Authors note: This weekend I had the unfortunate task of clearing out the house of a friend of the family who passed away a few weeks ago.
Noel, along with his sister Renee and her husband Ric were friends of my uncle, and my sister, brother and I spent many summers at their farm, running wild and playing outside in the fields.
I have fond memories of the two houses, joined but yet separate. We spent hours running up Renee's stairs from the living room, down the second staircase into the kitchen, through the open door into Noel's kitchen, up the stairs and onto the dresser, climbing through the narrow gap into the loft and dropping down back into Renee's house to start over.
The times I sat in the garden, discussing painting with Ric, explaining why I preferred the muted pastel tones of watercolours (as he did) in contrast to my sister who preferred the bright, vibrant primary colours of oil or acrylic (as Renee did).
Days chasing sheep around fields with my brother, clutching handfuls of mouldy bread that we desperately wanted them to eat, while they, showing an unusual amount of common sense, backed away until by accident we'd managed to herd them into the shearing pen that Noel had been trying to get them in all week.
Running to the bridge at the end of the garden to wave at the trains passing on the branch line, pretending to be railway children and hoping for an old gentleman to come and save us from imagined poverty and a father who was too often absent.
All these memories came pouring back as I sat in the passenger seat of the Volvo on our way to the farm, and yet when we arrived it was so different and yet so much the same that I felt conflicting emotions.
I tried to capture the images on camera but somehow they came out too bright, too modern to say what I wanted, and I'd left my watercolours at home, not realising I'd need them.
I attempted a brief sketch on paper with a Biro, but although I could capture the scene, I couldn't show the atmosphere of neglect, the smells, the taste, the gritty feel of the dust on my skin, and so, when I got home I wrote this short descriptive piece.
It's not perfect by any means, and it's not a story as such. It has no real beginning, middle or end. It is purely a memory amongst many memories, a snapshot in time, an imperfect watercolour landscape for the person who taught me that painting in watercolours is about building layer upon layer of thin washes, each completely nondescript, dull and boring on their own, but in combination with each other, creating something special.
For Ric and Renee, and for Noel, may God love you and watch over you.
The track from the station, once smooth and well tended by loving hands, now stood overgrown with grass and pitted with potholes from the recent rain.
Bumping over the displaced stones, the raised centre line scraped along the bottom of the car. No 4x4 or tractor here, just a middle class Volvo estate, complete with ageing accountant and overexcited Collie, and me, of course, sitting quietly in the passenger seat, thinking to myself, this was more than just a months neglect.
Three houses along this track, the first at the start, where the road was still smooth and well cut, and at the end, the two we were headed for, once a large farmhouse, then split into two separate but joined dwellings for our friends Ric and Renee, and Renee's brother Noel.
I remembered the last time we visited, before Ric and Renee passed away, the way both houses had been as one. The door between the two kitchens always open, more of a symbol of apartness than a barrier to our running feet. The entrance to the loft another adventure, joining like the lofts in C S Lewis's stories so that we were part of both houses, had access to wherever we wanted to go.
I knew, of course I did, that things were different now. An outsider had bought the house from the farmer, both halves, although Noel's lease had proved to be unbreakable thanks to the work of my uncle.
I knew that the houses were no longer the same as my childhood playground and yet still it came as a shock to me to see how things had changed.
We pulled up at the end of the lane, the path leading to the sheep fields now overgrown and impassable, orange plastic now fencing in the animals to hide the way the wooden posts had rotted down to nothing.
The road down to the railway bridge was barred with a new wooden gate, the sign reading 'private, no public right of way'. The grass freshly mown and neat in heavy contrast to the overgrown jungle around us. A recently purchased 4x4 parked on the verge behind the gate. Clearly the incoming owners had no need to worry about the state of the lane any more.
Resting on the gate I looked longingly at the bridge as a train rushed past, turning to my Uncle as he climbed unsteadily from the drivers seat.
"I take it we can't..." I asked, and watched as his face fell. A railway buff himself we'd spent many summer evenings on that bridge, the trains hurtling along below us as he'd tell me and my brother the types of trains and their history.
"No," he replied heavily, seeming to shrink a little under the weight of memories. "Not any more."
He led the way, sadly, leaning heavily on his stick, to the little side gate, the one we'd never used when Ric and Renee were alive, when no fancy 'private' sign had excluded us from the garden, when what was theirs was ours and what was theirs was filled with children's laughter and the scent of Ric's cigars.
Lifting the latch on the rotten post, the small gate dropped down on its hinges and scraped a quarter circle on the ground as we passed, as if the few screws remaining were reluctant to let us through, knowing that when we were done here the whole building would pass to the new owners. New owners who neither knew nor cared for its history, who would tear down anything imperfect or old and replace it with gleaming steel, glass and varnished pine, bereft of scent, emotion and empathy, and turn the old cottage into a sparkling city show home. The typical Londoners country retreat, rustic but with all the comforts of modern living.
Closing the gate behind us, I lifted it up to hook the latch, feeling the rough, damp wood under my fingers, a sharp contrast to the warm, smooth artifice of the barrier next door. And although the latch was held on now with just one screw, and a screw I had to twist back into the rotting post before it was secure, somehow, it felt stronger and more permanent than the flimsy faux wood newly installed on the other side of the hedge.
This one had a past. The post bearing the scars of several moved hinges, the rusted latch worn almost through from use, even the circular marks on the dirt beneath it showed that someone had been here. What did the other have? It was perfectly formed, it didn't droop, rot, it would never need altering or repairing. It would leave no mark, no reminder. It was just a gate.
Dragging myself away I made my way to the front door, following the click, scrape of my uncles unsteady gait, the paving stones slimy with moss and cracked from years of use.
The fruit trees that had once neatly framed the path had grown wild and now, entwined with vines, met overhead, creating a tunnel reminiscent of Secret Garden fantasies, the light filtering through dimly and casting ghostly green shadows as the trees swayed gently in the wind.
The front door was solid wood, the frame warped from damp and time, requiring considerable effort to open successfully, dropped on its hinges like the gate so that to open you had to use the rusted cast iron handle to lift the heavy oak and push inwards with force.
Inside the cottage, the smell of damp dog, dust and neglect was overpowering. The curtains were tightly shut and I turned to open those on the window closest to the door, pulling back in distress as the ageing fabric crumbled beneath my fingers. It was clear that they hadn't been touched in many years.
Standing on tiptoes I pushed the top of the curtain runners across the rails, unwilling to damage the fragile material further. The daylight fought to get through the trees, bouncing off the dusty windows and alighting on the net curtains, once white but now a dirty black.
Spider webs, encrusted with dirt, covered the window frame, working in from the corners as if the woodwork was a fly to be consumed.
Reaching out to brush them away, I felt them crack beneath my fingers, hard and delicate with age, no longer clingy and flexible as I'd expected.
The small movements I'd made had raised a cloud of dust, my uncle sinking into a chair in a fit of coughing, the action causing more dust to be expelled and I rushed around the lower floor of the cottage, opening windows as I found them, my mind taking in the horrific sights before me and at the same time expelling them and painting over with memories, the carpet not black, encrusted with dog hair and crushed insects but white and springy, new as it had been 20 years ago when I last visited. The wallpaper not peeling and stained with damp but fresh, cream coloured with small pink flowers, Renee's choice. The kitchen cupboards not brown with grease and dust but bright sunflower yellow, the gloss paint shining in the sun.
"What happened?" I asked myself, my thoughts emerging from my mouth in a gasp of pain.
"He got old," my uncle replied wearily with a sigh, "and he got tired."
Looking over at him, I saw, perhaps for the first time, that he also looked old and tired. And I realised how hard this was for him and not just for me. They'd been friends since before I was even born, both born in the last years of the war, both growing up in a world where you worked hard and you did your best, so unlike the world of today.
And Noel had worked hard, even to the end he was still up with the sunrise, out with the sheep, cutting the grass, keeping the fields ploughed and sown, and when he'd come home of an evening he was just too tired to keep the house as well, Renee had always done that job. And so he'd just carried on with his part and let the rest fall to rack and ruin around him for probably the last 15 odd years.
I felt a deep sadness, wondering why none of us had noticed how bad it had gotten and I saw my uncle was thinking the same. This was no way to live. But then since Renee had died we'd always met in town, he'd claimed it was the only time he got out any more and that was probably true, but had he also been ashamed to let us see how far he'd fallen, how much he'd let himself get behind.
And why had we not noticed? Even when we'd dropped him back he'd discouraged visitors, the dog didn't like strangers, he had no milk, all the excuses he'd used to prevent us from seeing the state he'd gotten into. And yet he must have known that we' d have helped him out without a second thought, come round once a week and given it a good clean, or even hired a cleaner if he'd preferred. But he was too proud to ask and we were to stupid to notice.
This then was our punishment, our shame, to stand here and take in the true extent of the damage caused by our neglect and to always feel regret.
And so I stood, and I catalogued our failings and filed them away in my memory as a stark contrast to the happy childhood pictures.