He was his father’s son he thought. The old man no longer had the breath to say it, nor the time during his long life, but he would have been proud of his son. The family business was in order and profit more than it had been in years. Every account was spilling over with the profits made since the young man had taken the reigns of his fathers Empire.
The car stuttered along the cobbles of the back streets towards the address given in his father’s will. The reading had been an odd occasion for the heir, not least because he’d assumed his father was invincible. The old man’s last words to his son were to thank him for the time they’d spent together in the end. He’s spent no more time with his father in those last weeks than he had for the rest of his life which was no time at all. His father’s will and focus were the two things that made his son admire and hate him so equally. He knew that his father was one of the most successful businessmen of his day but that day was long gone.
The car stopped alongside an alleyway that looked nothing like the last meeting place the heir had imagined. A finely dressed old man, of an age with his father, waited by the entrance to the dark alleyway.
Stepping from the stuttering vehicle the heir asked the name of his father’s representative. The old man deflected the question and beckoned the heir to follow him. Following the old man down the alley he knew that they were walking into the heart of a large complex of houses but they emerged instead on the lawn of a spacious estate. While the old man continued up the lawn to a large house the heir wondered how they could possibly arrive at a destination so far from their point of origin.
Up the hill the old man opened the door where, somewhere inside the house was a package or parcel intended for him. The entire residence seemed like a library, books and papers sat, dusty on shelves tables and indeed the floor. On every available chair it seemed there was an old man either in discussion with another, himself or fast asleep. Through a labyrinth of rooms which were adjoined by false walls and sharp turns the old man stopped after what seemed like miles of walking within the stately home and pointed into a dimly lit room. The son asked where his father might have left the package in an entire room. The reply to his question was that it would be obvious where he was to look for his inheritance.
The heir knew this strange clubhouse from a singular visit he made as a young boy. His father had dragged him through the candle lit house. As a child he had wanted to explore the ruin of a library which back then had been covered in endless maps of the world. His impatient father had no patience for his curiosity and quickly dragged him in and out of the building with no pause.
In the dingy room he saw little and fetched in a candle to shed light on his father’s den. It was as clear what his father had left to him as the old man had said. All else in the room was grey with a thick layer of dust but the parchment folded on a bar top. Trying not to touch anything else lest it cover his pristine suit in muck the heir lifted his inheritance. It was a map of London.
He almost swore. That was it? A map? A stained, brown old map? From his entrepreneur father known all about for business acumen and the habit of acquiring anything of value for miles this was the big gift? He roughly folded the map and crushed it into his upper pocket. He stormed through the sleepy house at full pace until he realised he was truly lost.
On the off chance that the map somehow included a layout of the house he retrieved it from his pocket. Expecting to see the same pictorial diagram of London he was shocked to see a fully detailed illustration of the house. He turned over the paper looking for the other image. It was nowhere.
He followed a marked ‘path to exit’ and found himself in a glass house full of tropical fruit that he’d never bought even with his amassed funds. Emerging onto dying grass he was, without a doubt, miles from his entry point to the house. His pocket watch informed him that it was almost exactly quarter past three. By four he was expected to meet his betrothed to overview proceedings for a benefit dinner in aid of the company workers. As little as he cared for the cause the heir did not want to stand up his fiancée. The young woman, daughter of his father’s good friend, was thankfully as beautiful and warm as her father was astute and economically ruthless.
Completely a loss for his location on the earths surface, he looked again at the map whose focus had shifted to a series of gardens and another marked ‘path to Redmill Road’ from there he could navigate all of the well to do regions of London but he stood and stared at the map. He was not a believer in magic and had only the vaguest of spiritual leanings. While all and sundry spoke of time to reflect over the winter on the birthday of the saviour his father reviewed accounts. Following in that tradition he weathered the cold inside looking over profit margins by the fire.
The map changed whenever he moved and looked back at it. He was on Redmill road still staring at the map with on lookers peering at him over ragged scarves. He should be elsewhere he knew, Redmill was well to do but far enough from the station of the constabulary that muggers would congregate there. He saw beady eyes watching. And paid as little heed as seemed possible. Even feigning fearlessness seemed to guard against the violent intentions of others. Keeping the circling rabble in mind he stared still more closely at the map on which he was standing along the ‘escape route’. He followed the path down a dark alley as others decided that it was important for them to walk down that same side road. He was again in another sector of the city from which one of his factories could be seen. The path he had walked was nowhere to be seen nor were the men who had followed.
From that road his house was but a short walk, five minutes later his fiancée was greeting him at the door. Her father was enjoying a glass of scotch in the dinning room and greeted him jovially. The old man wanted to confirm plans for the benefit dinner. He held shares, small shares in the business besides residing over his own sizable empire of factories and farmland. Like the heirs father the businessman was known for his precise timing in all things. He was never early or late.
More than he ever had his father the heir considered his soon to be father in law a friend. He asked what the will might have meant about getting to know him better when they’d spent no more time together before his death. The dead man’s friend told the heir that his father was not a man to waste words that could not be taken literally. This was absurd. His father had not seen him in weeks before his demise and only then to berate him for the reformations made in his investments despite their increased yield.
He wanted to see his father, to stand up to the old man and justify his actions. He was wandering as he thought and found himself suddenly very warm. He looked up from the map and saw the world of August when he’d just left a cold December. It was nonsense, he knew the weather eve there never changed so quickly nor could the plants grow at such a pace. He recognised his father’s retread on the outskirts of the city. Miles away again he knew he pocketed the map in his coat and walked up the garden path.
The apple trees in the garden were all in full bloom and every flower at it’s best and the pride of the gardener. From the overhanging tree at the door he stole an apple out of habit and rubbed it on his coat. Instead of using the ornate door knocker, which damaged the paint on the door, he knocked and waited for the butler or the house maid to open the door. There was a rabble beyond the door which sounded particularly like his father, the butler always had.
An old man opened the door who was not the butler and very definitely not the maid. He dropped the apple which slapped the ground and left debris across the mat.
“What are you doing here?” His father asked. “I left you minding the factory, I’ve told you about eating the apples and now you’ve dropped one, such a waste!” The man looked furious, much as always but suddenly leaned in to look more closely at his son and patted down his jacket before removing the map from his pocket.
“Ah, you’ve got it then… Are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” The old man chuckled and pulled his son through the door into the house. There were no staff it seemed, just the father he knew to be dead. “You look confused, I take it you don’t understand it yet?”
Slack jawed the heir shook his head and followed his father through the house to the study which faced into the back garden through the large windows. Outside the gardener could be seen tending the vegetables but the old man closed the curtains. “We’ll be needing privacy for this talk, he knows not to bother me while I work.” The old man laughed at the silent confusion of his heir. “You should see your face but…” He looked around, “I guess you wont.” He raised his eyebrows and was about to speak when his sons confusion broke.
“You’ve never spoken with such favour, such kindness. You’re dead and now you talk with joy!” The old man looked at the ground, ashamed of himself.
“I’m sorry. I raised you as my father raised me, he says it makes us stronger. I always meant the best for you, just like him.”
“This is nonsense. Grandfather is dead. As are you.”
“Yes he’s dead here just as I am dead where you came from but there are always other places.” The heir rubbed his forehead, dumbfounded.
“Have a seat.” His father pulled an armchair over from the writing desk. The heir sat in his father’s chair wondering how he could converse with the dead.
“I must tell you now how and why you’re here.” He opened his cigar box and selected one. The heir’s father had always enjoyed cigars, right to the end. “The map you have. I have one as well. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a similar piece of folded parchment. “This piece of paper, if we’re calling it that, is the reason we can have this conversation. I am just one in a long line of men who have inherited the map.” His son drew breath to speak but was silenced as the old man raised his hand. “I have to explain so please, do not interrupt me.” He drew a deep breath from the cigar and exhaled. “It’s a cheat, we can’t do this you know that. The map helps us forget logic, it carves a new path that that bypasses the truth. We don’t know how it works or why and we probably never will. We are selfish old men who use it for our own means. That house isn’t accessible without the map. The garden, the land about it all of it is just fictional. It only exists here.” The old man held up his parchment. The ink of an unseen quill spread across it, drawing the house the heir had seen. “I took you as a child, you had to see it. My grandfather thought it helped to see it as a child. He was sure something about the fiction bound itself to you if you saw it young enough. I’m not so sure as him but at least you’re not shouting like him when his father told him, I watched, quite a fuss.”
There was no precedent, that the heir knew of at the time, for an occurrence of such contradiction. His father was dead, he’d seen the body. His grandfather was definitely dead, he’d visited the grave. His father was never kind, he’d gone to his grave without saying a kind word to his son. The entire situation was ludicrous. He must have gone mad, but…
“You’re not mad, no more than me. Almost certainly a lot less than I am. This is real. This was meant to happen.” The heir looked at his father with a blank, doe eyed expression he’d not worn since childhood. “I was cruel I know but look at you now, such a man. Do you know how proud I am of you? Maybe not but look at yourself.” The old puffed as he pushed the old chair across the old floor in front of the old mirror. “This is the son I always wanted, strong, decisive. You are everything I wanted you to be and that’s quite possibly because I was nothing you wanted me to be. I was cold and cruel and despite your many achievements I never praised you. Do you know why.” The son almost interrupted but again the hand was raised and again he was silent. “I never praised you because if I had you would have stopped. I could see a foot always wavering on the next rung of the ladder, waiting to stop. That’s why I left you, I wanted to see how far you could go.”
The heir buried his face in his hands and thought back to every accomplishment of his life and his father’s response. “What’s next? That’s what I always asked you because I wanted to know where your ambitions would take you. You see it don’t you? Please tell me you understand?” The old man’s furrowed brow was damp with sweat and he looked about to cry. His son had never seen him in such a manner. “I’m sorry.” He spoke, mumbling. “I just wanted the best for you.”
“I think I understand.” Said the heir to the floor. “But this is madness.”
“Yes.” Said the old man smiling as a tear rolled down his cheek which he wiped away. “It is ridiculous isn’t it.” He stubbed out the cigar in the ash tray, trails of smoke spiralled into the air in the dimly lit room. “You should meet them, all of them, come with me.” He reached out his hand and grasped his son’s trembling fingers beneath his. “Come on now. You’re stronger than that.” The heir had heard fraises like that from his father all of his life but always barked. Never spoken so softly.
The old man guided his son down the cluttered hallway and through several rooms that the heir did not remember. The heir paid no attention to the background but watched his father as they moved. The old man had been caught in a new light. The new light was warmer, more fragile and giving. The new light cast itself in the form of a smile and it’s shadow.
When the young man looked away from the old man he saw the same old house. He saw the same gardens with the same trees and greenhouses. He remembered something, something that should have been important. “I’m supposed to be talking with him, her father.”
“Oh that yeas, I know. He told me, don’t worry he isn’t going anywhere.” His son just stared at him.
“Come on in,” he pulled his son into the house.
The house was as dusty, the men as old but they looked more familiar than before. His father coughed, two shut their books and left. The others crowded around the heir and his father. All of them talked at once. All of them said hello and introduced themselves. His grandfather said hello as did his great grandfather, his son, grandson, his great grandson. He looked at the faces, so familiar. His son looked like him, and his father and the others but a bit like his fiancée as well.
They talked, all of them talked, for hours. Hours and hours passed and he soaked it all up. Stories of tricks and trading that made no sense but he listened. It was sinking in slowly, realisation was growing. He left the house a different man, the map in his pocket.
“I should get back to dinner. Another time father?”
“Of course. Say hello to Harold for me.”
“Harold?” He knew his would be father in law was called Harold but knew as well that only his wife ever had the nerve to call him by it.
“He’s an old friend but that’s a conversation for another time.”
“Until later then. Farewell.”
He left the house and walked casually down the lawn. He had the world in his pocket with the map. He turned around on the spot and watched the dizzy world come back into focus and walked through from the study of his home back to the dinning table of his home. He took the map from his pocket and fanned himself with it. Harold smiled, he knew. The heir returned the smile and excused himself with his soon to be wife.
He took his fiancée’s hand and looked into her dazzling eyes. He wanted to show her the world and because he wanted to, he did.