The houses that build us
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Leaving a house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers, autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of your being, is harder still.
Some people live a nomadic sort of life and maybe that is better. Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines (1986) certainly thought so. His experiences and travels in the Australian outback made him believe humans were essentially nomadic, defined by the journeys they make, not the places they might happen to settle in. But then I always suspected Chatwin was trying to justify his own restless nature.
I was so happily settled at Coleshill as a child that I did not want to go to school, even when I reached what would now be considered the ridiculously advanced age of five.
I wanted to stay at home, where I enjoyed spending time in the kitchen garden with Mr Appleby, who decided to go on looking after the vegetables and the orchard he had planted well into his retirement.
Mr Appleby had thick white hair and a wonderful smile. He seemed the happiest of men, and I think he was, at least until his mid-nineties, when he told me it wasn’t such a good idea to live quite so long.
He didn’t say much but he worked steadily, digging, hoeing, weeding. I especially liked it when he dug for potatoes or carrots and I could take them down to the kitchen.
Beyond the vegetable patch and the orchard, where just a couple of weeks ago we picked the last apple, or my last apples, from what we called the “pink-inside” tree, planted by Mr Appleby in the 1950s, there was a big wild garden with infinite possibilities for a curious child.
There was what we called the dell, an old chalk pit with a flat grass bottom and steep sides. The flat bottom was good for cricket and croquet and the steep sides for investigating clumps of ferns and the thrill of startling a grass snake.
Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it as quite a young child. Possibly my attachment to the house was strengthened because I was sent off early to boarding school, and relied on the house being there for me when I came home, my trusty shield and anchor against change.
Or maybe, and this is what I suspect, it was really a sort of love affair; the house and I were well suited, we fitted each other like a hand in a glove.
Because of my attachment to the house, I was always strongly attracted to works of literature which explored this theme. A special place in my bookshelf is reserved for Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), the novel written partly to recreate his family palace in Palermo hit by a stray American bomb in 1943. Recently I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), which is about an adolescent girl’s crush on an older man and her disillusionment, the Irish Civil War and the equivocal position of the Anglo-Irish in southern Ireland, but even more I think, about the author’s feelings for her Irish family home, Bowen’s Court.
My favourite play, outside the works of Shakespeare, is Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. There are many moments in the play which stop the heart and the first is probably Gaev’s comically inept address to the bookcase. “Dear honoured bookcase! I hail your existence. For more than one hundred years your very being has been directed to the shining ideals of cardinal good and justice.”
Of course, Gaev’s address to the bookcase is meant to be ridiculous, but on the day we left the house I knew exactly how he felt.
We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day, which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it so.
The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.
We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any chairs.
But there was wine, good bread and cheese and salad. I did not address the bookcase, but I did, just before we left, notice that the long bamboo-handled cobweb duster which had always stood in the passage leading past the old darkroom to the side door was still standing there.
Sometimes salvaging one small thing can mean a good deal.
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