Four Corner House had been built by Sally and Tom’s grandfather, the well-known explorer Times Atlas, as a comfortable family home and an extremely convenient base for his expeditions. There were many tales of Grandfather Atlas, and he was still remembered in most of the places that the children liked to visit, but the story of Four Corner House itself was, of course, a secret.
The front door, where milk and newspapers and letters were delivered, was painted canary yellow, with a black 4 above the knocker. This was the normal door by which the family came and went from the house on their regular business. Mr Atlas worked for the county council four days a week and led groups of tourists around the historic city centre on the fifth. Mrs Atlas was an architect; she shared an office in the city with three other architects. Sally and Thomas went to school, to piano lessons, to football practice, to the park. They took turns running errands to the shops. When the neighbours dropped by, they too came and went by the front door. In winter it was decorated with a wreath of dark-green holly, in fall with cobs of colourful ‘Indian corn’.
But the house had four other Doors that opened not onto Compass Drive, but onto four very different places. If you walked straight through the house on the ground floor, you came to Desert Door. This led directly to a beautiful oasis on the caravan trail through the Great Khan’s desert. The oasis was one of the loveliest places on earth, with fresh, cool water, the green shade of the palm trees that swayed on the shore, a generous supply of nuts and dates to snack on, and most important of all, the company of the spice traders, whose songs and laughter and stories had made many a night by the camp-fire seem short. The oasis lay on the very edge of the scorching and desolate Empty Quarter. Only once had Sally and Tom gone into the Quarter itself, to hear the song that the desert wind made as it blew over the hollows between the dunes. It was called the Empty Quarter for good reason: nobody lived there. The days were too hot, the nights too cold, and if you ventured more than a few feet from the oasis, you might never find your way back, for the dunes were always changing shape and the air was full of mirages. In Marcopolon, the Empty Quarter had another name: the Labyrinth Without Walls. According to legend, if heat and thirst did not finish you off, the Wild Man of the Desert would; more spirit than flesh, he lurked in the Empty Quarter and made slaves out of any travellers foolish enough to wander into his wasted domain…It was, of course, the view through Desert Door that Mr Leggs the postman had seen by accident, on that morning several years ago.
The Door to the rainforest was on the landing. Sometimes, on his way down the stairs, Tom opened it just for a look; he loved the giant, peaceful trees that carried so much life on their green and brown shoulders and whose roots alone, half-sunk in the spreading waters of the river, were often taller than a grown man. If you passed through Forest Door, you found yourself surrounded by rippling tranquil green and golden light, almost as if the trees were underwater, and you pulled yourself along using the tough vines that trailed from above. Here you met two kinds of people. The forest-dwellers fished and hunted and farmed, and knew all the plants and animals, and lived in little villages that were never less than a day’s walk apart. The prospectors, on the other hand, came to the forest in search of gold. The oceans and rivers of the world are full of tiny particles of gold, as of every other mineral. To get it, the prospectors used their shovels to stir up the river-bed in places where it ran shallow, then let little balls of wax down into the current: after an hour the wax would be coated with hundreds of flakes of gold which could be scraped off and melted together into little wafers or pellets. Sometimes Tom came to watch the prospectors, but he preferred the forest itself, and the ferns that grew so tall and wide, the water ran off them in great silvery ropes when it started to rain.
From the top floor of Four Corner House a steep and narrow staircase led to the attic, and in the sloping roof of the attic itself was the fourth Door, really more of a hatch, which always felt cold to the touch; this was Mountain Door. It opened onto a practically vertical world of clear blue skies, granite boulders, and clumps of purple heather. Black and white marmots darted in and out of cracks in the mountain-side. The upper slopes were covered in snow all the year round, while herds of wild horses grazed the alpine pockets lower down. The mountain was home to a kindly hermit who sometimes joined the children for a picnic, bringing his own special mix of grass and flowers and twigs to brew tea; and it was the hermit who had once offered Sally and Tommy a mountain-goat for a pet, though in fairness, he had not really intended them to take it home. There were not many distractions up on the mountain, and nowadays it was where the children came when they needed to think about something.
And so, thanks to the ingenuity of Grandfather Atlas, Sally and Tom had the desert, the ocean, the forest, and the mountains on their Doorstep – could travel to the four corners of the earth whenever they pleased, more or less, and still be home for supper. And thanks to their parents, they had the freedom to do just that – for Mr and Mrs Atlas, despite their rules against leaving Doors standing open and bringing mountain goats home as pets, were strong believers in the power of travel to broaden the mind, and had fond memories of the wonderful honeymoon that Four Corner House had allowed them to take, many years ago. Nor did they have to worry that the children would get lost and be unable to ask for help, for Grandfather Atlas had left another excellent invention behind. This was Marcopolon, the universal language which could be understood by people of any time and place – even, it was said, by certain extremely clever animals. It was not an easy language to master, but it was extremely useful, for a person fluent in Marcopolon could talk to anyone, and understand what they said in return. Sally and Tom never left home without their copy of Marcopolon Words and Phrases, which Grandfather Atlas had written himself, in a thick notebook that was now coming apart from all the use it had seen. It was the only Marcopolon phrasebook in existence, and held together by elastic bands, with If found please return to Four Corner House written on the front cover, in the most appealing script that the children could devise…
Next week: Sally and Tommy join the crew of the Hand of Friendship, and find that all is not well on the high seas…
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