He's up at dawn to turn
the alarm off and slide the bolts on the oak outer door (the
slide and rich bass clonk of the bolts roll round the acoustic
chamber of the porch); ducks waddle behind him across
the front lawn and loiter by the stables while he scoops
a wooden dish through the grain bin; he scatters grain for
ducks like a man in an old Dutch painting. At night he or my
mother go round the house checking doors and windows,
turning lights off. They call it 'shutting the house up' – a
daily task with its own ceremonial rhythm, an established
itinerary followed from one room to another.
formal spaces of the house are eerie in the dark. The
grandfather clock ticks implacably down the Long Gallery;
floorboards creak like ships' hulls under pressure from the
swell; there's a sudden breath of cold wind from stone spiral
stairs; the men and women in portraits have occult power in
the moonlight through high windows. I'm used to the ten
or fifteen minutes each evening when either my mother
or father disappears into the other end. They open the door
in the music room and step into historical dark. We're all
still in the same house, but for that short interval they're
away, the plain door a portal or time machine by which
you passed into a different world. The minutes stretch out
in our lamp-lit domestic realm while my father goes off into
that elsewhere. At last the door by the piano clicks open
and he joins us again in the kitchen, the cold in his clothes
a trace of that other region like moondust on an astronaut.
Sometimes I went with them. I followed them through
the Great Hall, down the Long Gallery, into the Kings'
Chamber, Council Chamber, Queen Anne's Room, Great Parlour and Chapel. Wooden shutters unfold from the
walls; the Great Parlour's huge blue blinds pull down like
square-rigged sails on the west windows; you have to reach
behind an iron breastplate to switch off the light in the
Groined Passage. I hardly ever went there alone after dark.
The eyes in portraits followed me down the gallery; white
busts of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones began to shoulder off
their plinths; oak chests were dark blocks the size of tombs
and the pendants in the Great Hall's plaster ceiling were ready to detach and
plummet just as you walked beneath them.
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