Monday 19 August 2019

The Council House

by Wendy Pike

Orange Barley Water

Unusually, the unruly privet hedge is tamed and neatly trimmed grass does its best to mask the former flower bed, a diamond-shaped centrepiece, in which daffodils once grew in spring and musky, pink roses in summer.

Flaky layers of faded red paint graduate into random patterns on the crescent-shaped front doorstep.  Formerly a beacon of pride, shining like ripe cherries in sunshine thanks to an annual, mandatory coat of paint and regular buffing with red tile polish. In the same way that you count the rings of a tree trunk, if you totted up the varying shades of different layers, with some degree of accuracy, you could tell how long this place has been a home.  

A breeze ruffles the leaves on the pair of giant, white poplar trees standing sentinel at the bottom of the hill.  With each gust their fluttering fuses with the constant rush of traffic whizzing along the nearby dual carriageway. It’s a familiar childhood soundtrack.

The scent of lavender is a comforting greeting as I walk inside the gate.  But my eyes prickle and I swallow hard, trying to stifle the escaping emotion that is already catching the back of my throat.  I am not even close to halfway up the garden path.

I know there is nobody home.  On the other side of the door there will be no beaming smile to greet this unannounced visitor or outstretched arms inviting a spontaneous, heartfelt hug.  

This ordinary looking, unassuming, sturdy, council semi was my second home.  But from today I’ll have no reason to return.

“Why am I here?” I say aloud to no one. I shouldn’t be here really.

This council house is a portal, transporting me back to my younger self.  Somewhere I had only to be myself to be totally and unconditionally accepted for who I am.  Where the people living within the soft, red brick walls, teased me occasionally and laughed with me a lot. They used to call me pet names - something that would be an unwelcome over-familiarity from anyone else.

Of course I realise, it wasn’t utopia.  Those residing inside these four solid walls were, like the rest of us, only human.  Petty disputes between them were never really settled in the resulting heavy silences.  Alternatively, like family secrets, they were brushed under the carpet.  Regardless, this duo was among my most favourite people in the world.  While I was growing up they were like superheroes. Although life moves on, as an adult my fondness and adoration for them remained.  Of course, time moves on also.  One died too soon, leaving the other solo to live on in the house alone but hopefully not lonely.

As much as I have had to say some heartbreakingly painful, final goodbyes over the last few months, I had to visit this happy, loving, haven one last time.  Although, I acknowledge, it is peculiar to be saying farewell to a building.  But I need to drink in the spirit of this place.  I need to recall so many happy times, to cement them in my brain as I fear I’ll forget.

Some are easy to recall.  Like baking rock buns, cheese straws and marble cakes in the tiny kitchen.  Making lavender bags.  Picking berries from the tangle of brambles in the back garden in readiness to, under supervision, bake blackberry and apple pies.  Picnics of Orange Barley Water, in brightly coloured plastic mugs, and packets of Iced Gem biscuits and pink and white Marshmallow biscuits, covered in coconut.  The feast spread out on stiff, scratchy, woollen blankets that made us itch and sometimes lightly skinned our knees if we fidgeted about too much.

But there is a void where the good energy and positive vibe ought to be.  Filling the vacuum, instead, an atmosphere of deep sadness pervades the place, engulfing it like a blanket of thick fog.

Despite a showpiece doorstep and rambling roses competing for supremacy over honeysuckle on the white plastic trellis framing the entrance, nobody ever used the front door much.  Instead, in daylight hours, the back door was never shut.

But today it’s closed.  No use trying the handle - it’s locked.  The keys are with the council.  Nan’s not here.  Nobody’s home.

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