1. The House in the Country

April 2006

The setting is an abandoned house. Pretty clichéd, I know, but there it is. If I had been able to choose where this story took place, I would not have chosen this place. A cruise ship maybe, or a classy hotel—they would have been a bit more glamorous, a bit more colourful. To be honest, the story would have been a lot more pleasant, too, had there been more people around. But… I guess this story could perhaps not have happened anywhere else.

I'm rambling, I know, but allow an old man a little foolishness—I haven't much time left, and this story; well, it might be better left untold. Better for me, that is certain. Better for you? Who can say?

Okay, okay, I'll tell you. Where was I? That's right, an abandoned house. Let me describe it to you. It looks like any house would, having been vacant for 50 years or so. Its location hasn't helped either—some distance from the road, it's one of those big old houses that were so fashionable at one time, surrounded by big, shadowy, drooping willows and oaks, gardens straddling that line between unkempt and completely wild. Nature didn't need much of an invitation to move back in.

The windows had mostly been broken anyway, and illegible names and slogan spray-painted here and there bore witness to the kids that had made the home a hangout. It wasn't such an old house in those days; lived-in, yes, but looking much like any other home of the era, bar the vandalism.

Anyway, years went by, nature grew back in, and the shadows and rotting timbers gradually led those few visitors to find other, less foreboding hangouts. The brush grew across the few paths, gates rusted closed, and the house all but disappeared back into the bush.

That was roughly how I found it, many years ago. I'd decided that the draft wasn't for me; I didn't have any real desire to fight someone else's war far across the sea. Unfortunately, people like me didn't have an easy time—a willingness to kill strangers was a kind of virtue in those days, and those who shied away from violence tended to receive a pretty chilly reception, especially among those who'd sent their own loved away to kill. It was weird, that inversion of values; for once, the killer finds himself a hero, and the peace-loving man finds himself an outcast, the object of sideways glances and muttering.

So it was that I decided I needed to find somewhere the war hadn't made it—somewhere deserted, out of the way—somewhere I wouldn't feel like some kind of failure. It was an evening late in summer when I delivered my last load of groceries on my way home from work, strapped a few essentials on my back, and rode my bicycle out of town.

The first night was rather bleak. I rode as far as I could, but after a time it was too dark to continue riding. I leant my bicycle against a fence, pulled my blanket out of my rucksack, and reflected on how much wiser a course setting out in the morning would have been. Both my physical and mental burdens thus lifted, I wrapped my blanket around myself, lay down in a ditch, and spent the night cursing the the small stones that kept finding their way under my shoulder blades as I tried to sleep.

I woke early the next morning, well before the sun was visible, and I was pedalling on down the road, muscles groaning as they worked the night's kinks out, as the sun poked a yellow edge over the horizon.

I wasn't sure how far I was going; I had no real plan. I passed through a small village mid-morning, and the war posters everywhere told me I'd be travelling a bit further yet. So I rode on. By mid-afternoon I was seeing only the occasional farmhouse in the distance, and little else evidence of civilisation beyond crops growing in neat rows in roadside fields. I started to think I might be far enough away, and my legs were starting to agree with me. It was as the light was beginning to dim that I saw a rusted gate just off the road, half collapsed, and almost invisible, it was so grown over with brush.

I hopped off my bicycle; looked around for any signs of life of inhabitation. Not seeing anything readily apparent, I laid my bicycle down on the grass verge and examined the gate a little more closely. One half of the gate was still upright, standing to my height right where it had been pushed closed long ago.

The other half of the gate had been left ajar, and eventually its own weight must have been too much for it, for the top hinge had rotted clean out of the post, and the lower hinge had twisted on its screws, leaving the gate at a crazy angle both to the ground and to its other half. Beyond, there was not much sign remaining of the driveway the gate had once marked—although I thought I could possibly see a way blocked by fewer trees than the surrounds.

The only sign of what the place had once been was a small square plaque affixed in the center of the upright gate. I scratched away enough moss and flaky rust to read “Brookside Manor,” but that didn't tell me much, beyond confirming that there had once been a house of sorts somewhere back there.

That was confirmation enough for me; I picked up my bicycle, squeezed it and myself between the gates, and picked my way on foot through the low brush between the trees.

I had travelled perhaps five minutes (I was beginning to doubt the existence of any house) when I came through a last gap in the trees, to the house.

It would have been an artists dream, that moment. The last of the sun, shining its yellowing rays through gaps in the trees, casting dappled, leafy shadow on the ruined mossy walls, the remains of the brick chimney standing just tall enough to stand clear of the trees and catch the last of the light directly, like a flaming pillar in the dimness. Unfortunately, I am not an artist, so my words will have to suffice for what was a glorious, breathtaking image of light and shadow.

I must have stood and stared for some time, drinking in the scene, for I was still standing there when I felt the last of the sun's warmth disappear, and a sudden gloom took hold of the building. I decided to find a place to sleep, so picked my way across a verandah full of borer and their holes, stepped through the space where the front door once stood, and found myself in a foyer every bit as gloomy as the outside had become.

I could see the shape of a staircase climbing through the darkness, and a couple of lighter patches indicated doorways out of the foyer. Climbing a ruined staircase in the dark would be, I felt, a very bad idea. The best idea would probably be to leave exploring upstairs for the morning, and I decided, exploring downstairs only enough to find somewhere to sleep.

Indeed, the first door I went through showed me a reasonably whole, empty room. No holes in the floor, no glass on the floor under the broken panes (they must have been broken outwards), and surprisingly little dust. It would, I felt, do. I rolled out my blanket in a corner, lay down, and slept.

Read Chapter 2.