I was walking across that lawn with my mother when
Dad appeared in the open windows and called out to us,
'Hold on one second.'
'Why?' I said.
'Keep your eyes on the window.'
He vanished. Mum and I watched the dark gap in the
wall. Nothing happened, and I didn't understand why my
father had made us stop, but then a blackbird shot from the
side of the house, Dad appearing behind it, smiling, his
arms spread like an impresario's, as if he'd just conjured the
bird into existence.
A white china owl sat on a table next to the windows,
the first thing I looked for when I pushed through the door
from the landing. I came up the spiral staircase calling for
my mother and father. I could hear voices. I went straight
in, ready for the white owl. Richard was lying on the rug, on
his back, his head close to the windows. My mother was
kneeling beside him; my father stood next to her, leaning
over. I stopped in the doorway. Richard wasn't moving.
He lay rigid, his feet pointing up at the ceiling, his arms
stretched along his sides, fists clenched.
'It's all right,' Dad said. 'Rich is having a fit. It's all right. It goes very
Now he was shaking, his whole body thrumming. His
arms bent at the elbows and straightened in stiff jerks, again
and again; his knees rose off the floor and slammed down as
his legs bent and extended; his feet kicked and stamped in
repeated spasms. Dad had grabbed the cushion from his
armchair, and Richard's head thudded into it, his teeth
chomping together with a sound like horseshoes on tarmac. 'It's all right,' Mum said.
'We'll just wait for it to pass.'
I didn't move from the doorway. I watched my brother,
the different parts of his body pounding the floor. The
boards shook beneath him; vases and bowls vibrated on the
tabletops; the French windows trembled in their frames.
Quartets, singers, harpsichordists and other musicians came
to give charity concerts in the Great Hall. We pulled a dirty
blue-grey cover across the carpet and used old rugs to dress
the makeshift plank stage that lived in the garage. There
were stacks of chairs in the stables loft and I watched teams
of strangers deploy them in concentric arcs across the Great
Hall, enthralled by event logistics and the anticipation that
built through the afternoon. The room was new and strange
with two hundred people in it and performers elegant in
evening dress beneath suits of Spanish armour posed like
sentries in the west wall niches; Mum led me in my dressing
gown along the Groined Passage and we stood at the back
through suites and sonatas.
I grew used to such invasions. I recognized the hubbub
pitch of concert audiences and the python-thick cables of
film-set lights. Film and TV crews moved in like desert
caravans, grey production trucks inching through the gate-
house, the car park a camp of Winnebagos, Portakabins,
catering vans and double-decker buses furnished with
dining tables. Brawny carpenters and electricians smoked on
the front lawn, bellies hanging over utility belts stocked with
enviable commando inventories of tools, walkie-talkies and
gaffer-tape reels; sparks fixed massive lights outside the windows
and flooded interiors with unearthly platinum glare. I
spent whole days wandering once-familiar rooms that setdressers
had skewed to their own purposes; I snapped the
clapperboard and perched by the camera on the counterweighted
dolly crane; my mother apologized to assistant
directors in navy Puffa jackets and we looked on quietly
from the sidelines. We opened the gift shop in the stables
and I sold Ian McKellen a postcard; I ran through the arch
into the walled Ladies' Garden and saw Jane Seymour in a
white Regency gown bend to sniff a rose; I was five when Morecambe and Wise came to shoot their Christmas show
and I'd been in bed with flu all week, but my mother carried
me downstairs so I could see the Great Hall garbed in
vaudeville finery, Eric Morecambe walking over to greet
me, adjusting his spectacles and barking, 'Hello! Are you married?'
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