Once upon a time, in a city which had been a town until only very recently, there was a house.
You might not think this particularly strange in itself, but it was a very particular house, built in-between two other houses which had not been built with the intention of another house being built in-between them. You see, the space that this house occupied was scarcely wider than your average alley, and certainly a lot more narrow than your average house. It was as if a normal house had been shrunk, but only in the width-wise way, with its front all shut up like a crumpled newspaper. Its windows were as thin as arrow slots in a castle tower, and even the bricks seemed to be pressed in from both ends and pale from the strain.
It will come as no surprise that this singular residence quickly became known as 'Thin House'.
This also happened to be the name of the couple who had moved in. Mr and Mrs Thin were as appropriately named as a name could be, for the pair were as narrow and dainty as two strokes of ink, and the house in which they lived might well have been designed for them- which, in fact, it was, as the two had been responsible for commissioning it, despite the unusual circumstances. They were fine, upstanding people, and exceedingly beautiful, but as time passed the house appeared to have some ill effect upon them. They came out into the world less, smiled less, and while they grew no less beautiful some would say they were becoming a little 'too' upstanding, and perhaps a little too 'fine' on top of it. Manners were no longer simply a matter of courtesy, with Mr and Mrs Thin, but a rule of existence. They spoke in polite but brittle tones, which seemed all too ready to snap at any given moment, and for all they moved with grace there was a certain rigidity to it. It goes without saying, of course, that the two were also growing decidedly narrow-minded.
For this (and several other reasons, not unrelated), the world outside of Thin House began to avoid Mr and Mrs Thin, and they themselves began to be happy for the broad and muddy world to stay as far away from them as it possibly could- which was, of course, not a happy thing at all. They seldom left Thin House. When either of them did it was more as if a nimble shadow had fallen through a gap in a winding fence, as the one or other darted across to whatever shop it had become necessary to voyage to for this or that, politely paying what dues they absolutely had to, before slipping fleetly and discretely out of sight once more and into the safety of the-house-between-two-houses.
Such was the life of Thin House and its occupants for a little more than a year, but, as in most stories, something happened to disturb this pattern. This particular something was called Gertrude.
It was Mr Thin who first encountered Gertrude, on one of the rare occasions that he looked out of the vertical letter-box window of his study, whereupon his eyes aligned with hers quite by chance. Gertrude beamed up at him, and waved. Mr Thin shut the blinds and tried to pretend it had never happened.
The second incident of Gertrude, which occurred the following day, was more unavoidable.
She rang the doorbell.
Now, reclusive as Mr and Mrs Thin were, it has already been established that they were perfect slaves to etiquette, and to leave a bell unanswered was to commit a most heinous crime indeed. So it was that Mrs Thin, with a distinct sense of foreboding and more than a little reluctance, opened the door with a thin-lipped smile, and recited; “Hello?” In a way that made it sound remarkably like 'go away'.
“Hello!” Replied a hello which was every inch a 'HELLO'.
The word was projected from something which, in the presence of such needle-like settings, seemed on the verge of offensive. Gertrude's wide-cheeked grin all but eclipsed the view beyond the doorway, to the point that it almost felt as if the doorway had become slightly wider just to accommodate it. Her hair was a mass of velvet-brown and dusky grey; a mountain of tight-wound curls, unconstrained in any manner save for a spattering of ribbons, which festooned the back-most locks in every colour of the rainbow. From the back, she looked rather like a cloud of butterflies feasting on a wildly over-grown buddleia. The whole spectacle seemed to fill the path, garden, and even the road beyond, yet the woman only came to the height of Mrs Thin's scarce midriff, and for all she exuded the energy output of a several power plants she must have been well over eighty.
The visitor bobbed her head twice in greeting, the butterfly ribbons flapping in unison.
“Yes, hello, my dear. I am Miss Appleby, but I do so hate formalities; you may call me Gertrude.”
Mrs Thin blanched- by the way the woman spoke, smiled and dressed she might have been all but six years old. To her narrow mind the whole thing was outrageously inappropriate.
“Are you Mrs Thin?” Gertrude asked, cheerfully- she seemed somewhat amused at the idea.
“Yes.” Mrs Thin did not seem amused in the slightest.
“I see! I see... So, is this your house?”
“Yes.” Said Mrs Thin. “It is my house.”
“I see! I see...” Gertrude repeated, nodding for emphasis. Certainly, she did see; her wondering, wandering eyes couldn't possibly have been opened any wider, and for all the slight Mrs Thin was doing her utmost to block the visitor's view, the impetuous lady was doing a fine job of seeing around her- not that there was much of Mrs Thin to get in the way.
“How very nice- it's just that... good gracious, is that a hat stand? How very charming! I haven't seen one of those in y-”
“FAR BE IT from me to be impolite...” The words came out of Mrs Thin with a surprising amount of emphasis for someone with so little girth, but it was enough to quell Gertrude's bobbing, if only for an instant. “-but I am somewhat busy, so, if there is nothing I can help you with...”
She regretted the words the moment they had left her mouth.
“OH! Well, actually, now that you mention it, I was hoping that I could borrow your attic.”
The request took two blinks and an incredulous pause to process.
“Your attic, yes. It's very important. 'Won't take more than five minutes-”
Apparently standing frozen in disbelief was 'Gertrude' for “do come in”, for she was already over the threshold and bustling her way up the stairs, a few of the less firmly fixed ribbons floating down behind her like confetti from a parade. It certainly felt a little as if a brass band and several carnival floats had pushed their way into Thin House, for the narrow stairs and twig-like banisters had never dealt with the likes of Gertrude, and they protested in keening tones as she worked her way upwards.
Such was the racket that Mr Thin unearthed himself from the study (which was little more than an elongated closet, filled to the ceiling with filing cabinets). Opening the door he leaned his narrow frame out of the doorway, only to retreat the next moment like a moral eel into a coral reef. The bustle of curls and colours and smiling rolled past beneath his astonished eyes, which swept up to his wife's own in a silent plea for explanation. She shook her head, for there was absolutely none to be found.
Mr Thin decided to join the procession, catching up to the band leader with two spritely movements of his stilt-like legs and aggressively pointed shoes.
“Hello?” Said Mr Thin, in a way that made it sound remarkably like 'what on earth are you'.
“Hello!” Said Gertrude, in precisely the same way as before, romping up the next flight of steps with gusto. One of the fly-away ribbons had become stuck to the bottom of Mrs Thin's right stiletto, which she was trying to remove every other step- without success.
Her husband endeavoured to try again, in nervous (but slightly indignant) notes; “I... I can't help but wonder, my dear lady, but- what are you doing in our house?”
“Oh!” Gertrude paused, hanging off a corner bannister like an unwieldy flag in low wind conditions. “I'm going upstairs, my dear; to the attic! Are you coming too?”
“Ah, well, yes? But- no! No, no...” Mr Thin's delicate hand checked Gertrude's attempt to continue her ascent, retrieving her down from the steps of the attic and onto the landing. He decided that this grave business required straightening out once and for all, and stooped slightly so as to be more able to communicate the true nature of the situation to this stout, unstoppable force.
“My good woman, I'm afraid you must be confused: you cannot just go into another person's house with the intent of 'going upstairs'. It... it simply isn't done!”
“Oh?” Gertrude thought upon this for a moment, her puzzled frown managed to stretch her broad features just a little more horizontally, though it cleared in a trice. “I haven't found it very complicated myself, dear. Why, it's been very easy to do so far!” She chuckled, merrily.
Mr Thin's eyes narrowed a half-millimetre more than their default setting.
“What I mean is that it isn't common practice.”
“I am most certainly not common!” A note of indignation passed through Gertrude's voice. “In fact, I've been told on a great many occasions that I am quite unique!”
“That I can believe.” Mrs Thin contributed, wryly. The visitor beamed twice as brightly as before.
“Oh, I am pleased! There, you see? Your wife has a proper grasp of the situation.” Gertrude chided Mr Thin lightly, as Mrs Thin made a silent gesture of exasperation to the ceiling- which wanted as little to do with the situation as she did.
“-And besides, young man, I only want to borrow your attic for a moment.”
“Our attic, yes.” His wife completed for him in a sigh. Gertrude nodded, and, as the whole thing finally seemed to be clear to everyone, escaped past the owners of Thin House and up the final flight of steps.
Feeling that, at this point, little else could be done but to follow in the wake of this indefatigable guest, Mr and Mrs Thin patiently waited for her to wrest the attic door open, which it did with a tortured screech, and the three of them entered.
The attic was not a room often used- mostly probably because, out of all of the improbably proportioned rooms in Thin House, it was the shortest; with a diagonal ceiling, slanting inwards from the street at an alarmingly aggressive angle. Gertrude's stout form pottered happily along between the pipes and dust-ridden boxes, but the Thins had to crouch, their normally gracious silhouettes suddenly bent-up and angular. They looked a little like spiders.
“Miss Appleby-” Mrs Thin ventured.
“Is that her name?” Mr Thin asked.
“Apparently- I say, Miss...”
“It's Gertrude, but yes, dear?” Gertrude's correction was slightly disguised by a thwack and a whump, as the industrious woman was giving a rusted old window what-for with the heel of her palm. It was set into the slanting roof under a small eave. Two more blows, and the top-most pane shuddered, then slid open, hitting the bottom-most lintel with an alarming CRACK.
The glass did not break. Mr Thin uncovered his eyes to observe this with a sigh, before putting on the most authoritative voice that he could muster. It was a little shaky.
“Gertrude, please, I absolutely must insist that you tell us what on earth you are doing.”
Gertrude, however, did not reply, as she appeared to be more concerned on focusing her efforts on wedging her considerable frame inside that of the window without toppling forwards out of it. This was in order, apparently, to wait for whatever was causing the steady 'thwup-thwup-thwup' sound to the left of whatever was outside. It sounded a little like a heavy propeller blade, and indeed it seemed that it had been caused by someone twirling a length of... something, as a short 'WHIZZ' and then 'KLAFF' followed, the adventurous lady giving a bark of success at having caught the object. She retreated for a moment, waving the end of a length of sturdy rope and a three-pronged grappling hook at the bewildered duo.
“What I am doing, Mr Thin-” she began, as if nothing had happened in the interim of his asking and this peculiar development. “Is expanding your horizons! Now, what's a solid sort of thing in this hidey-hole? Ah-!”
She brushed past the blinking Mrs Thin, who was beginning to wonder if this entire scenario was not some sort of frantic dream, but the cloud of dust that was raised in the wake of the intrepid OAP seemed a little too realistic, and certainly the coughing fit she and her husband relapsed into felt very real indeed.
Having anchored the hook deep in some 'solid sort of thing' in the wall of the attic, Gertrude forged her way back to the window, whereupon another 'thwup','WHIZZ' and 'KLAFF' occurred, and she triumphantly waggled the second hook out of the window to whomever was responsible. The two ropes appeared to have come from the left and right sides of Thin House, and were now solidly attached to their respective, interior walls.
“For, you see, well- we all thought it was rather unfair, you know...” Gertrude took a moment to wheeze some of the exhaustion and dust out of her chest, flapping a cobweb out of her hair and only half succeeding; “That you two should be so cooped up in this narrow place, when we have so much space on either side.”
“On either side?” The two chorused.
“You mean-” Mr Thin said.
“The houses-” Mrs Thin added.
“On either side of this one, yes. We managed to do the other levels quite well without having to trouble you, with the pipes and the windows being all in full view but, well- the attic was too out of reach, and I suppose this way you have been given due notice! Fair is fair, after all.” Gertrude concluded, pulling out a small, silver whistle.
Fair might have been fair, but whatever Gertrude's opinion of 'due notice' was must have been rather strange, as there was no warning of what was to happen next. The already broad little lady inhaled such a great gulp of air it was a wonder there was any left for Mr and Mrs Thin to breathe, before blowing into the whistle with enough might to blast the roof off.
The shrill sound shot straight right through them, the walls, and quite probably the atmosphere, leaving a ringing sound in the ears for some time afterwards. At least, that was what Mrs Thin had supposed what was happening, for surely that odd metallic creaking wasn't a real sound, or that grinding, that hissing, that clink and that thump. It quickly became apparent, however, that all of these were, indeed, very real sounds, with very real results, which Mr and Mrs Thin could only stand and gape at, as the narrow attic gradually and dustily became... less narrow.
Outside, a great array of splendid, improbable and very-unapproved-by-the-council machinery had been haphazardly laced, placed and built in and around the neighbouring houses. The house to the left groaned, the house to the right complained, and the house in the middle had quite a bit to say about the matter as well. Gears clanked and the ropes twanged and several other things got a bit bent, but, inch by inch, the walls of Thin House were moving. Like an enormous brick squeeze box but un-squeezed, the house-between-houses was being coaxed outwards, and as the centre-most house grew just a little wider the two either side became just a little thinner.
The crowd that had amassed watched with awe, as the enthusiastic neighbours plied the final push to the wheels; an almighty grinding sound and a hiss rose to the occasion, and Thin House was no more. Now there was Right house, Left house, and Middle house; all exactly the same width, and looking none the worse for it.
An enormous cheer greeted the bewildered Mr and Mrs Thin, who had scurried down the considerably-wider-than-usual staircase to see the damage from the outside... Of which, of course, there was none, because this was precisely what size the house had needed to be from the start. Like a set of lungs that had been squashed into a corset, the house did not look as if it had been stretched, but as if it had been released, and taken a deep and much needed breath. The paintwork had become a little brighter, and the bricks were a warmer shade of red. The wincing, arrow-slot windows were now open eyes, and even the pathway seemed more welcoming- the orderly flagstones having cracked into a charming array of crazy paving. Even in the garden it was as if someone had removed an enormous pressure from either side, to the extent that neither Mr or Mrs Thin could contained a great sigh of- was it relief? Happiness? Well, certainly something of the sort, for a rare thing happened twice in the same moment, as both Mr Thin and Mrs Thin smiled.
“Well-” Said Mr Thin, waving at and shaking hands with whoever and whatever was within reach, “I never thought-”
“That we would be so glad-” Mrs Thin continued, in amongst a fray of greatly pleased and axel-greased children, “To have our house pulled apart!”
“Well... It was about time we were more accommodating.” The bustling flock of butterflies and curls had reappeared, seeming positively enormous out in the bright sunlight. The restrictions of Thin House had contrasted Gertrude's abundant presence, but in full force she was quite another spectacle. It became swiftly apparent that she was the owner of Right House, as a large number of the oil-smeared children (presumably grand and, possibly, great-grandchildren) clambered onto her from over the fence without a moment's notice.
“I was always saying it hardly looked as if there were room enough to breathe in that house of yours- and I daresay I was right!”
“We had more than our fair share of space-” A grizzled old gentleman with a raspy voice and a sailor's cap chuckled; the owner of Left House, it seemed. “And we were seeing so little of you, we wondered if the house was the cause! It wouldn't have done to leave you to disappear altogether now, no sir.”
“Well... I don't know what to say, or think!” Confessed Mr Thin, who had been quite winded from the whole affair even before the man from Left House had clapped him on the back.
“It's most generous of you, even if it was a little alarming.” Nodded Mrs Thin, looking at her new house with just the beginnings of a sense of pride.
“Well, what good are neighbours if they aren't good neighbours?” Gertrude made the statement with a her hands on her hips, looking every inch the hero she was; the child hanging from her shoulders made an unusual cape, but it was fitting. Mrs Thin shook her by the hand in the sincerest way she could whilst trying not to laugh- a thing she had not felt like doing for a very many months.
“You are absolutely right, dear Gertrude- and now that you say it I can only see how very poor neighbours we have been. Why, we've avoided you all so much, we didn't even know what we were missing! And been such sticklers for manners, I'm afraid we were quite rude-”
A little blush of apology landed on the elegant woman's cheeks, but Gertrude's reassuring shake of the head was not to be accepted as forgiveness so easily, as Mrs Thin then bravely made an offer that she had never made, and certainly had never felt compelled to make before; “Will you come over to visit? For tea, perhaps?”
“Oh, do say you will!” Mr Thin took up shaking the hand of the man from Left House. Both husband and wife looked so lively and elastic- and so much more beautiful than they had ever been when they had been so still and stilted. It was entirely infectious.
“Of course we will!” Said the man with the raspy voice, and the children, and Gertrude. Even several of the onlookers joined in- who thought the whole thing a wonderful adventure. Which, of course, it was- and so the very first birthday of the Left, Right, and Middle Houses, was celebrated, with all invited and no exceptions made. The party was held in grand style, on a long stretch of tables brought out into the street, all of different shapes and styles and covered in everything from turkey sandwiches to cake, running the length of all three houses. In fact it was such a splendid, chaotic affair that the party was repeated and held at the same time every year, although eventually the reason for it was forgotten- but, as Gertrude was always happy to point out, reason often has very little to do with fun, so nobody minded.
Years have passed, but even to this day out of all the long road where the houses are set apart, the one section that is known and loved by all is that of the Three Houses. For there, instead of two that are apart, there are three all together; and if anyone is ever to ask why, they will tell you that it is because that is where the neighbours who are the closest to each other live.