The school assembly hall was closed for renovations
and on Sundays we walked to a church for our weekly
service. We spread rumours along pews and daydreamed
through sermons until one visiting preacher secured our
attention by hoisting a bag onto the pulpit rim – a scuffed
black leather bag with accordion pleats at each end, a bag
a doctor might take on night visits – and unpacking metal
stands and clamps we recognized from science labs, and
various jars and packages he ranged along the shelf in front
of him. He was in his fifties, dressed in a grey suit and a
black shirt with a white dog collar, and he didn't say anything
while preparing his equipment, tightening a clamp
on a retort stand, fixing a cardboard tube between the jaws.
He struck a match; a fuse caught and sizzled; he shook
the match out and stepped back to watch the flame. Then
we understood that what he'd clamped to the stand was a
firework. The tube flared with a soft, liquid rush, sparks
and white embers falling to the stone floor, the preacher's
spectacles glinting in the brightness. The fountain died
with a last sputter like someone clearing their throat, the
after-image burning in our eyes.
'Light,' the preacher said.
Our house was almost seven hundred years old, a medieval
beginning transformed in the sixteenth century into a Tudor
stately home, a castle surrounded by a broad moat, with
woods, farmland and a landscaped park on the far side, and
a gatehouse tower guarding the two-arched stone bridge, the
island's only point of access and departure.
The gatehouse doors hung on rusty iron hinges, grids of
sun-bleached vertical and cross beams like the gates of an
ancient city, a Troy or Jericho, creaking like ships as you
manoeuvred them. I pushed my hand deep into the keyhole
to feel the lock tumblers, and climbed the waffle pattern of
oak beams until my strength gave out; I imagined cauldrons
of boiling oil tipped through the trapdoor on intruders;
I gazed up at the flagpole turret, a canvas flag of blue and
white quadrants, gold lions and black moles and chevrons
rippling overhead, jackdaws clacking like snooker balls.
When the gates were closed it was as if the house had
picked up a shield, but they were almost always open. My
father worried for the strength of the hinges and didn't want
to stress them. The gatehouse was a rugged keep with arrowslit
windows and a spiral staircase of cold stone that turned
through zones of light and shadow to a leaded roof, the
moat far below, a heron stooped like an Anglepoise on the
near bank, moorhens legging it across the grass. My mother
painted Turtle and Pearce flag bunting on the parquet floor
by the upright piano; my father carried the new flag up the
gatehouse stairs; I followed him onto the roof, watching as
he propped the ladder against turret battlements and began
to climb. He attached the flag by duffel-coat toggles and
when he raised it the canvas unfurled with flame-like rip
and putter, blue and white quarters flush to the wind.
Richard was the eldest, eleven years older than me, eighteen
months older than Martin and Susannah, the twins. My
father's parents had died within ten days of each other not
long before I was born, and my family had moved from
their village house to the estate passed down through my
father's ancestors since the fourteenth century.
Beyond the churchyard a path of irregular flagstones
joined by seams of moss and grass led past the orchard to the
road, a wrought-iron gate hanging off-kilter on the far side.
Sometimes I opened the gate and took the gravel path uphill
through a scrubby wasteland district of nettles and elder
bushes. The country flattened off and you came to a stockade
of iron railings tipped with spear-points, a kissing-gate
that groaned when you disturbed it. The graveyard backed
into farmland, a sea of wheat pressing against the railings,
trees busy with wrens and chaffinches on the other three
sides, floral tributes slumped against the headstones. My
grandparents and great-uncles and aunts were buried here; a
newer stone beside them marked the grave of my brother
Thomas, too soon for lichens or mosses to have got started.
My father kept a black-and-white photograph of him in
a leather frame by his bed, and another next to the lamp on
his desk; my mother had the same photograph under the
glass top of her dressing-table: a boy standing on a hillside,
not quite three years old, hair teased by wind, hands clasped
in front of his chest, looking away into unrevealed distances.
He looked like both of my brothers and me, all at once.
Sometimes I stood close to the photograph – I was always
careful not to touch it – and concentrated on Thomas, looking
for small changes in his expression, trying to imagine
him in three dimensions, walking into the kitchen or across
the lawn. I wanted to hear his voice.
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