They stood before the great gateway, all around an empty and open countryside, ugly countryside, flat mudploughed fields. On that morning the sky was balm, a pale and whitish blue. The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it. Her right arm was broken and she'd rested it in a silk-scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse. By her feet, a suitcase. The children - the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll - were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own. The woman stepped forward and went right up to the gate - iron-spiked, imposing - looking for the lock. Instead she found the surveillance system, a palmpad, and she rested her palm on this electronic pad for a long moment until she was defeated. Unfazed, she returned to collect her suitcase and, without a backward glance at the children, turned off the driveway onto the grassy verge.
After a while they decided to follow. First the boy, then the girl. They lumbered in single file alongside the stone wall that bordered the vast estate until the woman reached a spot which looked familiar; she had recognised an ancient oak over the bristling glass-topped wall. A sweet-smelling vine covered this section of the wall and, hooking the handle of her suitcase awkwardly over her cast, she trailed her left hand through the greenery, seeking out the stone behind it. Until she found - the door. She tore at the vine and when the children joined her they watched this motherly performance with the same impassive look on their faces that they usually had when they watched TV But the boy soon came to help and eventually they uncovered the small wooden entrance. She still had her key and - holding the slender precious thing in her left-hand mitt, the 'sinister hand'- she fitted it to the lock. At first she turned it in the wrong direction but then, click, they heard the tumbler fall. The door didn't open, would not open: she tried, it stayed shut. She pressed her full bodyweight against it, leant into it with her shoulder, but it refused to budge. She stood there for a long while with her forehead resting against the door, as if by dint of will it somehow, if only, would melt away and allow them to pass.
The boy had a go. He planted himself on the ground and kicked at the door. He kicked and kicked, first a hard low kick and then a one-two kung-fu kick. He took a few steps back and, like a high-jumper, standing on the balls of his feet, gathering concentration, he readied for a run-up: he launched himself against the door. At the point of impact there came a dull thud. He did this again; he made himself brutal. And again. Over and over, uncomplaining. He picked himself up, wincing, and walked back to his starting position, lifted his heels, ran at the door. But the door was oak and he was boy; his shirt was torn and bloodied. He snuck a glance at the woman and with a slow blink she encouraged him to continue. In the end he forced an opening.
The woman was first through the breach, snagging and ripping her stockings. The boy helped his sister across and then, piece by piece, passed the luggage over. He took a quick look around to make sure no-one had been watching and closed the door behind him.
Once inside they dragged their suitcases through lawn that grew thick and soft. In the distance a squad of four men, gardeners in uniform, were scooping leaves out of a stone-sculpted fountain. As the trio drew close one of these gardeners, a longtimer, struggled to his feet and waved in greeting. The woman returned his wave but did not deviate from her course. They followed the long line of yews clipped into fantastic shapes, into top hats and ice-cream cones and barbells. Another gardener, riding on
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Disquiet by Julia Leigh. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Leigh.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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