House of Small Shadows

As if by a dream Catherine came to the Red House. Abandoned her car once the lane’s dusty surface was choked by the hedgerows, and moved on foot through a tunnel of hawthorn and hazel trees to glimpse the steep pitch of the roof, the ruddy brick chimneys and the finials upon the sharp spine.

Unseasonably warm air for Autumn drifted from the surrounding meadows to settle like fragrant gas upon the baked ground beneath her feet. Drowsy and barely aware of the hum emitted from the yellow wildflowers and waist-high summer grasses so wild in the fields, she felt nostalgic for a time she wasn’t even sure was part of her own experience, and imagined she was passing into another age.

When she came across the garden’s brick walls of English bond, seized by ivy right along their length to the black gate, a surge of romantic feelings so surprised her, she felt dizzy. Until the house fully revealed itself and demanded all of her attention.

Her first impression was of a building enraged at being disturbed, and rearing up at the sight of her between the gate posts. Twin chimney breasts, one per wing, were like arms flung upwards to claw the sky. Roofs scaled in Welsh slate and spiked with iron crests at their peaks, were raised like heckles.

All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, like the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Hereford. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.

But on closer inspection, had the many windows been an assortment of eyes, from the tall rectangular portals of the first three stories to the narrower dormer windows of the attic, the house’s face now issued the impression of looking past her.

Unaware of Catherine, the many eyes were raised to behold something only they could see above and behind her. Around the windows, where the brickwork was styled with polychromatic stone lintels, an expression of attentiveness to something in the distance had been created. A thing even more awe-inspiring than itself. Something the eyes of the house had gazed upon for a long time and feared too. So maybe what she perceived as wrathful silence in the countenance of the Red House, was actually terror.

This was no vernacular building either. Few local materials had been used in its construction. The house had been built by someone very rich, able to import outside materials and a professional architect to create a vision in stone modelled on a place they had once admired on the continent, perhaps in what was now Flemish Belgium.

Judging by the distance of the Red House to the local village, Magbar Wood, two miles distant and separated by hills and a rare spree of meadowland, she guessed the estate once belonged to a major landowner advantaged by the later enclosure acts. A man bent on isolation.

She had driven through Magbar Wood to reach the Red House, and guessed the early Victorian terraces of the village were once occupied by the tenants of whoever built this unusual house. A polite house and part of the Gothic revival in Queen Victoria’s long reign. But the fact that the village had not expanded to the borders of the Red House’s grounds, and why the surrounding fields remained untended, was most unusual. She hardly ever saw genuine meadows anymore. Magbar Wood boasted at least two square miles of wild land circling the house like a vast moat.

What was more difficult to accept was that she was not already aware of the building. She felt like an experienced walker stumbling across a new mountain in the Lake District. It was such a unique spectacle it should have been on tourist maps. Sightseers visits to the house should be as common as visits to King John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral.

Catherine looked down at the road beneath her feet. Not even a proper road, just a lane with a loose surface. It seemed the Red House and the Mason family had not wanted to be found.

Beneath the Red House’s facade the ground’s had once been landscaped, but were now given over to nettles, rye grasses and the spiky flowers of the meadow, thickets trapped half in the shadow of the house and the garden walls. Fat black flies buzzed around her nonchalantly and tried to settle upon her exposed hands and wrists. She hurried to the porch to escape their persistent orbit. Only to stop and suck in her breath after no more than three steps along what was left of the front path. She then considered returning a wave to the small face and hand visible at a dark window of the first storey. But the figure was gone before she managed to move her arm.

Catherine wasn’t aware there were any children living here. There was only Edith Mason, M H Mason’s sole surviving heir, and the housekeeper who would receive Catherine, according to her instructions. But the little face, and briefly waving hand, must have belonged to a pale child in some kind of hat.

The glimpse of a face had appeared at one of the cross windows, pressed against the glass in the bottom corner, left of the vertical mullion. The small hand had either waved at her or was preparing to tap the glass. Either that or the figure had been holding the horizontal transom to pull itself higher.

She couldn’t say whether it had been a girl or a boy at the window, but what she had seen of the face in her peripheral vision had been wide with a grin of excitement, as if the child had been pleased to see her wading through the weeds of the front garden.

Half expecting to hear the thud of little feet descending the stairs inside the house, as the child raced to the front door to greet her, Catherine looked harder at the empty window and then at the front doors. But nothing stirred again behind the dark glass and no one came down to meet her.

She continued to the porch, one that should have stood before a church not a domestic house. A sombre but stately roof of aged oak arched over her like a large hood.

Crafted from six hardwood panels, the top two filled with stained glass, one half of the great front door was open as if daring her to come inside without invitation. And through the gap she saw an unlit reception, a place made of burgundy walls and shadow, like a gullet, that seemed to reach into forever.

Nervous, Catherine looked back at the wild lawns and imagined the hawkbit and spotted orchids had all turned their little bobbing heads in panic to stare at her, to send out small cries of warning. She pushed her sunglasses up and into her hair and briefly thought of her car.

‘That lane you have walked was here long before this house was built.’ A brittle voice came from far off, deep inside the building. A woman’s voice that softened, as if to speak to itself, and Catherine thought she heard, ‘No one knew what would come down it.’