No-one questioned my presence. That was the strangest thing. But I came to realise that the absence of questioning was universal: a precondition of living there. Perhaps I realised this too late.
The front door was ajar and I entered from the street to find myself alone in a vast domestic atrium. The inside of the house was much larger than its exterior suggested. I looked around the wide communal space, with doors off to each side and at the back, and a staircase leading to a u-shaped landing with balusters, with further doors again denoting more rooms than I could have expected. Each door was painted a different colour. There were three extensive sofas, the sort you sink into for an evening, and a deep, patterned carpet covering most of the parquet floor. The walls held several picture frames containing large, elaborate script, whose origin I couldn’t identify. It seemed a modern building, but well established in use and comfort. And yet it was as though I had found a world in itself.
I wondered who could live here.
Seeing no-one before me, I opened a violet door to my left and entered a room with an immediate quality of silence. This despite the activity of a large bear-like man wearing a leather apron and with thick hair tied back in a red silk scarf. He was cutting a grey obelisk of stone, striking rhythmically with a cold chisel and club hammer. The impact of each blow was punctuated with an absence of sound, as though the room allowed no resonance.
At first the man continued at his task without acknowledging me, and perhaps I looked at him quizzically.
‘My life is involved with the discovery of shape,’ he said eventually.
‘But shape has been discovered,’ I said. ‘Everyone knows about shape. We all are shapes.’
‘But do you really know what shape you are?’ he asked. ‘Shape eludes us. It is never constant. Even stone changes shape, although you have to be patient to detect it.’
I sat on the floor and watched him for a while, pondering this. It seemed to me that however many times he cut at the stone it maintained the same outline. Although chips fell to the floor.
I pointed this out to him.
‘I allow the stone to reveal its nature and then its essence,’ he said. ‘I am never brutal.’
‘In that case the stone you’re working on is remarkably secretive,’ I said.
‘Barbarity only begets barbarity,’ he replied, now dismissive, and our conversation was over.
I sat a little longer then left the room quietly and climbed the staircase to the landing. I chose a yellow door to enter. An elderly man in a velvet suit stood at a lectern. He dipped a quill repetitively and moved it across the manuscript before him.
‘Is this your living?’ I asked.
‘It is the way I choose to change history,’ he said, as though explaining what I should already have understood.
‘Do you mean you write polemic?’ I asked.
‘No, I draft my ideas then implant them in the minds of writers in the past. H.G. Wells was very good for a while, and so of course was Thomas Paine.’
‘Isn’t that intrusive?’ I said, disturbed by the idea. ‘Not to say unethical?’
‘Their response suggests they were grateful,’ he replied calmly. ‘It certainly stopped them scratching their heads. And who can deny we are benefitting even at this moment?’
A dog, wriggling with delight at our presence, entered the room. The man bent to pat its head.
‘Is he yours?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘Aeneas belongs to everyone. We each have our own rooms but he lives in the entire house.’
Aeneas was Lincoln green and pliable as a ferret, the legs short, the body almost tubular. I remembered noticing a bottle of dye lying next to a harness as I entered the front door. He left the room and I followed, but by the time I reached the door he had disappeared.
I walked around the landing and opened a pale blue door. A young woman of great beauty sat poised in the lotus position on a rug. Her clothes, and even her body, seemed diaphanous. Her hands moved unhurriedly around her shoulders, breasts and stomach, as though she was bathing with air.
I became aware that I was staring at her.
‘I touch myself for pleasure, but others enjoy it too,’ she said.
I realised that I felt each stroke of her hand as though she was touching me.
I looked down at my own body, confused as the muscles softened, while at the same time my blood inflamed.
‘I impart sensation,’ she said. ‘In fact everyone does. You feel it because you are standing near me.’
‘Can you choose what it will feel like?’ I asked, both disturbed and intrigued.
‘What I give is always the same,’ she replied, ‘but each person receives it differently.’
‘Everyone here seems different,’ I said. ‘Do the others visit you?’
‘No door is locked in this house,’ she said, looking at me directly for the first time, ‘but entry can be a different matter.’
A thought occurred to me.
‘Are you a family?’ I asked, though not seeing how this could be possible.
‘In many senses, yes.’
She breathed deeply and closed her eyes. I felt my lungs cleansed as if with mountain air. I realised it was as if I breathed her breath. It was time to go elsewhere.
Moving round the landing I entered a white door into what I first thought was an empty room. As I stood, the air around me seemed to change colour of its own accord, but then I noticed a tiny man sitting in the corner with a palette. He mixed paints then dabbed the empty space in front of him. Each time he did this the air took a different hue.
‘How do you do that?’ I asked. ‘Air has no colour, and yet you’re changing the colour of the air.’
‘What I change,’ he said, dipping his brush and reaching forward, ‘is the way colour is perceived. The colours you see are inside you. I simply make them apparent.’
I sat down and tried to absorb this. I noticed that each colour had an effect. Red air energised me, green made me calm, blue cooled my thoughts. And by now they needed cooling.
‘So you can influence my perception of colour, so that I see it externally?’ I asked. ‘Surely that’s more than art?’
‘I can only understand and exploit your perception: artists have always known this. We depend on your relationship with colour. You will see nothing that is not within you. Perhaps the way I work makes this more explicit, but in other respects I am no different to any other artist.’
‘Did you paint the doors? I found myself asking.
He raised an eyebrow but chose not to reply. I found myself bowing, and left as the air changed to yellow.
I began to realise that something inside me was changing also. Nothing anyone said made sense, and yet it all made sense. And the more doors I entered, the more this confusing truth became apparent. I decided to enter one more.
I felt myself drawn to the last door on the landing. It was bright orange. When I opened it I heard laughing.
A rotund woman, almost spherical, reclined easily on a chaise lounge. She looked very amused.
‘You’re laughing at your own thoughts?’ I asked.
‘I laugh both for myself and for others,’ she said merrily. ‘Because I do this laughter is widely available.’
I found myself laughing.
‘They say that laughter is infectious,’ I said.
She roared uncontrollably at this and then said, ‘It wasn’t originally but I turned it into a mild contagion. Before me, each person could only laugh singly.’
‘Surely that’s not true,’ I said. ‘Audiences have always laughed together, for instance.’
‘Many people assume that,’ she said chuckling. ‘In fact originally humour was solipsistic, and therefore incommunicable. At such times, if people laughed together they laughed at different things.’
Before I could respond, the mood in the room changed. I felt my smile taken, and found myself entering a succession of feeling states which, I began to realise, echoed the expression of the woman reclining before me. Together we experienced melancholy, poignancy, euphoria, confusion, alarm and finally calmness.
‘What you really impart is empathy,’ I said.
‘Without empathy there is only solitude,’ she replied. ‘I think you have recognised this.’
I would like to belong here,’ I found myself saying.
‘Go and sit in the communal area,’ she said. ‘I will bring the others.’
I left her, walked down the broad staircase, and took a seat on one of the sofas. It was arrestingly comfortable, and I suddenly felt I could sleep. Within a few minutes all the doors began to open and the residents, those I had seen and some I had not, came in single file down the stairs. They took seats around me. Away from their activities they appeared less singular, but only just. And there was something about seeing them together. I suddenly understood what I had felt more and more with each meeting. They radiated acceptance of one another.
‘Please may I be one of you,’ I said.
The rotund woman looked around her companions and then addressed me.
‘You asked questions of each of us, which those first entering may do,’ she said. ‘But you seek answers to matters that cannot be imparted through dialogue alone. You will come to understand this. You have not disturbed the Accord but I’m afraid you can’t remain.’
I must have looked disappointed. In fact I felt tearful.
‘There’s no need to be despondent,’ she said. ‘Most people find our doors closed, and to some they are not even apparent, but you found them open. You have spent time with us and I promise you have taken all that you need. You will find yourself changed, but your life lies elsewhere.’
With nothing else to say, I bowed and left them, feeling all the sorrow of the world. As I walked away I looked back at the house, but now saw nothing but a terraced row. Only what I felt inside told me it had ever existed.
‘My life lies elsewhere,’ I thought to myself, as tears made me stumble. ‘My life lies elsewhere.’
by Mike Fox
- Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart and Footnote. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: www.polyscribe.co.uk