There were five of them, cycling through Kent at the week-end. Four men and a woman, she the wife of one of the men. The weather cold and misty, a sharp wind from the sea, heavy dark clouds, a fine drizzle buffeting their faces as they turned into the wind, huddled against the gusts. They’d left Whitstable just after 10am, standing by the lobster shack and arguing about the best route to take – some favouring the coastal path, others a route to Ramsgate, others fancying a short loop to Canterbury and back before the threatened rain.
They set off finally, Nigel leading, fed up with the arguing and pushing on to Herne Bay, there hoping for coffee and a swift turn-around. Keith and Andrew favoured the Ramsgate option, but the others didn’t fancy such a long ride.
Herne Bay was poor and cold, empty shops and boarded up cafes, little amusement in the amusement arcade, the people huddled against the wind. The little group pushed on through, doughty Nigel setting the pace, his nose to the wind, his back to the sea.
Near Reculver they paused to study the map, weak eyes hooded against the light.
‘This way,’ said Martin.
‘No, this,’ said Peter.
‘No, this,’ said Nigel, pushing off down the road. They settled in behind, grateful for his bulwark against the breeze.
The A28 to Margate was a brutal road – pitted and pot-holed, scarred and acned, with no shelter and the cars rushing past on shopping trips or off to see the in-laws or the grand-parents, duty calling. Martin spotted a sign to Grove Ferry, half a mile down the road and off the busy highway.
‘Let’s go and look,’ he said, as they huddled in a lay-by, their weak, elder’s eyes struggling to read Google maps on their shaky phone screens. ‘The sign says “ferry trips” – let’s check it out.’
They turned off the road, eager to escape the rushing traffic. It was quieter here and the road eased away down a hill through arching trees.
‘Not a hill,’ said Nigel, who hated hills. ‘If I go down I’ll have to come back up.’
‘Let’s just see,’ said Keith. ‘It’s not far.’
They drifted down the slope, not as fearsome as Nigel had feared and rolled over a level crossing just before the gates rumbled down and then onto a bridge over a fast-flowing river.
NO STOPPING ON BRIDGE said a sign, so they rolled to a stop in the middle of the bridge. The water flowed strongly beneath them; some ramshackle boats could be seen huddled against the banks, a man in a speed-boat rushed around the bend, the damp tables and benches of a riverside pub were visible beneath the green branches of the trees that leaned over and kissed the current. There was no-one else around.
Martin took out his phone and took some pictures. Nigel rested astride his cross-bar. Mary removed her rain jacket from her saddle-bag and shrugged it on. Andrew and Keith leaned on the railings and watched the fast-flowing water.
Andrew checked the map again.
‘We can continue on this road,’ he said. ‘We can do a loop through Plucks Gutter and it will bring us back to the A28, a bit nearer to Margate.’
‘Are there more hills?’ asked Nigel, sourly.
‘I can’t tell,’ said Andrew. ‘But if we go back you’ll have to climb back up to the A28. This way looks better.’
‘Let’s get it over with,’ said Nigel.
Keith was the youngest cyclist of the group and he set off strongly up the road. It was more sheltered here and there were few cars. They moved along in single file.
‘I want to see Plucks Gutter,’ said Andrew. ‘I’m intrigued.’ He pushed on, upping the pace; Nigel and Mary fell further behind.
The landscape was quite flat with small low rolling hills, occasional houses half-hidden behind high hedge-rows or picket fences. Many buildings appeared derelict – half dismembered cars littered the unkempt driveways, the clucking of free-range chickens could be heard, barking dogs broke the silence. Andrew wanted a photo of Plucks Gutter but there was nothing to see – just a pub and a few houses, no explanation for its strange name. They felt alone in this bleak land, unsure of their route or destination, while the occupants of the few cars that passed knew their goal on the road.
‘I call this duelling banjos country,’ said Andrew. ‘You’ve all seen Deliverance?’ He wasn’t sure they had. ‘Stay close together,’ he continued. ‘You never know what lurks in this land.’
They eased round a bend and approached a small hill. To their right was a clutch of tumbledown buildings and a loose collection of old tables and chairs could be seen. An old, faded sign was half-hidden in the bushes:
HOT AND COLD FOOD SERVED ALL DAY
‘What about here?’ said Martin. ‘It’s time for tea.’
‘Are you mad?’ said Andrew. ‘Look at it. It doesn’t even look open.’
‘I need tea,’ said Nigel. ‘Any port in a storm.’
‘I’ll go and see,’ said Keith.
‘Be careful,’ said Andrew. ‘If you don’t come back, we’re getting out of here. I can just imagine, one by one, we disappear in there, never to be seen again.’
‘Hurry up,’ said Nigel. ‘I need tea.’
Keith wheeled his bicycle onto the gravelled drive and through a wooden archway towards a darkened doorway. An old BMW was parked at the front but there was no other sign of life. The others waited by the side of the road, ready to cycle away at the first sign of trouble.
Keith disappeared into the doorway. Time passed. Silence broken by the gusts of wind and Nigel’s laboured breathing. There was no traffic and no-one around and no birds flew overhead. The four were alone in this strange land, amongst strangers who couldn’t be seen.
Keith emerged. ‘It’s open,’ he said. ‘We can get tea.’
‘Thank God,’ said Nigel.
‘I think you’re mad,’ said Andrew.
They dismounted and wheeled their bikes into the front yard and leaned them against the rusted seats and broken flower-pots. There was a covered area with some broken toys, some upturned toy cars, an old tennis racket, tennis balls, discarded dolls, bits of string, crumbling wooden benches, chipped metal tables. There was a sign on the wall:
UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE SOLD AS SLAVES
‘It’s not a joke,’ said Andrew.
They stepped into a darkened room, faint light seeping through a curtain. A couple of tables with unmatching chairs, rows of wooden shelves with pots of honey and home-made jam, old photographs and prints on the walls, a make-shift counter with cakes beneath glass lids, an old-fashioned cash register.
A woman emerged from a curtained doorway. Mid-fifties, short, greying hair, dark trousers and a shapeless jumper, suspicious eyes. She stood behind the counter, eyeing the cyclists in their lycra and helmets, their eyes hidden behind opaque glasses.
Behind her on the wall menu items were scrawled on blackboard panels. Sandwiches, cream teas, toasties, hot and cold drinks.
‘Afternoon,’ said Mary. ‘I’d like a latte please.’
‘What sandwich fillings do you have?’ said Keith, acting as if he was at the Ritz.
The woman gave him a long, slow look, trying to judge if he was joking. She jerked a thumb behind her head.
‘It’s on the menu,’ she said, no smile in her voice.
‘Sorry,’ said Keith.
‘Cheese on toast for me and a cup of tea,’ said Nigel.
‘And me,’ said Andrew and Keith and Mary together, fearful of causing a scene.
‘Bacon sandwich please,’ said Martin.
Andrew said, ‘Excuse me, do you have a toilet?’
She looked at him. ‘Follow me,’ she said. ‘You’ll never find it otherwise.’
Andrew looked at the others for reassurance and then followed her.
They passed back out of the room, across a small courtyard, past a wooden shack with a sign on the door – CHILDRENS MUSEUM, A COLLECTION OF OLD AND INTERESTING ITEMS – through another door and into a dark room filled with thousands of items of dolls house furniture. Faint light came through the open door and shone a faint glow on the many items. They continued on and emerged out of the back of the building into a jumbled farm-yard. Pig-sties and chicken runs, a series of cages filled with small, chattering birds, clucking turkeys, puffy rabbits; a dog was barking somewhere but couldn’t be seen.
She pointed down some steps to a shed in the far corner of the yard.
‘The black door,’ she said, and turned and walked away.
Andrew moved gingerly past the caged birds and the suspicious turkeys. He tried the black door, but it didn’t move. He tried again but there was no movement. There was an eerie silence in the yard and no sign of another human being; the invisible dog had disappeared. He crept back, past the caged birds, back up the steps, past the doll’s house furniture, through the gloom, outside and back into the other room. He stuck his head around the curtain where the woman stood by a cooker.
‘I think it’s locked,’ he said. ‘Have you got a key?’
She looked up. ‘Probably someone in it,’ she said slowly.
Andrew thanked her and wandered back. When he reached the black door, it was partly open. There was an old immobile mobile home wedged sideways on, its curtains drawn.
A door was closing, and Andrew could just see an old man disappearing inside.
There were two baths behind the black door which looked like they saw little use and a toilet. Andrew locked the door behind him and the light faded.
On his way back, he paused in the doll’s house room. Every available surface was covered with miniature items of furniture or household objects – chairs, tables, sofas, beds, lamp-stands, coal scuttles, bunches of artificial artificial flowers, magazine racks, desks, lamp-shades – carved in wood, moulded in plastic, shaped from wire and meticulously painted. Everything was for sale. In the centre of the room, surrounded on all sides by tables piled high with materials, was the work-station for whoever made all of this stuff. It was quiet in the room and eerie, the air heavy with a sense of loss – who was this all for?
Andrew hurried back, his cycle cleats clicking on the stone floor. From the kitchen came the most glorious smell of frying bacon – rich and pungent, an old-fashioned smell of real meat, not the vacuum-packed pale water-logged slivers found in supermarket packets.
‘I remember real bacon,’ said Nigel. ‘It had rind and fat. You never see bacon rind now.’
‘And bristly tufts of hair,’ said Andrew. ‘Like an elderly woman.’
They sat round the rough table amidst the old toys and the sizzling bacon smell.
The woman brought out a tray with cups, a big jug of milk and an enormous tea-pot.
‘I’ll be mother,’ said Nigel. ‘I like a pot of tea. I always make myself a pot of tea for breakfast. And porridge. I like porridge.’
‘You’ve got time,’ said Martin. ‘You’re retired.’
Next came their cheese on toast and Martin’s bacon sandwich. Thick meaty slabs and drooling fat oozing out from the sides of the bread.
The woman stood and watched them, leaning on the counter.
‘May we know your name?’ said Nigel.
‘Have you been here long?’
‘1980 we moved here,’ she said. ‘Place needs doing up now.’
‘We like it,’ said Mary.
‘Aye,’ said Wendy.
Nigel asked for a slab of fruit cake and sat there munching.
‘Tasty cake,’ he said.
‘Can you show me where the toilet is?’ Mary asked Andrew. Wendy had retreated to the kitchen.
‘Follow me,’ he said. ‘You’ll never find it otherwise. Better take a ball of string with you.’
He led her through the doll’s house room and out to the yard and pointed to the white building with the black door.
‘Do you want me to wait for you?’ he said.
‘I think I’ll be okay,’ said Mary.
There was another room off the main room, full of doll’s houses in various styles and states of repair. It was gloomy. Andrew peered through the tiny windows into the detailed interiors. He looked round the back of one of the houses. There was a small dolls garden – a swing, a slide, a little white dog, a seesaw, a traditional roundabout, some artificial grass, two tiny white crosses planted in the artificial ground.
Andrew sensed someone nearby and whirled around.
An elderly man was standing there. He had emerged from somewhere, silent, noiseless like an usher. He was dressed all in black with thinning grey hair, a thin face, pale watery eyes, long bony fingers; his lips were dry and crusted but his black shoes were shiny and polished.
‘What are you doing here?’ he said. His voice was sharp and unfriendly, and he leaned in close to Andrew. ‘What are you looking at?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude. The dolls houses, they’re exquisite, perfect in every detail. It’s like they’re real.’
‘They are real,’ said the man. ‘Everything is real. Everything, just as it happened.’
Andrew looked at him. There were tears in the man’s eyes. Andrew followed his gaze, to the two tiny white crosses.
‘Can I ask…’ he said, and his voice trailed off.
‘What?’ said the man. ‘Ask what?’
‘The two crosses,’ said Andrew. ‘There’s a reason, isn’t there?’
‘There’s always a reason,’ said the man. ‘There’s always a reason. Not always reason, but there’s always a reason. Do you know your Hemingway?’
‘Wayne Hemingway?’ said Andrew. ‘The designer? I’ve heard of him.’
‘Not Wayne. Ernest. Ernest Hemingway, the writer. The Old Man and the Sea, remember? The Sun Also Rises?’
‘Sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of him. But I’ve not read anything by him.’
‘You should,’ said the man. ‘You should.’
He moved past Andrew and reached through an open window of the doll’s house and straightened some items of furniture. He blew gently on the garden furniture which had collected some dust.
‘I’m William,’ he said.
‘Andrew. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Hemingway wrote a lot of short stories. You should read some. “Big Two-Hearted River.” “The Killers.” He also wrote the finest short story ever. It’s only six words.’
‘Six words?’ said Andrew. ‘How can you write a short story in six words?’
‘Try it,’ said William.
‘What was it?’ said Andrew. ‘The story?’
‘” For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”’
‘That’s beautiful,’ said Andrew.
‘Maybe,’ said William. ‘Not if it happens twice.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Thank you,’ said William. ‘It doesn’t go away, you know. It never goes away. I make the dolls houses. Wendy makes the tea. We get by.’
He walked over to the work-bench and sat down. He picked up some tools and started whittling at a piece of wood.
‘We get by,’ he said again. ‘You learn to.’
Andrew went back to find the others. They each paid separately for their food and their drinks, mounted their bicycles and rode away, over the crunching gravel, into the wind, along the coastal path to Whitstable, rushing to get back before the rain came.