Genealogy, that’s the thing. People like to know where they came from and who they’re related to, what their heritage is, what it means to be them. It’s nonsense of course, who we came from doesn’t make our destiny, doesn’t dictate what we do. Still, my mother’s always been kind of insistent about this sort of thing and about our roots, nostalgic for ‘merrie old England’ and she always hit a brick wall when we got back as far as that. I wasn’t going to pass up a free trip to England and so, here I was.
I’d wasted as much time as possible in London. I came from a small New England town and life in the big city was fascinating to me. I’d never even been as far as New York before, let alone somewhere as exciting and foreign as London. They spoke English at least and that meant I wasn’t completely out of my depth as I would have been in Paris or Berlin. It also meant I had a really good time out drinking and seeing the sights but sooner or later I had to get off my ‘arse’ and set about what mom wanted.
I’d rented a car and headed out, following the ancient map my mom had given me. It didn’t even have all the roads marked on it that were signposted and as I drove deeper and deeper into the countryside and nearer and nearer the coast I began to wonder if it even existed.
Out of season it was cheaper, that was one thing, but outside the city England was not the rolling green hills I’d been lead to expect. Britain has this peculiar quality sometimes where everything is grey. The sky is a cool slate grey, the mist swirling around you is the same and, when you see the sea, it’s the same damn colour. Top to bottom grey to the point where it seems to stretch away into infinity and you can’t tell where you are or even how blind you’ve even become.
I found the turning , finally, that was supposed to leave to the village. Mom was on a mission to have me find the old church records so we could trace the family further back. Maundbury – my home town – took its name from this village. Early settlers weren’t too creative with the names when they first came to America. Our settlers were particularly lazy, not even bothering to put a ‘New’ in front of it when they founded the place.
The road, such as it was, was more of a track now and this did not bode well. The car bounced and shuddered along, wreathed in mist and I was shaken nearly out of my seat. Suddenly the road fell away in front of me, vanishing into nothingness and it was all I could do to bring the bone-shaking car to a halt, the front wheels mere inches from falling away into the unknown darkness.
With my heart in my mouth I opened the door and stepped out into the swirling grey. The wind was blowing from behind me, weakly, out to sea. I could hear the waves, some distance below, washing against the shore and, if I crouched, I could find the very edge of the cliff, tufted with sickly grass, but there was no way to see the sea or how high up I was from the ground. The only way to tell where anything was, was the misty glow of the car’s headlights, and further away, off the road, a distant, glowing porch light.
Perhaps I’d taken a turning too soon and the one I’d wanted had been the next one, but I daren’t try and move the car in this mist. I reached in and turned off the engine, cutting the lights and left the car behind. I’d have no choice but to wait for it to clear and, hopefully, get some help to move it when it did clear.
The ground was soft and crumbly, like a hard cheese, under my feet as I trudged. Swirling mist clinging to my hair and clothes and making them damp as the distant glowing light slowly resolved itself into the the shape of a run-down Victorian house, weathered by the rain and the salt with rotting window frames and mould-speckled glass. Simultaneously hopeful and worrying was the fact that there was a sun-faded sign in the window of the door marked ‘rooms available’.
A glance at my watch told me it was only eight in the evening, it felt much later. I’d hoped for a pub or an inn to stay at but there were no other lights around and this seemed to be the only place to go. I hammered my hand against the door and stepped back to wait, trying to put on my best all-American smile for whoever opened the door.
The door opened side and the rush of hot air that issued forth was almost stifling compared to the cold air without. I blinked and smiled and smiled and blinked again and gave my best and most cheerful “Hi!”
The person who stood there in the light was a wizened little dwarf of a man. All hunch and hair with the occasional, sparse little cluster of red hair in the snow-white of his beard and sea-green eyes that peered up at me from the depths of stars of wrinkles.
“Can I ‘elp you?” He leaned against the door, seeming pretty confident for an old man confronting a stranger on his doorstep.
“My car’s stuck,” I shrugged apologetically. “I was hoping that, perhaps I might be able to get a room tonight until I can get it sorted out tomorrow?”
“Of course you can, come on in before you catch your death,” the old man’s face creaked into a smile and he stepped aside to let me in.
The air outside was a soaking blanket of cold, but inside it was steamy and hot. The moment I crossed the threshold sweat began to pour down my back. The place was cramped, it even looked like the walls were sweating. Ancient central heating was rattling away as I stood, taking in the bible verses on the walls and the peeling wallpaper.
“Got nothing with you?” The old man lead the way to the stairs and the threadbare carpet that covered them.
It took him an interminable amount of time to climb the steps and moving shadow caught my eye as I replied, a pair of feminine shadows watching me from the hallway below.
“It’s back in the car, I won’t be able to find it until the morning. Not to worry, so long as I can have a shower it’ll be alright.”
“No shower, just a bath.”
“Oh, that will be alright.”
The women’s faces were framed by red hair, one old, one young, staring unsettlingly until they slid out of sight when we finally reached the landing. The floorboards bent under my weight as the old man shuffled up to one of the doors.
“Here we are mister…?”
“Bremer, John Bremer,” I smiled to him again and assured him I’d be alright and that I’d take breakfast in the morning. All but slamming the strange old gnome’s own door in his face as I escaped into the room.
The room stank of damp and the window frame was crumbling and stained black. The single pane windows rattled as the draught wended its way out through the frame and the bed had the firmness and the wet smell of the unused. It groaned as I sat on it and I knew how it felt as I flipped on the bedside light – it barely made any difference.
Mark 1:17 peered down at me from one wall, gilt, in a frame and an old, local map glared down from the other, showing the peninsula we were on ‘The Tongue’ and the village, on the part of the peninsula that didn’t seem to be there any longer. Was Maundbury even there any longer? Was this all that was left? This whole trip was a bust, mom was going to be pissed but if the village wasn’t even there, there was nothing to be done.
Looking out the window told me nothing more than it had before. Outside the glass the whole world was a sea of grey, making it seem like the house was the only thing that existed and the only sounds were the distant wash of the sea and the constant, unpredictable rattle of the heating. No television, no radio, it seemed odd. I wondered if they were gathered below me, in silence, listening up towards the ceiling.
Whatever the case, I wasn’t going anywhere until morning. So I slept. Swathed in mist, surrounded by Bible passages and the ghost of a missing village. The very past I had no real interest of my own in.