Englesholm

Sam is enjoying a normal and happy life until he gets drawn in to a picture he sees on the wall of a quite bar.

Englesholm – PDF Download

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The rear of the house stood framed by trees that lined the gravel pathway. It was an ancient white stone building with six scalloped pillars supporting a porch which framed two large wooden doors. The first and second stories were straight up with the third and fourth jutting out of the slate roof. Moss and weeds hung from parts of the guttering, and around the chimneys the stones were blackened with soot.

Approach the house from the front, however, and all this would be lost from sight, for although there were extensive grounds on all sides of the building the majority of these were thickly wooded and left to grow wild. Anyone following the winding road would undoubtedly be taken by surprise when, on turning the final bend, they were confronted with this mansion that appeared too big to conceal.

The front of the house was far less interesting than the back. There were the large lower floor windows of the sitting room, and the dining room, with the pair of front doors set in the centre. Entrance to the house was obtained by climbing the small flight of steps, and passing between the two pillars that supported the porch. There was little in the way of ornamentation, bar the seven white gargoyles that served as the tops of the down spouts on the guttering. Views of the upper levels were likewise unimpressive from the front, with the second floor being just a row of four sets of double windows; the third floor only being represented by three arched windows rising out of the slate, and the towers of the fourth floor not being evident at all due to the angle of the roof.

Strange as it may seem it is perfectly obvious that whoever had built the house had designed it to be viewed from the back. The gardens at the rear …

I caught myself in mid-thought. My stomach felt as if it were dropping away, like being continuously driven over the same hump-backed bridge. Then there were the voices rushing like an ever quickening stream. Slowly I drew back from the house.

First I saw the edge of the picture frame: dark wood pitted with the tiny marks caused by dust and polishing. Further back ….

There was the wall, a dirty white, stained from cigarette smoke. Another step back …

Above the picture hung two flintlock pistols. Below was a straight backed chair. The cushions were worn, and the chair was empty. Either side of the picture were two smaller prints, too far outside of my focus to see the things that were depicted on them. Moving further away …

The wall was joined to the floor with a wainscot that was made of a dark wood which matched both the chair and the picture frame. Tight piled, short haired carpet covered the floor. It led away in both directions where more chairs were placed around tables. Jumping back again …

I looked from my own eyes, and I remembered. I sat on a red cushioned chair in a bar, one hand clasped a glass that was half full of beer. There was noise all around. People talking quietly mixed with other sounds. The door to the bar was pushed open: a car horn; the heavy purr of a diesel engine; a brief cacophony of rap music. Then they were cut off again as the door swung closed. Comments were shouted from the bar to whoever had walked in. I glanced up. A woman with long dark curled hair. She wore a black dress with white spots that had a low hemline and floated with her as she moved. My gaze followed her progress across the room.

It was a good few more minutes before I shook off the feeling of being disconnected and recovered a true sense of where I was. For a while my perspective seemed to be centred an arm’s length in front of me. After another thirty minutes of sitting watching the people at their tables my sense of who I was finally returned.

I finished my beer and walked over to the bar. The barman noticed me and walked over.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

“Nothing actually, one’s enough for me at this time of day.” I gestured to the empty glass I had placed on the counter top as if to explain. “I couldn’t help but notice the picture you have on the wall round the corner,” I continued, “and was wondering if it would be for sale.”

“Which one?” he asked, looking surprised. “You mean the one of the house?”

“Yes, I was just sat over there and it caught my attention.” My reason sounded lame, and so I added, “My girlfriend likes that kind of thing. I don’t go for it myself, but you know.” I shrugged.

After a moment, no doubt trying to work out if I was joking, the barman said, “Let me come round and have a look at it.”

I walked away from the bar and back around to the picture. A quick glance was all I could give it at first, frightened that I would find the world slipping away from me again, but when nothing happened I took a closer look.

There were scratches on the frame, and a thin layer of dust had accumulated on the flat edges. Looking at it from a normal perspective I could see that it was older and more worn than I had previously thought. This was certainly no great work of art, yet I could still feel something stirring both in me and in the picture.

“I’ve never really looked at it closely.”

Almost I jumped, but managed to catch myself. The barman had walked up beside me, and while whipping his hands on the towel that hung at his waist, he studied the picture as if he worked part-time at an auction house.

“Why do you want this one?” he continued. “We’ve some far better ones on the other side of the bar.”

“Oh no, this one is ideal.” I found myself searching for further reasons to justify why I wanted it. “As I said, my girlfriend, well, she likes this kind of thing, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for her.” My mouth turned up at the edges in a nervous grin, but the barman didn’t notice.

“Well let me go and check the records; see how much it’s worth.” He turned and walked towards the back of the bar, disappearing through a door that obviously lead to some kind of office.

As I went back around to the bar I began to wonder how much I should be paying for it. Buying pictures was not something I had ever done before, and my knowledge of art went as far as knowing who Picasso was. Forty five, maybe fifty dollars I guessed at. My checking account could easily cover it.

The barman came back carrying a large red ledger. He placed it on the top of the counter next to me.

“Well we got it quite a few years back, and as I said it’s nothing special, so what do you say to about thirty dollars? I wouldn’t want to give it away you understand, but I don’t see why I have to overcharge you for it.”

“Thirty dollars is fine by me,” I said, already reaching for my wallet. “Do you want cash or would a card be okay?”

“Card is fine. All I need for you to do is print your name and address just here,” he pointed to the ledger, “and then you can take it home with you.”

As I passed him my card I noticed my hand was shaking slightly. Whether from excitement or from what I had experienced I could not tell. He got the picture down from the wall while I scrawled my details.

“I can wrap it up for you,” he offered.

I nodded. “Yeah, that would be great, thanks.”

He took the ledger back to his office and returned with a large roll of brown paper and some tape in a dispenser.

“There you go,” he said, as he stuck down the last corner. “I hope your girlfriend likes it.”

“Oh, I think she will. Thanks for your help. I’ll probably be back for a drink tomorrow.”

With that I walked across the bar, and through the doors. Outside the wind had picked up and the sky had darkened.

When I got back to the apartment I delayed in unwrapping the picture, instead leaving it on the kitchen table. I made myself a coffee and tidied away the pots and pans that had been left on the drainer. The wine glasses Annie and I had used last night and the empty bottle were still next to the sofa. The bed, which I had rushed out of this morning, I made up again. I even tied up the piles of magazines that were littering the sitting room. In fact I did everything I could to avoid looking at that picture.

When I had finally ran out of jobs that needed to be done around the apartment I took a deep breath and walked back into the kitchen. For a long moment I stood there looking down at the shape of the picture in its brown paper, then, with a sudden burst of effort, I turned it over and peeled off all the tape. The wrapping sprung open as it was released and I unfolded it further to expose the edges of the frame. In one quick movement, like throwing back a cover to reveal a spider, I grabbed hold of the sides of the frame, lifted it from the table and span it around in my hands. There, facing me, was the house.

Close up I could see the texture of the painting, each brush stroke stood out. The lines that made up the trees which framed the house were distinct, the greys and whites of the gravel on the path were individual spots, the darker colours which showed the shading of the white pillars on the house were obvious. Yet, standing out from all of that, seemingly overlaid, was the greater whole of the image itself. It was as if one of my eyes saw what constituted the painting while the other saw the house as a separate thing. There was no hint as to what the front looked like, but in my mind it was as obvious to me as the parts I could see.

Recovering I noticed that my fingers had turned white and I loosened my grip on the frame a little. I glanced around the kitchen and through the archway into the sitting room looking for somewhere to hang my new acquisition. The walls were already taken up with mirrors and prints and so I wandered to the narrow hall which led to the front door, the picture still in hand. There was not enough space, if nothing else the frame was thick and would stand out too much. Inevitably I stepped into the bedroom.

Was it that I knew there was an empty wall opposite the bed, or was it that I wanted to put the painting somewhere more intimate? I do not honestly know the answer, but it was there that I found myself stood looking at the blank wall above the dresser.

I spent some minutes holding up the painting to check the positioning of it and then a few more with it propped on top of the dresser as I stood in various places around the bedroom. This was not to check that it was a fitting picture for the room, I knew already that it made no difference if the style suited the browns and creams. What I wanted to be sure of was that I could see the picture in a good light from anywhere. Once I was happy I placed the painting on the bed and went to get my small set of tools from the closet.

After checking the positioning of the painting on the wall I knocked in a small picture hook. I was so caught up in what I was doing that I barely noticed the sound of my brief hammering breaking through the silence in the apartment. Then I picked up my new acquisition and turned it over to check that the thin gold wire was still securely attached.

It was then that I noticed the writing in the top left corner. The shadow of the frame nearly caused me to miss it, but as I bent closer it caught my eye. Two words written in a spidery hand: Englesholm Elsbeth. I studied them. The first word had the feeling of the house about it. The second was obviously the name of a woman. It could have been the artist, but it was printed rather than signed. I spun the frame over again and studied the corners of the painting itself to see if the artist had left a mark, but there nothing. The two words rolled over in my head as I placed the picture on the wall and adjusted it. Then I stood at the foot of the bed, only a couple of feet away, and admired my new acquisition. I never doubted that I had done the right thing.

***

It was the house, proud and white as ever, but there was something different about it this time. The wind was blowing from behind me, and I could hear it whipping the leaves of the tall trees that lined the stone covered path. It was not a cold wind, for the sun was shining low in the sky and there was no gooseflesh on my arms. I looked about at the garden, but could detect nothing amiss, and then I glanced up at the house. It was there, in one of the high windows that struck out towards the sky, that I saw her.

A vision of beauty is perhaps the wrong phrase. She was more like beauty itself. Her hair was a dark red that hung in gentle curls down to her shoulders. Her skin, as I had always imagined Snow Whites’ in the fairy tales of my childhood, was smooth and pure. Her eyes, which should have been too far away for me to see, were grey green pools of sorrow and longing.

She looked down at me from that high window, and I back at her from where I stood on the gravel path, and in that moment, which seemed to last for hours, we knew each other. This is why I had wanted the picture. This was Elsbeth.

The idea that she was suffering, trapped in some way in that room, came to my mind. I tried to call to her, to ask what it was that hurt her so, but no speech issued from my mouth. Instead the dream began to slip from my mind. The real world seeped back into my consciousness and I found myself lying under the thin sheets of my bed.

Annie stirred next to me, murmuring something in her sleep, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I could think only of Elsbeth, of the woman in the high window. It was the middle of the night when emotions are heighten by the darkness, but I already knew that the rest of the world would seem that less bright without her.

I struggle to sleep for the rest of that night, the images and feelings from the dream polluted my mind. All through work I found it difficult to concentrate. It was like being in love for the first time. I was a teenager with a crush and I so desperately wanted to see this woman again. Oh, how I wanted to see her.

Annie noticed that something was wrong when I got home and I found myself making up an excuse about work being tough. After the arguments of the last few days about the painting, I did not want to start things over again. I suggested we went out to watch a film and grab some food. For her it was a peace offering, for me it was a chance to avoid conversation for a few more hours.

As I sat in the cinema the film drifted away from me and my thoughts returned to Elsbeth. The bright glow of the screen was replaced by the house and its gardens. The sounds of talking in the film became the leaves rustling in the trees on either side of the gravel path and Annie’s hand in mine became Elsbeth’s.

***

It was autumn. The leaves were still on the trees but they rustled like old people brushing past each other. The grass was long having been left for the slow winter growth. The sun hung low in the sky again, but the light it cast upon the garden and house felt thin and weak. I glanced straight up to the window in the top corner, but I knew before my eyes reached the glass that it was empty. There was no illumination in the house, it looked lifeless and empty. I began to wonder if Elsbeth had never existed at all, but the doubt vanished as quickly as it had come. I could still feel her eyes upon me; that stare filled with longing.

A sound made me turn to my left; the cracking of a twig underfoot. I looked to the trees at the edge of the path and thought I saw something move. Someone dodging behind one of the trunks. I waited for a moment and then, when I saw nothing more I walked to where the line of trees paralleled the gravel. There was no one there when I reached the grass. I stepped around the tree and found nothing. For a moment I stood still and listened, but all this offered up was the rustle of leaves moving in the wind of the late afternoon. Then I heard something again, another dry twig snapping, this time from across the other side of the path. I span around quick enough to see someone duck behind a tree opposite me and this time I did not wait for them to appeared on the other side, I just ran, kicking up the stones on the path as I moved.

The far side of the tree was empty yet again, but as I glanced up the line of sentinels I caught sight of further movement. There was someone running by the side of the path using the trees as cover. I gave up on what little caution I had and ran in pursuit. Whoever it was used the tree trunks to block my view of them, seeming to guess which side of the line of trees I would be on at any particular moment. I plunged on, running as fast as I could, but my efforts were in vain and I failed to reach my quarry.

The gravel path came to an end where it reached a large ornamental hedge. A gap wider than the path led to a circular paved area with a fountain set in the centre. Another three routes led off, one opposite where I entered and the others at the quarter points. I burst into the area breathing hard after my headlong rush and glanced around. My eye caught sight of a foot disappearing around the corner of one of the exits.

I sprinted after and the chase continued between more well kept hedges and through other fountain filled intersections. Finally I became too tired to run any further and took a seat on the edge of a fountain sculpted from a pair of unicorns entwined about each other. I looked at the route my mark had vanished down, but saw nothing other than a sharp corner and the continuation of the hedges.

“You have given up the chase?” a woman’s voice asked from behind me.

The sound made me jump and I turned, still sitting, to find out who was there.

“I thought you would not give up so easily.”

Whoever spoke was positioned behind the stone creatures. I stood up and walked around the edge of the fountain, but found no one on the other side.

“Who are you?” I asked, fully expecting to be jumped from behind. “Come out from wherever you are hiding.”

“I thought you would know who I am, Sam,” the voice was up against my left ear and I felt her breath soft and warm on my neck.

I froze and then slowly, gathering strength from hope, I turned around.

It was in that moment that the wind stopped. The water in the fountain ceased to flow and the rustle of the leaves on the hedge stilled. There, before me, was the focus of the world: Elsbeth. She was as tall as I was, standing in a long white dress embroidered at the edges with tiny silver flowers. I saw now that the curls of her hair slipped just past her shoulders and hung loose, lifting slightly in the wind. The deep red framed her face perfectly, contrasting with the whiteness of her skin. Her cheeks were flushed and her lips opened by a tiny fraction with the hint of a smile.

She seemed to be waiting for me to speak, content to let me stare at her. Finally my wits returned and I gathered myself.

“Elsbeth. You run fast,” I managed to give a nervous grin.

The sound of my voice broke the spell that had been cast over us and taking a deep breath she grasped my hand and moved towards one of the stone seats that looked upon the fountain.

“Come and sit,” she said, “and I will promise not to run from you again.”

My fingers tingled where the warmth of our skin merged. My heart picked up a pace as we sat down on the bench.

“The house looked empty,” I said as she turned to face me. “I thought you had left.”

“Most likely taken away, if I were to leave.”

“Taken!” I began to wonder if she truly was a prisoner in the house. “Why would anyone want to take you away?” Then another thought struck me. “Will you be in trouble if they find you have left the house?”

She shook her head. “No one will know that I have come here, we are safe when we are together. It is you, Sam, who allows me to be free.”

Slightly confused, I asked, “Why aren’t you free all the time? Who locks you up?”

“They keep me prisoner,” she nodded her head to where I presumed the house was. “I am not meant to leave my room.”

I was shocked. “Have you told the police? Does anyone else know?”

She looked at me as if I would never understand. “There is no point in telling the police. The Family are beyond the law.” Her eyes gained a faraway look, and it seemed to me that she was thinking of somewhere else. “You should not concern yourself with such things. The Family are dangerous to know and prone to act on whims. If they have decided to lock me away from the world, there are few who could stand against them.”

There was something in the way she said the word family that set me wondering.

“Are they your family? Are they part of the Mafia?”

Her focus returned and even the soft smile that she gave me was more beautiful than anything I had seen before. “No, Sam, they are not the Mafia. They are far beyond that kind of organisation. They are not many, but they are powerful and yes, they are my family. We just call ourselves The Family as in some way we are all related.” She brushed a lock of hair away from her face. “If I was different then maybe I would turn against their will, but I am not. I am only me, and it is for that reason that they have locked me up and for that reason that they will not set me free.”

I did not understand what she meant. “Is it something you’ve done? Is that why they keep you prisoner in that house? Or is it something you know?” I was grasping at straws.

Elsbeth looked at me and again I found my heart quickening under her gaze. “I thought you, of all people, would realise why they have locked me away. You, who have been brought here because of your need, your desire.”

I could only stare blankly at her as my cheeks flushed slightly.

“They fear that my beauty will bring about the ruin of the world, Sam. That should I be allowed to wander free, then empires will once again crumble and great men will fight over me. Since the day I was born people have killed themselves because of me. Should I once again be free even I do not know what would happen. So it is that I stay in the house, waited upon like a queen.”

There was no denying that she had great beauty, I would have given everything I had to be with her for the rest of my life, but still I did not fully understand what she was saying.

“I will come and find you,” I told her. “I can take you away from all of this, no matter who stands in our way.”

She shook her head at me again. “You have already found me, Sam. You can come to me whenever you want and we will be together. That will be enough for both of us.”

I still did not quite follow what she was saying and I was about to tell her so, when a look of concern spread across her face. Again her eyes took on that far off stare.

“I have to leave you,” she said. “We will see each other again, soon.” I opened my mouth to tell her to stay, but she put a finger against my lips. “No, I must go. I do not want to be caught with you.” She stood up and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Come to me again, my love.”

With that she let go of my hand and walked past me to one of the exits. I rose to follow her but by the time I had reached the gap in the hedge she was nowhere to be seen, instead I found myself standing at the end of the gravel path staring at the lines of trees and the white house in the distance. When I awoke my cheek still tingled where her lips had touched my skin.

***

Over the many weeks that followed I found myself being drawn to Elsbeth and the house nearly every night. If I had ever doubted it before, now I began to understand that these were more than dreams, that I really was going to the place where this beautiful woman was held captive by her family. I tried to discover what I could about the house in some vain hope that no matter what she had told me I could find her and set her free. My searching came to nothing. I could find no reference of a house named Englesholm and no woman called Elsbeth.

Annie, of course, noticed that my attention was elsewhere. I cared less about going out, resorting to a combination of drink and sleeping pills to make sure that I could spend as much time as possible with Elsbeth. Annie went from pleading with me to trying to find out what was wrong, to shouting. She cried and raged and I was impassive, having no care for the woman I had spent four years with. In the end she simply stopped spending time with me. Work also took a back seat. I still made the effort to turn up, but the sleeping pills did not help my concentration and it was difficult for me to hide that things had changed.

Of course, none of this concerned me. All that mattered was that I could spend many hours each day with Elsbeth.

***

The sound of the phone ringing brought my attention back to the present. I opened my eyes and looked around the living room. The sun had set while I had been sat there and the apartment was in darkness. I pushed aside empty take-away cartons and found the flashing handset on the coffee table. The name on the screen read Annie.

I sighed and answered the call. “Hi.”

“Sam, hi, how are you?” Her voice sounded strained, maybe nervous. I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah, I’m good thanks. What about you?”

“I’m okay too. The new place is a bit empty, but I’m trying to make it feel like a home.” She paused and the phone amplified her intake of breath. “Look, Sam. I still want to try and make this work. I don’t want to be without you. Is there some way we can do that?” When I didn’t answer she continued. “Are you free tonight? Can I come over and we can talk? There must be something we can do.”

“I won’t be here tonight,” I told her. “It’s over between us. I just don’t see how we can carry on.”

“What is it?” her voice had risen. “Is there someone else? What did I do? If this is about last year I said things would change and they have. I really want to have another go at this. We’ve been together for so long, we shouldn’t just throw it all away without trying.”

“My answer’s the same,” I tried to make what I was saying sound like the final word on the matter, but I struggled to put any emotion into my voice. “It’s not going to work. Just let it go, Annie.”

“Well I’m going to come over and get the last bits of my stuff. If you’re there maybe we can talk.”

“Okay, whatever. If I’m out then you still have a key, just take what you want.”

“You can be so nasty sometimes, do you know that?” her voice broke. “I used to think you were the nicest person I’d ever met. How wrong was I.”

There was silence as she ended the call. I put my phone down on the table again and looked around at the dark apartment. It probably needed a clean, but that could wait until tomorrow. What I needed now was sleep. I needed to get back to Elsbeth. I had told her I would be with her again that evening and I did not want her to think I had forgotten. Another beer would help me fall asleep quicker. The pills on their own seemed to be having less effect these days.

***

Annie turned the key in the door and gave it a push. There was a slight resistance from a small pile of post. As she stepped into the apartment the smell of stale take-away food hit her. She gave a cough.

“Sam? You in?” she called. “Sam, it’s only me.”

The hall was flooded with light as she flicked the switch. She stooped to pick up the letters and junk mail, then walked down the hall past the closed bedroom door. When she turned on the light in the living room she screwed up her face at the sight of empty beer bottles and half full cartons of Chinese food. The envelopes that were addressed to her she slipped into her handbag, the rest she dropped on the table.

“I’m not tidying up your mess for you,” she said under her breath. “You can live in your own shit.”

She walked into the kitchen more to see how much of a mess it was than for any other reason. The sink was half filled with unwashed crockery. She retreated, pulling her bag back onto her shoulder she headed for the bedroom.

***

His body is lying on the bed, his head propped up by a couple of pillows and he stares straight ahead. His mouth is slightly open, matching the vacant look in his eyes. Pulling back…

A bottle of beer is resting in one open hand. What remained of the contents has left a brown stain on the white sheets. On the bedside table is an empty pill bottle. Back further…

Annie lets the bag slide from her shoulder as she rushes over to his body. Her feet kick his shoes under the bed. She takes his face and tries to wake him, slapping him once on the cheek. She cries out his name, hoping he will hear her. Another step back…

Annie finds her discarded bag and takes out her phone, pressing the numbers to call the emergency services. She asks for an ambulance, checking his body as the operator instructs her to. Further out…

The ambulance pulls up outside the apartment block and the medics get out and rush up the stairs. When they walk into the bedroom Annie is knelt by the bed, her tears dripping on to Sam’s face. His eyes are still open, his gaze fixed firmly on the painting at the bottom of the bed. One of the windows in the large white house glows amber with light from within.

Backgrouond and Author Notes (PDF)
First Draft (PDF)