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House No. 451

It’s old and dilapidated, with dirty, tattered curtains covering the windows, the roof on the verge of collapse and the antenna dangling from the gable on its wire. There are cracks in all the outside walls and the paint, once white, is now stained brown and flaking off in many places.

The garden is a jungle: trees and hedges growing unchecked, moss in the grass on the lawn, dandelions and daisies everywhere, and an ancient swing hanging from a tree. One of its ropes has frayed through, leaving it to trail on the ground, not moving except in gales when it drags over the grass with a mournful creaking.

No one has lived here for a long time. The rusty roof rises against the rust-red backdrop of the mountain. I’ve asked many people who lived in this house but no one seems to have heard of it ever being occupied. It’s as if it was simply built and then abandoned without ever becoming anyone’s home. I notice that the glass in the living-room window is cracked right across and the pane in the front door is broken. The wind gusts in through the gap in bitter weather.

 *

Yet someone must at least have intended to live there. On the wall by the living-room window there is a green copper plaque bearing the inscription Built 2010.

Now, as I write this, it is 2072. That’s sixty-two years. Not such a long time in the life of a house, yet no one knows anything. Last summer I bought the house next door, hence my curiosity, but I can’t find any information. When I glanced from the antenna dangling against the wall to the big satellite dishes sprouting like huge mushrooms on my own roof, I couldn’t help smiling.

“Dad,” say my daughters, “why is the house next door so ugly?”

“I don’t know, girls,” I reply and carry on writing. I’m always writing. Yet writing has become obsolete, a bit like an old house built in 2010, where no one now lives.

“Can’t you just give it up?” asks my wife, meaning my writing. She finds it bizarre; no one does it, especially not in a town like this.

“You know no one publishes books any more,” she adds.

“It doesn’t matter. I have to write.” I say it defiantly.

“Oh well,” she says with a sigh and carries on watching the 200-inch screen that covers almost the entire wall of our living room. No books are allowed on these walls.

*

I sit in my little room writing. I write by hand on paper, as people used to before. I’ve put aside my featherlite-computer; it will soon be obsolete anyway, like everything else. Every day something becomes obsolete. It’s a word we live in fear of nowadays. Every time the word is invoked people shrink with secret dread.

Dusk is falling. I look out of the window, through the super-glass that they use in spacecraft; everyone has it now. The sycamores in the garden are beautiful, yet many people regard them as obsolete and won’t have any trees on their plots. I gaze through the foliage at the derelict house. The curtains in the window facing me look as if they’re made of canvas, hanging any which way from their rings, spotted with grime. All of a sudden I think I glimpse a faint glow behind them, as if someone has gone into the house and turned on a light or even lit a candle in spite of the safety ban.

I decide to go out into the garden and, rising from my desk with all its papers, recall some words I once read: Why sit down to write if you haven’t lived?

I walk through the living room. The bluish glare from the giant screen dominates the room, filling our wall with huge, sinister human forms. We’re invaded by total strangers every evening, here in our own home. My wife is sitting on the white sofa, utterly enthralled by these uninvited guests.

“Where are the girls?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer immediately.

I repeat my question.

“They’re in their room, playing in virtual reality.”

“Of course,” I say.

As I put on my jacket I wish I could go back at least sixty years in time, to the year 2012. That would have been two years after the house next door was built, and there would have been nothing but grass here where I’m standing now in the hall.

But I don’t know how to time-travel.

My jacket is gray, made of some strange artificial fiber that glitters in the dusk. I don’t find it particularly comfortable but my wife wants me to wear it. Apparently it’s the fashion. Once out in the garden I walk among the sycamores and wonder how long I’ll be allowed to keep them. Most people want the trees removed. Why has the house next door never been knocked down?

It’s allowed to remain, out of sync with all the other houses; the straight rows, all similar in character, or rather in their lack of character.

Because I haven’t erected a fence between the gardens, I can walk straight over on to the other lawn. The grass there is very high; it’s never mown, and the moss is as soft as a carpet underfoot.

As I step up on to the moldering concrete pavement outside the front door, I seem to hear something, like the whispering of many voices.

I could be mistaken. But now I notice that behind the living-room curtains there is a glow from a small flashlight or candle. Quite suddenly, the curtains appear new, the pavement no longer moldering, the house freshly painted, and it is 2012 again. I stand there on the steps as if I live in the house now and have just come out for a breath of fresh air before going back inside to talk to my family by the fire.

*

I stand there for some time before the year 2072 returns. As one would say of a vintage, it’s not a good year. There’s been no real fermentation. I feel I’d rather live in 2012. There’s a slight breeze and I see the rope of the swing stirring, though it would take a much stronger gust to make it drag over the grass with that creaking sound that I’ve come to know so well.

I hear the whispering again from inside. After glancing over at my house, which now seems to belong to someone else, I take hold of the front door handle. It’s locked. At this point I do something strange; I reach into my pocket and take out a key which I insert in the lock, though it’s hard to locate in the dusk.

The key fits. I open the door and step inside. There’s no smell of damp as I was expecting and now I can clearly see the glow lighting up the hall from the living room. I call out in a low voice:

“Is there anybody there?”

That’s all I remember.

 

“Hús Nr. 451,” in Milli Trjánna (Akranesi: Uppheimar, 2009). © 2009 by Gyrdir Eliasson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Victoria Cribb. All rights reserved.