Two young men, a university student and his best friend, a natural-born auto mechanic, driven by a desire to unravel the mystery of the bewildering notes in the diary of a scientist who had died in suspicious circumstances, took a step into the blackness of a cleft in the space in front of them, towards the unknown. Being close to death, the grandfather of one of them gave his grandson a wad of paper. The guys were to learn what was inside the wad eight years later. The eerie thing with its weird properties took them into a World that was beyond the borderline of accessibility, a World at once incredibly far-off and quite close-by, a World in which: ‘All traffic came to a standstill for a moment. Everyone was looking into the distance and their next moment was there. A black dot had appeared in the sky over Lake Lefend. It soon grew to a hairy stain as if some blotting paper had been applied to it, the paper having been consumed outright. And another, and another . . . The stain was enormous, its greedy belly bloated with all that blotting paper, and rolled out of the depths of the sky as a black bundle, solid and sinewy. The bundle was grasping whatever came its way and winding it about it: parcels of forest, hills, lakes, meadows, villages. It seemed to be devouring the very space and light and informed them. The bundle was incredible and uncontrollable. At its sight, trepidation and paralysis took over the will and flesh that was known as ‘humanity.’ Then everyone was enveloped by thick blackness, not only visible but also palpable skin-wide that inspired a very special horror that one had to deal with one-to-one over the last moments.’
Weariness caught them up when it was going on for two in the morning. Christine was going to leave. She wanted to wind up the intervening hours with something pleasant for Daniel, something to do with his newly found enthusiasm. She thought she had it in her, she wasn’t acting a lie.
‘Oh Dan, I was forgetting—I did like one picture by Thornton. As I was standing in front of it in the gallery, I thought—’
‘Which one, Chris?’ Daniel interrupted her, for he no longer had time for patience. ‘Sorry.’
‘It’s all right, I can quite understand. I must tell you in advance: its caption isn’t to my mind’s liking . . . or my heart’s, for that matter, either.’
‘Which is it, Chris?’
‘The Placeless Place. Inside View. Remember?’
‘I’d seen it!’ cried Daniel, whipped by an impulse, over and over again, as if he was afraid he’d forget having seen it. ‘I’d seen it! I’d seen it! Before! I’d seen it before! Not yesterday! Nor the day before! Much earlier, Chris!’
He’d given Christine quite a turn; she was quavering in response to the air that had been electrified inside Daniel, and was now taking a bite at everything around it.
‘You can’t have seen it before, Dan. You can’t have seen it. You can’t have seen it for one good reason: the picture was exhibited for the first time. You couldn’t have ignored the notice Exhibited for the first time that was crying out in much the same way you’re doing now. The Placeless Place is just under that notice. I remember right. Just because that was the only picture that caught my fancy. Because that was the only picture I regarded as a picture. And no one had seen it before. Nor you, Dan, either. Besides, the caption suggests that the place is nonexistent. It was just Thornton’s fancy.’
Having splashed out the words full of despair, Christine ran out of the house. And burst into tears . . . When Daniel came to his senses and emerged in the street, she was gone.
. . . Daniel pressed the button of an antediluvian bell several times. The wait was alive with the thumping of a wooden object and husky mumbling. The door opened without the usual standby queries and faltering answers. Confronting Daniel and Christine was a tall man of about sixty leaning on the shoulder of his wooden assistant. Either countenance suggested that they were both as dry as dust both physically and spiritually.
‘Good afternoon,’ faltered Christine somewhat belatedly. ‘Are you Ashley Wood?’
‘What can I do for you?’
‘I . . . I called you this morning. We arranged an appointment. A propos of Felix Thornton . . . his part in the expedition? Remember?’ Christine was looking at Ashley Wood, doubtful that the morning had been all that auspicious.’
Ashley Wood was still silent, appraising his visitors.
‘My name’s Christine Willis, this is my friend, Daniel Bertridge.’
‘I’m not asking you in: the pain is all over the place—the wrong sort of thing for your springtime faces unused to pain. We’ll talk over there.’ He waved his crutch in the direction of an arbor.’
The visitors found it easier to breathe . . .
When they settled on the bench surrounding the table, Christine decided to repeat what she had told Wood over the phone.
‘The point is we’re students, not reporters. We’re amassing matter on the life and work of Felix Thornton. Won’t you tell us about the expedition from which he was reported missing?’
‘I’ll tell you all I know, all I remember.’
Ashley Wood didn’t have to be talked into telling things. He was quite prepared to relate everything, his sins, too: his soul had long been conditioned for penance by a terminal disease. The rather that they were not reporters (he could see that), whose guts he hated because given a word of sincerity, they would sell it to the devil. Also, he needed money.
‘The fee up front . . . I need medication: my condition calls for that.’ He looked aside. ‘Sorry, kids.’
‘Yes, sure thing.’ Somewhat embarrassed, Christine hastened to produce the money from her purse. She handed Wood two hundred-bills. ‘Here you are.’
He accepted them without a word and clasped them in his fist, thus suppressing his shame which had a way of manifesting itself out of turn, and rose a bit to shove them into his breech pocket.
‘It was the most useless hike of all I’ve been party to, much against our better judgment. Well, I’ve been to so many such, my mind would go astray were I to list them. It was a sorry excuse of an expedition. All because of that devil of a daubster, I guess. There was invariably a foursome of us starting out. We knew one another well enough, and had no patience with a stranger, much less that Thornton Jr. However, his older brother, Eddie, had managed to talk Dick Slaton into taking the guy along. Dick’s word was a law with all of us, me too: he was quite a character and would brook no opposition. It was a straightforward deal: he keeps himself to himself and looks for no iron . . .
‘The weather turned the very first day, there was a thunderstorm and torrential rain. It couldn’t have been worse with all those slippery boulder hazards around. The metal detector was out of the question. Twiddling your thumbs in camp is a sore trial. Well, that cove . . . started hopping around like one mad and hollering heavenward: “Give them hell! Show what you’re worth! I crave you!” and things like that. Which it did: lightning set alight a tree some twenty yards from him. He was still at it, like, “That was good! Let’s have more of the same. Get a bead on it. I’m here. I’m yours.” I could stand it no longer and made for him. Like everyone else, I wanted to teach him a lesson. I’d sure have let off steam and given the scamp a hell of a hiding. But Eddie stepped in and somehow prevailed on his brother to desist. The dauber had made no friends, immune to reason as he was. He had a way of looking down his nose at people.’
‘Did he draw?’ Daniel wondered.
‘Kept at it all the time. Each time I went by, he hand was busy swishing over some paper. A glance told you it was nature . . . say, a boulder, the sky . . . However, later on, he imparted some sort of ugly life to it. I don’t know what it was exactly. I don’t know how to put it. But it was something revolting, something his head bred . . . No, he wasn’t a genuine artist . . .’
Several seconds later Ashley Wood went on with a grin:
‘Truth to tell, Dick’s likeness was all right. The eyes, the smirk . . . he hit them off to the life. Even his character was there, too, somehow. But he was all wrong . . . as an individual . . . Took his meals by himself, talked with a taunt in his eyes . . . and that sort of thing. He was tolerated for the sake of his brother—his brother’s all right . . . a good worker . . .’
Wood fell silent. He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes waiting for the pain to subside.
‘But one day we found we could stand it no more. Robby, Robert Fletcher, stumbled on Thornton Jr picking at the ground, casting aside stones. He was so engrossed he never saw Robby. Robby told about it to Dick, Eddie and me. We all thought the artist had hit iron and decided to make sure. He spotted us when we were some thirty yards off and dashed off toward the forest. Dick said he would fetch him and raced off. He returned when it was quite dark. He’d lost him. That was what he said . . . We searched for him the next day. A day later we decided to call the rescue team. Iron was the least of our concerns, and we struck camp. Eddie stayed behind with the rescuers. All to no avail—the dauber was gone with the wind. Eddie had to call the police, they gave us a hell of a time. Dick was a suspect. Three months later your frigging Thornton turned up.’
‘Ashley. Just call me Ashley.’
‘Ashley, what was it that Felix Thornton found? Why did he run away?’ said Christine.
‘Eddie said it was some rare coin. The daubster then sold it to a wealthy collector. It fetched quite a price. I don’t think he would have got that much for his pictures. That’s all I know . . . Sorry, it’s past my medication time.’
There was nothing personal when Wood cut the conversation short—the pain was eating at his body, leaving no room for answers.