The Memory House

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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The Memory House “I’ll leave you my fantasy,” he said. “It’s all I have to leave you in any case. Gillian and the kids get the money.” “Can I change it?” she asked. “Of course you can. It’s yours. You can do what you like with it. But leave the room at the end of the attic corridor. Don’t change that.” A month later an eighteen-year-old driving his father’s car without permission or insurance tried to overtake on a blind corner. She did not even know he had been killed. Nobody thought to tell her. How could they? She prepared supper for him, but he did not come. After a while she turned off the gas and ate a few mouthfuls by herself, standing in the kitchen of her basement flat with a magazine propped against the toaster. Then she washed up the single plate, knife, fork and glass and went to bed. He did not call the next day. The day after that, she phoned his office number. 9 MARTIN COOPER The house was old; grey and gold, flint and stone, with tall, pointed gables and high chimneys. It sat dreaming in its own valley. Beyond the gardens apple trees ran down to a stream. On the other side of the water woods clung to the slopes of the hills. The road into the valley was at the bottom of a deep, weathered gully with roots showing through the clay on either side. Driving in he would change down to navigate the winding incline between the beeches, then slow to a crawl to splash through the ford. After that he would accelerate alongside the sun-warmed orchard wall and swing onto the gravel driveway. From the passenger seat she would see flints embedded in the mortar blur with speed and hear the sudden crunch of tyres on pebbles, always with a feeling of coming home. They built the house, planned the gardens, mapped out the valley, sitting side by side in her basement bed with a bottle of wine or a pot of coffee. It was never finished. Sometimes they would add an entire wing, complete with bathrooms and Victorian plumbing, only to tear it down again the following weekend. After a while some of the rooms became permanent features. The hallway almost immediately. Panels; dark, waxed floors with a scatter of rugs; large enough to have a fire burning whatever weather they might have imagined beyond the front door. The library, shabby and smelling comfortably of leather, dust, furniture polish and glue. The wine cellar. Damp, candle-blackened brick arches sprinkled with pale salts leached out of the earth. Sometimes when business or family kept him away, and once or twice when he simply did not turn up, she walked from floor to floor on her own. Passages and landings became as familiar to her as her own twilight sitting room where she had to keep the lights burning all day long. Next 10 FIVE STORIES time they met she would find herself pleading for a stay of execution on an obscure linen cupboard where she had sat dreaming during her last, solitary visit. The ancients had built houses like this as an aid to memory, he told her. They would place whatever they had to remember in a certain chamber, then, days later, they only had to walk into the room to find it ready to hand. She tried the method a couple of times and found, rather to her surprise, that it worked. She wrote the combination of a new bicycle lock on squares of yellow paper, one digit per slip, and pinned them to the frame of an oil painting in the gallery above the hall, all in a row. Unlocking her bike from the rack outside Tescos it only took a moment to run up the stairs and look. After the funeral she did not go back for several weeks. The valley lingered on the fringes of her thoughts but every time the road through the woods presented itself she turned away. She was afraid of what she might find. Blackened ruins. Wallpaper hanging in strips from exposed walls. Mud and slush on charred boards. Then one night, after several glasses of wine, she was suddenly there, standing on the entrance steps. There were no preliminaries, no splash through the ford. The front door was slightly ajar and inside the hall was shadowy, with a faint leap of firelight on the walls. That first barrier down she went back every day, spending hours wandering through doorways he had opened for her. There was nothing abandoned about her visits. Every evening she travelled home from work at a measured pace, stopping at the supermarket on the way. Every evening she left her shopping on the kitchen counter while she went back to lift her bicycle down the area steps. Every evening she took off her coat and hung it on the correct 11 MARTIN COOPER peg, unpacked carrier bags, stacked tins and packets in appropriate cupboards. Every evening she drank one glass of wine while she cooked her supper (properly – no ready meals for one). Only when she had dried all the dishes and put them away did she pour a second glass of wine, curl her feet under her in the dusk-filled sitting room and walk down between the trees. She picked apples in the orchard and grapes in the hot house. Both were always ripe. She ran her fingers along ribbed spines in the library and drank tea in a lavender- scented boudoir with family silhouettes on the walls. The pot was always waiting for her, water freshly boiled. And very often she sat in the room at the end of the attic corridor. It took her long time to find it. His taste had run to high, moulded ceilings and carved fireplaces and they had not spent much time exploring the servants’ quarters. She was surprised that there were any. She did not remember building them. But there was an internal logic to these things, apparently. Where there were gables, there had to be attics. Where there were attics, servants had to live in them. The attic corridor stretched the full length of the house, ceiling low and floor uneven. There were doors on either side and the woodwork was painted pale green, worn until the grain showed grey through the gloss. The door that faced her at the far end of the corridor was a little larger than the others. It was also locked. She had not thought about it before, but this was the first lock she had come across. Elsewhere in the valley she went where she pleased. She reached up and ran her fingers along the top of the door frame. The key she found there was made of blackened metal, not large or ornate. A paper label was attached to it with a loop of grubby string, but the writing was faded and 12 FIVE STORIES difficult to make out. She put the key in the lock and turned it. There was nothing much inside. The only piece of furniture was a table made of pale wood, not particularly old or particularly beautiful. The top had been scrubbed until all the angles were rounded and the knot holes stood proud of the softer timber. There was nothing on it, no drawers in the sides. It stood in the centre of the room. The ceiling above was cream coloured and sloped almost down to the floor, which consisted of grey boards, some of them spotted with paint, fixed down with square nails. Late afternoon sun shone in through a gable window and dust motes crowded in the slanting light. Whenever she came there afterwards it was the same, and she would sit on the floor in a corner hugging her knees, watching until it grew dark. She made the first changes by accident, still hardly aware that she could. One chilly October evening when the yellow sodium glare of the streetlamp outside her flat was softened by a fine, drifting drizzle, she turned onto the road through the woods and walked down the hill, enjoying the dappled patterns the leaves made in the sunlight. She preferred walking to driving. When she came to the orchard she reached over the wall and picked an apple. It was streaked and freckled with red and brown and she was about to bite into it when she realised that she should not have been able to see any of the trees, let alone pick the fruit. The top of the wall, normally above her head, was now only waist-high and laden branches hung into the road. She froze with the apple to her mouth, looking for anything else that might have changed. But there was nothing. And there was really no difference in the wall. It was itself, the way it had always been, grey and lichen-spotted with tiny purple flowers growing in crevices. A week later, cycling home from work, she thought 13 MARTIN COOPER about streams and fords. Fun to splash through in a car but not very practical when you were on foot. That evening she stopped and leaned on the parapet of the bridge to watch a moorhen bobbing by the reeds. The stone under her elbows was old and chipped and someone had scratched their initials so long ago that they were hardly legible. “It is mine,” she thought. “I can do what I like with it.” The staff were the first to go. Mr and Mrs Scarlatti were far too big for the attic servants’ quarters. They were loud and assertive and they dressed in primary colours. They lived in a flat over the stable block. He had brought them back from a trip to New York where he had fallen in love with the nasal sing-song of the Italian-American, and in cer- tain moods he would summon them up from their secret and passionate lives. Mrs Scarlatti became cook/ housekeeper and sang while she broke crockery in the stone -flagged kitchens. She would talk for hours, sleeves rolled up above her elbows as she scrubbed the vegetables, about love and jealousy, stolen brides and jilted mistresses. Her husband listened and smoked and rarely shaved. He laid tables, brushed coats and poured wine, lurking somewhere between valet, butler and sinister henchman. Mrs Scarlatti wanted to make a scene. She flung herself into a chair, threw her apron over her head and rocked to and fro. Her husband only smiled. She saw them off in an ancient square-topped taxi, the roof piled with trunks and baskets. Mrs Scarlatti waved and blew a kiss as it lurched down the drive. She did not tear anything down, nor did she build very much. She moved from room to room softening contours, making colours warmer, fabrics richer. In the hall two dogs lay on the rug in front of the fire and thumped their tails when she came in. A cat joined her in the lavender boudoir. 14 FIVE STORIES One day she gathered a bunch of sunburst chrysanthemums and arranged them in a heavy cut glass vase. She took them with her when she visited the room at the end of the attic corridor and set them in the middle of the scrubbed wooden table, then sat on the floor in the corner with her arms around her knees. She watched the light blazing in the petals, yellow and orange and gold, and the fractured rainbow shards from the glass moving across the wall. Then, when it was too dark to see the colours any longer, she got up, locked the door behind her and went back down the attic stairs. She looked into bedrooms and saw that the covers were folded down. She checked that there were fresh towels on the rails in each of the bathrooms. And she found as she strolled the length of the gallery above the hall and turned to the welcoming firelight below, that she no longer saw his face or heard his voice or felt his touch. 15 Ip Dip When my wife kicked me out I went to stay with friends at first. It only lasted a couple of weeks. I can see now how kind they were, but they were our friends, not mine, and I was asking them to choose sides. To start with they probably thought I would go home again after a couple of nights. I know I did. Each time the phone rang I thought it might be her. If it had been my own house I would have jumped up to answer every call. When a bin liner full of socks and underpants appeared on the door- step we all began to wonder. On the first weekend they dropped hints. On the second, they told me outright I would have to go back or find a place of my own. Well. By then I knew I couldn’t go back, I’d already tried. I rang the bell even though I had my own set of keys and stood with my nose to the paintwork while I waited for the sound of footsteps in the hall. My wife opened the door and I saw her face fall. That’s how I knew. 17 MARTIN COOPER In the house somewhere I could hear my daughter singing a playground rhyme. Ip, dip, Sky blue, Who’s it? Not you. My wife heard it too and moved to block the half-open entrance. Love leaves as mysteriously as it comes, it seems to me. When it goes it leaves a space behind, a still weight that leans on the heart and the tongue. You know what you might have said once, but you can’t remember how. I did remember the shrieking excitement of chases on the lawn, swooping down on wriggling four-year-old limbs, the sweet smell of a laughing child’s hair, freshly washed, swinging round and round. But there was nothing I could say. So. I found the flat through an agent. The rent was low and he only wanted one month’s deposit. It was the first place I looked at, furnished after a fashion. All I needed to buy were sheets and towels, the basics. It was a long time since I’d done that sort of thing. It was all terribly easy. It was a basement flat in a terrace. Victorian, I suppose. One of those streets with stucco on the ground floor walls and brickwork above. There were iron area railings with a gate and steps leading down to my front door. I had a sitting room at the front and a bedroom at the back, with kitchen and bathroom on the other side of a short hallway. It was always dark because front and back were below ground level but in the evening the sunlight would be reflected down into the well outside my window, filling it with a golden glow. I settled in and established routines. I bought a throw to 18 FIVE STORIES go over the armchair and replaced the dusty satin lampshades with Japanese paper globes. I built bookshelves for my charity shop paperbacks out of bricks and planks. Every Sunday morning I lugged a rucksack down to the launderette and on Sunday afternoons I phoned my wife. The first conversations were short and one-sided: how are you keeping questions from me, silences or at best single -word replies. After a while, though, she began counting out the bare events of my daughter’s life - school, parties, ballet lessons - watchfully, like a check-out girl making change. I hoarded every penny. I am not a particularly tidy person. I drop my clothes on the floor and only wash up when I run out of mugs. When I have a bath, I hang the towel on the doorknob to dry. It usually slides off and lies in a damp heap until the next morning. This is probably why it took me a long time to realise how odd the flat was. Not architecturally. It was an ordinary conversion, recently done and decently too, as these things go. The kitchen and the bathroom were both tiny, crammed into what must originally have been the stairwell. The sitting room still had a fireplace with a decorated cast iron surround. The flue had been blocked and I was under orders never to burn anything. It was commonplace enough. There must have been a dozen like it in the same street. It’s just that things didn’t stay where you put them. I didn’t pay much attention. When you live alone there’s no-one to be irritated by forks in the knife compartment of the cutlery drawer, or toothpaste dribbled in the hand basin. I know that some people take a white-knuckled grip on daily routine, but I don’t see the point. Nobody’s going to ask where you put the clothes brush. Of course you had it last, who else is there? 19 MARTIN COOPER So when books moved from my bedside to the coffee table in the sitting room I hardly noticed. When the contents of my wash bag were emptied into the bath, dental floss, nail clippers, athlete’s foot powder and flannel all in a heap, I pulled my comb from the bottom of the pile, dragged it through my hair and ran for the bus. When cups were laid out on the draining board in ascending order of size, all in a row with their handles aligned, I spooned instant coffee into the largest without thinking about it. Then one day I brought a box of electrician’s tape home from work. I thought I might brighten up the kitchen by fixing some postcards to the door of the fridge. There were a dozen or so ends of rolls, all different colours, rattling around in the bottom of a carton which I put on the counter while I went to look for the scissors. For once these were where I remembered leaving them. I hung my jacket on the picture rail in the bedroom, threw my tie over the back of a chair, sat down on the bed to unlace my shoes. When I returned to the kitchen the rolls of tape were no longer in the box. They had been piled, small on large on small, into an ungainly rainbow tower. The structure swayed a little, as if the topmost roll had only that moment been put in place. I put out a finger to steady it and it toppled into the sink. I put my shoes and coat back on and went out. Sat in a café and nursed a cappuccino until the waitress came over to wipe down my table and adjust the sugar bowl. Outside the window people were walking past, waiting for the lights, climbing onto buses. On their way home at the end of the day with lunchboxes holding banana skin, apple core and crumbs. They would unlock their front doors and find things exactly as they had been that morning. It was dark when I got back. I stood for a long time on 20 FIVE STORIES the pavement outside, looking down through the railings. The curtains were not drawn and I could see the yellow sodium glare of the streetlamp angled across the carpet. Finally I ran down the steps, unlocked the front door and went from room to room switching on the lights, leaving the kitchen until last. The rolls of tape were still in the sink. I collected them together and put them in the carton, adding the postcards, then stretched up and put the lot on top of one of the wall cupboards. Then I went to bed. Nothing happened for a couple of months. The evenings grew lighter. Books, clothes and kitchen utensils put down roots. Until one Sunday afternoon, when I was standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the box caught my eye. I had already made my weekly phone call, suggested without much hope that one day my daughter might like to visit me. My wife had hung up without speaking. My daughter would enjoy some of those cards, I thought, if she ever did come. The water cooled as I reached the carton down, sorted through the postcards and began taping them to the fridge door. I made each one a frame of a different colour, allowing one or two to overlap in a random sort of way. The effect was quite cheerful. I admired it while the kettle boiled again, then took my tea through to the sitting room. It’s a small flat. The distance between the kitchen and the sitting room can’t be more than ten feet, if that. Modern conversion, too: plaster board partition walls. If I had been sharing with anyone else we would have been able to hear each other sigh two rooms away. From the kitchen I clearly heard the ripping sound of tape being peeled away from a hard surface. Half my tea went over the carpet. On the floor in front of the sink I found a neat pile of postcards. The tape had 21 MARTIN COOPER been removed and I discovered it later in the waste bin, scrunched up into a ball. Not all the cards had been taken down. The pictures with animals in them were still on the fridge door, as were a couple of drawings of sunflowers. At the top was a still life, a glass bottle on a table with the light shining through it and reflecting on a wall. The fridge was a tall one. Perhaps she couldn’t reach, I thought. I slept heavily that night. No dreams. At about two in the morning I woke suddenly. The mattress was shaking, not a gentle vibration but great bounding bumps: one, two on one side of the bed then hop over my legs and one, two on the other. I rolled over and groped for the switch of the bedside lamp. In the yellowish glow everything was still, empty shadows behind the door and alongside the wardrobe. Not a mark on the blanket, but in the air hung the scent of a child’s freshly washed hair. I reeled out of bed in my underpants and ran through to the sitting room, snatching for the telephone. It rang ten, fifteen times, then my wife’s voice blurred and sleepy. “Mm…? Yes, hello? Who is it?” “Is Ellie all right?” “What? What’s the matter? What time is it?” “Is Ellie all right?” “What? For God’s sake, it’s twenty past two What’s the matter with you? Of course she’s all right.” “Go and check, now, please.” “She’s asleep in her room. Of course she’s all right, why shouldn’t she be?” “Please go and check. Look, I promise, I promise, I’ll never phone you again. Just go and check, now, please.” She paused, still holding the phone. I could hear her breathing. Then a clatter as she dropped the receiver on the bedside table and nothing for a long, long time. 22 FIVE STORIES “She’s perfectly all right, I told you. Fast asleep.” I kept my word. That was the last time I spoke to either of them. A few weeks later I moved. The house agent didn’t seem surprised. He had another flat vacant, not far away. More expensive, but there you are. I piled the few things I’d bought into a couple of boxes and a suitcase and hauled them up the area steps to a taxi. On the way to the new flat we passed a school playground, alive with voices and rushing feet. Some of the children were singing. Ip, dip, Sky blue, Who’s it? Not you. 23 Fulcrum Dough Boy blew across the pen top, producing a mournful bottleneck moan like the lost whooping of owls in October. The teacher ignored the sound. She was annotating a World War I poem projected onto the interactive white- board, talking as she did so. “To these I turn, in these I trust – Brother Lead and Sister Steel” She underlined words in red, blue and green, circled a phrase, added a comment in the margin. The girls in the class made notes. The boys inked graffiti shapes on the table tops, stared out of the windows. One or two nearby eyes flickered towards Dough Boy and away again. This was the bit he loved best. He stood on the fire step of the trench, watch in hand, whistle between his lips, ready to give the command. Nothing had happened yet. Nothing 25 MARTIN COOPER would unless the teacher chose to acknowledge the interruption. This was the moment of balance, the fulcrum on which the battle swung. Later there might be reprimands, shouting, detentions, another line in his report card, but for the moment these things hung in the air. The sun shone through the glass. Drawings on the walls curled. The teacher’s voice rose and fell. Fŭl′crum, n. (pl. –ra). (Mech.) point against which lever is placed to get purchase or on which it turns or is supported; means by which influence etc. is brought to bear L, = post of couch (fulcire to prop) Dough Boy understood words like fulcrum. He used them himself, though not in public. Secure in his own head, where jibes could not reach, he thought: “This is the fulcrum. Things could go either way. My hand is on the lever.” The cross hair of his sniper sight traversed distant defences. The young woman standing at the front of the room continued writing and talking, a target tattooed on her spine. Outside on the sports field a play battle surged the length of the rugby pitch, white against red. From the vantage point of a first floor classroom it was a pleasant sight. Pleasant from any vantage point which was not at the fag end of the line, lumbering towards the distant posts, chest burning, heart pounding, thighs chafing. The necklace of coloured shirts formed and re-formed, accelerating forward over the grass like an arc of surf rushing up the sand. A teacher in a blue track suit kept pace, gesticulating and yelling encouragement. “A fractal pattern,” Dough Boy said to himself. “I think.” His dictionary was an old one, printed in 1964 and given 26 FIVE STORIES to him by his grandfather. The appendix of abbreviations at the back included LP, but cassette and compact disc were nowhere to be found. A computer was an electronic calculating machine, a PC was a police constable. Digital had to do with fingers. The babble of the last forty years passed him by. He was familiar, though, with the jargon of earlier generations. Voices from the past spoke to him from the page and the words piled up in his mind like drifts of leaves against a garden wall. He prowled the cantonments of India with Kipling’s three comrades, yarning of sergeants and dogs and colonels’ daughters. He tramped with the fugitive Hannay across moors and along glens, with steep hills all about him. The phrases that sounded in his ears most recently belonged to the young men who vanished into the mud of Flanders. He knew what a cushy one was, and a whizz-bang and a coal bucket. Breathing hoarsely through open mouth he pored over drawings and photographs to find examples of sandbag traverse, sap and listening post. Trench sounds were familiar too: the faint plop of the German mortar; the ping of a rifle bullet striking the barbed wire and tumbling away into the woods behind the lines; the mad minute of artillery before the attack. His collection of books was built out of the trawlings of charity shops and jumble sales. Spines were torn, corners were bumped and there were cup rings on the covers. They were walking wounded, but at least they stood upright. Dough Boy’s grandfather, whose own grandfather had served in Mesopotamia, held a strongly-expressed prejudice against publications with floppy covers. “That’s not a book,” he would snort. “It’s an obese pamphlet.” Dough Boy approved. Words, he felt, should take up space. 27

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