Enraptured by Anusia Battersby
I’ve always been fascinated by impossible structures. Whether it’s buildings which appear to defy natural laws, optical illusions sprayed diligently onto city pavements, or even just a seemingly regular house that reveals itself to be more complex or decadent or just plain beautiful than it really needs to be, something in them caught at me long ago and refused to ever relinquish its grip. On school trips to Barcelona, I’d be the kid staring up at La Sagrada Família open-mouthed, or drinking in the quiet spectacle of the shell-like houses with their soft hues of sky blue and their jewelled mosaic trimmings. My classmates were perfectly contented to gulp down ice-cream and pretend to be interested in the history of the local churches, but I needed those buildings. I liked to imagine that they were somehow aware of the awe that they inspired, that they knew and appreciated the simple matter of holding a captive audience. Nonsense, of course, but it made me feel that I was sharing in something special as I ran my fingertips over those smooth walls and tried to imagine what it must feel like to be on the inside of the shell, looking out.
It’s moments like those that I like to credit whenever anyone asks why I became an art critic. A high regard for the great architects of worlds both ancient and modern, coupled with hours of staring, enraptured, at the Escher designs that our Maths teacher had pinned to the noticeboards in our classroom, resulted in an almost obsessive fascination with the way in which stone and metal and glass could be manipulated into shapes that weren’t supposed to happen, but somehow did.
Before long, I had graduated with a degree in History of Art, started multiple blogs and podcasts, and was determined to devote the rest of my life to the study of the purest definition of beauty I had ever come across. To make a building beautiful is not strictly necessary in order for it to fulfil its primary function, and I generally find that people are far quicker to judge paintings and sculptures for not conforming to their own individual idea of perfection than they are to judge the galleries that house them. To turn a building into a work of art is to go above and beyond in the pursuit of beauty, and I’ve personally always thought there’s something lovely in going slightly further than necessary for the sake of artistic expression.
The first time I saw the house, I was a few months into my third art-related job since graduating, writing reviews for a fairly well-established artistic journal. I had just had a piece published on Brutalist architecture in Oxford, and was flicking idly through the edition in which it appeared, when another article caught my attention. It concerned some sprawling pile of a place out in Long Island, which was being restored after several years of neglect. The article itself was vague and not particularly interesting; it mainly concerned the billionaire businessman who, having made a fortune through diamond mines in South Africa, had the house constructed back in 1921.There were mentions of extravagant parties, huge orchestras, priceless treasures, a particularly extensive library; the usual kind of thing. But it was the photograph of the house that really caught me.
‘Jesters’ Retreat’ was an incongruous cacophony of traditional Colonial design and Art Deco splendour. I remember that it reminded me of something between a Fabergé egg and a childhood music box. Its brickwork was the colour of cinnamon and spun sugar, with huge twisting turrets stretching up into an endless aquamarine sky. Vast, kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows, their colours so vivid that they seemed to cut through the air, punctuated the walls and towers, the light behind them still glowing softly despite the brilliant sunshine. It gave the appearance of a jewel that had been so expertly set into its surroundings that it almost seemed to melt into them, or perhaps grow out of them; I couldn’t quite decide which. A crumbling sandstone staircase led down to what appeared to be a Mediterranean-style terrace, from which the lush peridot lawns melted and rolled out until they eventually reached a sparkling water garden. Beyond the house, in the distance, tiny sailboats bobbed on the teal water; quaint little ornaments augmenting the already unbelievably picturesque image.
I made a promise to myself there and then that I would go to that house. I would explore it, review it, know it better than my own home. I would own it, if not in a material sense, then at least in a spiritual one. I felt like I had fallen in love.
Mark, my boss, was somewhat reluctant when I suggested a follow-up article concerning the progress of the restoration. He thought it was unnecessary, and that it would cost the company a great deal to send me over there, with very little to be gained in return. My response was that I was due a holiday, so I might as well go, and if I decided to write an article while I was there then that was my choice to make. He went quiet at that, nodding slowly, before sighing and saying that if I wanted to make it a busman’s holiday then that was my problem. I had some savings set aside, and my sister, Emma, had recently come into some money, and had promised a trip somewhere to “stop you spending all your life in that tiny building, writing all day about slightly bigger buildings”, so I knew she could afford to lend me something. I didn’t tell her exactly what the money was for, just that I was “taking a trip to somewhere a bit sunnier”, and that I would pay her back as soon as I could. Looking back, I almost wish she had refused, but she’s never been that kind of person.
Once I had the funds I needed, the more practical side of things was remarkably simple. Emma agreed to look after various potted plants and goldfish, and I didn’t have anything to sort out at the office. I still dropped in to see Mark before I left though, just to show him that I hadn’t changed my mind. We talked briefly about the new coffee machines and how one of the newer members of the team was expecting a baby, and then out of nowhere he suddenly said that I should be careful. I wasn’t sure why he said it at the time, nor was I able to explain why it made me feel as unsettled as it did. Perhaps even then he suspected something I didn’t, or was beginning to wonder whether I had reached an unhealthy level of obsession with the house. But Mark was always telling me that I should be careful, especially when he thought I was working too many hours, so I just laughed, shrugged it off, and went home to finish packing.
In person, the house was even more majestic than it had appeared on paper. It rose up like a ship beyond the silvery copse of trees that straggled onto the driveway, and the sight of it made my head swim as feelings of sanctuary and strangeness washed over me like a familiar yet exotic perfume. By the time I reached the entrance I felt almost drunk with it, and it took every ounce of effort I had to explain to the group of workmen in their blue overalls what I was doing there. I’m just thankful that I had my workplace identification to show them, meaning that they let me go without questioning me too thoroughly. When they had dispersed, I stepped back and drank in the view in front of me, just as I had in Barcelona all those years before. I anticipated myself finally being on the other side of those windows looking out, and was just beginning to wonder why they were all lit so brightly on such a swelteringly hot day when I felt a pair of eyes fixed on my back, and whirled around so quickly that the sudden spinning sensation in my head almost made me lose my balance.
On the sandstone staircase which led down into the sprawling Mediterranean courtyard, a figure was watching me. He was slight, tanned, and dressed in a cheap, rather rumpled work suit. His hands were shoved into his pockets, and his pitch-dark hair fell in ghostly wisps over his glinting eyes, which seemed too large for his small, youthful face. They were a rich, dark amber, and shone out brightly despite the harsh glare of the sunlight. He couldn’t have been much older than fifteen, yet those eyes, framed by heavy eyelids and dark circles that spoke of extreme and prolonged fatigue, seemed to belong to something far older and more careworn; something that had lived a long and eventful life yet still continued onward despite the weight pressing down upon its soul. His gaze was solemn and unblinking.
“You’re a journalist.”
It wasn’t a question.
His voice was sharp, nasal, with a slight softness encroaching around the outer edges of each vowel. I got the impression that he was local, but he also seemed like the kind of person who would look slightly out of place wherever he went.
“Not quite. I am reviewing the house though.”
“Yeah, well, just don’t go up to the library. The structure is still somewhat unstable up in the tower.” He gestured lazily to one of the swirling turrets, before returning both hands to their pockets and leaning back on the balustrade. His eyes, hard as flint, seemed to bore into my own.
“Thank you, I’ll remember.”
“You’re English, aren’t you? Come a long way just to look at a house.”
Whatever he seemed to be implying offended me a little, although I wasn't entirely sure why.
“It’s a fascinating house. A museum piece.”
The boy raised his eyebrows sardonically, gave a slight huff of disbelief, and turned away to look over the courtyard and out towards the water garden in the distance.
“Well, you should be careful. It’s pretty fragile, and not many people here would be willing to rush to your aid if you were to get into trouble.”
From the moment I stepped inside the house, something was pulling at me. There was a heaviness in the air, like a storm brewing, an invisible thread tugging from my centre, a dull, cloudy pressure deep inside my skull. Something within the house was singing out, echoing like a tuning fork, becoming sharper and clearer with every step. Everything at the edge of my vision was dark and shimmering, and the lamps in the window alcoves took on an unnatural brightness the closer I got to the library door. I was desperate to know what lay beyond it; more desperate than I had ever been to know anything.
My hand touched the brass doorknob, and I felt that strange, lurching, light-headed sensation that comes from being upside-down on a roller-coaster, or from a gradual realisation of falling; that awful moment when you become aware that your brain and your stomach are attempting to catch up to the rest of your body. Everything seemed to be tipping very gradually, yet when I looked down at my hands, then the floor, and then focused intently on the white knuckles of the fist that gripped the doorknob, everything appeared to be perfectly still. I was not moving. I could not be moving, and yet my ever-practical mind screamed that I could not possibly be still either.This was not what stillness felt like. This was not, in fact, what anything felt like.
The doorknob twisted under my shaking fingers, before springing back so violently that it pushed me away from it and onto the wooden floor. The door swung out towards me. Instinctively, I shoved myself further back so that it wouldn’t hit me.
It passed straight through me.
I looked up, and the terror hit me like a wall.
Jesters' Retreat was no longer the elaborate but self-contained masterpiece that I had been captivated by all those months ago. This house was enormous, spiralling, an endless monstrosity of alcoves and shelves and desks and staircases, punctuated by the sickeningly vibrant crimson of windows that looked out onto absolutely nothing at all. The upper levels seemed to spin out effortlessly from the lower tier, like a gargantuan jewellery box unlocking itself, or a glistening insect gradually unfurling its prismatic wings. The jaws of each room gaped hungrily, and directly in front of me, as far as I could tell, was the edge of something huge, endless, and dark.
The bright echo in my head was excruciating now, and as tears dripped down my cheeks, I felt myself begin to move slowly forwards. A terrible, beautiful figure, as slight as cobwebs and as indistinguishable from its surroundings as mist on the ocean at dawn, reached out to invite me in, and I smiled as I realised how much I longed to take its place.
Before I could do so I felt hands at my shoulders, yanking my body backwards effortlessly as though I weighed no more than a rag doll. I caught a glimpse of a shadowy form, though the hands were flesh and blood, anchoring me to nothing as I tumbled backwards into oblivion.
They told me at the hospital that I’d slipped and fallen down the main stairs of the house. A small amount of water had been spilt earlier in the day, and the already-smooth marble floor had become even more hazardous. Apparently, taking into account the distance I had fallen and the surface I had landed on, I was lucky that my skull was still intact, but I knew that luck had nothing to do with it. I had been nowhere near the main stairs, and the feeling of slipping on a solid marble floor is very different from that of being pulled into nothingness by the unseen grasp of something not quite human.
A few weeks later, I read in one of many journals that there had been a fire at the house. It had been burnt almost entirely from the inside out, until only the outer shell remained; a ghostly skeleton of what had once been a great masterpiece. It saddened me a little, though I knew in the grand scheme of things it was probably for the best. Even now, there are days when I have to convince myself that I didn’t glimpse a pair of startlingly bright amber eyes among the crowds of Piccadilly Circus, or feel the whisper of a hand brushing my coat on an evening walk, and sometimes I still find myself grasping onto the rails in the tube station slightly harder and longer than necessary.
I’m almost there, I think. I suppose some things just stay with us.