The visitor was neither tall nor short, old nor young, nor remarkable in any other way, except for the curious fact that he was wearing some sort of distinctive, possibly religious dress that the woman who had opened the door to him tried in vain to identify. And throughout, he was scrupulously polite.
‘But this isn’t the rectory any more,’ she protested. ‘You want the new rectory, I mean the one they use now, on the other side of the road. Look, come out, I’ll show you the right way.’
But the visitor was having none of it. ‘No, no, my dear, I know perfectly well where I am, thank you. This is the right house.’
‘Or maybe you want the Old Rectory?’ she persisted, a note of doubt entering her voice. ‘It’s the next turning on the left. Behind the trees.’ She could not remember what kind of trees they were.
The visitor laughed, not unpleasantly. ‘Oh, I know the trees! I know them well. And of course I know the Old Rectory too. I’m glad to see that that place, at least, hasn’t changed very much.’ And then he looked around the shiny, cold surfaces of the open-plan kitchen, at the glass and the laminate and the dead screen of some sort of electronic device — it had only gone dead the instant he arrived, for some reason she didn’t really understand — and shook his head. ‘I’m not sure, my dear, that I entirely approve of what you’ve done with this place, but we’ll speak more about that later.’ And then he raised the skirt of his cassock slightly, gave a courtly little bow and seated himself at the kitchen table.
The woman didn’t know what to do. A number of questions were racing her through her mind, which was in any event rarely particularly calm or tranquil. Most urgently: who was this man, and how could he be encouraged to leave her house? But also: her husband was due back soon, and he would take a dim view of a male stranger seated comfortably at the gleaming kitchen table right at the heart of their recently-finished new home.
‘But I particularly want to see your husband, my dear’ said the stranger, very smoothly, even though the woman was certain that she’d said nothing aloud about her husband. ‘And of course your sons, too.’
‘How do you know about my sons?’
The visitor tilted back in his chair and laughed at her, the confident, cultivated tone of his laughter bouncing off the hard surfaces with an absolute, adamantine shamelessness. But he didn’t answer her question.
Instead he looked around again. ‘How extraordinary that you have no books in this house.’
‘That isn’t true!’ protested the woman, leaning against one of the kitchen units, her arms folded defensively across her flat chest. ‘We have some books. Look. Here.’ But the visitor didn’t seem interested in following her gesture. He was still polite, even charming, but his mood had darkened slightly.
He was looking around, from the big plate-glass windows to the recessed lighting to that dead electronic screen. Clearly, he did not entirely approve of her new house.
‘What you did here was rather extraordinary more generally, was it not? You must accept that, surely, my dear? The old house could have stood for much longer, you know. There was nothing very wrong with it.’
‘I think you’d better go’ said the woman. ‘Please go.’
‘Well, there wasn’t anything very wrong with it, was there? That oak staircase, for instance — I always did rather like that. And the way you could follow the sun around, room by room, from dawn in the kitchen until dusk in the drawing room? Those fire surrounds were, perhaps, a bit old-fashioned. That I will allow. And the leaded windows — someone had put in rather cheap replacement ones. But that might have been remedied. The views out across the downs were extraordinarily beautiful. This new — place — has no views at all, really.’
The woman was close to tears, although whether those were tears of anger or exasperation or of fear, not even she knew, if only because over the years she had taught herself to avoid reflection. ‘Get out of my house!’ she shouted at the enigmatic visitor.
But he only smiled. ’Your house, my dear?’ The emphasis in the visitor’s voice was very specific. ‘Your house?’
‘Who are you, and why won’t you leave? Get out!’
The visitor rose, but instead of leaving, he started to wander casually around, at first just looking at things, but then after a little while, trying the controls of the kitchen appliances, turning door handles, running his long, thin, elegant fingers over all the surfaces. He touched the screen of the big wall-mounted television, which released a shower of sparks then shattered. He laughed at this as delightedly as a happy child. ‘Fireworks!’
‘What are you doing?’ she screamed at him.
The visitor looked up and around, a lingering residue of that laugher still present in his features, then gently placed both hands against the reinforced glass that formed a floor-to-ceiling window looking out towards the south, although because the house was a bungalow the view took in little more than a sullen hedge. Secords later the window simply fell apart, dissolving first into tiny glass beads, which then fell like a waterfall, making a tinkling sound as they hit the laminate floor.
The visitor turned around and smiled roguishly at the woman. ‘Much better, isn’t it?’ And a wave of warm, earthy-smelling air came in from outside, and with it, the convivial shrieking of the rooks in the beech wood beyond, and across the way she could see the neighbouring Old Rectory, with a solitary light on in one of the upstairs rooms.
The woman didn’t know what to do. She tried to run at the visitor to stop him, but she found herself oddly unable to move. She tried to reach for her iPhone, lying on the shiny new kitchen work surface right in front of her, but her arms somehow refused to unlock from where she had clutched them across her hollow chest. She tried to cry out but no sound at all emerged from her dust-dry, wide-open, gasping mouth.
She had been very proud of her new home. She knew there were still some minor issues with it — there were strange noises and bad smells, her sons didn’t sleep well in their dark little rooms facing the main road, the electrical wiring played up sometimes. More to the point, she knew that not everyone had liked the Modernist design, and that indeed many local people had opposed the demolition of the old house that occupied the site.
But in a way that had been the whole point — she and her husband were now the sort of people who could have what they liked, including a fuck-off, architect-designed, contemporary house, and why did it matter what anyone else thought? She had wanted a house with no history, her husband had wanted to surprise and offend — and the happless, harmless boys were, as ever, carried along in their parents’ wake. She had been proud of her new home. It was new and had no memories. Things would be better here. Things would be different this time.
The visitor, however, wandered restlessly around the open-plan living space, slightly bored but infinitely patient. A look of indulgent irony suffused his distinguished features. And then he was laughing again at nothing, at the warm air, at the rooks’ noisy, insistent agitation. ‘Where is your fireplace? You have, I see, a chimney — but no fireplace. How extraordinary!’ And it was true — they had been forced to add a chimney to the plan, as a sort of gesture of appeasement to the reactionary neighbours and supine planning people, but of course it corresponded with nothing in that grouping of meanly-proportioned, sterile, sharp-edged and loveless rooms.
She heard a car turn in at the gate outside, scraping urgently on the gravel drive.
‘No fireplace! Quite extraordinary, my dear — a chimney and no fireplace! What were you thinking? Well, we’ll fix that.’ And suddenly there, at the edge of the kitchen, a little fire had started, and licked its way across the steel and the glass, shattering here and causing little explosions there, all incredibly quickly. Within seconds, it seemed, the flames were clambering across the inner surface of the roof, shooting out from where the windows used to be, and the air was unbearably hot.
Outside there were car doors shutting, voices, shouting. The woman felt a great surge of relief. She knew that the new arrival was her husband, bringing the boys back too. Soon he would open the door and come in and deal with this visitor. Soon it would all be over, whatever this was, and things would be normal again. And this time things really would be better.
‘Ah,’ said the visitor easily, the tongues of flame reflected cheerily on his pectoral cross, looking happier and more relaxed than ever, ‘yes, here they are! Well, now they’ve arrived, we can all go together. That will be by far the best way. Greetings, my friends!’ And now he was shouting to all of them, gathered together there in the kitchen, none of them able any longer to move or speak or react. ‘Don’t worry, we have plenty of time. There is nothing more that any of you need to worry about now, nothing at all, my dears.’