Within months of moving to Zurich, it became clear to Nick and Samantha that they had made a mistake. Nick had taken a senior management position in a Swiss bank, and it was supposed to have been the adventure of a lifetime; but it proved a struggle. Nick, a thin Yorkshireman with an inclination to worry, worked relentlessly and, as an outsider, found himself politely blamed for everything that went wrong. Samantha, a gregarious woman from the West Country, had no work permit and spent many hours alone. She took German lessons, although there was no need, and worked on her yoga. She had never been so bored. But they stuck with it, because they knew they would come home rich.
In their scarce time together, they worked out how they would spend their lavish Swiss earnings. They would return to Britain in triumph and buy a magnificent house. They trawled the property websites, and Samantha engaged the services of an upmarket agent to look for somewhere quite special. They gaped at country vicarages, and minor stately homes and gigantic barn conversions in the Cotswolds, and grew unexpectedly nostalgic for England. But they weren’t tempted to buy; these houses were not special enough.
Then they saw High Windows. It was a white modernist classic, an assembly of rectangles in stucco and glass, with a flat roof, a double-height living room with a sweeping staircase at one end, and slim concrete pilotis holding up the first storey, or purporting to. They were intrigued, and then besotted. The house, on a hill overlooking Cheltenham, had been designed by Arkady Kirsanov, an emigré Russian architect in the 1920s, as his own home. They studied the photographs they found online and dreamed.
Then the dream came true, but not in a good way. Something went wrong at work, Nick got the blame as usual, and this time the blame stuck. His career in Switzerland came to an abrupt end. He was paid off handsomely, and the couple brought forward their return home. The magnificent white box on the hill would, by the alchemical power of money, turn failure into a triumph.
Nick took to googling Kirsanov, a bald man with severe black-framed glasses. Not once was he seen smiling. In 1934, five years after completion of the house, his wife Maria, a beautiful former opera singer, disappeared. Kirsanov was questioned, then moved away. He died in the 1950s in obscure poverty. Maria was never found. “We’d better watch out when we’re digging the vegetable patch,” said Nick.
But there were no vegetables to dig. When they flew over one weekend to view the house, they found that the back was laid to gravel, with a few large stones. A zen garden. So beautiful. So practical. They had never been gardeners, and weren’t about to start.
While the sale proceeded, Samantha made plans for the house. Its pure white walls demanded a few pieces of modern art, bold and abstract. But there must be no clutter. The house would not tolerate it. They would have to adopt a new lifestyle. They would leave most of their junk behind, their souvenirs and their comfortable furniture.
The house was beautiful, without a doubt. Huge windows, a breathtaking view over the little town, low white sideboards and surfaces, flooring in pale wood. And from the moment they moved in, it began to work on them.
At first, it was a joke between them. They would take their shoes off and guiltily rush to put them in a cupboard. Nick would absent-mindedly drop his keys on the side table in the hallway when he got in from work, then find them gone. Samantha had whisked them away. She took away any paperwork he brought home as soon as he let it drop. If he risked a cup of coffee in front of the television, she would hover, waiting for him to finish, then hurry it to the dishwasher. They laughed about it, but it became a compulsion.
Nick did his best to reciprocate. But Samantha always hung her clothes in the wardrobe, and put her bag away in a cupboard when she came in. Sometimes he would catch her reading a book, but she always returned it to the solitary bookshelf. When a book was finished, it had to go. Books, with their uneven dimensions and randomly coloured spines, were not in the spirit of the white house.
On the rare occasions people visited, they felt uneasy, like they’d wandered into a photographic studio. And their things, too, would be swept away. Sometimes they wouldn’t come back. Nick would apologise for the lost scarves, gloves and hats and promise to send them on. But they never returned.
After one lost wallet too many, and a bunch of keys and a necklace, inadvertently left out on the dressing table, the pair looked for a culprit. Ida, their tireless Romanian cleaner – endlessly wiping and polishing all those surfaces – was sent packing and replaced. But still things disappeared and the house stayed the way it was when they had arrived: pure, pristine, perfect.
In time, Nick and Samantha began to look at each other strangely, as if they themselves were muddles. “Do you have to sit like that?” asked Samantha, on one occasion, when Nick, in his crumpled chinos and woolly jumper, had slumped a little on the chrome-framed leather sofa. And then there was the time when Nick found himself wondering whether a blonder, thinner wife might go better with the pale flooring.
Ten years on, an estate agent showed a new couple round. They were dazzled. “Yes,” said the agent. “It’s magnificent. And available at a very competitive price for such a unique property. Of course, it will need a bit of T.L.C. It’s been empty for a few years.”
“Why?” asked the wife, with rising excitement.
“Oh. It’s an odd story. The last couple who lived here disappeared. Just like that. Never seen again. Took a long legal process before it was ready to come back on the market. But never mind that. Look how perfect it is. Would you like to see the zen garden?”