I want to tell you about a house. Not any old house but a house I loved. It was a refuge, a sanctuary, a friend. As I start to type these lovestruck words about it there’s a niggling feeling that I cannot do it justice. And yet I want to describe the house to you, and to myself.
When I arrived there, aged perhaps five or six, I had left another house. Another big rectory in the Irish countryside. I remember scampering excitedly through the new rooms with my brother Vere.. There was a bell in what we came to call the ‘Morning Room’. Had it been used to summon servants? Once we’d settled in its imperious buzzings were used to alert family members that an interesting programme was on the telly. For it was a big house. We could wander far from one another.
When I was little and had to go to bed before the others I sometimes felt I was almost in another country in my bedroom…so distant from the gathering in the Morning Room around the new contraption with its exciting black and white images of elsewhere. Dad kindly checked behind curtains and in the wardrobe. Under the bed too before he left to join the others after we’d said prayers together…he was a Church of Ireland clergyman. At one point a goat was included in my blessings.
I loved that home before I had given a name to love. When I was not versed in its arithmetic, though now the numbers seem more like stanzas. I was not always happy there. I remember sitting under a large writing desk and gazing solemnly out a window as I listened to a grown up argument…worrying about the shape of the words, their angles and velocity. I probably worried a great deal more than I remember. When my parents disagreed with each other it could become quite operatic. I didn’t understand the passion of it. The small histories. The infuriating compromises. I was young. And the house understood that. It asked nothing of me but to simply live there. To know its rooms and its eccentricities. Its spacious lush grounds. Its tall sheltering trees.
I have written about the house before, but not in this way. Not with with a wish to stop writing. To flee. And yet writing from the heart sometimes requires you to do this. To sit with the discomfort. To find out what needs to be known. To grieve. To reconstruct. To love again what seems to have been lost.
The house had a blue front door at the side of the building. I don’t remember how many stone steps…perhaps eight. The yale key was usually in the lock during daytime. There was a time when I had to stand on tip-toe to reach it. The house was surrounded by woodland. There was a gate at the top of the long driveway which was straight when seen from the road but curved and branched out closer to the house. During winter, when the trees were bare, only the rooftop could be glimpsed from the top gate. The white gate marked the inner territory of the house’s ‘grounds’. I sometimes used to swing on it, back and forth. It creaked companionably.
There was a walled garden which was largely overgrown, but still contained many apple trees. gooseberries, raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants. A golden pheasant lived there in a large aviary type cage accompanied by less flamboyant members of his species.We had hens and bantams too kept overnight in various outhouses. I became acquainted with the smell of the fox and the need to rush out and shoo him away when the hens squawked for assistance.
My father kept bees even though he was frightened of them. Anytime he visited them he tended to sprint across the lawn shortly afterwards because a bee had found its way into his astronaut type headgear. It wasn’t one step for man. And it was many steps for my father. But we got nice honeycombs. Usually not the type you buy in shops. Partly filled but very satisfactory.
I loved the Morning Star river that flowed nearby. I spent a great deal of time paddling. Exploring. I remember constructing small dams in it with my brother Vere. Completely absorbed in our constructions like little beavers. He was the youngest of my four older brothers. Our raft never floated on the surface but was partially submerged…up to the ankles. I think it had once been a large wooden door. We enjoyed watching the river’s creatures. I was particularly impressed by the blue flash of the kingfisher.
These notes are so different in tone to the perky little messages I sometimes place in my blog. Notes about novels. Interesting websites. Cappuccinos savoured in cafes with a friend. Life seems to require a certain elasticity of us. Just now I am tempted to write that this is the true Grace sharing these words with you because they come from a deeper, dappled almost raw place…and yet we are all many selves. A writer soon discovers that. In many ways we are like music with its low, high and medium notes…our moderattos, flippancies and necessary spaces.
Even as a little girl in love with the old rectory and its lands, I began to dream of living abroad. I perused the Readers Digest and the National Geographic. Time magazine also found its way to us. It was, it seemed, a very big world. We had watched the moon landing in the Morning Room. One day I brought my pony Merrylegs in to watch a bit of telly too. Perhaps he might also want to know about the larger world. He was a black and white beauty given to me free gratis. I’m glad I didn’t know about his colourful past. He was a gentleman with me.
I left for boarding school at twelve and my pony was given back to his owner. Shortly afterwards he was put down. This was because he had Laminitis and could not be left out at grass for long periods. I mourned him and the rectory felt different. I was only there sometimes. There was much packing and leaving. Adjustments. The rhythm of belonging had altered. I did not want to miss the rectory too much. I did not want to love it anymore. I used hint of a tint shampoo and Badedas.. I was very keen on blue eyeshadow and the ads for Martini. I was an au pair in Switzerland one long hot sultry summer and had a romance, in French, with a young man called Serge.
When I said my goodbyes to the house before my parents left it I was living in London and in love. The house was sold and not long after that burned down. If you visited the place today you would never guess it had been there. There is no woodland, not a trace..the house has gone and the driveway. The top gate is still there leading to a field. I seem to recall the stable is still there. Has the walled garden gone too? I don’t remember. I revisited it briefly. But of course the river is still there. Flowing onwards as before.
What do we do with loss….where do we place it? Sometimes it is tempting to feel it will go away if we ignore it. If we arm ourselves with projects and plans. Lists. Workshops. Service. The world is a big place. Love is a huge word. This moment is where we live. And yet what we have loved and still love sometimes calls to us. The need to honour that tenderness. The habits of the heart.
My parents died some years ago. And the boy I played with, Vere, died in 2006. We shared a house together once. A home. We watched Wimbledon in the Morning Room.. He really liked Nastase. He sometimes listened to Top of the Pops on the transistor…walking through the fields with it.. And when I was a little girl he held my hand during a thunderstorm…he told me it was the angels singing.
I have rarely written about him in recent times. Not typed recollections anyway. I didn’t know what words to use. Instead I sometimes lit candles and stared at them. A little ritual that helped. For a while I almost forgot that I am a writer. And writing is a kind of home too. A place where you can take your sorrow and joy, your memories. And make something of them, like a builder.
I wonder who built our old home. The rectory. Who carefully placed those bricks and that mortar. The plasterwork. The floorboards. Who installed the huge windows with their wooden shutters. Thank you for the blue front door and its key. In memory it seems as real as it used to be. I can almost smell the baking in the kitchen. A dog curling itself affectionately around my legs. The gumboots near the door. The country coats on the stand. My father at his typewriter…tap tap tap…intent. His words somehow sailing forth to dance with these ones. In love…and with gratitude. In a place where all cherished things remain.