Monday, June 04, 2007

underneath a spreading chestnut tree

The house was perfect, as if painted into the surrounding garden of blooming rhododendrons and azaleas. So white in the sunshine, set in it’s green idyll, it was almost too bright to look at.

The dogs sniffed on the low picket fence and shuffled, glanced up at me nervously or impatiently I don’t know, because we had stood there for a very long time. They were on the leash while I stood mesmerised by the canary yellow door, the same canary yellow door.

It’s very still here, there’s a hush, and in keeping with the hush we were still and quiet too, like visitors to a church where we might feel embarrassed to break the silence. Maybe they felt it too, certainly Charlie’s strident yap would have brought the walls and roof of this brief enchantment crashing in.

It was still inside too. No emotional tide here, no turbulence, nothing rising to the surface, unless of course a reflective calm emptiness is an emotion in itself.

And then there was a cause for embarrassment, a flutter of the living room curtains (note to self, what ‘was’ the living room) and a half concealed face that glanced briefly and then withdrew. Which precipitated a decision that I‘d hardly considered, whether to knock on the door and see who answered, and say….whatever came to mind.

We put ourselves in motion and half way down the gravel track were saved the awkwardness of finding the first words. The canary yellow door opened onto a man very similar to myself, in build, in height, in age, but with a full beard who stood, not aggressively, but defensively and said, “are ye looking for the camp site”.

I hesitated, it didn’t (doesn’t) seem fair to involve others in ones personal melodrama. I should have said yes, but what I said was, “I’m curious about the house”.

“Very curious if you ask me”

“Yes, I’m sorry”

“Weel it’s no for sale if that’s what your wanting”

“No, no, not at all…actually…in fact…well, I used to live here”.

If I thought that might placate him it didn’t do the trick.

“I’m sorry” I said, “I didn’t mean to disturb you” and turned to walk away.

We had almost made it back on to the main drive, this is the gatehouse you see, at the end of private road that sweeps up through the woods to the Fergusson family home…

Glad to be back facing the sun now, with my back to the yellow door, when, perhaps curiosity got the best of him and he called.

“What’s your name?”

Without turning “Colin, Colin Deed”

And the door slammed shut.

His wife caught us up about a half mile down the lane. She was driving a small white van and pulled over just beyond us. She looked worried, almost ashamed as she got out, in fact her first words were “Sorry, so sorry” in that lilting Scots accent that instantly made you believe her and regret that she was saying it and not you. I knew immediately who she was as she stumbled in the long grass by the side of the lane and stood holding the edge of the open van door.

“I know you” she said.

“And I know you”, and tried to smile winningly and at the same time remember her name.

“I’m Mary”

Yes, (thank you God!!), “Mucculloch” I blurted

“MacCutcheon” she offered quietly.

“Yes, of course” I agreed “MacCutcheon, how are you Mary”.

“That was my husband Weir that ye just spoke to and he was awfee rude, I’m so sorry”

“Oh no really, it’s me that should be sorry, after all I did stand there and lurk for a very long time”

“Still, whatever, he knows you, though you’ll nay remember him”

And we had a conversation, the conversation that people who haven’t seen each other for nigh on 25 years have, full of vaguely remembered shared acquaintances (at least to me) and what they were doing and who had children and how many and who had gone bad, mad or run away in the night. (Mary was the daughter of the couple who had owned the Post Office in the local village, the epicentre of gossip in any small Scots community).

And then we stood there for a moment and smiled vaguely, and suddenly she asked the question I think she had wanted to ask all along, blurted, almost fearfully….”the house Colin, the house…

I left her to finish it for herself, I didn’t want to offer anything if she were only going to ask if it suffered from rising damp.

…is it, well…okay…?”

I knew what she meant, had done all along, “It’s fine Mary, truly, it’s fine. You live there, it’s warm and cosy and welcoming, live there…you must know that”.

“I know” she said apologetically, “but even so, poor wee Stewart, how old was he Colin, thirteen, fourteen?”


“Oh no, poor wee man, do you know why….no of course ye don’t, I’m sorry”.

“Well one thing’s for sure, it wasn’t the house Mary so never think that”.

“We look around the garden sometimes and, well you know…”

“And you needn’t worry about that either Mary, my brother and I cut down the tree too, and burnt it to a crisp, it isn’t there now”

She brightened, and we made brief farewells.

“I’m glad” she said as she left “the garden’s beautiful”

I waved goodbye as she drove away, I suspect she’d take the fork on the hill and drive the long way round so past the kennels we didn’t have to see each other again if she turned around. I understood that.

I had not been back there for nearly 30 years, the house where my family lived for many years after my little brother was found hanging from the tree in the garden…and where eventually I carried them out, one by one, in boxes through the canary yellow door.

Although it was a beautiful day and the dogs loved the freedom and the fields and I amused myself remembering stiles and gates and individual trees - somehow I suspect I won’t be going back again.

I’m writing this in the corner of the sofa while Charlie and Toffee eat my pizza crusts. This ill conceived weekend seems a lifetime ago already. I’ll be posting this without ever rereading it so please excuse any bad grammar and spelling mistakes.