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.
The remote, 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.
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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