Finding the Story

This is my first post of the new year on the Wicked Cozies. How did it get to be 2017? Last year was a roller coaster ride. Let’s hope this year is a bit calmer (but I’m not counting on it).

When I bought my cottage in Ireland last summer, the estate agent (that is, real estate agent) told me the place hadn’t been lived in for (he guessed) ten years. It was not derelict, so someone had been taking care of it, but I’m not sure when it was offered for sale. Of course I was curious about why anyone would walk away from a perfectly fine little cottage, but there were a lot of other things I needed to deal with, like opening a local bank account and getting home insurance and scouting out where to get appliances and furniture.

The first “clue” I found was that one of the two chimneys (the one that had never been used) was stuffed with a newspaper to stop warm air from heading straight up the flue. The paper was dated 2006, so it kind of fit the timeline.

Just as I was leaving in June, I took a brief peek in the attic, just to see what it looked like, and to check out the water heater for the heating. I didn’t have a ladder, so my handyman loaned me one. It was a wee bit too short, but it was enough to see that there was a large suitcase sitting on the attic joists. My spidey, er, mystery sense went into overdrive, but I carefully closed the attic hatch and promised myself that I’d come back to it later (after my handyman had cleared out the mice—but I told him not to throw the suitcase away).

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Fast forward to November. The mice were gone from attic. The ladder was still too short, but handyman handed down a smaller box of what looked like toys belonging to a young girl, plus a few items from the now-open suitcase. He also muttered something about “Nigeria” which made no sense at the time. Still no time or opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together.

I had only one name to work with, that of the woman who signed the sale documents. I had the estate agent’s vague idea that maybe she’d had family in the area. And I had a couple of butterfly decals on the window in the back bedroom.

butterflies

As a mystery writer, what do you do with these bits and pieces? You weave a story, of course. So I did. Oh, all right, I used my genealogy skills to search on the only name I had to try to find out who the family was, where they’d been. But that was enough.

The husband was born in 1929. He was a banker/accountant. His wife was born in 1930, and appears to have been a nurse in England, although there’s a chance she was born in Skibbereen in West Cork. They had one daughter, in 1956. They lived for a time in Ghana, but they and their suitcase had to travel by way of Nigeria for a home visit in 1960, which explains the label. I didn’t find any other ship’s passage listed for them in online sources, but after 1960 they were probably traveling by air, and passenger lists aren’t available. He passed on in 2005, but his wife is still living in England.

I’m not sure about the identity of their daughter, but there are several possibilities. One charming item in the suitcase appears to be a typed list of items that appear to be required for a boarding school or summer camp, which fits with the girl’s age—they might have sent her back to England for schooling.

The rest of the suitcase? From what I’ve seen it seems to be filled with the kind of books that summer visitors would read, plus a guidebook or two for Ireland. Definitely 1960s or 1970s vintage. They’re still waiting in the attic. The box of children’s toys? I still haven’t dug into it, but there’s a Hello Kitty (created in 1974, says Wikipedia) on top. Again, it fits.

I may never know why the family stopped using the place, or why they put so much time and money into modernizing it with electricity and indoor plumbing (although I’m grateful!) without getting to enjoy it. The wife is well into her eighties—and maybe she held on to it because she had happy memories of the place, or it was too much to deal with after her husband died. Or maybe the daughter is a practical sort and realized the investment was worth it.

But finding the story, based on a few scattered clues, has made the place seem more “human” to me. That’s why we write mysteries—to discover the story.

Readers: Have you ever discovered bits from the past you just had to make up a story about? Or research the real story of?

 

17 thoughts on “Finding the Story

    • One artifact I didn’t include in the story: in the front bedroom (the one without the butterflies) there were two long pearl-headed pins stuck into the top of the door frame. They look like corsage pins (too small to be hatpins). Can you imagine saving them in that way? And what sentimental value might they have had? Of course I left them where they were.

      And then there’s the rosemary bush that they planted a long time ago (which survives Irish winters well, it seems). I used a few cuttings to cook a pheasant while I was there. One more connection to the past owners.

  1. How delicious! There is a story there for sure. I would probably try to find the mother or the daughter, whether or not I actually made contact–but then I was born to be an investigative journalist or historical researcher. Or, I am just super nosy. Keep us posted!

    • After I closed on the place, I did send one letter to the seller (the mother), asking if she could tell me anything about the history of the building, but she never answered. Of course, I didn’t know she was in her 80s at the time. As for the daughter, there are some interesting possibilities, but so far I haven’t proven anything. I may have a picture of her at her first communion, though–a couple were left in the suitcase and my handman retrieved them. Or it could be someone completely unrelated. More research!

      • That was me commenting about being nosy, Sheila. I was signed in under another account 🙂 If you needed anymore confirmation that you and I are distant relations, here you go! And please do keep us posted. I am desperately intrigued by this story.

    • Next step: talking with the neighbors. The problem is, the ones beside and behind have each lived in their houses no more than a year. I will have to go farther afield to find someone with a longer memory (but that shouldn’t be hard!). Then there’s the guy in the village who runs the general store and the post office (in the same space) and is the designated go-to guy, but he’s too young to have known the former residents. But he’ll probably know who knew them, and some of the surnames in the neighborhood have been there a long time.

  2. That is a GREAT story! Mine isn’t nearly that amazing, but we’d found a photo of two little boys in the wall of a reno we were doing in our house. With the bit of research I’d done, the twins were part of the family of the first owners of our house. I was interested to see if anymore twins had also lived in the house up until we purchased it because I have twin boys. The other families that lived in our house had all girls. It was neat and fun to research.

  3. When I was a kid, we moved at least once a year with my dad’s job. The house we rented in southern Ohio had some intriguing items in the attic including a sawed off shotgun. You can imagine the stories we concocted especially after discovering from neighbors that the gun had in fact been used in more than one feud. My parents insisted that the owners that possession of that gun and we were told in no uncertain terms that the items in the attic were off limits! We mostly honored that edict.

    • Yikes! The most we ever came up with in our current house was a hand-cranked multi-carbon receipt machine (pre-electric), and one very odd stereopticon slide (no, not obscene–it was of a woman standing over a man she seemed to be forcing to wash the laundry).

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