Stakes reached out and turned the ignition key savagely, slamming his car into gear and reversing with reckless abandon from his parking space, the old car’s transmission protesting with a high-pitched whine. His lips trembled with the effort of holding himself together as he selected first gear and roared out of the factory grounds into the road, barely checking for oncoming traffic. Ramming his tired car through the gears, he banged the steering wheel hard with the knuckles of his fist, five, six, seven times, perversely enjoying the pain. Stakes could feel the scream of anguish coming like a juggernaut.
“FUUUUUCK!!” He howled. “FUUUUUUCK!!” His throat was raw and rough, and although these outbursts usually helped to take the razor edge off of his anger and frustration, he could still feel the sobs bubbling up inside him and threatening to overwhelm him completely. Stakes blinked away the moisture in his eyes as his vision suddenly became blurred, his chest heaving involuntarily for a few seconds until he regained a fragile shell of self-control. His jaw was clenched shut, his teeth jammed together in a grimace of hopeless rage.
I need to drive, thought Stakes, to get away from the concrete and impatience and mindless, invasive crowds of the town, to get out into the countryside and go for an unhurried drive through the quiet lanes. This almost always calmed him down just a little and restored some small sense of balance within him. Stakes turned onto the dual carriageway which he always used to get back to his small one-room apartment a few miles away, but this time he was not going straight there. He was exhausted from depression, but he knew he needed to push himself into taking this long detour. It was Saturday afternoon, and his work week was done… just in time. He was completely at the end of his tether. Again.
Presently, Stakes flicked on his indicator and turned onto the slip road leading off of the main carriageway, feeling his anxiety beginning to ease as he negotiated the roundabout and headed onto the quiet ‘B’ road he often used as a conduit to the local countryside. It would be several miles before he reached real isolation, but Stakes took a deep breath as he began to guide his little car through the gentle curves, allowing the decreasing density of houses and increasing prevalence of trees and fields to soothe his thrumming nerves. He crested the top of a small hill, catching brief sight of the open farmland stretching invitingly across the horizon, and as he often did at this moment Stakes’ mind began to turn inwards, pondering on his life.
Stakes was in his thirties now, and for as long as he could remember he had been somehow at odds with the world around him. Visits to the kindly old family doctor with his mother were a frequent part of his childhood, usually after the young boy had spent most of the previous night crying for no reason that he or his parents could understand, or when his habitual stammer became so bad that he literally could not force the words from his mouth. Stakes was a very intelligent child, and words like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘personality disorder’ and even ‘insidious psychosis’ made comprehensible sense to him long before either his parents or doctor realised he understood their quiet conversations. Later, as a young adolescent, Stakes’ life seemed to consist of visits to several specialists interspersed with terrible bullying at school as the rank and file of male pupils saw him as an easy target on which to vent their own insecurities. Upon reaching his teens, Stakes’ burgeoning interest in girls became another source of frustration as his homely appearance coupled to his low social standing in school society branded him as unsuitable potential dating material to the school’s female population. His position in the top set of many subjects, far from adding to his status, instead saw him labelled as an eccentric geek and made him a further target of other pupils who needed him to be a failure in everything to justify their contempt of him. By the time he was sixteen, Stakes was taking a number of different medications to bolster his mental health, but still his by now entrenched depression, paranoia and low self-esteem meant that he was unable to respond to any hands of friendship or support offered by other pupils as they matured into young adults.
Changing down a gear to steer his old car through a tight turn on the quiet ‘B’ road, Stakes sighed as the memories rippled through his mind. He knew now, looking back, that a couple of the girls he had liked as a sixth former had sent out positive signals to him, and that it was possible he could have perhaps even dated one of them. But he was too far inside his own nightmare to see it or respond at the time – and what sort of company would he have been for them, even if he was right? Maybe it was for the best he had remained alone as a student. His precarious mental condition might have been further eroded with a rebuff, or a couple of disastrous dates – and Stakes had always felt, from the age of eleven or twelve, that he was barely hanging on to himself as a viable human being. Any added negativity, he knew, could have made his life untenable.
Stakes gazed over the landscape as he trundled slowly along the winding road, trying to take comfort from the placid fields and woodlands on either side. His mind was beginning to grow still and flat in a way he knew from experience heralded a wave of increased hopelessness.
And yet, what real difference would that have made? After leaving school he had a similarly traumatic time at college where there was no physical or mental abuse as there had been at school, but where his own mental fragility and stunted social development left him isolated and frustrated as friendships and relationships formed all around him like the bubbling waters of a river flowing around a solitary rock. Long term unemployment followed by a job in a factory staffed mainly by men with whom he had nothing in common had left Stakes’ life a wasteland of alienation and thwarted desires. So what if a laughing rebuttal at an attempt to ask a girl out, or the initial elation at having a girl he liked actually agree to go out with him turning into misery at his own awkwardness and her subsequent declination of anything further to do with him, had led him into a blazing tailspin of despair? What had his life been since then anyway? Nothing but negativity. All he had done was exist, taking a variety of medications, working in a profoundly unfulfilling job, and occasionally having a few days off with a mental crisis which blotted out everything else. Most days, the scope of his consciousness encompassed simply getting through the next hour, the next minute, the next few seconds without mental collapse. In spite of the tablets he took, his depression, his stress, his self-hatred, never left him. Only these drives into the tranquillity of the countryside gave him any release.
Stakes’ reverie was interrupted by a flash of light at the edge of his vision, and as he glanced in his rear view mirror the big car following close behind flashed its headlights again. Stakes looked down at his speedometer.
“Well, I’m doing nearly forty,” he muttered to himself. “It’s not fast, but not crawling along on this type of road. Try fucking overtaking me if you’re that bothered.”
As if on cue, the expensive saloon swung out alongside Stakes’ tired old car and swept by in a hiss of powerful engine and wide tyres.
“There you go, you over-privileged prick,” he said. “That was easy, wasn’t – shit!“
Stakes stamped on his brake pedal as the big saloon’s brake lights flared in his face and the car’s gleaming rump grew suddenly huge in his windscreen. As Stakes fought for control of his own little car, the upmarket saloon swung imperiously into the driveway of a huge, overbearing new house sitting on its own by the side of the empty road.
“YOU FUCKING STUPID FUCKING PIECE OF USELESS SHIT!” screamed Stakes as he swerved around the big saloon’s retreating rear end. Looking sideways, he glimpsed the house through the opening in the high wall surrounding the property, seeing for a split second the wide, opulent frontage, the manicured flowerbeds, the selection of sleek new cars parked on the gravel. “Why couldn’t you fucking WAIT for five fucking seconds you fucking selfish prick! Fucking… stupid… shitbag!” Stakes punched his steering wheel several times, his jaw clamped shut so tightly that his teeth flexed in their sockets, then he began to smack his head on the wheel’s rim, his frustration boiling over completely. “Fuck, fuck, FUUUUCKIIT…!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Presently, Stakes leaned back, panting with exertion and anger. No, he slowly realised, not anger – not any more. He felt empty. Dear God, he thought. What an arsehole manoeuvre that was. But his rage was spent now. He was still trundling slowly along the desolated ‘B’ road, only doing around 15 mph now as he had not increased his speed after having to avoid the idiot a few seconds ago. At least, Stakes thought, it must have only been a few seconds – he hadn’t driven off the road when he freaked out. But he didn’t really remember. He had had those sorts of blanks several times before over the years. Just par for the course for my life, he reflected.
Up ahead, Stakes could see a secluded turning off of the minor road he was travelling on. Yeah, that’ll do, he thought, let’s go down there. Sometimes he stuck to the ‘B’ roads on his drives, other times he left them to travel the twisty, narrow lanes into the deep countryside. Today was definitely a get-away-from-it-all day, he mused, his breath still shaky with emotion. The quieter the better. Stakes slowed further and steered his car into the tiny lane.
Stakes meandered along beneath the canopy of trees lining the narrow track, noting the build-up of leaves and dirt in the centre of the lane where vehicles’ tyres didn’t run. This road is clearly not used much, he decided, and the thought made him feel just a little more relaxed, detaching him a little further from the pressures of everyday existence. He didn’t think he had been down here before, and presently decided to stop and consult his map to try to identify where he was, and where he would go next.
Unfolding his worn map, Stakes peered at the path of the ‘B’ road he had recently turned off of. He knew roughly where he was on that road, and there didn’t seem to be any turning leading from it in the general area of his location. Stakes’ eyes narrowed, bringing the map a little closer. Wait – there, maybe? Branching off to the left was a tiny lane marked in white, not really a road at all, more of a byway. It didn’t seem to lead anywhere on the map, just meandered along for a mile or so before running out into open country. Well, he thought, let’s just explore it. He still had a little of his packed lunch left over from work, maybe he would get to the end of the lane and eat it there in peace. He needed to be completely away from other people.
Stakes put the car in gear and rolled slowly along the tiny lane, his tyres crunching on the fallen twigs dotting the cracked tarmac. Yes, this was very nice, he thought. Hopefully the trees would thin out and he would be treated to a pleasant, open view by the end of the track, where he could stop and eat his sandwich. The lane twisted and turned, up-hill and down. Presently, still under the canopy of overhanging trees, Stakes stopped. In front of him was a ‘T’ junction, equally narrow lanes branching off to the left and right.
Well this is odd, he mused. His map was rather old, but this didn’t look like any new development – the road surface, where visible amongst the leaves and gravel, was rough and potholed. Maybe he was somewhere different to where he thought he was? Turning right, he pulled onto a grassy verge and consulted his map once more.
Stakes perused his tattered map with a frown. He knew of the next turning off of the ‘B’ road, having driven it several times before. And he knew of the previous one. Between the two, there was nothing marked as branching off of the main road except the little track he had taken, and nothing about any further lanes leading from it. Oh well, thought Stakes, it was a pleasantly warm, early summer day. Let’s carry on. It’ll just run out into some old farm in a minute, then he could go back and try the opposite lane. He pulled off of the verge and crept unhurriedly along the narrow track, his small car almost brushing the foliage on each side of him. The lane twisted and turned, up-hill and down.
Eventually the densely packed trees gave way to open fields separated by lines of shrubs, and for the first time in weeks a ghost of a smile crossed Stakes’ face as he took in the glorious, rolling hills. What a find, he thought, expelling a deep sigh as he felt his inner tension subside a little more. He would definitely come here again.
He continued crawling along the tiny lane, admiring the far-reaching view opening up in front of him, and as he crested a small rise in the road he spotted a handful of cottages in the far distance. This little settlement is beautifully tucked away, Stakes thought as he trundled his old car down the hill towards the tiny hamlet. The lane curled randomly this way and that, the cottages briefly coming into view now and again before disappearing behind a clump of bushes or a field of high corn, then presently the first dwelling emerged from behind a border of shrubs. Stakes instinctively hit his brake pedal, his eyes widening. The cottage was beautiful.
He slowed almost to a stop before remembering himself and easing down on the accelerator, not wanting any awkward interaction with a home-owner wondering why he was staring through their windows. Stakes continued on, keeping one eye on his rear view mirror as the cottage receded behind him, and as it finally vanished beyond a bend in the lane, another small bungalow came into view. And this one was equally lovely, Stakes marvelled, painted a pastel pink and set well back from the road with a row of fruit trees visible in the well-kept rear garden. Wow, he thought.
And so it went on, perhaps half a dozen equally gorgeous little homes – a couple of thatched cottages with their fluffy roofs hanging below head height over their white walls, bungalows nestling deep amongst dense trees and almost invisible from the road, a stone lodge with tiny windows and a rickety old red telephone box standing outside the tumbledown front wall, an ancient wooden barn leaning slightly to one side but clearly luxuriantly equipped inside. Each dwelling was separated from the other by at least a hundred yards, though some of the gardens ran alongside the lane until it bordered the neighbouring grounds. There was barely a car to be seen on any of the properties, giving the little hamlet a strong sense of times past. As Stakes crawled by the final cottage and continued along the tiny lane into what was now unbroken countryside, he took a deep breath of the honeysuckle-scented air coming in through his open car window. What a delight this all is, he reflected.
Deciding to continue on and explore the rest of the narrow track, Stakes trundled his little car over the bumpy road and presently the last dwelling disappeared from view around a sharp bend in the lane. His misery, his rage, his frustration was ebbing away from the foreground of his mind now. This, Stakes told himself, is why he drove out all these miles most weekends – to find these places, to find his own momentary peace.
The lane continued, twisting this way and that, up-hill and down. Stakes traversed a shallow ford before edging his car between rows of trees, their full branches occasionally scraping across the car’s bodywork as the lane narrowed even further. Then the tiny road opened out into fields once more, and Stakes sped up a little before slowing almost to a stop as a pair of rabbits zigzagged along the lane ahead of him in their long, unbalanced lopes until they darted sideways into the undergrowth. Stakes realised he was faintly smiling again as he watched them disappear into the neighbouring field. Turning his attention back to the road, he realised that he could see more houses in the distance, just a few. Good Lord, he thought, this really was out in the sticks now.
Stakes traversed the lane’s curves and swoops, occasionally glimpsing the handful of dwellings among the farmland, until the first of them came into view ahead of him, peeping from behind a border of shrubs. Stakes frowned quizzically. It was a lovely little thatch, its fluffy roof hanging below head height over its whitewashed walls. And it was, as far as Stakes could remember, exactly like the first cottage he had seen in the last little cluster of houses.
Stakes trundled by, then stopped outside the second bungalow a few hundred yards along the lane, looking at its pastel pink walls, its well-tended garden, its row of fruit trees. Further along the tiny lane, he could just make out the red block of the old telephone box, standing by the crumbling stone wall of the next dwelling. This is the same village, Stakes realised. He had come in a big circle.
Well okay, he told himself, the little hamlet was well worth seeing again anyway. He would carry on through, admire the houses, then keep watch for the turning he had missed last time. Stakes reasoned that he must have passed the original little lane leading off of the ‘B’ road that had brought him here, and it would be on his right. He understood now that, if he had turned left at the ‘T’ junction at the end of that original lane, he would simply have come into the tiny village in the other direction, on this circular track perhaps a couple of miles long. Stakes set off, guiding his car through the picturesque cottages and out again between the open fields.
The lane twisted this way and that, up-hill and down. Stakes keenly watched the road ahead, alert for the turning he had missed before. He eased his little car through the shallow ford, remembering that the ‘T’ junction had been sited in the thicket of the trees that were now approaching. Stakes slowed further, selecting first gear as he steered his car into the dense copse, the sunlight turning green around him as it shone through the overhead canopy of leaves. He crawled along at walking pace, studying the verges beside him for the turning back towards the main road.
Presently the sunlight began to grow brighter, and Stakes blew out a sigh as he emerged into the open farmland once more. This was ridiculous, he told himself. He drove slowly along the bumpy lane, looking for somewhere to turn round. Maybe he missed it again, he wondered. Maybe one of the random bursts of sunlight which occasionally speared between a break in the overhead foliage just happened to dazzle him as he approached the turn. Finding a narrow break in the shrubs lining the fields, Stakes swung his little car into the gap, reversed back into the lane, and set off in the opposite direction towards the copse once more. Now the sun was at his back, and he would see more clearly.
Stakes crawled into the green sunlight once more, his car sliding between the close-knit trees. Yes, those random, brief beams of pure light dappling the broken tarmac were not in his eyes now. He focussed his attention on the left-hand verge this time, remembering he was approaching from the opposite direction. Stakes could see everything now – the flowers and grass at the foot of the trees, the lichen clinging to a fallen branch, a squirrel scurrying along the woodland floor before racing up a nearby tree trunk
What he did not see was any way off of the lane. Stakes emerged from the copse of trees and traversed the shallow ford, then pulled his car to a stop.
What to do? He thought. He felt strangely equable, even though getting lost usually sent him into a frenzy of irritation and anxiety. Stakes did not, by nature, like speaking to people very much, but it occurred to him that he should go back to the little village and ask one of the locals for directions. He wasn’t sure what they could tell him, but it seemed like the only course of action. Stakes selected first gear and trundled off.
The lane twisted this way and that, up-hill and down. The views in this direction were equally spectacular, Stakes decided, miles of rolling countryside with hardly another house or road in sight. Presently he spotted a bungalow in the distance, and he knew already it would be a beautiful little thatch, its fluffy roof hanging below head height over its whitewashed walls. The two thatches bookended the hamlet.
He drove alongside this first cottage, and pulled into a narrow layby set into the verge adjacent to the thatch’s garden. Behind the cottage, a small rear lawn ended at a low hedgerow, and beyond were stunning views over the hills. Stakes sighed wistfully.
He emerged from his little car, enjoying the scent of late spring flowers. The only sounds in the air were the gentle susurrus of birdsong, and the rustle of tree branches in the gentle breeze. Stakes looked around, wondering if the owner was at home. There was no sign of any activity. He began to walk towards the other cottages, then remembered the remains of his packed lunch still in his car. No point in wasting it, Stakes reasoned, and retrieved the plastic box from the rear seat before strolling off along the narrow lane.
Coming to the converted wooden barn, he noticed a rough bench on the grass verge outside the dwelling. How lovely, Stakes thought, he would eat his food here, soak up the tranquillity of it all, then pluck up the courage to get directions. There was an old, dusty car parked alongside the barn, a 1970’s model of a type he hadn’t seen on the road for years.
Popping open his plastic lunch box, Stakes removed his somewhat warm sandwich and began to eat, relaxing back into the bench’s comfortable arms. His mind felt less troubled than it had for as long as he could remember. Not untroubled, he knew… but slightly less at war with itself. His sandwich finished, Stakes selected a biscuit from a small tinfoil wrap in his lunchbox.
As he munched his biscuit, Stakes became aware of a sound behind him – a crunch of footsteps on gravel. Turning, he saw an elderly man in a shirt, light trousers and a summer hat strolling down the front path of the wooden barn, studying him. Well this was useful, Stakes thought even as his eyes automatically dropped away from the old man and the black fear rose in his mind. Personal contact with anyone was something that filled Stakes with anxious inadequacy at any time, but at least now he wouldn’t have to add to his discomfort by actually going and knocking on some stranger’s door. The old man lifted his hand in greeting.
“Afternoon,” the man said.
“Good afternoon,” replied Stakes, “I – erm, I hope you don’t mind me sitting outside your house to eat my tea.”
The elderly man reached the bench and sat alongside Stakes with a hitch of his trousers and a huff of breath. “Not at all young man, feel free. Would you like a cup of tea with it?”
Stakes shook his head quickly, his paranoia suddenly looming astride his consciousness at the possibility – the threat – of social interaction. He could feel his body shrinking away from the old man as if it was trying to disappear into itself, and Stakes forced himself to make eye contact for a second or two. “That’s very kind, but I won’t trouble you,” he muttered, trying to force a smile onto his tense face. “Actually what I would be grateful for are some directions – I seem to be lost.”
The old man gazed in silence at Stakes for several seconds, his head cocked slightly to one side as if studying an interesting laboratory specimen. “You can’t find your way out, can you?” he asked.
Stakes glanced sharply back at his companion. “No, actually. How did you know? Is it common here?”
The old man grinned, gazing off into the distance. “It happens,” he smiled. “I heard a car come by here two or three times so I figured you couldn’t get out.” The man stretched his legs out, enjoying the warm sun. “It’s lovely here, isn’t it, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it’s marvellous to be honest,” Stakes answered, looking around him at the deserted lane, the fields beyond, the glimpse of a cream-washed bungalow a hundred yards down on the other side of the road. “it’s… a joy.”
The elderly man kept his eyes on the fields. “lovely enough to stay, do you think?”
A small alarm bell started ringing in Stakes’ head. “Erm… yeah that would be great, but I have this tedious and crushingly dismal life outside that I really don’t want to get back to, but if I don’t I’ll have the bailiffs after me.” Just my luck, Stakes thought ruefully. I find an idyllic heaven like this, and the guy I end up speaking to is probably a serial killer.
The old man nodded slowly. “You’re here now,” he pronounced. “You’ve driven round and round and you can’t get out. That happened to me, oh probably thirty years ago now. I’ve been here ever since.”
Stakes stared him, mentally revising his opinion. Okay maybe he’s not a serial killer, he thought, maybe he’s just a harmless, demented old man.
“Let me guess,” Stakes’ companion continued, turning his gaze back to the younger man. “You’re sad, you’re lonely, your life is an unbearable drudge of some sort, and it’s probably some sort of miracle that you haven’t killed yourself.”
Stakes drew in a sharp breath. He had attempted suicide twice, once in his teens and once just a couple of years before – and he had had a feeling in the back of his mind for a while that it might happen again in the near future. He sighed, suddenly downhearted. “Is it that obvious what a – a failure I am?” he mumbled.
“Not to look at you,” the old man responded brightly. “But you’re here, and you can’t get out. And everyone here is the same. So it stands to reason.” He chuckled. “Look, come in and have that cup of tea. I think you need it. I’ll try to explain it to you. I’m Brian, by the way.”
Stakes felt very odd as he stood and followed the elderly man into his beautiful converted barn. Bewildered and uncertain, yet strangely free of the worst of his demons. “David,” he replied softly, stepping into the cool of the kitchen and admiring the rustic elegance of it. “This is wonderful.”
“Yes it is,” smiled the old man with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s exactly what I wanted.” He regarded Stakes for a few moments. “Exactly. Let me brew that tea.”
The kettle boiled and switched off before the old man, Brian, spoke again. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions, David,” he began, “I know I did when I first landed here. But let me tell you some things first.” Brian placed two steaming mugs of tea on the wooden breakfast table and ushered Stakes to pull out a chair. “Now then,” Brian began, sitting down with his old man’s huff of breath. “I’ve known we’d be getting someone new for a while now. The cottage at the end of the lane – the one you’ve parked almost outside – has been empty for the past few weeks. A lady called Marjorie used to live there. Nice woman, she was.”
“What happened to her?” asked Stakes, curious in spite of the bizarreness of the situation. The cottage at the end of the lane – that beautiful thatch. “Did she pass away?” Instantly, Stakes mentally kicked himself. Christ, she probably just moved. What a pillock. Although, he thought, why would anyone want to leave this little slice of heaven?
Brian didn’t seem upset though, in fact he regarded Stakes with something close to amusement. “Hmmm… maybe. What actually happened is what always happens here. She passed out. One day she was here, the next morning she was gone. Maybe she died… maybe she just left. Maybe she found the way out.” Brian leaned forwards, resting his elbows on the table and studying Stakes closely. “You told me earlier that you were lost, and you wanted me to tell you how to get out. Right?”
“So let me tell you something.” Brian fixed Stakes with a firm stare. “You find your way out of here when you are ready to go.” He shrugged. “Maybe Marjie was ready to leave, maybe she was at a point where she wanted to leave. You, on the other hand, found your way here from a tortured life, and you’ve already said it would be great to stay. So… it’s no surprise you can’t find your way out. You don’t want to, deep down. Or maybe not so deep.” Brian sat back, smiling.
Stakes took a deep breath, and sighed. “Are you telling me I can’t leave?”
Brian shook his head. “No – I’m telling you that you don’t want to. If and when you do, you’ll find that little lane again no problem. But really…” Brian leaned back in his chair and surveyed his kitchen and the spectacular view beyond the window contentedly, “why would you? That’s my opinion. But everyone here makes their own decisions, every day. Though Marjie’s the first to go in – let me see now, five or six years maybe.”
Stakes’ head was swimming. No, he corrected himself, it was drowning – almost. What the old man was telling him was unbelievable. Unbelievable – and yet… compelling. Or perhaps more accurately, tantalising. His mind felt a strange lightness. His own thought from a few minutes ago came back to him: Why would anyone want to leave this little slice of heaven?
With a huge effort, Stakes dragged himself back to the conversation. “So you say everyone who lives here has been through some sort of personal… hell, of some sort? Before they arrived here?”
“Yes,” Brian nodded, then checked himself with a grimace. “Well, sort of. It’s complicated. But we’ll get to the details in good time.”
“So, er…” Stakes stammered, “What is supposed to happen now?” Was he really saying that, Stakes wondered. But what else was he meant to say?
“Okay!” Brian rubbed his hands together, as if the real business was about to start. “Well, first let’s take you to your home – your new home. It’s the cottage at the end of the lane, as you may have guessed. Luckily,” he smiled, “your car is already parked outside it. Or maybe not luckily, eh? Maybe fatefully. Let’s go.”
Brian drained his tea cup and stood, Stakes following suit. This is really crazy, he thought as the old man led him back out into the warm, late afternoon sun, their shoes crunching on the gravel path. Crazy. And yet, as they strolled towards the gorgeous little thatch, its fluffy roof hanging below head height over the whitewashed walls, the faint light amid the blackness of his mind had begun to resolve itself into a tiny kernel of something bright that he had not felt in years. Hope.
They ambled through the wooden gate and into the front garden of the thatched cottage, up the flagstone path to the old fashioned black-painted front door. Brian lifted the latch and gestured Stakes to enter. “Nobody locks anything here,” he explained as the door swung open. “Everyone’s content so what’s the need?”
Stakes’ mouth hung open as he entered the living room, his legs suddenly weak. It was perfect, he marvelled. Not just nice. Perfect. If he had been asked to detail his ideal living space at the height of one of his good spells, this was what he would have described.
“Oh…” he murmured. “Oh… my God.”
Brian chuckled. “It’s to your liking I take it? It’s actually quite different to when Marjie had it. But that’s this place for you. “
“How did…” Stakes hesitated. He had been about to say, ‘how did they know?’ with regard to the sheer correctness of the place – then realised that he had no idea who ‘they’ even were. “Who… sort of… decorated it then? If it’s so different?”
Brian exhaled thoughtfully. “Well now, that’s the thing about here. The beauty of it, if you like. Things just happen. Very nice tastes you have, David, by the way,” Brian gazed approvingly around the room at the mahogany coloured leather chairs and sofa, the light and airy wallpaper, the marble fireplace, the paintings hanging in strategic positions around the walls. “Anyway. Let’s go through to the kitchen and I’ll explain some stuff.”
The cottage was pleasantly cool despite the early summer heat, and Stakes briefly wondered if it was going to be an icebox in the winter. Then he checked himself – good Lord, he had only been in the place two minutes, how could he be thinking long-term thoughts like that? And at the same time, he had the distinct feeling that the cottage in winter would somehow be wonderfully warm and cosy.
They entered the kitchen through a slightly crooked entranceway only just tall enough to clear their heads. The cottage was probably very old, Stakes decided… but the kitchen was a delightful mix of traditional and modern, and – of course – exactly how Stakes would have wanted it down to the finest detail. He pulled out one of the delicately upholstered wooden dining chairs and flumped heavily into it, trying to take in the full scope of the events overloading his brain. He massaged his forehead slowly, squeezing the bridge of his nose.
“Now then,” Brian began, opening the wide refrigerator to reveal shelves packed with produce. “This is, as you can see, fully stocked. The freezer will be the same, as will…” the old man pulled open a door on one of the overhead storage units, revealing a variety of tins and packets, “… all the cupboards. You can go through everywhere later, but just use whatever you want, it’s all here for you. Don’t get fat though!” he chuckled. “It’s easily done…”
Stakes sighed. There was so much he didn’t understand here. “But what happens when the food runs low? There are no shops. And,” he suddenly remembered, “I have no money.”
The elderly man came and sat opposite Stakes, clasping his gnarled hands together on the rustic table-top as he gazed at the younger man. The old boy had very pale blue eyes, Stakes realised, quite laser-like when he fixed them on you.
“Well now, here’s how it works,” Brian began. “You eat what you want. You go to bed. You wake up next morning, come downstairs, and all your supplies have been topped up. Don’t ask me how,” he added, holding his hands up as he saw the confused expression on Stakes’ face, “because I don’t know. But it does. Oh, and if you sit in the kitchen and stay awake all night, nothing happens.” The old man smiled, his eyes growing distant for a second. “I tried that a couple of times,” he laughed, “deprived myself of sleep for the sake of knowing. When it got to seven in the morning, I gave up and decided to go to bed. That’s when I found all the new food neatly stacked on my coffee table in the lounge. That’s the thing here,” Brian continued, “stuff happens… things are renewed. Things are repaired. Including our minds, maybe,” he shrugged. “who knows?”
Stakes blew out a long breath. His brief glimpse into the food cupboard had revealed a variety of his favourite produce. The fruit bowl on the counter-top was full of apples, peaches and bananas, all of which he loved. It all seemed perfect.
“I don’t know,” he sighed, “I mean… God, I don’t know what I mean.” Stakes gave a brief snort of laughter and shook his head.
The old man smiled kindly. “It’s a lot to take in, I know, but we’ve all of us here been through what you’re feeling now. John, who lives in the stone lodge, he was the most recent, he got here around five or six years back. Deborah, in the other thatch at the end of the village, she’s been here maybe fifteen years. Gracie in the pink bungalow, she arrived I think twenty-one – no twenty two years ago. And old Fred in the little cream bungalow you can hardly see for the trees, well he was here when I arrived. He’s an interesting character, is Fred,” Brian went on, leaning back in his chair and gazing out of the kitchen window to the splendid view beyond, “well, they all are, but Fred… he didn’t come by car.” The old man glanced back at Stakes, serious now. “He’s the only one who didn’t. He actually walked here across the fields, carrying his backpack. His backpack had nothing in it but a bottle of water and some very serious poison. The sort of thing you could never get your hands on now, from what I gather from John, but back then it was a different time, wasn’t it? Fred had had a gutful of his life. He was on his final pilgrimage in his eyes, just hiking along the local footpaths trying to find a pleasant spot in which to lie down, admire the view, and kill himself. Instead, he found here.”
Stakes’ brow furrowed as something in the old man’s words struck him. “Brian… hasn’t anyone ever tried to walk out of the village?” he asked. “I mean, the road into here disappears, okay… but the fields and ditches are still right there outside.”
Brian leaned forwards again, fixing Stakes with his iceberg eyes. “You don’t quite understand yet, do you David? You leave the village when you are ready to.” The old man smiled, his gaze melting. “He was a great walker, was Fred,” Brian nodded, “not so much nowadays, I mean he is in his eighties now but he still trundles around the lane now and again when the weather’s good and the mood takes him. But in those days… oh, he would ramble around for hours. Miles and miles, he’d walk. But he’d always come back here, and he never saw another house, another road… another soul. You see those fields right up on the horizon there?” Brian pointed out of the kitchen window. “Beyond the grove of trees alongside where the meadow is full of bluebells?”
Stakes peered through the window, spotting the purple-tinged meadow, the small copse, the yellowing fields beyond. “Yes, I see them.”
“Sometimes you’ll see a tractor or two working those fields,” Brian informed him. “Seeding, spraying, bringing in the harvest. Now, how far away is that? Two miles? Three? Five, maybe at a push.”
“Okay,” Stakes agreed cautiously.
“Okay,” replied the old man. “But, if you set off and walk across the farmland here towards those fields when they’re being worked on… well, you walk and walk, three, four hours or more. Then you come to a little rise in the land where you can see for miles and, wouldn’t you know it, those tractors are still just as far away as when you left home! Just little coloured dots crawling across a distant land. Fred told me the story once, after one of his little jaunts. Thing is,” Brian went on, lacing his hands behind his head and smiling at the sunlit window, “it don’t matter what you do, or where you go, it’s what you want that matters here. Never forget that, David.” The old man turned back to Stakes, still smiling kindly. “It’s what you want that matters here.”
Stakes glanced out at the rear garden. His rear garden? He felt mentally weary… yet not so despairing that moving was an effort of will, or so stressed he felt strung out like a rubber band stretched to breaking point. And he felt his mind beginning to uncramp as the reducing weight of his misery began to allow his psyche some freedom.
“So… “Stakes began hesitantly, “if I went out for a drive round the lane here, would I find any other lanes to drive? Ones that eventually led back here?”
“Well now, I don’t know,” mused Brian, “I never did and I haven’t heard anyone else finding any more roads. But you might be different, mightn’t you?”
A small door opened in Stakes’ mind, a tiny beam of light shining through. “It’s what I want that counts, right?” he asked, a trace of a smile playing on his lips.
“Precisely!” Brian exclaimed, pointing one wrinkled finger at Stakes. “You might find all manner of little lanes and tracks. You might not, of course. But just because no-one else has doesn’t guarantee that you won’t. Reality works a bit different here.”
“ It’s more… subjective.” Stakes mused.
The old man nodded.
“And…” Stakes sighed. This whole situation was in some bizarre way sounding less and less far-fetched each time he spoke. “I’m guessing… that if I do go for a drive, the next time I return to my car it will have a full tank of fuel – won’t it?”
Brian pursed his lips. “Mine always does,” he replied. “And it never seems to need repairing either, happily. Oh, and another thing, before I forget – the grass still grows round here, so do the weeds. And flowers still need watering. And this lovely little cottage will need cleaning now and again if you want to have a bit of hygiene. But for some reason, stuff happens slower here. You might need to cut your lawn once, twice a year, maybe. Weed the flowerbeds once. Dust seems to take a hell of a time to accumulate. Who knows why?” Brian shrugged.
Stakes nodded. “Things happen differently here,” he agreed. He looked around the beautifully appointed kitchen, realising he was already beginning to feel at home here. More at home, actually, more real, than in his spartan, one room apartment, whose drab fixtures and worn furniture already seemed to be fading in his mind like an old photograph exposed to sunlight. “Do you always get… I don’t know… your every desire answered? Like, say you suddenly fancy a-a mint chocolate ice cream for instance, even though it’s not your usual treat…”
“Good point,” the old man nodded. “Somewhere in this place – probably either the living room, or here in the kitchen – there will be a little yellow pad and a pen. Anything you want that you don’t have, write it down and leave it on here.” Brian tapped the wooden table-top under his hands. “Next morning, it’ll be here. Except that mint chocolate ice cream, of course,” he smiled, “that’ll be in the freezer.”
Stakes shook his head, a small bubble of laughter escaping him. God, he thought, it had been months – no, it had been years – since he had laughed at anything other than his own bitter failure or frustration. “Well…” Stakes blew out his cheeks. “I… don’t really know what to say. Or do.”
“Best thing is to have a good look around the cottage,” suggested Brian, “take stock of what’s here, settle in and get a good night’s sleep. Bet you’re tired, eh?”
Stakes gazed through the kitchen window, watching the colours beginning to flood the sky as the sun sank low on the distant horizon. It was an utterly beautiful sight.
“Yeah, actually I am. Information overload, I think.”
“Something like that,” the old man affirmed. “I mean if you want, if you’re not sure, you can take a lap or two around the lane, see if the road out appears to you. Doubt it will though, but the choice is yours.”
Stakes studied Brian carefully. “does anyone… else… come through here at all?” he asked. “Any other cars, cyclists, walkers…”
The old man shook his head cheerfully. “No, not from outside. That’s why I’m confident you won’t find the road out.” He leaned forward, still smiling. “No-one has ever come here by accident, David. Not since I’ve been here, anyway.”
Stakes nodded, sighing as he looked out at the pink and orange sky. The tranquillity here was magical. From his little garden, the evening birdsong piped discreetly through the window glass. What if he did find his way out? Back to his dingy apartment, hateful job, endless avalanche of bills and threatening letters written by computer, back to scarred nerves and social inadequacy and constant, constant, black frustration. He already felt that Brian was a truer friend to him than anyone he had left behind.
Well, what was the worst that could happen, Stakes reasoned. Brian was completely mad, the cottage was empty for a down-to-earth reason, and he would spend a night, or two, or a week, or two, there before the police came knocking on the door. And if Brian was right… well, then he was meant to be here, and no amount of searching by anyone would find him tucked away here in this little corner of paradise.
“You know, I don’t think I’ll bother going out again tonight,” Stakes confirmed. “You’re right, I am tired. I’ll have a quick look round and turn in, I think.”
The old man nodded. “Good…” He stood, this time with a throaty grunt instead of the huff of breath he favoured when sitting down. “I should leave you to it, then. But if you have any questions, just wander along and give me a knock. I’m up at eight or so most mornings. Can’t sleep in any longer these days. You get old here, too,” he chuckled, and held out his hand. “See you soon, David.”
Stakes took the old man’s gnarly hand and shook it with a warmth he hadn’t felt for years. “Thank you Brian. See you probably tomorrow.”
“Take care now.” They returned to the living room, and old man smiled at Stakes as he pulled the front door shut behind him. The latch rattled shut, and Stakes stood for a few seconds in the sudden silence, looking around him.
His cottage? He thought. The silence was thick and peaceful, the soft chorus of birdsong quieting now as the sky became purple. Maybe. Just maybe. No – a little more than maybe, he realised. Stakes cautioned himself against too much optimism, and yet… and yet… this did feel like home already. He sighed and wandered back into the kitchen, peering into the cupboards and drawers, rifling through the frosty, neatly labelled chunks of food in the chest freezer. Taking one of the apples from the loaded fruit bowl, Stakes noticed the little yellow notepad tucked under one corner of the bowl, a ballpoint pen placed alongside it.
Biting into his crisp apple – Royal Gala, he noticed, his favourite variety – Stakes debated putting together some kind of quick meal, then decided he was too tired and not hungry enough to bother himself. Besides, he wanted to see the rest of the cottage. He needed to use the toilet, and then sleep.
Carrying a glass of water from the luxuriantly appointed bathroom, Stakes was unsurprised to find his bedroom was, of course, exactly how he might have planned and arranged it himself. Stakes pulled back the duvet, feeling the soft mattress yield pliantly under his hand. Suddenly he was exhausted. Pulling off his clothes, he just about managed to approximately fold them and place them on the bedside chair before slipping into the silken caress of the bed. Oh God that felt good, Stakes marvelled, so much better than the narrow, cheap bed and thin sheets at his old apartment. Outside the tall bedroom window, the sky had turned a deep indigo with just a pink line running along the horizon, and Stakes let the view soothe his mind further and further until, without realising it, he drifted into a deep sleep.
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