Charles Dickens walked up to the bar, accompanied by some friends, who were all wearing their finest outfits: frock coats, tall ‘stovepipe’ hats, fancy waistcoats, while the women in his party were decked out in hooped skirts, crinoline and bonnets.
I was sitting at a table towards the rear of the old pub with my business partner, Dave. We were discussing our latest project, the renovation of Apsley House, an old derelict property in a village on the outskirts of this town, Rochester in Kent.
“I reckon all this re-enactment of days-gone-by is ridiculous,” pronounced Dave, shaking his head as he looked towards the ‘actors’. “It seems wrong somehow, pretending to go back in time, and making a big joke of it all. The past is the past and I reckon you should respect it, and leave it alone. I mean, no one wants to go jumping into the future, do they? So why do people always have the hankering to go back to the past? I reckon it’s morbid.”
The Dickens Festival had been going for three days now, and there were another four to go. Local volunteers dressed in Victorian garb and strode around the town, and shops and pubs were also ‘taken back in time’ in tandem with the great man’s era. The well-known actor playing Dickens this year was hosting literary events all around the town, most of which included readings from the great writer’s most famous books.
I was looking through some pictures on Dave’s Ipad of the state of the old house we were taking on.
“They had a huge fire about thirty years ago,” Dave explained. “A good deal of the place burnt down, and it wasn’t insured. The owners couldn’t afford to rebuild, so the council took it over, but they couldn’t renovate it either, so ever since it’s just fallen into more and more disrepair. It’s a listed building but even so the council were on the brink of allowing it to be demolished to sell for development, when this long-lost descendant came over from Australia and decided to buy it back and renovate the place. I’ve met her, she’s quite something.”
I was flicking through the pictures. “Lovely big job for us, years of work, I can’t wait. But I’m astonished anyone thinks it’s worth it. This could run into millions.”
“She’s heir to a fortune in Australia by all accounts, and she sounds like quite a determined lady,” David answered, smiling as he took another swallow of his beer. “The original owners of Apsley House were Lords of the Manor around here and Abigail Hart is their last living descendant apparently, and get this: the place belonged to her eight times great grandparents! The story goes that Lady Agatha was killed when she was crushed by a tree that was struck by lightning, in the grounds of the house.” He leaned closer. “She was allegedly outside in the storm under the tree with an assignation to meet her lover. What a story eh?” He looked at me seriously. “But you’re not listening are you Jack? You’re looking tired. Have you ever thought of finding yourself a girlfriend and going out and having fun for a change, instead of working 24/7?”
“After the divorce I’ve had, being single suits me just fine,” I told him. “Besides, who’d want an old git in his late fifties?”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“Too busy working.”
He stood up and stretched. “Well, you take a look at the place and I’ll get back home and see you at the office on Monday morning, okay?”
It was only a ten-minute drive away, and as I obeyed the satnav, I turned along leafy Kentish village lanes, with lovely fields and orchards either side. Then when it told me I was one minute away, for some reason it simply stopped working. I was in a quiet country lane, seemingly miles from anywhere. The sky was overcast and rain was in the air. I could hear rumbles of thunder in the distance and it was getting progressively darker with every passing second.
Oh well, I thought, it couldn’t be far, might as well ask someone.
But right around then I suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired, realising how early I’d got up this morning to drive down from the Midlands. I decided to put the seat back and stretch out in the Land Rover and doze for a while.
When I woke up things seemed somehow different. It was still daylight, but in a confused moment I had forgotten where I was. Oh yes, I remembered, according to the satnav (which still wasn’t working), I was one minute away from the postcode for Apsley House. There was no one to ask, so I decided to get out of the car and have a look around. Again I heard the rumble of distant thunder.
A man was coming towards me. He was dressed in a long white smock, and wore a strange kind of hat. From his outfit I realised he must be one of the volunteers for the Dickens Festival – it seemed odd that he was so far from Rochester, where the festival was based.
“Excuse me,” I asked him.
But he didn’t even look at me as he marched on by.
I called after him but he didn’t even look round. Weird. He could hardly have been deaf and blind, and usually these volunteers are jovial matey types who are only too keen to chat to a stranger.
Then I walked around the corner.
There in front of me was a huge grand-looking house, with a vast circular front drive. Hearing a rattling clattering sound, I jumped out of the road as a large carriage drawn by four horses passed by at speed. As it went by I caught a glimpse of the people inside: they were dressed in the Regency style, the man with a large elaborate wig, the woman a long dress, like they were wearing in the recent TV series Gentleman Jack.
I smiled to myself, realising that whoever had staged this fancy period event that must be connected with the Dickens Festival, and they had made some big mistakes. Even I could see that the kind of clothes worn in Dickens’s day were different to these outfits, which clearly related to a period of about a hundred years previously!
Or maybe it wasn’t connected with the Dickens Festival at all? No, it was much more likely to be a film set that I had accidentally stumbled upon. The crews were obviously filming for the next series of Gentleman Jack or Poldark, maybe, or even a feature film? This wasn’t the first big stately home in this part of Kent that I had never heard about.
The carriage stopped in the drive of the big house, and I followed. I didn’t want to spoil their shoot, but I couldn’t see anyone else to ask.
But when I walked up to it as the occupants got out, again, no one looked at me.
“Look I’m trying to find Apsley House,” I asked the woman, who a liveried manservant was helping down from the carriage. There was something about her that fascinated me, and I couldn’t stop looking at her lovely face, I felt as if I already knew her from somewhere. Was she a famous actress I had recognised, I wondered?
She looked at me, but frowned slightly, then continued to step down onto the drive.
“I’m sorry, but I imagine I must have strayed onto a film set,” I asked the liveried manservant. “Can you help me?”
But he didn’t look at me or answer.
I went up to anyone I could find, but no one saw me or answered me when I stood in front of them and spoke. I felt as if I was going mad!.
I felt this horrible, awful, overwhelming feeling of utter and complete loneliness. Why the hell was everyone ignoring me?
In the end I gave up and walked away.
I was walking in the shade of a large tree when I heard footsteps behind me and turned round. The actress from the carriage who I had tried talking to was walking towards me. She was staring at me. Under the shade of the tree, hiding us from everyone else, she took my arm.
“Is it you?” she asked. “Is it really you?”
“Tell me what’s happening,” I asked her, feeling as if I was going mad. “Why won’t anyone talk to me? Am I invisible or something?”
Then, from above there was the most tremendously loud crack of thunder. Lighting split the sky and everything went dark. The last thing I remember was the sight of branches crashing down on top of us.
When I woke up, the storm had passed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Everything was different!
There was no tree, just a hollow in the ground.
I was still in some kind of driveway, and yet I was really somewhere else.
There was no house, simply a derelict ruin, and the fine cobbled drive I had been standing on was overgrown with weeds . The huge house I’d just seen was only half its size, with no windows, many of the walls fallen down and trees growing out of the roof.
I felt a huge surge of relief as I saw Dave’s pick-up truck draw up beside me, and the man himself stepped down from the driver’s side.
“Hello mate, relief you haven’t left yet. Why’s your car parked round the corner and not here?” he asked. “And why are you looking like a drowned rat? Couldn’t you get in out of the rain?”
“Dave, am I glad to see you. Something weird has just happened. . .”
He wasn’t listening, too busy bustling around, getting things out of the car. “It’s lucky, I was already on my way home, but our client, Abigail, phoned and said she was in the area, so I reckoned it would be a good idea if you two could meet up.”
The passenger door opened and a woman stepped out.
She looked at me, and with a shock I recognised the very same face of the woman I had just seen, climbing down from the carriage.
“Hi there,” she said to me, shaking my hand warmly. “Thanks for helping me rebuild the home of my ancestors. I want to make it look just like it used to. Do you reckon that you guys can turn back time?”
“We can turn back time,” I told her. “No problem.”
She looked at me more closely, staring into my eyes. “Excuse me, but have we met before somewhere? I swear I know your face.”
I realised I was still holding her hand.
I never wanted to let it go.
(picture courtesy of Ron Porter from Pixabay)