I’ve been having a bit of a tidy up, clearing out the loft amongst other things. There’s stuff there in boxes that other people packed, and rather than go through them at the time I just stacked them up, years ago. In fact some of them have moved with me and remained unopened.
I opened one of these recently and I’m beginning to wish I’d just thrown it away.
When I was 11 years old my parents moved to Scotland. Just my father and me at first as my mother was pregnant with my younger brother. I have an older brother too, and my grandmother (my mum’s mum) lived with us. Dad and me went first as I had to start school, but mum stayed put s until the baby was born (my older brother, 10 years older had a flat and a job so he was staying anyway).
A lot of rural lowland Scotland is split into parcels of land still held by peers, most of them minor ones, and most of them are poor as church mice. We had been on holiday several times to Kilkerran, an estate owned by the Fergussons, and the current baronet was struggling to pay off the death duty levied after he had inherited the title. The estate consisted of a few hundred miles of square land and most of the income was derived by letting the land to local farmers, a stables, lumber, pheasant shoots and holiday cottages. My father found a job as the estate manager.
I think pop had his work cut out, the local’s were suspicious of the English “sasenach”, and he wasn’t exactly wise in the ways of the country. But old pa fishonabike was a trier and bullheaded so it was really only a matter of time. I had plenty to keep me occupied, as the only English kid in school.
We moved into a cottage called Glenton. It laid back off the main road a half mile or so, on a hill, in it’s own quadrangle of barn and outbuildings. There were open fields to the front, a dusty old orchard to one side and the forest peered over and formed the boundary to the rear. It was summer and there was plenty for a “towny” like me to explore.
I should say the best fun I had was with a toy racing car I found in the barn. It was shaped like a real old Stirling Moss flier, and even then it was far too small to get in and pedal, but I would roll it to the top of the hill and sit in it with my legs sticking up and out, and then hurtle down the hill, laughing like a loon all the way, right across the road at the end and eventually bump to a halt in somewhere down the gravel track on the other side. It was bloody long walk back up the hill, but worth every step.
Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? And it was, I was a kid, I was left to my own devices in the woods and I had an imagination, I was the great white hunter, the last of the Mohicans, a spy, an assassin, anything I wanted to be.
I even had a taxi pick me up and bring me home from school!! Dad was there every evening, though I was often home first, sometimes he was late but there was no real problem. Until one evening, when he asked if I minded if he went out after dinner, to the local pub, just to do a bit of networking with some of the locals. No problem at all.
Except, in hindsight, it occurred to me that I’d never spent the evening actually in the house on my own. I’d always played out until Dad came home, dinner was at seven and I had my ticker ticker Timex so I was never late, and in any case he probably thought it was much healthier than me sitting in and watching tv (yes we had one!).
And the reason I hadn’t stayed in was because I didn’t really like the house. It was gloomy and very old, the walls were six feet thick with windows seats, there were creaky stairs and floorboards with threadbare rugs, and it felt somehow unfriendly…not homely or wholesome.
So Pop left and I sat in front of the tv, with an open fire and full bucket of logs, with instructions to go to bed at ten (which I had no intention of doing – I’d sleep in the chair if he wasn’t home before I dozed off). That’s when life took a bit of a down turn at Glenton, when a baby started to cry upstairs. To be precise in the master bedroom, (when you’ve been in a house for even just a little while you know where the noises come from). To be absolutely precise, a toddler, not crying but sobbing “mummy”. My skin crawls now to think about it. The act of writing this requires me to be there again for a moment to remember it and write it accurately. There was nothing to suggest it, but there was something in the child’s cry that wasn’t a plea for it’s mother, quite the opposite, and it grew more plaintive and a little louder “mummy, mummmeee, mumeee”, perhaps I’m reading too much into it but I would swear that Mummy was the cause of it’s distress.
I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t. But I do believe what I heard, I know it….and the only other thing I know is that whatever that was, I was not supposed to occupy the same time/space as it. It hit me like a physical blow. I wet myself, all of the air left my lungs and I panted, hair all over my body rose and trembled, and I started to cry.
In films they go and investigate!!! I couldn’t, wouldn’t open the door, it would be louder out there in the hallway, and even if I did make it outside where would I go, and one thing I still remember clearly is - I was sure that if I did make it outside I would look up, and if I did and I saw something in the window, I would go instantly, utterly mad. So I did the only thing I could think off, I turned the tv up as loud as it would go, curled up in the chair and I waited…and waited…for the sound of the car pulling into the courtyard.
When it did I turned down the volume, and it had gone, and when my Dad woke me up to say “it’s late, you should be in bed”, I just said “sorry” and waited for him so that we could brush our teeth together. I can’t believe he slept in that room.
I never spent another moment alone in that house, at least not at night, and I spent as little time upstairs as possible.
Eventually, Mum, Gran and my new little brother arrived too. My mother and grandmother hated the house, although it’s not something that we could ever discuss with my father – I don’t think he had a metaphysical bone in his body, he was utterly pragmatic and it would have annoyed him intensely to think that something “trivial” could spoil the new life we were carving out.
My brother was growing up. I think he had an even harder time at school that I did, there no children of his age close to us and I didn’t provide much companionship for him so he led a pretty solitary life. He was maudlin little boy, focussed on something inside, probably unhappier than we knew at the time.
Time goes on, and times got a little hard on the estate. Eventually times got so hard that they couldn’t afford my father any more and he found a good, well paid job – which was, unfortunately in Saudi Arabia.
Just about now I’d gone AWOL from family life. I had a car and a bunch of friends, and there were parties and pubs and just my Mum and Gran at home by way of any discipline - and they had their hands full with my kid brother, because he was, a handful that is. (Somehow I can’t bring myself to blog my brother’s name, I hope you don’t mind).
One particular day he’d wound my mother up to such an extent that she told him to get out of the house, go and find something to do even though it was cold and raining. He was twelve at the time.
They found him eventually when they found his Wellington boot. He was above it in the tree, his scarf had snagged in one of the branches and he was hanging from it.
There was an inquest, but no suggestion of suicide, or blame, and a simple verdict of accidental death.
My family came apart at the seams. Secret shame, blame, accusation and guilt were every where, in every silence, in every conversation, in the shadows in the corners of rooms, in toys found under the settee, favourite cups and chairs and baby names for endless everyday things.
He was effectively erased. As if he’d never lived, there was a single photo in the living room and an urn, all else was packaged away.
My grandmother died soon after, my mother not long after that, and then my father who simply gave up the ghost a year later. I stood like a block of wood at each of the funerals, not because I didn’t care, far from it, but as if a switch had been thrown or a connection severed.
So in the loft I have boxes. They are a small part of the jumble that my brother and I decided to keep from the wreckage. Amongst them there are photo’s, not just of my immediate family but old sepia prints of great uncles and aunts that I wanted to sit and sift through over a bottle of wine. I’d started to do that and it was okay, it was fascinating in fact until I came across a bundle of letters amongst the photo’s.
It’s impossible to mistake the handwriting, they are from my mother to my father, and vice versa, there’s a whole correspondence there. Which is not a mystery in itself, what is most disturbing is that they were written while they were living together, not while he was working away. I want to open them and read what it was that they couldn’t bring themselves to say to each other…..but then again I don’t, not at all.