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Open Features: The Old Place

The writing group got much more than they bargained for when they visited the old house in search of inspiration, as Ken Patterson's tale reveals.

The tutor of the writing group suggested a field trip, a hands on approach to information gathering, an opportunity to observe, listen and learn with the promise of a full day amassing plots and storylines. Ideas from the group were boundless. The proposal they favoured was a tour of somewhere ancestral, ancient, medieval perhaps.

The speed with which the outing was organised was commendable. I settled into my seat on the coach armed with my notebook and my video camera, determined to tape a complete visual record of the day's outing.

**

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” the attendant shouted. Startled, I turned to see an official-looking man hurrying towards us waving his arms. With a short sharp nod of his head, his teeth firmly together, his lips barely moving, he hissed “This side of the rope if you don’t mind.”

He was dressed in a scarlet three-quarter-length coat, black trousers with side braid, shoes you could see your face in, and he had a three-inch handlebar moustache. “Respect the roped off areas please,” he urged our group. Then, looking directly at me, added "And no cameras.''

“Sorry boss,” I said, “I thought I saw our tutor go through that door in the corner of the cul-de-sac there, that one on the other side of the rope.”

“No you didn’t,” he said, taking up a rigid stance. “Those doors are always kept locked. Always.”

The general consensus among our group was that we would meet up with our tutor as we continued on the tour, so we went into the main hall. We were disappointed by the lack of lighting. Although there were enormous chandeliers, they were draped with black cloth. Dim wall lights cast deep shadows, concealing the glory of any works of art.

The games room offered even less to see. Despairing of seeing antiques or other interesting items, I turned to discuss the matter with our group, and was concerned to see in the gloom that it had diminished.

“How come there are only five of us?” I asked.

“The others probably met our tutor,'' someone said.

“Nothing wrong with two groups of five,'' another commented. "Smaller groups can work better. More chance of conversation.''

"Maybe the others have found a bar, or a casino,'' a third suggested. "There has to be more than this going on.''

We walked on through dingy upper corridors, glancing into unfurnished rooms. Enthusiasm waned. Two left us, opting to go in search of the other party.

Stairs led down to the servants' quarters, then down again into the basement. Not until I reached the bottom of the steps, stumbling over empty bottles, did I realise that I was alone.

The cellar door opened with surprising ease. The smell of wine permeated the air. Two naked bulbs providing the dimmest of light. Arched alcoves enclosed by iron gates gave the place the look of a dungeon.

I peered into nooks, crannies, corners, but there were no surprises. My curiosity satisifed, I decided to go and find the others. As I was retracing my steps to the cellar door the lights went out.

I halted, convinced a member of our group was playing a trick on me and the lights would soon go on again. Time dragged. Guessing where the cellar door was located I shuffled forwards, arms outstretched. I anticipated that my hands would make contact with a wall. Instead my hair made contact with the roof.

I continued onwards, ducking, brushing through endless cobwebs, receiving blows on the head when it made contact with the roof. Eventually I was almost bent double.

I was disoriented. I had lost all sense of direction. I thought of turning back, but turning back to where?

If the lights going out had been intended as a joke I definitely did not find any humour in it. I was beginning to panic. I was not breathing deeply enough. I came to a halt. I listened. Nothing. No sound.

Then I felt a draught. I scrambled towards it on all fours, seeking fresh air. Above me I found what seemed to be a handle. I pushed, pushed again, then a hatch opened and soil fell in on me.

I scrambled through it, gulping air, almost giggling with relief. There were dense bushes around me which seemed to fight back as I forged a way through them.

Now I could see the car park, but there was no sign of our coach, or of the others. I suppose it was possible that they were searching for me.

The old house was in darkness. The outer door was shut. Obviously I had been in the cellar much longer than I thought.

I decided to walk down the main road towards the nearest township.

**

I reached the township. No traffic had passed me. I found the police station and and started to tell my story to a duty sergeant.

“Take it easy sir,'' he said. "You look exhausted. Hold on, I'll just press this security button to unlock the door. Just go through. You will find an interview room on the left hand side of the corridor. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll get one of the officers to bring you a cup of tea. You need time to gather your thoughts. The officer will take your statement when you are ready.''

I heard the door click. I hesitated before going through it into the corridor.

I felt I hadn’t done all I could before involving the police. I should have phoned home in case a message had been left for me.

But it was too late for that...

**

"Was that the security door?'' I heard someone ask.

“Yes I’ve sent him to the interview room. He’s the missing one from that group who took the tour of the old place today. When you take him a cup of tea put a double measure of crystals in it. He comes across as a bit of a handful.”

A gap between the doorframe and the edge of the partition allowed me to clearly see both the sergeant and the constable.

“Before you go Borak,” the sergeant added, “get in touch with Torrel at the holding centre. Tell him to check the total on the galactic transporters. His figures should tally with the number of Earthlings we’ve had through the old place.”

“Where’s this shipment of body parts destined for sergeant?”

“To the highest bidder Borak.” The sergeant said.

Then he laughed.

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