I knew what had happened, though no one had told me directly. I must have pieced it together from different sources, conversations I'd overheard, my mother or father describing the event to others: a horse, a road, a car passing. When people pointed to the photograph and asked me who it was, I said it was my brother, Thomas, and that I never knew him, he died two years before I was born. I didn't understand why they said they were sorry. I knew it was a loss, but I couldn't feel it as one. He was a presence to me, not something taken away.
I played in a room at the east end of the house, the moat immediately outside. On clear mornings light bounced off the water through the windows, the white ceiling suddenly unstable with ripples and wind-stir, the surface of the moat reproduced in sunlight overhead. Our new freezer had just been delivered, and I'd got the cardboard box to customize into a secret house, a hatch cut into one side. My father was at work, dog-eared maps and his battered lunch tin on the passenger seat, and my mother was showing a group of history students round the house, so Patsy was here to keep an eye on me and Richard. I liked the threshold moments of crawling into or out of the den, the clement burrow darkness inside the box, the smell of cardboard, the enticing privacy and warmth. Lying on my back I could look through a crack in the roof and watch the ceiling's imitation of water.
Patsy tried to interest Richard in a book but he was restless, brooding, pacing the room. He noticed a pair of moorhens paddling close to the window and shouted at them – 'Shoo!' – as if they'd insulted him, and that eruption seemed to nudge the whole morning off its rails, because Rich stood there with both arms held out like a scarecrow's, his eyes half-closed, lids fluttering, as if there were static electricity in his eyelashes that made them flicker in and out of each other. His arms began to jerk; he turned round on the spot with his arms held out, jolting; the room went sludgy, as if a spell had swung us out of orbit and everything was slowing down – as if Patsy and I existed in our own current of time and were moving past Richard on a raft, keeping our eyes fixed on him. The spell lasted less than twenty seconds, and as he came through it he lowered his arms to his sides and saw both of us looking intently at him.
'What?' he said.
I was four when a local school performed Twelfth Night in our garden. A tiered, covered stand went up on the back lawn opposite the yew tree; stagehands rigged up lights and jammed the door on a writhe of power cables. The moat that ran along two sides of the lawn was now the sea around Illyria. Actors emerged from the water and dragged themselves onto dry land after the shipwreck. A spotlight picked out Feste standing on the flat roof above the bathroom on the east stairs. Malvolio's prison was a wooden cage fitted precisely to my square sandpit.
The drawing room's French windows opened onto an iron balcony where my father hung the bird-feeders. The stone that anchored the balcony was crumbling and we all knew better than to trust our weight to it. The play started after my bedtime, but the July nights were hot and my parents had left the windows open: I could hear the actors' voices, the audience laughing at mix-ups and pretensions; I slipped out of bed and crept across the landing, edging on all fours into the windows to watch through the ironwork.
The following summer the Banbury Cross Players performed A Midsummer Night's Dream. Each night I lay awake listening to the applause as Bottom and his crew approached in the punt and disembarked by the young copper beech in the corner. I couldn't sleep. I crawled across the landing and up the two carpeted steps to take my place at the balcony, a full moon spinning up like a cue-ball as Oberon and Titania summoned spirits from the shadows. The rustic players reappeared in the punt, Peter Quince holding a lantern at the prow.
Excerpted from The Music Room by William Fiennes. Copyright 2009 by William Fiennes. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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