by Ranulph Williams
Returning to a childhood home after many years absence has much of the sensation of travelling in a dream. The unwarranted recognition, the anti-climax of withheld familiarity, the jamais vu of recognising an unknown place.
The distorting perspective of childhood is several feet and many years distant. History, that industrious engineer, has transformed the geography. The sites of great battles are bushes and the downfall of kings, a ditch full of nettles. One might as well organise a walking tour with a fairy tale for a guide book.
But for William Connelly, arriving at Meresham station some thirty years after he last left it, the journey is something more in the nature of a nightmare.
Not that the station itself struck any awful chord in him. In fact, it struck no chord at all. He could hardly distinguish it from any of the other country branch line stations they had passed through: the same fussy, Victorian iron work, the same fussy, Victorian flower arrangements, the same fussy, Victorian station masters.
But then the station had never really been a prominent feature of his childhood world. Even in those days they had had a car; a great black horseless carriage, so large that, as a child, it had seemed to him more like another room of the house they could detach and trundle about the countryside, in search of some fresh vista to arrange before its picture windows.
There was no reason why he should recognise the station, then, but, all the same, he was somewhat disappointed to discover that he did not, even a little bit, hate it on sight.
Connelly had, after all, spent the last two days dreading this moment and the last ten miles of branch line questioning why he was doing this at all. The moment he had seen the photograph of the house in the property agent’s window, he had felt his stomach knot in horror. Up to that moment he had barely been aware of how close he was to Meresham, so long had he been out of the country, but his nerves had been on edge for days: a trembling of butterflies, an intimation of bad weather.
Which made it so much harder to explain why he had collared the agent and demanded the keys, run to the station and bought the ticket, why, in fact, he was here at all.
But then how much could William Connnelly explain after all? How much of his life had been nothing but a series of inexplicable jumps: onto trains, off of ships, from whim to hunch, from solid gold opportunity, to bad debts and worse creditors.
This last journey, for instance: it started with a good tip from a salesman in a bar in town, but he had missed his train, lost his luggage, failed to find a hotel room. He had turned up late and unshaven and made, he knew, a bad impression by going through the wrong door into someone else’s meeting. He hadn’t bothered staying for his appointment. After all these years of drifting, William Connelly could read the wind, and, as ever, it was once more blowing in his face.
So he slipped from the office before he was noticed and had gone to stand in the market square to count his change. And it was there he had seen the photograph. Which was how he was here, stepping off the train onto Meresham platform.
This must have been, he suddenly realised, the last he had seen of Meresham. He had a vague impression of it, suddenly. An urgency of luggage and steam: his mother’s fussy concern, his father’s terse exasperation. And him? His immeasurable relief – his final escape. His victory.
That was the way he told the story, these days, and he told it often, in all those careless conversations in the low places he had washed ashore in around the world. Those incontinent confessions in which one could only indulge with strangers. And there had been a lot of strangers in William Connelly’s life, and a lot of strange places, a strangeness more familiar to him than Meresham was now.
Had it been a victory, that escape? This flight down the years and across the seas? This story that he had clutched to him on his way, wearing it smooth, the polished keepsake of his only, his last success: was that all he had now?
The level crossing! Finally something he recognised. Here, here on this corner, by the three-armed road sign, he would stand, clutching his nanny’s hand, terrified and delighted by the power and noise of the locomotive, but more: overjoyed at the prospect of the walk round the village, at being out of that house.
He half considered it now, that walk, looking down the road to where it widened round the green, but he steeled himself: get it over and done with.
He didn’t notice it at first, but from now on William Connelly navigated his way from memory. Lost in his thoughts, he followed his feet. Up over a stile, through a corner of woodland and then into a bare ploughed filed, where the path ran up the side, under the eaves of the wood. The country mile, his nanny called it. The second nanny, the one from town. The first had been a local. She hadn’t wanted to stay. Not after.
But he was remembering something else. This: the countryside. In his helter skelter across the globe, he had quite forgotten this: the smell of turned earth, the sharp chatter of a magpie, a fist of flint caught in a turn of root, the colour of beech leaves.
Of all the emotions he might have expect on this return, the last was this, that a traveller returning to his native country for the first time in three decades might feel something like happiness.
And then there it was, squatting down beneath a shoulder of hill, gnarled chimneys just visible over the bulky shadows of yew, the still lake glinting in the cold sun. The house.
This was the spot, of course, the moment he always dreaded as a child, the proof that he was returning to that awful place. But coming on it now, unawares, he suddenly saw it for what it was, a huddled old house, closed in on itself, its gardens pulled tight around it, abandoned and dark in the bright winter daylight.
But the way to the house drew him increasingly under its spell: from field, across a ha-ha, to meadow, the bushes untended round the lake, concrete channels of long dried water features, the golden beech hedge of the vegetable garden, the ornamental beds, a small, neat lawn and finally the paved square outside the kitchen door.
The mounting block, he remembered, was made of stones from the old chapel, torn down to please merry old King Henry. He stared at it, trying not to notice how the house now shouldered itself up around him, lightless and silent.
He recalled this, all right – long, dim evenings playing round it, with only the yellow light from the kitchen window illuminating the gathering dusk. How he would prolong his heroic struggles, his father’s riding crop a sabre, flinging on opponent after opponent in a desperate battle to forestall night and hold back bedtime, the fateful call to retreat back inside the house.
The kitchen door still sticks, too, that awkward lift and push, but the room inside is just a room. His haven, his port of safety, full of steam and the gleaming brass, the clean crack of washing up and the cacophony of making, that room only exists in the past now.
This room is grey and plain and foreign. He tests the tabletop with his fingertips, but the whorls of grain give nothing away. He can still remember the taste of the polish, leaning forward in his chair, mouth against the wood, a surreptitious tongue licking at the patina, listening to his parents argue in the hall beyond.
About him. It comes to him now, standing in this bright, bare kitchen, that they were argu ing about him, that all those flurried whispers and enforced silences were about him, about him and this house.
In the hallway the light is cold. The house, if anything, seems even colder than the winter outside. His breath hangs on the air before him. There is not a stir, not a noise. He’d expect an old house to be complaining and shifting in the cold, but not this one. This one is still, waiting.
He walks to the stairs, his footsteps flat and echoless. The life has gone out of the sounds, making them present and unreal. Above him the pale faces of his ancestors loom out of the darkness of age in a mounting rank of portraits, climbing the staircase, back up the family tree.
His father once took his hand and led him up the stairs, introducing him to them all, to his past, to his inheritance, his house.
That had been what they were arguing about, of course, his father all too aware of their duty and destiny, his mother all too aware of her son. And yet his father must have been too. That was how William Connelly’s victory had been achieved in the end, after all, triumphing over a thousand years of family, the first escape of a lifetime of escapes.
He follows his father again, up the stairs, up to where the shadows gather, rising with the dust through the empty house, to throng the cold places under the roof.
But what if he hadn’t? What if he hadn’t escaped, hadn’t hated the house so, what if it hadn’t happened? What if his headlong tumble through life had been another sedate waddle down the avenue of family history? A county wife and fat-bottomed county children, dogs and horses and duty and, in the end, perhaps, contentment?
Could that have been his life? William Connelly, squire of this parish? The little boy who had been so afraid of this staircase, who, clutching his father’s hand, had climbed in mute, shuffling terror, his heart fluttering, his breath shallow, the panic rising in his throat?
He gripped the newel at the head of the banister. His hand was sweaty, he noticed, even in this cold, his pulse tremulous. For a man who had lived so long by whim, he could not imagine what perversity drove him to persevere.
The second flight of stairs was narrower, darker, the carpet flat and worn, the light from a glazed arrow loop watery. He turned the tight corner and it came to him suddenly, as clearly as he had feared it might.
The house had been quiet that afternoon, long ago, but not like this. It was summer and the house was, then, alive and airy and… happy. He had been tottering about on his own and had found himself in his parent’s bedroom, in his mother’s scarf drawer: his favourite things – the reds and pinks, the horses and ships, the silk, running like soft water through his hands.
And then it had happened, it had all seemed to drain away, the colours, the sunlight, the house receded down the wrong end of the telescope in his father’s study, the room suddenly unfriendly and cold about him. Goosebumps stood up on his arms. There was something there, something in the doorway, a shape, dark, in silhouette. The landing beyond empty and alien, the figure massing and lumpen. It staggered towards him and then lurched, shouting, arms out-stretched and he screamed, he screamed for his life.
William Connelly stood on the corner of the stair, frozen in horror at the memory. His hand trembled on the banister. He willed himself up, another step, another, his breath caught in his throat.
And he turned up onto the landing, towards the door to his parents’ room, and.
The door was open. Inside the light streaming through the arched window was warmer, sunnier. The bed clothes seemed freshly made. A blue perfume bottle glinted on the dressing table.
A child sat on the floor. Real as you like. A small boy, running silk scarves through his hands.
And in an awful, glacial moment it came to Wiliam Connelly why he had come to the house that day, it came to him what he had been running from all these years, just what had made him flee this house, his history, his life, just what it was that he had done.
And it came to him that he might have another, greater victory, that he might stop his hectic flight, might refind his life, if only he might stop this child, warn him, explain.
And he steps into the room, his hand outstretched in friendly greeting, his mouth forming the words, and then he sees himself in the mirror behind the child: a formless shadow, lurching, staggering. And the boy looks up and sees him.