Beyond the Horizon
by John Clewarth
Could the idyllic cottage down the country lane be Aaron and Judith’s dream home, or the stuff of nightmares? Be careful what you wish for…
There’s no logical explanation for it. Why would somebody build a lovely house like that and never live in it?” Aaron slipped the white Fiat into third, as he eased it round the hedge-lined bend; he tapped on the driver’s window with his right hand to reinforce his words. Judith glanced across, nodding slightly as she saw the stone-built cottage, which appeared to shiver in the driving rain that slithered down the window.
“I know,” she smiled. “I mean, you’d think they’d give it to us, wouldn’t you?”
Aaron grinned; they’d had this conversation many times before. Judith continued, “I’m not choosy, see? Just look at it – stuck in the middle of all those lovely green fields, not a neighbour for three miles. Who’d want to live there anyway? Not me!”
“Nor me,” smiled her fiancé.
“We’d be doing them a favour, Aaron. Tough as it would be for us to move from that urban delight of a one-bedroom flat of ours… I think I’d be prepared to help them out. I’m that kind of a girl you see?” They both spluttered with laughter, as the tyres ate up the road and the cottage grew smaller behind them, eventually disappearing behind the dip in the long road home.
* * *
I wonder. Aaron lay, eyes wide open, listening to the soft sound of Judith’s sleep-breathing. The room was cloaked in semi-darkness, with an irritating orange tint from the street-lamp outside. There was just enough light for him to make out the photograph of himself and Judith that sat on the bedside table. How he loved her.
It can’t do any harm to check it out. Can’t lose anything. He was aware of – though conditioned to ignore – the thudding of the music from the flat above. Outside, a group of drunkards yelled their way past the ground floor flat, skittling a tin can as they blundered on.
It’d be good to get Judith out of here – she deserves better than this flea-pit. They had been looking for months now. But anything they could afford was nothing that they wanted; frying pan into fire. Strange that today – after passing the uninhabited little cottage so many times – Aaron should have it so fixed in his mind. Perhaps it was because in a fortnight’s time they would have been in this dingy hole for an entire year. He didn’t want to reach that milestone. His mind was made up. As he closed his eyes and began to drift off into sleep, he determined to go and investigate the cottage the following day.
* * *
Aaron bade farewell to his lover early the next morning at 8.20, as usual. She would expect him home at 4.30, from his clerking job in the council offices. This morning, however, Aaron phoned work from his mobile, claiming to be sick. He had no plans to work today; his heart was set on solving the mini-mystery of the unoccupied cottage and – maybe – even acquiring a lease on it.
The new morning sunshine was pleasant after the rain of the preceding day, and Aaron enjoyed the drive down the winding country lanes that he and Judith had traversed so many times, at weekends, en route to her mother’s. Ancient oaks contrasted with a rich variety of younger trees, entwined by thick, tangled hedges, as he snaked the car round the bends. Through the foliage of the trees, the light produced a dappling effect on the windscreen, and Aaron smiled. Oh God, it would be great to live around here.
Within minutes, he could see the charming stone cottage up ahead on the left. As he steered the car to a halt at the long wooden gate to the field entrance, he had to alight from the car to unhook the heavy iron latch and (thanking his stars there was no padlock) he pushed the gate wide open. Back in the driver’s seat, he accelerated slowly over the soft, rippled ground of the field; the front of the car pushed aside overgrown weeds and knee-high grass. As the wheels slithered and spun, carving deepening trenches in the mushy earth, Aaron decided to stop the engine and walk the remainder of the short distance to the stone cottage.
As he stood, muddy-booted, at the frontage of the small two-storey building, his puzzlement as to its inoccupancy resurfaced anew. The building was a complete anomaly. It was surrounded by a number of acres of completely overgrown land. It was clear that no vehicle, nor human foot, had passed this way in years. And yet the house was immaculate. The whiteness of its stone shone brilliant in the watery spring sunshine. Sparkling clear windows reflected the wild greenery of the fields, along with his car, several yards behind. As he peered closer, mere inches from the right-hand ground floor window, he saw nothing of the interior; only his own face peering back. It was as if the panes were made of mirrors.
He walked an entire circuit around the cottage, marvelling at its pristine condition. The roof gleamed darkly against the bright sky. The rear and front doors bore no mark of age nor sign of weathering. A glistering brass ring, in the shape of a wolf’s head, was attached to the sturdy wood of the main door. Aaron reached out, grasped it, and rapped twice. He expected no reply – and received the same.
I could check with the local estate agents, to see if they know anything about this place. Aaron found he had a yearning now to see inside – to be inside – the charming building. If only the door could be unlocked. Surely not…
He placed his palm on the handle and pressed downwards. The handle gave a click, which in turn caused the door to swing inwards. Without hesitation, he stepped into the womb-like hallway, and the door swung shut behind him.
* * *
His vision stuttered; his eyes blurred. Glaring white light at first, which slowly began to fade to grey, then sheer darkness and a fathomless absence of light. His body trembled, through fear but also because the floor beneath his feet began to vibrate rapidly. He could see nothing but felt the entire building – walls, ceilings, doors – contracting and expanding, over and over. Almost as if it were giving birth. Terror consumed him, his breath coming in staccato gasps. His heart thumped, as if to escape the confines of his chest. He opened his mouth to scream into the darkness but, before he could utter any sound, the quaking abruptly stopped. Silence and lightlessness embraced him and he found himself balanced on the edge of sanity, the razor edge of life and death. He was at the mercy of something unseen, unheard, unknown. Aaron was paralysed and, just as consciousness began to ebb away, he heard the hissing from somewhere in the near distance. Oh Christ, what is it that lurks in the darkness?
Then a vague recognition began to register. That sound. That hissing, whispering sound was… But it couldn’t possibly be. His eyes snapped open. As lights and images rushed in, his brain was almost overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of what he was seeing.
He stood at the shore of a great black sea. An ethereal wind sang soft around his ears and collar. He removed his footwear. Soft, warm sand slipped between his toes. Inhaling deeply through his nose, Aaron savoured the distinct salty fragrance of the sea breeze, then exhaled long and slow through his mouth. He closed his eyes again. Felt warm and safe. Reborn. Re-opening his eyes once more, he turned slowly full-circle, observing the sheer blue mountains behind the shoreline, and the endless white sands on both sides. Facing the calmly rolling ocean, he became aware of the huge, dark galleon cruising slowly from the nebulous horizon.
Lifted by unseen hands, he was supported by the wings of the growing wind. Man and galleon met in time and space, and he was gently deposited on the deck. Now sailing towards the horizon, he saw strange colours in the distance; purples, crimsons, deepest blues, searing oranges – an artist-god’s paintbox spilt in the sky, complementing the black, timeless depths of the ocean. He felt exquisite cravings within himself, for sights yet to be seen, dreams yet to be dreamed, lives yet to be lived beyond the horizon. And his soul grew serene.
* * *
In a field outside a quaint little cottage, a white car shimmered and disappeared. Tyre-hewn scars healed in the land.
* * *
In a small urban flat, a young woman made her bed; she was unaware of the engagement ring fading from the finger on her left hand. The duvet flapped against the photograph on the bedside cabinet, knocking it over. Judith stood it aright again, observing her own image standing alone in the frame.
As she drove to see her mother later that afternoon, she passed along winding roads, edged with verdant life. A small stone cottage, occupying a field to her left, never caught her eye. She thought – momentarily – that she perceived a hint of the ocean’s-scent; but the notion left her as soon as it had arrived.