Words & Header: Jolanta Benson
I’d barely got there when the first raindrops started falling, shining with silver, reflecting the dark grey colour of the clouds, and shimmering with the sound of a distant thunder. An earthy scent, mixed with a hint of lavender and nettles, hit my nostrils. Looking down the hill I could see the big swell coming. The wide, flat waves were rolling lazily in only to withdraw hastily giving way to the new ones. The ocean was dark and seemed to be out of focus in the misty air.
I looked up. At the first glance there was nothing extraordinary about the house on a hill. In this weather all the windows were dark and impenetrable. I tried to find shelter under the nearby trees but the eucalypt foliage was too sparse to provide a decent refuge. The rain got heavier. I decided to run towards the house and hide under the eaves.
The house seemed to be uninhabited. The windows were dusty and covered with spider webs. The entrance door had the most bizarre keyhole shaped like a lizard. I have never seen anything like it. I was trying to imagine what the key would look like when suddenly a strange scraping noise reached my ears. I looked to the left over my shoulder and noticed an old rusty swing chair in motion. ‘Funny’, I thought, ‘it’s not really windy’. ‘How did it start swinging by itself all of a sudden?’ ‘Maybe the weight of raindrops got it moving?’
Now, the rain started pouring down in bucket loads. I was very cross with myself. ‘What great weather I chose to explore my new neighbourhood in!’
Edging along the wall and trying to find a drier spot, I moved around the corner and found myself in front of a small door, painted in Hunter Green. The layers of the paint were peeling off in a few places, revealing dark hardwood underneath. A narrow wedge of darkness between the door and its frame seemed to be inviting me in. I found it quite disconcerting. I wanted to find shelter from the inclement weather but didn’t fancy stepping inside this strange abandoned house. ‘And maybe it’s not abandoned? What would I do if I met someone inside? How would I explain my trespassing?’ I was cursing my idea of exploring the neighbouring land. ‘What on earth got into me?’ I have never been a nosy person.
‘What the heck!’ I pushed the door gently and it gave way with a very faint creaking noise. I peered inside, whilst trying to make up in my mind some believable story to explain what I was doing there, in case someone challenged me. To my relief no one was there.
I walked tentatively along a dark, narrow corridor. A few steps down the corridor the darkness dispersed and I noticed a large painting hanging on a wall. Initially I could not see clearly but after a while my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I started seeing more details. In front of me there was a portrait of a young woman. She wasn’t exactly beautiful but there was something in her features that made her very interesting. Maybe it was her straight roman nose or maybe her dark-grey, expressive eyes, sheltered with slightly lowered upper-eyelids. Her lips seemed to be a little bit too narrow in her marble-like face.
I saw a flash of lightning and heard thunder again. For a fraction of a second my mind played a trick on me and I thought I saw her looking at me. I decided to take my eyes off the portrait and started walking towards the faint light at the end of the corridor. Initially I thought it was light from the windows in a lounge room but when I got closer I could appreciate that the light was warm and flickering and it was coming from a fireplace. Now I was in trouble! Someone must have been inside the house to have lit the fire. What was I supposed to do? I could just quietly retreat but my curiosity prevailed and I tiptoed towards the lounge room to peep in.
The main source of light in the room was the fire and I couldn’t see much beyond the closest vicinity around the fireplace. Two large, comfy chairs with high backrests were standing in front of the fireplace. One of them was turned sideways to the corridor and I could just see a woman sitting in it. I thought she looked familiar and then it came to me that this must be the woman from the portrait in the corridor, although the woman in front of me was somewhat older.
I was standing on the threshold for what seemed to me like centuries. I felt stiff, wet and cold and was longing to sit in front of the fire too but had no courage to make a noise. I started planning a quiet retreat when the woman said: ‘Come in please.’ I was stunned. Her face was turned to the fire and she could not possibly have seen me coming. I was very quiet and thought she could not have heard me with all the noise of the rain and thunder. For a moment I considered the possibility that she was talking to someone else, but there was no one else there. While I was thinking what to do, she spoke again: ‘It’s cold and wet outside. You need to warm up.’
I stepped into her full view. I started stammering that I was very sorry for intruding. I proceeded with a story that I was on my walk when the bad weather forced me to find a shelter from the rain. She didn’t seem to listen to my words at all.
During the first couple of minutes I was occupied with settling into the big comfy chair and positioning myself in such way that I could get the most out of the heat coming from the fireplace. Once that was done I turned my attention to my hostess and only now could I appreciate fully her old fashioned outfit. Her black dress looked like it was taken out of a historical documentary. I would place it some time in the late 19th century. It had a high neck, wasp waist, puffed sleeves and a long skirt almost touching the ground. A pair of worn leather shoes laced up the front and severe was peering from underneath the skirt. The woman was leaning a bit forward, as though she was thinking of getting up. There was a dreamy, longing expression on her face. She turned around suddenly and called; ‘Lizzie, can we have some tea!’ The tone of her voice was demanding with a tinge of impatience.
Lizzie appeared in an instant, like she was waiting for the call behind the door. She was a young plump girl with a pleasant looking face. Her long, brown cotton dress was decorated with a starched white apron. Lizzie was utterly focused on her task of carrying a silver tray with a teapot and a couple of dainty teacups. The tea set was made of bone china decorated with pink roses and gold rings. There was even a little dessert plate with shortbread biscuits. Lizzie put the tray down on a little squat side table and poured some tea. Without asking me how I have it she put a drop of milk in my teacup and handed it to me in silence. I didn’t dare to mention that I usually have black tea. I took it with thanks but Lizzie didn’t look at me. At the moment when she tried to pick up the other teacup the hostess stopped her with one hand flick. Lizzie retreated in silence but did not leave the room. She positioned herself close to the door and appeared to be waiting for her mistress’ next order. I drank my tea but didn’t feel like I could possibly try a biscuit. The situation was so strange that it made me think the biscuits might have been baked a hundred years ago and would be stale by now.
‘A little’, I said.
‘Are you good at it?’
I tried to explain that I don’t have much time to paint as I am busy with my day work but she didn’t seem to understand me or even listen to my words. I started wondering if I was dreaming and maybe I would wake up any moment and all this would disappear. I could not get rid of the feeling that I did not belong in this place. Even though I have always considered myself a reasonably fashionable and elegant woman, I suddenly felt poorly dressed and dishevelled.
The hostess turned around and made few steps towards the dark part of the room. Lizzie seemed to be waiting for that moment as she hurried across the room towards her mistress immediately and started lighting up the oil lamps. Only then did I realise that there were no signs of electricity in this room: no TV or DVD player, no phone, no LED lights.
Then I noticed a pile of painting canvas in the corner of the room, an easel, brushes and oil paints. My hostess went to that corner, put on a long sleeved smock and started positioning her easel. The canvas that was already on the easel was quite sizable, 4×6 foot I would say. I could see that this session was not going to be the first one. The canvas was already showing a dark background with the outline of a galloping wild horse in the foreground.
She positioned herself in front of the canvas and started painting. She did not falter for a moment once she started. Suddenly, she was so dynamic and different to the woman who had just been sitting quietly in front of the fire. Now, she was the fire herself! With energetic brush strokes she proceeded to painting horse after horse building up an image of a mob of brumbies galloping across wild outback fields. I could see the red dust clouds rising from the ground and the dark sky menacing with an oncoming storm. The artist was completely engrossed in her painting activity and it became obvious to me that I did not exist to her. I noticed that Lizzie had left. The sound of thunder was fading and the rain had almost stopped. I looked at the painting woman again and seeing that she did not care about me anymore I quietly retreated to the door.
There was a rainbow in the sky when I stood outside the house. I made my way back down the hill to the road and started walking briskly towards my property. At the bottom of the hill I stopped for a moment and turned to look at the house once more and saw a burnt out ruin. It took me only twenty minutes to reach my house. I went straight to the bathroom and took a long hot shower.
Over the next couple of weeks I was very busy at work but could not stop thinking about the stormy night and the fiery female painter.
Three weeks later when I got back from a business trip to Perth I had a weekend off and made up my mind to visit my strange neighbour again. I was astonished to see a bulldozer flattening the ground where previously the house stood.
When I spoke later to a postmaster in our town I was told that a rich American couple bought the land and they are planning to build a guesthouse. The old house was apparently uninhabited for the last 100 years since it was struck by lightning and caught fire. Apparently an eccentric woman painter used to live in that house.