FIVE MILES TO PARADISE
Until today, I haven‘t told this story to a living soul but Jim Carpenter. But now he‘s dead, so I suppose it can be told.
I don‘t really know why I bothered to tell even Jim at the time. Except that we‘d always had a sort of David and Jonathan relationship, ever since the days of school — a relationship which Jim‘s marriage to Meg hadn‘t broken. Besides, one‘s always up against this problem in visiting the sick. Their lives are circumscribed by their bedroom walls, so to speak, and one feels under a compulsion to find something of interest to talk about.
I was on a walking holiday in the Cotswolds when it happened. I‘d just topped the crest of a hill when I saw, through the line of trees that edged the road, the picture-postcard Cotswold scene. If I close my eyes I can see it still.
A field-gate stood at an angle to the road, Beyond the gate the meadow fell away into a small valley. Across the valley, framed in the trees that bordered the gate, stood the perfect Cotswold house. Warm cream stone reflected the afternoon sun, except where the sheltering elms threw their shadow across it. Not a leaf, not a blade of grass moved. Meadow, trees and house seemed to be sleeping in the warm August sun.
I set off down the hill for a closer look. Now and again through the trees I caught a glimpse of the house, and lost it again when the road swung away. I‘d almost decided to climb over the wall and cut across the fields when the road again took a sharp turn to the left, back in the direction of the house.
It had seemed so near across the valley that I realized with some astonishment when I finally reached the gates that a considerable time had passed since my first sight of the house. Three twenty-five. I‘d taken fully twenty-five minutes to reach it.
What my original intention had been I‘m not quite sure. Merely to have a closer look, I suppose. If so, I was unlucky. Through the trees that lined the driveway I could catch only a glimpse of one corner of the house. I felt oddly let down. Twenty-five minutes‘ walk, and nothing to show for it at the end.
On an impulse I set off down the drive. I imagine I had a vague notion of asking for a glass of water, or of pretending I‘d lost my way, or perhaps both. I simply felt that by hook or by crook I had to get a closer view of that house.
And when I finally turned a corner on to an open terrace I wasn‘t disappointed. It was quite lovely, as such Cotswold houses can be.
I realized at once that I couldn‘t just stand there, gaping like a fool. For all I knew, someone inside had already seen my approach. It would look odd now if I were to turn back and retrace my steps. I walked up to the door, lifted the heavy iron knocker and gave three hard knocks.
There was no response. No sound from inside the house. Nothing.
I looked up at the windows. They were empty and silent.
I stepped back from the door. Good. No one at home. I could walk away without embarrassment. I took one last look at the lovely old house and turned to go.
There was a distant shout. I wheeled round, trying to discover the direction of the sound. Then, some two or three hundred yards away, down the terraced slope, I caught sight of a figure. A man, beckoning me to come down.
I could hardly ignore the signal. I began to make my way towards him.
The man, an elderly man I now saw, was standing on a flat stretch of greensward which might have been meant for a tennis-court. He had a distinguished, rather faded, aristocratic look about him. I began to rehearse in my mind a plausible excuse for my intrusion.
Then, as I stepped from between two dark yews on to the open lawn, I saw that he was not alone. Two or three groups were sitting about in deck-chairs,
‘I‘m awfully sorry to butt in like this ! I seem to have lost my way !‘
The man came forward. He made no attempt to put out his hand.
‘I quite understand. Unfortunately, I don‘t believe anyone here will be able to help. We‘re all strangers here, you see. But do sit down ! We‘re waiting for the doctor !‘
‘The doctor ?‘
‘Yes. He shouldn‘t be long. And he will know. He will be able to help !‘
He indicated a vacant chair, and then turned away to join another group.
I sat down and looked about me. At any moment now, I thought, there will be the sound of a gong from the terrace. and a maid-servant will appear with tea on a tray.
But nothing of the kind happened. Indeed, nothing at all happened. For a scene which was outwardly warm and welcoming, there was a curious, indefinable absence of something.
At first, I couldn‘t place it. Then, as I looked round the separate groups again, I suddenly realized what it was.
There wasn‘t any — any contact between them. No talk, no occasional burst of laughter. They were all simply sitting there, every one of them, just sitting there. Not talking, not even looking at each other.
They just sat there, doing nothing, saying nothing.
A horrid suspicion began to form in my mind. I‘d seen this sort of thing before. But where ?
And then I knew. Except that the last time I‘d found myself in such a company there had been high walls, and doors carefully locked behind me. I‘m not all that good at the business of visiting the sick at best, but this sort of sick-visiting was an experience I‘d no desire to repeat.
I felt a sudden chill. I tried to reason with myself. These people were merely sick, that was all. I told myself not to be such a fool. But it was no use. I knew that I simply couldn‘t cope with this sort of thing. I scrambled to my feet, expecting every head to turn in my direction. No one paid any heed. I crossed to the elderly man, striving to sound as natural as I could,
‘I don‘t think I‘ll wait after all, if you don‘t mind ! I‘ll look out for someone on the road to direct me !‘
He rose to his feet. I was relieved to see that he kept his distance.
‘Oh, must you go ? The doctor will be disappointed ! Won‘t you reconsider\?‘
I tried to smile, shook my head, gave a feeble gesture with my hand, and turned to go. Every step of the way up the terraced slope I was conscious of an uneasy sensation in my spine. I strained my ear for any sound of a stealthy footfall behind me. Just once I forced myself to turn and look back.
They were all sitting exactly as I had left them. Not one head was turned towards me. Somehow this total lack of concern was even more upsetting. I turned and ran, past the corner of the house, along the drive and out on to the road.
Nothing, and no one, prevented me.
I began to make my way back along the road, looking over my shoulder from time to time as though I feared pursuit. But there was none. The wood-pigeons grumbled away in the tops of the trees, the trees themselves threw pools of shadow across my path. And at last I came to the place from which I had first seen the house. Before glancing at my watch I looked back at it.
What I saw there made me walk straight on. I neither stopped nor looked back until I was safely within sight of the inn where I was to stay the night.
I slept badly that night. Every time I dozed off, a picture began to form in my mind‘s eye without my volition and against my wish – a picture of a tennis-court, and figures in deck-chairs, outwardly companionable and yet terribly alone. I found it unpleasant beyond words. In the end I put on the light and read a book until the first signs of day appeared through the curtains.
However, as the days passed, the sharpness of the experience grew less keen, so that when I arrived home there seemed no reason for not sharing it with Jim. Before I went up to his room, I poked my head round the door of the sitting-room.
‘Hello, Meg ! How is he today ?‘
She rose from her chair and came to the door.
‘Oh, it‘s you ! Nice holiday ? I don‘t know, really. He seems well enough, and he‘s stopped bickering the past day or two. I don‘t know whether that‘s a good sign or not. But do go on up ! He‘s missed you ! He‘ll be delighted to see you again !‘
He was, too. He certainly looked — well, different. Less concerned about himself, somehow. I could see what Meg had meant.
He asked me about the holiday, and I found myself telling him about the house. He listened intently. But he didn‘t altogether agree with my reading of the event.
‘But what made you think it had to be a mental institution, Harry ? Did they behave like that ?‘
‘Weeell, no, not exactly ! Except that they were all so — so concerned with themselves. So – solitary. I don‘t quite know how to put it. And then there was the doctor !‘
‘Hmmm, I see ! But there could be other reasons, surely, for that sort of – introspection ? Couldn‘t there ?‘
‘Such as ?‘
‘Oh, I don‘t know. Pain. Grief, perhaps. And a doctor might be equally welcome in such a situation, I imagine. But go on !‘
I continued with the story. But for some reason that now I can‘t explain I didn‘t give him the whole of it. It seemed important not to mention what had happened when I got back to the point where I‘d first seen the house.
And what had happened was this . . .
Before I glanced at my watch, I turned to take one last look at the house. What I saw in the next moment didn‘t register at once. Looking down at the watch I shook my wrist mechanically as though to start it again.
But there was no need. The watch was going. No doubt about it.
Then why did it still say three o‘clock ?
I knew at once that I could not look back at that house again. I left the shade of the trees and set off back to the inn, walking quickly, not looking back. I told myself over and over again that there was a perfectly logical explanation for it. The watch must have stopped and then re-started by itself.
It might have been convincing but for one thing . . .
I knew beyond all doubt that when I had looked at my watch in the driveway of that house it had said quite unmistakably three twenty-five.
So in winding up the story for Jim, I deliberately said nothing about the watch. When I‘d finished he turned his head, grinned, and held out his hand as I rose to go.
I was almost halfway home before it registered with me that, instead of his usual ‘Cheerio !‘ he‘d said ‘Goodbye, Harry !‘ as we shook hands. Don‘t be such a damn fool, I told myself. Your imagination‘s beginning to play tricks with you.
Still, I was sufficiently uneasy to ring Meg first thing the next day.
‘He had a very good night, Harry, thank you ! Seems altogether more – relaxed. But I‘ll know more when the doctor‘s been ! We‘re waiting for the doctor now !‘
Thoughtfully, I replaced the receiver.
For some reason I couldn‘t settle to anything that day. I tried a bit of gardening, and found myself from time to time with the trowel in my hand, simply wool-gathering.
At tea-time I felt I must ring Meg again. When she heard my voice there was a brief, still pause.
I knew at once.
‘He‘s dead, Harry. I know, I know -— I ought to be grief-stricken. I‘m not. I‘m glad it‘s over. For him, I mean. He had so much pain !‘
‘Meg, I‘m so sorry ! How — how was it ?‘
‘He just fell asleep — after lunch. He was quite himself. Oh, except for one thing. Rather odd. He said "Tell Harry I don‘t think I‘ll wait for the doctor either !" What do you suppose he meant ?‘
I said perhaps the thought of the doctor‘s visit was on his mind. But surely the doctor had been by then, hadn‘t he ? By three o‘clock ?
‘Why no, Harry, he hadn‘t. But it didn‘t matter. How did you know it was three o‘clock ? That‘s odd. Still, you were very close, you two, weren‘t you, bless you !‘
‘Yes, yes. I — I shall miss him. Very much !‘
And that‘s just about the whole story. Except for one thing . . .
After the funeral I went back to look at that house, this time by car. I knew where it was, of course. A few miles off the Stroud road, not far from Painswick.
I found the gate all right, and looked across the little valley. There was no house to be seen.
I hadn‘t really expected one, I suppose.
I turned away to get into the car, and looked up at the sign-post. It said, simply, ‘Paradise, 5 miles‘.
Coincidence, of course. Nothing significant in it at all. But, for the first time since Jim‘s death, I began to feel better.