I glide through life not remembering anything. Films, faces, dates, days, years, they all slip through me like elvers through a too-coarse net, and I go on unregretful, unburdened by both the memory and by my own inability to remember: I don’t care. And yet the few things that touch me – a phrase said on a broken sofa in a pub; the flat silver Thames on that day when I realised that for the first time in years, in this particular moment, I felt alright about being alive; a kiss not happening on the steps; looking at the sky on a viciously cold night, knowing that at that moment you were looking at it too; a moment of hope or a moment of despair, these things are kept through no act of will on my part, and the minutes or the day that forms their setting is kept as well. I can step back into them and be alive then, fully, in that moment. And sometimes they step back into me.
I suddenly smelt something I haven’t smelt since I was six, and I was six again: Great Uncle Lawrie’s cottage. Books provided the keynote and the bitter smell of the coal-fire, with a tangy note of the peaty water that ran clear brown into bath or glass. Apples fermenting in the garden in the embrace of drowsy wasps, the dove-cote with its musical, whirring white inmates, wet earth, rain. Dust from the gravel drive on my shoes. The smell of the inside of the grand piano that time when I crept back when everyone was outside, and put my head inside it. I breathed in the close, warm woodiness of the thing’s belly, tested the dense felt on one hammer with an infinitely gentle finger. Beneath this basking black crocodile my Great Aunt Whinny dropped dead spontaneously one day while cleaning, kneeling up with a surprised and delighted cry of “Oh!” as if – everyone said – someone she loved had just walked into the room.
I think, in many ways, that cottage, or the feeling of that cottage, is the home I want to go back to. Not that it was ever my home. We went there every couple of years, for a few days. During that few days, we were In Company, a state alien to my grandparents and one of great tension for, as my grandmother used to say “Your grandfather hangs up his fiddle when he comes into the house”, meaning he played a jolly enough tune outside it. While we were at Great Uncle Lawrie’s (which, in those days, I spelt “Lorry”, imagining him somehow synonymous with a merry red juggernaut in the same way I thought my Great Aunt Bee was named for an insect in a stripy jumper, Whinny was named for the sound a horse makes, and that Tantie-Elaine – who had at all times about her person, a small tabby cat on a lead -’s name was, in fact, Tantie-Elaine and bore no relation to her being French and my auntie. Well, why not? Great Aunt Ivy’s name really WAS Ivy, my father’s name really IS Robin, it seemed logical that somehow everyone in my family was named after plants, animals, inexplicable noises that had to be reproduced with great care, or vehicles. I felt rather the odd one out, having a name that was, alas, just a name), In Company, everyone smiled. Nobody raised their voice In Company. So every couple of years I had a few days’ holiday, where everything was nice.
Cockerels and piano practice woke me, every morning – and it wasn’t even my piano practice, but the brilliant playing of my much older cousin, who was good enough to give recitals “In Town” and to be generally spoken about in hushed tones as being Very Talented. My room was directly above the piano and the sound would rise through the floor and be trapped against the sloping pink ceiling, like a wave, it would go up and curl back down directly onto my sleeping, synaesthetic form, as splashes and cascades of coloured light, stained glass going through me. I would wake, and outside the dormer window were apples and usually a blackbird, and the black edges of the thatched roof. I would have to go downstairs for a wash-up. At night, the stairs produced the sort of deafening creak you would imagine a 300 year old cottage should make. But in the morning the second the bedroom door opened, the sound of the piano filled the whole of reality. It was deafening, glorious, and only became louder as I went down the short staircase.
My cousin never looked at me. I don’t mean while he was playing. I don’t think he ever looked at me at all, except on the one occasion he was told to show me his parrot and his pigeons. Could you get blue parrots? All blue? Why was this one grey? Why did grey ones talk more than other ones? Couldn’t you get big green ones that talked just as well? Could you get green ones that had red bits here, and blue bits here? Look, I’ve drawn one! Can you get ones like this? Could you get black pigeons instead of white ones? Why don’t you get blue pigeons? Why did the homing ones come home, always? Why didn’t they run off? Why did they clap, sometimes, when they took off, and not other times?
With the turn of a wooden latch on a chicken-wire door, he let the homing pigeons out – duck your head – a whistling exuberance of soft grey motion, and gone, leaving me anxiously panning the sky. “Watch,” he said. “They’ll come back ’round, and go ’round again. Then they’ll come back in.”
At the cote, or squeezed into the hot little shed with him, where the grey-barred birds jerked their heads to one side or the other, looking at me always with only one orange eye in a series of stop-motion question marks, I looked at their clean pink feet with their toenails and neat little ankle-bracelets, and, if he held one, I would stroke its iridescent pink-green neck. I thought that was where the word “preen” came from. The colour of a pigeon’s neck. The softness of their feathers astonished me in the same way that, years later, the softness of a man’s skin would astonish me. I was afraid of them, when he wasn’t holding them.
But other than that, my cousin never looked at me, and the trip through the living room to the bathroom was fraught with inner conflict. I wanted, more than anything else, to go up to the piano and put my ear against the curve of its flank, right on the level where I knew the strings sat, right against the black gloss of its voice. And after that, put my lips against the paint, hardly touching at all, the way I did (do) with flower buds to feel the tiny hairs on them, so I could feel the elusive high notes as well as the bass that kicked against the air in my lungs. I wanted to press my tummy against it, my cheek, and feel the notes in my bones. But I was strictly forbidden from touching the piano, and knew from disobedient experience that any transgression on my part left marks on it that could not be erased, merely spread, however much I hurred and rubbed the end of a pulled-down cardigan sleeve with miserable desperation across them. Yet it filled the room. Literally. Getting past it without touching it was a challenge. There was space, apart from the piano, for one tiny sofa, a black and white television whose almost circular screen was no bigger than a dinner plate, and the grey parrot’s cage (he sat motionless during piano practice, whether unmoved or outgunned I could not tell). To get to the bathroom I had to sidle past, actively avoiding the compelling outward bow that jutted like the rump of a curled cat; then into the curve of its loin where the arm of the sofa nearly met it; then I was released into the few feet of free space that remained. Except by then my back was to the piano, and it was over. The good bit was where I inched past it, facing it.
Throughout this routine my cousin remained barely visible, the occasional lock of dark hair, the back of his shirt collar, hunched passionately over the keys, belting out Rachmaninov or similar. I believe his playing was defensive, or by way of protesting my presence. I believe, with hindsight, that he needed to be left alone to practice, and that the intrusion of a small girl was actively uncomfortable for him. So when he woke me it was with soft Debussy and Schubert, but the closer I came to his piano, the more forte his playing, the less piano, and as I rounded the cape of his personal continent, I was blasted by deterrent gales of music that, far from deterring, served only to lift me the way a strong wind lifts a gull.
Once dressed, I would walk in the garden on my own, picking up pieces of gravel and putting them into the barrel of a spring-loaded gun, firing off the occasional shot at a fallen apple. A tall step part-way down the garden served as the stumps when grandad and I played apple cricket. Just as in school, I was a decent bat, but an abysmal fielder. But that was for later. Now, before breakfast, I played on my own for as long as possible, enjoying everything about this long garden, from the squeaking crush of the gravel under my mary-janes, to the inconvenience of it falling inside them and having to be pried out of the damply warm weave of my white sock with a curled pink finger. From the fine bounciness of the freshly fallen, unripe “cricket balls”, to the future satisfaction of the older ones, which would explode when struck, freckling my arms and the front of my dress with juice and fragments of browning flesh. Blackbirds would erupt from the shrubbery as I walked, their “chak!chak!chak!chak!chak!” louder than the piano, which was now confined behind diamond-paned leaded windows.
Beyond the parked Triumph Herald we had arrived in, a lull in the music and an abatement of blackbirdly truculence, a new sound caught my ear, and I glanced up the drive. Against the bole of a tree clung a woodpecker, something I had only seen in books. Its beak was stout and there was something about it that reminded me of the sturdy quality of a kingfisher. It looked at me and was gone in a flash of red, black and white.