The Hermit Crab

or I’d Turn Back, Dorothy, if I Were You.

Considering that all  taxi drivers are supposed to know every street from Aardvark Avenue to Xenophobia Villas, only I could pick the one who doesn’t. It says “No Smoking” in the cab, but the fag hanging out of his mouth implies that either he doesn’t give a toss or he’s illiterate. I’d opt for both. We took one look at each other, and the animosity was mutual.

“Are you absolutely sure you don’t know where this house is?” I ask yet again.

The drooping tail of ash drops off onto the seat beside him(I’d  get charged £10 for doing that) before answering. “Never ‘eard of it,” he replies.

“And this is the end of the street?”

“Well, looks like it, dunnit?”  A hint of sarcasm has crept into his voice.

“And this is definitely Eden Fields Road?”

“Well, it said so on the sign, dinnit?””  (Not completely illiterate, apparently.)  He sighs deeply and exhales nicotine fumes towards the roof. There is a pause. “Well, are you getting out, or aren’t you?”

Something is familiar, yet the house isn’t there. A feeling of foreboding hangs around, yet…    “Maybe I will,” I say, feeling sheepish, but the thought of the long drive back into town with the Cary Grant of the Hackney carriage trade isn’t exactly appealing, either.  “Okay,” I say.

I grudgingly hand over my money, making sure it’s exactly right. I’ve had my eye on the meter for some time. “Sorry, got no change, “ I say snidely as I make my exit, being careful not to fall flat on my face. He grunts and  does a three point turn a stuntman would have envied, showering  me with grit. He misses the ditch, and, thank God, he’s gone.

I stand there by the side of the road and survey the territory. The nearest dwellings are some distance away and don’t look at all promising.  Fields lie on either side of the road, and to the left, Eden Fields Road leads up hill and out of sight. To my right, a handful of shabby council  houses, and behind them  what might have been a builders’ yard, derelict and disused. Some distance behind them, beyond the fields, is a small round hill with three twisted trees. On the other side of the road, invisible from here, is the river. I know where I am, and yet I do not know where I am. The fields, the builders’ yard, the hill with twisted trees, are there. But the house, the house is not. There is no-one in sight and I am entirely alone.

The house, and I am certain of the name  –  is Edenfields or Edenfields House –  yet how do I know this? –  and should be about two fields distant from the road on which I am standing, just to the right of the little hill. But the house –  where is the house? Or was the house? The house was long and low, probably Georgian, and quite white and bright, standing out from the green fields. It seemed like the sort of house I’d always wanted. Every day for five years, I passed it on the school bus and looked for it. Sometimes it was there, and sometimes it wasn’t.

The only drive from the main road leads to a red brick farm, not particularly old, and there’s nothing in the fields at all behind the builders’ yard. Was it to the left of the red farm, closer to Eden Fields Road? Memory plays strange tricks, and dreams even stranger ones. I decide to head back to Eden Fields Road and look for a hidden drive.

It is warm and very dry, so walking is no problem. All in all, rude taxi drivers apart, so far, it has  been a very nice day and I am on holiday, for goodness sake. I should be cheerful and relaxed. I am not, of course. I am as tense as a well-coiled spring, which is pointless, but that’s the way I am. Probably I should try yoga. One corner of Eden Fields Road is sheltered by trees, the corner of a country park, once some wealthy person’s estate, but the near corner, which is on a long, wide bend, is quite bare, showing sandy soil and rutted tracks beyond the scanty hedge. The pavement runs out here, so I hope nothing massive tries to pass me as I turn up the lane. However, I see and hear no traffic and the place is as empty as the Great Plains.

The lane is steeper and more winding than I thought, and after walking some distance uphill, my feet are hurting already. Then, quite unexpectedly, a drive. Well, a track might describe it better, as it’s overgrown and must be a sea of mud in winter. Thistles and dock and ragwort spring up on either side and like the field at the bottom of the hill, it is deeply rutted with old wheel-tracks. I can see a broken pine  on my left which I recall seeing  from the main road. I must be approaching the little hill with the twisted trees, but because of the lie of the land, I can’t see it at all. Folds and dips in the sloping hillside make it strangely deceptive.

Then, as the track curves round, I see it. There is the house, long and white and beautiful, looking out across the shallow valley. I pause, spell-bound, then start to walk towards it. The house is still some distance away and as I get nearer, I see it is not as white or as clean as it looked. However, there it is, and much as I remembered. I am approaching from a slight angle, and as the track bends again, it disappears from view until a curve in the track leads towards the front of the house, but as it does, I see now something is wrong. From the side, I can see with a sudden shock that the back of the house no longer exists. The house is a shell, a whited sepulchre, only the front façade standing proud like a flat on a film set. Behind it just  rubble, jagged remains of walls, bits of wire fencing and dilapidated structures that once might have been chicken coops.

As I stand there, taking in the destruction, I hear a voice. A man’s voice.

“Hello, are you lost?”

A man is standing beside a vintage sports car which must have come along the track behind me, though I did not hear its approach. He looks about thirty and has clearly dressed to match the car, in a brick-coloured sports jacket and  corduroys. He has that clean-cut, sporty look you don’t see around much any more. I gather my wits together.

“Sort of. I just wanted to look at the house.”

He smiles. “Yes, quite a shock, isn’t it.” He pauses. “This is Edenfields.”

“I remember it from when I was a child. Or at least, I thought I did. Only I’ve never been close to it before.”

“I’m surprised you found it at all. It’s a mess, isn’t it? Sorry I can’t ask you in for a cup of tea.”

“Does it belong to you, then? “

“Used to. Strictly speaking, belonged to my old man. Long since dead, of course. I still come up here from time to time.”

“I used to see it on my way to school. Well, sometimes. Sometimes I could see it and sometimes, I couldn’t.”

He smiles again. “Lie of the land, I expect. All came down in the Ice Age, boulder clay and gravels, dumped in heaps by a glacier. It slips from time to time, so you get little terraces under the grass. Then of course, in summer it’s hidden by the trees. You must have seen it in the winter, when the trees were bare.”

“Yes, probably,” I say, glad of an explanation. “But I never realised it was a ruin.”

“The house was badly fire-damaged in the Thirties. Family moved out. Then during the War, the Home Guard used it for target practice. Shouldn’t have been allowed, of course, but times demanded, I suppose.”

“What a shame….” – He is looking out over the valley. Then he looks back at me. His gaze is peculiarly penetrating. I feel I should say something. “No, it shouldn’t have been allowed,” I say rather lamely.

“Ah, the folly of man.” He has turned away from me, and I see him now only in silhouette. Then he turns back. “Would you like me to show you round?”

“Doesn’t look like there’s much left to show,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. He turns back towards me.

“Oh, there is,” he says. And he leads me round  the front of the house. I can see now how beautiful it once was, although sparrows flit in and out of the empty windows and ragwort has sprung up in front of the main door. “Lovely, even now, isn’t it?”

I can see how it was. I follow him around the far side of the house and realise we are now close to the small round hill with the twisted trees. There is a dip, then we walk up onto the hill itself. It seems so small, and yet when we reach the top, the view is astounding.

“And you thought there wasn’t much to see, did you?” says my guide.

I gaze out across the valley in wonderment. On three sides, the landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see.

“Over there,” he says, “is the Trent Valley – on  a clear day you can see four or five of the power stations. Across that way is Nottingham,  behind the hills. Over there is Loughborough, and those hills there are Charnwood Forest. Some of the oldest hills in the world – did you know that? 684 million years old, and if that doesn’t give you a thrill, nothing ever will…” – He is wrapt in his reverie. “- And down there is Derby, hidden in a dip, can hardly see it from the air, you know. Never could. We always had problems spotting it, when I was flying.” He turns again and points to the left. “Over there is the near end of The Chevin, and then the Peak District begins.”

I smile in recognition.

“You know The Chevin, I suppose? If you passed this way on your way to school?”

“Yes, of course,” I say. “We could see it from the school windows…”

“Imagine,” he says “what it was like under the Ice. Then before that, a shallow coral sea, then a semi-desert, then swampy forests, and before that, boiling  volcanoes, spitting fire ? Can you imagine the sea rushing up this little valley?”

I try, but it’s all as mysterious and intangible as the house and the little hill itself. The panorama envelopes everything. Then, as we stand there looking across the massive vista, I become aware of a strange humming sound, like music. I can’t tell where it is coming from, but suddenly it is all around us, vibrating and ringing like an orchestra tuning up,  all on one note. We stand there, and the sound embraces us, travels through us, rendering us incapable of speaking or moving, entranced. Then, abruptly as it began, it stops.

“What on earth – ?“ I ask.

“Hummadruz,” he says. “Nobody knows what causes it. I’ve heard it here many times. It may be something from the structure of the rocks beneath. Or underground water. No-one knows… “

He starts to move away down the dip slope of the hill and I follow.

I am silent. “I can see it’s disconcerted you,” he says. We are nearing the house again. From here, it still looks intact and inhabited.

“I never heard anything like that before,” I say.

“Not many people have.”

We reach the front of the house. It is a shell again.

He is moving towards his sports car, parked at the side of the house.

“I need to tell you something,” I say, suddenly in the mood for confession.

“Do you?” I notice for the first time that his eyes are that strange slaty colour that is neither grey nor blue nor brown but something in between. He is really a very attractive man, but I am still disconcerted.

“I was haunted by this house, when I was a child,” I say. “Then I forgot about it. Then, a few weeks ago, I had a dream.”

He is still watching me, it seems, knowingly. I continue,  beginning to feel foolish. “I saw a white house, this house, as I used to see it as a child. Standing alone in the fields, from the main road. It was like a film running in my head. And a voice said, ‘Find this house and you will find something precious… Go to this house and you may find what you seek.’  Or something like that.” He smiles at me, mildly amused. But it is not a friendly smile. “You must think I’m mad,” I say.

He has turned away from me, the sun behind him  turning him into a silhouette, a cardboard cut-out. “Sorry I can’t give you a lift,” he says, as he moves towards the car. “But your way and mine are not the same.” It’s as though the last piece of conversation has never been. “- Of course, you don’t live round these parts any more?”

“No,” I say, disconcerted again. “I’m a  businesswoman, built my own business from scratch. Fashion trade. I need to be where it’s at. If you know what I mean. How about you?”

“Oh, bit of a chameleon, me.  A hermit crab, more like,” he says. “Move around a bit, fit myself into any available space.”

“You don’t look like a hermit crab,” I say.

“Would you know one if you saw one?”

“No, but would you?” –  What is he getting at?

“Would anyone?”

He is still a cardboard cut-out, standing there with the sun behind him.

“Tell me something,” I say, anxious now to change the subject, “Why did they leave just the façade of the house like that?”

“Perhaps as a memorial,” he says. “Or a monument.”

“A monument to what?”

“Perhaps….” he hesitates, “ perhaps to the greed and folly of man,” he says. “But I’ll leave you to ponder over that one.” Then he gets into the car. He faces me again, flesh and blood once more. “Sorry I can’t offer you a lift,” he says again.  He starts the engine. It splutters a little. “Be careful of the lane, it’s very narrow. They used to have tank trials up and down here during the War. That’s why the bottom field is so churned up. You wouldn’t believe it, would you?”

The car chugs over a few times, then quietens again. He leans towards me.

“I’ll tell you something,” he says. “I don’t think you’re mad at all. In fact, I had a dream the other night. I dreamed I went to a house, a plain suburban house, Edwardian villa. A red brick house with a bay window and a varnished wooden door. The door had a stained glass panel with an image of a swan, and each side of the door was a stained glass window with a pattern of tiger lilies. Along the path to the front door was a border of wallflowers. And a voice in my head said, ‘Go to this house, and you will find what you seek.’”

He smiles, though the afternoon has turned cold.

“But that’s MY house,” I say.

“Not any more,” he answers. And the car moves away down the rutted drive.