’d been tugging hard. She reeled backwards uncontrollably and saw, before she hit the listing brick pillar with a concussing thump that shook the whole cellar, that she was holding a nothing more valuable than a rusty bucket.
In the microsecond before she lost consciousness, she thought: is that it? I’ve wrecked my five hundred dollar shoes for a bloody bucke –
“Would yer look at that, the whole bloody thing’s caved in since last night!” Bry, arriving with his team of muscly men to move the last stones and begin to fill the cellar, scratched his head. “Saves us a bitta work, boys. We’ll have to compact it down but I reckon the bobcat c’n handle it. Looks like we’ll finish early today and give Missus M a bit of peace and quiet.”
He knocked at the nearest window. “Missus Masterley?” He knocked again, but the house was silent.
Bry shrugged. He wouldn’t be surprised if she’d gone out for the day. Bobcats could be noisy little buggers.
“Okay, mate, bring the Cat round and let’s get the cellar filled in!”
Bry looked over the peaceful view of the Lane Cove River while he waited for the Cat. Boats jingled and bobbed. He wouldn’t mind a bit of this: big stone house, boathouse, jetty, posh garden, swimming pool, some rich attractive woman like Missus M footing the bills. The only thing he’d change would be to get rid of that bloody sheoak tree waving away near the neighbours on the left. He never liked the sound those things made in the wind. Gave him the creeps, it did. He’d swear it sounded like someone moaning in pain.
© Copyright 1997 Caroline Sully
Reproduction without the author’s permission strictly prohibited