by Michael Graeme [United Kingdom]
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I have no idea what happened. I was driving North along the M1 when suddenly the car swerved out of control. In the blink of an eye, I had crossed three lanes and cut in to the hard shoulder. There, I hit the raised kerb and became airbourne, clearing the crash barrier before plummeting twenty metres over an embankment and into the forest below.
I hit the ground nose first. The front end crumpled and I felt the harness tighten. Then there was a startling rush of air, pressing me back into the seat and when the noise of it finally died, there was the acrid smell of glycol and torn metal but, fortunately, no fuel.
Stunned, I slid from the car to survey the damage. It was a wreck – every panel from front to back had buckled, absorbing the trauma into itself,… away from me. I was lucky,.. not even a scratch. So, what now? I wondered.
Slowly, I gathered my senses and began to make my way through waist high grass, towards the towering embankment. I was thinking I’d have to clamber back up to the motorway to use the emergency telephone, but when I reached the foot of the embankment I discovered the concrete rose sheer, like the wall of a fortress. I blinked, unable to take it in at first: it was ridiculous; there appeared to be no way up.
I had a rough idea where I was. I’d been passing this place for years, you see? It was a sort of rural wasteland formed by an intersection of elevated motorways and feeder roads. The roads contained the land, the incessant traffic and the brutish embankments discouraging casual explorers and property developers, so it had been left to grow wild. And the motorways were so old by now that you could barely see more than a few meters into what had matured , over decades, into a dense, and unfrequented woodland.
It was still early, with hardly any traffic noise and I realised it was likely no one had witnessed the accident. I looked up through the forest canopy to find I’d fallen through without breaking even a single branch. There would be no evidence of the accident on the motorway either, other than an ambiguous smear of rubber, so even to a passing helicopter, I’d be invisible.
I heard a juggernaught howling by. It passed oblivious to my demise and I felt a twinge of panic. For years I’d cruised the highways alongside those monsters and felt myself somehow a part of their grand collective purpose. Suddenly though, I was excluded,… and they seemed not to care, seemed not even to have noticed.
I returned to the car and pulled out the map. The wasteland was bigger than I’d thought, being perhaps ten kilometers across. I noticed how the highways enclosed it, riding high along the tops of their embankments, the little hatched lines on the map suggesting that they continued sheer throughout their entire length. There was a village a few kilometres away on the other side of the nearest embankment, but of course, no simple means of crossing to it – no bridge and no access road. The best the map could offer was a stream entering the enclosed land to the north. I reasoned there’d have to be some other means by which the highway could span the stream, so I packed my valuables into my suitcase and set off in search of it.
It wasn’t easy. The young forest had grown right up against the concrete in places, so my progress was slow. It would have been easier without the baggage but I’d felt uncomfortable at the idea of leaving it behind. After thirty minutes I reached the stream, only to find there was no bridge, just a narrow culvert, the water gushing from it; There was no way I could have squeezed through. I was very sweaty by now, and my arm was aching from having to drag the bag through the thick tangle of branches and saplings which seemed to snag it at every turn. Growing ever more irritated, I carried on feeling my way further north through a kilometre of knotted undergrowth until eventually I reached a junction formed by a second embankment intersecting from the south west. I was sure there’d be some sort of access here, some steps, or a passageway, but all I found was a seamless union of concrete.
I looked up at the sheer wall of the embankment, unable to see the traffic which was now roaring by at peak volume. I wondered about hurling up bits of debris to attract attention, but even if by some mammoth effort I could have cleared the barrier it would have taken only one driver to swerve in alarm, for there to be a monumental pile-up. I couldn’t risk it, and besides – there had to be a way out, somewhere.
So I carried on, feeling my way along the concrete wall, heading south-west now and it was about half way along this length that I eventually came upon the other car. It was one of those small French models, of the type favoured by fashionable young women, and like my own car it was a complete wreck. The doors had burst open and I could see some personal belongings strewn about – letters, loose coins and also a purse, inside which I found a stack of credit cards. The letters were postmarked two years ago and the car had begun to rust where the impact had exposed bare metal. But surely, I thought, it couldn’t have been here all that time – the owner would have come back for these things!
I put the purse into my suitcase, thinking I’d hand it over to the police when I found my way out. Then I continued feeling my way around the perimeter of the enclosed land, eventually to find the ground becoming water-logged. I was growing tired now, the sweat stinging my eyes, and my lungs straining for air. Meanwhile, I cursed, squelching ankle deep in mud, snagging my jacket and my suitcase with nearly every step, as I made a wide detour, trying to get around it.
Struggling on, I caught glimpses of a large pond glinting through the trees. I supposed a culvert had become clogged by debris, causing water to back up against the embankment. It seemed to fill a clearing and there were rocks on the far side, and lush emerald grass. It was a pretty spot and in spite of my predicament I was quite taken by it. Then I realised then there was a woman sitting on the rocks. She was wearing a yellow sun-frock and a broad brimmed straw hat, and I was only just coming to terms with her incongruous presence, when a second woman broke the surface of the pond. She rose, completely naked, and waded over to her companion who handed her a towel.
After the shock of it I was relieved because at least now I could ask directions – except of course, I would have to wait until the woman put some clothes on. While I waited, I stole self conscious glances from my hiding place. They seemed completely out of context, like figures from a romantic painting who had been torn out and pasted against the hideous grey backdrop of the embankment. Still, they seemed perfectly at ease, chatting quietly, even though the air was filled with a vibrating traffic roar.
Eventually they rose, but to my dismay, the naked woman gathered her clothes into a bundle under her arm – obviously intending to make her way undressed. I still couldn;t approach them – it would be too embarassing. After a moment I decided that the most delicate course was to simply follow them. All I had to do was keep a discrete distance so as not to startle them, and they were sure to guide me out. The naked woman led the way, the other walking closely behind, a hand upon her companion’s shoulder. There was something unusual about the elder woman’s movements, I thought.
Then I realised she was blind.
I followed cautiously, maintaining a safe distance – after all, I didn’t want them thinking I was a stalker. Things weren’t going as I had hoped though, and I realised they were heading, not for some point on the perimeter of the wasteland, but deeper into the wood. Still, they were moving with a purpose, and for the first time since the accident, I felt my spirits brightening.
After half an hour, the way began to steepen amongs mature trees – broad Beech and Chestnut. This was odd: these trees must have been hundreds of years old! I pressed on, anxious not to lose sight of my guides. Suddenly though, the trees closed around them, hiding them from my view and I broke into a run in case I lost them altogether. Unexpectedly then, I came out of the wood and found myself at the edge of an immaculate lawn. There were neat borders bursting with colour and before me rose a red-brick house festooned with clematis and wisteria.
It stood above treetop level, its upper windows having an unbroken view of the surrounding countryside. It wasn’t a new house, perhaps 1920’s vintage, and I wondered why I’d never spotted it from the motorway. Still, my luck was in,… there’d be a telephone. Feeling conspicuous in my business suit, I lugged my baggage, across the lawn. The front door was wide open, my guides having gone inside I supposed, so I knocked timidly.
“Come in, Peter.”
My name! The coincidence was startling – I knocked again. “Em…. excuse me,..”
The blind woman appeared. She was forty-ish and slimly built with long dark hair. She smiled. “Come in, silly,” she said, reaching out for my arm.
I held back. “You don’t understand,” I said, and as I spoke I found myself distracted by her unseeing eyes which were locked on a point somewhere over my shoulder. They were green and sparkling, and very much alive. Then the other woman appeared.
“Who is it Rosemary?” She had put on a chemise and was running a comb through her damp hair.
Rosemary stood back for her to see. “Alice, it’s Peter,” she said.
I smiled at Alice in apology. “Sorry to bother you.”
Alice suddenly seemed flushed with excitement and returned my smile more warmly than I’d expected. “Peter,” she said. “You’ve come.” Then she took my bag and disappeared inside.
Was Alice blind, too? Like Rosemary’s her eyes had seemed unable to meet mine, staring strangely to one side but she had seized the bag deftly enough.
“There’s some mistake,” I said. “I’ve had an accident. I wondered if I could use your telephone.”
“There’s no telephone,” said Rosemary. Then she placed her hands on my face and I closed my eyes as she read it,… her fingers light and cool, barely brushing my skin.
“Now,” I thought. “Now she’ll realise,…”
“You’re tired,” she said. “You’ve had a long journey.” Then she called out: “Alice, my love. Would you run Peter a bath?”
“That’s very kind but,…”
She curled a hand around my arm, drew me over the threshold and pressed the door shut. “I’ve prepared a room for you,” she said.
“But,… I just need some directions.”
“Later,” she soothed. “When you’ve had time to rest.”
It was a beautiful room. It had large windows which let out onto a balcony. There was an adjoining sitting room and a bathroom, where I found Alice in the process of filling the bath. One wall of the room was taken up by bookshelves and as I looked around I realised each book, each tiny detail of the room, the decor, the pictures on the wall, could not have suited me better if I’d spent a lifetime preparing it all for myself.
“Will you be comfortable, do you think?” asked Rosemary. She seemed full of kindness and expectation.
“Look,” I said. “I’m obviously not who you think.”
“Peter, there can be no other.”
Alice emerged from the bathroom, followed by the seductive aroma of herbs.
“All ready for you,” she said. Then she reached up and embraced me. Her head was on my chest, her damp, sweet scented hair beneath my chin. “Oh, Peter,” she breathed. “It’s lovely that you’ve come.”
“But this is all a mistake,” I said. “Please,…”
Rosemary intervened, placing a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “We must give Peter time to settle,” she said.
Alice looked up, her eyes glowing with a childlike warmth, though as before they seemed oddly out of sync with my position. “Will you join us in the garden, later?” she asked.
“Yes, of course” I said. I wanted them to go – if only to give myself a moment of privacy and to gather my thoughts.
I listened as they moved down the hall, their chatter diminishing in their wake,… soft voices, happy, excited at my arrival. I sank onto the bed, giddy now with frustration and fatigue. It seemed that since leaving the car, I’d done nothing but dig myself deeper into absurdity. I hung my head and groaned, realising I’d have some explaining to do when the real Peter showed up.
I should have left at once, sneaked out while I had the chance, but I’d still no idea which way to go and as Rosemary had said, I was exhausted. And I was hot, my shirt soaked and clinging uncomfortably, so I bathed quickly before changing into clean clothes from my suitcase. Then, I stepped onto the balcony, thinking that from there I might spot some obvious way out. Unconsciously, I braced myself for the rush of noise from the surrounding highways, but I heard nothing except the stirring of trees and the chirruping of birds.
The highways could not have been more than a few kilometres from here, on all sides – the traffic surging around, a tremendous vortex of energy but all I could see were trees and rolling meadows as far as the horizon. It was growing dusky now. I checked my watch – time appeared to be passing more quickly than I thought. I was distracted by playful laughter – Alice turning cartwheels on the lawn. Rosemary was seated close by on a bench. “Miss Mayfield,” I heard her say, playfully. “You shall do yourself a mischief!”
Alice saw me and waved. I waved back. Then I felt a chill,…
Inside, I took out the purse I’d found and examined the credit cards: Miss. A J. Mayfield? Alice’s purse? Alice’s car lying wrecked, not two kilometres from here, abandoned with all her valuables scattered around?
She was reading, sprawled out on a rug at Rosemary’s feet when I found them. Rosemary, patted the space beside her on the bench.
“Peter,” she said. “Come, sit with me.”
So I sat, then cleared my throat for emphasis. “Ladies,” I began as clearly and as slowly as I could. “There has been a misunderstanding. If not for my accident, I would have been in Manchester this morning. So you see, I’m,….”
I felt Rosemary’s hand settling in my lap, it’s sudden, intimate heat cutting off my words. “It’s all right,” she said, soothingly. “I understand. But it’s grown so late. Why not stay with us tonight?”
“I couldn’t,… really,…”
But it made sense to stay. I was a long way from home, and where else would I have found to sleep at that hour? Also, it didn’t seem unreasonable, now I believed the misunderstanding had been cleared up.
“That’s better,” she said. Then she lay back and lifted her face to the sky. “Tell me about the stars. Do you know their names?”
I followed her gaze. Though the sky still carried the azure tint of evening, the air was clear and the brighter stars were showing. I’d known their names once, but I hadn’t thought of them for a long time now. Somehow, in the world I had come to know, the names of stars were irrelevant.
“That’s Altair, I think, and there, just rising – that must be Aldebaran.”
Alice rolled onto her back and gazed up. “How lovely,” she said.
She was right: It was lovely, and somehow I managed to forget that her car and my own were lying smashed somewhere out there in the gathering dusk, and that at any moment the expected guest , the real Peter, would be arriving. Instead, I became aware only of the moment, of their presence, and mine beneath that slowly darkening sky.
Rosemary asked me many things and in the space of an hour I found I’d spoken not just of the stars but also of my reading, my love of science and philosophy – all things that were sadly neglected now, buried under the more pragmatic detritus of my adult life. They listened with an intensity I found unsettling at first, but then I admit I was gradually seduced by what I could only describe as their gentle adulation.
Later, Alice made supper, which we shared by candlelight in the dining room of the old house. There, our conversation continued until the small hours and each moment, I was glad for my monopoly on their company, but still I thought it strange they never spoke of their intended guest – of the real Peter. When I finally climbed the stairs I realised I’d told them a great deal and in doing so, rediscovered a forgotten part of myself, but I had learned nothing about either of them.
Rosemary seemed too young to be Alice’s mother, yet perhaps too old for an intimate friend. Yet they were intimate, sharing glances and touching each other with a beautiful fondness, though there was also a delightful innocence about them that suggested to me they were more sisters than lovers.
In the morning, I woke to sunlight streaming through my curtains and Alice at my bedside with tea and toast. She was gazing at me, her focus still offset, though not by as wide a margin as before.
“I’d better be on my way soon,” I said.
She looked away then, troubled, I thought, and I sensed there was something she wanted to say but could not quite bring herself.
“Is everything all right, Alice?”
She brightened. “Lovely,” she said. “Perfectly lovely.”
“And Peter? Is he okay? Has something happened,… ”
She squeezed my hand. “Peter’s fine. He’s,… safe.”
“Safe? Has there been an accident?”
She nodded. “Yes. But everything’s all right. Truly it is!”
I was puzzled, and it was only when she’d gone that I realised she was still talking about me.
I dressed and packed in a hurry. After the strange seduction of my senses, I now felt there was something deeply unsettling about the house and about my uncommonly amenable hosts,… their knowledge of me,… the perfection of the room and all its contents,… everything.
I had to get out, get back to the highway and hurl rocks into the morning rush hour if I had to,… anything to get out.
I found them waiting in the garden. They were lounging on the bench, Alice’s head resting dreamily against Rosemary’s shoulder. Rosemary called my name and beckoned, her slender fingers probing the air for my face but I held back. “I must be going,” I told her.
“The thought of leaving makes you happy,” she said.
“It’s not that,” I said. “But I really must go. People will be missing me.”
She did not reply at first, but looked at me,.. at me,… our eyes locked for the first time, gaze on gaze. And I sensed such depths that I felt a moment of vertigo and had to steady myself with a deep breath. Then she blinked and looked away, releasing me. I reeled a little and drew back, for I knew in that brief exchange, I had glimpsed something beyond my comprehension,… an abstraction of extraordinary and awesome beauty.
“Alice,” she said. “Show Peter the way.”
Alice led me through the forest, her willowy form making light work of the tangled branches. Meanwhile, I lumbered after her, dragging my tiresome baggage. We were heading east, in the direction of my car. It was ironic, I thought; the exit probably lay only a few paces to the south of where I’d crashed. We walked for longer than I expected, Alice always ahead, never turning, never speaking. Then the ground began to rise, the forest thinned and suddenly we were crossing a meadow, heading for a prominent hill.
When we reached the top, she sat down and waited for me to catch up. Breathless, I gazed around at an unbroken view of meadows, woods and lakes. “You can see the house from here,” she said, pointing back across the valley.
There it was, its red brick glowing warmly. Of course we should have come upon the highway ages ago but there was nothing – only wide open spaces, and in the midst of it all stood the lone house. The highways simply were not there any more. She looked at me, as if to gauge my reaction, then rose quickly and began trotting back down the hill. Her eyes, like Rosemary’s were now perfectly synchronised with my own. And in them I had read love and kindness,… and sympathy.
I remained there for a moment, rooted by a mixture of despair and grief, but then I called after her: “Where are we going?”
She turned then, and very gently she replied: “There are no more destinations, Peter. We have arrived, you and I.”
She led me back through the forest, eventually bringing me to the pond by which I had first glimpsed her and Rosemary – except it was no longer a pond but the inlet of a much larger lake. There was no obscuring concrete embankment, no traffic roar, just sunlight on water and more forests and hills rising in the distance. This is what they had seen yesterday, I thought – even Rosemary,… or perhaps Rosemary most of all. They had been unmoved by the thunder of the traffic because for them it had not existed. I thought back to the accident – eighty miles an hour, plummeting twenty meters to the ground. Was it reasonable to go on believing I might have escaped unhurt? Had things been more serious,.. as serious as perhaps they had been for Alice?
“How long have you been here,” I asked.
“I forget,” she replied. “It’s not important,…”
“And me?..” I said. “I’m,…”
“Yes,” she said. “You’re with us now.”
“But you and Rosemary seem so happy. Am I not intruding.”
She smiled. “Judge nothing here by what you know of life,” she said. “Rosemary can be all things. Mother, lover, friend,…” She caught my eye once more. “It’s really no different here to anywhere else,” she said. “There is a reason for your coming – as there was in mine.” She brushed my face with her fingers and smiled. “It really is lovely that you’ve come,” she said.
We turned to leave but then she paused and gestured to my bag. “Leave it,” she said.
I looked at it, crumpled and scuffed from a lifetime of travelling, a million miles of highway, an endless litany of destinations. I was tired of it, so I put it down by the water’s edge and walked away.
Rosemary was by the house, feeling her way among the delicate stems of a clematis, her light touch seeking the beauty of its tissue-thin blooms. She paused at our approach and looked towards me, her eyes passive, waiting. Then she reached out, inviting my embrace. And when she gathered me in her arms, she raised her lips to my ear and I felt her whispered words, hot and curling against my skin.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Look into my eyes once more.”
Steadying myself against the warm press of her, I looked and then I knew this was not the end of anything,… more the beginning of a greater understanding of what my life had been about. I breathed deeply of something sweet,…
….and I was not afraid any more.