I don’t know what possessed me – to leave my house one bitingly cold night in a summer’s dress without shoes and to wander out into the landscape, alone, without telling anyone where I was going. Down the cobbles of the lane, past the final few lamp-lit houses on the periphery of the sleeping village and over the old stile into the first midnight field. Nothing stirred my fear; really it should have. As I passed the moonlit pond, so glassy and serene, I felt calm, protected by darkness. Through four more fields I went, not thinking much of the dark shapes of cows biting grass. A few grazing horses, blinded by cloth visors, listened to me sneaking past them as I wound my steady way up the long, steep hill. At the top, enjoying mouthfuls of fresh cool air, I took a moment to recompose. As I turned, the display of sparkling stars spun above. I looked out over a dense, tree-lined valley, the distant lights of other people’s comforting homes and the silver, snaking single track lane that cut through it all, clinging to the ridge, winding, wider, to faraway towns.
The stones at the top of the hill hurt the soles of my bare feet as I tiptoed across them to reach the narrow church path. Tangled thorns strangled one another creeping over patches of tall grass. A single street-lamp, an old design for its time, illuminated groups of cowering gravestones that looked to me like ancient spirits whispering curses at jackdaw sinners leering down at them from the dark grey gabled roof. I carried on beyond the churchyard, on and on, to meet the shadows of another long and lonely path, knobbly with rounded stones baked into dry earth, across a second, windswept ridge. Concealing myself beneath a stooping line of swaying trees I walked until I reached a farmer’s gate. It swung open with some effort on my part (and a little, I felt, on its) and quickly sensed wetness between the toes of both feet. I climbed up onto a narrow stone ledge, teetering there before finding the courage to leap over the glistening swamp of thick, tacky mud encircling the gate.
No rain tonight. The downpour was last night. The path had dried further on. Just scattered, newly fallen leaves picking up speed when the breeze lifted them into flight. The first sign of life were two owls blinking at the disturbance – me – from a tree to my right. With a streak of nerves, I looked to my left and what I’d been searching for began to make an appearance. Hidden beneath a canopy of dense foliage, surrounded by huge old trees with chattering branches, explosions of unexplained black cables and the broken outer sheaths of a dozen decomposing outhouses, stood The Place.
I sensed danger then. Why, I could not say. Crumbling, yet still breathing whispers of lives that once inhabited it, the derelict farmhouse was crying out to be discovered. It cried out to me last week, when I saw a corner of it from the top of the higher hill through misty binoculars, so I came. But the visit was not to offer rescue. Even with that short glimpse, I knew there was nothing I could do for the building. Sorrow poured from its broken doorway. Tears rolled through the cracks of shattered windowpanes. Smoke didn’t drift from the fallen chimney stack; The Place was already dead. Then, I felt it. As I stood, motionless but for the slow slip of breath in and out, gazing up in awe at missing roof tiles, at crafty saplings breaking open unsuspecting stone fissures, I felt it strongly: that something happened here, something slow and difficult. Cold ground seeped into the soles of my feet, but I didn’t move for minutes. I was content to be absorbed into the atmosphere of The Place. To say it became a fascination from that moment is to understate the silent, secret power of its vulnerability, the enticing draw of its isolation.
I knew I must step inside – and that’s when I experienced a touch of the fear I knew was missing earlier. The structure was unsafe. Any novice could see that. The roof was not just a patchwork of missing tiles; it had caved in entirely in places. The stairs were intact – I could see them from the open doorway – and, as I crossed the worn threshold, not daring to lay a single fingertip on anything in my vicinity, I looked at those stairs in appreciation of the beauty they must have once held, amazed by the thinning carpet that still followed their path regardless of the decay, the damage caused by years of rainwater. Even then, the carpet was patterned and colourful: reds, dark yellows; coral blues and leaf greens. Without it, The Place would not have reminded me of a home, but a home it once was.
My interest travelled: to a simple table in the centre of the large main room overlooked by a simpler chair; to a stack of hessian matting in the darkest corner, catching mice; to a mud-streaked, cobweb-infested window overlooking some overgrown back garden somewhere; to a wheelbarrow propped up against a whitewashed wall inside and to a collection of papers on top of which sat a thin, black notebook. Drawn to it – a definite hint of life – I discovered a slim, moleskin jotter open just enough to reveal a glimpse of smooth, faintly-lined creamy paper. A smile touched my lips: incredibly, I saw something written inside and as I angled my head, not wanting to touch what might be personal, I made out, in scratchy handwriting that spoke of old age, the name Natasha. I so wanted to reach out and open that notebook some more, but a nearby click stopped me. Twisting to look over my shoulder, I saw a light flicker on upstairs, creating new shadows and bathing the tattered stair carpet in a strange and homely glow.
This enchanting, thrilling real-life experience only really fell into place when I was writing the eerie, unsettling This Is Where You Join Me, a story exploring the curse of love, the sorrow of passing time and the test of trust between people who have what should be the closest ties.