Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and for years.
The Book of Genesis
In the beginning....
July 12th 1990. You have two messages.
’Good God, Mother. Were you on helium when you recorded that? What I like about this machine is that you never quite know what it will do. Will it give the caller your message? Will it give you the caller’s message? Will it pick up Radio Moscow, or microwave the cat? Why, oh why, oh why don’t you get it repaired? Or better still, chuck it out and buy another. ‘Oh, no,’ I hear you cry. ‘Bring back the good old days, when a wizened old man in a dusty workshop could bung in a couple of valves for a penny three farthings, and there were eight postal collections a day and four on Sundays.’ Well, I can’t stand here all day talking to the likes of you. Please can you pick me up from my rehearsal at eleven? And please park round the corner so no-one knows my mother is a closet boy-racer in her metallic blue Capri. Someone has to maintain standards in this family. Bye for now.′
‘...anyway, I think you’d like to see it. Ring me back on BEEP.’
That was your last message.
Sometimes something as simple as a message on an answering machine will turn your life around completely. Of course, I had to write and tell Maddy all about it.
….Things are finally beginning to happen, Maddy! It started last week, with half a message on the answering machine. At first I didn’t recognise the voice, but then Jake said, and I quote, ‘It’s that reporter... the one who’s got the hots for you.’ I’m sure he has not. Anyway, he’s too young. He wrote a piece when I made a stained glass window for Jake’s school. He seemed politely interested, but I didn’t detect any dark passions.
Jake and I stayed up late that night, remembering the years we’ve spent here. It’s been a roller coaster, swooping from sadness to joy, love to loss, anger to healing. And that’s just the cats.
Jake talked about camping in the woods with his friends and roaming the village after I’d gone to sleep (it was the first I’d heard of that) and the illicit delights of the kissing tree in the churchyard; I remembered struggling to pay the mortgage when interest rates shot through the roof and those bloody fly-by-night magazine bastards omitted to pay me for all my articles they purloined to raise the tone of their rag. It’s a bit late to realise that no-one ever achieved world financial domination with a hotchpotch of a career like mine - a bit of lecturing there, some writing here and usually a stained glass window in the making. I’m having a lot of those thoughts lately – it took me a while to catch on that singing self-penned songs of gloom and doom tends not to attract alpha males, and carrying a Bob Dylan album (and knowing all the words of all the songs) opens not the doors of success.
Well, the mystery caller rang back the next morning, and, infuriatingly, Jake was right; it was Mike, or Somerset’s answer to Clark Kent, as Jake likes to call him. When he interviewed me I’d mentioned that I was looking for a bigger place to live as soon as Mum’s money came through. He said there was a really unusual place he wants me to see. He offered to take me there. A bit outside the line of duty, I think.
I want Jake to see the house, but he’s mooched off with Mel. She’s still his best friend and ally in adversity after all these years. I’m glad on the one hand because they’re closer than most brothers and sisters and rueful because they are so matter-of-fact, they’ll never have an ardent fling and I’m destined to be the mother-in-law of one of the brainless, vapid ninnies who leave dippy messages on the answering machine. Mind you, there’s one called Tessa who sounds promising.... Oh, God! Write out a thousand times: I must not run his life for him. After all, when I look back on my own choices, I can hardly claim that Mother Knows Best.
Mike was incredibly mysterious about the house. He’s almost gleeful, like a child with a surprise. I am most intrigued. I remembered what Jake had said about him, and sneaked a sideways glance. He is a very attractive man. His voice is deep, and he’s got nice hands. And very nice wrists. You know how I am about men’s wrists... well, his are just perfect... slim and strong, but sort of vulnerable looking. He’s in his early thirties with dark blonde hair and grey-green eyes. He’s lived in Somerset for years, but you can hear an echo of London in his voice. On the other hand, sometimes he’s a bit formal and intense... not light-hearted enough.
Anyway, we’re going to see the house tomorrow. He’s so confident I’m going to buy it! Typical man. I’ll let you know all about it.
P.S. Latest copy of Somerset Women enclosed. Can’t believe we’ve kept it going for nearly ten years! It really is a labour of love.
So it was that I, Penny Marsden, woman of a certain age, spinster (or something) of this parish, mother of Jake, ex-wife of Ed, ex-lover of Phil and handmaiden to far too many cats, found myself one sultry summer’s day on a mystery tour of deepest Somerset.
I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever get there. We’d been travelling for ages. Then Mike suddenly swung the car to the left. The turning was almost hidden. We were in a narrow lane, lined with hedges, gently climbing a wooded hillside. A large sign, very faded and with peeling paint, said ‘Private Road.’ I could see foxgloves and honeysuckle tangled in the hedgerow with hawthorn and wild roses. We rounded a sharp bend and reached a crossroads. A wider roadway, long disused, cut in front of us. Mike just said, ‘Look.’
I looked, and looked again. The hedges which had touched the sides of the car fanned away from us. Ahead of us a profusion of hydrangeas in blues and pinks mingled with bushes dripping with fuchsias: white through pale pink to cerise and purple. There were buddleia trees, their huge mauve flowers covered in what seemed like hundreds of Peacock butterflies. Bees hummed all around. It looked as though once, many years ago, there had been lawns beneath the mass of briars and shrubs. I could see the remains of a narrow border of cobbles.
We were driving slowly down an avenue of lime trees, towards an archway. As we drew nearer I realised it was not just an archway. There was a building, covered with ivy and surrounded by brambles. We were approaching a gatehouse; two octagonal towers connected by a room over the arch.
The two towers resembled huge chess pieces, with crenellated tops, narrow pointed windows and heavy studded arched doors. Mock medieval as only the Victorians could do. The roof of the room above the arch way seemed all set to be a steeple, then it flattened out and was topped with the most elaborate edifice I’ve ever seen; a kind of bell tower and observatory with a dome, a weather vane shaped like a phoenix rising from the flames and a flag pole. On the facing walls overlooking the avenue of limes were huge circular windows. It was magical.
I can’t really explain what happened next. All my life things have happened which aren’t rational. I see things, for example. There’s a strange shift of atmosphere, a shimmer of energy, a crackle of static. Sometimes what I see seems to connect with my life. Other times there doesn’t seem to be any point at all.
At first, because of all the greenery, I had almost missed seeing the gatehouse altogether. Then, quite clearly, I saw it as it had once been, with the lawns neat and trim, edged with well-trained shrubs and flower borders; the building a warm honey-coloured stone with strong wooden window frames and doors. I could hear music and laughter drifting from the room above the arch, and caught glimpses of girls in pale dresses and young men in military jackets. Climbing roses framed the archway, through which I could see a sweeping drive, leading to a big house up on a slope over to the left.
I can still see those images now. Then it was all over in a second, but in that second I saw so much. A young woman and a man, arm in arm, deep in conversation, walking away from the big house. I recognised the fashions of the First World War. A gardener was trimming a hedge, and a little blonde girl was running towards him, closely followed by her nanny, matronly and dignified in black from head to toe. In the far distance was an old man, stick thin and angular. He too was all dressed in black, pacing back and forth distractedly on the edge of woods, a dark shadow. The sun was shining down, but there was thunder in the air and I shivered.
The pictures in my mind began to disappear. The static faded. I felt disconnected, shaken, wondering what I had seen. Perhaps the images connected up with a book I’d read. It seemed really important to remember. My mind was racing.
I remembered a film I’d seen when I was thirteen. Its theme of betrayed innocence haunted me; especially disturbing was the image of a statue with a spider crawling out of its mouth. For years after spiders, black, hairy, menacing, recurred in my paintings.
Mike was talking to me, asking me what I thought. He seemed anxious; really keen for me to like the gatehouse. I blinked, wondering what had triggered my memories of the film. The enchantment lifted and the sense of sunshine and dark shadows faded completely.
I looked at the building in front of me, then at Mike. I laughed. Mike looked puzzled, which made me laugh even more. I couldn’t believe that he was seriously inviting me to consider something which, on closer inspection, appeared to be a ruin.
The right tower seemed more or less intact, though the windows were broken and the door hung crazily on rusted hinges. The left tower looked like a broken tooth; part collapsed under a pile of fallen masonry. Leaning crazily against the tower, across the top of the archway room, were two trees, roots twisted and tangled, caked with mud, torn from the earth. Broken branches hung at improbable angles, wounds open to the sky. Dead and dying foliage clung persistently to trees that must once have seemed as solid and strong as anything on earth. Some of the shattered windows were boarded up; those on the left had DANGER - KEEP OUT’ roughly painted with splashy red paint. In short - a dump.
Even so, my laughter was not just because the gatehouse was a ruin. I felt very nervous. Something significant was happening, and I wanted to back away. The ground seemed to move under my feet, and my whole life was shifting and changing around me. My sense of belonging was so strong that I was afraid; afraid because my old life was beginning to disappear as I saw myself living right there, among the rubble and the roses. I felt drawn, not entirely willingly, to this romantic, decadent place. A wild, irresponsible streak in me was dangerously responsive.
I was about to try and explain some of this to Mike, when he began speaking. He was eminently practical. ‘You think it’s out of the question. You probably think you can’t afford it, but I bet you can, if you use your inheritance and take out a small mortgage. It needs a lot of work, which is why it’s a bargain, but the right-hand tower is more or less habitable, and you could put the rest to rights eventually.’
I adopted his practical manner. ‘Mike, a surveyor would have a field day with this. It’s falling down. There’s been a fire. No building society would consider it. Some chinless wonder with money to burn could swan in, snap it up, renovate it and sell it for an astronomical profit while I’m still hacking my way through the undergrowth with my bare hands.’
Mike looked crestfallen. I wanted to reassure him... tell him that yes, I did feel at home there. But I held back. Somehow the die had been cast, and I didn’t know the rules. Neither of us was sure what do next.
The weather made up our minds for us. At last the storm broke. The heavens opened. As the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, the gatehouse looked like something from a Hammer horror film. Mike suggested coming back the next day to really explore, and I agreed, drawn there in spite of my forebodings.
Well, dear diary, I feel in an absolute turmoil. It’s not just the effect of the gatehouse on me. It’s the effect of Mike on me. When we were talking he stood so close, and sounded so passionate, I could hardly think straight. It’s years since I responded like that to a man. My knees actually went weak and I had to sit down! Still, I must remember he was passionate about the gatehouse... not me. I will not make a fool of myself. And something else happened. Just as we were leaving, I was looking towards the woods when the present seemed to slip away again. My senses were flooded with the sudden image of a nude woman, languid, sensuous, eyes half closed. A naked man was kneeling in front of her. They were in a building like a temple. A folly, probably. Which just about sums up the whole thing.
The summer storm had washed everything clean. The air was fresh, unlike the heavy, mesmeric, fragrant atmosphere of the day before. We walked towards the gatehouse. There was no-one around, and I felt worried.
‘Shouldn’t we have made an appointment?’ I asked. ‘And what about the keys? I don’t want some irate landowner chasing us off his property with a double-barrelled shotgun.’
‘I promise you, that won’t happen,’ laughed Mike, then added, ‘Fancy you being so sexist!’
‘Sexist? Me?’ I said, indignantly. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Work it out,’ he said, with an infuriating smile, handing me a bunch of keys.
Before I could rewind the conversation in my mind, Mike was holding steady the gaping open door of the right-hand tower. ‘The keys are somewhat superfluous, I think,’ I murmured, joking to hide the wave of apprehension and excitement that threatened to overwhelm me.
I walked into an octagonal room that, in spite of the dust and cobwebs of decades, was absolutely delightful. The room had once been decorated in soft shades of cream and green. Seven of the eight walls had lancet windows. The afternoon sun streamed in. In one corner was a wrought iron spiral staircase, in another an elaborate cast-iron stove.
‘Looks like the heating system came out of the Ark.’
‘No, from the big house,’ said Mike.
‘Oh, yes, I saw it,’ I said casually. Mike looked puzzled, started to speak, then changed his mind.
‘Where does this go?’ I turned the handle of a door at the far side of the tower. ‘It’s locked.’
‘I knew the keys would come in handy,’ teased Mike loftily, and he led the way into a large square kitchen. There was a deep stone sink, an old Aga, and, apart from the inevitable cobwebs, not much else.
‘This is relatively modern,’ he explained. ‘They built single storey extensions to both towers. We just came through the old back door. The other extension was going to be a studio.’
‘You seem to know a lot about the place,’ I observed.
He nodded. ‘I do. I’ll tell you why later. Meanwhile I can promise you that the structure is good, and the owner wouldn’t dream of selling to a developer. This place could have been sold over and over again, but the owner is old, eccentric, and pre-occupied with other things.’ He paused, smiling slyly, savouring the moment. ‘She won’t sell it to just anybody.’
‘Touché’, I said wryly. ‘I missed that one. So who is she?’
‘Miss Lilly Torrance. Born here just before the First World War, and one of the brightest, sharpest people I’ve ever met. She won’t have just anyone living in her gatehouse, but she likes the sound of you.’
‘What on earth you have told her?’ I asked. Then I added idly, ‘Does she live at the big house?’ I looked out of the kitchen window, then gasped. ‘But it’s not there!’ I couldn’t believe my eyes. ’It was there,′ I said. ‘Through those trees. A large house. I saw it yesterday, as clearly as I see you.’
Mike was silent for a while. When he spoke he sounded puzzled. ’There was a big house there; Torrance Towers. It burned down in 1918.′ He looked at me warily, then said, ‘I expect you read about it somewhere. Anyway, Miss Lilly lives in the Dower House, over there to the right. She’s not here today, otherwise I’d introduce you. She’s in Tuscany, visiting Leah, her god-daughter. Leah’s has a little girl, Tabitha.’ As he spoke he opened the door to the garden.
I followed him, confused and mystified, wondering just what I’d seen. I certainly had not read about the fire. I thought of the other times that I had sensed things that weren’t there, heard voices, or dreamt about the future. I usually put it down to observation and experience, telling myself that clairvoyance simply means clear-sighted. Nevertheless, I shivered as a cold breeze ruffled my hair.
I pulled myself together. ‘This must have been so pretty once. Look, this was a herb garden....I can see fennel, and marjoram and apple mint. There was a rockery here once; I think these are Alpine plants.’ Mike led me towards a gap in a high hedge. ‘What’s through here?’
I could hardly believe my eyes. The tangle of undergrowth was almost impenetrable; hollyhocks stretched fifteen feet and more; shades of red, pink and maroon. Honeysuckle grew everywhere, its fragrance sweet and strong. Old-fashioned roses, cream, flame and crimson, ran riot. Overwhelmed with feeling, I had to sit down. Memories of both my grandmothers came flooding back as I breathed in the heady perfume. I remembered a bowl of rose petals in an elegant flat, overlooking the Downs in Bristol, where Granny had lived when she was widowed, and a wild garden near the City Centre, where Nan had stood among the chickens and the geese, laughing into the sun as she filled Grandpa John’s lap with roses.
A secret garden. Columbine and violets had recently flowered there. Lilies of the valley and love-in-a-mist too, and great armfuls of honesty, the silver pennies still hidden by the dry seed cases. I reached out and rubbed the cases carefully until they separated, revealing the gleaming circles.
Mike was quiet, watching. Then he said, ‘Come and look, Penny.’ He stretched out his hand, and, automatically, I took it. At the far side of the garden we climbed some rough wooden steps. He pulled at the unkempt laurel hedge until I could see beyond the secret garden. I sighed. The view was wonderful.
‘Of course. I should have realised.’ We stood in silence, looking to the horizon, where the sun shone on the windows of a small fishing village and the silver, shining sea.
As we looked at the gently sloping hills and thick woodland, I realised we were still holding hands. I made light of the moment. ‘Come on,’ I teased, ‘You haven’t shown me the rest of this character property, full of potential, and deceptively spacious. Whatever that means.’ Disentangling myself, I went back to the main room and we climbed the spiral staircase.
The main bedroom was connected to the archway room by a corridor with a bathroom and airing cupboard. High, glazed doors opened into the room above the arch. Impulsively I reached for Mike, and waltzed him around the light, bright room, imagining other dancers, other times. I laughed, then broke away to look at the view.
’It’s like Playschool when Jake was little. ‘And through the round window...’ Remember?′
‘Yes,’ he said, and turned quickly away. Even so, I still saw the look in his eyes.
Dear diary, my heart contracted when I saw his face. I hadn’t realised. Jake teased me, but I didn’t believe him. I know that look... a young man’s look that says rescue me, and I’ll rescue you. A look that recognises loneliness, uncertainty and desperation. A look promising tenderness, passion, intense longing. I made myself push past that to the bit when he’s confident, cock-sure, wanting to spread his wings and experiment. Ready to leave.
When I was with Phil I read all I could about younger men and older women. There wasn’t much around at the time. Now it seems as if the world and her grandmother have a toy boy, but not then. Anyway, they rarely stay. Some women can let go with a good grace. Others believe they’ll be the exception. But love doesn’t conquer all and society still takes a dim view of it. So as far as Mike is concerned, no flirting, to protect us both. The narrow way. He’s coming to plan a before-and-after feature for the paper, starring the gate house. Strictly business. I’ll make sure Jake is there as a chaperone.