Joseph slowed his car outside the wooden front gates. A long-furred white cat bathed in the afternoon sun, sprawled atop one of the gateposts and failing to acknowledge his arrival. He rolled down the window and listened to his surroundings for a second. The soothing silence of the forest enhanced his nervousness as he checked his map once more before wiping his brow. A curious fly zapped around the windshield as the young man tried to confirm this was in fact the right place. No luck. He decided to drive his wagon through the gates. An uneasy rumbling surged in his stomach as he stopped by the first wooden bungalow, where an old man smoked his pipe on the front porch. A rusty white sign hung above the wooden door with bright-red letters announcing: GROUNDSMAN. Joseph closed the car door behind him and motioned towards the man.
“Howdy, neighbour.” said the man. Smoke concealed the right half of his face.
“Hello sir, my name’s Joseph, I wrote you a letter saying I was coming here about a month back.”
“We don’t get correspondence here at the retreat.” The man said, barely looking Joseph in the eye.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you did, and that you’d be expecting me.”
“Don’t worry young man, you’re here now. How was your drive?”
“I got lost a couple of times, but managed to find my way eventually.”
“Making it here is half the journey. People come to these woods trying to find themselves, without realising how long they’ve been lost for.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” Joseph said.
The man let the words linger in the stillness of the forest. He observed the new arrival as if trying to decipher his whole existence right away. Joseph wiped the sweat off his brow and tried to smother the silence.
“Will you show me to my chalet, then?”
“We weren’t exactly expecting you today, Joe.”
“It’s Joseph, and I did send a letter, sir.”
“We don’t get correspondence at the retreat.”
“Yes, you’ve said that, and…”
“And you’ve told me you sent that letter. Words are just that, words. Once you set them on paper, then they become concrete.”
It was now Joseph’s turn to analyse the man’s cryptic words amidst the cloud of smoke floating around him.
“That’s why I wrote the…” he stopped himself mid-sentence. What is up with this guy?, he thought. The mixed words of wisdom made him question his host’s sobriety. He decided to play it safe.
“Look, how about I leave you to tend to your pipe and you just point me in the right direction? I’ll park my car by my bungalow and you can continue to enjoy your afternoon smoke.”
The man took a long, pensive drag from his ivory pipe.
“I’m Steve, by the way.”
Joseph decided to come up to the porch and extended his hand out to the man, who observed his palm like a child observes a plate of vegetable soup being set in front of them. He looked him in the eye as if trying to measure his guest’s self-assurance. A closer look at the groundsman’s sun-worn skin told the story of a life well lived. He shook Joseph’s hand, who stood in front of his chair awaiting instructions.
“Get out of my way.” the man said. “See that bungalow down the far end, next to the old pine?”
He pointed his crooked finger straight ahead, as Joseph struggled to guess which tree the man meant amongst the impressive line of pines in sight.
“Yes, sir. I’ll move my car down straight away. Thanks again, Mr…”
“Call me Steve. Now fuck off and let me enjoy my sunset.”
Joseph jumped off the porch with an excited pace, thrilled to have survived the dialogue with the man, as if he had just passed his first test at the retreat. He looked around and struggled to understand what sunset Steve referred to, as the dense tree tops made it almost impossible to see anything past them.
Joseph drove his wagon further inside the retreat through a dusty stretch of road he would walk several times in the following days. He analysed the row of bungalows amid the pines: their tarnished wooden tops contrasted with nature’s surrounding palette of dark greens and solid browns. He decided to stop by the third chalet, the only one with a number marked on the porch. The door was unlocked and Joseph took this as a sign: the retreat had chosen this as his enclosure for the days to come, regardless of whether the old man had been expecting him or not. Great things to come, he thought, as a deep breath gave him confidence to start making this place his own. He organised his belongings methodically, setting down his pristinely vintage typewriter on an old desk facing the window. This would be his accommodation for the foreseeable future, and the young man wanted it to feel like home. He opened his suitcase and started to arrange his black t-shirts in an orderly fashion, an activity which always helped calm his anxiety. And then a sound— a creak on his wooden porch. He pulled back the curtains and peeked out the window. He hadn’t realised how fast the sun had set over the trees, inviting a humid darkness to take over the forest. His neighbour turned his outside light on and a glimmer of hope came over Joseph: he wasn’t the only guest at the retreat. He observed the man as he tended to his washing carrying a bald head with pride, its paleness contrasting with a plain black t-shirt. Joseph was amused by this and decided to greet his new neighbour.
“Black t-shirt and jeans, also known as the aspiring writer starter pack.” Joseph called out to his neighbour from his porch. The man looked up.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That was me trying to make a joke.”
The man looked at Joseph with a puzzled look. A couple of birds soared past, eager to find their refuge for the night, their chirps piercing the silence.
“I’m Joseph, your new writing neighbour.”
“What makes you think I write?”
“Well, this is a writing retreat, isn’t it?”
“Are you saying that just because I wear a black t-shirt and jeans, I must be a writer?”
Joseph held his ground, trying to get a read on the man’s face, to no avail.
“Talk about judging a book by its cover, man. Jeez.” the man said as he continued to gather his dried washing.
“I’m sorry, I was trying to say hello, shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. I’ll leave you to it.”
Joseph turned around and started walking back inside.
“Jesus Christ man.” His neighbour called out. “I’m just fuckin’ with you. Of course I’m a fuckin’ writer. It’s a fuckin’ writing retreat, isn’t it?”
The man laughed out loud and Joseph allowed himself an uncomfortable smile.
“I’m Johnny, by the way. Nice to meet a fellow masochist.”
“It can be like that sometimes. Hey, how do you go about getting food around here?”
The neighbour laughed and started walking towards his bungalow. He climbed his porch and turned back towards Joseph.
“The first night is always the hardest. Tomorrow I can show you a few fishing spots, you need to learn to fend for yourself out here. But that’s if you make it through the first night. Most don’t. Especially not the ones staying at number three.”
“How do you mean, Johnny?”
“Good night, man.”
Johnny slammed his bungalow door shut. The letters DO NOT DISTURB were painted on the wooden door. Nice guy, Joseph thought. The night had now completely taken over the woods, and a rattle in the dark assured he locked the door to his wooden refuge. He looked around and was content with the small space’s simple arrangement. No distractions. Time to write, I guess.
The clanking of the typewriter resounded against the wooden walls of the bungalow, but Joseph knew his fingers weren’t moving. His stomach hurt as the pace of the clicking and clanking increased by the paragraph. He tried to stop it, but the pressure of gravity impeded him from getting up. Deep breath. He opened his eyes and realised he was laying down in bed, the frenetic sound of letters turning into words bouncing inside his head like a squash ball. He tried to get up, but the weight of two opened palms on his chest prevented him from doing so. His heart raced as he felt his lungs were about to succumb to the pressuring panic. He tried to scream but his voice was gone. Just as he was about to give up, Joseph braced for impact.
He opened his eyes and saw the inside of his bungalow. A quick glance towards the typewriter was met with a blank page staring back at him. He sat up and his stomach grunted in despair. Still hungry, he realised. The wall clock marked 3:34. I need to go see this groundsman for food, he thought. He put on his boots and looked around the room for a torch. No luck. He decided to break one of his rules and turned his phone on. No reception, but the torch would do. He took a deep breath and prepared himself to start the short walk towards Steve’s bungalow. As he opened the door, a cold wind blew through his body and throughout the room. Could do with some fresh air.
He descended the two steps from his porch. Nocturnal hoots and calls echoed all around him. This comforted him and made him feel less lonely in his trek. The forest held the secrets of many artists walking these woods in search for inspiration. Joseph took a deep breath and looked up to the stars, a full moon staring back at him as if to tell him: it is going to be alright.
He arrived at the groundsman’s place. The sparseness surrounding the chalet gave the scene both a solitary and homely feeling, as if this was the last piece of civilisation for years to come. He climbed the steps which led to the entrance and peeked through the window. The layers of dust covering the glass made it almost impossible to discern if the cottage was inhabited. No light from within. His attention was then focused on to the back of the place, partially delineated by the remains of a picket fence, its white now peeled back to an almost mossy green and grey. Central to the backyard was a swimming pool complemented by an old green and yellow parasol, with a person sitting under it. Joseph edged closer. The whole scene gave him an uneasy admiration towards the incompleteness of the picture, for the pool lacked its most important feature: water.
“Howdy neighbour.” Joseph said in his polite manner, to which the man failed to respond. “Steve?”
The man squirmed in his chair and dropped a leather-bound notebook. He stood up and grabbed it, holding on to his safari-like hat.
“Jesus, Joseph and Mary, do you wanna give me a fuckin’ heart attack?”
“I’m sorry Steve, I didn’t mean to wake you, but I can’t sleep because I’m super hungry.”
“What am I, a bloody babysitter?”
“Do you have anything to eat at all?”
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ. Have a seat.”
Steve sat back down on his chair and pointed at a sun lounge on the far end of the pool.
“What happened to the water?” Joseph asked as he dragged it towards the table.
“I don’t swim. This is where I come to stargaze. Wanna drink?”
“Do you have anything to eat?”
“There is a diner about twelve miles where you came from. Opens at six.”
“What am I to eat, then?”
“Have some of this.”
Steve threw out the liquid in a dirty glass and poured Joseph a drink.
“I haven’t eaten since lunch; I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“What else are you gonna do until six? Drink up.”
Joseph looked at the man’s sleepy face and decided to join him.
“Cheers.” Steve said. Joseph felt the whiskey instantly warm his empty stomach. They were silent for a second. “How’s the writing going?”
“It’s… it’s going. Hard to do anything without food.”
“When the mind sets itself a goal, the body is merely a vessel. Want some mushrooms?”
Joseph looked at the groundsman’s face under the moonlight as if trying to understand the man’s seriousness.
“I’m… I’m good. Big day tomorrow.”
“How d’you mean?”
“I got a novel to write.”
“I see. What’s it about?”
“Life, I guess.”
Steve lit up a cigar and took a long sip from his whiskey.
“How long has this writing block been going on for?”
“I don’t have a block per se…”
“It’s a fuckin’ writer’s retreat, kid. No one comes here unless their writing ambitions are in some serious trouble.”
“I don’t know about ambitions. I have ideas, but… life just gets in the way.”
“Yeah,” Steve chuckled. “life.”
Joseph took a long, harsh sip from the amber liqueur. He studied the man as he stared at the stars.
“Do you write?” Joseph asked.
“A long time ago. Now I just feed off young writers like you and drink from their infinite fountain of youth.”
Joseph laughed and leaned back on his sun lounge. He studied the man as he wore his safari hat under the stars. His initial judgment of what he had thought to be contemptuousness was slowly morphing to a growing admiration towards the man’s complete lack of worries. Perhaps he did have something to learn from him.
“You know what?” He turned around to the groundsman who failed to acknowledge his excitement. “Maybe I will try those mushrooms. Just a tad though.”
The groundsman turned around in his chair and Joseph saw him smile for the first time. He handed the young man a handful of what looked like dry dirt and bark. Joseph washed it down with the whiskey.
“Welcome to the retreat.” Steve said, as they clinked their glasses once more and stared at the full moon.
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