At first sight, it was hard to tell what she was looking at. The winter light was grey and everything was covered over by snow into blurred, humped shapes of strangeness. Her cheeks fizzed with the cold under her woolly hat but she was too hot in her waxed jacket, striding along in her clumpy boots and thick walking socks. It had amused her at first to see the trees, bushes and hedgerows so transformed as she thrust into the walk she had driven out to enjoy, her car left parked in the cleared roads above the country park. In summer, this pathway downhill was alive with dragonflies humming by in exquisite turquoise glory, the water pools below full of noisy geese, ducks and swans. Now, it was an alien stretch, barren of horses or cows in fields, no people strolling beside her.
Well, it was the middle of Christmas Day and everybody would be busy eating, or enjoying their time together. But she, Fran, was alone, by choice as she reminded herself firmly, and not doing anything festive. Nothing at all. Just a walk. On her own. In the snow. Invigorating, she had started out thinking, a kind of fun in itself. Gradually, though, as she turned off the main path to take different turns down the small lanes, she had felt disoriented. She knew where she was and yet she didn’t because it was all so very different covered in deep, fresh snow. The only animal sound was a dismal caw somewhere from a crow in the black-branched trees. The crow, like her, seemed to know it was alone. It began to snow again, light as drizzle at first and then heavy flakes of it, silently coasting down to the ground.
It was here that Fran stopped before the gate of a driveway with a long, snow-laden garden beyond, not sure what she could see there. She peered, feeling a shiver as her eyes identified what seemed to be ghostly figures standing in it. No, they were people moving about at the end, weren’t they? She paused with a half-smile, expecting to see a snowball whizzing through the air, hear shouts of gleeful play. And yet, there was nothing. There was a square house dimly in view but no lit windows peeped cheerfully through the gloom. What was she looking at, then? It wouldn’t disturb anyone if she went in to look, if nobody was there, would it?
Unlatching the heavy gates, which smelt of ice and earthy iron, she went in, snow crumping under her walking boots, the first prints to be left in it. Approaching the figures, she found them to be marble statues beneath the snow, a reaching arm seeming to plead for rescue, eyes blind when she brushed them free. They were not statues. This was a graveyard, she suddenly realised, and these were monuments, grand Victorian ones. The house she could see was no house at all but a mausoleum with temple pillars before its closed doors. It was the snow that made the stone figures seem to move, that was all. A trick of the mind. A trick of the light. Nonetheless, it made her nervous, unbeliever thought she was, non-celebrant of any of the religious festivals.
She liked the feasting, but there was no point in that when you were alone. No, no. She had refused all invitations and chosen to be alone, Fran reminded herself. She didn’t want to intrude on other people’s family times and hers, well, that small trio now only consisted of Fran and what she remembered of her childhood Christmases when presents were still magical surprises. The time before you always knew, more or less, what you would be getting, even if you were thrilled to be allowed a fashionable new outfit.
A sense of melancholy descended. She had walked these lanes before and never noticed this old, now surely unused graveyard, shut away behind its gates in the tall trees. There would be nobody to bring these people flowers now. Nobody to remember who they were or how they were mourned. It made the expensive monuments seem so pointless and forlorn. Fran brushed the snow away from an inscription or two, which only seemed to prove her point. She looked behind her at the graveyard statues. Angels, hooded draped figures, cherubs perched on pillars in an incubus-like crouch, seemed to have closed in behind her.
Where was the path? That had led her straight through, hadn’t it? No, silly, you turned off to see the mausoleum and now you’ve got a bit side-tracked, that’s all, said Fran to herself. Curiosity took her round the back of the mausoleum and to see what lay beyond it. There must be a church somewhere nearby? If there was, the thick trees concealed it. The solitary crow cawed again from somewhere in the depths of them. Fran retreated. Unique as she found it to be, an abandoned graveyard was no place to spend her Christmas Day walk, she told herself.
She came back round the side to the front, but the graveyard now stretched out in what seemed to be an endless expanse. Row upon row of grave plots, some stones slanting, were ahead of her, interspersed with broken urns, figures on plinths and obelisk needles reaching up. What was going on? Had she lost her sense of direction altogether? Fran struggled forward through them in the deep snow, the ground beneath her uneven, threatening a slip, a tumble, a twisted ankle. It was hard to move onwards. She tried to search out the gate which she had entered by, yet somehow all she was doing was walking further and further into the old, deserted tombs. This was horrible, like those images of battlefield crosses which stretched out to infinity in First World War graveyards. And yet it had looked so harmlessly enchanted when she came in, like something from a frozen fairy tale.
Fran knew this area, or did she? She had only walked down to the ponds before in the summer, not really explored beyond it. Snow began to drop down from the trees in heavy wet clumps here and there. The odd thumps of it, muffled, made her look fearfully behind, even though she knew what it was. Well, she’d reach a boundary somewhere if she just carried on, wouldn’t she? She had to. Fran peered ahead, making her way on through the graves. Wait! Wasn’t that the square shape of the mausoleum tomb ahead? Yes, it was. She’d gone round in a complete circle! Reaching it, she almost laughed in relief. “Good job I’m not out walking on the moors,” she thought. “I can’t believe I got so lost.”
Now she would be all right! There was something different though. The iron doors between the pillars had been closed. Now, they were slightly ajar. Well, they must have been before but she hadn’t noticed. Once again, the monumental statues seemed more crowded in than they had been previously, like people curious to see an unexpected visitor. Fran stood looking about her, trying to recall which direction she had approached this place from. Was it left or right that she had turned off the pathway which had led her in through the gate? She felt afraid, full of nerves.
“No trespassers,” she heard a faint, wet-sounding voice whispering behind her from the open doorway of that tomb, or did she? Fran whipped round, not even sure that she had heard it, for surely her mind was playing tricks now?
“What? Who’s there?” she tried to say, finding it strangely hard to get the words out, to speak at all in her fear.
There was no gap in the doorway and, of course, there was nobody there.
“No trespassers.s.s.…” she thought she heard again, but now it came from a chorus of voices whispering together, sibilant, soft, this time as if spoken by the graveyard statues themselves.
Fran turned and blundered forwards through them away from the mausoleum tomb, instinct taking her back the way she had come and suddenly, with huge relief, she was on the path again! There was no sign she had ever come in, her tracks already covered by fresh snow. She reached the iron gates with her heart pounding, sweating inside her waxed jacket. She dragged them open again to get out, fighting the frozen iron to release it. How were they shut again anyway? She hurried back up the hill, looking behind her when she was safely away, but the old graveyard was as invisible as it had always been to her before.
Her suffocating fear that she might never get out, might be stuck with the forgotten dead in there where she did not belong, must have given her some aural hallucination, she told herself. Fran was not religious and she did not believe in any kind of after-life or ghosts.
Good old atavistic panic at work, she told herself, driving home rather shakily. She allowed herself a steadying Christmas bumper glass of wine when she got back to her small house. She switched on her laptop to search for the whereabouts of the graveyard, curious about which important family had built that mausoleum tomb and what village or township it had once served as a burial ground for. The strange thing was that no search found any such thing in the area at all. Fran looked next for churches in the country park. There were none in that vicinity. Then, where on earth had she found herself?
Fran turned to local history searches for stories about the place but found nothing relevant again. The day’s snow twilight dimmed into an early dark around her, illuminated by her laptop screen. Why was her house turning so cold? She must have been sitting too long. Fran went into the little kitchen to check the boiler but when she tried to turn on the light, she couldn’t. The laptop’s glow in the living-room behind her had gone too. Power cut! Well, probably all that snow…
She opened the front door to see if any of the other houses on the street had lights on. No, all was in darkness. So much so that she couldn’t see the other houses at all. A chill damp had descended almost at once upon her from inside and out. She stared out a moment and thought she saw, not her small hedge covered in snow, but a series of vague shapes crowding beyond the door she had pulled slightly ajar. Fran felt unnerved by the optical illusion created by the snow, shape-shifting the familiar as it had done on her walk before.
Closing the door, she turned to go back into the dark house, thinking of lighting her big, Christmas-scented candles. The hall floor she stepped on to was suddenly a black, empty void. With a lurch of horror, she tumbled down a flight of cold stone steps to a cellar space that did not exist, had never existed, not in her home. Was she even at home? Had she ever really reached home at all?
No trespassers…” was the last thing Fran heard, once more in that eerie wet whisper, as she fell and fell into the silence of the tomb’s bone-chilled vault below.
They say that if you hit the bottom when you fall from some height in a nightmare, you never wake up again, don’t they? Fran didn’t believe in that either, of course because, as she always said, how could anyone possibly know what anyone had been dreaming about when they died? Equally, she had no way of knowing if she were dreaming or not now, and nobody to tell about it if she did ever wake up. The only thing she knew was that she still hadn’t landed at the bottom yet. The fall into the blind, cold darkness just continued on and on, as if she would never be anywhere else at all again…
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