If the world existed in two halves, an inner world, fully half despite constituting billions, trillions, and all small, and an outer half, existing as one whole that incorporated the rest, then Joan split the fine border where both halves mattered for nothing. She slept as if dead. She woke as though making a choice in the matter. Her hands brushed against her clothes, beneath a duvet, still wearing the work outfit she was in when she came to this house.
Joan breathed deeply, feeling rest like warm water flow over her, through her. There was an even beat to the room, like a pulse. It breathed as she breathed, steadily in, then out, then in again. She was all of the room. She didn’t have to move. There was no place to go. She was where she was, and she was happy here in it. Knowing almost came as a surprise.
She looked up from her place in the bed to see a stove lit behind her. A red curtain hung against the window, tinting the light that fell in the room, similar to the bathing warmth that came from the steadily glowing fireplace.
Joan had been walking to work and saw the woman in the garden. The woman said work can wait. Joan knew it could wait though it never had before. Work was all she focused on, despite every problem it brought. Work was her escape, or at least a route to escape. A focus in her life when there was so much other wildness to her thoughts. Joan was busy, worried, hassled when she stopped. The woman said work could wait and would still be there if Joan ever wanted it. Joan knew it could, so she stopped. She was welcomed to this place. Then she slept.
The room felt warmer, now. It was getting warmer. The fire burned harsher and the sun beat stronger. Joan felt cold against it, a deep inner freeze meeting a sweating, sweltering outer shell. She thought of it as two halves balancing out to put her in a place where she had been happy to lie, between, and count her thoughts. Her time of rest was almost done, but she knew this house would wait, so she counted her thoughts again: the woman Joan saw when she came to the house, when she invited her in for tea, wasn’t old. The woman felt old. This place felt like an age. She spotted the green muddy patches on the woman’s knees. They reminded her of days, as a child, with a childminder. Helping her to weed the sloping edges of the childminder’s garden, picking blackberries from a bush she’d left wild because the bees enjoyed them and she enjoyed the bees. The childminder, Marie, she remembered as being old but she knew Marie was probably as young as the woman who brought her into this home.
It was over, her rest, so she welcomed this something new as a celebration. She curled up her legs, wrenched her torso the opposite way, yawned and stretched as though the relief would bring only good things to her. Stretching she felt it, all good things. Yet, for all she knew was right about this place, this home she could stay in forever it was still wrong. She didn’t know how, maybe the light was just the wrong shade, the step falling, juddering as though a misstep between the beautiful browns and reds of autumn and the white-black harsh of winter. The warmth from the fireplace might be wrong, the radiant glow of controlled passion meeting her sharp freeze, in life and thought. This place bringing you out of time.
She pulled back the curtains casting warm light as much as the fireplace. Outside shone a beautiful day. A sun, the only sun she thought to herself, fired high in the sky and beat against the window as though an easy storm. The fireplace was warm but it provided a winter’s warmth against the outside summer’s glow. It was a combination of two powerful heats, neither pressing, neither dominating, neither taking control. There was no burn to her skin, only her sweat a pleasant demand she be cooled, as was right. She didn’t feel anything burden her from the two competing energies of summer sun and winter heat, and that brought her wrong. The fire was smooth and total in its presence, the sun outside equally present. Two truths fought with her, two places both real and unreal. Her mind doubted what it knew.
Then that doubt disappeared. What felt wrong with this place slotted back into a pattern. There is no good without bad, learn both and set your store in the goodness. So she did. And she rolled in the bed and set her feet on the floor as a knock came from the door.
The knock interrupted her thoughts of rights and wrong as reason. She tried to return to her senses. The floor was rough. Long ago a varnish had been applied but now it had worn into the wood. Joan felt it prick against her soles. Thousands of delicate slivers holding her aloft yet steady as she placed one foot in front of the other, flat on the ground and silent, cushioned as though the world asked no quietness from her, instead giving it as a due. She waited for another knock, to press the issue, but none came. Instead she felt silence.
The quiet she felt was not a complete silence as the presence of a body beyond the door, waiting, outside the door and having knocked sought from her, asked for her to welcome whoever was there; to greet them. Joan didn’t know if that was her purpose. If her simple day in this place as an escape meant she should answer the door. It should be simple, introducing herself to a person waiting for her. She would never acknowledge an anxiety. Instead she dwelt in the motion of it. She never felt nervous except when it was warranted. It always felt warranted but she didn’t feel that anxiety or even fear now, although she felt like she should. Instead there was simple hesitation.
She looked at the door as though it could provide an answer by her examining its setting. The walls surrounding the solid oak door were a vibrant mauve that brought out the wood’s grain in relief and the door-handle a knob that Joan hoped would rattle as she turned it. She hesitated.
She walked towards the door but stopped, hesitating again, a few metres from it. It was distance enough to avoid invading the space of the person who waited on the other side. Joan had seen many more people in the house when she arrived, at least she thought she did, before she gave in to her falling sleep. She still knew, patiently standing there on the other side, was the woman from the garden, the woman who brought her here, through a hazy green walk her mind couldn’t manage a hold on, only feel. Joan pictured her standing to the edge, not wanting to intrude from the beyond; beyond the room; trying to be beyond incursion; and so Joan stood those few metres back while admiring the contrast between wood door, wood frame and old plastered walls.
Standing, Joan waited. She tested the circumstance she found herself in. A house, but not a home. A temporary relief that could last a lifetime and for all she knew she had spent a lifetime leaving the space between her and the door. She had spent a lifetime considering. She urged her body forward but remained still. No second knock came. Joan needed the second knock.
She waited more. Waited for the woman to press the time. She held firm despite herself, fearing the woman had left and she would open herself to an empty hallway, having to negotiate her way through the labyrinthine maze to apologise, as was only right. She was a guest and she should open the door but still she waited.
She waited. She waited. She moved forward. She gripped onto the brass knob on the door that had no give instead satisfying her with the warmth of its touch, and twisted. The hallway was no hallway, not as she remembered. The door opened to an empty ballroom. The ceiling reaching higher than the one that hung above her in her place of rest. The smooth-worn flagstones that made up the floor gave the same warmth as the wood in her room but hewn from stone absconded from geology. Broad oil paintings—with no images within them, nothing to discern—hung on walls towering to meet the wooden rafters. The woman—the woman she’d met, not her childminder, unless her childminder was dangerous—stood there, smiling.
Joan’s toes curled in sensation with the firm texture of the floor beneath but couldn’t bring about words to excuse her strangeness. “You like the floors?” the woman asked. “The paintings? Everything?”
She smiled as though Joan had wrapped her fingers around her unannounced, gifted, and welcome mug of tea. “The hotpress is two rooms up. Feel free to change, if you want. If you’re staying. Everyone stays. Everyone has a reason here.”