Copyright rests with the author.
WE COULD never forget the house. It was always there in our mind. Some time ago we had been passing by on our way to nowhere in particular. That was how we first saw the house. It became somewhere we grew curious about and needed to see again.
The first time we turned back, feeling lost among the country lanes. We had no idea where the road might end. All we knew was that the road was there. It had the look of an ancient trackway, there from time immemorial, a trail that tribes of ancient warriors followed on their way from somewhere, a distant battle so far from home. There were no ancient warriors on the road now. This was a time of peace in a civilized age.
There was almost nobody in view. A solitary walker with a pronounced limp muttered to himself as he passed, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I must, I must, I must.” We supposed him to be a dreamer, perhaps a lonely man driven mad by infirmity and isolation. We playfully speculated on how the limp may have been acquired, but neither of us knew which of the possibilities was the case. He walked carelessly, as if unaware of the dangers. The likelihood was that he had been struck by a car some time before, but had learned nothing from the experience.
The man was soon out of sight and instantly forgotten. Whoever he was and wherever he was going was of no importance to us. What concerned us was the house.
It rested on the brow of the hill. There were no near neighbours. An unexpected sight, it seemed impermanent, like a boat stranded at low tide. When the sea rose again the house would be cast away on the waves.
The Ark was our name for the house. As soon as we saw it those years before the name came into both our minds. Perhaps others thought so too because, later, nobody thought our name for it was strange. The Ark was its name.
Disappointingly, the name on the gate was Hillview, like a thousand other houses built in a prominent place. Where was their originality? They had none. What they sought was seclusion from the world. That meant a high degree of anonymity. Not drawing attention to the house was part of the plan. Let inquisitive eyes consider the house not worth a send glance.
Yet the Ark was so clearly in plain sight. Had it been secluded in a dark wood then secrecy would have been possible. Here it was so noticeable that they were intrigued from the time they chanced upon it, having taken a wrong turning on the lonely roads that crossed the range of hills above the plain.
Down below the silver serpent of the river crawled stealthily through the grasslands. The sun caught its reflecting surface when the clouds parted. The windows of the house were like eyes that suddenly opened. Perhaps the sunlight had alerted them to the sight of strangers. They were watching the visitors open the garden gate.
In the garden there were ash trees swaying in the breeze. The grass was long, like meadow grass rather than a garden lawn. Some cultivated flowers grew among the scattering of weeds. This was our first close look at what was evidently a neglected place. The paint of the woodwork was peeling. A long time had passed since any attention had been paid to the appearance of the house.
The house was not abandoned. If there were few signs of occupation there was a sense of the house being lived in but lived in by someone who had ceased to care, or did not know how to care. We supposed that someone to be old or infirm, some who could not cope in mind or body with the demands of maintaining a house in order. The task was not easy. There is always something to be done in a house: a broken window to be replaced, a door to be painted, a roof to be repaired. There is never a time when nothing need be done. Or so it can seem in the confusion of things. So many intentions are forgotten in the relentless passing of time. The infirm seek peace. The old consider eternity. A house on earth might seem to vanish as life itself fades.
The leaves on the trees were fresh in the translucent green of spring. New growth was promising to restore the house to its pride. That was why we were there.
We used the ancient brass knocker to announce our presence. There was a long silence before the door opened. To our surprise it was someone young who opened the door. She stood at the door saying nothing. Barefoot, she wore a long dress. Her hair, in need of a brush, framed the face of someone who was more than a child but not yet a woman. Or perhaps she was simply of indeterminate age, at one moment young and the next mature. Her skin was pale from lack of sunlight. The eyes tried not to express any interest.’
“You were expecting us,” we said.
“Was I? Expecting you?”
“The agent arranged everything.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“The house,” we explained. “It’s for sale.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone.” Her words were repeated in exactly the same way, like a machine with a recorded message. “Was I expecting you?” she asked without a hint of irony. Slightly frowning, she tried to recall from memory an appointment made on her behalf by an agent. This was the day when people were to look at the house. It had been arranged, but because of the isolation of her life she had forgotten. It was not important. Other things were important.
Neither by word or gesture did the occupant of the house invite us inside. She asked no further questions of us, visitors who had arrived by appointment on her doorstep to look at the house. The viewing was arranged, yet to her we were strangers whether or not she had been advised to expect us. We were not important to her.
“The house,” we repeated. “It’s for sale.”
“It was bought years ago before I was born,” came the reply. “I live here.”
Had we not come a long way we might have turned away, dismissing the whole venture as a lost cause. Did we really wish to see more of this house so obviously in decay? What hidden evidence of neglect would be found on closer inspection? The peeling paint was surely an indication of worse neglect in the fabric of the building.
We could not trust the young woman to tell us the whole story. She may not have known how things really were in the house she lived in but could not care for. Was she aware of anything important in her life if she could forget that her house was to be sold? Did she understand what it meant to sell her house and so to move elsewhere? Had she thought about where that elsewhere might be and how she might find herself there?
“Is there anything in particular you’d like to tell us about the house?” we asked. It was likely to be the last question before we bade her good day.
“It’s not my house,” the woman said. The simple explanation made sense to us when we had supposed all was lost. Someone else – most likely her parents – owned the house. They were the ones we needed to see about buying the house, not their vague and uncomprehending daughter.
“It belongs to your family?” we suggested.
“Yes. How did you know?” A hint of suspicion entered the tone of her voice. Who were these people who came unannounced, knowing so much about her?
There was a long silence when neither side knew what to say. Of course this was not going well for us. Perhaps now was the time to thank her and then to take our leave. It was almost a wasted journey, but at least our curiosity had been satisfied. We had been intrigued by the solitary house on the hill overlooking the river valley. A sense that the visit would not go well had been in the background from the beginning, or so we were thinking. From the first sign of neglect we felt this was not going to be the house for us.
“You can see my mother and father,” the young woman suggested. This was a sudden moment of unexpected hope that visibly lifted our mood when all had seemed lost. “They’re over there,” she said, “beneath the apple tree.”
We looked out of the dusty window towards the apple tree that stood at the far side of the lawn of long grass. There was no-one there. We looked again, carefully, to see if someone was going to appear from behind the tree. There was no-one. “I let them rest there,” the woman explained. “They love that tree.” She smiled fondly at the memory of her parents walking in the garden when she was a girl. “Ever since then the apples have tasted so sweet,” she added.
We supposed the ashes had been scattered like the blossom of spring and the leaves of fall. The last remnants of their lives had been lost to the wind, although their daughter saw it as an act of love to let them roam about the garden. Their spirit, in her eyes, dwelled beneath the apple tree. She could look out every day and see they were there.
How many years had passed since the scattering of ashes? The woman had no sense of time. Everything happened in an eternal present. It was yesterday to her. Everything was yesterday. She could not imagine there being a future.
The puzzle was that the house had been listed for sale. We could not suppose it to be her decision. She seemed to have no notion of selling the house. Yet if it were hers the decision to sell must have been hers. There had been papers to sign, arrangements to be made. “Just go to the house,” the agent had said. She assured us the woman would be there at the appointed time. The agent had given the woman a name. We could not remember the name, but at least we knew for sure that she was not a ghost. She lived there in visible, tangible reality.
That said, there was a spectral quality about her and the house she occupied. There was a mystery about the place, so isolated and so unexpected on the endless road that seemed to lead nowhere. We had to tell ourselves this was all true. It was true, although it felt unsettlingly strange.
“When the leaves come down,” the young woman said, “I always think they’ll never return. But they do. They always do. It’s curious how that happens. I have come to learn that everything dies in the winter, only to come again. I don’t have to wait long. I look out at the trees, knowing they’ll come back soon. It’s only for a short while.”
Before we spoke further we exchanged glances. Was it wise to ask the question that we longed to ask of her? The likely answer that the house was not hers to sell. Perhaps it was held in some trust. Someone perhaps had the power of attorney, and had decided it was better to make other arrangements for this fragile and ethereal woman who had lived alone too long.
“I shall not be going for ever,” she continued, responding to the question not yet asked. “It’s only for the winter. This can be such a cold house in winter. But everywhere is cold then, don’t you think?”
She knew somewhere in the shadows of her understanding that she was to leave this house. Beyond that she dared not venture. Leaving the house was going to be a kind of death for her, a closing down of so much that she had known of life. All her life had been spent here. What life was there to be elsewhere? The vital thing for her to cling to was the certainty that death brings new life. The leaves return to the trees. In the spring she would be back in the house once more. This was going to be for ever because nothing changed in her mind.
“I shall not be going for ever,” she repeated. ‘You must understand that. It’s how things are. People go, but they come back. Always.’ The woman gave us both her most direct and challenging look. A faint smile appeared on her face. “This is my family’s house, you see.”
That, we thought, was going to be the problem for anyone moving in after the house was sold. The house itself could exchange ownership, but the spirit of the place could not be transformed by signatures and arrangements. Whether or not there were to be ghostly presences [vague shapes in the dawn mist by the apple tree] there was going to be an uneasy sense of trespass. Ownership was not a question of possessing the keys. A family’s history encompassed the house. It would pervade the atmosphere of each room. When a curtain parted in a draught of air. When a door opened. When a floorboard creaked. When a window frame trembled slightly in the wind. All the things that were sure to happen would prove so unsettling. That they will be in the natural course of living in the house would offer no solace. The house was sure to speak its mind.
On a sunlit afternoon it was easy to dismiss these thoughts as needless fears. If we projected ourselves into the house then the fears became possible realities. We could never buy this house. We had to leave.
“You can’t go,” the strange young woman said, reading the determined expression on our faces. “I can’t let you go without explaining something you need to know about here.”
This was annoying because we knew for certain we were not going to buy this house. It had been a mistake to come. The best we could say was that our curiosity had been satisfied. Now that we had made up our minds there was nothing more to be discussed. So we didn’t want hear any pointless explanations. We did not care.
“You can never leave,” said the woman. “You may think you’ve gone but you’ll return. I know you shall. It’s how things are with this house.”
“That’s all very well . . .”
“The road goes nowhere. You’ll see what I mean.” Those were her last words to us before we made a polite but hasty leave-taking of the strange young woman in the strange old house.
The air was colder when we stepped outside. The sky had become overcast. We shivered on our way to the car, not looking back at all at the house. Perhaps the woman was watching us from the window. Very likely she was. Visitors to the house would be very few. Our visit was a diversion for her in her endless isolation. Hers was a sad life, hardly a life at all but something akin to haunted wandering. That is not to say we thought she actually was a ghost. Strange as she was, and slightly sinister, she was real enough. We did not believe in ghostly presences, not in the real world of evident facts and solid objects.
Reversing the car, we made our way back the way we came. Wherever the road led we knew where we had been, a place we were to see again in no time. The familiar signs of the town would appear soon. Over the next hill or round the following corner.
Though it took longer than we had anticipated, familiarities appeared: a church spire and some houses we recognized came into view. We were almost back in the real world far away from that strange woman in her mausoleum of a house. We should soon put that visit out of our minds. The idea had been crazy. Any thought of living there was out of the question. We were unlikely ever to see the house again. Why would we wish to go there again? The strange woman was talking her nonsense. That was all she had, the nonsense in her shadowy mind.
Time passed and we were no nearer the town. It seemed we had taken a wrong turning, something easily done in those parts. We followed the road in the certainty that a signpost would tell us where we were and where ought to go. These were lonely roads. There almost no-one in view except a solitary walker with a limp. When e slowed down to ask him directions we could hear his muttering. “I must. I must,” he repeated many times. We had seen him before of course, and so we knew in advance he was not going to be helpful.
“There’s no way. This goes nowhere,” the limping man said in reply to our plea for directions. We were about to thank him and then drive away when he added something so curious we paused. “I must leave here, but I can’t. She won’t let me go. I must, though, I must.”
“You mean the woman in the house.”
“Well, who do you think I mean?” He stared at us in astonishment, thinking us fools for not understanding. “It’s there on the hill just ahead. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”
We looked ahead and saw that indeed we had gone in a circle. There was the road rising up towards the house on the crest of the hill. For a moment it seemed that we had entered one of those supernatural tales where we would be condemned for ever to wander the roads that always led back to the house.
This we knew to be nonsense. I am writing this quietly at home, having found our way into town after a few more wrong turnings. We are alive in the real world. Of that we can be quite certain. I am looking out now at the busy highway that leads to the city. Traffic passes, hurrying on urgent business. This sight is evidence of the everyday world of which we are part. We did not become spectral presences on some ghostly road. No, here we are.
And yet so often our minds go back to that road. We see that house again. In dreams by night, in thoughts during the day the house and its strange owner returns unexpectedly and insistently. We hear her voice telling us we cannot leave. We remember the limping man desperate to make an escape he found impossible. We see the apple tree in the orchard in the mist. We hear faint footsteps where there is no-one. Sometimes there are low voices whose words we cannot make out. There is whispering in the shadows. At other times there is laughter close by. We hear distant screams. Always a simple, reasonable explanation can be found. Always we tell ourselves we cannot think of that house.
Yet think of it we do. The hope is that another look will cure us at last of the compulsion to remember that house. It is not too far away. A last visit will be an easy journey. Of course we have no intention of going inside again. We have done that once. There is no reason for stopping.
The temptation to return is strong. All we shall do is look, simply to satisfy our continuing fascination. The apple tree stands in perpetual spring, the blossom promising the fruit of an autumn we have never known. The tree is something we should like to see were we ever to visit the house again. It is somewhere to see on our way to discovering what lies beyond the house on the endless road, the road that leads nowhere. There we must go for one last time. We must. We must.