Up the stairs again – there was another bathroom on the return and then up to a big landing with several small bookcases. My parents’ room was the first on the right. There was always ivy tapping on their window and it regularly had to be ripped back. My father loves bright colours and my mother had painted one wall of their room bright purple as a surprise for him once. He was away and, I think, my brother and I must have been at school but my sister helped my mother with the painting and fell into a pot of paint and cut her eyebrow quite badly. An unfortunate doctor friend came and stitched her up and the painting continued.
I am reminded of a story about my father being away. Once he came home very late a day before he had planned to and found the gates to the house locked. He went to the phone box at the end of the road (no mobile phones, obviously) and called my mother who is a very sound sleeper. She woke up, promised to let him in and promptly fell back to sleep. Clearly, there were limits to her devotion.
The grounds were a bit like Fort Knox. Local children (at least one of whom was in school with me, so easily able to, you know, ask for apples) were always coming and stealing (or slogging as it is known locally) apples and we were burgled a couple of times so this encouraged my parents to put in deterrents. I once impaled myself on a spiky gate between the front garden and the back. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to be there so I pulled my elbow off the spike and went into the playroom to watch television with Cissie hoping that my red cardigan would hide the blood. It dripped on the floor though and she instantly brought me off to my parents. I thought I would be murdered but they were most sympathetic and even brought me in to the study to put on a special kind of plaster (a butterfly plaster) for the night. I had it stitched in the morning and was rewarded for my fortitude with new black patent shoes and an ice cream something I considered extraordinary good fortune given that my problems stemmed from illicitly climbing the gate.
Next door to my parents’ bedroom was the big room that my brother and I slept in. Following my lead, he once broke his arm while we were jumping from bed to bed (he was too smart to do it twice). He was always an attention seeker. When my sister was born, he was moved to the spare, smaller room next door on his own and she and I were in the big bedroom. He was scared on his own though, so she was moved in with him and I had the big bedroom all to myself, something of a triumph. It was a very cold triumph. In winter I would get up, grab my uniform from the radiator and put it on in bed. In summer though, I could sit on the window box looking out feeling like a heroine in a book.
I liked Enid Blyton’s school stories and, when my best friend from school (now an esteemed consultant geriatrician and still, quite possibly, the cleverest person I have ever met) came to stay, we would try to stay up until midnight and have a midnight feast but invariably ended up eating everything at about 9.30 and collapsing into our beds exhausted.
Up the last flight of stairs to the attics. There were two big attic rooms one of which was forbidden to us. This was my father’s workshop where broken appliances and pieces of furniture came to be mended or self heal as my husband would say. There was a huge model ship which we were forbidden to touch on pain of, oh I don’t know, dreadful things. I used to tiptoe in and stare at it, awestruck.
The other attic room looked out over the back garden and this was full of all kinds of odd things – it is what I picture when I read Saki’s “The Lumber Room“. It was in that room that the meetings of the O.J.G.C. were convened. The O.J.G.C. was invented by my other best friend (now an ornament to our diplomatic service). We had badges (the club was perhaps inspired by the badge making machine I had received as a present) and we had a library and we carefully marked the books O.J.G.C. I still have quite a few of these books knocking round the house and read them to my children who have, as yet, no interest in Our Jolly Good Club (I did say that we all read a lot of Enid Blyton).
We had a good back garden and we spent a lot of time climbing trees – there was one apple tree near the house that was particularly good for climbing; playing cowboys (I had a great gun with caps) and indians; producing plays – curtain created by stringing it between two bushes (there was a whole row of shrubs and bushes alongside the path and sweet pea growing up the wall – I do want to try to grow sweet pea in my own garden now); and torturing poor Michael, the saintly gardener, who let us play hide and seek in the potatoes and dig them up too. Michael always had a poached egg for lunch and I was fascinated by the way Cissie managed to make them quite round in the poached egg holder – can you still get those things?
There were two little girls who lived in another house in the grounds and, I think, my mother was delighted at the thought that they were built in playmates but one was a bit older than me and the other a bit younger and we never quite hit it off. I think their mother (very understandably, I now realise) never really forgave me for encouraging the younger to twirl around on the bars of the swing and knock out her newly arrived front teeth. I met her again recently for the first time in many years and her teeth look fine.
At the bottom of the garden, through a small gate, there was a chapel. We never went to mass there as my father had to sit in a special seat and do a reading and seem very enthusiastic about leading the singing and he didn’t like that. My brother was christened there (I think the only baby ever baptised in that church) and I disrupted the ceremony by insisting that my father and not my mother sit in the carved chair whatever the priest might want. I had firm notions of what was right. I remember skipping down the path to the church with my father wearing my favourite dress with the American flag on the chest and looking up at the stars, very excited to be allowed out at night; I suppose that that can’t have been the christening – he was hardly christened at night – but that memory is so vivid that I am reluctant to deny it.
I was very happy in that house and, despite my mother’s spending every Saturday morning perusing the Examiner’s property supplement, it never occurred to me that we might move. One morning I came down to the kitchen and found Cissie in tears. She told me that it was because we were moving out and, as she worked in the house and would be staying there, she wouldn’t be minding us any more.
Despite my disbelief, we did move out. My mother, herself a product of large houses, was very sad and also somewhat concerned about where we would fit all our furniture. I was appalled. My father was rather glad to be shedding one of his jobs. My brother and sister were too young to really care although for a long time afterwards whenever my sister got cross she would announce “I’m going back to my own Cissie”.
There was no going back though. On our last day before leaving, I went around to each empty room and said goodbye. Two more families lived in the house after us, then it was offices for a time and then the trustees decided to knock it down. It was riddled with dry rot – something that had been treated while we were there (my mother became something of an expert on dry rot in all its forms) – and not really of any particular architectural merit. For many years, the small gate that led to the chapel survived. It hung at the top of a short flight of stone steps on the way to nowhere in particular – the house and garden both gone and replaced by an underwhelming, though not unpleasant, modern building. I would look at the gate and remember Saturday afternoons spent swinging on it admiring wedding parties emerging from the chapel below. Even the gate is long gone now. Sic transit.
More tomorrow. Possibly.