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.
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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