You’re not going to believe a single word of this. I know because I can barely believe it myself. That’s why I’m sitting here, in the dark, with every torch, lamp and light source in the house around my bed, rigged up to a single switch.
I’ve set a trap, you see, to catch a particularly slippery quarry; not mice or rats or cockroaches but something much more allusive. There are little tiny creatures moving around this house, but here is the thing, they don’t move like mice or rats or cockroaches, they move inside the fabric of the house itself. Confused?
I’ve been confused for a while now; a whirlwind of events, a flood of money and acclaim, fifteen minutes (more like fifteen months) of fame and then sudden silence. There I was, the celebrated author, the creator of The Nubian Prince Adventures, standing in a big old empty house in the country, alone. Writers need to be alone; we crave solitude so we can hear those tiny voices in our heads that constitute characters, places and as-yet untold stories. But there are limits to every situation; no man is an island and without interaction and experience all you’ll write about is loneliness.
My name had gone from the papers, my books had slipped slowly down the Bestseller List and some football player’s wife was now being interviewed on daytime TV in the very seat where I had sat. Unlike me she wasn’t sweaty, nervous or stuttering her way through. I wanted readership, but daytime TV was more geared to fame, and fame didn’t suit my character.
The house my agent had found for me was rather beautifully set against a lake that mirrored the low hills of the Cotswolds, circled around like the wagons of a giant train. I had asked for a small cottage in the country, she had found a vast sprawling pile of Victorian brick and wood. I had asked that it be close to a village or town, so I could shop, walk, go for a meal or drink and generally find conversation when I needed it. She had bought (with my money) this mansion that had no neighbors for miles, along a winding network of lanes and the walking distance to the nearby village (if I were fit and left early in the morning) was counted in hours rather than minutes.
As I heard my agent’s car screeching off and her words ‘a nice place to write another classic’ ringing in my ears, I found myself, suitcase in hand, standing in the ornate hallway of Hauturn House, my new home.
I won’t bore you here with a lengthy description of what Hauturn looks like on the outside or the inside, I will only say it was once the hunting lodge of a wealthy nineteenth century industrialist and had all of the embellishments such a man would need, or would think he needed.
It took me half a day to explore the entire house, my footsteps echoing on the polished wooden boards of each room. The well-appointed library, with its large leather bound collection of classics, seemed an obvious place to set up shop as it were (shop being my PC, printer and private knick-knacks), but the library was windowless, and I have to confess to being a little claustrophobic. The dining room was too large, the billiard room would have been prefect in there wasn’t a whacking great billiard table in it and the empty bedrooms upstairs all felt a little … what’s the word … strange how a fiction writer can struggle to describe real things … ‘spooky’ will have to do.
There’s something about an empty child’s bedroom that unsettles the nerves.
I finally decided on a middle-sized room at the back of the house which overlooked the lake below. I’m no expert on Victorian design, but I do believe it may have been a drawing room, its pink concave ceiling made me imagine ladies sitting and chatting while overweight rich men sipped brandy and smoked cigars somewhere else in the house, out of earshot.
There is a moment that even the most logical and rational of us have, under certain conditions, when our minds let more primeval and … let’s be honest, silly thoughts come to the fore.
Lying in bed in the great old house for the first time, on that first night, I confess that I left the light on. And NO, I didn’t really think there would be ghosts, or evil spirits or someone coming to murder me in the middle of the night. It just made me feel a little better. As it happened, I was so tired I fell asleep straight away and slept soundlessly and dreamlessly until late the next morning. So if some spectra was rambling around looking to scare the wits out of me, I’m afraid I was a sore disappointment to them.
The next two days in Hauturn House passed peaceably, and despite having done no writing whatsoever I did enjoy flicking through the books in the library, walking along the grounds and exploring the house further.
It wasn’t until my fourth day at Hauturn that I saw one …. One of what I don’t know. I was in the drawing room, contemplating to myself turning on the computer. But what to do once it was on? A writer’s nightmare; the blank page and the blinking cursor mocking me.
As I reached my hand out to the ‘on’ button I saw it … my peripheral vision caught the movement.
Now, as I have said, I don’t believe in ghosts and I certainly don’t believe that one flashed past my vision in broad daylight …. But! I was sure something had moved, a shadow of something across the shiny floorboards and the pastel colored wall. I didn’t jump or scream or do anything rash, I just moved my hand away from the computer, with my heart pounding at my breastbone as if it were a prisoner trying to escape my ribcage.
I did what all the naff characters do in all of those terrible horror movies, “Hello … is anybody there?”
What was I expecting the answer to be? “Yes, hello, it’s me the ghost of Christmas past.”
I shook myself and laughed, spun on my heels and walked through the door into the entrance hall of the house and that is where I clearly saw the figure of a living creature, a humanoid, but definitely not human, running along the wall. It was inside the wall, part of the wooden panels themselves. It moved in a series of spasms as if a set of photographs were being quickly flashed before my eyes. It was only a split second of movement, but it was there and then it was gone.
I stood rooted to the spot, is this all part of an over active imagination, a nervous breakdown, an undigested lump of cheese …. “I didn’t have any cheese,” I said to myself, “Get a grip man and check your pulse.”
I held my fingers on my wrist like I’d seen them do in TV shows but this only told me that I watch too much TV.
After standing in the hall alone for what seemed like an age, I slowly and carefully ran my hand across the wood of the paneled wall. It was normal. Everything in the house was normal; I could hear the birds singing through the open windows, I could feel the cold air of the early morning drifting through the hall ….. RING RING RING.
The expression ‘jumped out of your skin’ is used all too often, but I assure you, when the phone rang at that moment and the loud echo rebounded through the empty house, I got as close to skinless as any man ever has.
My agent’s chirpy and rather irritating tone babbled down the line.
“Yes, yes, I am writing, of course I’m writing, that’s what I do, isn’t it? I’m a writer!”
I didn’t hear the usual sycophantic reply as my eye was caught by some movement further down the hall; it was as if a shadow had slipped into the library.
“Goodbye,” I said slowly into the receiver and sat the phone down carefully.I crept like a thief in my own house toward the door of the library and, heart still pounding, stepped inside.
It was as it had been for the past few days. The leather and velvet writing desk and matching chair sat alone in the center of the room, and the bookshelves appeared to lean inwards with the sheer weight of the tomes carried on them. There was no one here, no one at all.
It’s strange how peripheral vision can sometimes see what is really there before the human mind catches up with events. As I bent my head down I started to see them, in the floor, actually inside the wood of the floor, made up of the patterns in the grain and the color of the polish. As I stood there, rooted with fear and amazement I could, at first, only make out shapeless things flowing like water across the library floor, then bodies, humanoid, animalistic. The first face emerged between my feet, looking at me with big round eyes, then, as if it shook itself, dissipated to nothing. Other faces and whole persons appeared and disappeared before my eyes. As one, in a single moment, the whole event ceased and the library went back to normal.
So you can see, my friends, why I’m sitting here in the dark, lights and cameras set up. After the episode in the library this morning I saw more of the creatures, intermittently, in every wooden surface in the house, including here in my own bedroom.
I’ve had time to think while I’ve been sitting here with the moonlit twilight of the bedroom for company; maybe I am having a breakdown. You do hear about such things, middle-aged writer, slightly eccentric, alone in a country manor … this could be penned by the worst Hollywood hack … but they’re not here … and I am!
There! …. There is movement, something brighter than the background wood panel flittered across the wall. And another.
I can see by what light there is that the wall in front of me has something slowly swirling across it. I hesitate to be sure but let my thumb depress the trap button. The lights instantly turn my bedroom into daylight and the cameras flash, blinding me for a second. I blink, look up at the wall in front of me, make another, more deliberate blink and watch as hundreds of creatures, animals, humanoids and faces eddy and meld on every wooden surface in the room.
The walls, the furniture, even the body of the standing lamp has something alive and moving within the pattern of the wood.
“They’re real,” I say out loud, “You’re real, really here.”
And now the lights have went out.
… For a second time I’ve almost lost my skin with fear.
“Well, I mean, sir, it does look a bit like a face, but then my wife says that one of the tilts in the bathroom of ‘ar house has the face of Jesus on it. Personally I think it’s George Best.”
“Do you,” I replied and replaced the picture into my bag. I finished my pint of beer and said a half-hearted goodbye to the landlord of the pub.
Outside, the busy little village was buzzing away like a hive with traffic. I’d been to all three local hostelries. It wasn’t my custom to drink in the mornings but I needed something to calm my nerves and wanted to find any local information on the house that I could. So far I had learnt nothing extraordinary about the previous owners or the house itself, in fact it was all disappointingly boring.
I stood on the main street at the allotted time, waiting for the village’s only taxi driver to pick me up for my return journey. I must have looked at the picture I was carrying a thousand times; I could see the face, clearly, a man, short trimmed beard and a hook nose.
“Doesn’t look a bit like George Best,” I said to myself, “or Jesus for that matter.”
“Talking to yourself, sir?” came a gruff local voice behind me.
“Yes,” I replied, “I suppose I am.”
The elderly man who stood beside me was coming out of the local butchers carrying two dead and skinned rabbits. He held the creatures up to me, “Time was, sir, I would have caught them myself, but my legs aren’t what they used to be.”
“I see, make good stew though?”
“That they do, sir. Tell me, are you comfortable in the big house?”
“It’s er …” I couldn’t find a single word, my brain was trying to formulate a lie when the old man added, “It’s the wood is it, sir? Takes a bit of getting used to. Stops after a while. I think the mind just blocks it out.”
The man stood closer to me and whispered, “My grandfather told that fat businessman not to cut down the wood that stood beside the house, but he cut half of it down anyway. Not many people see them, sir, and like I said, it will stop after a wee while.”
“Oh yes sir, the woods that led from the garden to the lake used to come right up to the house, covered that whole site. Enchanted, my grandfather said, sacred to the Celts or some such folk. The rich fella who built the house cut half of it down and made the inside of the house; the floors, the walls, even the furniture, sir.”
“Can I buy you a pint?” I said to the old man.
He cocked his head to one side and smiled, “Two pints usually helps me remember, sir.”
“Then let’s have three, just to be sure.”
I should have waited to sober up a bit more before walking through the tangled wood below the house. It was a smallish patch of trees, no more than an acre or two at best, but it had been left to grow wild for decades.
The old man had said, among quite a bit of rambling, that the wood had never been the same since it was cut in half and no one who had ever lived in the house had stayed long or had much luck. He listed the occupants over the years and it did seem a lot; no wonder my agent got it so cheap.
As the alcohol began to leave my system and the sun was heading for its bow in the western sky, I found myself in the center of the small wood and immediately regretted battling my way in there. What was I expecting to see? In fact, what the hell was I doing listening to a crazy old man? Enchanted woods? Ancient sanctuary? He even managed to slip in the word ‘curse’ without me laughing out loud! I must have been drunk.
In the twilight of the wood, I turned around. I could just make out the tall red brick chimney stack of Hauturn and I could see a path of bent grass and nettles where I had tramped my way into this mess.
Had I been as drunk as I was in the taxi home I would probably have accepted the fact that a face was staring at me from the side of a tree with more grace. As it transpired, I squealed like a little girl and jumped, rather painfully, into a patch of tall nettles. I stood there, in the stinging bush, watching as the whole wood came to life in the setting sun. Just as they had moved inside the house, these creatures, whatever they were, were moving inside the wood, making their bodies and faces appear out of the bark and branches themselves.
With great difficulty I half-walked, half-fought my way back to the lawn of Hauturn and there, collapsed on the grass. The entire wood was alive with these things! Each tree seemed to have a person, an animal or some anamorphic mix of the two. As the cold penetrated through my shirt from the damp grass, a million thoughts ran through my head. Was I going mad? Was my agent drugging me? Was the old man on the street a figment of my imagination? Why am I lying here in the dark on the lawn when I have a perfectly good bed just a hundred yards away?!
I felt exhausted and almost fell through the main door of the house. As the lights flicked on in the great hallway all seemed well and normal. I looked at the nearest wood panel on the wall, expecting to see movement, but it was still. As I stared closer I could make out a face, just a few lines in the grain of the wood that looked like the contours of young woman.
Something drew me into the library, not a sound or a light, just a feeling. The entire room, walls, ceiling and floor was alive. A silent ballet of swirls and bodies moving in the grain of the wooden room, it felt as if they had been waiting for me.
I stood for a few moments in awe of what I was seeing. I wasn’t afraid; some basic instinct inside of me told me that these creatures were not malicious.
“What do you want?” I called out. There was no audible answer. Why would there be? The movement slowed and the faces in the panels and floorboards became clearer.
“Tell me who you are.” I asked the room.
The creatures then played out a story for me and I understood as I watched their patterns on the wall show the trees as they had been, ancient and wild and full of movement, the men coming to cut them down and finally, this house … this house where half of the creatures were now trapped, separated from their kin.
“That’s it then. You’re all stuck here and you can’t get back into the living trees.”
At that moment I understood, I had either gone completely mad or I understood their plight.
The village hardware store was well stocked with everything I needed. I’ve never used tools in my life or indeed done any kind of manual labour, so I wasn’t confident about my own ability to conduct my plan.
As the taxi driver helped me load the tools into the car, the old man who had told me about the woods tapped me on the shoulder. He glanced at the array of tools and gave me a half smile, “I hope you’re not going to do anything silly?” he asked.
“I’m going to release them,” I replied honestly.
“Yes. I think that’s what they want. They belong in the wild, whatever they are.”
“I agree, sir,” he said with a full grin, “you don’t strike me as the wood working type.”
“Not really,” I confessed.
“I’ll follow you out there, sir.”
He threw me another smile and walked off.
I didn’t want to damage any of the panels or floorboards, so just ripping them up was out of the question. By the time the old man was standing in the doorway of the hall grinning at me, all I had managed to do was get one door off its hinges and lay it flat on the grass outside.
“I think I may have overestimated your woodworking ability, sir,” jibed the old man.
“I think you might be right.” I rubbed the sweat from my forehead.
“Luckily some of the older folks in the village have known about the creatures for some time, our grandfathers and grandmothers told us about them.”
“Us?” I asked as he stood aside and dozens of elderly people, armed with tools of their own marched in and began to work. The village butcher, the taxi driver, the landlord of the pub, the woman who worked in the small post office.
“All of you knew?” I asked.
“We couldn’t do anything about it,” replied the landlord of the pub, “all of the previous owners were outsiders, begging your pardon, sir, and the few of them we did try to explain it to thought we were half-cracked.”
“I can understand why,” I grinned, “now, let’s do this.”
It took all of the daylight hours to dismantle every wooden fixture from the house. Every piece of furniture and every board was laid out on the grass in a long line from the door of the house to the edge of the trees.
With the light fading fast in the west, all of us stood along the line of wood and waited.
“Do you think it will work?” I asked. “I hope we haven’t done more harm than good.”
“They’d have let us know if we were doing wrong, sir.”
A car engine and set of lights broke the moment.
“Oh no!” I said out loud.
“Who is it, sir?”
“It’s only my agent, she’s going to love this!”
“What the hell is going on?”
“I can explain,” I began as my agent stumbled across the lawn and looked up and down the line of furniture and fittings.
“You’ve torn apart the whole house! And who are these people?”
“Just some locals here to help,” I could see she was about to explode.
“This is a grade two listed building! It will be terrible publicity!” she shrilled, but her voice was cut short and she pointed to the ground, “What the hell is that?”
All eyes watched as the creatures moved from the door of Hauturn through each section of demolition to the next. The wood appeared to swell and change color as they moved through it.
We watched in silence as the cascade edged toward the copse then disappeared into the trees themselves.
“Is that it?” I said, “Have they gone?”
“I think so,” answered the old man in a whisper.
The woods then abruptly lit up, as if someone had set off fireworks of many colors, the trees themselves glowing bright green, a cloudy white and dark burgundy red. The branches swirled with life, oaks became great dragons and saplings morphed into elven children, then with one bright explosion of white the night returned to normal.
“I think they were saying ‘thank you’,” I said.
“I think you might be right there, sir.”
The old man and the other locals silently began to walk away, down the long drive and into the gathering night.
“Tim,” said my agent, who appeared to be rooted to the spot.
“Will this be in your next book?”
* * *