Chapter 1 - Welcome to Four Corner House
Number 4, Compass Drive, had all the appearance of an ordinary house in an ordinary street. Like many things that look ordinary, however, Number 4 was full of surprises.
There was, for example, the episode of the mysterious vision of the postman, Mr Leggs. One morning several years ago, when the children who lived in the house were still small, Mr Leggs rang at the front door to deliver a parcel that would not fit into the letter-box. It was not uncommon for objects of a mysterious size and shape to be delivered to that particular house; on this occasion the package was a large triangle covered in stamps and postal markings that Mr Leggs did not recognise. When the front door opened – luckily, Mrs Atlas was at home – the postman had a good view right through the house, all the way to the back; and just as he was standing there, holding out his clipboard so Mrs Atlas could sign for the parcel, the back door swung open, and he caught a glimpse of the garden.
Now most of the houses on Compass Drive had rather long, rather narrow back gardens, laid to lawn with a few modest shrubs, and perhaps a swing-set halfway down, or a paddling pool or a tricycle, and at the very end a clapboard shed for tools. But what Mr Leggs saw through the back door of Number 4 made his eyes go pop: palm trees, and camels, and a deep, glittering lake, and in the distance tall sand-dunes stretching for mile after golden mile, with a row of black dots moving along the horizon that looked like caravans…He blinked, and stared, and uttered a sort of strangled cry that sounded like, “Eh-heh?!” And afterwards he might have convinced himself that it was a poster, or something on TV, except that just then, one of the children of the house actually stepped through the doorway and pulled the door shut, closing off the vision of camels and palm trees.
Whereupon Mrs Atlas thanked him and shut the front door too, in a rather hurried and embarrassed manner that was not at all typical for her; leaving Mr Leggs to rub his eyes and mutter, “Crazy!” and “Impossible!” and “It can’t be!” to himself for several minutes.
The mistake was important enough to be raised that night, in a family meeting. Since it wasn’t clear whether Sally had been at fault, or Thomas, Mr and Mrs Atlas addressed them both. It was very important, they said, in fact it was a rule, that no two doors should ever be open at the same time, ever. Of course they had both been told, but everybody needs a reminder from time to time, and this was it. No two doors – ever – was that clear?
“Yes it’s clear,” Tommy grumbled. “It’s just that – well, we thought it only meant No two doors,” giving special emphasis to the last word, as if by doors he meant something quite different from the ordinary sorts of doors that you or I pass through, fifty or a hundred times a day...
“It means all the doors,” Mrs Atlas said firmly, “the front door, the side door, the kitchen door, the door to your bedroom, the bathroom door…Of course,” she added, looking at her husband, “it also means the Doors,” again with that curious emphasis.
“Quite right,” said Mr Atlas. “Why don’t we write it down somewhere, and put it up on the wall.” Which they did, in neat black letters on a sheet of card:
No Two Doors Open at the Same Time.
On another occasion the parents were entertaining some friends in the sitting-room when they heard a loud clunk from the loft, then an angry braying noise and several sharp raps on the ceiling. “Is that a herd of sheep upstairs?” joked one of their visitors, but Mr and Mrs Atlas looked at each other in alarm. “I’ll go,” said Mr Atlas. No sooner had he pushed back his chair and stood up than the door to the dining-room burst open and Tommy and Sally flew in, clinging for dear life to the shoulders of a large mountain ram with thick grey wool and curving horns. The ram skidded to a halt in front of the fireplace and gave each of the astonished grown-ups in turn his most thunderous look; then he lowered his head, pawed the floor once or twice, and shook his body mightily from snout to tail, flinging Sally to one side and Tommy to the other. “Grab him!” Mrs Atlas yelled. The ram charged off through the front hall with Mr Atlas in grim pursuit.
Needless to say, when the ram had finally been cornered and driven back into the loft, and the guests, much shaken, had been put in a taxi home, and all the splintered chairs and side-tables and broken crockery had been tidied up, it was time for another family meeting. “Children,” Mr Atlas said, rubbing his shin were it had been purpled by a flying hoof, “it is very important to remember that you must leave things as you find them, and not go bringing animals or plants or…well, mainly animals…ow-wow-wow,” he said, wincing as Mrs Atlas applied some balm to his forehead. “Whatever made you think you could keep a ram in the loft?” he exclaimed.
“He was a present,” Sally said grumpily. “Besides. We thought a pet would be nice.”
“We have Jowls,” Mrs Atlas said, “who is more than enough, as pets go; and mountain goats belong on the mountain. Is that clear?” (Jowls, the cat, who like all cats tended to exaggerate the danger of the situations he found himself in, was still crouching on the top of the bookcase, ready to hurl himself into an even better hiding-place should the invading ram return.)
“But he was a present,” Tommy said, a trifle exasperated, as if this point had been overlooked. “I mean – if someone gives you a present – then wouldn’t it be rude – ?”
“Who? Who gave him to you? Was it the Great Hermit? Now you know what I have to say about him –”
“Look here,” said Mr Atlas firmly, “gift or no gift, the rule is…” and taking down the card from the wall he wrote, underneath the first rule, in slightly smaller letters:
Please leave everything as you find it! Animals especially!
But afterwards they all agreed that it was rather peculiar to have a sign over the dining-room table with such rules written on it; visitors would get quite the wrong impression of the sort of family the Atlas family actually was. “We could put something else on the other side of the card, and turn it round whenever we have guests,” Sally suggested. And so, on the other side of the card, using coloured markers and big cheerful rounded letters, she wrote:
And, since nobody was really likely to forget the rules again, this was the side they left turned out…
Next week: find out what lies behind the Doors of Four Corner House, and how to talk with anybody you meet on the other side…
We will be loading this chapter on Friday 14th March. From that date we will be loading a new chapter every Friday.
If you would like to leave comments about what you have read please do so through the blog - 2nd March 2008 entitled 'Four Corner House'.
© 2008 Text Andrew Hewitt
© 2008 Illustrations Quitterie de Castelbajac