sjhstrangetales

FOX HALT

1.

 

 “Where the bloody hell am I now?  I couldn’t be more lost if I’d used chuffing SatNav!”

 The road was quiet, so Richard halted his car, and peered through the dank Autumn drizzle.  Although it was only four-thirty in the afternoon, it was already going dark.  The English countryside had lost the beautiful red-golden colours of October, and was now settling into the dank dreariness of November.  

 He reached for his mobile phone on the passenger seat, and tapped it to open it up.  He would Google the area, find a map Online.   To his astonishment the phone was dead.

 “Can’t be”, he said “I charged it up before leaving the office.  It had a full battery”.

 The only thing he could fathom was that he was in a mobile dead spot, but this happened so rarely these days that it quite took him by surprise.   He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had trouble getting mobile coverage anywhere, must be years.  

 “Well that’s just dandy”, he sighed, chucking the phone back onto the seat.  

 He noticed a sign by the side of a road which led off to the right.   Richard edged the car slowly towards it.  ‘FOX HALT ROAD’ it said.  Fox Halt?  Something about the name rang a bell, but he couldn’t recall in what connection.  All he knew was that he was tired of the road he was on.  He seemed to have been trundling along it for an age, and couldn’t remember when he’d last passed anything of note.  He was sick of the whole thing.  The road just weaving endlessly before him, and the dank fields stretching out on either side of him.  

 He turned right and drove slowly past a row of terraced cottages on one side of the road, and then up a small hillside.  He could see a church tower and a cluster of houses at the top.  As he got closer to the village he could see lights on in some of the houses and felt relieved.  The loneliness of the road he had been on had got to him too much.  He pulled off the road for a moment and parked the car in the little lay-by next to the main entrance of the church.  It was only after he’d been sitting there for a few minutes that he wondered why.  He wasn’t checking any maps or getting his bearings.  He seemed to have gone off into some kind of fugue state.  A reverie.  

 “Come on, this won’t do”, he chided himself, turning the key once more in the ignition “Even if I don’t get to Molesford tonight, I need to find somewhere to stay”.

 He resigned himself to spending the next couple of hours looking out for a Travelodge or a pub to spend the night in.  

 

 The village seemed to consist of only one street, and yet Richard was surprised that it had kept so many of its amenities.  Many small English villages he saw these days were like something out of The Twilight Zone, a handful of lifeless houses, with their pubs and shops converted to old people’s homes, holiday lets or offices.  This one had a village shop, a pub, and had even kept its school.  

 Richard parked on the street next to the main entrance of the pub.  He lifted the latch on the door and went inside.  The bar had that feel of a stage set just before the raising of the curtain on a performance.  It was still early enough that they hadn’t got round to putting on all the lights yet, and the only well-lit bit was the bar area itself.  A girl with vibrant red hair, offset by an emerald green scarf wrapped round it, bandana-style, was slicing up a lemon behind the counter.

 “I was wondering if you did rooms”, said Richard, after clearing his throat self-consciously.

 “I’m afraid we don’t, sir”, the girl replied.

 “Oh I see”, Richard felt more disappointed than he would have liked to let on.  He had quite liked the prospect of a traditional pub nosh meal in the bar.  The pub had a pleasant feel to it.  Not the chilly, hostile atmosphere he sometimes encountered on his travels.  

 “Can you recommend anywhere?” he asked “I don’t know this area”.  

 “Try the Manor”, said the girl “It’s a private house, but they often take in visitors to the area.  Tell them I recommended you from the pub.  Take the first turning on your left as you leave here.  It’s a big house, you won’t be able to miss it, even in the dark”.

 “OK thanks”, said Richard.

 He reluctantly left the bar, feeling a bit nonplussed.  He didn’t relish the prospect of rolling up on some complete stranger’s doorstep and asking if he could be let in.  Were people even allowed to do such things these days?  Simply take in paying visitors on an ad hoc basis like that?  It sounded a bit dodgy in this highly regulated age we live in.  He buried his misgivings though.  Quite frankly, even that sounded a more alluring prospect than drearily trawling round the dark countryside for another few hours.  

 

 The girl at the Inn had been right, it was impossible to miss the Manor house.  A short distance along a winding driveway, and there it was, on the right-hand side.  There were lights in many of the windows, which was reassuring, although there didn’t seem to be any cars parked at the front, and Richard was uncertain where to place his vehicle.  In the end, he left it parked near the bottom of the stone steps which led up to the front door.

 When he got out of the car he heard the wind whistling in the trees nearby, but that was the only sound he could hear.  He found it incredible to believe that there was anywhere in the south of England these days where you couldn’t hear the hum of traffic on a main road, but there wasn’t any here.  

 “What’s the worst that can happen?” he said to himself, as he collected his overnight bag from the back seat “Find out that the red-head was having a practical joke on me, and then I’ll feel a wee bit of a clot?  That’s scarcely much on the great scale of things”.

 At the top of the steps he rapped on the wooden door using a large knocker in the shape of a lion’s head.  It seemed to send a noise through the building that wouldn’t have been out of place in a gothic horror film.  The door was answered promptly by a young woman dressed in a trim, old-fashioned maid’s uniform, not unlike that of a waitress in an old London tea-shop from the 1930s.  Her chestnut-coloured hair was arranged in two large coils over each ear, Princess Leia-style.

 “I-I was told by the girl at the pub that I might be able to get a room here for the night”, Richard stammered.

 The maid inclined her head in agreement, and then stepped back to let him pass.

 “Thank you”, said Richard.

 He stepped into a large, baronial hallway, which was well-lit by two large chandeliers.  A staircase on the left-hand side swept up to a narrow minstrels gallery.  It was all very impressive, but Richard was at a loss as to what he was supposed to do next.  In a hotel he would check in, but of course, this being a private house, there was no reception desk.  

 “Ah we have a guest”, a young, fair-haired man in a wheelchair propelled himself out of a room opposite the staircase.  

 “Yes, I’m sorry to bother you, but I think I’m lost”, said Richard “I have no idea where I am, and the girl at the pub …”

 “The Crown & Cushion”, said the young man “That’s the name of the pub”.

 “Right”, said Richard “She said you could put me up for the night.  If it’s any problem then I understand …”

 “It’s no problem at all”, said the man, offering his hand “We’re always open for guests here at the Manor.  This area doesn’t exactly abound in accommodation, so we do what we can for the weary traveller”.

 “That’s very kind of you”, said Richard, shaking his hand “My name’s Richard Sinclair”.

 “I’m Jerome Maltravers”, said the man “Come this way, I expect you could do with a cup of tea”.

 “I would love a cup of tea”, said Richard, suddenly realising how tired he felt.

 “Leave your bag with Aneta”, said the man, without looking round “She’ll make sure it’s taken up to your room”.

 Richard duly left his bag with the maid, and then followed his host into what turned out to be a very cosy library.  A fire was blazing in the grate, and red velvet curtains were drawn across the windows, shutting out the bleak night.  A tea-tray was set up on a folding-table on the hearth-rug.  Richard espied a large radiogram in one corner, the sort what served as both radio and record-player.

 “I haven’t seen one of those for years”, he blurted out “My parents had one when I was a kid in the 70s”.

 “You’ll find we’re not exactly up with the latest thing here at Fox Halt Manor”, said Jerome, pouring tea through a tea-strainer into a bone china cup.

 “Och well vinyl’s making a bit of a comeback”, said Richard “I think people miss the snap and crackle of the old records”.

 “Come and sit by the fire, Richard”, said Jerome.

 The tea-tray was very inviting.  Steaming cups of tea, accompanied by a homemade sponge cake, and wafer thin slices of bread and butter.

 “Help yourself”, said Jerome “Merle – our cook – will be most disappointed if too much of it goes back to the kitchen.  What brings you to our part of the world?”

 “I often have to travel round for my job”, said Richard, as Jerome cut him a generous slice of cake “I’m an engineering troubleshooter.  I don’t know how I got lost, I’m normally pretty careful as a rule, I must have taken a wrong turning off the motorway at some point, but God knows how”.

 “It’s not as uncommon as you think”, said Jerome “Believe it or not, some people end up here simply out of curiosity.  They see ‘Fox Halt’ signposted and wonder what it is.  I like to think Fate sends them here.  Do you believe in Fate, Richard, that everything in life is preordained?”

 “I don’t know to be honest.  I’ve never given it any thought.  My ex-wife was into a lot of that stuff.  She was a bit of a New Age hippy on the quiet, believed in angels and reincarnation, but I guess I’m too much of the sensible engineer for all that.  If it can’t be proved by science, I don’t see much point in wondering about it”.

 “You’re divorced?”

 “Yes, a couple of years ago.  I’d like to say it was all very grown-up and amicable, but it wasn’t.  It was horrible really.  Things are said that can’t be unsaid.  It all leaves a scar, whether we like it or not”.

 “And it has left you feeling very lonely?”

 “Yes”, said Richard, staring into the flames “But that’s not exactly unusual these days.  I go to work, so that I can pay to keep a roof over my head, for a little flat which frankly I hate”.

 “What would you do if you didn’t have to keep that roof over your head?”

 “I don’t know.  I seem to have hit the legendary Mid-Life Crisis.  I’m lost and no one’s given me a bloody map!  Sorry, I don’t mean to get agitated, but it comes out sometimes when I least expect it.   When I was younger there were all sorts of things I wanted to do.  I wanted to travel everywhere, but now I can’t be bothered.  The world’s in such a state that it scarcely seems worth the trouble of seeing it, let alone the fact that travel’s no fun anymore.  Hours and hours shovelled into a tin-can up in the air, treated like a member of a chain-gang,  just to meet a load of twats at the other end who remind you of the twats you’re trying to get away from … oh God, I’m off again, sorry”.

 “And yet really you should feel free”, said Jerome, leaning back in his chair “A man with no responsibilities anymore, no dependants.  Do you have children?”

 “No”, said Richard “I have an elderly mother, but she has dementia.  She probably wouldn’t know if I never went to see her again.  She’s well looked after in the Home, but it’s just the shell of her that’s there.  The real person died a few years ago.  It’s very sad.  Very upsetting that that’s probably what’s waiting for most of us eventually.  You’re right about the Feeling Free bit, but that doesn’t seem to be how Life is these days.  I don’t know what’s gone wrong.  I wish I did.  How did we all end up in this mess?”

 The clock on the mantelpiece chimed 6 times.

 “I’m afraid we’d better go and get ready for dinner”, said Jerome “But I would like to talk to you again, Richard.  You’re an interesting man”.

 “Am I?” Richard was shocked to hear how bitter his voice sounded with those words.

 “More than you realise”, Jerome deftly steered himself away from the tea-table “Aneta will show you to your room.  Dinner is at 7:30.  Mother likes us all to be punctual, although my Aunt Carlotta doesn’t usually manage it!”

 Aneta was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs.  She showed him up to the first floor, and then along a narrow corridor to a room at the end.  Richard was shown into a small, twin-bedded room with a patterned pale-green wallpaper.  Aneta indicated where the bathroom was, and told him that the dining-room was at the end of the hallway, before leaving him to his own devices.

 His overnight bag had been placed on one of the beds and neatly unpacked, even down to the half-eaten bar of chocolate which he had stowed away inside.  He looked into the ensuite bathroom and gave a smirk when he saw the avocado-coloured bathroom suite.  Like the radiogram in the library, it wouldn’t have been out of place in his parents semi in the 1970s.

 Richard eased off his shoes with a grateful sigh, and then flopped back on the other bed.  He was astonished by how much he had told Jerome in the library.  He had barely spoken of his divorce to anyone, or the fact that he had felt like a lost soul ever since.  There simply was no one close to him he could discuss his feelings with.  His mother was out of the frame, and he had no siblings or close friends.  At work he was regarded as the efficient Scottish engineer, the kind of guy you called upon in a crisis, but who largely remained a closed book to everyone.  He had hung on grimly to the respect he had at work as the only thing which gave him any self-esteem these days.  And it seemed as if, to hold onto that respect, he had to promote an image of himself as almost super-human, not prey to any human vulnerabilities whatsoever.  

 Sometimes he could quite see why some men suddenly went berserk.  The strain of constantly having to hold everything together simply got too much.

 

 Richard napped for a short while, and was woken by Aneta knocking gently on his door, and reminding him that dinner was at 7:30.  He showered and then put back on the shirt he had been wearing.  He wanted to save the clean shirt he had bought with him for tomorrow, when sadly he would have to leave this charming refuge.  

 At the bottom of the stairs he was greeted by a woman nearer his own age.  She had a round, pleasant face, and dark hair pulled back in a bun, from which a few wispy curls escaped.  Her dress was plain, but enhanced by a classy rope of expensive pearls.

 “You must be Mr Sinclair”, she beamed at him.

 “Richard, please”, he said, offering his hand.

 “And I’m Marjorie”, she replied “Jerome’s Mother, as you’ve probably guessed.  Come into the dining-room.  I hope you’re feeling hungry”.

 Richard found he was, in spite of the generous serving of cake only a couple of hours before.

 The dining-room was like something out of a period TV drama.  A long polished table liberally furnished with candlelabras, bowls of fruit and flowers, sparkling glassware and polished cutlery.  Hot dishes were arranged on the sideboard, and Aneta, plus a male colleague, also in uniform, were standing by waiting to serve.

 Jerome was seated at the head of the table, and Marjorie took the other end.  Richard found himself sitting next to a young woman who bore such a strong resemblance to Jerome, that it was obvious she must be his sister.  She had long, very fair hair, immaculately combed, and held in place with a black velvet headband.  She turned and smiled at him, shyly.  Richard muttered a gruff “hello” as he took his seat.

 “That’s Anabel, my daughter”, said Marjorie “You’ve already met Jerome of course.  We won’t wait for my sister, Carlotta, not when we’ve got a guest here.  She turns up whenever she feels like it.  Do you like venison, Richard?”

 “Well yes”, said Richard “Although it’s years since I last had it”.

 “Good”, said Marjorie, indicating to the staff to begin serving “If you had any other needs I’m sure we could accommodate them, it’s not unusual for us to get vegetarians here”.

 “We had a vegan once”, said Anabel.

 “Yes, that was a bit more awkward”, said Marjorie “It’s so difficult to find anything that suits them, and they can’t drink wine either, which I didn’t realise”.

 “No, something to do with the processes of making it”, said Richard “They have to have their own version”.

 “Ah a visitor!” came a girlish voice from the doorway.  

 Carlotta was still a handsome woman in her sixties, and Richard could easily see that in her youth she must have been stunning.  She had violet-coloured eyes, like Elizabeth Taylor, the late movie star, and dark hair swept back from her face.  She was wearing the kind of dress that would have been fashionable when his mother was young, full-skirted and off-the-shoulder.

 “You knew very well we had a guest, Carlotta, because I told you earlier”, said Marjorie “So stop acting surprised”.

 “Just trying to make him feel welcome, dearest one”, said Carlotta, taking the seat opposite Richard.

 “I’m sure we can all manage that, without any need for dramatic flourishes”, said Marjorie “I often think my sister should have been an actress, Richard, she was a great loss to the world of stage and film”.

 Richard felt like saying that she certainly would have had the looks for it, but felt that would come as crass and clumsy, so he said nothing.

 “Marjorie is the sensible one”, said Carlotta.

 “Well someone had to be”, said Marjorie.

 Richard sensed that this banter had probably been going on between the two sisters since they were wee small sprogs, so he let it wash over him.  And besides the food was too good to let anything distract him.  The venison was juicy and tender, and the accompanying vegetables simple, but cooked just right.  

 “I’ll pass that on to Merle, our cook”, said Marjorie, when Richard complimented her “She’ll be so pleased”.

 Richard did wonder how on earth they managed to employ such a full, well-trained staff, mostly for their own use, in this day and age.  The only people he’d heard of in this era who could do such a thing were either the Royal Family, or extremely rich celebrities.  But it would seem a churlish subject to bring up when he was enjoying their hospitality.  

 “Whereabouts in Scotland are you from, Richard?” asked Marjorie.

 “St Andrews originally”, said Richard, hastily swallowing a small lump of meat before replying.

 “Oh that’s a lovely little town”, said Marjorie “I know it quite well.  My husband was a keen golfer.  I used to caddy for him when we were first together!  Have you been down South long?”

 “I came down to go to university, at Brighton”, said Richard “And I never went back I suppose”.

 “Do you miss it?”

 “Sometimes, yes.  I know it’s a bit of an old cliche, but people do seem more friendly the further North you go.  More ready to chat to a complete stranger.  I’ve never been able to get over how stand-offish people are down here, present company excepted of course!”

 “Yes I suppose that’s true”, said Marjorie “I don’t know why that is, unless it’s the pace of life.  It’s more frantic down South, apart from round here.  We try to be much more mellow in this neck of the woods”.

 “I think you’ve managed that!” said Richard.

 The meal wound on in a very pleasant way.  The whole atmosphere of comfort and ease combined to cocoon him in a way he hadn’t known in years.  These days, even on the rare occasions when he ate in superior restaurants, it was never very relaxing.  As a paying customer you were still processed as if you were on a conveyor-belt, the staff seemingly anxious to make sure you didn’t spend too much time taking up valuable chair-space.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even had a leisurely meal with another person, certainly not since the break-up with his ex-wife.  And even then they’d both kept their mobile phones by their plates, ready to be distracted by the needs of Work at any moment.  

 Somewhere nearby he heard a clock chiming 9 times very softly.  

 “You look fit to drop, Richard”, said Marjorie.

 “It’s been a very long day, I guess”, said Richard “I was up well before 6 this morning”.

 “Then we mustn’t detain you”, said Marjorie “I was going to ask if you’d like a game of cards, but perhaps some other time”.

 “That would be very nice”, said Richard.

 On his way back across the hall he heard the squeak of a wheel, and found Jerome behind him.

 “It’s a shame we didn’t get to resume our chat”, said Jerome.

 “Jerome doesn’t get the chance to have much intellectual conversation”, said Anabel, who was just behind him “Mother’s too busy running the house, and I don’t think Aunty or me have the ability”.

 “You have got the ability, Anabel”, said Jerome, sternly “It’s just you’d usually rather be outside”.

 “That’s true”, Anabel smiled “But yes, Jerome could chatter away about everything in the known Universe if you’d let him”.

 “I’d like that too”, said Richard, wistfully.

 “Breakfast is anytime between 7 and 10”, said Jerome “In the dining-room.  It’ll all be set up on the sideboard, you just help yourself to what you want”.

 “Thank you”, said Richard “You’ve all been very hospitable”.

 

3.

 

 The first thing Richard noticed when he awoke the following morning was that his car windows were steamed up, and his back hurt from where he’d spent the night sitting bent up like a penknife in the seat.  He was startled by a tapping on the glass.

 “Hold on”, he said, opening the car door.

 An elderly man was standing, peering down at him with gentle concern.  Nearby was a wheelbarrow piled with twigs and branches, which he must have been pushing along the road.

 “Are you alright, mate?” he asked.

 “Yes, yes …” some dribble trickled out of the corner of Richard’s mouth and he wiped it away with his hand.  He felt the rough stubble on his chin.  He must have spent the entire night in the damn car!  

 “I saw you parked here and I was wondering if you was lost”, said the old man “We don’t get very much traffic along this road”.

 Richard clambered awkwardly out of the car, so that he could stretch himself and release some of the knotted tension in his back.  He looked up and saw the manor-house directly above him, at the top of a small slope.  The windows had that sad, forlorn look you often get with houses that have been uninhabited for a long time.

 “There’s no one here”, he said to himself.

 The old man followed his gaze.

 “Been no one here for many a long year”, he said “I don’t think this house has been lived in for about 40 years.  Sad no one’s shown any interest in it.  I sometimes think it’d make a nice country house hotel, one of those trendy spa places you get nowadays, but that’s the way things go I suppose.  We’re probably a bit too far off the beaten track for them, not near enough to any motorway links”.

 “Who were the last ones to live here?” said Richard “Can you remember?”

 “Not very well”, said the man “My old dad used to do the odd job for ‘em now and again.  I think the family name was Maltravers, or something like that.  They must have been nice people because he never said anything really bad about ‘em, although I remember him saying that they’d had a run of really bad luck.  Lost a lot of money in business, then the young feller had a bad accident when out horse-riding, and it left him permanently crippled.  I got the impression it all sort of broke Mr Maltravers, and he died before his time.  Dad used to say he wondered if it was something to do with the house, whether it was unlucky.  But he was a superstitious old wotsit, my old man, a lot of the old country folk were back in the day”.

 “Did the rest of the family move on?”

 “I suppose they must have done.  No idea where they went.  None of it ever gets mentioned in the village these days, there aren’t that many of us now who can remember it as it was back then.  A lot of newcomers these days”.

 “Even so, you’ve managed to keep a lot of your facilities”, said Richard “I passed the village school on the way here”.

 “That?” said the old man “Gawd, that closed down years back.  Back in the 80s.  Falling numbers.  It got converted into a private house by a couple of yuppies.  Probably worth a packet these days.  That seemed to be the start of the decline.  It ripped the heart out of the village.  The shop followed not long after that”.

 “And the pub, the Crown & Cushion?”

 “Now an old people’s home”, said the man.

 “Good grief”, said Richard, softly.  ‘If that was all a dream’, he thought to himself ‘it was a bloody long one, and so vivid”.

 “Are you gonna be alright, Sir?” asked the old man.

 “Yes, I need to find my way to Molesford”.

 “Molesford?  Oh you’re on the right track, just keep following this road for a few miles, and it’ll eventually link you up with the main Molesford road”.

 “Good, thank you”, said Richard.  He looked again, wistfully, up at the Manor House.  It had all been so real.   He had felt the warmth of the firelight on his face.  The taste of the gorgeous, rich food.  The venison, the red wine.  The sparkle of the glassware in the glow of the candlelight.   The soft, kind voices of his hosts. He knew he could have stayed there forever.

 “That wouldn’t have been the way, Sir”, said the old man, as if reading his thoughts “There’s nothing to be gained by hiding from Life, however tempting it seems at times”.

 “Why though?” said Richard “WHY do we have to keep going onwards?”

 “I don’t rightly know”, said the old man “But I suspect it’s because that’s what we’re here for.  We were all given the gift of Life for a reason.  Not everyone gets that chance.  Anyway, I’d best be getting on.  Now you take care of yourself, Sir, take it steady now”.

 “Thank you”, said Richard “Goodbye”.

 

THE END

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