The house stares blankly across the narrow strip of garden. From the road, its large windows, with blinds of some metallic reflective material, look for all the world like those disquieting mirror sunglasses that used to disturb my wife—I had to throw mine away. The blinds are forever closed—it wasn’t always that way.
It was a great house for parties, not that I often went to them, you understand; I have never been a social animal, and since I became a widower, even less so. But although I do not mix well, I am a keen observer. I observed something very strange about that house; and about its occupants, though at first sight they were not remark- able.
The oddity of the house dawned on me slowly. It was just a feeling of wrong- ness at the start. When I first entered I was struck by a feeling of size. At first I put it down to skilful decorating and design. We are all used to the enlarging effect gained by mirror tiles and light colours, but somehow this house seemed impossibly larger than mine across the street, though from outside they both looked much the same. No, there was something very strange, for a start there were too many rooms.
As is my experience at parties, I found myself alone in the corner of a room crammed with couples and small groups talking earnestly to each other. More out of a sense of duty than sociability, I made a few half hearted attempts to join in; but those groups that admitted me to their little circle turned out to be discussing totally banal subjects such as sport or the performance of cars, and, having nothing to say about these subjects, I drifted back to my corner again. I resumed my observation, but even from a distance I found them boring. I resolved to find my host and hostess to make my excuses and leave.
The Burtons were a gregarious couple, they must have been to invite a crusty recluse such as I, even if I was a close neighbour. ‘Perhaps it was to stop me com- plaining about the noise’, I thought, although their parties were never loud.
I looked around the room, now filled to bursting, but l could not see them. Finding myself near a door, I opened it and went through into a well-stocked library. Ah, this was more to my liking, and my resolve to leave weakened as I looked with interest at the floor to ceiling shelves. I wandered from one to another, seeing many titles to be found in my own collection, and many others which l instantly coveted.
Fascinated, I wandered on to find, to my surprise, that the room was L-shaped and not rectangular as I had first supposed. To my right there extended another section as large as the first, in the far corner of which, there was a spiral staircase.
It wasn’t until I was climbing it that it occurred to me to wonder where on earth a staircase could lead in a one storey house—an attic perhaps. But the room in to which I emerged was no garret.
The long gallery seemed to extend an impossible twenty-five metres or so; an illusion of perspective, I thought, achieved by skilful decorating. Pictures hung on the walls. There were no windows, but a shadowless light came from the ceiling, diffused through panels of pearly plastic. It was quite bright but, like the strange lamps used by dentists and surgeons, not at all dazzling.
The pictures seemed to be a random mix of portraits and landscapes. I am not a very visual person so I was more intrigued by the length of the room. I began to pace it out and to my surprise I found that my original estimate of twenty-five metres was slightly short. How could this be? The block was twenty metres wide. Perhaps the spiral staircase had confused my sense of direction.
At the end of the gallery there was a door. I opened it and stepped through to find myself back in the crowded room. The people there were still preoccupied with their tedious small talk. I reopened the door and peered through. There, again, was the library!
As I stood there stunned with a sense of unreality, my host and hostess emerged from the room, closing the door behind them. One on each side, they linked their arms with mine and escorted me to an alcove that cloaked another door. On the way they chatted casually and exchanged cheerful remarks with other guests as they passed, but there was no mistaking the determined urging of their hold.
“Dreadfully crowded tonight. Come and have a quiet drink in the study.” Richard said cheerily. Elizabeth, on my left merely smiled. With quiet efficiency our journey only took a few seconds.
The room we entered was furnished very comfortably and Burton waved me to a soft leather armchair.
“Sit down. Have a drink. A nice claret—or perhaps a stiff whisky, you look as though you need one.”
“The claret thanks,” I said.
“The house must like you.” Richard carried on. “It doesn’t always show itself so early in a relationship. It is really quite unusual; you must have hidden depths.”
“Don’t confuse the poor man.” Elizabeth’s voice was silky. “Just give him his drink, darling, and get me a gin and tonic.” Draping herself on a chaise longue she looked up at him under silken lashes.
Drink in hand I looked at them from the depths of my easy chair. At first sight they were unremarkable—he, fortyish, looking wealthy, a successful stockbroker per- haps; she, smart, modern, a little younger than her companion, with a subtle, dark, beauty which made her very attractive.
They looked back at me in silence with a quiet air of expectation. Evidently I was to be the one to start the conversation; so I did, and a weird conversation it turned out to be;
“You have a very interesting library,” I remarked.. “There are many books in your collection I would like to read if you’d be kind enough to lend them.”
“Unfortunately, none of the books can leave that room. But you will always be welcome to read them there, Day or Night” he stressed. Richard Burton regarded me attentively. There was wariness in his eyes, and Elizabeth, too, seemed to be alert for my reply.
“Thank you, I would be honoured.” I looked him in the eye. ’’But as I was saying: You have a very interesting library, the room itself I mean.”
Richard and Elizabeth exchanged glances. They seemed to come to a decision.
“Yes, it does have some unusual facilities; perhaps we can give you a guided tour when we have finished our drinks. But first, what were your impressions of your initial visit?”
“Spacious.” I said. “Far more spacious than it first appeared. In fact”, I laughed, “it seems a little too spacious to be contained in this house—and that is with- out considering the gallery!”
The Burtons did not respond immediately, and as I sipped my wine I wondered if the party was still going on despite the long absence of the hosts.
Burton stood up. “I must get back to my guests. It is time they were going home. The house must be tired of their chatter. No, not you my dear chap,” he added hastily. “Stay for a while. Chat with Elizabeth.”
“Please do.” She bestowed on me that gaze of complete attention I find irresistible, especially from an attractive woman, “Tell me about yourself.”
If I have a failing, it is that I am didactic. I will only reluctantly speak of personal matters, but get me started on my philosophy, my beliefs or my views on a number of recondite subjects, and I will hold the floor for hours. Under her skilful prompting my speech took wings; for the first time in years I felt truly happy. It was then, I think, that I lost my heart to Elizabeth Burton.
I don’t know how much time had passed before Richard returned. I came down from the heights of some brilliant piece of rhetoric to see a quizzical smile on his face. He was sitting at ease in his chair, a fresh glass of whisky in his hand.
“Darling,” Elizabeth turned to him, “Harry has been telling me some marvellous things about Science. Fascinating, all those quantum thingies, I was so enthralled that I didn’t see you come in.”
Neither had I, and I was glad she felt the same way. I shrugged aside the feeling that he had appeared out of nowhere. “Another wine? Your glass is empty,” he said.
“I really must be going. It must be very late.”
“Not at all. But first the library. We have the whole place to ourselves now. I’m sure the house would be delighted to display itself, you have made such a favourable impression.”
The wine, and the lateness of the hour, confused me. Surely there was some- thing odd about this conversation. I shrugged it aside.
“No, really. I must be going. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“It is tomorrow.” Elizabeth turned those big eyes on me, weakening my re- solve.”
“Well, just a few moments. Then I must be on my way.”
“You are.” Richard said cryptically.
We went through the door by which we had entered the study. At least I would have sworn it was the entrance from the alcove—but no, this door led into the library.
There were subtle changes. I recognised several of the bookshelves from the books I had examined on my first visit, but the room itself looked larger, somehow squarer and I could see no sign of the arm of the EL. I stopped in my tracks:
“This is not the room I saw!”
“It neither is, nor is not.” murmured Richard. “When you enter, you see a library. This is the library you see now. The house can fulfil a vast number of expectations. It really must like you, to be so accommodating.”
“We all like you.” Elizabeth impulsively kissed me on the cheek. “You are the only one to weather First Contact with flying colours. You have not once questioned your grasp of reality. You do not suspect yourself of hallucinating?”
“Hallucinating? Certainly not.” I was emphatic. “Because something seems outside my previous experience, it only means I haven’t yet experienced it. Obviously I still have a lot to learn about this house.”
“My brother and I will be pleased to help you widen your knowledge of the house and all its attributes.”
“Your brother?” I was wide eyed.
She smiled a contented smile. “My brother.” She purred.
That was the start of my regular visits to the wonderful house, a place where all my desires could be fulfilled. I had but to picture a destination to achieve it. A distant land? Open a door and there I was. Was it the real place? Or just an illusion. How was I to know. I am an observer, remember; I did not participate in the scenes I visited. But the times with Elizabeth, they were true—I swear it! Richard was discretion itself; smiling his quiet smile, he left us alone and I was happy.
The house itself remained a mystery. I should have left well alone. Elizabeth and I were very happy, but you know me. I have an analytical mind. I have to know.
My first problem was ‘were the phenomena I observed really real, or some form of solid hologram.’ I could pick up a book in the library, riffle its pages, read its words—but did it have a real and separate existence. I found by experiment, that what Richard had said was true; I could not take a book out of the library. As I passed through the door, the book would dissolve in my hands and reappear on its shelf.
All my attempts to lure Elizabeth over to my place would end in failure. After a while a dreadful suspicion gnawed at my consciousness. Could it be that Elizabeth, too, was bound to the house. When l voiced my fears to her she laughed her light laugh and accompanied me to the gate, but made some excuse for not coming further.
I should have left it there. I could be still visiting her, the love of my life (no disrespect to my late wife intended). Elizabeth was different. Her thoughts seemed to meld with mine. It wasn’t that she was merely a genius at reflective listening (that artful art of paraphrasing one’s speech to give the impression of understanding), she really did understand. She took up my thoughts and developed them. My recent successes in particle physics are due solely to her insights. Intellectually she was my equal—and physically she was heaven.
And then I blew it.
At first, it was unthinkable. We are anthropocentric, we can hardly be other. But, as a theoretical physicist, it has often been my task to imagine the impossible. Where we get our unworldly hypotheses has always been a mystery, but get them we do. And I got one now.
Did getting the idea in the house make it true? (in the same way that the Taj Mahal became real), or was it a genuine insight into the situation. , That was my dilemma.
The question was this: Do Richard and Elizabeth Burton own the house? Or does the house own them?
Are they a product of the house, in the same way as the books, the furniture, and for all I knew, the food and wine. Is the HOUSE an intelligent entity, a visiting alien, extraterrestrial or even extra-temporal, maybe extra-dimensional, that is studying humanity—studying ME. The thought was truly alarming and I didn’t want to believe it.
I am not normally into denial, my usual defence mechanism is intellectualisation, but on that occasion, the last time, as I made love to Elizabeth in the wonderful bedroom I had conjured up, I was denying with all my might. Alas, the scientist prevailed.
As we lay together in that delicious torpor that follows successful lovemaking, I dozed. From out of nowhere a perverse thought intruded, an experiment suggested itself. Carefully, cold-bloodedly, I formed a new image in my mind. Dredging my memory, I conjured up my late wife. I opened my eyes. The face was turned away from me—but the hair on the pillow beside me was blonde!
I leapt in horror from the bed. The woman who lay there seemed to flicker, her form changing from the lithe brown body of Elizabeth Burton to the plump blondeness of my wife in the early days of our marriage twenty years before.
Then, as if I had overloaded some circuit, the room itself swam, getting smaller, the furniture dissolving like mist. I was standing naked, my clothes at my feet, in an empty room the size of my bedroom across the street.
I dressed, and before I left, I wandered from room to room in the empty three- bedroom house that mirrored my own modest home. In shock, and disconsolate, I left the building. From the safety of my own house I look back at the blank shades.
I fled to my home across the street. I look across at the silent house. The shades stare blankly back
I fled to my home across the street. I look across at the silent house. The shades stare blankly back