Authors: Frances Fyfield
To Angela Nightingale,
for being alive
here was no other way to describe it. A perfectly beautiful house which also managed to be ugly. There was a glory in its pretence to be a truly grand house whilst being, in reality, a mansionette masquerading as a mansion. There was no spitting of gravel as a car turned into the drive, since the gravel was half submerged into the weedy earth, leaving a smooth tread and puddles. The tennis court was similar, erupting with moss, the pond to the side choked with weed and a haven for frogs, while the lawn resembled a green lunar landscape, spongy to the feet, riddled with mole-holes. Round the back, where the red brick of decaying outhouses met the pitted surface of the stable yard, a berry tree was shedding an early autumn crop so plentiful it was ignored even by the birds. The grounds were sweet smelling, as edible as the house. Like good rich food, a blessing and a curse.
The front was a two-storey elevation, mostly glass window set in sandstone below a shallow pitched roof
of dull but definite grey. The front door had altered with the generations, undecided about fate, looked temporary, far too small and cheap between a pair of fat columns. These had once been surmounted by stone lions, added and then taken away at the same time as the stone globes on the gateposts. Humility followed pretension.
The out-of-scale Corinthian columns alone appeared to announce not only a huge reception hall, but also twenty bedrooms of liberty hall, instead of the mere five. As it was, a small vestibule was flanked by two fine front rooms with enormous windows, one living room, one dining room, each with fifteen huge panes of old glass in elegant, thin frames, currently dirty but none the less magnificent. It was the kind of hospitable, slightly blowzy house which invited the colourful domination of virginia creeper and weeds, never the sinister overtones of ivy. But the creeper had been killed: there were trails of it growing up against the mellow gold stone, like a trail of debris on a handkerchief, holes in the upper slabs where foliage had been held if not controlled. Each brick of this perfect example of English eccentricity,
folie de grandeur
and sheer, if muddled, taste, came from the valley landscape where the house stood as if growing out of it, unable to live elsewhere, insulted by the suggestion. Invisible from the road, the house withstood all weathers, and was perfectly isolated.
There were one and a half bathrooms for all those rooms, one lavatory in the servants' quarters. Three
servants at one time, plus gardener and stable lad, plus any assistance needed from the village, now hamlet, lying one mile away and the town, five miles beyond and visible from the hill. Some gentlewoman had once considered it a struggle to manage with a staff of five. Those were the days.
Serena Burley lived in it alone. A man called George, who was not paid for his labours, drove each day from the town to look after her and her dog. No one knew where he came from or why he had done this for the three years of Serena's erratically developing dementia. Janice, who was paid, although not handsomely, also attended. Robert and Isabel, Serena's far-distant children, visited for frantically busy weekends in which they mended things and went away, saddened, appalled and relieved. George was such a Godsend, they never questioned either his identity or his motives.
They worried about their mother while half tolerating, half detesting one another. Most of the time, the detestation won. Robert was a bully and Isabel was weak. He regarded her with all the contempt held by the strong for the meek who had also managed, by no effort of their own, to inherit the earth. Robert would inherit little from his mother: the house was held on some obscure leasehold arrangement. Isabel's inheritance came from someone else. Neither of them could quite believe Serena's diagnosis, since the rude health of both of them made them deny the existence of anything incurable. And because Serena Burley had been such a password for magnificence, it was impossible to
imagine that she would not, somehow, re-emerge from this senile chrysalis and laugh at them.
t can't go on,' Robert kept repeating. âIt simply can't. She'll have to go into a home. You'll have to make her. Or go and look after her for a while until we decide what to do.'
âGo and look after her? Why can't you go and look after her? What's the difference between your responsibility as a son and mine as a daughter, and besides, you're the one she adores â¦' Isabel would feel the lump of tears whenever the conversation got to this point, which it did on every telephone call. However would she acquire a family of her own if she went home to her mother? Almost on cue, as if someone was squeezing them for effect, there would be the sound of screaming children in the background of Robert's home.
âThat's why,' he would hiss triumphantly, a stage-whisper of a hiss, intended to be heard by his sensible wife who loathed her sister-in-law as much as she envied her.
have no power to shove her into a home, because she's still just about sane, and I couldn't possibly go and look after her because I have family responsibilities â¦'
âThat was your choice!' Isabel would yell at this point, also intending to be heard, but the guilt crept up into her throat at the same time and made her voice tremble on the edge of petulant hysteria.
ââ¦ I have kids and no money and a tough job, none of which applies to you â¦'
The words âyou lazy slut' were never quite announced: they hovered there, over the wires, to be repeated at supper by Mrs Robert Burley, but they still entered the iron of Isabel's soul. A son is a son till he takes him a wife: my daughter's my daughter for all of her life.
âShe's fine as she is. She's got help â¦'
This was Isabel, avoiding confrontation as she usually did, denying her mother's example, that of her aunt as well. She was unequal to it at the best of times, which was never like this, hampered by guilt and the luck of life which evaded her brother, hampered even more at the moment by the denouement of yet another love affair. All Robert could do was moan about the responsibility of having kids: all she could dream about was the utter privilege of what he claimed as an affliction. Whether it was love or babies that formed the subject matter of dreams, she could no longer distinguish and was not about to try. Her own mother had told her not to come home and, apart from brief visitations, she had done her best to comply.
âHow can you say everything's fine? The house is falling down.'
âAll you care about is the things inside the house!' Isabel screamed this time, despite herself, the high notes of her shrill voice warbling like a raucous jungle bird.
âBetter than caring about nothing but yourself. Like you.'
Staring into space after such family chats, Isabel
imagined her beloved mother, her eyes which grew paler and paler with age and the arms outstretched in the great big greeting which would be Serena's welcome. No one else had ever inspired such huge and unrequited love. Or such pride.
here was a series of photographs in tarnished silver frames on top of Serena's desk. Some of them talked, some did not. The one of Mab, Serena's sister, for instance, showed the solid, uncommunicative face of a woman to whom life had been scrupulously unfair, right from the day when her mother had decided to call her Mabel, because of that Mabel Lucy Atwell look: deliciously fat cheeks, snub nose, eyelashes to kill for. Later Mab was still best seen in profile, because even as an adult that plumpness resembled the moon, with features set uncertainly in a squashed circle, a currant bun of a face with a frizz of hair.
Next to Aunt Mab were Isabel and Robert, clinging to her fat thighs. Serena had taken that photo herself: no one showed to advantage. She featured alongside, inside a better frame, wearing a black ballgown, with husband on arm, receiving adoration. That was preferable. Serena had been venerated wherever she went, the subject of a thousand schoolgirl crushes and a hundred leering men, while her sister Mab blossomed into the kind of child people called bonny, or so she had explained to Isabel, leaving her niece to wonder what it might have been like to be sibling to a younger sister so beautiful she made men and women alike catch their
breath. She was not aptly named. Her name suggested tranquillity, whereas all her life Serena had howled at the moon. There were more than vestiges of a former, sensual beauty about her eyes, her hair, her carriage.
The photograph of fat, capable Mab began to talk. Well, Mab said, cheerfully, I had to develop in other ways. And I was, I am, happier than my sister, in the long run. My sister is not going to like being old, you know, but for me it makes no difference. No one will notice. Serena turned the photo down so she could not see Mab, smiling.
âBedlam!' Serena shrieked. âWhat rhymes with bedlam, George?'
âI dunno. Can't you think of something easier than that?'
âOh, very funny. Better write it down quickly. Where's your pen?'
Sitting at her desk, Serena was suddenly protective. She leant forward over a pile of paper, shielding it from view. âYou'd better not look at what I'm writing, George. Secrets.'
âI know, I know, but I can scarce read, remember?'
âDon't believe you. You're a clever fucker. A right smart
He chuckled, good-natured in the face of an outburst. âLanguage, Mrs Burley, my lovely sweetheart, you gotta watch that language.'
She relaxed, put her head in her hands. âLanguage is the root of all good and evil, George. Which is a shame, because I can't remember the verbs.' She looked round, wildly. âWhat do I mean, George. Verbs? Words?'
âI think you mean words,' he said gently. âAnd never you mind. You got plenty of words left.'
âWhat's happening to me, George?'
âYou need feeding, that's all.'
He plodded out of the room, making an effort to behave as if he had no right in there and she had not called him in in the first place. As far as anyone else was concerned, he never went further than the kitchen. He had a place by the fire, along with the dog. He was not paid to do what he did. He was not supposed to do anything for Serena: he did what he did for the dog. Or that was the way it had started out.
he house had a strange and lopsided magnificence, certainly in comparison with any he had ever known, although he had never been familiar with a wide variety of houses. At home he could not have kept a hamster: the rules, imposed by the authorities, the lack of air and the neighbours, did not allow. Here the place smelled blissfully of animal and warmth. There were falling-down outhouses outside, a coalhouse where a boy could keep a rabbit, a backyard and a whole acre of land. He saw it as a kind of flawed heaven and inside it he had this strange sensation of vitality. Mrs Burley was a good woman and she needed him when no one
else did. She was mad only in other people's estimation. There was no one else he would rather obey.
âThings she does!' he informed the dog, as well as anyone else who would listen. âCourse she isn't mad. She's sane as you and I. You know what? I got there this afternoon and how do you think she was doing? On her hands and knees, she was, planting plastic flowers outside. I said to her, I said, you shouldn't be doing that, you'll get your knees muddy. Fuck off, she says to me, why not? There's fuck-all else growing here. If I put these lovely things here, then the others will know they should grow. Makes sense, don't it?'