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Halloween Sydenham 1875 Nellie’s twenty first birthday.
Her father calls her his ‘’butterfly girl’’ because she is so bright and colourful and precious to him, like the jewelled pendant that he bought her for her birthday last year. She runs her fingers along the small seed pearls woven into the chain as she remembers his words to her as he clasped it around her neck, the sapphire glowing like a midnight summer sky and the rubies burning drops of precious blood against the white milky perfection of the pearls. He’d told her that he had bought the jewels individually and uncut from an Indian Prince and had them especially set for her. She sighs as she holds the burning core of the pendant up to the pale winter light; the stones are rough and feel heavy as she brushes them with her fingertips. She has worn it every day since then, sometimes hidden under her dress as it isn’t really ‘’done’’ to wear something as expensive as day jewellery. Not that she gives a fig for convention but her mother still does, and when Edith occasionally lifts herself out of her normal daily fog and actually notices Nellie, she will chide her for flouting the rules.
The country is still supposed to be in mourning for Prince Albert although he died so long ago now when she was only a little girl. She can still remember some of the hysterical outpouring of grief that rocked the nation that day in 1861 when the Queen’s beloved had passed on to another realm. Tonight however she must put her treasure back in its black velvet pouch and place it where only she will know where to find it.
The jewels have their own intrinsic meaning in the language of gifts, the pearls represent purity of course, and the rubies with their fiery core are for eternal love and the large blue sapphire anchoring the design together…… what does the sapphire mean?
. Papa had mentioned once that a sapphire is a protection against envy, but to a large extent she isn’t that interested in all the mumbo jumbo of Victorian sentimentality, with its secret language of stones and colours, flowers and scents. She is a modern girl and anyway she has her own mystery to bother about. never mind untangling the secret language of the stones Still it is the most divinely beautiful thing she has ever owned and she is loath to part with it if even for a little while:: for she promises herself that that is all it will be.
Papa also thinks that she is such an impatient girl that she can never settle to anything much, all the normal preoccupations that young ladies are supposed to be interested in. Tonight she wonders if he thinks of her as a butterfly because he expects her to fly away at any second. She shivers as another thought crosses her mind, the vague knowledge that comes from a book she once read on the subject of these fragile creatures: where it is said that they only live for a brief moment in time, sometimes only a day at the most. That lifetime span can of course be shortened even further by being pinned on a piece of black velvet by some horrible collector. She pushes the thought out of her head and drops the pendant to swing brightly back against her dove grey dress, best not to follow her thoughts down dark alley ways especially today of all days.
She thinks back to this time last year, how little she knew then about what was possible in life and love. She falters in front of the large gilt mirror above the fire place noticing how pale she looks with bright feverish blotches on her cheeks her pupils black and dilated in anticipation. In the reflection she sees the covered silhouette of her camera staunchly silent and disused on its tripod in the corner of the room.
Wistfully she remembers when she first discovered how to create photographs from pieces of glass and dangerous chemicals, that moment as a sixteen year old girl when she first saw the magic she could command from her fingertips and almost overnight she had become avant garde and really quite notorious with her work. Not as famous as her guide and mentor Julia Margaret Cameron though, but well sought after for the misty beauty of her portraits and her ultra-mysterious subjects that seem to appear out of the ether. The mirages of feminine longing that all the ‘’in’’ set want to hang on their walls and gossip about over after dinner coffee, for the true identity of her subjects she keeps very secret.
The people in her portraits simply look nothing like the people one might see in normal society. That is partly due to her innovative composition, and partly to something that she has refused to talk about, until now. Brushing back her dark curls and twisting them deftly into a knot at the base of her nape she finally understands that her muses are only the manifestation of a projected image of her own longing, the nexus of her own mystery.
In the elite circles of the Sydenham artistic set she has surprisingly (for one so young,) found integrity and a sense of place; managing to deftly shoo away the unwanted advances of the lascivious young Arthur Sullivan, and other men of his ilk of which the neighbourhood seems to abound. She fingers a lock of silky hair that has escaped again from her chignon and smiles as she thinks to herself how she is indeed so fortunate in some ways and so very cursed in others. Nellie is fortunate enough to hold deep conversations with the elegant and intelligent Eleanor Marx when she isn’t travelling with her father as his secretary. Eleanor has become quite a role model for the young girl and they have spent time together defining the intricacies of politics. She is welcomed as a frequent visitor to the drawing rooms of William Morris, though these happy visits have become less frequent since he put his foot down about the affair between his wife and his best friend Rossetti.
She has also shared the beauty of the muse of Rossetti the beautiful Jane Morris, wife of William, and has been asked to take her photographic portrait on numerous occasions. Rossetti is happy to use her images of Jane for studies for his paintings when the lady herself is unavailable and so she regularly swaps ideas with Rossetti and Burne Jones. She has a copy of Rossetti’s volume of poetry by her bed and regularly delves into it when she can’t sleep at night which is often recently. She’s not that keen on the whole pre Raphaelite idea of art though, she prefers her own images, and recently Rossetti himself has become increasingly taciturn and morbid, his depression reappearing and rendering him unfit for socialising, there are again whispers in the neighbourhood of his drug addiction and latent insanity.
However it is the handsome William Morris who Nellie has a secret crush on .She sighs just thinking about it, dear William is so in love with his wife that he doesn’t even notice poor Nellie. . Yes she has been lucky, she is sure her dear Papa would have built a house somewhere quite different if he had been at all aware of the kind of person she would be mixing with. This is quite apart from her innovative work which is formed around detailed portraits of the working sort of person, taken in natural light mostly around the coastal town of Whitstable where the family have a seaside house. This work is less popular with the fashionable London crowd, but she herself thinks that it is just as relevant as her society work, if not more so. Her darkroom in the cellar holds plate upon plate of negatives of fishermen at their work along the harbour wall in Whitstable mending nets and preparing the excess of their catch for smoking. She is prouder of these images than she is of the debutantes she occasionally poses and composes for their aristocratic parents.
That is only one side of her life though, the public part; yet the most important part, the part that she daily longs for; she has never told anyone about; not since she walked out into the woods and found ‘’him’’ for the first time. On this day of her birthday this time last year. It seems like a lifetime away and the thing that she is about to do both appals her and fills her with a deep sense of the intrinsic rightness of it all .All of it is documented as logically as possible in her journal and one day someone will find her record of their fleeting times together. The mysterious and rather frightening moments that she could never foresee, that is until she discovered how she might be able to change it all. She isn’t sure who indeed will believe it , mostly she doesn’t believe it herself, but if disaster strikes and all is lost in the one deft decision she is about to make , then at least there will be some solid expression of the impossible left behind as an inheritance .
She sits in the pale blue silk window seat set into the bay window of the first floor sitting room overlooking the large garden and the park beyond. If she turns her neck and cranes a little she can see the glass and iron of the Crystal Palace, with its ornamental gardens and the spray of the 250ft water fountains catching the last of the autumn light. The pale sun glints off the glass and casts shadows in the park beyond, it’s cold out there, cold and crispy just as she likes it. Today is a Sunday and the crowds from London will be visiting the pleasure park with its sculptured attractions and dinosaur park. They’ll have bought a special priced train ticket with entrance to the park included and all the normal crowd, the richer crowd will stay away. Yes Sunday is the only day that working families get to visit the theme park and the exhibitions in the Palace. The families might be riding the pneumatic railway through the tunnel that links one side of the vast two hundred acre site to the other. Somehow now it doesn’t seem to be as shiny and new as it must have been the year they moved it from Hyde Park to the top of the Hill.
The Crystal Palace was Prince Albert’s pride and joy: this rather large glass and iron monstrosity brought girder by girder from Hyde Park and rebuilt on Sydenham Hill is like a huge glistening greenhouse. Indeed one of the main architects in charge of its build, Paxton, was his name, had cut his teeth building greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire.
Tonight there will be a Brock’s firework spectacular in the Park as there is every year on Halloween, and the Crystal Palace Parade will be full of snorting horses cavorting with their carriages, the local ladies bundled inside dressed warmly in their furs trying to get the best glimpse of the display. She smiles thinking about it, there will probably be one or two drunken coach drivers lurching about, always a potential hazard after a boozy Sunday spent in one of the many pubs and private cottages selling beer in the area. But that is later on in the day and now the sunlight blazes on the gold filigree of the paper thin leaves of the oak trees and she thinks of how beautiful the woods would be to walk in.
Today she will escape the confines of her little life, and potentially step into something immense and miraculous, she will wrap up warmly in the mink that is her Papa’s birthday present, to her; yes today she will walk in the woods again for the last time before her journey begins. Another year of age has brought indeed its compensations although if she glances in the mirror the reflection shows her an image of a young girl, a beautiful girl, as if time has forgotten to mark her after her twentieth birthday, and indeed as far as she understands it, it has.
Nellie sighs and turns over the pages of a scrapbook filled with postcards of the area before even she was born. Her father had collected them for his two children but now she sees them as a social documentary of the past, a past that is disappearing so quickly down the steam engine track of Queen Victoria’s industrial Kingdom. A Kingdom that spreads its Imperialist might across the globe plundering and dictating its own brand of civilisation to fill the sugar bowls of the new middle classes and the drawing rooms of the rich with chintzes printed firstly in India and now in the Northern mill towns. She can’t bear to think of all the injustices and tyranny of the Empire that has made them all fat and rich on the slavery and dominion over others. No, best just to concentrate on what she can do although there is a sneaking feeling inside her that she is rather running away from her responsibilities here, but it’s not as if she is tied to anyone apart from Papa and he has his work and of course her mother to occupy him..
She turns back to the album shutting out the thoughts that disturb her, that well up within in her making her feel guilty, flicking through the gentle images soothes her and her heart stops beating so so wildly as she becomes calm again. The black and white snapshots show wide avenues of oaks with imposing houses set back behind high walls. Only a few houses are dotted through the photos before the Crystal Palace was built, bringing its legacy of trade and prosperity to the area, these pictures all looked tranquil and inviting and completely rural.
After the fields and common land were enclosed by order of Parliament then the houses had begun to appear. All these photos were taken by men of course, she really was the first woman to ever take up the profession in this area and with her connections she has done well in all the right artistic circles. Although compared to Nellie’s youth and vigour the so called ‘’artists’’ seem rather old and frumpy to her now. There are a few watercolours scattered here and there on the pages, even the famous Camille Pissarro paints here and she looks long and hard at his water colour of Longton Grove. She loves the misty tranquillity of the photos and smilingly remembers back to when they were one of her first passions as a child. She always found them much more fascinating than the illustrations in the children’s books that lined the nursery walls.
Other older drawings depict the gently sloping fields of the common land, and the crowds clustering around the health giving springs at Wells Park. There is the beginning of Sydenham high road with its rows of smart canvas awnings and the bustling shops on Sydenham Road on the year of her birth in 1854 when her father had first built them the house, on the site of the ruins of an old farmhouse. The shopkeepers are all lined up outside the doorways of their shops smartly attired in their aprons and boaters and it looks almost as splendid as any of the big shopping streets in the centre of London.
Her Papa had spent many fruitful evenings drinking punch with the locals at the Dulwich Wood Tavern, which he had frequented while looking for a plot to build on, and they had told him that the farmhouse he was interested in was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a highwayman. The man had apparently lived there and ridden the main London to Dover Coach Road in search of his bejewelled victims. But that hadn’t put father off; on the contrary it had added an air of mystery and excitement to the whole thing. ‘’The Old Coach House’’ it had been known as, when farmland was prevalent and the stagecoach used to pass on its way to Dover. He’d fallen in love with the large widely spaced oaks of the parkland and the view down across Kent, green and wooded and particularly luscious in the distance. No Papa was a pragmatist he’d not been put off by stories of ley lines linking the ground to Glastonbury Tor and Westminster Abbey, or of the local old wives tales of elementals glimpsed in the woods on bright summer mornings. He’d not been frightened that his children would be spirited away, and he’d been right to be brave, until now of course but she Nellie can’t save him from what is to come, she can only hope that somehow he will forgive her.
Eventually he’d managed to buy the ruined house and lands for just the sum he wanted to spend; and while the glass and steel of the Crystal Palace was being winched into place on the hill nearby, he built his dream house nearby. This house that she would always know as home was soon rising stone by granite stone behind the gentle slope of the lawns and the high façade of the white wall, down a drive lined with imposing Cyprus trees. This was the year of her birth, the year that her dear Papa had thanked heaven for his insight in building here as cholera ravaged the rest of the English countryside to the north of the city. She thinks that the new house built on the foundations of the hold had kept some of the magic of the past in the stones that were recycled for its use. As a little girl she often felt whispers of something that she couldn’t quite hear in the park, and glimpses of children running through the paddock down by the old stables. Back then she had thought it must be the spirits of the past but now she knows the real answer captured in the laughing in the leaves and the banging of doors down the long sunlit corridors just out of sight. Yes, now she understands only too well what it all means.
Theirs had been the first and smartest villa along the broad leafy lined street. Father was a German industrialist who’d made his millions by the age of thirty and needed to spend some of it in what was to be one of the most up and coming fashionable areas of South East London. .He’d succumbed to the Victorian ideal of fresh air and exercise being necessary for bringing up a young family, and he had purchased the land with money made from steel and coal, grime and soot and hard graft that had got him where he needed to be. He’d placed his dream house high on the hill away from the smog and fog of the city that floated like a veritable cloud of Hades beneath them. Yes, he Henry Weinberg would take his new wife and build her a ‘’love castle’ next to the German Ambassador’s Residence high on the hill. Their other nearest neighbour was purportedly a Tea Baron returned from India a director of the East India Company but he kept himself to himself although the Memsahib his wife was often seen in native dress her carriage and his Indian liveried servants were the talk of the polite drawing room circles. The nearby railway station in Upper Sydenham would whisk him into the city for work in the offices that controlled his empire every day and only the best and brightest materials would he use to construct his mansion for his new life here in England. He was puffed up on success and Empire and proud to be one of those industrialists at the forefront of the great new age. If he continued the way he was going he could expect a knighthood at least and maybe later on a seat in the House of Lords.
Why the Prince Albert was also a German and he had married a Queen, and although he was only a Prince he was the veritable steam engine behind Victoria’s reign everyone knew that. They had been introduced to the Royal consort at one of the most memorable concerts by Liszt in the glittering auditorium at the Crystal Palace. Victoria didn’t much like classical music so Albert had come alone with his retinue and Henry had managed to get the seats nearest to the Prince. The Saturday evening concerts conducted by Sir George Grove were absolutely the place to be seen and dignitaries came from all over Europe to attend. Nothing was too good for a ‘’daughter of the realm,’’ and Edith, Weinberg’s newly acquired wife was just that, a titled Norman heiress that he had met at a social gathering at the great Exhibition in Hyde Park of 1851. She was no great oil painting and had that starry eyed haughty demeanour of girls brought up to be debutantes. That off time slightly startled look of the aristocracy that came from years of interbreeding. He just hoped that she didn’t turn out to be as mad as she looked first thing in the morning. But she was a good match and marriage was all about money and contract and she moved effortlessly in the court circle no less; yes Edith was a former Lady in waiting to the Queen. So Lady Edith Dartford became Edith Weinberg and he is determined that she shall have a greater title from her marriage, no matter how long it takes him to get it for her.
‘’Raven House’’, he called his pride and joy, his symbol of prosperity in the modern world and it is a huge Victorian Mansion at the top of tree lined Sydenham Hill in the leafy suburbs of South London; Henry had commissioned none other than Paxton to build it, the architect of the glowing glass Palace that is their nearest neighbour. The white fronted villa is set in three acres of its own parkland and filled with monumental oak trees that have been there since the seventeen hundreds. He’d hoped for many children in the Albert and Victoria ideal but only little Nellie and her brother Edmund were to run through the nearby woods, riding their ponies over fallen tree trunks and ducking out of sight of their nanny whenever possible.
Nellie thinks on this as she moves her hands in and out of the embroidery on her knee, the needle tracing a pattern of coloured silk through the bland starched fabric. She sighs and squints down at the detail of the tulip she is sewing into the design. It’s a William Morris design of tulips and willow but it isn’t turning out at all as it is supposed to look; the embroidery silks keep running away with her and turning up in quite the wrong places on the tapestry. It seems to be taking forever, but perhaps that is alright for she often feels now that time is on her side whereas before she was always running away from it. She turns again to the window and squints into the light, it’s exactly the right moment to go now before the shadows start to lengthen in the wood and she might lose her way. She mustn’t even think about seeing him again, if she does her heart starts to miss its usual beat and flips and flutters like a firefly on a summer’s evening.
It’s best not to think about it, but at this Halloween moment when the veils between the past and the future are stretched so paper thin that those with the gift can step through; when the ghosts of the past and future are rustling through the leaves, yes at this time of year she has her best chance.
She drops the embroidery and shuts the photo album and walks the short distance to her writing desk where the inkstand is full of the faintly purple ink that she likes best and the crisp sheets of high quality vellum are laid out ready for her in all their splendour. There is the small pile of precious photographs on their fragile albumen paper in a leather folder next to it. She carefully opens it and runs her fingers over the first shot. It’s a misty outdoor shot of the summerhouse taken from the garden; she had used the usual three minute exposure, framing the picture so that it would appear slightly out of focus, the way that she liked it. She smiles looking at it now remembering her wonder when she had first developed it in the cellar that stood in for her darkroom. She had expected to see a simple shot of the summer house and the large chestnut tree behind it, and this was definitely in the shot, but in the window of the summer house looking straight at her is the shadowy figure of a man.
—Tall, dark, indistinct except for his expression which is burning into the lens of the camera so that you can’t miss him. —
She traces the faint lines of his mouth with her fingers and then with a sad sigh she shuts the folder. She has already started to pen the beginnings of her story but now she won’t have the time to mould it into something worthwhile, something that might even be read by others one day. But she is too agitated to think on it long and slips the pages with the embroidery and the photographs into her small leather travelling case that is all she will take with her on her journey.
This view from the back of the house looks over the cornflower blue woodwork of the summerhouse in the distance , and she can watch the autumn sunlight turn the leaves to gold, she can watch the dog walkers throw balls for their charges,. On days when she felt very alone and it all seemed like a pale dream with no conclusion she spent many hours here her pen idly in her hand, her body relaxed the house silent around her. What she likes doing best of all is to watch the children cross the park on their way home from school, the girls with their long plaits and crisp ruffled shirts from the high school for young ladies that she herself was taught in. Above the marble fireplace is a mirror spanning the width of the wall and when she gets too tired to sit in her chair she can rest on the day bed and watch it all go by reflected in the mirror, but not today , now she has to get ready.
The face that looks back at her from the mirror is oval with a high clear forehead, green eyes and masses of thick dark hair that just won’t stay tidy in its place. The hairpins are always clattering out of their own accord and landing on the floor when least expected, her curls tumbling down and making her look rushed and untidy. It’s a symmetrical face; some would say a beautiful face except at the corners of her mouth where there are fine lines which show certain sadness. Her figure is small and neat in its whalebone stays, but she refuses the large crinoline petticoats that are in fashion they stop her moving they stop her running; they prevent her from being Nellie. Her dress is dove pale grey silk with a high neckline and of course her beautiful pendant swinging over the crest of her small bosom and landing somewhere near her heart .Some say that her attire is bohemian but she doesn’t care, she’s of an artistic bent and from an early age she has learnt to stand up for herself and her way of life..
Moving across to the bed where her furs and hat are laid out, she feels lighter today than she has for a long time, her bones seem to ache less and the fog in her head has cleared just a little. She feels in her pocket of the black velvet pouch that will hold her necklace, just a few chores to complete the treasure of her negatives to store safely and then she will be ready. Maybe it really is time to finish her story, but does it really belong to her or does it belong more to the people that are passing through it with her? She closes her eyes for a moment and sees pinpricks of light jump across the red retina space, and she wonders what it will be like when everything is changed and she is no longer who she was.
. She wonders for only a second and then a dog barking in the distance brings her back to herself and she knows it is time to go, time to find out if he is waiting for her and if destiny will shine on them for this first and most brilliant of times.
Sydenham Woods Halloween 1994.
John watches the children run through the leaves ahead of him, his two wonderful boys Oliver now a three year old ruffian and Toby five. The woods are golden and the spaniel puppy ruffles and barks in the leaves at his feet. Pieces of yellow leaf caught in his woolly ears, his wide paws a feast of mud, jumping and bounding around him in ever increasing circles of sheer joy. John smiles and lets him off the lead to follow the boys, relaxes and breathes in a huge lungful of the crisp air and realizes that he’s happy. Today is his birthday and he’s forty, although he doesn’t feel it, he’s what you would call ‘’a late developer’’ he supposes, he didn’t get married or have children until his mid-thirties. John has always done everything the right way around, it was his brother who was the black sheep of the family but he has always done exactly what was expected of him, if there is such a thing, and he has always believed that there is..
Firstly he’d had a reasonably successful career in the BBC and then it was time for marriage to one of his bright and pretty colleagues who was on exchange in London with Paris Soir. A feisty self-opinionated news reporter, she was more at home in the war torn streets of Beirut than in London, and she wafted through the newspaper’s open plan office smelling of Chanel No 5 and declaiming her unrest as she went. Five years ago he had decided that it was time to settle for someone and as she was there and available, he grabbed her with both hands and she was now the mother of his two beautiful children.
Cecilia was small dark French and pretty with that mysterious twinge of the unknown that had always attracted him to foreign women. His relationships with English women had never seemed to work out; they were too clingy, too needy, too intensely in love with him; so when he had started to become attracted to a French girl he had let himself go.
Cecilia for her part was charmed by the aloof manliness that he exuded, being a Parisian born and bred she was used to the over emphatic dramatics of the metrosexual French men she had always dated before John. She had thought that he would be a challenge, and he certainly was in that cool English public school way that made him emotionally inaccessible. Of course it helped that he was tall and handsome, although the darkness of his hair had more than a few tinges of grey in it nowadays. She was bored with men falling for her so easily, completely fed up with the armloads of flowers and candlelit dinners that were the ‘’de rigeur’’ rules of dating in polite Parisian circles. Then her parents were always trying desperately to marry her off to some faded aristocratic Parisian family that had managed to escape the guillotine by hiding out in the colonies somewhere. Those kinds of suitors always had the vaguely yellowing complexion of a malarial DNA, and her immune system had immediately decided that they just wouldn’t do as the prospective fathers of her children. She’d read up all the relevant scientific articles in the French equivalent of The Lancelet about the best combination of genetic coding for the future of the human race. She was going to take procreation seriously even if most of the world bred indiscriminately like rabbits, as far as she was concerned people ought to be forced to have a license before they had babies. She understood that people might misunderstand and think it right wing of her to hold these views but actually she thought of it as a sensible option. Marriage for Cecilia was definitely about having children, why else would she give up her freedom, although two small children down the line and she isn’t so sure that she made the right choice, but it’s too late now isn’t it?
John grins a little thinking to himself how ratty Cecilia has got of late, he feels a little guilty about that, it might be due to lack of sex . Every time he tries to get near her she shies away from him, yes his sex life has become virtually non-existent since the children were born. He has discovered the hard way that inter cultural marriages can be tricky; never mind a staunch Catholic settling for an atheist as he has always been. He doesn’t really believe in anything much beyond what his five senses can tell him, especially not any form of ‘’Godhead’’, although he might accept the existence of a Universe containing some kind of intelligent mind. What is one to believe in except perhaps love, and that’s a tricky one. He loves his children and he’s still very fond of Cecilia of course he is, but love? Has he ever really been in love, he doesn’t think so?
These walks with the children at least give him time to stretch his mind in all sorts of directions although not all of them are comfortable. He shrugs to himself, thinking about the way his parents – in – law always insist on talking about him in rapid French when he is sitting at dinner with them, foolishly believing that he hasn’t a clue what they are saying. Unbeknown to them his first ever girlfriend was an older French woman that he met in Paris on his gap year before Oxford, and not only did she divulge the intricacies of love making to him she also left him with a good grasp of the language, which he chooses to keep a secret from his wife. Yes she knows he can speak French, just not how fluent he is. When they go and stay in the small but exclusive apartment in Paris that was their wedding present from her parents or the large Manoir in the Dordogne for family holidays , he takes pride in being able to conduct himself very successfully at the local markets with only a trace of an English accent to soil his bargaining skills. In fact if he thinks about it he has been incredibly lucky up till now; his whole life has been one long symphony of middle class success.
He’s a typical Englishman he supposes, boarding school, and then an English Literature degree at Oxford, followed by a research job at the BBC then he got lucky and bagged a job as editor of a prestigious financial magazine and now two wonderful children and a duty as a husband and father. Nowadays though he sometimes looks at young couples walking with their children or pushing babies in buggies and envies them their easy sense of togetherness as they croon at each other and the children as they cart home their weekly shop. He doesn’t think he has ever seen Cecilia push a buggy, she is always too busy for that, and she definitely can’t see the point of them going for walks together.
The leaves crunch comfortingly under his feet; he notices how thickly they are spread and how they are rising up above his ankles to the top of his timberland boots. Just these small details that seem to stand out more sharply today than usual as if he is seeing the woods for the first time through a very clear magnifying lens. He feels alert and very alive and a sudden sense of joy at the sheer wonder and intricacy of life itself almost overwhelms him. The two dark heads of the children are bent over something by the large oak tree at the corner of the descending slope, and he remembers vividly that as a child everything seemed to be imbued with exactly this sense of wonder that he is feeling. He watches them crouched where the leaf coloured path drops down to what must once have been the railway track in the distance at the bottom of the gully. He calls out to them, but they giggle and run around the corner out of his line of vision, whipping completely out of view for a moment. The puppy slides and scrambles happily after them, barking as he goes. John brings them down here every Sunday if the weather is good and today is one of those rare autumn days that feel like the end of summer, the suns heat burning through his shirt collar bringing him out in a slight sweat. He wipes the sheen of it from his brow and hurries down the slope to join the children. It’s Halloween of course and tonight he will put fireworks out in the large garden and there will be a BBQ with the neighbours.
Yes life is good ever since he bought the house when he they were first married and Cecie was hugely pregnant with Toby. He’d decided a long time ago that when he had a family he would bring them to live on Sydenham Hill; it had a faded aristocracy about it that he couldn’t find in North London. Its wide tree lined streets whispered of a heyday that lingered still just under the surface of things waiting to be rediscovered. He’d driven up and down the road many times imagining what it would be like to actually live here. It was something about the faded gentility of the place that drew him in, the large wide Crystal Palace Park at the end of the Hill, the row upon row of elegant houses that had now been turned into flats or care homes. Then Raven House had come up for public auction, due to a death in the family that owned it he supposed, though no explanation was given by the auction house. It was obvious at first viewing that it hadn’t been lived in for decades, but the plus side of that was that it still retained all of its original features. Huge and neglected as it was he had fallen in love with its high ceilinged rooms and intricate coving; with its dark wood panelling and carved oak staircase., the parquet floors and the dazzling music room with its floor to ceiling windows gazing out into the parkland of the garden beyond. As he walked through its empty rooms marvelling at the dusty chandeliers and the marble fireplaces he had felt a lightness and sense of rightness about being there. Almost as if he already knew the house and it in turn recognised him it almost felt as if it was welcoming him back.
With eight bedrooms a music room and a beautiful wrought iron work conservatory it was far too big for them really. But Cecilia had been pregnant and for once in no mood to argue with him so he had gone ahead and bought it. He’d worried about the air of sadness and decadent decay that hit him like a cool rush of air as he opened the front door with his own key that first day. Almost as if the house itself was weeping for some long forgotten love affair that had had an unhappy ending. But John was far too pragmatic for that to cloud his judgement of a bargain when he saw it .Renovation had been costly but he’d ended up with a large light airy home for the children to grow up in, with a garden big enough for several small ponies if they wanted them.
A slight cloud crosses his face as he thinks about his wife, she can be so aloof and let’s face it so bloody infuriatingly French at times. Lately they haven’t been getting on which meant no sex at all was on the horizon in the foreseeable future and the annoyance of her being called away to work in Paris more than usual was putting an even greater strain on the relationship.
—-Or perhaps she’s having an affair? —–
The thought fleetingly crosses his mind but then he dismisses it, with a quick flick of an on / off switch in his brain. It’s not as if he cares all that much if she is, as long as she keeps the status quo and doesn’t rock the boat of their lives she can do whatever she likes within reason. Reason is very important to John and he gets the feeling that women’s minds work in a totally different way to men’s. He realises that would probably sound chauvinistic but he doesn’t care much.
He’s almost giving himself a massive headache and he’s supposed to be out here in the fresh air enjoying himself, so he lets the thoughts fade and he hurries around the corner and hears the sharp excited barking of the dog. His knee aches slightly as he catches his foot on the root of a tree, an old cricket injury and he stops to rub it looking into the light which is filtering down through the trees with its particular autumn gold. He squints a little shading his eyes with his hand trying to pick out the children who are a hundred yards or so away by the ruins of the Victorian folly. He can just make out their shapes and they seem to be looking up at something, he follows the line of their glance and sees a woman in a long skirt and furs rounding the corner of the folly.
For a moment she is caught in the flare of the light, like the flash for an old camera, white phosphorus, blinding. He blinks and passes a hand over his eyes. He sees the laughter in her eyes; the gloss of the fur coat, the glitter of gold and pearls around her neck and the flash of a smile as she turns towards him. She’s young and very pretty with acres of tumbling dark hair escaping from beneath her hat. She has an open innocent face with a radiant complexion and he thinks instantly that she looks like someone from a Victorian period drama. In fact he makes a swift survey of the surrounding area to see if they have walked onto a film set by accident, but no the woods are hanging, silent, shimmering the light tripping off the leaves and almost blinding him.
For a Nano second and it must be a trick of the light, the folly looks intact, with a painted blue doorway and glass in the window. She bends to take Oliver’s hand and Toby is jumping up and down holding onto her skirts, she turns back to look at John and motions for the boys to wave at him which they do with wicked grins on their faces and then she laughingly leads them through the blue door and takes them inside and out of sight. He wavers in his stride and then speeds up but they seem to have completely vanished into the shadow of the folly.
It all happens far too quickly, and his heart begins to thud horribly against the wall of his chest as if it wants to leap right through his skin, as he hurtles down the slight incline and through the bare stringy remains of the brambles to arrive sweating at the folly. He stands there stupefied staring bleakly at it holding his hand to the stitch that is throbbing in his side at his swift descent. It is crumbling and falling to bits, ivy wound around what remains of the roof, flaking wood on the rotting surround of the doorway. There is no blue door, no glass, indeed no window and certainly no pretty woman with his sons. The little dog is whining and clawing at the ground around the empty doorway, his tail between his legs and the boys are gone. For a second he can’t believe it, panic overwhelms him as never before and he begins to call them. His chest is tight and he can’t breathe and he feels horribly sick as the ground beneath his feet seems to tremble and sway.
‘’Toby…….Oliver…….I know you are hiding from me come out now, Boys this isn’t funny anymore, where are you?’’.
His last words end with a sob and he sinks to his knees on the crunchy leaves there is no reply and the woods have become strangely silent around him as if the branches are reaching out to clutch at him stop him from finding the boys. The light of the sun suddenly disappears behind the clouds and it is immediately very cold. He feels like he is in a glass bubble far removed from the present moment his senses torn apart from him. He begins to pick out insignificant details from the world around him, but he is no longer a part of it, as if he is being sucked into a vacuum with no air. He can hear the voices of the golfers on the golf course down below, a couple pass with their baby strapped to their back, the puppy winds itself around his legs whining miserably, his breath is coming in short sharp rasps, and he’s having a panic attack. All he can think of is the impossibility of it, they were there a moment ago, and then there was a flash of light, a girl with laughing eyes and now they are gone.
Somewhere in his brain the neurons are still firing, his mobile rings harshly in his pocket and with a shaking hand he fishes it out and looks at it, it’s his wife. Throat dry and with no idea what he is going to say to her he answers it, to the flare of her furious voice.
.. ‘’John where the hell are you? I thought you were supposed to be taking the boys for a walk?’’
He begins to stammer a reply, but she cuts him short with.
‘’ You know damm well it’s the au pairs day off but she’s just found them playing in the summerhouse, they’re on their own for goodness sake ……..how did that happen? They are both upset and yattering on about some woman or other , you’d better come home and sort this out, I simply can’t cope with it all I have a deadline to keep for tomorrow and a train to catch remember?’’.
She hangs up on him and he sits on the low damp wall of the folly his knees shaking, his head held in his hands a flood of relief bringing tears to his eyes. He has no idea what has just happened, there is no rational explanation for it and perhaps he will never find one, but the boys are safe. That’s all that matters, they are the pivot of his world and for a second there he had lost control and found his axis spinning, hanging wildly in the dark spaces of his own soul, without a clear way back.
He wipes his brow with a paper hanky from his pocket, there is sweat trickling down his back and suddenly he is very cold. The puppy whines and snuggles closer and he looks up hoping to see the flash of dark hair and rich furs disappearing up the pathway back towards the hill, but the path is empty. He can hear laughter in the leaves and smell the scent of something wonderful and unknown. The word ‘’Ambergris’’ comes to mind although he has no idea where from or what it is, and he clips the lead on the dog and heads home to the recriminations that are his due it seems. He certainly can’t tell Cecilia what has happened or she will think he has gone crazy or worse still that he is trying to cover up some kind of affair. He wasn’t aware of the fierce jealousy of her nature when he married her, but he has to be very careful if he brings another woman up in conversation who she hasn’t heard of before. He grimaces to himself, even if it might be a woman who can’t possibly exist except as a tenant of his imagination, for surely there was nothing ‘’real’’ about the vision that he has just seen?
He quickly runs an action replay sequence in his mind, now that he isn’t worried about the children he can concentrate on the details of the girl. For he understands very clearly that she is a girl, a whole lot younger than him; maybe she is twenty years old certainly not a lot more although her clothes made her appear mature. He can only remember flashes of her: but they are so vivid as if they’ve been branded on the sea horse of memory in his brain. He can literally conjure up her smile the depth of colour in her brown eyes and the way that for a split second they had stared at each other as if in recognition. She reminds him so clearly of someone that he has met before, but if he had ever met her he is sure that he would have remembered her name and where she comes from.
Obviously he is having some kind of mid-life crisis, he has heard of some of his colleagues going off the rails, signing up for yoga retreats, running off with their PA’s, but seeing beautiful young women in the woods who then vanish ? He needs a drink and it had better be something strong like a slug of single malt whisky to bring him back to his senses.
Later there will be his BBQ and then a gruesome birthday dinner with a whole load of people invited that he doesn’t really want to see. Cecilia in true French fashion thinks that the best way to cover up the possible failings of their marriage is by keeping their social schedule so busy that they never have any time alone together. No if they were alone they might have to talk about something other than the domestic workings of their life, and that might open a whole snake pit of worms. As he walks shakily up the steep incline he asks himself if he has too high expectations of his marriage. He’d stayed single for so long because he’d been searching for the perfect company his ideal woman for his ‘’forever’’ marriage. He believes strongly in the vows that they both took on their wedding day, even though they were Catholic vows, her parents had insisted on that. Did it matter that he didn’t really believe in any of the popery of Catholicism? No, he did all that to make Cecie happy, but it doesn’t really seem that he has made either of them content. She spends her time travelling as much as possible and he spends his time working or looking after the boys. He supposes that most men in his situation would have an affair with the au pair, but luckily or unluckily depending on which way you look at it he doesn’t fancy the Czech girl, Radna that they have hired. He sighs and lets the little dog sniff around a tree before continuing up the slippery steps towards the road. The shadows lengthen now, the sunlight has long gone and the woods are damp and uninviting, he shivers again.
His parents – in – law are in London tonight and he will have to do a lot of back slapping and effusive complimenting of Cecilia’s hard faced mother. He ruefully hopes that it isn’t true that women end up looking like their mothers, if so he is in real trouble. Before that though there is the rest of the afternoon with the boys, he’ll try and get them to tell him what happened while setting up the evening’s fireworks for them, He doesn’t want to scare them but he is aware that something utterly magical happened today, he can feel it in his heart and the flicker in his body when he thinks of that brief glimpse of the girl.
Silly old fool he can’t finally have fallen in love can he after all these years of not really knowing what people are talking about when they talk of the emotion. Not in the poetic sense of the word in any case, he’s never really felt that strongly about anyone. Somewhere deep in his heart he is aware that although his marriage is shaky, the boys are still small and he has a job to do and a family to protect and that goes far beyond personal happiness doesn’t it?
The girl in the woods today looked so familiar to him again he wonders if he has seen her around, maybe in the local farmers market on a Saturday in the grounds of Dulwich College? Quite a few of the girls in London have adopted Vintage fashion but there was something too authentic about her look, as if she had just stepped out of a costume drama. Perhaps they are really making a film nearby but then what would she be doing in the woods? She didn’t look very ephemeral; she looked completely solid even though he was some distance away. No he really is losing it now, she must be one of these young girls that spend their time dressing up in vintage outfits, she didn’t look more than twenty, if that really. His thoughts are travelling in never ending circles and it’s beginning to give him a headache, he’s got to stop thinking about her and just concentrate on getting the puppy home.
As he walks along Sydenham Hill he pauses to stare in at some of the ornate looking houses set back from the road. He doesn’t really know any of the neighbours and quite a few of the larger houses have been turned into flats but there are still one or two the same size as Raven House. The history of the area has become a source of fascination for him; and when he has time from work, (and when Cecie gives him the peace he needs or when she is away travelling); his favourite pastime is research. He’s spent hours looking up old photographs and pouring over tithe maps, and he’s got a fair amount of accurate research on his own house. He has the original deeds of the house showing that it was commissioned to be built by the architect Paxton by a wealthy German business man who had become anglicised as a lot of them did before the Great War. The public records showed that he was married with two children a girl and a boy Nellie and Edmund but that was as far as he had got in the research into the former occupants of Raven House. Thinking about it as he walks he speeds up now as he is nearing the gates of his house, if he gets time this week he really needs to go down to the archives at Lewisham Library and see if he can pull out any new information.
He is out of breath as he reaches his driveway and suddenly a flicker of feminine laughter echoes up from the woods on the other side of the road from him and he turns swiftly expecting to see her there.. But no it’s only a pair of teenage lovers walking hand in hand on the path behind the iron railings and with a sigh he walks through the gates the cedar trees swaying gently as if in greeting and before him sees the house. The last of the sunset is gilding the windows turning them into the jewelled colours of stained glass. For a moment he is reminded of the rose windows of a great cathedral like Notre Dame or Chartres, he is almost blinded by the reflection and holds his hand up to shield his eyes. Then just as quickly the sun drops behind the tree level and the house is back to normal again. Where the light glittered before now the windows lour down at him like gaping eye sockets which he cannot hope to see behind, the dog pulls on its leash and a chill wind hurries around the corner catching him. He pulls his collar up and plunges his cold hands into the recesses of his pockets, these autumn afternoons quickly turn to evening and he has things to do: but first he must search out the boys and glean their side of this afternoon’s drama.
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