The House in the Wood

The House in the Wood

A handyman who is not what he seems

Sarah had found a house that felt just right for her. It was in the middle of a wood, and was in a terrible state. All her friends tried to dissuade her from it: “the joists are rotten!” “The windowpanes are cracked!” “It’s miles from a proper road!” “It might be haunted!” But it spoke to her, ramshackle as it was, and she bought it for what seemed a footling amount of money. It was not damp: that was the best you could say for it.

She was left-handed and ham-fisted, and could only do the most rudimentary stuff herself: cleaning, scrubbing, filling cracks with resin, painting walls. Before she moved in, she’d have to have some more fundamental work done. She put up an advertisement in the window of the village shop nearby: “handyman required to help restore wreck: reasonable pay, endless tea brewed”.

Only one person replied. He said he would come for interview, and she saw him walking up the long green lane to the house. Charlie was youngish, tall, and said he had worked on the house a very long time ago, when it was in its heyday. He spoke of a Mrs Gillespie, the woman who had employed him, and the artisanal types of labour he had undertaken in the house: wooden panelling restored, marquetry inlay renewed, floorboards sanded. Charlie had nowhere to live currently, so Sarah said he could live in the house, and sleep in the tiny attic. It would suit them both. What he could not do, he said, was to deal with electricity, so she hired a qualified man to restore the cottage’s supply. It was still a bit intermittent, though. The lights flickered every time Charlie walked past.

Every day Sarah came to the cottage, and found Charlie busy. She could hear him scraping paint from the window frames, rubbing down doors with sandpaper. He sang as he worked: not the pop songs that she expected, but folk tunes about deserted maidens and dead lovers. Oh well, it made a change. Sarah noticed that Charlie would never, ever use a machine. Now they had an electricity supply, she suggested that they might hire a sander or a paint-sprayer, but he recoiled at the idea, suggesting that hand-work was much more solid and precise. Sarah began to move a few of her own things in, in preparation for coming to live there: a hair-dryer, an electrical toothbrush, an iron, a slow-cooker. She invited Charlie to use any of these, but he looked askance. She walked past the bathroom once, and was surprised to see him cleaning his teeth with a twig. As his hair grew longer, and fell round his face, she offered to cut it for him with her electrical trimmer. He refused politely, but a few days later came up to her with a small pair of sheep-shears in his hand. They were burnished brightly. Would she cut his hair for him? She did, and gladly.

The time was fast approaching when Sarah would have to move in. Would it be awkward to live there together? She didn’t feel like his employer, even though he called her “Mrs Gillespie” once or twice. They sat there by the fire discussing the propriety of it. The flames flickered on his face: how handsome he was! Sarah realised that she was falling in love. Or had fallen, in fact.

It seemed to be mutual. One night he came into her room, and he had a charm and a directness and an innocence that she had never known. Why should they not be happy here? They had made it so pretty, so functional. Sarah began to feel different. She found that she wanted to wear quite different clothes from the ones she had arrived in. She sought out long skirts from her wardrobe, neat boots, high-necked blouses. She even found an apron. She let her hair grow, and during the daytime she wore it coiled at the top of her head. At night it tumbled over his face as she kissed him.

She stopped buying the papers and listening to the radio. One day, quietly, Charlie collected up all the electrical equipment and put it in a cupboard: “we don’t need that”. He was right, perhaps. He worked in the garden every day, now the house was done. They kept a pig and chickens. In the evening, they sat either side of the fireplace in the candlelight and looked at each other. “Well, Mrs Gillespie?” he said. And she replied “Well, Mr Gillespie?” It was not 2021. Not any more. Not at all.