Short Stories

Alan has twice been highly commended and published in the Momaya Annual Review, most recently with The Bird Organ (2013).

 

The Room

 

It’s funny how things which should be unacceptably peculiar eventually become run of the mill simply through familiarity. If the new Mrs. Wilde had realised this, she might not have been so quick to force her husband to sell up the house his grandfather had built, simply because of one feature which unsettled her. I’m glad she did, of course: her discomfort lent the sale an urgency which worked greatly in my financial favour. She was a city girl, though, and unhappy enough at having to move to the country after her wedding, without also having to lie under the shadow of something which is, when all’s said and done, a long way out of the usual order of things. Me, I’m country, born and bred: I know the value of taking things as they are, the value of pausing for a breather before you make a hasty decision, the simple value of just taking time: and yet even for me this was a bit of a tough proposition. Took me a long time, a long time, to completely forget about the strangeness of this particular oddity. Mr Wilde, though, who’d lived there all his life, who was of the third Wilde generation to live perfectly happily in the house, assured me that he and his family barely entertained a second thought about it, only even remembering its existence on the extremely odd occasions when strangers would notice it and make shocked enquiries. But that was seldom, since it’s not in any normal line of sight: you need to lie on your back in the garden to see it properly, and not many people do that. I wouldn’t have noticed it myself (maybe even yet!) had Mrs. Wilde not met me at the door, the day I went to view the property, in a state of nervous agitation which really begged polite enquiry.

Seems a long time ago now, and I suppose it is: upwards of twenty years, I guess, hard though it is to believe. I remember that morning clear enough yet, mind you: the fading hopes of ever finding a place to move, after having viewed dozens of properties in the preceding month: being almost resigned to struggling for another year with my own farm, with every possibility of just going further into debt. I was even almost considering a total change of lifestyle, maybe moving into an apartment in the city and trying to find some manual labour there. So as my pickup bounced its way down the long, tree-lined drive, I was thinking more about what I’d do when the place proved unsuitable than what I might do if it turned out all right.

As I neared the house, though, and got some idea of the size and beauty of the land in which it stood, I began to allow myself some glimmer of hope. The tall trees were waving their autumn leaves in the warm breeze, and the rolling pasture land behind the buildings looked both workable and tranquil. I pulled up outside the house, and was immediately impressed. It’s a beautiful big wooden building, three storeys high, with an old fashioned tiled roof and a large, stone chimney, like something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. I stepped out of the truck, and a flock of geese made a low pass over my head, filling the air with wing beats and honking merrily, before landing gracelessly one by one in a small lake which lapped its reedy banks off to the west of the house. I felt a sense of real peace creeping up on me, and I began to smile broadly as I looked slowly around. I even remember taking off my cap in a kind of respectful gesture to the beauty that I found, and running my hand through my greying hair as I shook my head in happy disbelief. This, quite simply, was perfect. I was about to stroll over to the lake, when the front door of the house opened, and an attractive young lady with long dark hair stepped out onto the porch.

            “Mr. Williams?” she asked, her tone strained and her hands picking nervously at her sleeve.

            “Why, yes, ma’am,” I replied, walking over to her and extending my hand, which she took absently. I could tell at once she was nervous, you know, unsettled, but I put this down to the natural disturbance of her having to show a stranger around her home. I tried to put her at ease, by assuring her that my first impression of the place was very positive, but she just kind of nodded, like she hadn’t really heard me, and shouted back into the house, “Henry, he’s here!” Then turning to me she said, in an almost mechanical voice, “Won’t you come in, Mr. Williams? My husband will be with you in a moment.” I entered gratefully, expecting Mrs. Wilde to follow me, but she let the screen door slam between us and through it I could see her walking hastily off towards the drive. Strange idea of hospitality, I thought, but without taking any offence: having already spoken to her husband on the telephone to arrange this viewing, I knew that she wasn’t from the country and was happy to make allowances for her hasty ways. Indeed her husband, who now entered the simply furnished room with a smile, had explained to me that his new wife’s ‘discomfort’ with the slower, less predictable country life played a large role in the decision to sell.

            “Mr. Wilde,” I said, shaking his hand as he entered, “a pleasure to meet you face to face!”

            “Likewise,” he replied, “and please, call me Henry. Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Williams?”

            “Jack, please. And sure, a cup of coffee would be real nice, thank you.”    

            “Well, then, take a seat, won’t you Jack? I got some freshly brewed, won’t be a moment.” I settled into a chair, and looked approvingly round the room. An Indian rug lay over varnished floorboards of the same dark tint as the wooden door and window sills. As well as my own chair, there were two or three simpler ones around a small table at the wall, on which a vase of dried flowers lent a homely air. A grandfather clock stood against the opposite wall, and an oval, gold-framed mirror hung beside it, completing the feel of an easier, simpler time, one which I remembered fondly from my childhood on Uncle Warren’s farm. My initial good impression of the property seemed more confirmed by each passing moment: I felt right at home already!

Henry soon re-entered, with a tray of coffee and muffins.

            “The wife does a lot of baking,” he explained. “She says it keeps her occupied!” I thanked him for the coffee, and with a bite of a delicious muffin I sipped it contentedly. We chatted over the coffee, small talk mainly, family and suchlike, and I was pleased to hear that Henry and I had a lot of common ground. Both raised on farms, both more attached to the land than anything else, both amused by the crazy pace of the modern world we’d largely avoided. It’s fair to say that we hit it off, and I’d have enjoyed the visit purely on a social level. Of course, we had business to attend to, and after our cups were cleared away, Henry gave me the grand tour. Everything was perfect: the rooms were spacious and airy, the foundations were solid, the wooden staircase was as sound as the day it was built – all in all, it seemed Henry’s grandfather, who had built the house as a young man in the late 19th Century, was something of an architectural genius. In all the homes I’d looked at, nothing approached this for workmanship and condition. Even much newer houses with fancier designs had started aging to some degree, but this house, as Henry was pleased to confirm, looked like it could stand for centuries to come. I made no secret of my enthusiasm, and Henry seemed pleased, though he was strangely unwilling to answer my questions about his grandfather.

            “He could build, that’s for sure,” was all he would agree to, “but he had some strange ideas.” I politely thought better of asking further, but Henry seemed preoccupied as he showed me round the land. Needless to say, I loved everything I saw, and was thanking my luck for coming through at last, when a certain doubt came into my head. It was something that had puzzled me when I first saw the property advertised, and had continued to nag until the sight of the grounds had distracted me. Now, though, after seeing all that was on offer, the doubt came back with redoubled strength. Why, in God’s name, was this place going so cheap? I couldn’t have bought a suburban semi-detached with as little, yet this astonishing place had been on the market for months. I decided to broach the subject, when we saw Mrs. Wilde returning to the house. Henry brightened up and called to her, inviting her over, but her reply was carried back on the wind: he knew she wouldn’t go behind the house, she cried, so there was no use asking her.

           

“Well, I guess we go to her, then,” he said with a nervous laugh, and I followed him to the house in a state of some confusion. I began to wonder whether there was something seriously, dangerously wrong with the property, something which would account for the ludicrous price, and perhaps also for Mrs. Wilde’s dislike of the place. I wanted to ask Henry about this before we joined his wife, since it didn’t seem polite to make such suggestions in front of the lady of the house. At the back door, I paused, and spoke.

            “Uh, Henry,” I began, “before we go in there, there’s just one thing that perhaps you can set my mind at rest about. Now, I love this place already. If I could, I’d willingly pay ten times what you’ve asked for it, it’s perfect, it really is. So, all I’m wondering is, how come you’re asking so little? And also, how come no-one else has snapped it up in all the time it’s been for sale?” Henry looked for a moment as if he was trying to invent an explanation, but as he caught my inquiring glance he decided just to tackle the question honestly.

            “Hell, Jack, I was hoping you’d be the one not to bring that up! You know yours was the twenty-fifth expression of interest we’ve received since we put the place up. Everybody else has come, looked, and run.” I was startled. I thought there must be something terribly amiss with the house, or the land, to evoke such a reaction, and I said as much. “Jack,” he said, “you’ve got to believe me, there’s nothing here that could cause you harm besides the ordinary dangers of living in the country. But the thing is, there is something which I guess you could call ‘amiss.’ It’s nothing dangerous, or wicked, or any such thing. It’s just, well, a little strange.

            “Maybe you’d tell me just what it is, Henry,” I said. “Is it the reason for you leaving?”

            “Hell no! Well, not really. See, it’s been there since Gramps built the place, without ever causing any harm, so I’d be quite content to stay here all my days. But Jane, you see… Jane, my wife, she’s not from round here. She’s used to having explanations for everything, you know?” I nodded. Living all my life in the country, sometimes at the mercy of Nature, I’d learned to accept that there are many things on this Earth that defy explanation, and which shake the security that comes from living in an ordered environment. “Thing is,” he continued, “all the other folks who’ve come to see the place, they’ve been city-folk too, like her. Didn’t even wait to find out what the problem was: they just looked at Jane, saw the look in her face, drew their own conclusions and got out of here. She’s her own worst enemy, really. You’re the first of my own kind that’s come through here, and, you know, I think maybe I should just show you the cause of all this commotion.”

Henry led me a few paces back from the house, paused as if ordering his thoughts, took a deep breath, and pointed in the air.

            “Allow me to show the spare room,” he said. I looked in the direction he pointed, just above the house and off to the left somewhat, and I gasped. It took me a while for my eyes to make sense of what I was looking at. There, suspended in the air, was a room. A familiar enough thing, a room: we’ve all spent a lot of our days in rooms, I should think. But this one was not behaving in the normal way, so to speak. Generally speaking, rooms are inside buildings, and as subject to the laws of gravity as the rest of us. Not this one. It just hung there. Actually, hung isn’t really the right word: the room doesn’t hang there, I don’t think, nor does it float there, drift there, hover there: it just is there. That’s where it is.

I gasped again, and tried to frame some appropriate question as to the room’s origin, but all I could produce was a confused stammer.

            “I told you Gramps had some strange ideas, didn’t I?” said Henry with a shrug. “You’d better come inside.” I followed him indoors on weak legs, and gratefully accepted the chair he offered me. Mrs. Wilde was standing at the window with her back to the room, and she turned abruptly to face us.

            “Well?” Her tone was barely civil. “Do you like the place, Mr. Williams? Will you take it? Because if you won’t, will you kindly inform my husband that he can look forward to living here alone pretty soon?”

            “Jane!” reprimanded Henry, indicating me with a reproachful look. His wife looked at me closely for the first time, and seemed to notice my state of agitation.

            “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “are you unwell, Mr. Williams? Can I get you anything?”

            “I showed him the room,” explained her husband matter-of-factly. Mrs. Wilde looked at him in disbelief for a second, then she yelled at him for being so stupid, asked if he even wanted anyone to buy this awful place, berated him for his foolishness, his family for their oddity, his grandfather for his ‘devilry,’ and generally just kicked up something of a stink. Poor Henry faced this barrage of abuse gamely, defending himself as best he could, and even throwing in a gibe or two about her own unworldliness.

            “You think everything has to fit into your rulebook, Jane? You think just because something’s unusual, it must be bad? Jeez,” he said in exasperation. Throughout the whole argument, I was slowly regaining my composure, drawing on that great defence of the country-born mind: the ability to accept things as you find them. I cleared my throat, and the couple paused in the middle of their confrontation.

            “Henry, Mrs. Wilde, won’t you both sit down with me?” They cast each other baleful glances, but sat down by the table and listened as I said “First of all, I want to thank you both for your hospitality this morning. You’ve made me feel right at home, not an easy thing to do for a stranger, as I well know. Now listen. I don’t exactly know what I saw out there, but Henry, you truly strike me as a man I can trust. I don’t believe you would try and sell me something that you knew to be bad, or dangerous.” Henry’s face broke into a smile, and he said he appreciated that. “Also, I’m not as young as you, Mrs. Wilde: I’ve already come across some mighty strange things in the world, and some of them came to good, so I’m not going to jump to judgement as quickly as your other visitors have. Okay. All I ask is this: Henry, can you please explain to me, just exactly what it was that I saw in the sky above your house?”

The couple seemed reassured by my words, Mrs. Wilde’s face even registering a trace of hope. Henry looked at her, as if to say ‘You see?’ and told me how it was.

            “When Gramps finished the main part of the house, he was still a young man. He was a real writer, you know, always carried a notebook to store his thoughts in, and he had a bunch of thoughts about most everything you could care to mention. Pretty soon he’d filled boxes with his writings, and pretty soon again those boxes began to fill cupboards, and he was a man with a young family who wanted all the storage space he could get. So he decided that he’d extend the house a bit, and drew up plans for a whole extra wing, a storey again as high as the present building. But for reasons best known to himself, he decided not to start the extension at ground level, as you’d expect, but in the top right hand corner where he planned to locate his own study. This was where he intended to store all his work, out of the way of the family and with a bit of privacy for himself.”

            “How, exactly, did he intend, or in fact manage, to build something off the ground?” I asked.

            “To be honest with you Jack, I really don’t know. He was an old man when I knew him, and not much given to talking about the past. We came up with all kinds of explanation as kids, of course, when the room was still enough of a novelty for us to bother speculating about it. My older brother told me the rest of the extension is actually there, it’s just invisible, but since that doesn’t really explain anything I kind of ignored him. Me, I don’t reckon any such thing, I don’t even think there’s any secret explanation. I think Gramps just decided to do it that way, and went ahead and did it. The room’s there because that’s where he built it.”

I thought about this for a while, and soon realised that this was, for me anyway, a perfectly satisfactory explanation. The old frontiersmen of Henry’s grandfather’s generation were a stubborn breed, and I was willing to believe that once he’d set his mind on something, well, nothing much was going to stop him. One other question did pop into my head, though.

            “What’s inside it, then?”

            “Oh, I have no idea,” Henry replied, “nothing, probably. You can’t get in it, you see, or at least not without more bother than any of my family’s ever been willing to undertake.” This news surprised me greatly. I was prepared to accept the existence of the room, and even its surprising location: but that no-one, in over a hundred years, had built up enough curiosity to get up to it and go in, was a little too much to take in.

            “Were you forbidden from trying?” I asked, but Henry assured me that, other than mild reminders that the room was Gramps’s private study, no special effort had ever been made to keep the children from exploring. I pressed him on this, telling him I found it hard to believe, and he eventually admitted that they had once managed to sling a rope over the room, and that his older brother had climbed up to it: but once up there, there was no way in anyway, as he couldn’t reach the door. After that they used the rope as a swing for a while, till it broke, then they forgot all about it.

            “Well, for crying out loud,” I insisted, “didn’t you even think to ask your grandfather what was in there?” Henry looked uncomfortable, as if unwilling to lay any more strangeness before me, but he eventually gave a reluctant reply.

            “The thing is, Jack, and don’t think I’m messing around with you here: the thing is, as far as I know, the old man never went into it either. I don’t mean he wasn’t in the habit of going in, I just mean he actually never went in there, in his life. To the best of my knowledge, since its completion, nobody has ever set foot in that room.”

            “Well, he must at least remember what he put in it when he built it!” I protested. Again Henry paused, but eventually explained that the eccentric old man refused to acknowledge the existence of the room prior to its completion. Apparently, he was given to saying ‘A room ain’t a room till its got four walls, a floor, a ceiling and a door, which means there was no room there till I put that door in, and I ain’t never set foot in it since, so your answer is that I didn’t put anything in that room!’

            “So it’s empty?” I asked, mildly disappointed.

            “Yes. Well, probably. Uh, see, the thing is, Gramps built the room from the inside out. That was another one of his ideas, you know. So I guess he could have put something up there then built the room around it. We never found any of his writing or his papers, so we thought maybe they were all up there, but Grandma told us she’d burned them all when they started taking up too much space, which I guess we sort of believed. Not completely, though, I think we all reckoned the papers were all in there. Gramps’s answers to the universe! You gotta understand, Jack, that it just wasn’t a big deal to us. Still isn’t, you know. We knew the room was there, was always there, and we just sort of took it for granted eventually, I guess. We didn’t have a ladder big enough to get up there, and we didn’t know where to get one, and besides, the door might be locked anyway.”

           “Might be? You don’t know? You never even checked?” I was astonished. But, I had to admit, intrigued, and not at all put off the property. Rather the reverse: this eccentricity, after the shock had worn off, charmed me no end, and again spoke of simpler, more trusting times. I decided to stop my inquiry, and to simply get down to business. “Henry,” I said, standing, “I want you to know that I greatly appreciate your taking me into your confidence like this. People like you and me, we don’t much like giving too much of ourselves away, and that’s a fact. But you’ve been kind to me here today, and on top of that, this is the most beautiful property I have ever seen, so I want to make you and your wife an offer right now. Now, the price you asked for: that was simply too little. I can’t, in good faith, give you so little for so much. If you lowered the price to make up for the, well, the peculiarity, then I have to tell you in all honesty that it doesn’t put me off: so, you’re within your rights to ask a more sensible price for the place! I’m not a rich man, but I’d work night and day to earn enough for this house, and this land, even with the spare room!” Henry was visibly moved, and he stood up and grasped my hand.

            “You’re a good man, Jack, a good man,” he said gratefully.

Well, we worked out the particulars, Mrs. Wilde impatiently demanding that her husband just settle with me for the original price so that they could get out of there, but I’m glad to say that I didn’t leave them out of pocket. Me, I was a little out of pocket, of course, but I still reckon I got one peach of a deal on this place.

At first, of course, I thought of ways to get up to the spare room, and to step inside that mysterious structure, maybe to learn the secrets of another time. But after I tried to find a ladder long enough, with no success, and half-heartedly attempted to get a rope over the room, with equally poor results, the immediate process of moving in and making my mark on the house and the land distracted me from such matters. I always meant to get round to the room, but something else more important always seemed to crop up. And, eventually, just as Henry had told me, the time came when I barely thought about it at all.

That’s about the end of the story, I guess, except for one thing. My nephew was visiting me a year or so ago, and talking about his business, a sawmill and timber yard. It occurred to me, just out of interest, to ask how long of a ladder he could make, for a particular job I was considering (I’ve never mentioned the room to anyone, and nor have my family and friends ever noticed it). He assured me that I could get a folding one of pretty much any length.

After he left, I set to thinking: I thought that this might be my great opportunity to solve the mystery, once and for all: I could order a ladder of the right length, and have it shipped over here, and finally satisfy my curiosity. But as I thought about it, about the expense, and the bother, I found that I really wasn’t that curious anymore. I myself had plenty of space in the house: I didn’t need another room: and besides, the most interesting thing about the room was surely the simple fact of its existence, something which I didn’t need a ladder to confirm. I really could think of no good reason to lean a ladder by that door, climb up to it, and open it.

In any case, as Henry pointed out to me: it might be locked!

Contact:  Alan can be contacted for bookings or commissions, at:  48 Catherine Street, Gatehouse of Fleet DG7 2JB   alanmcclure70@hotmail.com   Tel: 07496181254

 

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