In 1988 my company transferred me to a new town in March, and I spent the next six months settling into a new job and a new house. When September came I realized I hadn't had a holiday, so I decided to take the ferry to Calais, then take a leisurely drive through France to Belgium, on to Holland, into Germany, then come back through Luxembourg and Belgium again. There was no need to book anything as the holiday season was over. A few days from the end of what had been a very pleasant holiday I was heading up through the Ardennes. This area of heavily wooded hills is very scenic, with picturesque vallies, isolated farms, small villages lost in the forest and many chateaus.
One evening (it was also my birthday) about seven o'clock I was expecting to arrive at a small town in which I thought I might find a guest house or hotel, but at a certain point I realized I'd taken a wrong turn. I had a good torch, so examined the map. I saw I had three alternatives. I could go back to the town I'd last come through, about thirty ks back, go back to where I'd taken the wrong turn and this time hope I found the right road, or go on to a village about 15 ks ahead, and hope there was something there.
I decided on the last alternative. It was now getting darker, and as I approached the small village ahead I saw on my left a sort of substantial house, set back among trees. There was a street light on the road (as always in Belgium) and I could see the house was abandoned and the garden overgrown. I thought if there was nothing in the village I could try and sleep here, as it had a big porch, and I was getting tired. The village did have a small shop that was open, but the lady serving told me the nearest hotel was twenty ks further on, or thirty-five back the way I'd come. I bought some bread,butter, cheese, water and wine and decided to head back to the abandoned house.
I ate and drank in the porch, and thought I could sleep with my dirty clothes in a shopping bag as a pillow, and a couple of tartan rugs, but the night grew cold, so I took a look round the house to see if there was a way in. Three sides were very secure, but on one end I found a door into what looked like a conservatory or greenhouse. It had obviously been burned at some point, but there was a french window at the top of some steps. I tried it and it was unlocked.
Inside many of the panes had been broken, but it was still more sheltered from the wind than the porch, so despite the old scorch marks I moved in there and got to sleep near eleven o'clock.
I was awoken some time later by loud and very insistent banging on the door, and I could hear angry voices and see lights. I shouted 'It's open!" in French, wondering what the hell was happening, and very frightened. In the end I just got up and opened the door. There was a group of about twelve people at the foot of the steps, carrying lanterns of all things. When I opened the door some shouted "C'est lui!" (That's him!) A very beautiful black-haired woman come up to steps, looked me in the face and shouted "Oui, c'est lui!" (Yes that's him) and the whole crowd surged up the steps towards me, with every sign of intending to me harm.
The next thing I knew I could hear birds twittering, and sunlight was streaming through the glass of the conservatory. My God, what a relief! It had just been a horrible dream. I packed my stuff up, and went back to the car, noting that it was about eight-thirty - I had slept a long time by my standards.
I drove through the village and just beyond it was a house on the left. A woman was hanging up washing in the garden. I did a double take - it was the beautiful woman from the night before, who had shouted "Yes! That's him!" I stopped the car and got out, rather hesitantly, and went up to her. It was definitely her. She smiled as I came towards her, and showed no sign of recognition, which was a relief. I pretended to consult the map with her, and she indicated the route I had to take to Libramont. I asked her if she knew anything about the house on the other side of the village, and she said 'No, it's been abandoned since just after the war. A German who was stationed here during the war bought it, but during the war he had assaulted my grandmother (she used the word 'attaquer' so it wasn't clear if she meant raped or simply assaulted) so the locals killed him, in September 1946. Then they burnt some of it I think."
"Just let me ask you one thing," I said. "Do you look anything like your grandmother?"
"What a strange question!" she said. "But how did you know? Yes, everyone in the family says I look exactly like her when she was young."