Four walls, I had once read somewhere. As long as you had four walls, you had a chance.
Somebody had been in here, although not recently. There was a threadbare sofa, onto the arm of which had been placed, neatly folded, a set of pyjamas. The adjacent cushion had a depression, as though one person had been sitting there for a long time. Further along, on another cushion, a newspaper. On the floor in front of the hearth, a pair of slippers and a whisky bottle. And in the hearth itself, a pyramid of distended firelighters, balled up paper, kindling. Suspended over the pyre by means of a purpose-built tripod, and depending from a short chain, a rusty old kettle. I stepped into the room in silence, the others close behind. Picked up the newspaper, waved it around in the air to shake off dust. Paddington gave a little cough, and then a sharp wheeze as Franklin elbowed him in the ribs to shut him up. I unfolded it, it was the Cambrian News. There was a photograph of a crashed military jet, half buried in a moon bog, alongside the headline, ‘HARRIER II DOWNED NEAR CAPTAIN’S HOUSE: MOD cites guidance systems mystery.’ The Captain’s house was a ruined farmhouse sitting atop a promontory, overlooking several lakes. It looked as though it dated back to the time of King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. There was a dirt road that ran around it, but no access point. When you drove past at night, the moon picked out the ruins and they shimmered and seemed to move around themselves, and you couldn’t stand to look at them. The local folklore stated that it was haunted, but by what or whom, nobody could say. The identity of the Captain was a mystery. There had been hippie traveller attempts to colonise the ruins, as though they were Mount Everest or K2, but all had failed to last a single night, and none of the returnees would speak of their experience.
I scanned the article. It didn’t say much, other than some oblique reference to the Bermuda triangle. I looked at the date: April 9th 1984. I put it down and moved toward the fireplace. Paddington and Franklin were close behind me. I picked up the whisky bottle and saw a price tag on the cap: co-op, £1:20. It was a full size bottle. I passed it back to Franklin and he put it into the pocket of his greatcoat, then I moved toward the stairs.
They creaked as we walked slowly up them, and at their summit lay a tiny landing leading off to two small bedrooms. The farmhouse had looked bigger from the outside and I began to wonder again about the Captain’s house, and rumours of hauntings. West Wales was a mystical place, full of shimmering ruins, moon bogs, déjà vu experiences that made sense one moment and not the next. The house was a modern-day Mary Celeste. Somebody had walked out of here one morning and never returned. While deserted buildings were not uncommon in Ceredigion, most of them were ruins. This was a whole new mystery in and of itself.
The smaller of the two rooms was a storage space for moribund tools: scythes, a lawnmower, a couple of brashing saws, a splitting maul, a rusted chainsaw. The chainsaw was the most modern thing there, but even that looked as though it dated back to the 1950s. The ceiling had come in, and pieces of rotten plaster and bits of plywood sat atop this mausoleum for agricultural hardware. There were pigeon corpses strewn hither and thither. The room stank of age and death. We all backed out in silence and went to investigate the other room.
It was bigger, but to gain access we had to all but smash through the door, warped and swollen with the rain. Once inside, I looked up and saw that the ceiling had come in here too, and yet there were no signs of wildlife nor the sounds of birdsong in the attic space above us. It was like Auschwitz. Inside the room was a huge iron bedframe next to another broken window, a single filthy rug on bare floorboards beneath our feet. On the bed a thin mattress, and piled on top of it any number of blankets and overcoats, towering almost to the rafters. There was a desk pushed up against the wall to our left, a candle in a bottle, and a battered old typewriter, a single mouldering sheet of A4 paper protruding from the platen.
Somebody had been attempting a memoir, only he hadn’t got far. I tried a couple of the keys and found that they had rusted together, ASDF coming up together in a clump, then HJKL too. I tried to pull the sheet out, but it had stuck fast. I leaned into it, trying to make out what he had written. There wasn’t that much of it, but it was legible. I wondered how this could be so after years of damp and foul weather.
“Chapter one, this being the late memorandums of Captain George E Custard, of the parish of Lledrod and the kingdom of Ceredigion, in the year of our lord AD1981. I came into this world one the eve of the world war, being at first still borne, and then somehow revived an hour later, a fact which hadst never been explained to mee. I had no brothers nor sisters, only a cousin who left for America when I was of but ten yeares. I was too young for the war, but my fathere was a mere youth when he conceived of me and he had to go. He did not return. When I was but thirteen, and having hearde of this tragedy in a communication from the king of England, my mother took a hot bucket od soapy water and a washrag, and she walked over to Lllagybi forest, some ten miles hence from this here place in which you now stand, and she did at first make herself naked, then she did wash herself, she did dress herself once more and then she took a sturdy horse-pulling rope which she had also brunged with her, and she did hang herself until very dead from a tree which is still some ten paces into that same forest, to the left of the old footpath and the kissing gate. After the funereals had ended, and after a decent interval of some mourning, I did wander myself back into that forest and I did see that place for my own self. Overcome then with a fresh assault of grievance, I did collapse at the foot of that tree and I did stay in such as that position for quite some time. But when I had rested, and when I had once more opened my eyes, I did see before me some berries, and remembering then that I had not partaken of sustenance for some many days, I did eat them, and then immediately I stood and I walked further into the forest. In almnost no time at all there was a sudden darkness which did overcome me, and I saw through a shimmering haze a door set into a doorframe and yet standing alone in the forest, and on the door were emblazered upon it many strange symbols, which I knew from the tales that my cousin, who was well-read, to be from the east of this world. Walking toward the door, which still shimmered madly, I…”
I jumped up suddenly then, startled by sounds from downstairs – there were animal noises, and a crashing of something being overturned, followed by an eerie silence. I turned and rushed past the others, out of the room and towards the stairs, then flew down them. But when I got down there nothing had changed. I looked around at the other two.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” said Franklin. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m starting to get the heeby-jeebies!”
We walked across the fields in silence, and when we were almost at the road we noticed a tractor coming towards us. We stood at the side of the path as it drew level with us. The farmer turned off his engine and leaned out of the cab.
“We were wondering whether you knew who owns that farmhouse,” Franklin said, pointing. “And if he’d be willing to rent it to us.”
“No I don’t,” he said. “And if I did, I wouldn’t be telling you.”
Then he turned the engine on and went back to ploughing the field, leaving us to choke on his fumes.
Back at Lledrod, in Paddington’s bender, we made soup. After it had gone down we started into the whisky. It tasted like it had been watered down but there was still three quarters of a bottle left. It was three days until our next giro, and we thought that we might have to steal some farm diesel to make it into Aberystwyth. We poured ourselves half a mug each and went outside to watch the sun set over Llangwyryfon.
“I need a new stove,” Franklin said.
“What’s wrong with the old one?” This was Paddington.
“It’s fucked. It’s leaking smoke and there’s something I can’t quite identify burning at the back of it. It’s fucking noxious man. I could die in my sleep.”
“We all could,” I said.
They both turned and looked at me. There was a silence.
“What was in that letter?” Franklin asked me.
“I didn’t have time to read much of it” I lied.
“But you read some of it. What did it say?”
“I’m not sure I want to talk about it.”
“That man…” Paddington said.
“What man?” Franklin asked. “The farmer? The farmer on the tractor?”
“No.” Paddington spat out some foreign body that had been lurking in his mug. “Whoever lived in the farmhouse. He must have walked out of there one morning and just never come back.”
“What was in the letter?” Franklin asked again.
“It was some kind of memoir. Something about the first world war. He hadn’t got very far with it.”
“Why didn’t you pull it out?”
“It was old. It had stuck to the platen with the damp.”
“To the what?” Paddington asked.
“To the platen,” Franklin said. “It’s the typewriter roll.”
“So… ?” Franklin asked again.
“Do you remember a story that was going around Llangybi a while back? About a door in the forest, standing alone?”
“Vaguely. With Om symbols all over it?”
“I don’t think they were Om symbols. But yes, that’s the one.”
“And that’s what this… that’s what this memoir was about? The door in the forest, the one with the squiggles all over it?”
I looked at him.
“You never saw it yourself, Franklin?”
“No,” he said. “No I didn’t. It was Shuteye on a mushroom trip. That’s all.” But he grimaced as he said it.
“So what was in the letter? The memoir?” Paddington asked me. “The door with the squiggles on? Was the old man some kind of triphead?”
“He ate some berries but I don’t think that was it, “ I said. “Did you ever see it, Pad?”
“The door in the forest.”
“Nope, me neither” he said, looking down at his boots.
“Is that all there was?” Franklin asked.
“Mostly it was… his father died in the first world war. In the Somme, something like that. Then his mother hanged herself. After that he was alone.”
Franklin gave a shudder. Paddington laughed. It sounded forced. The sun was down now. We drained our cups and climbed back into the bender to get warm. In three days everything would be alright again, for a little while.