The Quiet Cottage © Simon Halliday 2005
It was not the sort of place which most of us would be used to. It was a particularly beautiful little cottage in a rustic woodland setting, with nobody else for miles around. There was a thatched roof with warm and pleasant smoke rising into the cool evening air from a clean stone chimney. There was something mystical about the condition of this house, a sort of uncanny glowing despite the constant threat of vines and moss, of bird muck and attack from vermin. It was an old house, yet it had not aged. The inhabitants had not been quite so fortunate, for they were in their late sixties and perhaps looked a little older than this. Yet they felt the peace and the abiding youthful presence of the house, which somehow warmed their hearts and charged their minds. There were just two in the cottage, a married couple whose love had grown stronger over the years; and this evening they were particularly wide awake, for their young grand-children were coming to see them.
Through the trees, this was an exciting journey for Tom and Kate. They were riding bikes and sweating as they raced each other along the wide path. Under normal circumstances Kate would win – Tom was only seven, and Kate was a good three years older than him. Tonight, however, Kate was a little under the weather. She had been busy with her school-work, and had not had much sleep for the past few nights. She couldn’t let Tom beat her though - she’d never live it down!
“Hey Kate!” yelled Tom. “I told you I was going to win today… I dreamt it last night you know.”
“You and your stupid dreams!” yelled back Kate. “Is there anything you don’t dream?”
“I don’t think so” shouted Tom. Then Tom became scared. He gripped the brakes and his bike squealed to a halt.
“Tom, what are you doing?” shouted Kate as she overtook him. “Ha ha! You’ve no chance now…” And so Kate kept on going for a few seconds, but then realised she had seen fear on her brother’s face. She glanced back to make sure she was far enough ahead - that it wasn’t a trick. Then she shouted. “Tom, come on! What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t, Kate. It’s not safe.” Tom looked down at the ground and thought about what to say so that his sister might believe him. “We have to turn back!” shouted Tom. “We have to get back home.”
“Tom, this is ridiculous. Come on.” But Tom turned back, away from his sister, and began to ride slowly away. Kate was furious. She sighed, remembering what her mum had told her about looking after him. Quickly she chased after him until she was cycling steadily alongside him. “Oh no” she said… “Not a dream again.”
“It was so real” said Tom. “If we go there…” he stopped again, and Kate put her brakes on too as she saw the intensity in his face, “…we will die.”
“I hope they’re not racing again, Jack.” Freda was a tough old character deep down. She had grown soft with the passing years and the peace of the house, but when it came to watching over people and keeping her eye on what was going on, she was not naïve in the least.
Jack smiled as he lit his pipe. He knew what was going on too, and he knew that nothing would stop those two from their wild competitive streak. He gave a little laugh. “Kids! Ha, you know those two.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I do” said Freda. “I’ll be glad when they arrive.” The evening was still young, and there was plenty of light left for at least a couple of hours. She wasn’t going to worry, she told herself.
“Don’t worry” said Jack. “Come and sit down, love.”
Freda picked up her mug of tea and went to sit down next to Jack. She smiled across at him.
“You know, Freda… I’ve been thinking.” These days it was unusual for Freda to hear this, for thinking was something Jack tried not to do. He’d lived a busy life in his younger days, full of stress and the usual concerns over money and properties. So the retirement cottage in the woods was a place for doing nothing but listening to music, relaxing by the fire and perhaps cooking a barbecue on a fine evening. It was a true haven, and there was really no need to think about anything at all.
“What’s the matter, love?” came Freda’s gentle tones. “There’s nothing wrong is there?” The fire crackled loudly. The orange light reflected on a spotless sheepskin rug.
“I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong, no.” But Jack’s face did seem a little troubled. “I just wanted to ask you about that summer time. You know, back in…”
Freda stood up and walked towards the door. She quickly put down her cup with a loud crack on a dark marble table. She turned back to face him, and her voice was a little cold but steady. “You know we can’t talk about this” she began. “It was a long time ago, Jack… Some things just don’t matter any more.”
Jack sighed and looked up at his wife. It had always been there at the back of his mind. Why wouldn’t his own wife trust him enough to tell him everything? What could be so difficult about it? “I shan’t get angry about it, my love.” Jack was very keen not to spoil their marriage over anything, for their love had always been true. “I just wish you’d be a bit more open with me.”
“I am open about all things, Jack, but you know – and always have known – that this is different. It has always been different, and always will be. We agreed, remember?”
“Yes, I know… It’s just that sometimes I think… Well, there’s nothing at all that I hide from you. Nothing! You know everything about me, and I thought that you might return the trust.”
“Jack, we are not having this conversation.” Freda was a little angry now. “You have to understand! I learned too much, that’s all. I should never have seen what I saw, and nobody else should see that or know about it, either…”
The fire crackled louder and made a dramatic shift as a large burning log fell forwards.
“The rug!” shrieked Freda, who ran to save it. She fumbled with the brass stokers, the forks and shovels which came crashing down around the fire.
Jack leaped up in alarm, amazed at what he saw. For ten years they had lived in this cottage, and there had never been drama of this kind. “Out of the way!” he shouted, lunging forward and grabbing two shovels. The rug had caught and was producing flames of its own, and how quickly it went up! A small wooden chair stood nearby, and the flames were dancing playfully around the legs. Freda fell onto the floor as Jack bustled through to get the burning log. Coughing in the thick smoke he managed to throw it back onto the fire, but as he turned to see his wife he could hardly believe his eyes. The whole room seemed to be alive with cracking, spitting tongues of flame. Pictures on the walls were burning, the settee had caught fire; even the antique oak table which he loved so dearly. Freda was already on her feet, just staring in dismay. “Freda, we’re going to die!” shouted Jack. “We can’t just stand here, it’s too late. We have to get out!” He grabbed her hand and ran towards the flaming doorway, but as he ran he found that the hand was resisting his movement. Freda was not going with him; instead she just stood there, mesmerised by the glowing room. Jack began “What the…?”
“It’s no good” said Freda. “You run if you want to, but for me… it’s meant to be this way.”
Jack was horrified. He’d heard some strange things from his wife over the years, but this was a very real matter of life and death. What was the matter with her? He managed to keep a calm voice, with an undercurrent of urgency. “Freda, I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but we can talk about it outside. Right now we have to leave this house. Right now!” And yet Freda would not be moved. She stood resolutely by the burning table, as if already resigned to her live cremation. “Tell me why you’re doing this!” demanded Jack. “Why won’t you come with me?”
Freda looked deep into his eyes and smiled warmly. “Don’t worry Jack, it’s for your own good, and for mine. I’m a danger to you, and to all people. You want to know what happened in that summer forty-three years ago? You want to know what I saw? I shall tell you… I saw them. I saw the ones who are destroying our world even as we go about our daily lives. The ones who seek to take as many souls as they can before the final day of judgement. You will be safe if you go back to your family, but for me… it is too late. I was amazed by what they showed me. I was impressed by their intelligence and their skill, and they have my soul already. Yes, I still love you Jack, but on the final day we shall not be reunited. You should marry again if you like, for there is no eternity for us.”
Jack had never heard anything like it. His whole life flashed before his eyes as she spoke, and he wondered if he might be able to wake up now; but he wasn’t dreaming. He could see that his wife meant every word she said, and he realised that he didn’t have a clue what she was on about. He also knew that he was coughing a lot more than she was, and that any time soon he would die if he stayed here. After one last attempt to grab Freda’s hand which she fought off, Jack ran out of the cottage. There was a little light left in the quiet evening air, and the surrounding woods looked perfectly tranquil. Yet the cottage was blazing, and in a few moments Jack witnessed from the trees at the clearing’s perimeter, the thatched roof was going up. He fell to his knees and sobbed, partly through his own confusion, partly for his cottage, and mostly for his wife. This made no sense, and it had come so suddenly. He was alone. Then he remembered… the grand-children! What could he say to them? And why were they so late? Also, thank goodness they were so late, or they could have been caught up in all this. Or perhaps they might have saved the situation? Jack really didn’t know what to think, and he sat looking at the cottage, with an occasional glance around at the path through the trees.
Kate blinked at what her brother had told her. “Tom… this is ridiculous. What do you mean we’ll die?”
“I’m telling you the truth” insisted Tom. “I saw what’s going to happen. The whole place is on fire in my vision. I can see it now.”
“You can’t see anything except your stupid imagination” said Kate. “Just stop all this freaky stuff and let’s get to grandma’s house. You’re scaring me now.”
“You should be scared” insisted Tom. “We’ll have to go home now.”
“No, No, NO!” Shouted Kate. She was getting stroppy now. “Tom, you’re younger than me, and I’m telling you… we must keep going. What are we going to tell mum and dad? That you dreamt a bad omen about tonight? And why didn’t you tell me all this earlier? Why did we have to get halfway there before you suddenly come out with it?”
“I had forgotten” said Tom, distantly. “It’s strange, but… Sometimes I forget, and then something reminds me. I remembered that I dreamt I beat you in our race, then I remembered something else… that we arrived at the house and the whole place set on fire. And Grandma was really strange. She had really bright eyes, like fireworks…”
“Stop it Tom!” shouted Kate suddenly. “You’re really scaring me now.” Kate was confused. She’d never seen her brother like this, and she didn’t know what to do. “Okay” she said. “We’ll go back home. We can come back here another time, any time really.”
“Thanks Kate” said Tom. “I’m sorry.” Kate just looked down at her bike pedals, then set off quickly towards home. Tom followed her, glad to have finally been listened to.
As Jack sat in the woodland near the garden and the flames began to die down, he wondered what to do next. Should he ring someone? Should he call the police? Perhaps there would be a chance that Freda had survived. No, that was impossible, unless she had changed her mind and run out through the back door. Jack stood up suddenly, ready to find out what was going on. He approached the embers around the last few flames. He could smell the thick burning ashes as he kicked around a few skeletal-like remains of his property in bewilderment; not yet with anger. He wasn’t going to let all that out just yet. Then he stopped suddenly. He was sure there was something else… a faint whiff of the most curious kind. It seemed familiar but he couldn’t quite work it out. It was like an old eye lotion he once had… a medical smell, but with a glorious sweetness mixed with a grittier quality of engine oil. He stood still, not realising the soles of his shoes were beginning to smoke from the ashes underfoot. It was irritating him now… what was that smell? Then it came to him… like a bolt from the blue it was crystal clear in his mind. That summer! The time when his wife had arrived back so dishevelled from her holiday. The time she had completely ignored him as she stumbled into the house, and disappeared upstairs without a word. The time when deep down, he knew that everything had changed. It was accompanied by this aroma… she had brushed past him in the hallway… This fascinating scent had struck a chime in his mind at the time, triggered his curiosity. Yet he was never to be told anything about it. He was to be left forever in the dark.
He thought of Tom and Kate again. Where were they? Surely they should have run up to him by now, asking where grandma was and crying at the scene of destruction which lay before them. He continued through the wreckage, careful to avoid the still-burning embers. He retained hope that he wouldn’t see his wife. And then he saw her. Yet it was not really her. It was the perfectly preserved body of Freda, sat in a prayer-like position, although there was something missing. The eyes. Her two eye-sockets were completely empty, and yet intact. “Freda!” gasped Jack, as he ran towards her. But it was no good. As he reached for her and grabbed her shoulder, she fell and rolled – lifelessly along the ground. “No!” shouted Jack, who went to see and shake her. “But how…?” he began, completely at a loss as to what had happened. Bats were circling overhead, their radar squeals were all around as Jack stared horrified at the mystery of his wife’s death.
Then there was a voice. From within Freda, Jack heard a clear voice – although her lips were not moving, and it was not her voice. “You must leave now.” The tone was quite gentle, quite pacifying and controlled. “You can return to your family. They will help you get back to normal. Your wife will not return, she has chosen her destiny with us.” Whatever intelligence this was, it seemed to be using Freda’s vocal chords to communicate with him.
“Why?” cried Jack. “What about our life together? What about our marriage?”
“It’s too late” insisted the voice of reason. “It’s far too late. Don’t worry about her. You all have to choose.”
Jack reeled back from the scene, and staggered towards the path. He was losing his balance and his sense of vision now. He was really beginning to lose his mind. “It’s not fair!” he shouted. “Who are you? What are you doing?” The world spun about him as he fell. Jack had lived a good life, and had a beautiful family. He was a generous soul, and quite a strong character. But still time continued to pass and change his life in the strangest of ways.
“Jack” called a bright young voice. “It’s time for us to go through now. Can you hear me?” A pretty young lady, she came towards the poor old man we now see in a wheelchair. He couldn’t appreciate her beauty or her kindness, and he didn’t know where he was. He was dimly aware of other wheelchairs and people moving around him. “Do you know what day it is?” she called happily… “It’s Christmas day! We have a special meal through here for you all.” Jack was wheeled through to the dining hall, and the nurse snapped on the brakes as he arrived at his place. Eight years he’d been in here, following a complete nervous breakdown after the death of his wife. He could smell some food now, which was good, and he gently lifted his head. Then he saw the food, and he began to cry. “Oh no!” sighed the nurse. She was patient, but it seemed that no matter what they did for Jack he would always cry. Why was he always so upset? It was years since he lost his wife, and so much counselling later he just couldn’t seem to get back to normal. “What’s wrong, Jack?” Jack didn’t answer, but suddenly began to shake. Within just a moment he was shaking, wildly and uncontrollably. The table shook with him, and the other patients there were complaining now. The whole room began to explode into a chaotic uproar. Plates were falling and smashing, food was flying across the room. The nurse was shouting for help, and other helpers came running into the dining hall. Gradually they managed to calm the other patients down, but Jack was still shaking. They wheeled him out and into the hallway with a struggle. “It’s not what it seems!” gasped Jack. “I’m not mad you know. I saw them… last night… I saw them…”
“Calm down Jack… you saw who?”
“Freda was right. She told me about them. They’ve come for me now. They want me, too.” Nothing like this had happened during Jack’s residential time here. It was completely bizarre for the nurses, and for this to happen on Christmas day seemed dreadful.
“Calm down” they insisted. “It’s Christmas day, Jack. Don’t spoil it.”
“Yes!” he said. “They wanted it this way. They said Christmas day was a good day for me to go. They wanted me to go on Christmas day. Today!” He was gasping for breath now.
“You’re not doing yourself any good, Jack.” And as she spoke, her words faded. The life from Jack’s eyes was changing now, and he was actually looking quite healthy - healthier than he had for years.
Jack’s body sank lifelessly back into his chair, yet his eyes remained open. The nurses stared as he became another statistic on the care home’s death register, and they wondered what to say. They said nothing, but called for Jack’s family and the undertakers – as was the usual custom. They returned to care for the other residents, and to help them enjoy one of their final Christmas celebrations.