Such A Quiet Place
Written & Illustrated by Andy Paciorek
With Special Thanks to Andreea V. Balcan.
So bitter is the touch of the cold fingers of fate, that should a car engine suddenly cease on a long winter night’s journey; it never does so outside a cosy inn, brimming with fine wine, real ale, hearty food, good cheer and a roaring log fire. No, it is typical, cliché perhaps, that when on such an evening, should a vehicle suddenly give up the ghost, it will decide to do so in the cold, dark middle of nowhere, situated to the back of beyond.
And so it happened to me.
The journey had run smoothly from Nottingham to Scotch Corner, where I took a short break at the service station and the opportunity to fill the tank with petrol and my own yawning belly with hot coffee and convenience food. It was upon resuming my journey north that my troubles began. Firstly the GPS stopping working and then the radio that had kept me company and kept me alert, with its mixture of music and talk descended into a crackle of static and no attempts to retune to any station were successful. By coincidence or otherwise, this coincided with a fall of snow. First a few flakes upon the windscreen, but then rapidly progressing to a flurry and then a heavy and rapid bluster. In both sound and vision now I was beset by quiet white noise.
Had my wife, Caroline, been in the car with me, I would have indulged her in jovial banter about the north – south divide (her being a native of Cumbria and myself hailing from Hertfordshire; the Midlands home we shared being our happy median) and how once past Scotch Corner I would have jibed her about how we were now approaching the ‘end of the world’. But she was not travelling with me; in fact it was to join her that I was making this journey. Earlier in the week she had received a telephone call informing her that her Aunt Isobel had taken ill. Being her nearest living relative, since the death of her own parents, my wife felt an obligation to the old woman, cantankerous and strange as she was. And she was a peculiar woman, short of temper and both very religious and highly superstitious in her ways. And old, very old, in her late nineties at the least but still for the most part strong and independent of character, despite her wizened frame, though she had been very lean and stubborn in the thirty odd years I had known her.
We would make a point of visiting her maybe once or twice a year and take walks along the coast with the old lady or play chess with her in her ancient yet solid and attractive cottage. Chess was a passion of the old lady, and so sharp in mind and strategy was she that neither my wife nor myself ever came close to beating her in a game though we were rather adept players ourselves. “The sport of Kings … and Queens”, Aunt Isobel would cackle when claiming an inevitable checkmate. Yet in life she was never made a queen by any man. Unmarried, childless, Isobel was a true maiden aunt …apparently; however I recalled vaguely a conversation with my wife’s mother many years ago, when she spoke of a man whom Isobel had loved. He was apparently a seafarer – a fisherman or a trader, perhaps a smuggler or pirate for all I knew, but whatever his trade, for one summer he had seduced the Isobel and melted her heart. Apparently the man appeared, by my mother-in-law’s recollection, to be a couple of decades at least older than the teenage Isobel. It was not meant to be, as though he told Isobel he would return for her after his next sea voyage, he was never seen in those parts again. Isobel grieved fearing him lost at sea, but the truth may have been that there was an ‘Isobel’ in every port, the last one forgotten as soon as the next succumbed to his charms. It was said that after the second summer had passed without his return, Isobel never mentioned her erstwhile lover again and never fell into the arms or bed or another man. Though sometimes on our strolls along the shoreline I would see her gaze wistfully across the waves as if she still hoped against hope, after long lonesome decades, that her seadog paramour would still return.
My wife’s mother was about ten years younger than her sister Isobel and of entirely different character. Rebecca, for that was my mother-in-law’s name, did not care for Derleth (though my wife has had an affection for the place since childhood and would visit as regularly as was feasible) and she left at the age of sixteen eloping with the man who a few years later would become her husband and the father of my wife. It was said that this caused quite a furore with Rebecca’s parents and they never spoke for many years, Isobel being the only point of contact. They had never approved of Rebecca’s choice of partner, mainly for the fact that he was an outsider, though he only hailed from nearby Carlisle. This irked Rebecca greatly, for although she was only a child at the time she was positive that her parents knew of Isobel’s dalliance with the seafarer, whom not only being non-local may have in fact even been of foreign descent, and never uttered so much as a whisper of discontent. This feeling was furthered by hindsight of the fact, as Rebecca was too young to understand at the time, that following Isobel’s summer of awakening, her belly had grown steadily rounder and larger for a few months until the girl wandered one day down to the sea and wandered back some time later bearing the pale, gaunt form she still possessed.
Ah, it seems I paint such a bad picture of Aunt Isobel, and that is unfair. She is good-hearted in her way, though not gregarious in shows of affection; she clearly has a soft spot for my wife and has always been very generous with us. She is also a very intelligent and creative person.
Numerous were her skills, she is an amazing cook capable of creating sumptuous meals often containing ingredients that she has grown herself in her garden or harvested from the sea and woods, for Isobel’s knowledge of local flora and fauna was encyclopaedic. Also in her garden she grew a vast array of glorious flowers which when picked and pruned she would arrange into stunning sweet-smelling displays both for her own cottage and for the local church. Crochet, embroidery and knitting she could execute with the minimum of effort and within her cottage was an old piano, which although I never actually heard her play I’m quite certain she could do with great aptitude.
Isobel was also a very skilled artist; her oil and watercolour studies of the sea, which made up the greater part of her oeuvre, had a drama and intensity that far surpassed the daubs of many a technically sound yet emotionally dry weekend painter. Her studies also of the local fungi and wildflowers and such like were of competent enough detail and clarity to illustrate the pages of any natural field-guide.
Notable in their absence were the inclusion of human figures in her imagery, perhaps a vague distant shadowy form out at sea or wandering the woods or coastal paths but never forming the integral subject of a picture.
It was then, I recall, with curiosity and wonder, that once when looking in her parlour cupboard for a replacement light bulb; I dislodged an old book from a shelf. It fell to the floor and a few brittle, foxed leaves of paper came loose from the binding. Picking them up I noticed two portraits rendered in pencil, less skilful than Isobel’s more recent work but still capable and undoubtedly of her hand. The first I looked at was of a young attractive woman bearing a hairstyle of 1930’s fashion. It was without doubt a picture of Isobel in her youth. A gentle smile was upon her lips but most striking were her eyes, I would recognise them anywhere, for in that drawing I could clearly distinguish the eyes of my wife and the family resemblance was strong; though my wife’s eyes carried a glimmer of curious mischief, Aunt Isobel’s now only seemed to carry a spark of short –temper and the dimness of distant sorrow … though I suppose at her age, that impression could be down to cataracts. The second picture showed a man, perhaps in his thirties or early forties, a thick crop of dark wavy hair, brushed back from his temples; upon his jaw a broad beard grew. Though it could be a fault in the drawing, there was something indefinably peculiar about the man’s eyes, yet so well rendered were the rest of the features, I suspect that this was a true depiction of the subject’s visage and not an error of draughtsmanship. He was shown wearing a dark-coloured heavy jacket and even if it were not for his striped Breton shirt, there was still an air of the ocean about this man. Beneath the drawing, written in very faint pencil was the legend “Athanius”, the name flourished with a partially erased “♥”.
Isobel walked in the room at that point and had me fixed in her eye. A bit flustered I held up the drawing of the girl, “Self-portrait?” I asked. She waved her hand nonchalantly and just said, “A youthful folly”. Without giving me chance to ask about the man, thankfully she continued, “The other is just someone from a story”. Untruth was not something that settled well on Isobel’s lips, she was of the type that considered it better to say nothing than to utter a falsehood, but I knew who that man was. To spare her further embarrassment, I continued, “They’re very good. I notice you don’t do many portraits”. I remember then Isobel looked directly at me and proclaimed, “I would much rather paint the sea. It has its depths and mystery and dangers without doubt, but you know where you stand with the sea. With a person, you could capture in exact minutiae detail every line and crease of their face, every pore of their skin; a perfect likeness of the outside but can you ever really capture in paint or pencil what truly lies on the inside?”
Anyway I digress from the predicament that I found myself. The failure of the satellite navigation was a nuisance even without the problem of the paltry visibility afforded by the continuous snowstorm, and my a-z road atlas was of little help in any case; for oddly the small Cumbrian village of Derleth had found itself neglected to be featured on any map, modern or ancient. Aunt Isobel would say it was because it was a quiet place that outsiders would fail to notice it even existed. “Such a quiet place”, was a stock phrase of Isobel’s – on the rare occasion that a motorcycle would roar through its narrow streets, she would mutter in agitation that, “This used to be such a quiet place!” My impressions of the area was that people in nearby towns and villages were well aware of Derleth’s existence but for some undisclosed reason, preferred to if at all possible shun the place and pretend it didn’t exist.
So normally I would drive the first leg of the journey upon the motorway and my wife would take the wheel upon the rural roads. So my plan for navigation here was to drive northwesterly, if the car ended up in the sea then I knew I had driven too far. If I found myself in Ravenglass then I had not driven quite far enough, if in Seascale then too far.
I had hoped to travel up with my wife, but commitments at my work meant I could not accompany her until after several days. We’d spoken on the phone a few times, but this morning I received only a text stating that there had been a change in Isobel’s condition. I replied also by text, just briefly expressing concern and well wishes and telling her my travel plans and a rough time to expect my arrival.
However it wasn’t only the failing light and the heavily falling snow, that were to be the only difficulties of the journey, in addition to the failure of the GPS and the radio cutting out, since the service station there had been an odd rattling in the engine which had grown steadily worse with every passing mile. Miles that crawled as the snow grew thicker on the bucolic side roads.
I knew that I couldn’t be far from my destination when the engine suddenly ground to a dead stop, but on that lonely, little-used road I may just as well have broken down on the dark side of the moon. I turned the ignition key again and again, not a whisper and all the while more and more flakes of white fell from the sky soon covering my vehicle. I picked up my mobile phone, intending to call my wife, to inform her of my predicament and then to telephone for road breakdown assistance. Neither was an option, for my cell-phone battery was as dead as the proverbial doornail. This was a matter of puzzlement as well as vexation as always I had ensured to charge my phone fully before setting out on long road journeys.
So what to do now? I found myself in a quandary, remain in the car and hope that I’d be able to flag down a passing motorist for assistance or hope that the engine would miraculously mend itself (I had always been utterly clueless in matters of a mechanical nature). I had a blanket in the boot, and had decent enough winter attire, but with the car heating failing with all else, it would be a bitterly cold night. This road was rarely travelled never mind at night in a blizzard, to remain would perhaps be too great a risk, yet going outside was not a tempting alternative either. I sat for a while, trying in futility to turn the engine over again. I looked into the glove compartment, the only food and drink to sustain any wait or pass any time was a plastic bottle with a dreg of already stale mineral water in the bottom and a bag of boiled sweets, many of which had conglomerated into a sticky, kaleidoscopic, fluff-encrusted globule.
I decided I could not just sit there and weather it out. The interior temperature of the car was already noticeably dropping and the condensation of my breath was gathering on the windows. I reached into the backseat of the car and recovered my holdall. Unzipping it, I gathered another voluminous jumper that I pulled on top of the chunky woollen sweater I already wore and slipping off my driving shoes, I put on another pair of thick socks and from under the passenger seat, retrieved and laced on my formidable walking boots. I then wrapped my scarf around my neck and finally put on my trapper-style hat and heavy wool overcoat, putting into the pocket the packet of boiled sweets, and at last my gloves – it was now or never.
I opened the car door with a little difficulty as already the level of snow was rising on the road and I stepped out. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the monochrome world and to the sensation of cold wet flecks of snow blowing into my face and sticking to my eyes. I looked ahead expecting to see nothing save for snow, snow and more snow but yet … yes, much to my delight, through the flicker of white against dark sky I could discern the warm orange glow of streetlights and furthermore I could determine that their shape indicated a dwelling place rather than a stretch of illuminated road. I estimated that it lay a mile, at the most two away and although obviously not the ideal conditions for a stroll. There I would seek out if not direct assistance with my motor problems, then at least a telephone to contact my wife and surely somewhere to shelter from the snowstorm. I locked the car door, manually as even the remote central locking mechanism had ceased, more out of habit than out of necessity for I considered the possibility of the vehicle being stolen to be rather thin.
And so I walked down towards the hazy lights, treading through the deepening snow, pulling my scarf above my lips and nose and holding my coat collar around my neck in attempts to ward off the bitter winter wind. In my mouth nestled a sticky clump of luridly coloured confectionary, chemically flavoured to resemble no fruit ever grown on this world. As my feet trod heavy, my mind wandered. I knew snow was forecast but I had not expected so much, so quickly. I could not ever remember seeing such an intense snowfall in this country ever. Even from my childhood, when we still had ‘proper winters’ this depth of snow took days to attain not the matter of little over an hour. It amused me to remember the joy I felt as a child upon looking out of a window and seeing the first flakes fall from the sky. Perhaps that is the true indicator of getting old, the first winter when you look out and do not think of sled rides, snowmen and snowball fights but instead think of blocked roads, fuel bills and burst water pipes. I laughed as I recall how as a child, how a hint of white would have my mother rushing me off to the local grocery shop to stockpile bread and milk and teabags as if the apocalypse was imminent. The shop was owned and run by a jovial Russian man called Mr Dragin (or as us children preferred to think ‘Mr Dragon’). He would smile behind his thick moustache, a twinkle in his deep blue eyes and even if several inches of snow had gathered on the ground by that point, he would always laugh, “Ahh, just a little dusting is all. When I was a child the snow was so deep we would walk amongst the treetops.” He would then lean down in a mock menacing manner and half whisper, “ And sometimes in those winters, the wolves in the woods and mountains would grow so hungry that they would come down to the towns and villages and look into the windows of the houses for little children to eat.”
Strange, I hadn’t seen nor thought of Mr. Dragin for over twenty-five years but on that cold and lonely road, suddenly his face was as fresh in my mind as if I had last seen him only yesterday.
Despite the less than ideal walking conditions I made good progress and entered the area of habitation in reasonable time. I say inhabited yet for all I could see, except for the street lights and the odd cosy glow from house window, this place was as close to a ghost town as I’d ever seen. What few vehicles there were, were parked up and totally covered in snow. I walked along a short street and turned a corner. Ahead I could see the sea. A sea fret had gathered above the cold waves and tendrils of mist crept slowly over the coastline and headed inland. And there above the fog and the clouds of falling snow, high in the sky I gazed upon a slash of scintillating neon green. Too consistent and rolling too languidly and wide to be flashes of snow-thunder, this for the first time in my life, was a manifestation of the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. I wondered to myself whether the high magnetic activity in the atmosphere had any bearing on the malfunction of both the GPS and my phone. Perhaps, though it may be stretching the supposition too far to suggest it was responsible for the complete breakdown of my car. Though I could’ve wished for clearer skies, there was something extremely beautiful and enchanting in viewing it through the cracks in fog and cloud, and to the natural soundtrack only of lapping waves and wait, yes I thought I had heard it before and there it was again the faint baying of dogs. Poor things, probably the guardians of a nearby farm; hardy creatures tolerant of most weather, but this was unusually testing conditions for both man and beast.
And then familiarity overcame me as I looked to the jetty where there seemed to be a few men busy mooring up a boat. There was no mistaking the distinctive shape of the cliff line and silhouetted upon them the line of charismatic hawthorns, twisted into lopsided sculptural form by the winds. My eyes can gazed upon this vista before several times, albeit it in sunnier gentler conditions, and in the company of my wife and Aunt Isobel for I was nowhere else but in the village of Derleth. Having entered the village from an unfamiliar aspect and in disorientating meteorological circumstances I was both surprised and relieved to have chanced upon my desired destination.
I would now proceed directly as best I could remember the way to Aunt Isobel’s house, being careful to keep to the higher paths for the beach and estuary areas were hazardous enough even in the best conditions. Locals seemed able to navigate the shifting sands as if by second nature, but Isobel had many tales to tell of outsiders finding themselves bound in the quagmire.
So I headed along Gaiman Road towards the main lit centre of Derleth and would navigate my way to Isobel’s from there. Still the snow fell and still the breeze blew bitter. The village was at first deathly silent and oh so still. People could not be blamed for not being out of their houses if they had no good cause for doing so. It was an evening for sitting in front of a good fire, with a nice hot drink and a good book or movie or music, not wandering the streets. I imagined myself to be soon in Aunt Isobel’s cottage, claiming a comfy armchair and sipping on a steaming mug of hot chocolate and I was comforted by this thought. My thoughts were suddenly shattered by a strange noise at the end of Glannoventa Street.