The raking of gravel in the grounds of a rented country cottage is usually the lot of the handyman-gardener who comes with the property. You will first meet him when he comes to the railway station to meet you off the train. He will load your luggage on to the brake after the briefest greeting, and drive like the clappers along twisting bosky lanes. When he has debouched you outside the cottage, and unloaded the luggage, he will drive off again to park the brake in a nearby barn. You will not see him again for some hours, until evening, when, looking out of the cottage window, you will spot him raking the gravel.
The next morning, after a slap up breakfast, and it being a sunny day, you will all go for a stroll together. You will explore, in a not too systematic fashion, the countryside surrounding the rented cottage, the fields, the canal, the spinney, the standing stones, the army firing range with its electrified fence. Towards midday, returning to the cottage for a slap up lunch, you will see the handyman-gardener raking the gravel in the grounds. One of you will try to engage him in friendly if condescending conversation, but his only response will be a gnomic utterance which you find baffling. You will discuss your bafflement over lunch. Before your afternoon nap, you will look out of the window, but there will be no sign of the handyman-gardener, though you will see his rake leaning against a low wall next to the fruit beds.
That evening he will appear for about half an hour, raking the gravel.
The next day you will go for a stroll after breakfast again. This is when you will learn that, other than the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence, there is nothing else of interest to see. On your way back to the rented cottage, you will decide to pick the brains of the handyman-gardener, and devise a series of questions to ask of him. How extensive is the farm to which the fields belong? Where does the canal begin and end? Has any event of local historical significance ever taken place in the spinney? What legends are associated with the standing stones? You will decide not to make any queries regarding the army firing range with its electrified fence, mindful as you are of national security. But when you arrive back at the cottage, the handyman-gardener will not be there. His rake will be leaning against the low wall. After a brief exchange of views, you will decide to walk the short distance to the barn. You will peek inside. There is the brake. Where is the handyman-gardener?
After lunch, and after your afternoon nap, you will gather in the living-room. All those questions about the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence will seem so much hogwash now. You will have a quite different set of questions, all of which relate to the handyman-gardener. What is his name? Who pays his wages? What does he do, other than rake gravel and collect people from the railway station in the brake? Where does he sleep? You will discard a suggested question about whether he is a deaf mute on the basis of his gnomic utterance the day before. Then your ears will prick up. You will hear, outside the cottage, the raking of gravel. But when you pile outside to approach the handyman-gardener and fire questions at him, he will already be gone.
The following day will pass without any sign of him. The gravel will go unraked.
By Wednesday morning, in the absence of any other focus for your attention, you will be wholly consumed by the handyman-gardener. There will almost be a whoop of joy when, shortly after breakfast, peering out of the window, you see him raking the gravel. The previous evening, in the course of animated discussion around a blazing fire, you will have decided to delegate one of your number to approach the handyman-gardener to put your questions to him. Your thinking will have been that he may open up to one, whereas he may be intimidated by all sixteen of you. Now you will wait in the living room, crowded around the window, while one goes out and strolls nonchalantly up to the handyman-gardener. You will be somewhat surprised that he does not pause in his raking of the gravel during the conversation that ensues. Later, there will be disappointment intermixed with mild outrage when it is reported that, in answer to such questions as your delegate managed to frame, the handyman-gardener responded only with baffling gnomic utterances. You will feel yourselves back at square one.
The next day, trudging disconsolately after breakfast by the fields and the canal and the spinney and the standing stones and the army firing range with its electrified fence, there will be common agreement that the handyman-gardener is a halfwit. It will be decided to pay him no more attention, and to discover other points of rustic interest, though what they might be will tax your ingenuity. This will be the most dangerous time.
For now the handyman-gardener has the measure of you. His patient raking of the gravel, his disappearances, his deliberately baffling utterances, his leaving the brake untouched in the barn, all have served their purpose. He is almost ready to strike.
The following Saturday, as on the Saturday before, the handyman-gardener will drive the brake to the railway station, and collect the people who have rented the cottage for a week. Only he will know, as he nods the briefest of greetings, that there is no chance they will survive that long.