Stakes didn’t see Brian the next day. Or even the next week. That first Sunday, he spent most of his time drifting in and out of sleep, waking only to shuffle to the kitchen to fetch food or drink, just tea and snacks with one microwave packet meal. On Monday, he stayed awake for just long enough to recognise with relief his freedom from work before dozing for most of the day. Tuesday and Wednesday followed the same pattern.
He needed to shower, Stakes told himself on Thursday morning as he lay motionless in the centre of his huge, soft bed, his gangly limbs stretched out across the sheet. It was funny though, he didn’t smell too bad – and the bedclothes were still crisp and pleasantly scented. Maybe that was something else that happened slowly here, he thought – you didn’t need to do much laundry.
The shower freshened up his senses as well as his body, and Stakes threw open the big bedroom window to the warm sun before studying the racks of clothing hanging neatly in his wardrobe. The bedside clock read 10.30 am. Good God, he thought as he selected a pair of smart jeans from the array of hangers, I’ve slept for nearly four days. He must have been physically and mentally drained.
Stakes noticed, when he opened the bathroom cabinet searching for toothpaste, that his anti-depressant tablets were discreetly tucked into the corner of the small cupboard. He briefly hesitated before deciding to continue with his medication regime. So much was different here… but he knew he still needed this security, this help, in his own mind.
It was a day of exploration around the cottage: by the end of it, Stakes had discovered that the television only broadcast old movies, old TV productions and old sporting events – no news channels and no modern programming. Which, Stakes realised, suited him very well. There was, however, a fine selection of DVD’s in the expansive shelving beside the television – all either his favourite items or things he had always wanted to see. The laptop computer which he found resting on the writing table underneath one of the windows of the living room seemed to be connected to some sort of Internet service which he didn’t recognise, but a cursory surf told him that the situation was much the same as the TV – nothing which might have troubled him or connected him to the modern outside world ever seemed to come up in his searches. Stakes made himself a small beef casserole in the afternoon, and spent a pleasant evening watching highlights of the 1972 world snooker championship. An occasional player in his teens until his anxiety and paranoia prevented him from voluntarily visiting public places where he might be judged or ridiculed, Stakes had long wanted to see that first, incendiary public flash of the genius of Alex Higgins, who had seemingly come from nowhere and triumphed over John Spencer in the final that year in what many observers had claimed was one of the greatest matches ever played. Stakes wasn’t sure if the tournament had even been filmed – yet, here it was on his television, in full HD colour.
On Friday, he went for a leisurely walk along the lane, observing all the dwellings properly for the first time. Nobody seemed to be out and about. What was the rush? He reasoned. You could just do things at your own pace here. He strolled for half an hour along the twists and crests of the bumpy lane but stopped short of the trees which crowded the narrow lane, suddenly afraid that if he went far enough into the canopy of overhanging leaves, the road out might loom from of the shadows like some threatening monster. He was almost certain it would not – he was beginning to appreciate Brian’s guidance: ‘it’s what you want that matters here’, but Stakes was not trusting enough of his own mind yet to know what trick it might play on him. Shaking his head ruefully, he turned and ambled back towards the village.
He didn’t have any desire to drive yet – though when closing his car window finally on the Thursday, five days after he had arrived, Stakes had turned on the ignition and noticed that the fuel tank gauge did indeed read full. That Friday was a little warmer still, the summer heat beginning to blossom now, and Stakes spent the evening sitting in the reclining lounger in his back garden, sipping a fruit smoothie and watching the evening sun painting the high, tissue-thin clouds in spectacular colours as it eased its way down to the horizon. The slow pace of life here already seemed to be beginning to soothe Stakes’ raw nerves just a little.
Over the course of the following week, Stakes began to walk out though the fields, taking a packed lunch with him as he meandered along overgrown footpaths bordering meadows or winding this way and that alongside ditches. He never went beyond a point where he lost the security of visual contact with the cottage, not wishing to risk letting it out of his sight as if it would somehow disappear if he were not watching it. Nevertheless, Stakes enjoyed his leisurely strolls through the deep, still countryside, and after a few days he began to reflect on his own life and the events that had shaped him. This detailed contemplation was something he used to do as a teenager to help him come to terms with the world and his place in it, before his mental condition gradually deteriorated to the point where the effort of existing from one minute to the next blotted out any ability for lateral or philosophical thought. Now, Stakes was slowly re-discovering his inner landscapes, revisiting the memories of his youth, analysing the actions of those around him and his reactions to them.
When he felt less energetic, Stakes would stay in his cottage and think there, sometimes pacing back and forth across his living room for a time as he investigated a particularly traumatic episode. Sometimes his musings would leave Stakes in a mood of despairing self-hatred – how could he be in this glorious place and still feel depressed? Yet, he knew, there was a fragile but perceptible inner resilience beginning to bud inside him, and the black torment in his head would start to abate within a few hours instead of lasting for weeks as it had before.
His first request scribbled on the yellow notepad was for a bigger notebook, so he could write down his thoughts if the mood took him. Leaving the yellow square stuck on the rustic dining table before turning in for the night, Stakes entered the kitchen the next morning to find, as well as a small stack of supplies replacing what he had used the day before, a thick book of lined paper as well as another ballpoint pen. Stakes sat at the table for a few minutes, ruminating, his mind considering the possibilities.
That mint chocolate ice cream he had mentioned to Brian on the day he had arrived seemed like a nice idea, he decided a couple of days later, and duly requested it via the yellow memo pad. Opening the freezer the next morning, Stakes saw not just any mint chocolate ice cream – but the exact, minority brand that he used to enjoy as a child. A brand that had disappeared at some point during his adolescence, and which he had assumed had gone out of business. A brand which he had not specified in his note – he had just written ‘mint chocolate ice cream’. Yet… here it was, after all these years. His lunch that day was fattening but delicious.
Stakes had seen two of the village’s other residents during that week. A few days before, he had been eating a sandwich in his living room when, happening to glance out of the window to see that charming view of the lane and hedgerow beyond, he had spied a tall, skinny old man walking slowly past his cottage and out of the village, his baggy shorts billowing around his stick-thin legs in the light summer breeze, his head bowed a little as he focussed on keeping his footing on the cracked tarmac. Well, that must be Fred, thought Stakes. Hello Fred. The old man turned his head and briefly glanced at Stakes’ cottage as he passed, but his straw hat shielded his eyes so Stakes couldn’t tell if Fred had seen him through the window or not. Stakes did not respond, and the old man returned his attention to the lane in front of him as he ambled carefully off into the distance.
A day or so later, Stakes had been walking himself, this time unafraid to pass through the tightly packed copse of trees on his travels. He was more sure now that the road out would not appear – and even if it did, he had no intention of taking it. And if he had no desire to take it… well, then the road wouldn’t appear, would it? Stakes was beginning to get a feel for how the place worked.
On his way back he had been admiring the beautiful little dwellings as he returned towards his cottage, and passing the stone lodge he glimpsed through the trees alongside the lodge a man sitting in a chair in the rear garden, a glass of wine in one hand and a book in the other. James? Stakes thought. No, John. The most recent resident before himself. Hello John, Stakes greeted the man silently. Everyone seemed to like their own company here, Stakes thought gratefully, and social interaction was soothingly sparse and undemanding.
Stakes did, however, plan to see Brian again at some point, if only to thank him for his welcome into the village. He already felt that nobody was about to come looking for him from his past life. Not now, and – he was increasingly sure – not ever. This charmed reality had embraced him completely, as if it had been waiting for him all his life. Maybe it had, he thought.
For the next month or so, Stakes immersed himself almost completely in his own mental landscapes, examining his history of thought processes, actions, and reactions to external events. It was an intense and sometimes harrowing period, which at times left him irritated, depressed or tearful, yet it was also clarifying and cathartic, and Stakes valued the time and space for thought that his leisurely life in the village allowed him. Mid-summer’s day came and went, and the majestic sunsets which seemed to occur almost every evening above the tranquil countryside began to blossom earlier and earlier. All the while, replacement goods appeared in Stakes’ kitchen every morning, his occasional handwritten requests were duly fulfilled, and rubbish bins periodically became empty again.
It was sometime in early July that Stakes, strolling back from a long walk around the lane and surrounding paths, experienced an event which finally prompted him to visit Brian again. Approaching the other little thatched cottage at the opposite end of the village to his own, Stakes saw a middle-aged woman pottering in her garden. What was her name? He knew Brian had told him, but Stakes couldn’t remember. The woman – maybe in her forties, he now saw as she turned to him – held up a hand in greeting and smiled at him. Stakes raised his fingers with a brief smile, then as he looked away he saw something from the corner of his eye.
Stakes paused in his tracks as he stared at the two people in the garden – the woman had now been joined by a tall, handsome man a few years younger than her, who had emerged from somewhere and slipped his arm around the woman’s waist. She smiled up at him and said something, placing her hand on his forearm. The man looked up at Stakes and acknowledged him with a wave of one muscular arm, then took the secateurs from the woman and began to snip at the outgrowths of twigs from one of the bushes in front of the couple. Stakes passed, his mind whirling now. Two of them? Surely they hadn’t arrived together. A relationship which had begun between two residents? Maybe, he guessed. It was interesting. And a little worrying. The peace and simplicity of life in the village had been a soothing balm for Stakes’ mental state, and this seemed to complicate things. He returned to his own little cottage, perplexed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Ah yes, Deborah and her companion,” smiled Brian the following day, leaning back in his chair. “I wondered if you would see him.”
Stakes nibbled on the biscuit Brian had offered him with his tea. He had barely eaten since seeing the two people together in the garden, his mind deeply troubled. The tranquillity and security of the village, which he had begun to accept as absolute, had suddenly seemed just a little shaky.
“He’s nothing to worry about,” Brian continued. “In fact,” he went on, a twinkle in his eye, “he may not exactly be even a real person.”
Stakes looked cautiously across at the old man, waiting for him to elucidate.
“You remember when we first met, you asked me whether everyone who lives here has been through some sort of personal hell? And I replied that it was complicated?”
“I… yes, I think so,” Stakes answered. His initial few hours in the village were a blur in his mind, but somewhere there was a vague memory of what Brian had said.
“Okay then.” The old man sipped his tea. “Debbie arrived here around fifteen years ago, as I said. Alone, by the way. We all arrived alone. Some stay that way permanently – and some… well, they put in a request.”
Stakes stared across at Brian in the silence that followed. “What, a yellow notepad sort of request?” he asked incredulously.
“Yep,” the old man nodded. “A yellow notepad request. Debbie’s companion first came to the village around, oh let me think, six or seven years ago now. He was about her age then – but…” Brian shrugged, “as you know, things happen slower here. So he seems a bit younger than her now. I think he comes and goes – sometimes you won’t see him for months and then he reappears. But I don’t pry too much.”
Stakes frowned. “He comes and goes? Where?” Something clicked into place inside his head. “Does Debbie sort of… send him away again?”
“I have no idea where he might go, any more than where he – or anything else that arrives here for us – comes from. But yes, my guess is she calls for him when she needs him, and sends him away when she doesn’t. So… is he real?” Brian held out his gnarled old man’s hands palm-upward. “Well, everything we get here is real isn’t it? We eat it, drink it, use it… but does it come from the plain old outside world, or from some other dimension we can’t even fathom? If we are talking about bringing people in, well my guess is the latter. But who knows?”
Stakes shook his head with a faint smile. “… It’s complicated. You’re right.” He blew out a long breath, unsure how to phrase his next question. “Has… has anyone else ever brought someone else in?”
“Yep.” The old man stared into his teacup for a few seconds, then spoke without looking at Stakes. “Be… careful, David. Don’t undo all the good that is done to you here. It’s easy to bring someone in too early, before you’re ready.”
Stakes sipped his tea, pondering. He felt more at ease within himself now, knowing that the strange man he had seen with Deborah had been a request. It all seemed more… safe. More manageable. Less threatening. The village had become an unalloyed refuge to him once again, and he was grateful for it. But still, he had to ask his next question.
“Brian,” he began gently, “did you bring someone in here?”
The old man smiled, a little wistfully. “A long time ago,” he replied, his eyes meeting Stakes’ again. “A few times, over the course of a year or so. That’s the thing with the requests – you get what you ask for. Whether it’s a good decision or not. It was a couple of years after I arrived here, I think, that I first asked for a companion. I kept sending her away for a while, hoping it would get better when I sent for her again… but I should have waited a bit longer. After a while I stopped asking for her, always intending to send for her, or someone, again when I felt I was really ready for that. But, you know…” Brian shrugged, “I got older, and I guess more set in my ways, maybe… I don’t know. Maybe some people are never ready.” The old man contemplated his empty cup, turning it in his fingers.
Stakes nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right.” He finished his tea. “Maybe you’re right. Thanks, Brian. I appreciate your advice.”
“Any time, David.” As Stakes stood to leave, he looked back at the old man, still fiddling with his cup and smiling sadly at his own memories – and he suddenly knew that Brian would never leave of his own volition. The old man would pass on one day, here in his little wooden barn house, after half a lifetime spent in the comforting cradle of the village trying to keep whatever scars criss-crossed his psyche from ripping open.
Stakes wandered slowly back to his own cottage, the sight of the wonderful little thatch and the spectacular view beyond engendering a sense of serenity at the centre of his being that he felt would never diminish. And he thought back to that first day he had arrived here, his mind shattered by depression and anxiety, his nerves in tatters, and one of his first coherent responses to the village: why would anyone want to leave this little slice of heaven? Why indeed, Stakes thought as he lifted the latch on his little, black painted front door. Brian was right. Why indeed? Stakes shut the door behind him and sank into the soft leather of his armchair, gazing out at the peaceful fields and immense sky as the sun began to grow fat and orange, tinting the high clouds in pinks and golds. Why indeed?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The days, the months, the seasons passed. The following summer, Stakes began to drive again, taking the occasional slow trundle around the circular lane which twisted this way and that, up-hill and down, through the placid fields and shallow ford and dense thicket of trees. Sometime during the following year, on one of his drives, Stakes spotted the entrance to another little track branching invitingly off through the countryside. Hesitating for a minute or two as he gazed down the narrow strip of tarmac, Stakes eventually slipped the gear lever into first, and his little car jiggled over the bumps and potholes as he guided it over this new territory for three or so miles in a wide loop, skirting the edge of a rolling valley before returning to the original lane just before the ford. He remembered Brian’s comment about the possibility of finding other roads: Just because no-one else has doesn’t mean that you won’t. Stakes suspected that old Fred, still plodding carefully out of the village and into the peaceful wilderness of the fields every so often, had walked all manner of footpaths that no-one else could ever see.
The sun’s journeys across the huge sky went from high and long to low and short, high and long, low and short. Stakes spent his days walking, driving, thinking. Watching old DVD’s and historical sporting events on his TV, listening to classical music on his radio which seemed to broadcast without any annoying voices or adverts. Sometime during his second year in his cottage he had requested artist’s materials, and Stakes returned to the act of drawing and painting which had slipped away from him in his mid-teens as his mind began to withdraw from any unnecessary external pressures, but which now seemed absorbing and therapeutic. He wrote a lot – setting down his thoughts and feelings, reliving past events and describing possible alternative outcomes. Some of his writing was sexual fantasy, and these detailed descriptions of fictitious conquests engendered in Stakes both a desire to ask for a female companion, and a fear that any real experience would never measure up to the idealised acts conceived in his imagination.
Stakes was pondering this as he leaned on his garden wall overlooking the little lane on one summer afternoon, gazing out over the fields and hedges opposite. A companion had worked for Deborah, and apparently not for Brian. It was never going to work now for Gracie, who had occupied the pink bungalow near the other end of the village – the old lady had disappeared a few weeks ago, some twenty-five years after her arrival. Stakes had hardly seen her since he had been here, but he sincerely hoped that wherever she was now, she was happy.
Deciding to go for a short walk, Stakes unlatched his front gate and stood for a moment on the grass verge outside his cottage, enjoying the scent of the wild flowers growing beneath the hedgerow. Then he turned and began to stroll towards Brian’s wooden barn, past it and on towards John’s stone lodge, past that and on towards the edge of the village.
Outside Deborah’s thatch, Stakes paused and looked around him at the uninterrupted countryside ahead of him, then back at the lane winding between the delightful little dwellings. A year or so ago, a small wooden bench had appeared outside Deborah’s cottage, nestled into the shrubbery bordering her garden, and Stakes decided to sit for a while just taking in the scenery. The sun was warm and comforting, and he closed his eyes momentarily, letting his mind drift as he often did. Stakes knew that, although his mental and emotional difficulties still existed, they had begun to scar over now, those scars still fresh and thin but nevertheless forming a fragile yet noticeably protective barrier between himself and the worst of his blackness. A faint smile played on his lips. The village was perfect.
Stakes drifted and drifted, and in his half-sleeping state he dreamed he heard a faint noise – a faint noise of a car engine. It came and went, and there was a silence broken only by the chirruping of birds and a lazy buzz of insects. Presently, the car engine sound began again, a faint hum in the distance becoming louder, and this time Stakes opened his eyes and the engine noise was still there. Gazing along the lane, he spotted a small vehicle nosing its way carefully through the twists and turns, coming closer, a lone occupant becoming visible behind the wheel. Stakes watched the car trundle towards him, finally stopping on the verge a few yards away. The driver looked around for a second, and then opened the door.
The woman who emerged was maybe in her forties, short and slim, with long brown hair which Stakes decided she probably used to cover her face as much as possible when in company. She walked hesitantly towards him, her head bowed and eyes downcast. Her face was taught with panic and nervous fear, her steps slow and tired with depression.
Stakes stood as she approached, trying to make himself look as welcoming as he could. He could feel his own black anxiety at meeting new people flaring in a long-dormant swell of panic that he had not felt since he settled in the village, but as Stakes fought to keep the tension out of his face and body he realised that his distress was not quite as severe now as it would have been upon his arrival here.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted her.
The woman looked at him for a split-second before averting her haunted eyes. “Hi,” she mumbled. “Erm… I’m just after some directions please? I seem to be lost.”
Stakes regarded her for a few seconds.
“I’m guessing you can’t find your way out.” He replied.
The woman glanced at him for just a little longer this time. “No, actually. How did you know? Is it common here?” she asked.
Stakes nodded. “It happens,” he said, gesturing for her to sit down with him. He watched her thin hands twisting together with nervous anxiety in her lap as she perched on the edge of the rustic bench. She and the village were going to complement each other perfectly, Stakes thought, and he wondered what the interior of the pink bungalow would look like when he took her there.
Stakes stretched his legs out, enjoying the warm sun. “It’s lovely here, isn’t it,” he mused, gazing across the tranquil fields before turning to her with a faint smile. “Don’t you think?”