If you should walk through Hampstead House one brimming Tuesday night, a place where fields lay, each blade of grass groaning out to their neighbours for the buckets of water pouring upon them, but inside, the slow pattering of wind only brings about the sudden desire to read a rough, paperback novel. If you should trace soft soft fingers along the light pine wall, you should soon come to a door. Its hinges are so smooth, so well glazed and rounded, that not even the most sharp eyed boarding school matron would catch it. It is set below the blurred windows of a dusty study, barely 4 feet tall, crowned with discretion and secrecy. You must let your fingernails grow long, inch them through the ant-sized gap and creak it apart. If you would only duck down, sneeze cool dust from your nostrils, and let your ashy hands wander to the maroon book on the far right shelf, you may find the thing. Scrawled across the middle page; the only page with comprehensible words inscribed upon it. Written underneath the floorboards, carved into the old yew tree outside, scratched into the ears of every passerby. You should find it. If you would only wake up to explore.
“We are the stuff that dreams are made on.”
Andrew Lewing was blatantly aware of the world around him. It was on days like these that the colours seemed sharper to his grass-irised eyes. The rounded voices of his teachers and peers seemed slightly slurred, high-pitched, gravelly. He could feel the shoots of electricity gliding through his brain, could hear the whispered secrets echoing out from the girls’ bathroom, the sip of blackened coffee outside the Teachers’ Lounge. It was on days like these that Lewing’s depression seemed to eat away at his soul. Lament. The word echoed in and out of Andrew’s heart as he shifted in his seat. His fingers flicked anxiously to the bruise from the night before; it had turned a blueish green colour, and was throbbing again at his touch. Lewing’s fatal flaw was fear of a man. His greatest achievement, to mask that fear.
“Andrew? Andrew Lewing?”
“Huh? Oh… sorry Miss.”
Miss Yiu bore her eyes into Andrew’s dull ones.
“Would you like to answer my question?” she asked. One eyebrow was raised, and the beads of sweat began pouring like rainfall from Andrew’s forehead.
“I would…” Andrew stumbled over his words. He felt a slow churning in his stomach and a headache of the sharp kind piercing his temples. “...if I knew what the question was.”
A concerto of half hearted laughter echoed out from the other teenage boys and girls seated around Andrew. Yiu shot him a look of molten rock, formed and moulded, Andrew was sure, in the underbellies of a roaring volcano.
“Oh, Lewing. Sometimes I wonder if you’ll ever make it in life. It’s one of my pastimes, you know, thinking about how desolate your future seems...”
No one laughed.
An audible gulp was heard, and Miss Yiu continued.
“If y is equal to 54, solve the expression y2 + 25.”
Andrew quickly did a few sums in his sleeked brown haired head; the window view blurring in and out of focus. Later, as he recalled this day to his children, he would never admit that they were tears. Maths was detached. He could go through numbers and square roots in his head without pouring out tears. But words. Oh the ecstasy and brittleness of words!
“Um... the answer’s 2,941, Miss.”
Yiu pursed her lips into a sour look of disgust, and muttered a reluctant ‘correct,’ vaguely in the direction of Andrew. Yiu had a slim figure, but an unidentified bulge in her lower back caused some snickering and controversy among both students and teachers. She had undeniable Chinese heritage, but spoke in such a thick, spitty British accent, that one would cower at ever mentioning Beijing in her presence. There was a certain air of dignity about her, tottering on the border of arrogance, but no matter how much Andrew half-humiliated her, she never broke her ‘cool.’
The distant ringing of a bell spluttered throughout Andrew’s head; in a child-like dream, he packed up his book, stuffing them into a tattered Adidas bag he was sure had been on the shelves in his great uncle’s time, and wandered through the throngs of students in the corridor. It was the end of the day, the old clock on the far left corner reaching earnestly for the 4 o'clock mark. Home. It was more of a house. Old, rusted, grey. He would have to face his father there. A skinny man with piercing eyes and a chill that resonated from his very core. He would have to make coffee for his dad: no sugar, half a pint of milk and immediately poured after the water’s boiling. He would never forget the last instruction. Pour immediately after boiling. He glanced down at the scar and quickened his pace towards Cannoton Prep’s crusted gate.
“Oi! Lewing!” Rough shouts from a group of boys in the year above rattled Andrew’s eardrums. He stopped and turned to look at them. Oliver was the oldest. 19 years and held back for failing his A-levels, and scraping by with his GCSEs. He wasn’t clever; studious and blazer-wearing like some others at Cannoton, but he was undoubtedly and assiduously smart. He could smell fear from across a football pitch, stare people down to confession with his sharp, blue eyes. No one wanted to get on the wrong side of Oliver.
“Hey! Andrew!” The shouts repeated.
“What?” Andrew replied, slightly annoyed; he knew what his dad was going to be like if he wasn’t home on time. The sun beat furiously down on his back; the clouds seemed anxious to urge him on his way. He could hear the fire spouting from his father’s lips. Ever since Mum had gone--
Oliver’s voice leaped across the street.
“You’re sta--” Muffled.
Andrew was getting confused now. Oliver's words were fading in and out of earshot. The looks of his entourage were panic-stricken and tight. Their pale cheekbones stared out at Andrew - a half painted image froze in time. The screech of tyres against an asphalt road scrunched up Andrew’s face into its abstract form. It was as if the world had been pulled out of a computer and hacked at until only the raw code was left. As if God had dimmed a switch and time had slowed down. Screech; time was being drawn out like a line so long, so long. Screech. STOP. PLEASE.
And then it seemed, to Andrew Lewing, that time was not there at all.
He awoke to the sound of something like a lullaby being sung in a foreign language; to the feeling you get when the scent of tomatoes are shoved up your nose. At first, he couldn’t quite make out where he was, but felt the slow tightening of his chest. It happened whenever Andrew was nervous, tongue-tied, dry-mouthed. It was a fist, clenching onto his boyish heart and tightening its grip until Lewing cried out, or hastily swallowed a couple of ibuprofen. The fist was tighter than usual today; he could almost feel it tearing away at his school shirt, scratching against the second-hand tie that swung from his neck like a noose. It was so real.
“There’s no use talking to yourself now, hon. There’s someone here listening.”
The cheese-grater voice pulled him to his feet, and he suddenly jumped back, thinking it was his father about to strike a blow. But there was no hand. No rush of air, no cowering teenage fingers to protect. Lewing shook himself off, and desperately tried to focus his mind and buzzing neurons.
“Where… where am I?” Andrew managed to stutter. He never had been good with speaking words.
“Where are you? Classic first question. They never want to know who I am, or how microwaveable fries come out so well cooked. No. It’s always ‘where am I? where am I?’ As if we should know!”
Andrew took a hesitant step backwards. He looked warily at the woman, if you could call her that. She had muscly arms, a bulging stomach, and three wispy strands of hair waving about from her nostrils. Andrew studied her again. The only beautiful thing about her was her mouth. It was a small, bright red without the slightest hint of lipstick. The corners were crinkled, and curled up to form some facial expression that made it seem like she was always smiling. He tried another attempt at communication.
“Sorry… ma'am.” The old woman chuckled. “But I’m not entirely sure where I am. One minute I was…um, I was in theㅡ”
“Oh, dear. Oh, dearie me! You’ve forgotten where you were before you came to this old house. Isn’t that curious, Jane? They always forget!”
A distant humming and singing was all she received in return from ‘Jane.’
“Who’s Jane?” Andrew asked, brows creasing in curiosity.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough, Andy, she’s a young one, she is. Quite plain, though, I must say. It’s rather odd, with gorgeous parents like hers…”
“Andy.” Lewing froze. Heart thumping, ribcage chattering an indecipherable language. “Andy. Y-you called me Andy.”
“Yes, dear, that is your name, isn’t it?” The Woman replied.
“Well… yes, but, but - no one except, well, except, my dad ever calls me Andy.”
A ghastly sound akin to a cackle rose high from Woman’s mouth. “Andy - short for Andrew, I think. Anyway, your name’s written on that yellow badge there. Andrew Lewing - Senior Mathematics Team Captain, no?”
Andrew fumbled with his school blazer’s collar, twisting his head down and trying to make out the upside down words on his badge. It was bright yellow - you’d have to be blind to miss it. Oh. Maybe he’d just imagined the chill, then. Because it certainly wasn’t cold inside the house, whatever it was called.
“Yes, Hampstead House, that’s what it’s called, in case you were wondering. Oh! And the name’s Mrs Craigan. C-R-A-I-G-A-N. Craigan.”
And, as if in a dream, hands folded by his sides, blazer collar turned upwards, and shirt creased towards the left side of his chest, Andrew Lewing followed Mrs Craigan through the hall he had woken up into the sound of childish singing and boiling stew.
“Wenn der Pott aber nu ein Loch hat,
Lieber Heinrich, lieber Heinrich?
Stopp et to, liebe, liebe Liese,
Liebe Liese, stopp et to.”
The echoes of song and melody infiltrated Andrew’s head. He stopped while Mrs Craigan carried on, through a small archway and down into what looked like a kitchen. The smell was the first thing to hit Andrew. It was salty, stodgy, spicy - the taste of herbs, vegetables, seeds, clashed together. Tomato purée, thickly sliced red peppers, ground cinnamon, and a collection of other garnish Andrew was too uneducated to name, forced their way into Lewing’s nostrils and took his mind by the hand. Before Lewing could comprehend what had happened, he was dipping fingers into the pot, a metal thing almost as big as he was. Twirling his tastebuds around the red stew, shutting pale eyelids and dipping. Then dipping some more. The stew fizzed and bubbled in his mouth; it was moreish and his tongue ached, cried out even, for more. He squeezed his eyes tight together, so the pressure and the spice caused tears to flow down his already dusty cheeks. If he told you this story now, he wouldn’t ever recall the spoon being handed to him. Only the spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of stew that were shovelled down his mouth and into his soul, it seemed. That, and the song. Oh yes, the song that led him to Jane.
“Did you enjoy the stew, Andrew?”
Andrew Lewing lurched awake. Shaking off the dregs of nightmares from his home. More of a house, it was. Oldish, grey, crumbling. Had he been through this before?
“Andrew? The stew?”
“Oh, yes.” It was coming back now. “The stew. It was, um… heavenly.”
Jane cocked her head to the left, and smiled a smile that would have been more of a scowl if he hadn’t seen her eyes light up beforehand. “Now, now, Andrew,” she scolded gently. “My cooking’s not the one who’s an angel.”
Lewing wasn’t entirely sure what she meant, but he was started to become scared. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old in appearance, she looked ethereal, almost fairy-like,. A ghost? No, couldn’t be, Andrew thought nervously to himself. Those didn’t exist. One thing Andrew had learnt in his seventeen years of life, if anything, was that appearances were not all there was to a person. But he wasn’t sure what Jane appeared to be.
A sudden, overwhelming anger came upon Andrew. Streams of blood and fury and rage coursed through his veins. It was inexplicable.
“You!” He screamed, pointing at Jane with a vicious finger. “What am I doing here? In this derelict, forgotten place. And what are you? A seven year old girl with mystical powers. How did you even get me here in the first place? I keep waking up in strange places, with a pounding headache and I can’t see. You’re a witch! With your demon-stew, and stupid German lullabies!” That’s what you are… yeah, that’s what you are.”
For the first time in a long time, Andrew Lewing looked. He could smell, alright. Hear the conversations people had in the dark parts of their brain, taste the anxiety sitting on the tips of people’s tongues. But never, once, in his life, had he looked. He knew he had bad eyesight but refused to get glasses. This room was in clear focus. The ceiling was extremely low, painted a dark maroon colour that closed off the sun. The walls were stacked with books. Shelves crammed up against one another, coated in leather bound journals, creased paperbacks, colourful encyclopedias. Every type of book you could imagine. The only other furniture was a small wooden desk in the middle, and the chair that Jane was sitting on. Sitting complacently on the table was a half-drunk tea cup, its tea bag still hanging over the side.
“First,” Jane replied. “What you had was not ‘demon-stew’ or whatever you call it. It was a German sauce that my grandmama used to make before the war. Then they put us on ration, and she couldn't afford the ingredients. Second, I am not a witch. But, rather, the opposite. I’ll allow you to work that out for yourself. Third, Hampstead House isn’t anywhere, it’s what and where you want it to be. The only reason I’m here is because of Him, and my grandmama too. I assume you’re here because of your dad.” The statement threw him off for a few seconds.
“My dad? What about him?” The words shot out staccato like and sharp from his mouth.
“He’s why you’re here, obviously,” Jane answered him, as if she was simply commenting on the weather.
“You mean my dad sent me here?” Andrew asked. He felt the bubbling and churning of stark confusion throughout his stomach; the cold thought that either these happenings were real, or he was dreaming. And if he was dreaming, he would wake up. Wake up to a life of fear of his father, a world of numbers, but never words.A life where he was too afraid to show the bruises hidden up sleeves. But if this was real, then he was afraid that he would stay in this house forever. Eternity seemed too long.
“Your dad didn’t send you here silly, He did!”
“He? He sent me here?”
When Andrew Lewing later wrote his story, in one of those leather bound journals piled high in the hidden library of Hampstead House, he would recount each sentence of Jane’s word for word. And the generations to come would read them.
“He sent you here to make a choice. He sometimes does it, you know, to people lost, scared, forlorn. Mainly scared. And He sends them here. For fear of man is the worst of them all. You don’t remember what happened before this, do you? No. I thought you wouldn’t. Well, you soon will. You have a choice to make, Andrew. It’s all been a bit of a rush hasn’t it? It’s my task to tell you of the choice. I can’t force you to make it; I could never do that. But I can tell you one thing. Fear of a man is what destroys the fear of God.”
Andrew creased his eyes together, folding his forehead like a pair of trousers.
“No! Jane, please, I don’t understand! What sort of dream is this? Jane!”
“Andrew!” Jane shouted loud. Books upon novels upon books hurled from the shelves and crashed themselves against opposite walls in an unprecedented gust of wind. Andrew felt his eyelids grow heavy, his ears strain to hear Jane’s last words.
“If this is a dream, then shouldn’t you wake up?”
And she started shimmering, etching away like a pencil drawing on the concrete. First her head, disappearing into the curtains behind, then her arms, followed by her body, clad in a beige tunic and collared shirt, leather shoes swinging to and fro from the chair far too big for her. And then she was gone.
Andrew rocked back and forth on his heels, tears pouring and staining the empty journal that was laid out before him. He had a choice to make. The future was unclear, a blazed and blurred horizon in the film screen of his mind, but he felt new. He was no longer bound by the past. The words of little sister Jane echoed in and out of his ears.
“If this is a dream, then shouldn’t you wake up?”
Yes, I should.
To the sound of hospital disinfectant and the itchy smell of a continuous beeping.