The Door To The River

This story first appeared in the 2015 collection of short fiction, After The Crash and other stories


It was late one July evening, long past his bedtime, that Quin found the rusty door under the trees at the end of his garden. He crept through of the scullery and walked out into the falling light. The air was warm and sticky with the soft thickness of the summer night as he went down the overgrown path that led through the glade. 

There was hardly a breath of wind in the three big oak trees that grew on the western side of the house. There were swallows catching flies in the dusk, diving and turning. There were many sounds in the garden of other birds calling, and the low hum of insects came through when the birds were quiet. Far away, very high up or in the far distance, there was a deeper drone, like the sound of a plane.

The evening sun was almost on the horizon, and the taller oak trees cast shadows right across the lawn, beyond the east wall, and out into the meadow on the other side of the garden. The shadows were long, and it seemed to Quin they might belong to another world entirely, to a realm of plants perhaps never seen for thousands of years. At the far corner of the lawn where it met the copper beech trees at the edge of Briar Wood, he felt the air around him grow warmer still. The scent of the summer day that had almost passed hung heavy in the opening of the glade that led into the wood. 

The light was falling faster in the deeper shadows of the glade, and Quin had to look hard into the middle distance to see which way the path would lead him. He had been this way before, although never this late in the evening. Now it seemed that he was treading a quite different path to the one he knew, and the wood grew darker.

The growing gloom seemed to alter the colours and shapes of the trees. As he turned a sharp corner in the path, Quin stumbled on a fallen branch or a root, and almost fell. He stopped to regain his balance, and looked up, staring straight ahead. In the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something between a pair of tangled laurels; an abrupt, blurred flash of colour, noticeable only because it was different to the dim green-black forms of the entwined laurels and the surrounding trees. 

Quin caught his breath as he stepped forward towards it, his steps slow and careful. He could feel his heart pounding, afraid that he would disturb something.

The big waxy leaves of the laurel trees were almost black, shining a certain angles in the dusky light. Quin brushed them aside. He peered intently through the small gap he had made in the leaves, and his whole body trembled. At first, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw nothing but the darkness all around. Then, suddenly, a shape appeared from out of that darkness behind the laurels. 

There was a door in the trees, in the deepest and darkest place at the very end of his garden. It was a very small door, less than a meter high, so even Quin would have to crouch down to get through it. It seemed to be made of iron, and was completely covered in a thick rust. It looked very old. The rust had spread over the door in swathes of red and brown, and there were a few patches of green moss growing on it. Quin traced around the edge of the door with his fingers, hoping to find a bolt or a catch, or anything else that might give him a chance of opening it. But he found nothing but a few gnarled lumps of rust that protruded from the surface of the door like the warts on his grandfather’s fingers. 

Suddenly tired, he sat down, his back resting against the door. A few of last year's leaves, tinder-dry from the summer heat, crackled here and there as he stretched his legs. Leaning against the door, Quin felt suddenly older than his nine short years. It was as if he had lived here in the garden for an unknown time, quietly moving further into deepening shade. 

He heard the faintest breath of wind touching the upper branches of the highest trees all around him, a long way above. He wondered how high the very highest trees grew, the ones he had read about in the jungles of distant lands. 

The wind soon died, and the whispering of the trees soon vanished with it. The woods were almost silent, apart from the odd rustle and crack from some nearby thicket, which Quin took to be the sounds of woodland animals. After a while, those sounds disappeared altogether, and the woods were quite silent and still. 

For a moment it seemed the visible darkness of the world was completely silent and still. Quin thought that his own breath would disturb the silence, so he held it within him for as long as he could, like an unknowable secret.

Quin hardly took a breath from that silence all around. Then in an instant he heard a strange, slow noise, completely distinct from the other sounds of the wood. At first it was so quiet he could hardly tell what it was. It grew very slowly, becoming audible at last as a sort of creaking, like an old rusty hinge opening. Quin felt his whole back sliding suddenly, like a shoe on a wet stone. 

The door began to creak open very slowly. 

He didn't want to move. He was afraid if he did, the door might slam shut again, and he would never know what lay on the other side. 

Quin now lay on the soft ground, flat on his back. He stared up into the trees and listened as hard as he could. He could hear a ringing sound in his ears, but when the ringing stopped, another sound came through, very softly at first, but then it grew stronger. It was a rushing, gurgling, sloshing sound, like water running through a channel. 

A river!

Quin could hardly believe it. A secret door to a river at the end of the garden that nobody knew about. Maybe nobody had opened it for many years. Perhaps even his grandfather had never been through it. 

He felt a shiver run around his head and down his back as he thought about where he had just accidentally arrived. He was convinced that nobody except Quin, aged nine and three-quarters, had ever been here before. He felt a cool wind blow through the trees, a river wind from far upriver, from another place entirely, and he shivered again. 

But Quin was by now far too curious not to look just a little bit further around the door. Brushing away the tangled briars with his hands, he crept across the threshold. He raised his head and squinted hard into the night, watching and listening for something that might be here, in this unknown country on the other side of the door. 

A gust of wind blew up and shook the trees.

As the trees fell quiet, Quin heard the sound of a great rushing of water breaking through the woods, so clear that he thought he might be standing right on the river's edge. And so he crept on through the trees, heading towards that sound of water flowing through the night and through the trees. Quin stumbled on a log or a branch, just catching his footing before he fell, and looked up with a start. 

Stretching out before him was the river: a wide beam of water that glistened in the night, shining with an oily, blue-black light as it slopped and sloshed its way downstream. There were shapes out there, in the fast stream of water in the river's heart. Quin could only see them because they seemed to reflect a quite different sort of light than the light that came off the water. He thought that perhaps they were rocks that had been smoothed by the flow of the water as it sluiced around them in swirls and whorls. Afterwards, the river would catch itself in an eddy before disappearing into the night. 

Quin watched the eddy for a long time, thinking about his discovery. He concentrated on the movement of the water and listened to the sound of the river flowing through the world of the night, and he listened to the other sounds from the wood that drifted through the infinite mystery of the thick black air. 

The hum of the insects and occasional calls of night-jars mingled with the sound of the river, and Quin soon felt those sounds themselves begin to occupy his thoughts and extend through his whole body. 

After a while, Quin realised he was tired, and leant against a thick clump of tangled rushes at the river's edge. He soon stretched out flat on the rushes, gazing up through the branches into the night sky. Stars were coming out now, high up above the tops of the highest trees. 

Quin stared into the darkest corners of the sky, where there were only a few stars. He watched one star falling through a very dark place in the sky for a second or two, until it suddenly vanished altogether. Quin had heard about shooting stars, and wondered where they came from. This puzzled him, but he soon remembered how tired he was, and slowly closed his eyes. 

After a while, he drifted off into sleep. In the middle of that midsummer night at the beginning of his life, Quin dreamt of trees moving in the night air. He dreamt of a thousand unknown creatures that lived in the trees and of a great strangeness hidden there. And he dreamt of the sound of running water that rose up before it folded back into the green darkness from which it came. 

After a while, the sound of the water faded and merged into a deeper realm of space. His dream ran on with the roll and turn of the midnight water. 

Dawn began to break in the air above the highest trees. A strip of light raced through the sky and the darkness retreated back. Soon, the sun rising over the river would explode into the rushing water. 

Somewhere else, Quin could hear a radio playing. Where was he now? And where was that secret door hidden in the darkness of the garden? 

Quin awoke to the sound of rushing water. Even before he opened his eyes, he was aware that something had happened. The sound of the water now was different to the sound he remembered as he fell asleep.

The sound was stronger, louder, faster. Lost amid that strange, quiet space between sleeping and waking, Quin opened his eyes. He was lying flat on his back, and all he could see was the colour blue. It was a primary blue, the sort you only get if nothing else is mixed with it. It was morning. 

Turning his head and looking up, Quin suddenly found himself in an unexpected place. So that was the reason the sound of the water was so much louder: he was floating on a great clump of briars and rushes, right out in the middle of the river. 

Surely, this was another river to the one he had found the previous night, through the door at the end of the garden. It was enormous. It seemed to him like a very big river, perhaps the biggest river he had ever seen. He could hardly tell how wide it was, as he peered out over the edge of his precarious raft of rushes adrift on the flowing water. 

It was a fine summer morning. Beyond the river's edge, there were woods that came right down to the riverbank, and he watched as a squaw of jackdaws rose above the trees. Quin thought he could even smell a sort of woodland smell on the morning air, the smell of foliage and soil all mixed up with the reedy, earthy smell of the river itself. 

The hills that lay on the far side of the riverbank, on the other hand, seemed far away. The highest ridge of the hills formed the horizon from Quin's perspective at river level, and defined the limit of his vision in that direction. But they seemed so far away it was hard to work out how many miles of country lay between the river and the most distant of the hills. 

Looking downriver, Quin made out what looked like a small island in midstream, a bank of stony ground with a few, hardy trees clinging to it. He seemed to be heading straight for it. Calculating the speed of the current, he reckoned his raft would strike the bank of the island in just a couple of minutes. 

Swirling in the current, he watched the world beyond the river slip by, like a film played back in slow motion. The island was almost upon him now, so close he could make out the shape of the individual trees that somehow had taken root in the stony bank. In a few moments, Quin felt his raft come aground with an unmistakable slew, like a boat's keel coming aground on a shingle beach. The momentum of the raft, driven by the river's current, was cut short suddenly by the spit of the island. 

On the near bank of the island there were three old trees, all dead, their branches white from years of sun and rain. On the far bank there lay an enormous boulder, shaped like an egg, which lay on its side facing the flow of the river. The sun was high. 

It must be nearly noon, Quin thought. 

But then something happened. Lying on his raft, moored precariously on that bank of shingle in the heart of the river, staring into the blue air and feeling the hot sun warming his body, Quin suddenly fell fast asleep. Very soon, he began to dream of a great river running through the woods, and then out into open country.

Through the deep of the night and in the dream, the river swirled around a hundred islands. There were strange shadows across the water. The shadows changed the colour of the river from a dark brown to a murky, inky black. It was hard to tell the islands from the river itself when the shadows crossed. There were very few sounds other than the endless, murmuring rush of the river. 

Somewhere, far in the distance, a long, still cry broke through the night air. It lasted for two or three seconds, and vanished. Afterwards, even the river was silent, as if the water’s movement itself were silenced by that cry. It was a sound like no other on earth. As the sound faded, a stillness descended in the cooling air.

Night thickened, twisting like a great cloak around the river and the river islands.

Among galaxies of shadow, the sound of the night wind began to rise, running through the woods and down the river and across the river’s darkness, on and on, around the blind circumference of the world.  

‘Quin… Quin! Quin!’

 ‘Get up, you lazy little monster!’    

Quin woke with a start to the sharp but soothing sound of his mother’s scolding. 

‘It’s time for breakfast dear. If you’re late for breakfast, you’ll be late for school. And I’m not having you going to school without breakfast, and I’m not having you being late for school. So get up and get dressed and come downstairs right away!’

Quin stirred and rose, shaking his head. His pajamas were damp with sweat and the sheets had a sweet and musty smell. It was, Quin thought, the smell of reeds and river water. 

Quin quickly got dressed into his school uniform. He tied his tie and folded the collar of his shirt. Then he looked at his own reflection in the mirror, blinking. 

Who was this here, this boy with a faraway glint in the deepest reaches of his eyes?  To what country had he been? In what hemisphere did it lie? Where was he now? 

As he crept downstairs, his mother’s voice echoed through the bright hallway, and he looked through the window on the landing that looked out across Briar Wood. 

In the distance, somewhere on the cusp of the morning, Quin thought he saw a series of bright reflections moving beyond the trees, like strips of torn silver on a pale green surface. 

Just then, through the open window, he felt the first warm wind of the summer day rise from the edge of the wood and over the garden, full of the smell of rushes and river mud and old leaves. In the distance, Quin thought he could hear the sound of water rushing somewhere beyond the wood at the end of the garden, somewhere in the night far away and long ago.