In a strange old house there is a strange old door, and it doesn’t lead where it should.
Have you ever tried to open a door – any door, like the entrance to a shop – and found it wouldn’t open? Happened to me all the time. All the time. I’d push and it wouldn’t budge, so I’d check the sign said push and try again and then look helplessly at Mark and he’d roll his eyes and just step forward and push it open like it was no big deal. “Doors don’t like me,” was like a catchphrase. I guess that was a hint of what was to come, like it was chasing me or waiting for me like some spider in the shadows to stumble into its horrible, strange web.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about me and Mark. We were in love, like a lot of people, but we were different because we never had fights, never had any break ups or make ups or badmouthed each other behind our backs (well, I guess I can only speak for myself, but I’m ninety-nine per cent sure Mark wouldn’t have done that, so). We never did any of that stuff that other couples did. We were better than that. Shit, we were the best. Everyone told us so. We were a team, and when we were together nothing in the universe could stop us. I wonder how things would’ve worked out if…well…okay, getting ahead of myself again. Deep breath, start again.
There was this house. Before we got married we used to drive past it on the way to his parent’s house down on the south coast. It was somewhere between a cottage and a folly. I think maybe it was once the gatehouse of some estate that wound its way out into the New Forest, but now it was just a building like any other. Except it wasn’t like any other: it had a sort of octagonal turret, and battlements. Just for show, certainly, but wouldn’t you rather have a house with fake battlements than no battlements? I used to love that house and, as we drove past, every time I’d stick my finger against the window and say, “There. That’s where I want to live.”
We got married and we went back to our flat and did grown up things for a year or two. Jobs, hobbies, normal people things. And we saved up, and then Mark’s gran died and since his dad was an only child, there was a bit of a windfall. And we were smart and we saved and we borrowed wisely and, somehow, almost without even discussing it, we bought that silly house with its battlements and its turret. I’d always wanted to live in a turret. I don’t think that’s unusual: they should call it Rapunzel Syndrome. We moved in. The place needed work, so we made a plan and lived out of boxes and slept on a blow-up mattress for a month like we were camping. Everything stank of paint and varnish, but I didn’t care because I got to sit in my turret and look out over the forest and I was as happy as anyone could be.
It was Mark’s birthday. We had a big thing planned at the weekend, but the day itself was an ordinary Thursday. It was summer and it was bright so we went to the pub for dinner and sat in the beer garden discussing the next part of our master plan to make our home ours, really and truly. Mark was driving. He was probably a little over the limit, but he was a good driver and it wasn’t too far. Plus the sun was shining, and who has a car accident in the sunshine? It just doesn’t feel right.
I woke up five days later with a tube in my nose and both legs in traction. They didn’t tell me about Mark right away, but I could see something behind my parents’ eyes when I asked about him and then they finally told me and, well, that was it, really. I limped out of that hospital with legs full of Meccano and a stick that I’d probably need for the rest of my life. Mark didn’t walk out at all. Mark’s head had been dashed to pieces in the crash. Mark was gone forever and that was that.
How do you deal with that? You don’t. You just enter a state of grey numbness and haul yourself through life, pretending it’s all normal. In my case, a lot of the hauling was literal. You don’t know what having a disability is like until you live it. I had friends back in London – do you know what London is like when you can only walk a few hundred yards at a time? Have you tried navigating the Tube when you can’t manage stairs without at least two people to help? And that stick changes other things. Get this: before Mark, I was a pretty popular girl if you catch my drift. I’d walk into a bar and guys would turn their heads and look at me. Some nights I could do without it, but if I ever felt like shit after a bad day at work, I could always rely on something like that to pick me up. Attention, you know? It helps. I still got looks – my face was the same – but now they’d turn, smile, and then spot the stick and you could see the interest fade in their eyes. Before I was a fun, blonde party girl. Now I was a cripple. Now I was high maintenance. Yeah, that kind of wears you down after a while. That and the questions you get from people in the supermarket, like it’s any of their fucking business what’s ‘wrong’ with you. What makes a disabled person’s body anyone else’s property anyway? Why do they have the right to know why you have trouble walking? Why am I fair game?
It was a lot of shit for someone to deal with, is what I’m getting at. I don’t know how I survived, except I guess I was never the type to go down without a fight. With Mark I’d been unstoppable. Now I was just a stubborn bitch and no series of unfortunate events was going to get the better of me.
I went back to the house, to our house, and tried to get on with things. It was difficult. It was a chaotic, rambling slice of Victorian madness, full of unexpected gradients and unwanted stairs. It was not a good house for someone who needs a stick on a flat surface. But I said stubborn bitch, yeah? Plus I had my parents, and I had Mark’s parents, and everyone helped and, well, we pretty much finished it. We did it. We made the house we’d always wanted and then, finally, I sat in my turret with a glass of wine, watched the sun go down and finally, for the first time, I cried my fucking heart out. My mum found me on the floor, sobbing in a puddle of red wine, completely insensible and she just tutted, picked me up and took me to a counsellor.
A few months later, I was just going about my business, trying to find places for all of the things I’d never have a use for, when I turned a corner and found myself looking at a door I hadn’t really noticed before. This was at the back of the house, maybe where they put the servants or something, and it was all pretty utilitarian. We were just using these few rooms to dump all the empty boxes in, so it’s no wonder I’d never really looked at this particular door. I put down the box I’d been wrestling with and tilted my head to look at this thing. It was the textbook definition of an ominous portal. Like most of the other doors, it had a pointed lintel and was made of heavy, polished oak. It had a round black metal handle and matching hinges. I didn’t know what was on the other side. I went to open it, but it was locked. Well, maybe I should have left it there, but this was my house, and I wasn’t having some mystery room at the back of it.
I went looking for the key. It took me a while, days in fact, but I finally found it in on a dusty shelf in a cupboard under the stairs. It was caked in cobwebs and I made a face as I pulled it free and then hobbled out into the light to look at it. It was a key every bit as foreboding as the door to which I assumed it belonged. All very mysterious. Well, I was a girl with Rapunzel Syndrome, so that didn’t bother me too much. I’d already bought a house with battlements hadn’t I? It should have secret rooms with heavy, portentous keys. This was the whole idea. Feeling more excited by this than I had by anything in the last four or five months, I took the key to the door (not easy for me) and turned it in the lock. My heart was beating double time as I turned the handle and slowly creaked open the door and peered inside.
And then, I was looking out at a grassy hillside speckled with morning frost. Which was pretty strange because we hadn’t had any frost yet and, besides, my house was in a forest. So that didn’t make any sense at all. I blinked at the scene. Clear skies except for a wisp of cloud scudding over the horizon. The air was cold and my legs were already starting to ache. I looked behind me and there was the hallway in my house just like before. I looked around the door and the walls were just as they should be. At least on my side. On the other side – the side with the meadow – they were rough stones and I saw I was looking out from the doorway to a little drystone house like you imagine shepherds living in. Which was silly because, again, let me reiterate: my house has battlements and a turret, albeit a small one.
Slowly, I backed away and closed the door. “Well,” I said to myself, “that’s it: you’ve gone crazy.” It seemed pretty unfair that this had happened after I’d been to see the counsellor. But life is never neat, as I knew all too well. Of course, being of an inquiring mind, I wanted to check what I’d seen, so I opened the door again, and I was standing in someone’s bathroom. Just an ordinary bathroom. There was even a rubber duck on the edge of the bath and a manky looking shower radio hanging up. “Huh,” I said, then closed the door again.
It’s really hard to know what to do when you find a magic door in your house. I mean, that sort of thing happens in stories all the time. You find a magic door, go through it, have fun with a clumsy Christ allegory, slay the witch and grow up in a fantasy land before returning abruptly to childhood in what can only be a very disturbing physical transition. I don’t even like to think of the sound it must make having your boobs sucked back into your chest like that. Also, what if one of them was pregnant? Makes no sense.
(This is what goes through your head when you find a magic door in your house.)
I sat in the kitchen, poured myself a large glass of wine and then tried to figure out who I should call. Mum was an obvious choice, but somehow I didn’t think she’d be much help. Well, actually she’d be a lot of help, because she’d take me right back to the therapist. I didn’t want that. I was pretty sure I hadn’t lost it. If this was a delusion, it was a very specific one. I wasn’t having it. So I thought about friends, but they were all quite far away and, really, I wanted someone who was level-headed and who’d take this whole thing seriously. What I really wanted was Mark. I didn’t have Mark. That was the whole problem. So I called the next best thing, which was Mark’s sister.
“Hey, Gracie, what’s up? You okay?”
“Um…” I thought about it. “Well, possibly. Something weird’s happened.”
There was another reason I’d called her. “You’re a physicist, right?”
“I’m a physics teacher. Not quite the same thing.”
“Sure. But if something weird and physicsy happened to a member of your family, you’d be the person to call, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so…what’s going on?”
“I think…” I think I have a magic door in my house. That’s what I thought. But that wasn’t going to fly with Becky. We got on okay, but she didn’t know me well enough to know when I wasn’t joking. “Could you just come down to the house and look at something? It’s a bit crazy.”
“Should I bring anything?”
I eyed the bottle in front of me. It was already half gone and I didn’t have another to hand. “Wine. Bring wine.”
I hadn’t realised I’d locked the door after I’d close it on the stranger’s bathroom until we were standing in front of it again. Becky, who was tall and dark like Mark had been, folded her arms and tilted her head. “It’s a door.”
“Yes. But…okay, we have to open it.”
“Because what’s on the other side is weird.” I stumped over to it slowly and turned the key. Becky stepped up to help me without being asked. That was okay, she was family. Together, we pushed the door open and looked into the interior of a cupboard.
“What am I looking for?” Becky asked, instinctively pawing through the coats hanging up inside.
“That wasn’t there before…”
“All these coats.”
“So what was here?”
“Um…you won’t believe me.”
She turned and looked at me. “Huh?”
“There was a hill. And then a bathroom.”
“I don’t understand…”
“No, neither did I.” Had I learned nothing from Narnia? What a fool I was. Of course the magic doesn’t work when someone else is around. It was just an ordinary cupboard now. I poked my way past Becky forlornly. Ordinary coats. A bit musty, but not unusual. It was the perfect place to store old coats. I reached out for the wall of the small room, and then found something odd. It wasn’t stone or plaster like it ought to have been – it was wood. I rapped it with my knuckles.
“What’s going on?” Becky asked me.
“We’re in a wardrobe,” I whispered.
“No, not a wardrobe. I mean a wardrobe. Like a wooden box. We’re inside one.”
We were packed in pretty close. Becky looked around. The ceiling, such as it was, was barely a foot above our heads, and it was made of wood. Then a muffled noise came from outside. It was a child’s voice and it said, quite distinctly: “Mummy, there’s something in the wardrobe!”
“I told you,” I said, a little triumphantly.
“What’s going on?” Becky said again. For a scientist, she wasn’t being much help.
“Mummy! I can hear someone talking in there!”
We shuffled out and I closed the door behind us. For good measure, I locked it. “Gracie,” Becky said calmly, “why does a door in your house lead to the inside of some kid’s wardrobe?”
“It doesn’t. Well, it does, apparently, but not just there. Before it went to a hill and a bathroom, like I said. It seems to go to a different place each time.”
Becky scratched her head and frowned. “That’s…”
“Fucking mental. Gracie, you’ve got a magic door in your house!”
“Okay.” Becky composed herself. “There has to be a logical explanation for this.”
“Um…I don’t know. But let’s approach this with some modicum of rationality. Here.” She unlocked the door and then pushed it open again. Now we were looking into an empty room. It was bare and small, maybe a bedroom in an unoccupied house. We stepped in and Becky crossed to the window. “Look! A town!”
I joined her. It wasn’t anywhere I recognised. Just some town. Still in England judging by the road signs. “Could it be…a wormhole…?”
“Wormholes aren’t really possible.”
“They aren’t stable.”
A creak made us both turn to the door. It was slowly starting to close. I jumped and tried to dash over to it, forgetting myself for a second and nearly falling over. Becky, silly cow, should have just got to the door and let me fall over, but she didn’t and so it slammed shut. When we opened it again, we were looking at an ordinary hallway in an ordinary house. Luckily Becky had her purse on her, and that’s how we wound up getting a train back from Milton Keynes.
The next day, after Becky had gone home to get some stuff, we sat in front of the magic door back in my house and tried to figure out what to do. “I should report this to a real scientist or something,” she said, “but I kind of don’t want anyone else to get any credit for discovering this.”
I had a cup of tea and I nodded thoughtfully at her sage words. “Also, you didn’t discover it: I did.”
“We need to do some proper experiments.” She pointed to her laptop screen. “Look, I’ve made a spreadsheet.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. “Because we need to do proper experiments.” I didn’t know spreadsheets were such a central component of the scientific endeavour but then, I didn’t really know what spreadsheets were for at all. Wedding seating plans, at least in my experience. “Okay,” she went on, tap-tapping like a good ‘un, “so last night when I arrived it was…what? Eight o’clock? And we ended up in Bedfordshire.”
“Yes.” Have you been to Milton Keynes? Here’s my advice: don’t, even if you go by magic door.
“So, all we’ll do is record the time and see where we go to. But this time,” she held up a door wedge, “we’re taking precautions.” The door was locked again. I didn’t know if it somehow worked both ways, but I thought it might, and I didn’t like the thought of that. “So let’s start.”
I got up, slowly and with very little dignity and huffed up to the door. Gingerly I unlocked it and we opened it again. Becky had her phone ready. On the other side this time was a road. Cars zoomed past. We’d walked out of a portaloo in a layby.
“Nice,” Becky said, wrinkling her nose instinctively.
“Hey,” I said, looking at the other side of the door, which was not my door now, “this says ‘engaged’! What do you think happens to the other side?”
“I’m just grateful it didn’t open into the portaloo…”
That’s what had happened with the wardrobe, and there seemed no rhyme or reason to it. People were looking at us strangely as they whizzed past. Becky held up her phone and consulted the GPS. “Looks like we’re on the M6. Not far from Coventry.”
“Interesting.” We stepped backwards and I closed the door. Becky was already leaning over her laptop, entering data. “So, what conclusions can we draw?”
“Well, it’s further away than Milton Keynes. Hmm…needs more data…”
“Okay.” I was ready at the door. “Shall we?”
We opened the door on a family eating dinner. They stared at us over their plates and there was a moment of awkward silence before Becky looked at her phone and said. “Wolverhampton. Okay.”
“As you were,” I told the family before we shut the door on their astonished faces.
“Okay, that was maybe twenty miles north-west?”
I bent over Becky’s computer. “So what does that tell us?”
“Not much, really. Except we’re moving further and further away as time goes on. Or so it seems.”
As an experiment, we left it half an hour or so, then found ourselves in a potting shed in Wakefield. Then, after ten minutes, a derelict factory of some kind not far from Middlesborough. Becky got a knowing look and opened the door into a pub in a village outside Carlisle, then closed it before any of the surprised drinkers could react and opened it immediately. We were looking into a cellar filled with barrels and pumps. “Ah ha!”
I looked around. “What?”
“Same place! Almost!”
“So…oh, close the door, it stinks of stale beer down here and it’s making me sick.”
Back in my kitchen, with the magic door safely locked, Becky outlined her theory. “We’re moving further and further away each time.”
“Even I knew that.” I poured us each a glass of wine.
“But I think there’s a pattern. It’s not just a jump through space – I couldn’t find any sort of link between time and distance, no matter how many times I looked at the numbers, but then I had an idea. It can’t just be random, can it, because there always has to be another door to open to, right?”
I nodded. “That makes sense.”
“So, we have to be jumping between doors. And doors are not, on the whole, evenly distributed.”
I clicked my fingers. “So we just went to the next door along in that pub?”
“Or maybe the next but one or two…who knows? Either way, it was close.” She took a gulp of her wine. “I don’t know what this all means.”
I shrugged. “It’s magic. I have a turret and battlements and now a magic door. I’m fine with it.” The wine was pretty good.
Becky laughed and shook her head. “Gracie, don’t take this the wrong way, but when you called me and asked about…physicsy stuff…I kind of thought you might have gone crazy.”
“That’s okay: I kind of thought I had to.”
“I mean, with everything you’ve been through…”
I made a little face. My friends didn’t talk about Mark much, but he was Becky’s brother. She’d lost as part of herself too. We were in this together, kind of like a team. “I wonder what he’d make of this stuff if he was here.”
“He’d get freaked out.”
“Yeah, he probably would actually.” We laughed.
“I thought…no…” Becky drained her wine glass.
“I thought maybe you’d seen a ghost or something. Does that sound silly?” She looked embarrassed to be saying this aloud.
“A ghost?” I refilled her glass.
“Yeah. When you asked about physics. I thought maybe you’d seen Mark and you wanted me to come and, I don’t know, go all Ghostbusters or something.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I scoffed, topping up my own glass, “it’s nothing like that. Just a magic door.”
I don’t think either of us slept much that night. Becky stayed over, since I had more bedrooms than I knew when to do with anyway, and it was a Bank Holiday, so no worries. We were both up and about early, eager to figure out where else the door could take us. I made some pancakes for breakfast, and I make good pancakes but I don’t think either of us were that invested in them. We went straight back to the door and Becky fired up her laptop. “All right,” she said, rubbing her hands together, “today is a new day.”
“Uh huh.” I rolled my stick in my hands as I leant against the wall. I’d gotten pretty tired yesterday but I didn’t like to say anything. We were both absorbing ourselves in this silliness and maybe that’s what we both needed right then.
“You know,” she said, turning to me from where she was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the computer, “we could make a fortune from this.”
“How? By turning my house into a theme park? Come see the amazing door that lets you look like you just walked out of a toilet you never went into…”
“No, I mean if we figure out why and how this works, we could harness it. Imagine that!”
“Instantaneous travel to anywhere on the globe?”
“Exactly! This has got to be the greatest scientific find of all time.”
I thought about that. “What about gravity?”
“This is better.”
She blinked at me. “Cheese?”
“Just think about it: how did cheese come about? Who looked at rancid milk and stopped someone else throwing it away by saying, ‘hey, let’s see where this goes…’”
Becky laughed. “Okay, but this is definitely second after cheese.” She hunched over her laptop. “All right, so I’ve tried to do some maths here. It’s hard to know how many doors there are, but I’ve got some figures for population density and houses and things and I think I have a working algorithm.”
“Look at this map.” I started to move, but she thoughtfully picked up the laptop and brought it over to me, balancing it on her arm as she pointed to the screen. “I’ve plotted the course of the jumps so far. Assuming it kept going roughly north, the trajectory would have taken us right through the Arctic Circle, over to the other side of the world, down through Russia I reckon. So by now, I figure we should be opening a door somewhere in China. Won’t that be fun?”
“I guess. Will your phone still work?”
“Not sure. Only one way to find out.”
“All I know is,” I said, brandishing the doorstop, “we’re using this. Milton Keynes is fine, but China is going to be a headache to get back from.”
We unlocked the door again and Becky slowly pushed it open. We were not in China.
“What the hell?” I looked out into a place I’d never seen before, not even on telly. We were on some kind of plateau overlooking a barren landscape that stretched off just a little too far, like the horizon was further away that it should be. The sky had a distinct greenish tinge to it and the air felt cloying in my lungs.
“Okay,” Becky said, holding her phone up, “no signal at all, not even on the GPS. That can’t be right.”
“I don’t think we’re in Hampshire any more, Toto,” I said. I bent down to put the doorstop in place with a wince and then hobbled a little way out to join Becky. The ground felt odd underneath my feet, like I was too heavy to move comfortably. The air definitely seemed to be sticking to me too, like some sort of horrible soup. It was hard to breathe.
“This is…” Becky shook her head helplessly. I could just make out mountains in the distance, but everything got lost in a green murk after a little way. The sun was a weak smudge through the miasma. The only feature of any note I could see was a dark ribbon like a river of oil snaking its way across the landscape a few miles away.
“I think we should go,” I said, tugging at Becky’s sleeve.
“We should explore.” She coughed and patted her chest. “Although maybe you do have a point.”
“Let’s go home.” My voice came out small. I wasn’t a small voiced sort of girl, but this was a big place and I knew we didn’t belong. I looked behind us and we’d just come out of a hatch in some kind of dirty-metal structure. It opened vertically, which was a little confusing, since the familiar inside of my door back in my house, back in a place where people like us were supposed to be, was hanging horizontally above the gap. It was a bit weird, but no weirder than anything else going on. The doorstop had fallen on the floor. “Come on,” I said, “seriously.”
We made our way back but, just as we did, something reared up from the black goop of the river. Something huge and foul and monstrous, something I didn’t have the words for. It slithered and slimed and it watched us with a thousand shining, empty eyes and neither of us said a thing as we backed away and closed the door.
“I see where I went wrong,” Becky said as she put her hands against the reassuring surface of polished oak, “I assumed the trajectory would follow the curvature of the planet.”
“Ah,” I nodded, “so the next door along after the North Pole wasn’t Russia?”
“No. No it wasn’t.”
I laughed a little. “Well, I suppose that’s the end of our little experiment then.” I reached down to the key, but there was no key there. I scrabbled uselessly at thin air for a second. “Um.”
“The key’s gone”
“Well, that last place did something funny to the door. Kind of turned it up on its side. It must have…um…fallen out…”
Becky stared at the empty keyhole, then she stared at me. “You mean it’s back there? With that…thing?”
“I guess so.” I turned the handle and it moved easily. Unlocked. With the key somewhere we’d never be able to find it again and the portal, whatever it was, still blindly moving through the universe, we could only assume. “How many doors do you think are on that planet?”
“I don’t know.”
Something banged against the other side of the door.