The House On A Rocky Shore
To the north-west of England just by the coastline lies a solitary and untapped portion of the countryside, where the forests still exist to their fullest extent and the lakes accentuate the enormity of the mountains. We begin this story just as four young people find themselves suddenly transported to this unfamiliar place…
John looked back in disbelief at the bus driver, not only had the vehicle seemed to have stopped in the wrong location, but the time and climate seemed to be off too: what John had last experienced on the bus was a dark winter evening, he had recently finished his studies and had paid for the ride back home to avoid the heavy rain, as a consequence, the view into the street from inside the bus had been completely obscured, the bright lights from within along with the outside conditions had worked to endure that each window would render a bright reflection of his own face back at him. But the poor visibility could by no stretch explain how he had been transported to such a remote location.
“What’s going on here then?” He exclaimed at the driver in a tone that was frustratingly more desperate than assertive.
“I’ve taken you where you wanted to go, I don’t forget that easily, now get out before I have to kick you out,” the driver remained clam but spoke with a tremendous authority. With little recourse apparent to John along with the persuasion of the driver, he voluntarily stepped out of the vehicle, the pneumatic doors closed behind him. As the bus accelerated down the unfamiliar road, John could only manage a few faint words.
“Hey, where are you going?” he asked as he watched the bus continue down the winding path, quickly getting obscured by the dense and unkempt foliage. John stood in place for a brief time to comprehend his situation, most confusingly, there was no bus stop to be seen anywhere and looking through the canopies of the trees only yielded sights of further vegetation and a shroud of large, wild mountains around three of his flanks. John could feel his heartrate increase as the situation grew clearer, still in this moment he had managed to come up with a few rationalisations, the first being that another vehicle would surely pass down the road at some point and in such an event, he could persuade that driver to give him an exit.
“It’s no use!” a girl, who looked to be about his age, shouted from the amongst the trees.
“You know what’s happening?” John exclaimed back, his voice cracking to his frustration.
“We don’t, but the same thing has happened to us too,” She was closer now, enough so that her features were not obscured by any shadows, the girl had blonde hair and green, maybe even blue eyes, she was around the same height as John but was also extremely thin, looking as if she would easily perish under the present circumstances.
“It’s not just you out here then?” he asked.
“There’s two more people as well as us, they’re over there if you look,” she explained, pointing at two strangers further into the forest, one sitting on a fallen log in a blue raincoat and another, a smartly dressed Chinese student still in his unform. She inhaled momentarily then continued to speak.
“I’m Briony, the others are called Luke, the person in the coat and Lu, he goes to oxford I think,”
“I see, sorry, I’m John, I’m guessing were all students then,” he replied, attempting to deduce what he could.
“Yeah, we are,” Briony said, her voice dulled so that he could barely hear the answer then turned away from him back to the others; in that moment John wondered if she was acting dismissive on purpose. Not knowing what else to do, he followed her into the small clearing and took in the sight of the two other students. The three strangers in front of him were as shell-shocked as he was and for a couple of minutes no words were exchanged in the group until John decided to speak up.
“Did you all take the wrong bus too?” he asked, trying his best to be funny.
“You arrived two minutes after me,” said Briony.
“Same for us two,” said Lu with Luke shaking his head in agreement. Everyone checked their phones and to nobody’s surprise, a signal couldn’t be traced from anywhere, another small panic formed in John’s mind and potentially in the others’ too as they all became increasingly proactive. John himself chose to ascend a tree finding one with easy to climb branches lying low to the ground while Briony and Luke ventured off into the wilderness, on the other hand Lu seemed to sit in solitude, watching him climb further up the trunk. John privately hoped that Lu in his contemplation would think of an easy solution, that by some opaque working of a stranger’s mind, he would be able to get back home, but this hope was invariably false and instead by climbing a tree, he spotted a sign of civilisation in the distance.
“Over there!” John pointed towards a slope placed in a break between the mountains.
“What is it?” Lu asked, breaking out from his own thoughts.
“It’s a house I think, get the others!” John ordered, feeling more justified perched at a higher elevation. In fear of losing their way back to the clearing, the others had remained in shouting distance of Lu, who himself could only manage a surprisingly gentle raising of the voice.
“We’ve spotted something, you guys should come back!” he announced, quickly receiving a response from Luke who, in his large blue outfit, was even visible to John; Briony’s response came later but was also swift. Ultimately, the four reunited again in the clearing.
“Where did you see the house?” asked Luke.
“Over in that direction, looks to be about a mile away,” John answered, trying his best to remember the faint shape he saw from up the tree.
“Well, there’s a house over there, so it’s likely we will find more buildings too, right?” Lu speculated. Seeing no alternative, the group agreed and started on their way to the house. The forest was thick with nettles, bushes and in places a long grass that came up to the torso, each plant dragging on the party and making every step a labour. It was not long until John began to silently curse the bus driver, his contempt for him growing the further up the incline they climbed, an anger that accumulated similarly to how a snowball would increase in mass as it gets pushed up a hill.
“Is that the ocean?” said Luke, looking through a parting in the trees down to a stretch of coastline.
“What, there’s no way,” replied John in disbelief but their location was undeniable as he saw, with his own eyes, the rockface which separated the forest from the sea.
“How are we so close to the coast?” he asked, not expecting an answer.
“I don’t know, I was in Leeds which is not a five-minute bus journey to any coastline,” Briony replied, calming John down in a funny way.
“We could be next to a lake,” Luke suggested.
“Are you aware of a lake with waves that large? Sorry, but there’s no denying that’s the sea,” Lu stated, taking a moment to sit down and catch his breath.
“Are you alright?” Luke asked, voicing a concern that the rest of the group had begun to harbour for Lu.
“Sorry, I’m not that healthy, I have bad stamina,” he said in an apologetic tone. The four soon split into two groups, the first of Luke and Lu, with Luke offering support to the Oxford student and the second, consisting of John and Briony who chose to trail behind.
“It shouldn’t be too long now,” John said.
“It feels like we’ve been walking for hours, what time is it?” Briony asked.
“It’s quarter past five,”
“We’ve only been here for half an hour?”
“I know it’s strange isn’t it,”
“Yeah…” she trailed off. Soon they were examining the building, with its orange roof and its white and grey brickwork, John wasn’t sure of the style only that it looked old, perhaps it could even be a museum. Lu’s prediction was correct but only in part, many gardens and smaller buildings were present leading down the cliffside where they stood towards the ocean, but these structures only seemed to be dedicated to the service of the main building. A light was switched on in one of the windows, shining through what looked to be a pair of red curtains.
“I’ll go and knock,” John announced to the agreement of the group. They crossed the threshold between the wilderness and the front garden, using the slabbed pathway towards the door, as they were halfway across the garden a voice came from over their heads.
“Welcome!” a man proclaimed with an unexpectedly enthusiastic tone as he leaned out from a window frame.
“Ha, ha, ha! Times must be tough or maybe too easy for us to get so many visitors!” He continued to bellow, he sunk back into the house and moments later opened the front door to them. Getting a better look at him, he appeared to be wearing a traditional butler’s uniform.
“Come inside, you have my permission,” he said, gesturing at the entrance. John thought for a moment about leaving but soon came to the realisation that a walk back to the road would be extremely difficult, with no other landmark to use other than the sea, he would be blindly stumbling through an unfamiliar forest with no food or provisions. With no alternative, and by the persuasion of the butler, everyone entered the house.
The butler remained silent, watching the group as they entered and freely used the furniture, tired from the short, but difficult walk up the hill. The interior of the house suited it’s outside; a large fireplace of marble and granite took centre stage in the room, flanked by a row of large curtains which could cover over the two sets of double doors leading to another room further inside the house, every window had two sets of curtains, the first to act as a thin white vail, the second a heavier set presumably to keep the heat inside over the winter, there was no shortage of places to sit either, large armchairs, elegant kidney sofas and even a chaise lounge to accentuate the pomp of the setting, yet everything was arranged to seem more like an expensive common area.
“Is this your house?” Asked Briony.
“No, I just work here, I’m looking after the house until its master returns,” the butler responded.
“When will he be back?”
“I haven’t a clue, he’s been gone an awful long time though, but he will be back one day,” the room fell silent for a moment before the butler continued.
“You shouldn’t worry about that though and please don’t feel like you are intruding, I let you in after all,” he ended with a laugh.
“Um, is there a way of getting out of here? I mean where would be the nearest town?” Luke asked.
“Well, it’s difficult unless you have a vehicle but it’s a two days walk to the nearest town if you know what you’re doing,” replied the butler.
“Do you have a car?” Luke continued.
“No, I’ve never had to leave this building, so I’ve never owned one,” answered the butler, leaving the room to fall silent again.
The butler’s hospitality was remarkable, without request or hint of any exchange, he prepared dinner a few hours later for the four students. Despite living a life of isolation, he prepared a remarkably varied meal, one thing he could not source was meat of any kind and yet he managed to produce bread, vegetables, fruit, soups with various herbs and spices, even teas and sugars.
“I hope your meals are satisfactory,” said the butler, standing by the table, choosing not to eat along with them.
“It’s really good,” said Briony.
“Yes, thank you,” replied Luke while John and Lu shook their heads in agreement as they ate. After all three courses were served and consumed, the four were indebted to the butler, they found themselves doing as he commanded and each becoming more interested in his life.
“What did you do before becoming a butler?” asked John.
“Well John, I’ve been one my whole life, like my father and the father he had, I serve the master of this house,” the man responded.
“Then, you’ve lived here your whole life then?” Lu inquired.
“That’s correct” confirmed the butler. The conversation lasted for some more before everyone was taken upstairs and shown their respective bedrooms. The House seemed much larger on the inside, with the outside façade looking to only stretch the lengths of two rooms, the depth of the house went far towards the sea giving ample room for everyone to get their own place to sleep. The enigmatic butler showed John to his room leaving just himself with Briony in the long hallway; John’s allotted room was grandiose and made him feel that by inhabiting it, he was tainting the space in some way.
He tried not to think about the situation as he lay facing towards the ceiling on a four-poster bed, what did encroach into his mind were the implications of having effectively disappeared from his regular life. A deep worry overcame him as he speculated as to what his family and friends might be thinking, how much they would be worrying and even thinking him dead. These thoughts sunk into him like a heavy weight but at the same time another force gave him a lightness, he was utterly blameless for his situation and so in getting kidnapped, he had also been liberated from life.
John needed to use the bathroom. By this time the hallway was virtually unlit, with only the moonlight to guide him towards his destination. He felt and stumbled his way around for a few minutes before getting into the floor’s bathroom, he was then get greeted by a bright light. It was the full moon, unobscured by clouds or trees and in at its brightest for the month, there was no problem in discerning what was inside the room.
Suddenly, John noticed something moving in the far side of the bathroom, to his shock and horror it was Briony.
“What are you doing?” she said in a stern tone which was more than enough to leave John out of ideas.
“I… Sorry,” he said, rushing out of the room. He waited for her to leave and went in after her.
“What was she thinking, maybe turn a light on,” he thought to himself.
After he had relived himself, John was surprised to see that the girl had been waiting for him outside the bathroom.
“You’re still here?” he said.
“I want to talk with you, in private,” she requested and seeing no reason to decline, John found himself in his room with her after some momentary fumbling back down the hallway.
“This might sound strange but, I wanted to talk to you because you’re the only one I know I can trust,” she spoke frankly, surprising John with her sudden pronouncement.
“What about the others? Aren’t we all kind of in the same boat here?” he asked, trying to understand what she was saying.
“Alright, this might sound strange…” she trailed off, it was not embarrassment but something else was hindering her words.
“I don’t know anything but, what I do know is that you came here after me and I was after Luke and Lu… I’m sorry you don’t have to take this seriously but I’m only going to share things with you from now on,” she attempted to explain her conclusions. John didn’t know what to make of the situation, not sure to point out the flaws in her reasoning or even how to continue the discussion so instead he made a poor reply.
“Um, alright,” he said, unexpectedly he quickly found that the girl was hugging him, an act to which he reciprocated.
“Thank you,” she said releasing her arms from around him then left his room. Lingering on the moments that had just transpired made John think about everything he went through in a different way, now he had a new worry, one that caused him to revise everything that was done and said throughout the day such that a certain word or action could potentially hold a different meaning in the eyes of a stranger; such thinking was largely futile, he was after all not aware of what the others felt about him but one person now bothered him, the butler. Back at the dining table John couldn’t for the life of him understand how the butler knew his name.
The morning came around quickly, under instruction of the butler, the group gathered for breakfast before deciding to explore the many gardens and outbuildings. John found himself standing among a row of flowerbeds on a plateau carved out of a lower portion off the cliffside. The surroundings and view were otherworldly, isolated, and busy with life; John could not help but reach out to one of the flowers and touch it. The texture of the petal was unusual, nor did it tear, it was-
“Fake,” he said out loud.
“Yeah, it’s strange but it makes sense, doesn’t it?” said Briony, who had been trailing him since the morning.
“Makes sense? Why would you have so many fake flowers?” he questioned.
“it’s simple, looking after real flowers is hard, it makes sense that a man living on his own, with huge gardens would choose to fill them with something like this,” she reasoned, this rang true with John as he continued to look around the garden, he found that the trees for which he thought looked genuine were made out of a kind of dark treated resin and the soil too wasn’t real, instead it was a synthetic mix of rubber and plastic.
“Don’t you think it’s too much though? He asked.
“Too much how?” she replied with a question of her own.
“Even the trees are fake, why is that, does everything really have to be fake?”
“So what? So long as it lasts who cares if it’s real,” there was a logic to her words but only that. John felt an unease and so quickly changed the subject.
“What are you studying anyway?” he said.
“Nothing, I’m soon to graduate, but I studied English,” she answered.
“I see, I guess we all have things to be getting back to,”
“Yeah, though when you think about it, it’s not a complete disaster to be here is it?”
“How so?” he asked, feigning an innocence while he remembered thinking something quite similar the night before.
“I don’t know, things weren’t going so well, I mean its not like I failed my studies, I just, can’t see where I go from here,” she said. John felt much the same way, prospects outside of education resembling a great wall, one that would, after being scaled, would yield only a great and futile struggle, a struggle that existed only for itself with its prize a life of toil.
The two of them spoke for a few hours in the garden, when he spoke to her, John felt no guilt or tension, they were in that moment at equal terms with one another and nothing was withheld. The cliffside got dark early by the nature of its relief, casting long shadows down the rock towards the water, John had since wondered off on his own and had made his way to the lowest point of the grounds. The only gated section looked to be for a mausoleum, it seemed to have been built around the same time as the main building, with the same white and grey bricks topped by an orange tiled roof. Out of curiosity, he examined the black metal gate to find that only a small latch was keeping it from swinging open, he undid the latch and carefully ventured towards the structure.
“It gets dark down there,” came a voice from behind him, it was the butler.
“Oh, apologies if I startled you there, I needed to go down there this afternoon anyway so you can follow me down if you like,” he continued in a friendly voice, the way he spoke was inviting and John didn’t want to refuse.
“Sure, I’ll come down too,” he replied.
“Good, there’s something important that I think you all need to see down here,” the butler explained. Like every door John had come across, the mausoleum door was also unlocked, the butler passed down into the depths without hindrance closely followed by him. The walls were ornate, decorated by rows of columns and arches, crevices had even been dug out so that candles could be displayed at eye height as visitors passed down the steps but of course, no candles were lit.
“Here we are,” announced the butler.
“Who’s buried down here, are they the old owners?” asked John.
“Yes, but many others too, the master’s family is quite small, not enough to fill a whole mausoleum, I will pull out one of these caskets and show you,” he said.
“Oh no, its alright,” John replied, shocked that the Butler would be so gung-ho about the remains.
“It’s important you see this John, not many people get this privilege,” said the butler as he pulled out a new-looking casket, he took off the lid to show John the contents. Inside lay the remains of a student still in uniform, one that very closely resembled the one worn by Lu.
“That’s the same uniform as- “
“Yes, this boy was also a student at oxford, well he was quite old when he died so not really a student,” the butler interrupted, pushing the stone lid back over the body. John was shaken, the reality of his situation had finally come into full resolution, seeing in that body what could only be described as a curse of inaction. He left the death chamber in silence and made his way back up to the surface.
A few weeks had passed and so too had everyone in the group made their journey down into the mausoleum, John had become good friends with the others, especially Briony and even the butler too. John found himself out in the garden with Briony once more.
“Have you ever thought of leaving?” he asked her.
“Yeah, I think about it every day,” she said as she looked off into the endless sea.
“We all think about it but none of us do, why is that? We all know what happens if we stay, what’s stopping us?” John continued.
“It’s because we don’t want to really leave, we talk about it, we know what we need to do, but we don’t have it in us,” Briony concluded.
“I don’t want to leave, I’m happy here, I’m fine with this, so what if I become like the body in the crypt?” she said getting her hands held by John in return.
“I’m going to leave today, I’m going to walk down to the nearest town and I’m not going to fade away, but I understand you and Lu and Luke, you’re scared, and you don’t see the point in this do you… I’m leaving and you should come too because there’s people you can trust and people who love you,” and these were his concluding words.