By: Michal Reibenbach
One day on our way to visit my fiancé’s daughter at her boarding school, Carl and I became lost. We’d taken this chance to do some house-hunting in the area of Ashdown Forest, had taken a wrong turning; and were becoming exasperated for wherever we drove the scenery around us looked the same. It consisted of woods that were made up of hazel, oak and chestnut trees; and an undergrowth of bracken. As we slowly motored along the forest’s lanes we didn’t meet a single person from whom we could ask directions. All around us the forest was silent except for the distant rustling of the leaves at the top of the trees. It sounded like whispering and gave me ‘goose pimples.’ Finally, after driving around for ages, we suddenly arrived at the end of a lane; and in front of us we were relieved to see an old, picturesque house built from red bricks and dark wooden beams; it had a slanting grey-tiled roof, most of which was veiled by green creepers. The surrounding garden was unkempt and overgrown. Carl stopped the car and I said, “I wonder who lives out here in the middle of the forest?”
“We’ll soon find out,” said Carl.
We got out of the car and walked along the ‘crazy paving’ path that led up to a wooden, weather-beaten door, on which was hanging a large, circular, blackened brass doorknob. Carl grabbed hold of the doorknob and knocked three times; almost immediately the door was opened by a thin, middle-aged man, with rather long grey hair that was casually swept back from his forehead. He was dressed in dark brown jeans that were threadbare in several places, and a crumpled brown-black-and white checked shirt.
“What can I do for you?” he inquired.
“I’m afraid we’ve gotten lost, and we need directions,” said Carl.
“Ah, you got lost? How about you come on in for a cup of tea while I explain to you how to get unlost,” he said.
“That would be wonderful!” said Carl.
“Let me introduce myself, I’m Richard O’Brien,” said the man and he stretched out his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” said Carl, as he shook Richard’s hand, “I’m Carl Blake and this is my Fiancé Andrea.”
As he was shaking my hand he said, “Jolly good show, come on in.”
When we stepped over the threshold into the house we were surprised to see that inside it was almost ‘bare’ of furniture. As we followed our guest, treading over creaking wooden floorboards, I noticed that the house was rather neglected for there was a musty smell in the air and quite a lot of long cobwebs hung down from the ceilings. Suddenly, I spied at the bottom of a flight of stairs two teenage children, a boy and a girl, spread out on the floor in a patch of sunlight. The light shone down onto the ground through a large, window situated high up on the far side of the staircase; They were both thin and pale, were dressed in silvery colored sweat-suits that shimmered, and the girl had very long, dark, straight hair. The children were lying on their sides and were engrossed in reading books. I inspected them curiously; laid out on the floor in front of them were two large open boxes of dried fruit from which they now and then helped themselves. As far as I could make out one box contained dried dates and the other dried figs. The shadows of breeze jostled leaves of a creeper which crept over the window, danced around in the patch of sunlight in which the children lay, It caused them to appear as if they were actors in an old-fashioned movie, where the quality of the film was rather blotchy, this was enhanced by the fact that they took not the slightest bit of notice of us whatsoever. I began to have an uncanny feeling that there was something sinister going on in this house. We followed Richard into his kitchen. There I noticed that the large, old stove was made from wrought-iron; the kitchen cupboards were a deep, dark brown color and from the hooks in the beam above them hung various pots and pans. There was no evidence of a kitchen table but at least there were a few wooden chairs.
“Please sit down and I’ll make the tea,” said Richard.
Accordingly, we sat down while he shuffled around making the tea, “I’m afraid that I can’t see very well so you’ll have to be patient,” he said.
“Can I help?” I offered.
“No, no need young lady, I’ll manage,” he said.
Presently the three of us were seated alongside the kitchen counter and sipping tea from cups in saucers. Richard turned his gaze towards us and said, “I’m afraid that I can’t offer you any cake, for the only food in the house at the moment are boxes of dried fruit. Would you like some?”
“No thank you, I’m not hungry,” I answered. “Neither am I,” agreed Carl.
“What brought you young people to Ashdown Forest?” he then asked. “We’re house hunting,” said Carl, “it’s such a beautiful area.”
“Yes indeed it is,” said Richard, “I also came here as a young man with my wife. She passed away a few years ago; so that now I live here with only my two children for company. Even though it can be lonely at times, I love this place so much I’m incapable of leaving it.”
“I’m so sorry about your wife,” I said.
“Yes, it was tragic. She went out into the woods one day to do some sketching and never returned. She simply disappeared. Even her body was never found. Sometimes I imagine that I see her ghost floating around the house,” said Richard.
“That must have been terrible for you, and your children,” said Carl.
Upon hearing about his wife’s death I began to feel even more spooked, and I decided that we should leave as soon as possible. Thus I gulped down my tea quickly and shoved my emptied cup and saucer onto the kitchen cupboard’s chipped, black marble top. I then looked at Carl piercingly, grabbed hold of his thigh, squeezed it tightly and said, “Sweetheart, we still have a lot to do, we’d better be going.”
Carl, however, was oblivious as to how I felt and clearly didn’t share my doubts; for he said, “Wait, darling, I want to ask Richard some questions before we leave—Richard, you wouldn’t happen to know of any properties that are for sale in this region?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” said Richard. From out of his shirt’s breast pocket he took a small notebook and pen and laid the notebook on the marble countertop. Then he notably screwed up his eyes and proceeded to draw a rough map of the area on it, finally marking the location of the house for sale with an ‘X’. Ripping the drawing of the map out of his notebook he held it up for Carl’s inspection. Pointing to the marked spot with his pen and said, “That’s where the house is, and in actual fact, it’s a beautiful cottage.”
“Thank you,” said Carl, as he took the piece of paper and studied it for a moment. He then shoved it into my handbag and continued, “Our main concern is that Andrea won’t find work around here; you see, her work involves the rehabilitation of the blind… as for myself, I shouldn’t have a problem since I’m a freelance Architect, and I’ll be able to work from home most of the time.”
“That’s a really strange coincidence.” exclaimed Richard, “Since I myself am going blind! That’s the reason why there’s hardly any furniture in the house so that I don’t bump into things all the time; of course eventually, I’m going to have to swallow my pride and bring in a permanent house-keeper: to help with the kids, the house…with everything. Obviously, at some stage I’m also going to need rehabilitation; so if you do decide to live around here you could come and work for me–I mean you could help me to rehabilitate,” he added congenially.
“I’m so sorry, you must be terribly worried about your future and how you’re going to manage, but it’s amazing what blind people are capable of achieving,” I said.
“Oh ‘chin up’ and all that, things could be worse; at least I’ve got my children, and I’ve also got the birds that live in the forest. I’ve grown to love those pesky little creatures. I’ve even taught them to fly down to me so that when I’m blind I will always have their company. There are also deer which live in the woods; I put out wheat and apples for them but something alarms them, keeps them away; one day I found a mauled carcass of a deer at the edge of the woods. By the way, would you like to see me feed the birds?” asked Richard.
“We’d loved to!” I said.
“Yes, absolutely,” agreed Carl.
Richard stood up, placed his cup and saucer on the marble countertop, walked over to a big bin in a corner of the kitchen, and shoveled some grain out of it into a nylon bag.
“Come with me, let’s go outside,” he said, as he walked towards the kitchen-door with the seed-filled plastic bag in his hand. Since we were very intrigued by this unexpected invitation, we hastily got to our feet, followed Richard out of the kitchen, and back into the living room. There, two large sliding windows opened up onto a verandah, Richard slid one of the windows open and ushered us outside, he pointed to a couple of grubby, open deckchairs and said, “Please sit down and wait.”
We sank down into the deckchairs. Richard walked out onto the bedraggled lawn which spread out in front of the verandah; in the middle of which he plonked himself down and crossed his knees; thus seated he scattered some grain from the nylon bag around himself, and also grabbed a handful of grain into each hand, spread out his arms and opened out his grain-filled hands. He then began to whistle, and within a few seconds, we saw and heard the whooshing of multiple birds of various species as they swooped down from the surrounding trees of the forest, and alighted on or near Richard, among the birds were also large, vicious looking crows. His feathered friends alighted all over him; he beamed in pleasure and, even after they had finished eating the grain, many of the birds remained perched on him.
As we watched on I whispered to Carl, “I’ve got an awful feeling that someone killed Richard’s wife. I hope it wasn’t those poor ghostly looking children?”
“Why would they murder their own mother?” Carl said under his breath.
“Then perhaps it was those threatening looking crows, they might have pecked her to death because they were jealous of her?” I whispered.
“I very much doubt it,” Carl hissed back to me.
Eventually, the birds dispersed, and so Richard stood up from the lawn and walked slowly back to us as if in a daze.
“That was amazing,” said Carl.
“Yes fascinating,” I agreed
Richard then accompanied us to the front door, and as he saw us out he said, “I hope you find a house to buy around here; for I’d be delighted to have you as my neighbors, and even more delighted if Andrea could come and work for me.”
“Yes, it would be nice. Thanks for your hospitality,” said Carl.
“Goodbye,” said Richard.
“Goodbye,” Carl and I said simultaneously.
We walked back along the overgrown ‘crazy paving’ path to our car. Just as we pulled away we heard an eerie high pitched howling which rang through the forest.
“What’s that howling? It’s giving me the jitters.” I said.
“It’s probably a wild dog,” said Carl.
“Whatever it is, let’s get away from this place as quickly as possible,” I urged. Carl stepped down hard on the accelerator and I felt a wave of relief as the car went tearing off.
After a short while, I said, “Maybe a large fox or some other animal killed and devoured his wife and mauled that deer,”
“Darling, you’ve got an overactive imagination,” said Carl.
“Yes but you’ve got to admit that that house was really creepy,” I said.
Carl looked at me and said, “There’s usually a perfectly good explanation for most things. Perhaps his wife was unhappy and simply decided to run away? As for the children, most teenage children simply aren’t interested in their parent’s visitors, and the messy house and the cobwebs…well, obviously it’s because he can’t see very well.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but still…”
As we drove on the howling became fainter and fainter and finally faded away. We lapsed into silence as each of us sank deep down into our own thoughts. The afternoon sun shone down intermittently through gaps in between the trees; so that its rays were like projectors that flicked on and off, on and off, on and off-
I was abruptly wrenched out of my pondering when a few yards in front of us I saw something large and furry dash across the road. It then disappeared into the bracken of the forest on the other side. “A wolf,” I squealed, and I reached up my hand to clasp my throat.
Carl instinctively jammed on the breaks, which made them screech, and the car began to swerve until finally coming to a halt. He sat still for a few moments in order to recollect his wits and then he said in a shaky voice, “Yes I believe it was a wolf, I wonder where on earth it came from, as far as I know, they’re extinct in England?”
“That wolf was the murderer,” I said with certainty, “I’m sure Richard’s wife’s remains will finally be discovered in its den.”
“You’re in the wrong profession, you could easily become a private detective,” said Carl to me with a twinkle in his eyes.