My story begins as many a tale has in the past...and no doubt will in the days still to come.
I was driving to the house of an elderly relative (My Aunt Emily's actually) when my normally reliable car suddenly broke down in the middle of nowhere.
I say 'the middle of nowhere' for that is what it felt like to me at the time, especially being a complete stranger to that particular corner of South West England.
It was getting late (I'd been planning to arrive at my Aunt's house by 6 o'clock at the latest) and now, all of a sudden, it was fast approaching 8 o'clock in the evening! It had long since turned dark and, by my reckoning, I was still at least 20 or so miles away from my intended destination.
My Aunt would, no doubt, be getting fairly anxious.
She is 77 years old you see and would probably be worrying herself sick that I had not arrived exactly when I had said I would.
My mobile phone was indicating, somewhat ominously, that there was 'no signal', despite being assured that it was 'one of the latest models' by the sales girl at that rather dull shop in the City only a few months ago. It appears never to work whenever I find myself in the farthest reaches of the country...'so much for modern technology' I hear you say and I must agree wholeheartedly!
The road I had been travelling along was one of those curious little roads that are so prevalent in that neck of the woods, and are really no more than a glorified lane with high grassy banks on either side.
As I mentioned previously,though, I had never visited my Aunt in her recently acquired abode. She only fully moved into her 'West Country dream home', with its neat little hedge at the front and tidy little quaintly-English garden at the back, just in time to be settled in for last Christmas.
She had very kindly included some small photos of her new cottage in her regular missives to me, so I was familiar with it both architecturally and aesthetically.
But although I received a typically formal invitation (printed on fine quality cream coloured card) to come and stay for the festive period, as November faded into December, sadly my work commitments dictated otherwise and that is why I was now on my way to see her...or at least I had been.
I had informed my Aunt that although Christmas was 'simply out of the question I'm afraid' I would come down to see her when the better weather arrived...possibly late February/early March.
It was indeed Spring now, though the weather of late had been disappointing for the time of year, with frequent rain showers and an annoying cold wind from the North.
Having no sat-nav or functioning mobile phone meant I was practically clueless as to my exact location and unable to contact anyone who could either come and restore my cantankerous car to life or at least point me in the right direction of a garage or some other form of assistance.
Oh! I forgot to mention that I'm quite hopeless with anything practical. My personal expertise is with figures, working as I do for a large insurance company in the capital.
As I said, I am not office-bound and do get about the country a lot by car but, if anything should go wrong mechanically, don't expect me to be able to fix it!
Fortunately, I had been able to bring my car, a black Ford, to a secure halt, managing to park in a convenient, tiny lay-by of the type that are so much needed in Cornwall or Devon, for example, in order for two cars travelling in opposite directions to pass safely.
My main problem was that I couldn't even see my own hand in front of my face...it was so dark!
I fumbled around in the glove compartment for a torch and luckily I struck gold almost instantly. God knows how long I'd had it in my possession but, amazingly, despite the numerous occasions I'd cleared the clutter from my car, there it still was. Would it work?
That question was soon answered as a narrow but brilliant light beamed from my little jet black torch that, now I come to think of it, I received one Christmas from Aunt Emily of all people!
What could I see in this all-enclosing darkness though...and was there any sign of life in this rural backwater?
I shone the torch over the front of my car and to my dismay I could see tell-tale strands of smoke or steam rising up like will-o-the-wisps into the night air.
Whatever had caused my faithful Ford to stop dead in its tracks looked fairly terminal to this layman!
The high banks on both sides of the road added to my growing feeling of utter despair. The car was safe enough, maybe I could walk down the lane a little both ways and see whether I could spot a light or something...some sign of habitation?
The wind had picked up now to a strong breeze and I pulled my cardigan closer to my body. It was also quite cold and I could feel the air numbing my face slightly as I ventured to my right, with my trusty torch lighting the way as I walked slowly into...what exactly?
Almost immediately the hair on the back of my neck and those on my arms started to tingle with a kind of electricity. My mind, so clear when I got out of my car, was beginning to fill with images...images of what? I stumbled to a halt and took in a deep, long breath. What was happening to me?
My first thought cut through me like some ancient sword. I was ill! Some kind of seizure was about to afflict me or maybe the onset of a cardiac arrest. I had just passed my two-yearly company medical with flying colours though (a requirement in order to satisfy head office that I was worthy of their continuing remuneration!) and I was not on any form of medication, so this 'episode', I was in no doubt having, was right out of the blue and scared me with an icy touch that reached every part of my being.
But after a few more uneventful minutes had elapsed with neither heart attack or stroke dealing me their deadly blow, I realised that I was not about to expire imminently. Well not yet anyway!
The next thing that happened takes some explaining, being something that I had neither witnessed before or since.
The high, grassy banks to either side of me, that I was unable to see the extremities of due to the narrowness of my torch's beam, simply dissolved in front of my eyes, giving way to a barren, almost alien, landscape.
I was now in the middle of open countryside...I call it 'countryside' but there was little in the way of vegetation, save for a few sparse looking trees on the horizon.
Amazingly, it was now daylight! A big sun was shining brilliantly in a pale blue sky that looked as if it had been bleached and I had to hold my hands over my eyes for protection, such was the intense glare.
All of a sudden two shadowy figures loomed up from behind a small grass-less hill no more than several hundred yards away.
As they drew closer, taking greater form as they did so, I could feel the sense of anticipation rising inside me. The only thing comparable to the feeling I was experiencing now was that when I had been a young child in London on Christmas Eve in my parents' modest little house...only magnified many-fold.
Was it fear or was it something else that held me in its grip? I did not know for sure but these people (if people they were) were heading my way with an increasing urgency to their step.
Did I say 'step'? On reflection, their feet were clearly not fully in touch with the ground. They were gliding...yes that's the word 'gliding'. And they were gliding straight towards me!
I think I must have passed out at that moment for I remember everything going black and then waking up, what felt like many hours later, in a strange little bed that smelt of clean linen and in a room in which I had definitely never slept before.
Someone knocked on the door with a soft rap that could only have been made by a woman or a child, such was its almost apologetic sound.
'Come in!' I said in a voice that only half-sounded like my own.
I was still totally confused and suffering from a slight headache that was beginning to nag away at me like a childhood toothache. Then the door opened and a pleasant faced woman, probably aged between 35 and 40, I thought, entered the room. Tentatively at first but then in a sudden blur of activity, having noticed that I was wide awake and eyeing her quizzically.
'Oh! Hello there! Good morning to you...I've brought you a cup of sweet tea...did you sleep well?' she rushed out with little pause for breath and in an accent that I thought was probably Northern Irish...Belfast perhaps?
'My name's Mary'
'It was my husband Jim who found you...collapsed in the lane about 8 o'clock last evening...do you feel better now?'
I still felt somewhat groggy but the ebullience of this kind woman in front of me seemed somehow infectious.
'I've got a bit of a fuzzy head actually'
'How did you find me?'
'Er! Where did you...your husband find me?'
'I'm sorry I don't remember much, apart from the fact that my car had broken down...and I didn't know where I was' I added
Mary, although not a particularly young woman, was nonetheless a pleasingly pretty one, with ebony black hair that perfectly framed her pale face and emerald green eyes that burned brightly in their sockets.
'Jim will be back soon, he'll put you straight, never you mind about that now' said Mary
Then it dawned on me. I hadn't introduced myself!
'I'm so sorry, Mary'
'I'm not usually this remiss'
'My name is...'
But before I could utter the first letter of my name, Mary held up a hand in front of her face as if to say, either my name was of no consequence to her or her husband, or that, somehow, she already knew it!
After being left to drink my tea alone, I began to collect my thoughts and came to the rapid conclusion that I would thank Mary for her and her husband's hospitality and ask if they had a telephone I could use in order to first, contact my Aunt Emily to explain that I was fine and had had mechanical problems, and, once that was done, make another call to a local garage to arrange for a mechanic to come and fix my poor old Ford.
I was beginning to feel a little uneasy in this strange little room and, as there didn't seem to be anything medically wrong with me (even my headache was dissipating), I made up my mind there and then that I would continue my journey to Aunt Emily's as soon as possible.
My thoughts of escaping this place...if escape was the right word?...were interrupted however by another knock on the door...louder than before, which meant I wasn't at all surprised to suddenly find a bald-headed man's face peering into the room in my general direction.
'Hello there! I'm Jim...Mary's husband?'
'Yes, yes do come in' I said, beckoning Jim to take a seat that was conveniently placed near to my bed and indeed still had my clothes draped over it.
'How are you this morning?' said Jim
'Well I was just thinking that I should be on my way as quickly as possible really. So I was wondering whether you had a phone I might be able to use in order to tell my Aunt that I'm OK and then call a garage about my car?'
'We do indeed have a phone you can use to call your Aunt but you won't need the services of a garage...I think you'll find that your car's fine'
The last part of my cheery co-host's reply certainly came as a minor shock to the system.
One of the last things I remembered before that..that what?...that DREAM?...yes that dream...that's what it must have been...was the clear fact that my car had broken down somewhat terminally.
As if sensing my incredulity Jim added;
'Your car really is fine. And so if you feel OK you can leave whenever you want to'
Still not truly believing what I was hearing I mumbled;
'That's great. I'll phone Aunt Emily and have a wash and shave, if I may, and then get dressed and be on my way. Thank you ever so much for all the kindness you and you wife have shown towards me'
Not at all embarrassed by my unusually gushy outpouring, Jim smiled back at me but said nothing further...he hadn't needed to. There was something in the way he smiled at me that hinted at something else. There was a kind of reciprocity.
Later in the hallway of what actually was a charming period cottage, immaculately decorated I noted, I waited alone for a few minutes ahead of saying my goodbyes to Jim and Mary.
What had really happened? I thought...though, to my utter surprise, said out loud!
I was suddenly, and somewhat alarmingly, made more aware of the previous evening's events.
I had spoken with the two shadowy beings! I had actually spoken with them! It wasn't a dream at all! I knew that now!
An image I couldn't shake out of my head, as hard as I tried, stayed with me far longer than I wanted it to.
A mental picture of the three of us conversing...in a room with black walls that was illuminated by a large overhanging silver light...only my lips weren't actually moving...and the 'shadowmen' (for want of an other term) didn't have any lips...nor any other facial features for that matter!
At the conclusion of my meeting with the two 'shadowmen' (which seemed to be a highly cordial affair and may have gone on for hours or just several minutes...I don't really know I'm afraid), we'd all risen to shake hands...well at least I think we did...come to think of it, I can't be certain that these strange beings, who seemed so eager to meet with me, had hands to shake!
'You'll be on your way then?' a voice that belonged to Jim uttered, breaking the spell so to speak.
'Have a safe onward journey'
'I'm sure we'll catch up with each other again some day soon' continued a rueful looking Jim.
As throwaway as the latter half of his parting comment initially sounded...I somehow knew that he spoke the truth!