I was asked the other day, what kind of stories I write. That is not easy to answer, as my tales cover multiple genres: self-help, science fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, fairytales, fairy stories, magical realism, noir, detective fiction, humour, YA, children's books.
Moreover, many of them contain more than one genre. That makes it difficult for agents and publishers to pigeonhole my work. Nevertheless, I've been told by multiple readers that they like my style and imagination.
I'm a member of a local writing group called the Whittlesey Wordsmiths. We have self-published two books, which you will find on my Books page. They were responsible for the following tale. One month (we meet monthly), the subject for our homework was either “Coming Home” or “At the End of an Empty Street”. The length was to be 1,000-3000 words.
I was inspired by the second and wrote a short story of nearly 2,900 words, ending it with a cliffhanger. I sent it to the rest of the group via email. Jane, one of the other members of the group, asked me what happened next. She insisted that I complete the story.
Over the next couple of days, I added another 12,000-odd words, ending up with a piece of Space Opera, full of derring-do, beautiful maidens, and corrupt usurpers. The original ended up as the first chapter.
As a taster, you will find that first chapter below. If you want to read the rest of the story, you will have to wait for the publication of my book, House of Doors.
At the End of an Empty Street
A house stood at the end of the empty street.
I was sure that there had been a vacant lot there a week before when I took a delivery to the offices on the corner of the road.
However, when I asked my fellow couriers about the address before I set off, they were all vague but insisted that it had always been there.
The rest of the houses on the street had been abandoned in the aftermath of the appearance of the Hellmouth in the city. A group of heroes had gone on a quest and eventually found angelic help from an unusual source, resulting in the closure of the gateway. The demons had returned to Hell, leaving us to rebuild.
The street had been too close to the Hellmouth and was now shunned by all and sundry.
In fact, if memory served me correctly, the house stood where the gateway to Hell had been…
No matter, I had a box to deliver, and I have always prided myself on being able to do my job, no matter what the tribulations. Angry house owners, rabid dogs, weird pets like snakes, something unnatural or supernatural leering out from the attic window; none of them had deterred me.
But this house that I had never seen before sent shivers down my spine like no other delivery ever had. So many, in fact, that I could feel fear sweat soaking into my underwear.
I could not understand why I felt so scared. It looked like any other townhouse I had ever delivered to. I decided that it was its sudden appearance that terrified me.
The closer I got, the worse it became.
It was the last delivery of the day, and the house loomed in front of me through the gathering gloom.
As I mounted the steps to the front door, I had to clamp my jaws to keep my teeth from chattering.
And I still didn’t know why.
A tug on the old-fashioned bell-pull on the righthand side resulted in a dismal clanging, somewhere deep within the building.
Which appeared to be holding its breath.
I shivered as I heard something slithering along the carpet on the other side of the door, causing visions of monsters to fill my head.
It creaked open to reveal an elderly man dressed as a butler. The sound turned out to be the besom he had been dragging behind him. He had evidently been brushing the floor somewhere in the house.
“What may I do for you?” he asked, his voice breathless and creaky.
Another shiver went down my spine.
“I, uh,… I have a delivery for this address,” I stammered.
“Indeed? Who is it addressed to?”
I looked down.
It said, “Occupier.”
I told the old man this, and he smiled.
Something about him was familiar, like a long-lost memory peeking up again.
“Please, come with me,” he said and turned away from the door.
I felt uncertain as I followed him into the house.
I sensed, rather than heard, that the door shut itself behind me, almost like a trap closing on its prey.
He led me into the living room and asked me to sit down.
A few minutes later, I could hear him brewing tea in the kitchen, and banging around in general, apparently busy with something. A short while after, he returned, bearing a huge tray with cups, saucers, a teapot, piles of sandwiches, and all the rest of the trimmings of an afternoon tea. It even included what appeared to be a freshly-baked Victoria Sponge and a Sachertorte.
“I did not know what you might prefer,” he said as he set it down on the coffee table in front of me, “so I have made a little of everything. One lump or two?”
“Uh… no sugar at all, please. Just put some milk into the cup before the tea.”
“Ah, the only way to pour tea properly,” he commented as he handed the cup to me.
He took a second cup and sat down facing me.
“Please, help yourself,” he continued, pushing a plate of fish-paste and cucumber sandwiches towards me. “You must be hungry, so late in the day.”
I put two sandwiches on my plate, added a crumpet dripping with butter, and a slice of sponge, before sitting back on the sofa I occupied. I placed the plate on a convenient occasional table to my side, next to my teacup.
“What is this all about?” I asked around a mouthful of crumpet.
It was the best-tasting one I think I had ever eaten in my life. Even as I munched on it, I was eyeing some scones I had just spotted behind the teapot and milk jug.
He took a bite of his own crumpet and set it aside.
“You must understand that this is an extraordinary house,” he began, putting his cup and saucer down on the tray. “It is known as the House of Doors, and it has only recently arrived here.”
“I was right!” I burst out. “It wasn’t here last week.”
“It was not here yesterday,” he corrected me, “although you would not have known that unless you had been here then. But that brings me rather neatly to why you are here.”
“Yes, why is that?”
“Unlike everyone else, you know that the House is not a fixture in this place. All your friends and colleagues believe that it has always been here, whereas you know that this is not true.”
“So, the House would like to employ you.”
I was feeling a little confused, and a lot stupid.
“Employ? Me? You’re making it sound as if the House is alive.”
“I suppose it is, in a way. It can think and feel, and it knows what it must do and where it must be at any time.”
“And you’re saying that it must be here in the city at this moment?”
“Indeed. I believe it is here because you are here. It must collect you.”
That sounded ominous.
The fear must have shown on my face.
“Please do not worry, Sir. I have been the caretaker of the House for far longer than you have been alive. Never has it caused any harm to anyone who trusted themselves to its care.”
He stared at me.
“I don’t know. All I know is that the House has arrived here, and I also know that the person we seek will be carrying a box marked ‘Occupier’ as the recipient. And that person is you.”
I sat back and considered what he was saying, even while stuffing my face with the sponge. As an ex-soldier, I have never let an opportunity to eat pass me by.
Nor any chance to sleep, either.
“And what does the House want me to do?”
“I believe there is a situation that must be dealt with elsewhere, that only you can handle.”
“And the House will take me there?”
He shook his head.
“No, Sir, that will not be necessary. As I said, this is the House of Doors. Some, if not all, of the doors can lead elsewhere than the room they normally open into. It depends on the situation at the time. The House can open a door for you to where you need to go at any time you wish.”
I was beginning to feel that I had fallen down the rabbit hole. My natural scepticism rose up, and I laughed.
“This is all a prank, isn’t it?” I stood up. “Okay, Fred, Joe. You can call the whole joke off, now.”
I waited for a response but heard nothing but the slightly wheezy breath of the butler.
“That’s it,” I went on, “I’m leaving.”
Suiting actions to words, I walked toward the door into the entrance hall.
The butler moved to intercept me.
“Please, Sir, don’t do that,” he begged. “It will do you no good.”
“We’ll see about that,” I muttered as I brushed him aside.
I opened the door and stepped through…
… to find myself standing back at the sofa.
I tried again, with no more success than before.
After my third attempt, I turned and walked into the kitchen, only to find myself back next to the sofa.
“What are you doing to me,” I shouted at the butler, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him.
“P… P… Please, Sir, it is not of my doing. It is the House. It does not wish you to leave.”
I considered smashing a window and escaping that way, then decided that it would probably be no more successful than the other methods.
Instead, I sat down on the sofa and helped myself to a couple of the scones I had been looking at earlier.
“I get you, now,” I said, biting into the first one. “I have no choice in the matter, do I?”
He shook his head, a look of commiseration on his face.
“I very much doubt it,” he said. “Once the House has made up its mind, the best thing you can do is to follow its wishes.” He smiled. “And I assure you that you will be glad that you did, in the long run.”
I swallowed the last of the scone and picked up the second one.
“Yes, Sir. If you are in the House’s good books, the sky is the limit. And sometimes, not even that.”
He spoke with so much assurance that I felt happier than I had a moment earlier. It appeared that I might indeed have entered Wonderland, but I would be looked after.
“You said the House can open the door I need to go through at any time? Did I understand you correctly?”
“Then, there is no rush. I don’t have to leave at once.”
“No, Sir. In fact, the House would like you to be well-rested before you go. I suggest that you stay for dinner.”
I glanced out through the window and saw that night had settled in. The light on my courier’s bicycle had been playing up recently, and I was glad that I didn’t have to ride home in the dark.
“If you have finished your tea, may I show you the rest of the House?”
I grabbed a crumpet in one hand and another scone in the other and followed him out of the room.
This time, the House allowed it.
It was an impressive building, more extensive on the inside than the outside dimensions would suggest, and very comfortably appointed. It was a place I would have aspired to, had I more money to spend than my army disability pension and courier’s income allowed.
We ended up in the library, which was next to the master bedroom.
I gazed in rapture at the thousands of books in the cases along all the walls.
“If you would like to wait here awhile,” he said, “I shall see about preparing supper.”
“Supper? Do you mean I will be staying the night?”
“Of course, Sir. As I said before, you should be well-rested before you start your task.”
“Okay.” I stared at all the books. I used to love reading, before army life and war had soured my disposition.
I didn’t even notice him leave the room.
The books ranged over a wider gamut of subjects than any other private library I have ever encountered. I was sure I could find something for any theme I could search for.
I spent maybe two hours perusing the books before I heard a gong chime from downstairs.
As I hurried down the stairs toward the dining room, I glanced at the front door.
No doubt the House divined my thoughts because I heard an ominous creak come from the corridor in that direction.
I took the warning to heart and walked into the dining room, instead.
The butler was waiting for me. He had laid two places at one end of the long table, one for each of us. The food was of such a large quantity and variety that I couldn’t believe that he had done all this in two hours.
I asked him about it.
“Of course, I haven’t done it all, Sir,” he replied with a smile. “In fact, most of this has been delivered to us.”
“You mean, you called the takeaways?”
“In a way, Sir. The House opened the back door to several kitchens that supply us on a regular basis. They are in a variety of times and places, and the owners are all glad to cater to us.” He gestured at the spread before us. “Please, help yourself. I am sure that there will be something to please your palate.”
He was wrong; everything tasted so good that I went back for seconds of several of the dishes. In fact, I ate so much that I felt more than a little uncomfortable by the time we were finished.
His eyes twinkled as he watched me enjoy the meal. As I sat back, he brought me the most wonderful coffee, from an Arabic supplier he knew, he said.
Once I had drunk a couple of cups, he began to clear up the remains on the table.
“I suggest that you make an early night of it, Sir,” he suggested. “Tomorrow will be a busy day.”
I went upstairs to the master bedroom, stripped off and put on the dressing gown I found lying on the end of the bath. I brushed my teeth and was asleep in the wonderfully comfortable bed within minutes.
The next morning, the butler woke me up with a full English breakfast on a tray, including toast and marmalade.
After I had eaten my fill, I put the dressing gown on again and began looking for my clothes, which seemed to have disappeared.
The butler scratched discretely on the door before coming in, bearing the box I had brought the night before.
“Here you are, Sir,” he said as he put it down on the end of the bed. “Your new clothes.”
“Of course, Sir. Your courier’s uniform would never do where you are going.”
He produced a small pocketknife and proceeded to slice through the string and tape holding the box closed.
The contents proved to be a breastplate and backplate made of some kind of silver-grey artificial material that was light but gave the impression of being incredibly tough. Next, a close-fitting helmet, what appeared to be a kilt made of overlaying strips, shin and thigh guards, all of the same material as the breastplate. Finally, several sets of underwear like tight-fitting boxer shorts and some kind of T-shirts. A pair of sandals completed the garb.
A backpack was included to carry whatever I wasn’t wearing.
It was what lay underneath everything else that made me gasp.
A long sword similar to a cross between a samurai katana and a cavalry sabre, a thin and vicious-looking dagger, and a heavy-looking handgun were all holstered on a broad belt.
“What are these for?” I indicated the weapons.
“I am not sure, sure, but I would assume that you will need them where you are going. Do you know how to use them?”
Oddly enough, I had started fencing in primary school and, of course, I could shoot since my army days.
I picked up the gun, which was heavier than what I was used to, and inspected it. I couldn’t see anywhere to put the ammunition, and the end of the barrel appeared pitted and seared, as if vast heat had passed through it.
“I understand that it is called a ‘blaster’, Sir,” the butler said. “It fires in the same way as a normal pistol, but there is no backward kick.”
Once I had dressed, after discovering that everything fit me perfectly, I glanced in the full-length mirror. I looked like a weird mixture of barbaric warrior and hi-tech fighter at the same time.
“If you are ready, Sir, the House will conduct you to where you must go.”
I followed him down the stairs.
He made me wait a moment while he fetched some food from the kitchen and put it into the backpack.
The front door stood open, but the view through it was not of the street, but instead the edge of a forest, looking out at a fantastic city with a vast palace in the distance. Air cars and people in flying harnesses were visible in the sky all around, while others on the road in front of me rode dragons, unicorns and beasts I had never seen before.
“Good luck, Sir,” the butler said as he shook my hand. “Only you can bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“Thank you for everything,” I replied.
He smiled at me.
“It has been my pleasure, Sir.”
I took a deep breath and stepped through the door.