High Windows

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 1930s, 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. “It’s not too bad,” he told Samantha, a frown etched into his forehead. “We haven’t enjoyed it here much, have we?” She agreed that they had not. It was a relief, in a way. She had been so alone in Geneva, in all those long hours while Nick was at the bank, and there is only so much yoga a person can do. 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. 

Kirsanov was born at the end of the 19th century, somewhere in the Russian empire, part of a noble family. He was from childhood a brilliant artist, who soon allied himself with the most avant-garde trends in painting and sculpture: cubism, futurism and constructivism. Then, when the Revolution came, and he should have been denounced and imprisoned, he somehow managed to get himself mistaken for a proletarian and was able to carry on studying and working. Only now his schemes were for elaborate monuments to the new Soviet man, or for startling new architecture; all the young people of Russia were crazy for glass and steel and skyscrapers on their sides or whole cities that seemed to float in the air. 

Kirsanov pursued his own ideas, but he also did what he was asked. It was just a case of finding a client. He was on good terms with the Soviet leaders, at least at the start, and they let him flit back and forth to Paris to spread the gospel of the communist revolution through the medium of paper, paint, ink and balsa wood; few things were actually built.

It all went very well for several years. His plans for community halls and funfairs were well received. So were those for barracks for the political police and prisons for dissidents: everything was designed with Kirsanov’s characteristic concern with lightness, elegance and efficiency. Sometimes there was even a kind of wit: one of his prisons was in the shape of the hammer and sickle. There were always prisons to be built. Kirsanov did not always ask what all the rooms in the prisons were for. He just wanted them to be beautiful. Mainly, he wanted to build.  

His masterpiece was to be an apartment block for workers in Moscow. It had 1,000 homes for single families, none of which included a kitchen. Instead, there would be communal eating, washing-up and laundry. There would be a cinema, a concert hall, a dance hall and meeting rooms. In this way the women of the motherland would be liberated and a new era of revolutionary excitement would blossom. 

It was probably that plan which sealed Kirsanov’s fate. The climate had changed, and revolutionary excitement was no longer in favour in the Kremlin. Before too long, he was denounced as a far-left deviationist, a feminist, a Trotskyite even. He had made powerful enemies and had to flee. He grabbed his beautiful wife, Maria, a singer in revolutionary opera, and they set off for Paris and then for Britain. 

Almost his first project in his new country was High Windows. In 1937, five years after its completion, Maria disappeared. Kirsanov was questioned, then disappeared too. Neither was ever seen again. “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 their junk behind, their souvenirs of Switzerland 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?”

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