Friday, 26 August 2011

The Third Cottage

On finding herself divorced and once again living alone, a friend of mine declared she wanted to “start over” and move out of the now defunct marital home she had helped her husband build a few years previously, as it held too many memories for her. She had seen an advertisement in a local paper that three cottages which belonged to The Crown were coming on to the property market. They were set in an idyllic location, about 5 miles from where I live, in a small village nestling in the heart of an ancient forest. The agent who had been instructed to sell the properties was holding an Open Day a couple of weeks later for the general public to view at will and we decided it would be worth going, as the guide prices were very favourable.

Finally, the day dawned – it promised to be a scorcher. Having had lunch at my house, my friend and I set off, with the agents selling particulars firmly in our grasp. We were on a mission, we had an objective in mind. The objective was to purchase a house which would give my friend, who had suffered more than her fair share of tragedy over the years, a fresh start. We had high expectations and were determined not to fail.

On arriving at our destination, we parked up and immediately headed for cottages One and Two which were advertised as having the potential to be knocked in to one big family house. In our excitement we hadn’t noticed at the time was that there were very few members of the public there. Either the opportunity to grab a bargain did not appeal, or there were other attractions going on which kept the public away. It was, after all, village fete season. Factor in the hot weather and the British love of the seaside on days such as this meant that it looked highly likely we were prospecting pretty much on our own. We couldn’t even find any agents – the place almost seemed almost deserted except for a few local residents and the occasional dog or cat.

Talking nineteen to the dozen and making a beeline for Cottages One and Two, we were joined by a young man at the front door. He seemed to materialise out of nowhere. To say that he was devastatingly handsome is an understatement. He had golden hair that seemed to glow even though the occasional dark cloud in the sky obscured the sun. He had a physique that only came with putting some serious time in a gymnasium. My friend let out a long sigh punctuated with “Oh My God”. She said later that she had gone weak at the knees and that her heart had thudded in her chest. To help my friend out I casually dropped in to the conversation as we inspected the pair of cottages that I was married, happily married, and that my husband and I were very much hoping to have a baby soon, so paving the way for my friend. To say that she went in to outright flirt mode is an understatement. By the time we had viewed both cottages, they were talking, and play-arguing, as if they had known each other years, not just a few minutes. The talk turned from “If I had this house I would knock down this wall.........” to “If we buy these together we could do...........” It was, or it certainly seemed to be, love and lust at first sight. During the hour that we had spent in viewing Cottages One and Two, we had discussed the finances of buying the two together, the feasibility of ripping out bathrooms and kitchens, and the merits of DIY vs paying through the nose for qualified trades. We had mentally knocked down walls, discussed colour schemes and which bits of their furniture would look good and which wouldn't. As we stepped back out in to the brilliant sunshine and the scorching heat, we discovered that our companion was the owner of a mint condition vintage Austin Healy – colour Red. Our jaws dropped for the second time that day – this was turning out to be too good to be true. My friend and I simultaneously had the same vision – of my friend being driven off in to the setting sun with this devastatingly gorgeous young man by her side in his gleaming car. She wore a beautiful white wedding dress of ivory silk. He wore an immaculate morning suit of the gentlest grey. The car had been festooned with pink heart shaped helium-filled balloons tied to the door handles. It was towing a couple of tin cans whilst sporting a “Newly Married” sticker on its gleaming bumper.

Having told our handsome companion that we were going to view the Third Cottage which was but a short walk to the other side of the village, he replied saying he would take his leave, and bidding us farewell, got in to his car and drove off. Still reeling from our experience, we somehow made our way to the Third Cottage which was set a little apart from the village as if trying to disassociate itself, detached and standing in a reasonable sized plot. Just as we were about to walk in, we were met at the door, he of the golden hair and immaculate body. He said he had decided to change his mind and that he would look at the Third Cottage with us after all. He said he wanted to keep us company. As before, he seemed to materialise out of thin air.

On entering the house, I started to feel uneasy, and detected a distinct chill in the air, but didn’t think anything of it. I told myself it was, after all, a thatched cottage, unlike the other two which had slate roofs. Having grown up in a thatch, I knew they were built to be cool in the summer and warm and cozy in the winter, so momentarily shrugged off my unease. Having looked around the ground floor, we ascended up the stairs to the first floor to view the two bedrooms and bathroom, and that was when I noticed a strong smell of horses. I mentioned this to my friend and our companion, but they didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. They laughed and told me I was cracking up. They said I had imagined it. I had no choice but to agree. But in my private thoughts I knew that there was something missing. I knew that things were not as they were meant to be. I was becoming increasingly ill at ease and desperate to go back outside to the warm sunshine. We left quickly, having decided there was nothing else to see and that we should explore the garden instead.

On walking around the perimeter of the cottage, we found a door which we hadn't noticed before. Being curious I opened it and went in. The sudden drop in temperature was dramatic. I found myself in a part of the cottage which hadn't been mentioned in the sales particulars. I was in what seemed to be a windowless room which was only accessible from the door through which I had entered. I knew I was on the other side of the living room wall and chimney stack. The room was small in terms of square feet, and it had no ceiling. On looking up I could see the underside of the thatched roof, the floor was earth and well tamped down. As I looked around I felt completely and utterly overwhelmed. I felt as if I had been hit with a sledge hammer. The smell of horses was overpowering. I was filled with sadness. I was filled with fear. I started to hyperventilate. In a blind panic, I pushed past my friend and our companion who had stopped at the doorway, obscuring the brilliant sun-drenched garden outside. I had to get out. I had to escape the confines. I needed to get back to the warmth of the sun. I wanted to sit down. I felt giddy. I thought I was going to throw up. In spite of the heat, I was shaking from head to foot. I had come out in a cold sweat.

My friend asked me what the matter was. She said in spite of my tan gained whilst on holiday abroad recently that all the colour had drained from my face. She thought I looked as if I had seen a ghost. I could tell she was worried about me.

All I could say in response was “Don’t buy this house. Something terrible has happened here. A child died here a long time ago. She was only 5 years old. She died in this room. She was murdered. Her soul is lost. She isn't at rest. She should be, its not right.” I was adamant I hadn’t seen her ghost, but I had certainly felt it. I had felt it the moment I had set foot in the Third Cottage, but at first I couldn’t diagnose what was bugging me. It was something I had never ever experienced, and hope I never do ever again. I wanted to go home. I wanted to leave this place and never ever come back. I wanted to pray. I wanted to cry. I said that the Third Cottage would bring my friend nothing but unhappiness if she bought it. I said if she did decide to buy the Third Cottage she should have it exorcised before she moved in. I said I knew a priest who would do the exorcism for her.

My friend, somewhat alarmed, said we should go. Reluctantly we turned to our companion to take our leave. He asked if I was OK. He said he was worried about me. I assured him that I was shaken but not stirred. I assured him I would be OK. He replied saying his work was done. He said he had been passing through, and that he had heard about the cottages being put up for sale. His car was parked on the track outside the cottage – I hadn't noticed it there when we had wandered over earlier. As he got into his car, we wished him a safe journey, thanked him for his company, and bade a reluctant farewell. As he drove off in to the distance, my friend said, somewhat wistfully “I never found out his name”. I said, quite simply “Simon, his name is Simon”. Not daring to take our eyes off the Austin Healy and its golden-haired occupant, we watched as it vanished in to thin air in the shimmering heat, never to be seen again.

I still live 5 miles from the village that used to be owned by The Crown, the village that is nestled in the heart of the forest. During that time we were blessed with two children, both girls. Following the death of my father, I threw myself whole heartedly in to my career as an analyst specialising in periodic payments in the banking world. I enjoyed being successful at what I did, and had started to plan to apply for jobs which would take me up the career path. But in time I began to struggle with the demands of working long hours and travelling extensively, and eventually retired early following diagnosis of an incurable and degenerative illness. I often drive past the Third Cottage, on my way to local towns and destinations further afield. I never ever stop, but I do occasionally glance over. For a few years it remained derelict, an unhappy home which held an unhappy secret. In time though, it was bought and lovingly restored. I can't tell you when this happened precisely, and I don’t know what happened to the lost soul, but I would like to think she has been laid to rest. I haven't got the courage to go find out who she had been. I should do, but I can't bring myself to search the church records where there would almost certainly be a record of her birth, as well as her death. I know that if I search the local graveyard, I would surely find her tombstone.

And as for my friend? She decided to stay in the house she had built with her first husband. For a while we kept in touch, but eventually we drifted apart. We never mentioned what happened that day. At some point I heard on the grapevine that she remarried. We weren't invited to the wedding. I got the feeling her new husband didn't approve of us or her other friends from her past. I got a Christmas card from her a few years later saying that they had had two children, that they had moved to a house about two miles from where she had been living when we were friends. She told me that she was happy for the first time in her life. 

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