Standing before the little house now brought back floods of memories. They had always called her Aunty Rose despite the fact that there was no family connection at all. She had been a friend of his mother's and during the long school summer holidays James and Harry had spent many happy hours in and around the cottage. In those days it had a whitewashed exterior with green window frames and doors, a white 'picket' fence enclosing a small but well-stocked front garden and a thatched roof surrounding a red brick chimney stack from which emanated a constant thin stream of pale blue smoke. This was always the sure sign that Rose was at home and usually cooking or baking something tasty. There was a rear garden which formed the 'working' part of the property and supplied Rose's needs for the vegetables which she steadfastly refused to buy from the local shops.
Now the whitewash was discoloured and peeling, and the window frames appeared rotten after years of neglect. The front door still looked solid but in need of renovation. The 'picket' fence had gone, along with all the garden plants - probably the victims of roaming livestock which now had free access. The chimney stack looked weathered and in need of pointing and the thatch contained some alarming gaps in its structure. It was a shame to see the place in such a state of disrepair, but what else had he expected to find after his years of absence? He dreaded to think what the inside looked like.
James walked up the overgrown path to the front door and tried the handle - locked, but again she should have expected no less, after all Rose had been dead for ten years. Her only son, Robert, was living and working in South Africa and he had not been in England since the funeral even though the place had become his as her only surviving relative. They had fallen out before he left England but no-one seemed to know why and despite a fair amount of speculation, the truth had remained within the family.
He recalled from the past that Rose was in the habit of keeping a spare key wrapped in a plastic sheath and concealed behind the guttering above the front door. Reaching up, his fingers closed around a small package and pulling it down from its hiding place he was delighted to see the well-known implement carefully preserved against the ravages of time and the weather in its protective wrapping. Having excitedly torn away the cover he inserted the key into the lock and heard the satisfying 'click' as the mortise catch was released and the door opened at his touch.
He stood on the threshold for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside. The cottage had that musty 'chapel' smell of properties not regularly inhabited by people. He remembered his grandmother's front parlour carried a similar, not unpleasant, odour which stemmed from the fact that the room was only used on 'special' occasions. He stepped inside and had to remind himself that Rose had been dead for ten years - there didn't seem to be a thing out of place, and apart from a thin film of dust which covered all of the surfaces it was almost as if she had just popped out for the afternoon. There was even her tea cup on the table, turned upside down on the saucer as she always left it in readiness for a fresh 'mashing' when she came back in.
He started to fill up and had to steady himself against the door frame leading to the kitchen whilst he composed himself. He supposed that Robert had no interest in the cottage and had simply returned to South Africa after the funeral, probably leaving the property in the hands of some local estate agent. It surprised him that no-one had snapped it up as, apart from the obvious cold and damp feeling, the structure seemed sound and he always remembered it as a warm and welcoming place to be in. He couldn't leave without having a good look around, and memories of Rose, his mum and Harry came flooding back in wave after wave of nostalgia.
Moving from room to room, both downstairs and on the upper floor, he could almost see images from the past and he seemed to be like some alien observer moving around in the time and space occupied by another race of beings. The minutiae of the daily lives of the inhabitants were laid bare for him to see, analyse and mentally note some of the things which he had forgotten over the years. It was all becoming a little too much for James and he suddenly felt the need for some fresh air, descended the stairs, unbolted the back door and stepped into the rear garden.
Like the front garden, this too was overgrown and neglected. He could still make out all the cold frames at the side of the cottage where Rose grew her lettuces and cucumbers together with summer plants 'hardening off' before being transplanted in the front. There were the remains of the old greenhouse too. Rose had stopped using it when she said she had become 'too old' and had left it to James and Harry to use for their own plants. They had spent many hours inside it with pots and compost, lemonade and midday sandwiches and regarded it as their den. There was a kennel on the other side of the building which was the summer retreat of Bob, Rose's dog. She never left him out at night - she was too soft with animals for that, but he used it during the day as a kind of summer house.
James turned once more and went back inside the cottage, bolting the back door after himself. The figure in the middle of the room was cast in shadow as he had come inside out of the bright sunshine of the back garden, and he couldn't make out any features. He couldn't remember being followed on the way here, and certainly hadn't met anyone going the other way. He therefore assumed that some neighbour or passer by had noticed the front door open after he had arrived and had come in to see who was about. Perhaps this could be a potential purchaser sent by the estate agent although he hadn't heard any car pull up outside - he should make his excuses and leave, but the figure seemed to be barring his way to the door.
"Excuse me, can I help you?" he said as it came forward to meet him.
"No, James I think it's more a case of what I can do to help you"
He froze as the familiar tones of Aunty Roses's voice came from the now lightening face as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There she stood, exactly as he remembered her, even down to the crocheted shawl she always wore and the mules she invariably had on her feet. The smile on her face brought a warmth to his heart and they met in the middle of the room in an embrace that melted the years away.
Cold realty then gripped him, and he held her away at arms length with a puzzled frown on his face. Aunty Rose was dead, she died ten tears ago - this was just not possible, it must be a dream. As if reading his thoughts she smiled at him.
"You're not dreaming, I'm really here James and I've come to help you"
"Help me, how and with what?"
She smiled again and sadly shook her head - she used to do that when she knew something that you didn't and it had always been used in the past as part of a game to keep Harry and him guessing, and it used to drive them up the wall.
"You need to come with me now, James. It's been a long time and I've been trying to call you but you weren't listening. You always did that when you didn't want to do something"
"I have to go now, Rose"
"No James, come with me and I'll show you"
She led him out of the front door and down the garden path to the gate. They turned around and the sight of the cottage shook him, the roof was gone, as were the window frames and the exposed brickwork was black and crumbling. It was a burned out shell and he looked at her in complete astonishment.
"It was the fire, don't you remember? We all got caught in it and the place went up like an inferno. It was all over very quickly. You're dead James, like Harry and me. I've been trying to reach you for years, but now it's over and you can rest. Come along with me, Harry's waiting and it'll be just like old times."