Mansion on the Hill – Andrew J. Wilson
When I finally ran out of metalled roads, I was somewhere in southern Portugal. By dawn, I had lost my way completely in the arid scrublands of the west. Finally, the van’s engine blew up just as I came within sight of the sea.
I got out and opened up the bonnet. A column of greasy black smoke boiled into the hazy sky, reminding me of the burning houses back in Kosovo. I breakfasted on a hand-rolled cigarette and tried to decide what to do. In the end, I poured a bottle of mineral water over the engine and walked away. I left the keys in the ignition. If someone with more mechanical knowledge than common sense wanted to repair the damage and make off with the van, it would be their problem, not mine.
Shading my eyes against the mid-morning sun, I saw that there was a small town in the distance; but there was a fork up ahead and I couldn’t make out the shortest way to get there. I pulled my tobacco tin out of one of the many pockets in my baggy combat trousers and made another roll-up while I tried to choose. Then I decided to follow the direction of the cigarette smoke and walked away from the sea. The dirt track curved behind a low hill and began to double back, making me realize that I had chosen the wrong path, but the sun was still bearable and it was good to stretch my legs after driving all night.
The path took me to a glossy strip of fresh tarmac and I followed it back towards the ocean. The new road wound upwards and I came out above a complex of bright new whitewashed homes: exclusive, expensive and definitely expatriate. Multiple swimming pools flung the sunlight back in my face, dazzling me until I dropped below a line of lemon trees and came to a gate house. A uniformed Portuguese guard stepped out in front of me and introduced himself as Alfonso in heavily accented but well-constructed English.
I explained that I was lost and now without transport; he grinned, peered down at my KFOR T-shirt mended with peace symbol patches and then led me into his little post. The smell of fresh coffee was heavy in the air.
‘You could get our garage men to fix your vehicle,’ Alfonso told me. ‘They fix anything, but it costs, see?’ He rubbed his fingers and thumb together gently, as if the ancient gesture was worn thin and fragile from over-use.
‘I’ve got some money on me,’ I told him and accepted a cup of black coffee fresh from the pot.
‘No, no. You should do better at the town. It is only a little way down the hill. They do the job much cheaper there. Maybe even take the thing off your hands.’
That sounded good to me. I wanted to dispose of the van with a clear conscience. ‘Thanks, I’ll do that.’
Alfonso offered to drive me into town but I refused. It seemed that it was now only half a mile away.
‘As you wish, but it is no trouble to me.’ He poured me more coffee without needing to be prompted and asked me if I was on holiday.
‘I suppose so,’ I said, confusing him.
‘You don’t know?’
‘I’ve been taking some time off and travelling,’ I explained, not wanting to go into the whole, complicated story.
That seemed to satisfy him. ‘Different kind of holiday from our guests here,’ he suggested.
‘Definitely,’ I agreed. ‘I don’t like being stuck in one place for too long.’
Alfonso smiled sardonically. ‘Our guests here–they have bought a little bit of time in these apartments every year.’
Our conversation lasted for a few more minutes, then I thanked Alfonso for the coffee and headed down the road towards the town. The sun was approaching its zenith now and the temperature had risen to a brutally hot forty degrees. I began to wish I had accepted Alfonso’s offer of a lift. He passed me on the edge of town in an official pick-up truck, waving and smiling, and I realized that it had been ‘no trouble’ because he was going into town himself. I grinned and flapped my arms weakly in his wake.
The houses on the outskirts were broken and disorderly, and would have been on the wrong side of the tracks if the railway hadn’t missed the town entirely. A twisted old man drove a wide broom before him like a plough, driving up great clouds of dust around him as if he was trying to hide behind a smoke-screen. He veered away between two houses leaving only his smoking trail as I marched further into the town. A little further on, I heard the scraping of his broom again and he appeared from out of the maze of whitewashed walls.
I looked more closely at him. His balding scalp was a different colour from his wrinkled chestnut face, suggesting that he was not a native but a worker from further north. How much further north became clear when he opened his toothless mouth and spoke to me in Scots.
‘Ye’re nae English, are ye?’
‘No, I’m Scottish, pal,’ I replied.
‘Ach, awa’ wi’ ye–so am Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘Quite a coincidence, eh? First person ye meet turns oot tae be one o’ yer ain folk…’
I decided not to mention Alfonso.
‘My van’s broken down up on the cliff road. I’m looking for the garage.’
‘Naw, son. Ye dinnae want tae go there. Too expensive by half. Let me huv a keek at it. Ah ken mah way roun’ an engine.’
‘All right then,’ I decided on instinct. ‘I can pay you for your time.’
He looked at me strangely for a moment, resting on his broom handle. Then he smiled and said, ‘Nae problem, son. Why don’t ye go to the cafe doon the way for a cup o’ coffee–Ah’ve jist got tae finish this wee joab. Ah’ll be along in a tick.’
When I found the little cafe, I asked for a beer instead. I had drunk quite enough coffee with Alfonso in the guard house. I saw my nameless friend out of the corner of my eye just after midday. He was halfway down the street, sticking close to a wall and gesturing to me furtively. His face was now shaded by a crumpled hat. I nodded to him but he just gestured more frantically. I swallowed the rest of the bottle, left some money on the table and went out to meet my accomplice. He had left his broom somewhere and now carried a battered tin box of tools in his twisted hands. Maybe he was a mechanic after all.
‘Come oan, son. Ah’m no too popular roun’ here. We’ll go back tae mah place an’ huv a wee bit bite tae eat. Ah’m called Gus, by the way.’
‘Okay,’ I agreed, carefully avoiding the subject of my own name, and we struck out for the edge of the little town again.
The midday sun was now too intense for us to go straight back up to the cliffs again on foot. My would-be host felt we would be better to wait until late afternoon or early evening. Sweat poured down my neck and I wished I had some headgear, even Gus’ ludicrous hat; its fraying band was decorated by a ring of fishing flies.
At the end of a dusty track, we came to a tiny caravan resting on stacks of bricks, its tires frayed into Catherine wheels of rotting rubber. The walls hadn’t been washed in years and the flat roof had been patched haphazardly with pieces of corrugated iron.
‘Well, here it is,’ my companion sighed. ‘Hame at last.’
‘Well, yes…’ was all I could manage to say.
‘Ah ken it isnae much tae look at, but it’s cheap and it does me fine.’ I could see that some of the windows were boarded up with plywood; others were just empty sockets covered with ragged sheets of plastic to keep the insects out. The inside was better, bed sheets were well made and seemed clean. A Primus stove sat in the corner beside a sink with a couple of buckets of fresh water beneath. A brace of fish hung down from a hook on the wall and my host began to prepare one for our meal while he boiled a little rice.
We ate the food quietly, making little conversation. I wanted to ask Gus why he was living in this town, sweeping the streets, living in this caravan, fishing for his supper, but I didn’t know how to broach the subject. My own story was not exactly easy to tell and the time it would take to explain was more than I could afford. When I was asked where I had come from, I usually just mentioned Greece. True enough, in a way: that was where I’d left the Balkans.
Nevertheless, I found out a little once Gus had dipped our empty plates in one of the buckets of water. I offered him a roll-up, which he accepted hungrily. As if in trade for the smoke, Gus began to speak.
‘Ah, that’s guid. Ah shouldnae really take advantage o’ ye like this. Ah’ve really given up noo, ye ken? It’s the dangers. The daughter died o’ the cancer, ye see. Nae lung cancer like, but it makes ye think.’
Gus fidgeted with his cigarette and put a tack in the end so that he could suck it all the way down without burning his fingers. ‘It’s no really that though… Ah loved that girl. When she went, Ah lost almost everything. Ach, Ah dinnae give a shit aboot the dangers o’ fags really. Ah jist dinnae care, ye ken? If Ah thought there wis anither side Ah’d be aff there tae see her like that!’ He snapped his fingers.
‘Ah dinnae smoke cus Ah cannae afford it.’ He finished suddenly.
I offered him another cigarette immediately. Perhaps I was trying to buy more answers. I got them, but only after I asked him what had happened to his wife.
‘Ach, she left me … after mah daughter died. Dinnae blame her either. Ah think she knew Ah loved oor baby mair than Ah loved her. That’s why she deserted me, ken?’
‘Yes, I know all about desertion.’
That left only one more question for me to ask.
‘Why did you come here, then?’
‘Ah, there’s the thing. Y’see, Ah wis laid aff when they closed the mill doon. That wis when the wife left me–’ He paused for a moment. ‘Mibbe that wis why she really went. Sometimes Ah find it difficult tae remember. An’ that wis almost the end o’ me, Ah’d had such a run o’ bad luck, a real hat trick–mah daughter, mah wife an’ mah joab. Then this wee envelope turned up one morning an’–guess whit?–Ah’d won this competition. Ah won this hoose oot here.’
I frowned. ‘This place?’
‘Naw, son–a flat, a beautiful flat up there–’ he waved his hand ‘–in the mansion oan the hill.’
‘Christ!’ I mumbled under my breath.
‘So Ah took mah redundancy, paid aff the rent oan mah council hoose an’ bought this caravan an’ drove all the way doon here. But when Ah got here, Ah discovered that Ah’d only won it for two weeks in every year. So Ah used mah redundancy tae buy anither week an’ make it three, an’ Ah jist live here in the caravan the rest o’ the time, trying tae save enough money tae buy mair time in mah hame.’
‘And you sweep the streets and fish for your supper…’ I added.
‘Aye, but Ah’m like Mister Macabre in David Copperplate. Ah always hope that some things will turn oot.’
I couldn’t help laughing. ‘You mean the character in the Dickens novel?’
‘Novel? Ah mean the telly series, ken?’
He was silent after that. I gave him another roll-up, had one myself. Before the end of it, I’d fallen asleep.
When I woke up, it was late afternoon, maybe evening.
‘Ye’ve gottae knife in yer boot, son.’ It was an unemphatic statement, as if he was simply telling me that my laces were undone or my fly was open, just so as I’d know, no big deal.
My khaki trousers had ridden up my shins as I had slept the afternoon away. The scuffed black boots were also military issue and I had kept the carbon-fibre knife in the scabbard attached to the right boot. I pulled the trouser leg down and covered it.
Nothing more was said.
We went out into the darkness and walked back to the road. Perhaps Gus knew a quicker route to the van, but he said nothing. I had to rely on my memory and take us back the way I had come, so finally we came to the gates of the mansion on the hill.
Behind the wrought-iron barrier, electric lamps on the lawn cast a glaze of light over the walls of the building. Many people were on the grass clinking glasses of liquor and helping themselves from a barbecue being served up by a platoon cooks and helpers. The party-goers were all obviously expatriates: some of them wore evening dress, white suits knotted together at the top with bow ties, shimmering gowns with a petroleum sheen; others were more casual, dressed in shorts and sandals, even T-shirts as long as they had designer labels.
‘Your crowd?’ I asked Gus, breaking the self-imposed silence we had held since leaving his caravan.
‘Mah ain folk,’ he whispered sarcastically.
A figure stepped out of the gate house and rattled a truncheon along the railings of the gate. The man stepped in front of us and jerked his thumb towards the town.
‘You pair, fuck right off!’
Gus clenched his fists. ‘Free country, son. Anybody can look–especially since ye’ll have tae let me in when the time comes…’
‘You–’ the guard hissed but I cut him off.
He looked at me. For a moment, I thought he didn’t recognize me in the dark, but he did and it meant nothing.
‘Get away, leave this place.’
‘Why should we?’ Gus shouted. ‘Jist because Ah sweep yer bloody streets fer forty-nine weeks a year. Ah own a piece o’ this–Ah own a piece o’ ye too!’
Alfonso swung lashed out with his truncheon, aiming at Gus’ collar bone. But he was slow. Before I thought about what I was doing, I had caught his wrist and bent it in the other direction.
Alfonso and Gus both stared at me. To give the guard credit, he didn’t even gasp loudly enough to cover the crack of his breaking bones.
‘C’mon, son–we’d better leg it!’
We left Alfonso at the gates. He just stood quietly until we had gone past the crest of the hill and out of sight of the party. Within ten minutes, we had reached my old van.
I dug out my flashlight and gave it to Gus. He needed it to work on the engine, but I also thought he might feel more comfortable with the heavy, rubberized torch in his hand after what he had seen. The silliest thing was that my intuitive hunch about Gus had been right after all. It took him an hour, but he got the old wreck going again.
‘There ye go, son,’ he said.
‘You have it,’ I replied.
‘Naw, yer kidding me oan.’
‘Drive me back down to the mansion and you can have it.’
The van growled a little, but it took us back up the hill. Gus stopped at the gate and I got out.
‘Goodbye,’ I said. He just nodded and rolled the van away into town without asking anything more. We both understood the value of silence: the less you know the less it matters; a protection of sorts.
Alfonso sat in the gate house, his shattered arm lying on the table before him. He looked at it as if it was something alien, something he had found washed up out of the sea. I sat down on the edge of the table and waited for him to speak.
After a long time he said, ‘I feel nothing. Nothing yet.’
‘I’m sorry, mate, but you tried to sock it to the old man. I didn’t even think about it–it’s the way I was trained. But I really am sorry. If I can do anything…’
He sighed. ‘You can do nothing. I will lose my job because of this.’
‘If you trust me,’ I told him, ‘I’ll make you a hero.’
‘What more can you do to me?’ Alfonso asked and stood up as if he understood.
I tapped the carotid artery on his neck and caught him as he fell. He was out cold. I found the keys to the pick-up truck in his pocket, and then messed up the gate house a little. Finally, I hit the alarm switch.
‘So now you’re a hero,’ I told his unconscious body. ‘It’s more than I’ll ever be.’
The partying residents of the mansion on the hill would take a few minutes to realize what the ringing of the bell meant. By the time that they did, I would be deep into the back roads and heading north into the darkness.
I wrote the first draft of this story nearly a decade ago, in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Like much of my writing, I left the story to settle for a while before revising it and, as time passed, it began to seem rather dated. More time went by and I dug it out for another look, only to discover that, with a few changes, it was all too relevant again. In this version, the unnamed narrator is fleeing the conflict in the Balkans, in the original he was running from events in the Middle East. John Hudson published the story in Markings in 2001. Very soon it might be the case that this Man with No Name could be trying to escape events in the Second Gulf War. Of course, whatever the conflict, he is always running from himself.
So it seems that human misery and aggression are timeless. Derek MacLeod, an old friend of mine, once very perceptively pointed out that, whether I was writing mainstream, fantasy or science fiction, all my stories were fundamentally horror stories. I think he was right, but I fear it even more…
Finally, another friend asked me if I’d named this story after the Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’ or the Neil Young song of the same title. Out of respect, I owe them both a debt of gratitude.