The late-afternoon sun is relentless through the car window and if the sat nav takes them down one more wrong turn, Sophie will scream. Ben does another u-turn, their third, past the same park bandstand, the two-pump petrol station; the whey-faced locals, who watch their confusion in mute, unhelpful silence.
Finally the right dirt track, the markers that match the directions, the promised circle of rustic cottages and wildflowers.
Annie comes to meet them. She is an ancient, long-haired witch of a woman with laughter lines and a mischievous glint in her too-blue eyes. Her laugh, as she greets them, tinkles like the dozen wind chimes strung up in her trees.
“Welcome! You must be Sophie and Ben. Or is it Ruth and Luke?”
“We’re Sophie and Ben - The others will be here later.”
Sophie smiles through the stiffness in her legs and follows Annie through the garden.
“If you need me I’m usually in the garden” She calls back to them, with that laugh again. “And there’s a beautiful walk, to fill time ‘til your friends arrive. There’s a lovely old farmhouse in the woods behind us. It’s a perfect evening stroll.”
“Sounds nice” Ben smiles “Fancy it, Soph?”
She doesn’t, but nods anyway. They unpack and set off. The evening is fresh and cool after the heat of the car; there is lavender and honeysuckle and dappled sunlight.
But in the woods the atmosphere changes. It is heavier here and the smell of flowers becomes sickly, and cloying. The shadow of the farmhouse emerges suddenly, a looming giant in the deepening dusk.
Lovely it is not. Holes in the walls gape, like mouths of broken teeth, fixed in a rictus grin, blinded windows stare in wordless horror into the gloom. The crumbling chimney points a crooked, spindle-fingered warning, but Ben is intrigued.
Sophie struggles to keep up as he darts through nettles to reach the splintered door frame. Before she can reach him, he is inside.
It is darker in here, and strange. Waning light seeps through the windows. A rusting bed frame in the corner, scattered debris and filth. Strange markings gouged into the walls, ragged and violent; some like letters from an alphabet Sophie has never seen, others like stick figures in cave paintings, though she can’t tell what they show.
Footsteps heavy on the rotting staircase, creaks and groans from the floorboards above.
But then Ben is there, beside her at the foot of the stairs, pale and frightened, plucking at her sleeve to draw her away, but she is frozen, peering into the shadows above.
Overhead the footsteps stop and a tinkling laugh drifts down, like the falling of broken glass. They are trapped with it in the darkness.
When the car stops at the end of the dirt track Annie comes to meet them.
““Welcome! You must be Sophie and Ben. Or is it Ruth and Luke?”
“Aren’t Sophie and Ben here yet? They were supposed to arrive yesterday -”
“Well it’s so easy to get lost here. I’m sure they’ll turn up. In the end.”
She laughed, a strange, chiming laugh
“Let me show you your cottage. If you’d like a walk before your friends arrive, there’s a lovely old farmhouse in the woods. It’s a perfect evening stroll.”