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The door

Daniel found the door to another world the day his father died.

It sat behind the ugly painting of a hillside in France that his dad bought at a second hand shop a few years ago; he hung it proudly in his bedroom, despite Daniel’s mother’s protests. It was hanging at an angle when Daniel came to check on the house. When he straightened it, he caught a glimpse of shiny, red wood: a small square door sealed with a brass latch.

He pulled the latch and found it opened easily. Golden sunlight illuminated the dusty room; through the frame, he saw a cloudless, shimmering blue sky. Spirals of brightly-colored birds he had never seen before flew between trees. A warm breeze ran through his hair.

He shut the door with a start.

Surely he was imagining things?

Gently, he opened it again; just a crack. Again, he felt the breeze against his skin and heard the call of unfamiliar birds. It was the dead of winter, but the room was again lit in summery gold.

His heart pounded in his ears. He backed away slowly, and he kept backing away until he was locking the door, then mounting his bicycle, and finally racing home as fast as he could.

He had no idea how to process what he’d seen.

He wished there was someone he could ask about it. But his father was gone.

*

“Did you go over?” Daisy asked, wrapping her husband in a hug as soon as he walked in through the kitchen door. She had a spaghetti bolognese going on the stovetop; half-grated cheese sat on a wooden chopping board on the countertop. Simple comfort food for the end of a terrible day.

Daniel nodded wordlessly.

“How are you holding up?”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet, to be honest,” Daniel said, after a moment. “I feel numb. He was a miserable man in some ways, and we never had a very warm relationship, but he was my Dad. Now he’s gone, there are so many things I want to ask him, and I can’t.”

Daisy kissed his forehead. Her blonde hair brushed against his face. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“I should tell Mum,” he said.

Daisy looked at him with concern. “Do you think she needs to know tonight? Will it make a difference to her?”

“No,” Daniel said, “but it’ll make a difference to me. I don’t want it hanging over everything. I need to tell her.”

Daisy pulled him in tighter. “She won’t know what you’re saying,” she said, quietly, as kindly as she could. “She’ll forget it as soon as you walk out through the door.” It felt blunt; cruel, even. But Daniel had been through enough for one day. He needed to rest.

“I’ll go tomorrow,” he told her, finally.

“I love you,” she said.

He loved her too, and told her so. He didn’t mention the door.

*

Daniel’s mother lived in a a memory care facility next to the John Radcliffe hospital, just off the ring road in east Oxford. In contrast to the hospital’s modern steel and glass, the facility’s pebble-dash walls were painted over with thick beige paint that came off in chunks at the corners. The morning sky cast the street in a dim grey, and as he walked up to the building, he shivered underneath his coat.

“I’m so sorry to hear about your Da,” Amy said after he’d signed in at the front desk. She had been the head nurse since his mother was first checked in. In some ways she was like family now: not Nurse Walsh, but Amy, the woman who had been by Daniel’s side when he first signed the forms, and when his mother’s memory had gone so far that she barely remembered who he was. His Dad hated it there, and had barely ever set foot in the building.

“Thank you,” Daniel said.

His mother sat in a big, institutional armchair upholstered in brown, wipe-clean vinyl. She was watching some daytime TV show about house-hunting in Europe on the communal flat-screen. Over the institutional smell of cleaning fluid, he could smell roses. Her perfume. Even now, with her memory mostly gone and the fabric of who she used to be torn apart by disease, she insisted on wearing it.

“Hi Mum,” he said, gently, taking care not to startle her.

She looked at him blankly.

“It’s your son,” he said. “Daniel.”

His mother smiled, but it was hard to tell if it was out of recognition.

“It’s nice to see you,” he said, smiling. She didn’t respond, and turned back to the television.

“How have you been, Mum?” He asked, sitting on a vinyl ottoman in front of her.

“I’ve been buying a house in Spain,” she said, turning back to him. Her voice carried a touch of a Russian accent; a fragment of the community of Jewish immigrants she’d grown up with in London. “It’s beautiful.”

“That’s lovely,” Daniel said.

“Yes, it makes a very nice change. I will go there with Peter in the summer.”

“That sounds nice,” Daniel said. He swallowed hard. “Mum, that’s why I’m here. I need to talk to you about Dad. About Peter.”

“My husband,” she said, smiling.

“Yes,” Daniel said, reaching out to touch her hand. “He died, Mum.”

“That cannot be. I spoke to him this morning.”

Daniel wondered if she’d really seen him in years. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but Dad’s gone.”

She looked at him, but said nothing. He thought he could see her eyes grow wider, just slightly, but he couldn’t say for sure.

“He had a heart attack,” he said. “They couldn’t save him. They tried everything.”

She remained motionless, and the two of them sat there in complete silence. After a minute or two had passed, she said, abruptly: “I think you should go.”

“Okay, Mum,” Daniel said. There was no sense in arguing. “I love you.”

She turned back to the television, soaking herself in the sunny images of southern Spain. As she watched and the conversation with her son faded into the background, a smile began to curl back onto her face.

Daniel picked himself up off the ottoman. He took a long look at his mother, took in the smell of her perfume, and noticed the way her happiness didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes.

He turned towards the exit and waved a half-hearted thank you to Amy. She nodded and gave him a sympathetic smile.

He was just about to push the door open out into the reception when his mother turned back to him and asked: “Have you found the door yet?”

*

Daniel’s father had been an academic at the university, although he had given up most of his teaching duties long ago. He sat in a small office lined with Russian literature, peering into his computer screen and slowly hunting and pecking articles for research journals. The university let him stay partially out of kindness, and partially because he had become a relatively well-known name in the field. His translation of The Brothers Karamazov had long since fallen out of fashion, but in the seventies you could buy it in any bookstore.

Now that he was dead, the university made it clear that his office needed to be cleared out within the week.

Daniel and Daisy piled his books into open boxes. When one was full, they sealed it with brown packing tape and wrote a short description across the top. Dad’s books: a completely inadequate label for a life’s work. But there was nothing else they could write; neither one of them knew much about Russian literature. The stories and traditions that he had spent his life immersed in were an unknown.

The room smelled of dusty pages, and of him.

“So what did she say?” Daisy asked, packing a heavy-looking book bound in a burgundy dust jacket.

“She told me to leave,” Daniel said.

“So she knows what happened. She understands.”

Daniel sealed up a box and piled it on top of the others. There were seven of them now, towering in one corner. “I think so,” he said, “but these days it’s hard to tell for sure.”

“Did she say anything else?”

Daniel folded together a new, empty box, and sealed up the bottom with tape. “She turned back to the television. She literally wouldn’t talk to me anymore. And that was that.”

They turned their attention back to their work, boxing up the books and the hopelessly out-of-date computer that sat on his desk. In his desk drawers, they found a handful of Rubles - bright green notes with the remains of columns illustrated across them - and a cheap, plastic compass with a loop for tying to your wrist. Beside them was a quote, scrawled in his father’s handwriting on a white notecard: “For some a prologue, for some an epilogue”.

Before long, the room was empty. Daniel knew it would be scrubbed down soon, ready for the next academic to fill it with their work, wiped clear of the memory and the smell and the spirit of his father.

It was only when they had driven away that Daniel told her what he’d seen.

*

The two of them held hands in his father’s bedroom, facing the door in the wall. A moment ago, he had opened it for her, and she had seen a beautiful blue sky. It seemed impossible - like a magic trick - but then he did it again, and again. Once he had opened and closed the door for a fourth time, both of them acknowledged that it was real.

“But what is it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a door,” Daniel said. “To somewhere.”

“But what is it?”

“I have no idea.”

*

They sat around the small dinner table his father had kept in the kitchen, eating slices of frozen pizza and sipping at glasses of the cheap red wine they had found in the

“Well, we can’t sell the house,” Daisy said. “Not with ... that.”

“No, I suppose not,” Daniel said. “But we can’t just keep the house here, sitting empty. It’s not right.”

“I agree. I just don’t know what to do about it. What if someone breaks in and finds it?”

“We don’t know where it goes; where that place is. What if it’s dangerous? What if, when you climb through, you can’t come back? We don’t know anything.”

“Do you think we can move it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a doorway. How can you move a doorway?”

They finished their wine in silence as the sunlight left them and the room dimmed.

After they had sat in darkness for a while, Daisy said: “we should go through it.”

*

Daniel insisted that he would be the first to climb through. The plan was that he would climb back all the way, and then go through again, to make sure it was possible and that Daisy wouldn’t be trapped there. Then, and only then, she would climb through to follow him. They would leave the door open, with a broom propped against it so that it couldn’t swing shut.

It was small and square and two thirds the way up the wall, so he found that he needed to stand on a chair to have any hope of pulling himself through. Even then, it took more arm strength than he was comfortable exerting. But he found he could grip the sides of the doorframe, and Daisy gave him a small push, which helped. Before long, he felt the sun on his back and found that his feet were planted in the greenest grass he’d ever seen.

On this side, the doorframe floated in mid-air: just a square hanging in space with Daisy inside, and behind her, the gloom of the bedroom.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Daniel said. “It’s actually lovely in here. Out here. Wherever here is.”

“Come back out,” Daisy beckoned.

He pulled himself back through the doorway, awkwardly landing backwards on the chair. “That was pretty good, actually.”

“Okay,” Daisy said, “now back you go, and then I’ll follow you.”

Daniel once again pulled himself through the doorframe, and then gave Daisy a hand and helped her through behind him. Her sneakers landed in the grass.

“Oh,” Daisy said, turning her head towards the sky, “this is magnificent.”

They could see now that they were on a grassy hillside on the edge of a forest. On one side, they could see the birds and the trees. On the other, if they looked back beyond the doorframe, they could see a valley stretch out below them, and beyond it, more rolling hills dotted with trees and shrubs. Flowers sprung up among the grass. There were no signs of civilization anywhere; not so much as a hedgerow. It was wild and beautiful.

“How could your father keep this a secret?” Daisy asked, smiling. She turned to Daniel, but found that he was suddenly still, his face turned ashen.

Then she heard it.

From through the doorframe, somewhere back in the house, she could hear the sound of floorboards creaking under footsteps. As she listened, she realized that each step was getting louder; the person in the house was getting closer.

“Who is it?” Daisy whispered.

“Someone must have broken in,” Daniel whispered back.

“What if they see the door?”

“I don’t think we can avoid it now.”

They crouched below the frame and looked up, hoping to see who had broken into the house without being seen themselves.

“Is he here?” an unfamiliar woman’s voice said, somewhere in the house.

“I don’t see him,” a man’s voice said.

“Fine,” the first voice said. “Find the doorway and let’s sit in wait before he comes to look at the house.”

“Right you are,” the second voice said, noticeably louder. They were getting closer still; coming up the stairs now.

“If you see him, we must use force,” the first voice said. “We know the evil that lurks in his heart. It must be stamped out.”

Daisy clasped her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror. Daniel was so still that she wasn’t sure if he was still breathing.

“Who is that?” Daisy whispered.

“I don’t know,” Daniel whispered.

“I found it! Ya ponyal!” shouted a voice from somewhere behind the doorway, and they heard the sounds of running footsteps.

Suddenly, Daniel stood up, reached through the square frame back into the bedroom, and closed the door behind them. The square of red wood hung in mid-air, impossibly. Behind it, he could hear the knocking and scratching of men, desperate to break through, but for reasons he couldn’t understand, they were barred.

*

The ground was soft but dry underfoot. As they walked down into the valley, they encountered the odd mouse amidst the grass or a bird pecking at something in the ground. The sun was warm, but the air wasn’t too hot or dry. It was the perfect summer’s day, and they were trapped in it.

Daniel had tried to move the doorframe so they could take it with them, but it stayed firm, as if it was cemented in something other than thin air. In the end they decided to leave it and see if they could find civilization. In the best case, there might be another door that could take them somewhere else, back into the real world.

It wasn’t that this place wasn’t the real world - it was just, they didn’t know what it was, or where. Or even when, if they stopped to think about it.

They had been walking for hours when they came across three strange, small cottages. Each of them was built with a wooden frame, with sticks and leaves packed in with clay and covered in a mixture of lime and sand. The roofs leaned up at sheer angles and were covered in bundles of straw. At one end, a small clay chimney jutted out, with a triangular, slate chimney cap.

“Do you think they’ll have water?” Daisy asked. It had been a long, hot walk.

“I think we have to try,” Daniel said. “I hope they’re friendly.”

Nervously, Daniel walked up to the door of the closest cottage and gave it a small, polite knock. There was no answer. After a few moments, he knocked again; when nobody came to the door, he turned back to Daisy and shrugged.

“Let’s try the next one,” she said. She walked to the next-closest cottage and knocked on the door. Again, there was no answer; she waited and tried again, but once more nobody came to the door.

They were about to walk up to the door of the third cottage when it opened with a bang. A small, old woman wearing a red handkerchief around her head walked out and looked at them with fierce eyes.

Chy mozhu ya vam dopomohty?” the woman asked, sternly, in what sounded like a Russian accent.

Daniel raised his hand in a friendly wave. “Hello,” he said.

*

The three of them sat in the old woman’s one-room cottage, drinking cups of strong, black tea. They didn’t share a common language, but Daisy seemed to have a knack for getting her intentions across through gestures and intonation. The woman’s name was Olena, and she had plenty of tea to share.

The sun outside had begun to dim, and Olena lit a small fire, which crackled in the fireplace and cast shadows that danced across the walls. She told her story as best she could, given the lack of words between them. Her husband, Ananiy, had gone to find a better home, taking her son, Andriy, with him. There was an army, or a mob of some kind - it was hard to tell through the language barrier - that was rampaging over the land and stealing peoples’ homes. Villages were burned to the ground. Entire families were obliterated.

As she spoke, Daniel recognized one word: “pogrom”.

Olena stood up to go outside; she gestured towards the fireplace and made a chopping motion. Firewood. Daniel and Daisy raised their hands and pointed to themselves instead; we’ll gather it for you. She smiled in acceptance, and the two of them left the cottage to find wood to burn.

“Did you hear her?” Daniel asked in a hushed whisper. As they walked around the cottage, they found a small pile of dry wood in a clay hut. “Pogroms. She was talking about pogroms.”

“I think she’s speaking Russian,” Daisy said.

“Is this —?”

Daisy nodded. “It seems insane, but I think we’re in the past. Like, over a hundred years ago in the past. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it must be. The pogroms in Russia were during the revolution. The White Army murdered Jews and spread propaganda that they were communists.”

“I think you’re right, but it’s more than that,” Daniel said.

“More than that?”

“It’s a lot, but yeah,” Daniel said, “more than that. I think Ananiy was my great grandfather. Ananiy and Olena were my great grandparents.”

Daisy gave him a quick hug; then, they gathered as much firewood as each of them could carry under each arm, and went back inside.

Olena laid out some woolen blankets on the floor for them to sleep under (“spaty,” she said, while gesturing emphatically towards them). She slept on a small, wooden bed in the corner under another set of blankets. The fire slowed and turned to embers, and before long they could hear the old woman’s gentle snoring.

*

In the darkness, Daisy turned to face Daniel. “How do we get back?” she whispered.

“I think we have to find our way back to the door,” Daniel said. “It seems like there’s only one way back.”

“What about Olena? What if the White Army comes to find her?”

“If she really is my great grandmother, they won’t. My great grandmother survived the pogroms and fled to join Ananiy and Andriy in London. She’ll be okay.”

“And if she isn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted. “I don’t think we can risk bringing her home. Into the future, I mean.”

Daisy nodded and thought for a minute. “This is all so surreal. I don’t know how we got here or how this even exists. But there’s one more thing I’ve been thinking. It’s going to sound strange, but I don’t think it can be stranger than anything else that’s happened today.”

“I think I know who the people in the house were,” Daisy whispered. “I think, somehow, it was the White Army. Or, perhaps, the ghosts of the White Army, or their descendants. The way they were talking - we know the evil that lurks in his heart. It’s such a strange thing to say. And they were speaking in Russian when they found the door. It seems so strange, but I’m scared that what I’m saying might actually be true, and they might be waiting for us whenever we go back.”

“How much time do you think has passed?” Daniel asked.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s night-time now, right? Here? And it was evening when we climbed through the door back home. If time moves at the same speed here as there - which it must do, because we heard people through the doorway - then it’s got to be early morning there by now.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s time to go.”

*

“The door?” Daniel sat himself back down on the vinyl ottoman in front of his mother. “What do you know about that?”

She smiled at him like she used to, back before her illness dragged her away from the world; a smile of recognition and love. “I know all about it,” she said. “It followed him. It followed us. From where we came from, where our parents came from, and their parents, too, all the way up to us sitting here now. And it will follow you, and your children, and their children.”

“It seems so impossible,” Daniel said.

“When something bad happens, it ripples outwards. When someone is hurt, their children are hurt too, and so, too, their children. We all carry the past with us. That is what the door is. The things that hurt us follow us forever.”

“That sounds like a curse.”

“It is,” his mother said. “And it is a curse that is ten times worse if you pretend it’s not there. You will feel tired and not know why you are tired. It will pull at you and make you crazy with a thousand tiny hooks, and you will blame yourself. Trauma you inherit has no cause other than what comes through your family; you are confronted by ghosts that aren’t yours. The only way to stop the cycle - the waves of hurt that flow from generation to generation - is to face it. And that’s what the door is.”

“So I have to go through it?”

“Yes,” she said. “That won’t stop the hurt its tracks. But it will give you the power to fight it, as knowledge always does. It will give it a name, and a form.”

“I don’t understand what this means.”

“You will. I can tell you no more.”

Daniel got up and hugged his mother. “I love you, Mum,” he said.

“I love you too,” she said, turning back to the television. “Now leave me with my home in Spain.”

*

They stood, once again, in front of the door, which hung against nothingness in the dead of the night. They had folded the blankets as neatly as they could, left Olena sleeping in her bed, and made the long journey up out of the valley.

“I don’t know what’s behind this door,” Daniel said. “They might still be there. It might be dangerous. You didn’t ask for this; this isn’t a part of your family history. I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t, and it is,” Daisy said. “It’s part of my family history now because you’re my family. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t come to me from my parents; it comes to me from love. I accept it because I accept you. It’s not my family history; it’s my family future. And knowing it helps me know you a little better.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am.”

They embraced each other, then, in the night.

“Let’s do this,” Daisy said.

Daniel pushed the door open and it swung out into his father’s bedroom. His face glowed as the morning light shone through the frame. He turned to face Daisy and smiled; then, with one swift movement, he swung himself through the square and out into the room.

A moment later, she followed him. Her feet dropped back onto the beige carpet with a thud.

They were back in the present day. Dust floated in rays of sunlight. The ugly painting sat on the floor, balanced against the wall.

The house was silent and empty, but it sang with the life of Daniel’s parents: their history; the history they brought with them; the stories they left behind.

“What now?” Daisy asked.

Wordlessly, Daniel moved forward.