Image by Dogs Darnborough. All Rights Reserved.
The Lodge Gates
My story was upsetting them. After all it was they who had suggested I should take my ‘retreat’ at East lodge, and now they were embarrassed.
“Well, what did you do?”
What any sensible person would have done: I went to investigate. The metallic-sounding crash had come from the kitchen, I thought. There was a mini-fridge on the work surface. Something had probably dislodged it, a rat maybe? The kitchen was exactly as I had left it. I checked the bathroom and the bedroom. Nothing. Outside then? I didn’t fancy going out there in the pitch-black night. The cottage was half-cushioned by thick black yew trees that brushed and tapped against the window glass in the night; its front faced the old carriage drive that led to the great house, which was now derelict and choked off from the Lodge cottage by a Sleeping Beauty barrier of scrub and thorns. I was alone here. On one side of the cottage across a small lawn was the garden shed. The outside security light did not penetrate there but nonetheless I suspected something in the shed had fallen. It was such a loud crash. I took a torch and stepped out into the bitterly cold night, so cold my breath flew in plumes before me. The ball-capped pillars that stood at the entrance to the drive loomed sombre and huge as giants, their stone shoulders glittering with frost as if they had a life of their own. I shivered. Beyond them rose a wall of trees; anyone could be out there watching.
The shed’s padlock was stiff with frost. I fumbled and struggled, the torch light casting strange wavering shapes into the night. But everything inside was in order. I locked it again and hurried back to the cottage, shutting the door firmly on the menacing stone pillars that guarded the driveway. In the hearth the last smouldering log broke apart as I poked at it for comforting flame; it belched only a fluster of sparks and grey smoke. Nonetheless I sat on in the dying warmth, nervous of going to bed.
“It could have been a branch falling,” Sarah offered kindly.
“Did you hear the crash again?” James leaned forward.
“Not that night, no.”
No, not until Christmas Eve. I had gone to bed early, having spent a brisk day out walking through the woods of the estate. I’d gathered cones, twigs and moss, to make a rustic Christmas centre piece for my Christmas Day dinner for one. I also meant to paint and photograph it, but I was so tired I went straight to bed. I lay there, reading quietly, when I heard it again, loud and vibrating through the silence: clang! Something heavy, made of metal, had crashed down somewhere. This time it struck fear into me. I lay trembling, listening, stiff and frightened. It didn’t recur but that night the yew branches brushed against the windows insistently like something wanting to come in. At two in the morning I decided to get up and make some tea. Anything to break the foolish grip of fear. The cottage was very silent, I held my breath, the cottage held its breath. I took my tea back to bed, and slept at last, waking late on Christmas Day to dazzling snow. Enchanting. It was like the perfect gift and I went out to play like a child in it. I built a snowman.
My friends laughed at this.
I described to them my delight in scooping up snow, rolling great balls of it. I even sculpted a snow-dog to watch over me. Afterwards I roasted a small chicken, opened wine, banked up a great fire and sat to admire my snowman where he stood in the disused driveway, he and his watchdog, my sentries. Eventually I nodded off in the warmth, well content. A memorable Christmas, even if a solitary one. A Christmas as it should be.
My friends nodded. We all thought of how Christmas used to be once. Simplicity, ah, beautiful.
“And then?” prompted James.
When I woke it was dark in the cottage. I lit candles, set more logs on the fire.
Sarah and James smiled at this, imagining the soft light, the flicker of logs burning, the cones piled on the table, greened by moss. Perfect.
It was cold, really cold, in the place. I put on extra socks, sweaters, mittens, a thick fleece. I had never known such a bitter cold. The reluctant logs sulked in the comfortless grate. I filled two hot water bottles, poured a brandy and went to bed in my clothes. I could not get warm. Suddenly I sat up…
My friends started, jolted by my urgency of tone.
… it had come again, that clang, cutting through the snowbound air and striking right into my being with the violence of the sound. This time it was followed by a muffled thudding of what seemed like hooves, then a grinding sound. I clung to the blankets, my heart pounding, and lay there, terrified, until morning’s cautious light crept in.
In the morning when I went outside, I found my snowman and my snow-dog lay smashed, exactly as if a vehicle had run over them. But there were no tracks. Nothing. The two pillars stood silent, snow-draped, blind and brooding. Something about them struck me as malevolent. And I knew I must get out of there, fast. I hurled all my things into the car, paints, cameras, the lot, and skidded off. As I turned out of the drive, I saw the snow-cloak on one of the pillars crack open and slide off, for all the world like someone sloughing off a coat.
Sarah touched my knee gently.
“Well,” I breathed, “home now. Thank God.”
“But the noise? That crash?” James wouldn’t leave it alone.
I shrugged. How could I tell them I was absolutely certain that what I’d been hearing was the sound of the lodge gates being forced open? Always at the same time each night I heard it. And more often than I had told them.
James and Sarah would never swallow that. They had seen the place themselves. They both knew there were no gates attached to those pillars…
Gill McEvoy: she mainly writes poetry and is author of several collections including her recent "Are You Listening?" (Hedgehog Poetry Press). She has had stories published in the past, on BBC Radio 4 and in The European during the early days of the EU.