Part two is Ellie’s story. Confused and alone after years spent away from the world, what she needs above all else is a key to open the door to her lost past and help her rediscover balance, purpose and the magic that exists all around us. Then she finds her grandmother’s letters…
The black BMW passes through the gates and round the curve of unkempt grass to stop by the steps. Sunlight filters through the tall beeches on the western side of the house, behind the small tower, patterning the bonnet and roof with shifting shapes, lending the brief illusion that the car is underwater. A pause, then the driver, a grey-haired man in a dark suit, gets out and walks around to open the passenger’s side but the woman already has one foot on the gravel drive. He stands loosely to attention, holding the door open for her.
‘Thank you Mr Stacey – sorry – Phillip.’
‘It’s all right. Are you sure you’re ready for this?’
‘Let’s get it over and done with.’ He feels in his pocket and holds up a key, but she shakes her head.
‘Will you do it? I’m not used to keys yet.’ He nods and goes before her up the three steps. The great oak door creaks onto a panelled hall, bare of furniture but with a fireplace on one side. Phillip Stacey steps onto the polished floorboards but the woman hesitates before wrapping her jacket to cross tightly at the front, covering her mouth with her left hand and following him inside.
‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ he says, turning to stop and touch her shoulder. ‘We can do this another time if you’d rather.’ She drops the hand to her chest to grip the lapels together and runs the other through her white hair.
‘Would you mind if I looked around the old place on my own? I’ll try not to be too long.’
‘Take all the time you want. When you’ve seen the house we can have a walk in the gardens,’ he says. Then, seeing her glance at the small door half-hidden by shadow in the corner of the hall: ‘It’s all open inside so you should be able to have a good look round. I’ll be in the garden if you need me.’
Alone in the empty space minutes pass as she gazes at his footprints on the dusty floor before stirring herself to follow their tracks to the kitchen.
She has seen nearly all of it now. A line runs around the house where she trailed a finger through the dust: along the worktop of the huge dresser that still covers one wall in the kitchen; over the old black range, the scrubbed pine table, and briefly, alongside her footprints on the red quarry tiles, as if a small snake had kept her company. Across the long table in the refectory with sunlight warming the motes to sparkle and dance in sad welcome. Over the panels in the sitting room with Phillip Stacey just visible through the French windows, studying an old-fashioned damask rose in the flowerbed. The furniture has nearly all gone, the floor is bare of rugs – she supposes her father must have sold them. Then up the oak stairs, her shoes echoing in the emptiness, the line continuing along the banister, the panelling, through empty rooms, until she opens the door on a spacious bedroom with a glimpse of bathroom beyond. She shuts the door quickly and runs back downstairs to the hall. She looks again at the small door in the corner, wipes her hands on her trousers and crosses the floor.
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y clad in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many’ a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much distayning to the curb to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene, verse 1, Canto 1
Wednesday 28th January 1959
How strange it is to be here. I flew around the house glancing into the bedrooms, the nooks and passages, cupboards and corners. The refectory-like dining hall with my callings echo-singing back at me, the dim sitting room with its touches of rubbed gold and the eyes of his lost close ones following me, the glass doors that stare onto the garden, the kitchen with its proud dresser and my footsteps bold on the quarry-ringing floor – like flicking back in time to a slower age when everything was done by servants. No servants of course, no handmaidens, only Campbell who has been seeing to things since last year and who will come in often to help me. He seems friendly enough, although all he said when Cadogan introduced us was Young, so young… in a voice too soft and secret for his bulky frame, before lowering his eyes again to the chopping of oranges for marmalade. It was odd when that happened and made me wonder if having him here might not be too intrusive after all. People should think quietly to themselves until they know each other properly. And he’s right – I am young, and know little or zero about cooking or tendering a house of this size, let alone a husband-lover.
I’ve chosen the bedroom of sky and bluebells, river and cornflowers. It has a small bathroom and made me welcome, unlike the rattling dorm of the convent or the naked cell Cadogan used in the life just before we were married, although he was rarely here and mostly stayed at the flat in town. Everything has been so sudden – how could I have imagined this time last year that I’d soon be a wife with a house in the folded hills?
I lived today in a dizzy of exploring. Cadogan has told me something of the history of the place – how it was scorched and flattened during the Reformation-time and rebuilt so, so many generations later. The oddest part is the small tower at the western end. A tiny wooden mousehole of a door hides in the corner of the hall and creaks onto winding steps that fall to a vaulted undercroft and climb to the open platform at the top. There is no electricity in the undercroft and I had to take my old yellow rabbit-torch. Its beam threw ghosts onto the walls, hurry-scuttled invisible creatures into the shadows. The place has a damp earthy smell and leaves have somehow crept inside to shelter in the corners among the dirt. Cadogan tells me that this is almost the only part of the original building that’s left. He says it’s thought to have been a priory for a community of silent men, and I turned off the restless beam and stood awhile to listen for their robes rustling as they moved about. In one of the small rooms leading off from the main vaulted space squats a bell with an ominous crack cutting it at an angle nearly all the way round.
I spiralled up the stone steps to the platform at the top of the tower to lean on a low crenellated parapet that was all that kept me from flying with the birds or dashing to death in the courtyard below, and giddy-looking through latticed fingers out over the fields towards the woodland that worms to the hilltop, time seemed to slip and slide me with it. The surrounding walls cup the gardens in this small coombe of the Downs, as if the house is a sacred megalith grown from the chalk and flint beneath it. Westwards the river gleams like a serpent uncoiling from long hibernation.
Wild gardens press against the walls and a neglected pond sleeps behind the box hedge at the back, although an old man does come in two days a week to potter. The pond needs cleaning out and waking up with lilies and goldfish – perhaps I’ll make that a special secret project. Cadogan has asked me if I’d like to decorate any of the rooms, and I’ve been thinking about that too. There is so much I could do here even without cooking and housework so I won’t be bored or bum-idle.
Cadogan was late home from town last night and the casserole Campbell had left for us was a lumpen mass in the oven of the old range. I’d waited up so we could feed together, but he arrived after midnight and seemed surprised that I’d bothered. He’d had supper at his club after a business appointment and was bed-needy, too tired for kisses. Glad for once to be used to taking hunger to bed I went up with him and was soon away without food or love, but was woken by the moon in the early hours and had to slink downstairs like a wolf on the scavenge. How strange the old house is at night. I seemed to feel its breathing, yet there was nothing malevolent in the air, just the sleepy sense of its life past and present, and its awareness of that life, as if it were watching over us during our time here. I slid back between the sheets shivering, and lay there not touching Cadogan in case I woke him, although I burned for him to reach out and enclose me with his white arms. So little I know about his past. Our coming together seems almost miraculous, like finding angels in your hair, and what can he see in me? Our first meeting – how his smile blinded, while the red tide rushed up my neck to submerge my face and ears in confusion.
We woke to a bone cold and the insides of the bedroom windows spiked with frost flowers. It reminded me of Megan warming a penny in her knickers to make peepholes on the convent windows. Cadogan abandoned me for town and I muffled up warm in my big safe coat and set out across the fields to the woods. The hill and the two pastures belong to the Priory, although the pasture is rented out, and the woods are sometimes used for shooting. As I walked up through the copse to the top of the hill I wanted to run, to cry out for joy, embrace the cold bodies of the trees, pull their arms around my waist to hold me here forever. The leaves crackle-whispered underfoot, the silence of the crisp air kissed my cheeks, my breath moved like a company of ghosts all around. I felt so young yet so old too, as if I knew all there is to know and belonged in this place. I will be happy here.
The cupboards are strangely hollow for such an old house – only Cadogan’s clothes and of course his papers and books in the study. My few possessions consist of the dress and smart coat I bought when I left the convent, the things Cadogan helped me choose for the honeymoon, the forbidden C.S. Lewises and of course Caplet, who has been with me forever and is all I have from you. I left the Bible the nuns had given me and my little family of stones behind. Cadogan is my family now. He says we will have to get me some evening wear, that I’ll need some dazzlers for when we go to town to meet his friends, but with luck this may not happen for a while. There was no time for a gathering before the wedding and I’m afraid of shaming him. If I can yes no maybe soon long enough he may even forget.
Perhaps I should try to read some clever books on the evenings that he gets home late. His study is full of Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser and who knows what else, and at least I’d have something to talk about, or if not to talk to hug tight to myself and grow smart on. I’ll start tomorrow.
My head is turning, spinning like a carousel. I began with Spenser’s Faerie Queene; …A gentle knight was pricking on the plain… and was at first dizzied with the strange-old of the language, but then began to read aloud, and oh, I rose like a balloon on a fresh wind on understanding those ancient words. They seemed almost familiar. And the knight’s lady is called Una! I feel as though my steps have been guided by forces beyond understanding and there are enough verses to keep me in occupation all winter. Shall I tell Cadogan? No – let me become very learned and surprise him. Campbell appeared suddenly without knocking – wondering who I was talking to I suppose. He has the bluest eyes, like a sailor-man who’s been carried so long on the ocean deep that all the looking and gazing at that ultramarine has coloured them with itself.
The trees hibernate in the stone-hard earth. I walked again this morning to the beginning of the copse and looked down on the house – my house, my home now. I’ve been here such a sliver of time, yet as I stood there my eyes filled with tears, and laughter bubbled into the cold air. Is it possible to love flints and mortar? Smoke spiralled from the chimneys in a slow white affirmation of our occupation. My life seems like a story in a book.
Cadogan wants us to start a family soon, and perhaps I’d like that too, although I think we need some time to bind fast together first. I want to know him entirely, and that may take a little while, as his is a naturally serious nature that at times can seem almost like a river between us; old and wide, deep with hidden currents. Twenty-five years is a large difference in age, I can know nothing of more than half the times he has lived through. And I’m afraid of the pain. How can such a large object come out of such a small opening? A girl needs her mother to answer such questions. But I must scurry those thoughts away and trust that things won’t happen too quickly. He will be all to me now, and I must remember that he chose me when I know he must have far cleverer and more attractive women among his friends. But away with insect thoughts creeping under my skin to spot this happiness. He will be home soon and the warm rich tastiness of Campbell’s pie has stolen along the passage and under the study door to tease me.
Campbell is a silent creature whose great paws deal with the things that need to be done as if so well-practised that his mind can be away with itself. Will I get used to him in time? There’s something odd about such a man cooking and cleaning when he seems to be made for the open sky and the sea and the hard things that men do in books and grow stronger on. His presence makes me feel like a pet animal or a child who may be seen but not heard much. I must try to learn everything about the running of the house so we can wave him goodbye. I have laid the small table in the sitting room next to the fire as the refectory is too large and shivery at the moment, and that will have to do as a start. All that’s needed is to take the dish from the oven and break the thick pastry-crust to reveal the treasure below. I will have two helpings.
A black moon tonight, and the stars barely visible. The night sky pushes against the old windows as if it would come in and eat me. Looking out I imagine there is nothing there, just a void with the house suspended like a planet in nothingness. Come home soon my darling, my one.
Last night was strange and wonderful. I had a sudden pash to light candles, and rummage-raided the old storerooms that run down the long arm of the house. I winkled out some white ones and a box of nightlights from under a crumbling sack and stood them on saucers, one in every window, then wrapped up in my safe coat and slipped into the garden so I could see how they looked from the outside. It was odd to hear them tinkling and flickering like the gold and silver decorations on a Christmas tree, and familiar too, almost as if I’d done the same thing before, long ago. Later I heard the car on the drive and ran through to swing open the huge oak doors. Cadogan was framed there like the Redcrosse Knight. Yes, The Faerie Queen has entered my consciousness and splashed it with magic. At first he seemed in a frown about the candles, peeving that I could have burned the house down, and rushed me upstairs where we dashed around snuffing them out until, reaching our room I pulled him onto the bed, the blood banging in my head. As he held me he became the knight in the poem without any deliberate imagining on my part, and for the first time an almost unbearable intensity of touch lifted me on a slow stream of sensation. I remembered Megan’s stories of her adventures, how she sometimes shocked me with her runaway tongue, but then Sister Maria’s voice never trickled into her ear like honey to make her listen as it did to mine.
It is still very cold at night, although the sun smiles the land warm by day. I walked again to the edge of the copse and stood for a long time looking down at the house. A bell began to ring, although the nearest church is miles away. I’ll ask Cadogan about it when he gets home.
I can’t make up my mind to change the rooms, although he mentioned it again this morning. The family that rented the house last year left it cold, and he has done nothing to please it. The furniture his parents once cherished, so much a part of the house itself, was taken from storage and returned, also the curtains and soft furnishings, faded hints of some older age. I love the oak-panelled walls and the darkness of the interior; that sense of being in another era suits my present mood. I have all I need for bliss – security, love, his body and the space for my imagination to be free. I don’t hunger for company, yet Campbell is around most mornings and I think I’m beginning to understand him a little. Is it possible that he’s as shy of me as I am of him? This morning I gathered my courage to ask if he’d teach me to cook a few simple dishes and he actually smiled – the first time I’ve seen him smile – and said he’d be glad to. I’ll surprise Cadogan by preparing a meal all by myself one of these days.
I asked Cadogan about the bell and he said it must have been for a funeral. I wonder who has died? I don’t know anyone around here so a name would mean less than zero to me, yet I feel that the empty echo should have spoken more than it did.
A crystal morning, chill at first but soon the ground steamed like a horse after a galloping. At midday I found some old trousers and a jumper in one of the storerooms and after warming them on the stove went out to look at the pond with the idea of draining it and clearing all the dead leaves and plants. I set about bailing out the foot or so of water with an old zinc bucket that that was full of snails, re-homing them in a flowerpot that I placed against the orchard wall under an apple tree. Luckily autumn was thirsty last year otherwise it would be an endless task. Exhausted, I had to stop after a couple of hours with very little to show for my efforts, but after a long soak in candlelight and the wicked bubble-bath Megan gave me for my birthday, felt prepared to re-enter the world of The Faerie Queene. How obsessed Spenser is with dragons and demons, trials and tribs. And did the Elizabethans believe it was wrong for a woman to take pleasure in sex? I may have misunderstood entirely, but it seems so. Perhaps the knightly ideal is to be above such body-secret things. And I shall look at each tree with new eyes tomorrow and wonder if there is someone imprisoned inside. What strange mind-flicks those verses create in me.
I’ve had an idea. Soon it will be Valentine’s Day, our first one together, and I must make it heart-stirring and part of the web of memories we’re spinning here day by day. A special meal – I’ll talk to Campbell – and let something magical, some creature from the imagination, meet Cadogan at the door when he comes home from work. What will I be? The knight’s lady from the book? A wood nymph? The very thought makes my pulse run away and that little fear-feeling tickle down there.
* * *
published by Fig Tree Press 2006