Escape to the Country by Chris Green
Uncle Enzo is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He is tired of urban living and wants to retire to the country. Enzo is in his seventies and his mobility is not what it was, so I am down here to see what is available. Since my recent divorce, I seize every opportunity to get out and about. I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, so Enzo trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. I realise that not everything is advertised on Rightmove or Zoopla. Besides, there’s no substitute for local knowledge. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.
‘It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He waves his arms madly and is shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’
What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild, and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly.
I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on, but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Co-op as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.
We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre. This is a small community. You would not expect to find whackos on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. And it has appeared more than once on Escape to the Country. This is why it is my first port of call. Little Dissing was the centre of a Saxon royal estate, has a generous mention in the Domesday Book, and is famous for its wassailing celebrations. It has literary connections too. John Betjeman was fond of the place, waxing lyrical about St Petroc’s twelfth-century granite font. Thomas Hardy was a frequent visitor to the village, and Agatha Christie used to have a house nearby. Perhaps the crazy old man is part of the local colour, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.
Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lucy Love takes down Uncle Enzo’s details. I tell her Enzo is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a garden to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lucy says. Over the years I have found that estate agents are able to come up with properties that accommodate your requirements, no matter how unlikely these might be. Developing a can do mindset is clearly a key part of their training, something they learn in Estate Agent 101. Lucy maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.
The old fellow is outside the window, still ranting.
‘Don’t take any notice, Mr Chapman.’ Lucy says.
‘Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’
‘Old Seth is nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. A conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered that everyone thinks he’s loony-tunes.’
‘I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir just now. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lucy, what is it he thinks is happening again?’
‘He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lucy says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Before my time, but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared without trace one after another. The mystery was never solved. No one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast, but the old bugger won’t let it go.’
‘Time travel then,’ I say.
‘I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here, if that’s what you mean,’ Lucy says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. You must see us as a bit provincial. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing. This seems to be what has set him off again.’
‘I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?
‘Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that, Guy,’ Lucy says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Enzo.’
We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at the Gordon Bennett Inn. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I attempt to strike up conversations with the regulars, but none of them remembers the disappearances. The landlord, Billy, just wants to talk about the upcoming Darius Cave tour, although he manages to slip in how much he enjoyed the final season of Stranger Things. I get the impression that Little Dissing is protective of its secrets.
As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? What can it mean? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and, more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably just a wrong number.
Lucy drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lucy tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at six hundred and fifty thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she weren’t breaking up with Darius, she says, they might consider buying it. She dismisses the breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of the marriage can’t really be down to Darius taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned, it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.
I have to admit, though, I am not especially upset that Lucy is not still with Darius. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear, but evidently, she wears none. A shame it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively priced property and it’s back to business.
When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a degree or two or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurks in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lucy been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not in her interest to point out any shortcomings. But still!
Was Lucy making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? More from the training manual? I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me, is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the asking price. Perhaps even six-eighty.
As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue what these might be.
‘Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going?’ I ask.
‘It IS where we are going,’ Lucy says, noticeably traumatised.
I see from the details I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.
We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, asks us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proven otherwise. We are here, so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lucy’s Audi. Has he been watching too many police procedurals on ITV? Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation, or lack of. None of them seems prepared to answer our questions, so we are no wiser about what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.
They finally give us the all-clear to get on with our viewing, but my heart is no longer in it. Lucy can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This surely is behaviour learned in Estate Agent 101. Too forward even for Estate Agent 301. But it is an offer I can’t refuse.
‘If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lucy says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’
While Lucy is taking a shower, I open my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lucy says no one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Morning Lark from July 1999 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why did this escape attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not close but merely became more secret.
After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lucy has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? Might she be waiting for me in bed? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.
‘Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.
The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lucy. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. She isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.
Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’
Suddenly, a thick-set dude in training pants and a brightly coloured hoodie carrying a Valentino sports bag appears through the front door. He is a living advert for designer leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.
‘Lucy!’ he calls out.
He spots me at the top of the stairs.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.
I don’t feel ready to answer this. Instead, although the penny begins to drop and I have a fair idea, I ask him who he is.
‘Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Darius Love! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’
‘You mean Lucy?’
‘Yes, Lucy. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’
‘You’ve got it wrong,’ I say. ‘You don’t understand. I think Lucy has disappeared.’
‘Just get the hell out of here!’ Darius yells. ‘Before I ……’
He comes at me. He looks as if he means business. As he closes in to take a swing, I grab my laptop and somehow manage to get down the stairs in one piece to make a quick getaway.
It seems to me there’s a whole lot of detail to unpack here. I feel like Mr Jones in that song by the sixties troubadour. Something is happening, but I don’t know what it is. Little Dissing is an enigma. And the south-west seems to be brimming with untold perils. Who knows what other threats are lurking behind its chocolate box facade? I think I’ll persuade Uncle Enzo to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved