Since I’ve written quite a number of stories about strange occurrences—and, what’s more, they’ve some of them been published, it’s natural that people are always asking how many things of the kind have actually happened to me. They often ask with a nasty gleam in the eye, but that’s quite wrong, because strange things happen all the time to many of us, if once we can get our minds off our own little concerns. One point is that the strangeness usually takes an unexpected form, it is no good looking for something strange. It only happens when you’re not looking. I’ll tell you a short tale which may help to illustrate. It’s one of a quite large number that have come into my life.
It happened twenty years or so ago, and it happened in a part of Italy which I have not visited since, so you must forgive me for not remembering all the names.
It was when my first wife was still alive, though, unfortunately, she was already far from well. In fact, it was for that very reason that we went to Italy, and we managed to stay there for as long as four or five weeks. Not that it did my poor wife much good in the end.
We were staying in a small hotel, or pensione, in a famous city of Tuscany. Of course I do very well remember which city, but I think it would be best not to name it, and in the end you may see why.
Though my wife at that time tired quite easily, and was sometimes, I fear, in a certain amount of pain, we managed to visit a surprising variety of the innumerable historical and artistic sights that surrounded us on all sides. She was seeking distraction—an odd expression, I have always thought; but I must admit that I was glad of it too. Life can be quite unbearable when one of you is not perfectly fit.
On a certain morning, after weeks of this, my wife said that she would prefer not to go out, but would like just to spend the day reading quietly, sometimes in bed, sometimes not. As many of you will suppose, it was Jane Austen she was particularly fond of. She carried around the set of little books whenever she went—a nice set, bound in old-fashioned limp leather, with gilt-topped pages; and she just read them over and over again. The only trouble might have been the noise of the very heavy industrial traffic that pounded past that particular pensione, absolutely night and day. But my brave wife said she would have to make do, and suggested that I visited somewhere or other on my own, as far away as I liked, because she would be perfectly all right for that one day by herself.
The advertised attractions included a list of villas and castelli, in the surrounding countryside, which were still in private occupation, and which allegedly welcomed tourists to see over the place on occasional specified days. The list was a long one, so that the same names, Il Principe this and La Marchesa that, did not recur very often; and the departure times varied presumably according to the different distances to be covered. All the tours, it was stated, were “fully conducted,” which always makes the heart sink, but I had thought that probably one ought to try one of these excursions once, so, when I had tucked up my wife in bed with Emma, I ambled round to the place where one applied for tickets.
Of course, Americans and Australians and Scandinavians and Germans were trying to book for all kinds of different things, so there were queues and long delays, and when I reached the counter, the man was not at all welcoming; already irritated past bearing, I assumed.
“You want to go today?” he asked suspiciously.
“Yes, please. Today. Is there any difficulty?”
Despite the pushing crowd, he went to considerable lengths, in not very good English, to explain why some of the places visited on other days were much more attractive to foreign travellers.
“Today is the only day I’ve got,” I said.
He made further objections. “There’s no luncheon. The trip won’t start until two o’clock.” I have forgotten to mention that most of the visits were supposed to include a meal, often described very fancifully.
“Why is that?” I asked.
It seemed odd, but I realised that after all we were only to be occasional paying guests.
He stared at me very hard for a moment, but could obviously think of nothing more to say, at least in English, and then very slowly wrote out several of the complicated pieces of paper that go with such outings. The Transatlantics and Norsemen were not at all sympathetic in the matter of the time we were consuming.
Of course I did not really mind very much about missing the funny luncheon, especially as it seemed to have led to a big reduction in the price, but I had to fill the morning somehow, and, whatever happened I couldn’t go back to the pensione. I was quite surprised by how much time I managed to while away just sitting outside a café and watching the different women and girls pass by, all walking so differently from the way they walk in England. Then I went to look at the classical statuary in a nearby gallery, which I had almost entirely to myself, though the attendants, one in each room, kept coming up to me and saying “Venus” or “Juno,” and each expecting a tip.
There was nothing particularly notable about the party on the coach. It was the usual tired, elderly group, struggling, a little belatedly, with a new world, and not venturing much on comment, except upon such topics as the currency. I spoke to none of them. Of course there were no natives of the country, though a middle-aged Italian woman acted as courier, aided by a very efficient public address system. She looked tired too, but was quite elegantly dressed, and carried herself as gracefully as the rest of her compatriots. She talked about the cascades, the beautiful views on both sides of the coach, and the histories of the different families since Roman times, especially, of course, of the family we were about to visit. She said everything in American English, and some of the things in French and German also. She was difficult to follow, but remarkably sincere.
After about two hours—certainly not less, and I have some reason to be sure—we reached our destination, and the coach drew up in the vast courtyard of a vast habitation. Much of the villa was in the Gothic style and extremely difficult to date. One would have said that very little of it could nowadays be inhabited, but appearances can be misleading, especially among the patricians of Italy. The stones of the courtyard were very uneven and often dislodged. It was just as well that the coach had stopped when it did. There was rank, aged grass everywhere, and small, tough bushes growing in the interstices. The place as a whole looked in the very last stages of neglect and disuse: far more depressing, I thought, than picturesque, but, of course, I was in a touchy, melancholic state, to start with.
There was an enormous portico, and beneath it stood a lady whom one could not doubt for a moment was the chatelaine of the establishment. She was just about the most lovely woman I had at that time ever seen, and she was quite perfectly dressed, in what one knows to be a most expensive way. No shortage of cash there, one could not but reflect; and no playing to the gallery either, as my father would have put it. Furthermore, the lady spoke English much better than the ordinary English person; and her voice was as beautiful as her face and figure.
The sights within were as forlorn-looking as one could have expected. Indeed, strictly speaking, there was nothing to see at all, either from the ordinary guide-book point of view, or still less from that of the connoisseur. I am not a connoisseur, but it was not difficult to see that much. The apartments were enormous, but almost everything was flaky and discoloured, and it occurred to me from place to place that the floorboards might well be actually unsafe. Most of the contents had been dispersed, but at least the lady did not claim that what remained was more important than it was.
I was edging along at the rear, as one does when one has to be conducted; but every now and again I was aware of catching the beautiful lady’s beautiful eye. I truly had not been seeking to do so, and I found it difficult to judge, as one sometimes does, whether it was my eye that was being particularly caught. But, in the end, I could be in almost no doubt of it.
What happened was this, and it was something that I shall never in my life quite forget, simple though it seemed at the time—anyway, at the immediate moment.
We had reached a particularly long hall or sala, at the far end of which was a pair of double doors, huge, as usual, but in much better condition than anything that we had seen hitherto. The doors were brightly painted all over, both with pictured panels, and with multicoloured geometrical embellishments.
Surprisingly enough, the lady, who up to that point had been making a reasonable best of everything on view, said nothing at all about these fine doors, but merely announced “Beyond this are the private apartments, and I ask you all to remove your shoes.” Then she smiled a little, and added “Or other footwear.” But next she continued “Those who would prefer not to do so, may sit on the seats and wait here.”
There were some narrow wooden benches, with obviously uncomfortable backs, lined up irregularly in front of the big doors; but I could see no one, seated or otherwise, who was not removing his or her shoes or boots or whatnot: in certain cases with pain and difficulty.
However, as far as I was concerned, something had happened.
I was reasonably sure that the lady had spoken to me, though only with her eyes; and, I fancied, to me alone. Perhaps I was the only lone male in the group. One used to come upon the term “speaking eyes.” The lady of that house had speaking eyes; and what she said to me with them was “Come no further.” I was as sure of it as I could be.
And, very curiously, at almost that same moment, I felt really peculiar. It was that kind of nausea where one knows that if one moves at all one will almost certainly be sick on the instant. It had come upon me very suddenly, but it was all too real. I was sure that I looked chalky, if not green. I could hardly see.
Everyone else was shoeless and fully mustered. The lady allowed them to precede her into the private apartments, which had not happened earlier on the tour. I alone remained pallid and virtually paralysed, on one of the wickedly comfortless benches. I consider that the lady’s eyes spoke to me at this point a second time: “Thank you”; or perhaps “Wise little boy.” I was still alert enough to get the message. Then the big doors closed behind them all.
It was some considerable time before I realised, again quite suddenly, that my sickness was that of fear; of sheer and utter funk, which no one else had seemed in any way to feel. Possibly some of them had long ago trained themselves to ignore such things.
In purely physical terms, if one may put it so, I began at that point to feel, if not better, then at least a little different. None the less, I sat on, contemplating the array of boots and shoes; mainly, I imagine, because I was still unable to move about with much confidence. I continued to sit, more and more uncomfortable no doubt, but hardly noticing it; and nothing more of any kind happened. Nothing at all.
In the end, I realised, simply by lifting my arm and looking at my watch, that I had sat there alone, in front of the doors and the scattered footwear, for more than three hours. I was horribly startled. Dusk was beginning to fall, and of course it falls more swiftly in Italy than in England.
You may perhaps have gathered that I am not very strong in willpower, but I drew heavily upon what I had of it, and made my escape. At least I knew, and remembered, the way back and out of the place; and all the doors were still open, including the outer one. I saw no one in the house, and I think it quite likely there was no one.
My weak will by no means sufficed to send me on a perambulation round the outer walls; as duty no doubt enjoined. In any case, it would probably not have been physically practicable, even for Richard Coeur de Lion.
I stumbled across the immense courtyard, out through the immense gateway, and away down the descending track. There was no sign of the coach. There seemed to be no one at all about, even outside the villa. Probably it was quite safe to leave the great door open. I walked steadily for more than an hour and still saw no one. Of course, rural Italy is said to be emptying. Moreover, it had become completely dark in no time.
In the end, I was extravagantly fortunate, because I saw from afar a lighted bus, and somehow managed to catch it. I did not really know where I was at all, and could easily have had to spend the night in the open. Far worse possibilities were also plainly on the cards.
As it was, the bus took me right into the city where we were staying. My poor wife was very nearly in hysterics, when I greeted her. Indeed, for a moment she had actually taken me for a ghost. I deeply regret to say that, in my view, her final descent began at that point.
The next morning, I revisited the tourist office to enquire and expostulate. I thought it best to speak to the same man, even though it involved me in a particularly lengthy queue.
All he had to say was (or at least this is the effect of it): “I advised you to go elsewhere. From the Villa A—, they never come back.”
With a large group of eager, middle-aged Canadians immediately behind me, I could think of no way to pursue the matter.
Robert Aickman (1914–1981) was the son of an architect and grandson of the Victorian Gothic novelist Richard Marsh (author of the occult bestseller The Beetle). He did not attend university and subsisted on a small family income in London, working variously as a literary agent, editor, and theater and art critic. A prominent advocate for preserving and restoring England’s extensive network of canals, he was cofounder, in 1946, of the influential Inland Waterways Association. Above all, Aickman wanted to be an author, and he realized this desire with an extensive oeuvre of quasi-supernatural tales. In addition to eight collections of “strange stories,” as he dubbed them (the first, We Are For the Dark, included stories written by the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard), his writing includes a short novel, The Late Breakfasters (1965), a posthumously published novella, The Model (1987), and various unpublished fiction, dramatic, and nonfiction works. He published two memoirs, The Attempted Rescue and The River Runs Uphill, and two popular nonfiction books about the inland waterways. Aickman won the World Fantasy Award in 1975 for his story “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” and edited eight volumes of The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, writing introductions for six. He died of cancer in 1981.
Compuslory Games is out now from NYRB Classics.