Anglian Cottages

My trusting son is sat on the palm of one hand as I hold him high above my head. He has learned not to wiggle and I have my second hand grasping the back of his trousers. The plan is, by doing this, I can quickly pull him back into my arms should he become unbalanced. Well, that’s the theory. Perhaps I’m somehow transmitting my uncertainty as there is a mixed level of emotions from my wife and family that surround me. Some are nervous about the impromptu acrobatics, others impatiently ask what the boy can see.

“A garden.” He says. He is only three. I realise that I’m doing this more so that he can look through the clear glass wind break that sits on top of the high wall, rather than actually report back to the gathered relatives. I think that, even if his vocabulary were larger, he’d still have no chance of satisfying the curiosity of those below. Beyond the glass is a magical place. A place greatly changed by time and development but, for me, a nostalgically treasured location nonetheless.

The garden in question is attached to my grandparent’s house and, through dint of some vague planning, we are all in their home town for a family visit. Not to visit them personally, though – at this point in time they have both been dead for over two decades. The house, and its secret walled garden, passed out of our family when they finally vacated it, and its loss has always caused a nebulous level of regret. Perhaps it’s this regret – now translated into curiosity – that has led to me balancing my son so precariously in my hands.

It is then that I notice a car pull up and a middle-aged lady get out. She is casually dressed, with a generous dash of smartness about her well creased slacks and light knit jumper, but none of this subtle attire can properly detract from her scowl. She is obviously both concerned and annoyed at us gathered around this window into another world.

I quickly transfer my son to my shoulder, my waist and then pop him lightly on the floor – he giggles throughout – then I move over to the lady to explain. I nudge past my mother and father, step around my brother and his wife and eventually reach her.

As I clarify that the house used to be my grandparent’s and that all I really wanted was for my son to see the garden, her face warms but her eyes take on a level of sadness that counterpoints her new-found smile.

“Would you like to see it?” She asks and, after a polite discussion with the rest of the family, we agree to follow her through the tiny arched alleyway that leads to the rear of the building.

Light, then shadow, then light. I feel a level of trepidation and realise that this is born out of a deeply ingrained fear of Mr and Mrs Robinson – now long departed. They were my grandparent’s neighbours and a more cantankerous couple you could never hope to meet. In fact, the only way you could ever run an errand to the corner shop for my grandmother was to run along the passageway at top speed, such was their ability to turn on the vitriol. I pick my son up again, hold him close and fight the urge to run.

We emerge into a beautiful walled garden, well tended and full of the gentle motion of nodding flowers and lazy nectar seekers. I look up the central path and am amazed at the size of the area. Somewhere in the past the building has been redeveloped and the two houses – my grandparents’ and the Robinsons’ – have been fused into one impressive building. The garden, as a result, is much larger than I remember it. Gone is the small patch of grass that used to sit at the far end, gone too the faded Wendy House that used to draw all of the collected grandchildren past row after row of redolent hollyhocks. I recall my grandfather’s push and pull mower, the creosote stained swing that seemed to be made out of railway sleepers, my grandmother – pinny on – smoking a Consulate cigarette while watering the sweet peas with a galvanised can.

The lady is inviting us in to her spacious glass roofed kitchen, but I find myself loitering, looking at the expansive patio where once my grandfather’s shed stood. It was wooden, it was clad in heavy felt daubed in Bitumen and it was a land of adventure to me and my cousins. Endless hours were lost creating perfumes and potions among the rusting bikes, shadowy garden tools and mysterious tins filled with all kinds of odds and ends.

Again I leave the warmth and step into the relative cool of the woman’s kitchen. A recollection of the pipes bursting in my grandparent’s small bathroom sweeps over me. The megre bath, toilet and sink used to exist where a tasteful marble topped work surface now stands. The exposed pipe had spewed water before it had finally frozen itself shut and everything had been encrusted in heavy ice – clear and blue/white. The only thing to escape its frosty embrace was the small wooden sign above the toilet. It read, “We aim to please. Will you aim too, please?” I smile.

Despite the wonder there was sadness too in this incredible scene. An unvoiced tension from my parents that this had obviously happened over-night and that my infirm grandmother had been incapable of doing anything about it. The spectre of the local old people’s home lurked in the background as both parents doggedly tried to rectify the damage.

I’m drawn back to the present by an explanation of where our family originated from. Privately, I’m still relishing the flood of memories, devouring every moment of intoxicating remembrance as it unfolds.

Here, the dark corner where my grandfather used to sit – steeped in pipe smoke, quiet humour and enough tales of India for me to develop a very early love of curry and the ability to say, “shut that door” in Hindi. Here, the massive dining room table that was the centrepiece of all our visits – a vast jigsaw puzzle perpetually on the go beneath its heavy, green cloth. The table, fish and chips, the old black and white TV – my grandmother and I watching the wrestling on World of Sport while we drank rum laced coffee… It all comes cascading in.

I glance at the owner and see again that she seems to be dealing with some difficult emotions. She looks at my mother and I notice that she’s almost crying. I suddenly realise that we’re interlopers here, voyeurs come to gawp and comment and feel warmly nostalgic.

My mother notices the pain and the tears too. She states, “Well, thank you very much for letting us in, but we’d best be off”. The command of her words is perpetually undercut by her sing-song Suffolk lilt, but everyone gets the message. The group ambles back towards the garden.

I move towards the door and my mind reacts with a flick book of historic images. My grandmother’s homemade custard steaming in smoked glass bowls, the picture of my great grandfather on the stairs whose eyes would follow you as you scurried past, the soft touch of the patchwork eiderdown contrasted by the cold contours of the chipped cast iron beds. I recall the line of ebony elephants that paraded across the imposing upright piano and find myself caught in a bizarre flux of imagery. The present, external, solid and here before me, but somehow with the ghosts of memory superimposed across the modern decor.

We say our thanks, hide our private disappointment that the visit had to be so brief and move back down the alleyway – light then shadow then light once again.

I realise as we walk away that we are all sharing memories that have stirred within us. As I listen to the collected thoughts, a quiet revelation grows within me. These recollections do not lie interwoven in the bricks and mortar that constitute this beautiful enclave.

This receding dwelling was my grandparent’s house, but now it is something else for the woman who lives there. As I walk through the car park towards the high street I find there’s a gentle sense of letting go. I recognise the endurance of the good memories and the transience of the bad. I can only hope that, at some point in the future, the same might ring true for the building’s current occupant.

I put my son down again and take his hand. I smile at him. He smiles back and, as I begin to describe the wonders of Rita’s corner shop and the sweets therein, I dearly hope that this endurance of the good will be true for him too.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2009 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)