The Sun Born Over
j. d. may
Three Oaks was the only house down Redrock that had its own road sign. It was this large house surrounded by wide meadows and the Wold, a stretch of rolling woodland full of leaf trees and forest flowers in the undergrowth. On very quiet days, if you stood at the west window in the attics, you could hear a hint of the breakers at the coast. There were cliffs that way. Then there was the long trail past the Wold, it reached all the way to Alishill, which was a steep though worthwhile climb. At its crest, you could see the sea some miles away, glittering all the way to the horizon. Turning, you saw the haunted castle if you squinted right. The Hall lay north, a large house with a very old family, but no one ever saw them.
Three Oaks wasn’t just a house. I mean, it was, but it really was more than that. It was that place way out in the middle of nowhere, where seven men and women had made their home, y’know, one of those houses, but not quite either. There was a writer (for children), another writer (for everyone else), a painter, a sculptor, a scientist, and a couple who knew everything about plants and gardens. There were three children, later four, two cats, two dogs, half a dozen chickens, a cockerel who was too lazy to crow, and Mildred, the goat – she kept the grass short and ate your shoes if you left them outside. Mildred was Three Oaks’ fugitive. Years ago, she ran away from a neighbouring farm. The farmer was all too happy to have her gone, so a hut was built near the chicken coop and Mildred had a new home.
Tourists liked to come to the house, checking if the rumours about artists and writers were true. Others just came to see if Mildred was still among the living, (she liked to run away some times). I kind of always hid myself when the tourists came. Megan, Victor and Alan never cared though. They ran naked down the Green towards the Lake, even if there was a whole group of strangers taking pictures of the house, it had beautiful ivy-covered walls. Now, I didn’t really like being left behind, and dressing really wasn’t an option with the others all naked and everything, so I ran in the shadows as fast as I could, just in case someone actually did look, but I don’t think they cared really. Once at the Lake, it was easy. I’d run out into the sun just like the others and jump into the cold water, (icy at first, but you got used to it), and we’d all try to make as large a splash as Victor. He could make the largest by racing down the footbridge, jumping high and rolling himself up into a cannonball, whoosh, splash!, awesome.
We must’ve been really young back then, at least I don’t remember any of us running away when our mothers joined sometime later. We spent the rest of those afternoons at the Lake, swimming, playing and drying in the sun, hugging Sally for bringing a basket of sandwiches and cold bottles of Coca Cola – the rare occasion when we were allowed to drink it, soda was a huge no-no otherwise. We rarely returned till evening and there’s this memory, it’s in my arms and legs, my whole body actually, that really nice exhausted feeling of a long day’s work of fun and play. I don’t know how often I wished it could’ve stayed that way.
Three Oaks had been at the end of the lane off Redrock for as long as anyone could remember. There were all kinds of stories about the house, (most of them ‘blather’ as Martha said). One thing that was certain was that the house collected people: first Martha and Paul, Martha who needed space to write and Paul who needed silence to think. Then Sally and William came and started their florist shop ‘because it made sense’. They were followed by William’s brother Eduard who hated the noise of the city and needed peace. Zoë was next, she found inspiration in the bright meadows and liked to take long walks down the beach half an hour away. Richard followed soon after. He’d come for a visit due to writer’s block and kept on extending it because the ideas kept on flowing. At one point, it made more sense for him to stay permanently, so he stopped saying he was leaving tomorrow and just stayed in the room down the hall, (though what he really did was spend all summer camping out in the Wold).
The artists and writers never surprised the tourists, but the florist shop always got strange looks. People expected crazy stories, but it was pretty simple: family and friends had always asked Sally and William for advice about their plants, they had this natural knack for making everything that grew prosper. With so much space at Three Oaks they started experimenting on their own, growing roses and lilies and the like. As Sally said, the shop grew on its own, first with a small patch behind the Shed – that’s the stone building where the tractors used to be when Three Oaks was still a grand farmstead. It had enormous industrial windows that looked like high walls of chess-board boxes all in white; it was a large and airy space and every now and then one of the chickens got in. Anyway, at one point more and more people started coming, asking Sally and William for help until it made sense to open a shop where the garden was. That was why the customers came to Three Oaks instead of Sally and William having a place in Stocksonbury.
The customers had to turn right at the fork in the lane, down the long bend past the honeysuckle to the gravel parking-lot behind the Shrubbery, the Three Oaks’ word for the glasshouse, (thirty seconds down the stone path, if you walked quickly). From the inside, the Shrubbery looked like a large glass dome, misty and white when it rained and humidly hot when the sun came out, even if all the doors were open and William had the sprinklers on. There was always a customer about, and you knew if there was a funeral, birthday party or wedding due to the coming and going all day, clouds of dust rising and settling as the cars drove by.
The Shrubbery was this holy place to me back then. There was a hush there that seemed to live in the air and I liked strolling down the rows, feeling I needed to stay quiet so I wouldn’t disturb the seeds and saplings, (they were growing after all). William was usually watering and weeding the beds while Sally stood at the far end near the cash register – a rust-red thing with grey buttons and a handle to crank out the receipt – turning wires and threads into flower arrangements; sometimes she needed an extra hand. It was great just watching her, it looked so easy when she did it, but it so wasn’t when I tried. I also had this thing of thinking up little stories about all the pots and gardens the seedlings would be planted in once they were sold, the houses they belonged to, the people who lived in them, and what their lives would be like. They were real biographies actually, birth, life, death, sometimes gruesome murders too, left for dead on a trash heap, burnt alive on a window sill, forgotten for ten weeks and starved to a crisp, peed on repeatedly by an exceptionally careless dog, that kind of thing. And I wanted to have my own garden one day. It seemed such an impossible thing though. Mom and I lived in the city, there wasn’t much space for a garden there, but every now and then I’d think it up: a wide green space with an herb garden, flower beds and a bench to read on, a nice one, none of those mossy things full of ants. More often than not though, I ended up wishing we could simply stay at Three Oaks, I mean, there wasn’t a better garden around, and there I’d be able to just come down to the Shrubbery whenever I wanted, never mind if that meant helping William stack the heavy crates till it was time for dinner.
It’s weird remembering how I saw it back then. Like, the quiet that descended on Three Oaks when all the grownups were working. That’s hard to describe without mentioning details. It was a busy quiet, not silent, just … calm, with Richard and Martha typing in their offices, and Sally and William down at the Shrubbery in their wellies and green aprons, kneeling between the flowerbeds. It was this quiet busyness of my aunt Zoë painting at the open doors of the Shed, Paul forging one of his sculptures in the furnace round the back, and Eduard, who’s the scientist, pouring over his maps, murmuring things, scribbling into his small notebook that always looked a bit frayed. There was peace then, a busy, quiet peace that didn’t allow for disturbances unless something serious happened, like a sprained ankle or a broken arm – that was bad, but it was Victor’s own fault. We’d all told him not to jump down from that high, not that he’d ever listen, at least not back then.
People did ask about Three Oaks, probably because I couldn’t stop talking about it once I was back home. I liked to say that it was a place where you woke up early because you were so excited about the day. It was the little things that got you, like the large front door with its lion-head knocker. I seriously always expected the knocker to start talking. I was waiting for it actually, trying to catch it off guard. At times I was positive it was going to say How do you do or something like that. Or, if I’d be polite enough, it’d get around to a Good evening, Miss. You just had to look at it right or say the right word, just be there at the right moment and it’d happen. Three Oaks was that kind of house. Climb into a wardrobe at the right moment and you might disappear, live a whole lifetime somewhere else, and return just in time for tea.
Then there were the window-seats that were small worlds of their own. Some were filled with books about Persian fairy tales and medieval art, old Japanese legends or Ancient Rome, with drawings of gladiators, women in bright dresses and men in togas. We’d always end up getting sheets from a wardrobe and wrap ourselves up in the same way, falling all over ourselves while we tried to walk and talk like Romans with whatever smatterings of Latin we found in those books. Other sills were inhabited by small colonies of potted plants none of us had never seen before, flesh-eating ones too; yet others were stacked with bright cushions that were great for pillow fights, and we had a ton of those. Those were also the best windows for blowing your breath against the panes when it rained so you could draw a stick figure really quickly. It was better not to have Martha see that though.
There were these mornings back then when I’d be wide awake before sunrise for no reason, and instead of trying to sleep again, I’d just watch dawn break through the haze, slowly opening the day with these beautiful soft rays of morning sunlight that parted the mists, turned shadows into shapes until, finally, the blackness turned into the garden, the trees and that part of the house I could see from where I was, just one corner with the tall bay windows. By the time I had to get out of bed and go downstairs, someone had already unlocked the three main doors and opened the windows to let the fresh air in – Eduard probably, no, most certainly, he always woke up at these ungodly hours, like 4 am, and acted like it was all normal.
Anyway, Three Oaks. If it wasn’t raining, the sun shone through the trees, birds sang, chickens clucked, and Sammy and Dickens, the two cats, strolled out of the house in search for mice, usually after getting some cream. Dog Fen and Lord Nelson trotted in from their baskets in the parlour, sniffing your legs and licking your shins, welcoming a pat before going to their food and bowls of water. Most of the grownups were already up and about by then, someone was laying the table, eggs and bacon were sizzling in their pans, toast and muffins filled the bread baskets, and the smell of coffee filled the air. There wasn’t much need for talk then. I really didn’t do more than say ‘Good morning’ before climbing into my seat between Megan and Baby Beth, and starting breakfast with a slice of toast, some butter and the honey Martha bought from Farmer Benson down the road.
That taste of Farmer Benson’s honey spread on buttered toast never left. It’s always a short spell of reminiscing: three golden layers, sweet, soft, crisp: honey, butter and toast. Self-made loaves, no one ever bought bread in Three Oaks. Thursday was usually baking day where Sally and Martha would make various loaves for the week, nut-breads, whole-breads, French loaves and at least two with raisins because those disappeared quickest. Then the whole house smelled perfect and the air was delicious enough to try and bite into it. It makes me sigh just to think of it.
I spent every year looking forward to those summers. They were the only vacation we had, Mom and I, but it was a real one. It meant getting on a plane and flying at least ten hours across the Atlantic and landing at Heathrow, finding our luggage and getting picked up by Zoë, Mom’s younger sister – Zoë who always waited at the gate, smiling, waving and hugging us tightly once we came through, before we trekked to the parking lot and piled into her blue Beetle. Sometimes Megan joined Zoë, and Megan and I would talk and laugh all the way to Three Oaks, a conversation that never ended until Mom and I left again. Megan was … I liked Megan from the very moment we met, I was almost six and Megan barely seven. She was so different from kids back home: genuinely kind, really bright and, I won’t deny it, probably the most sophisticated person my age I’d ever met. She seemed to know everything. From the stars to cats, from cars to why some plants were edible and others homeopathic (but only in very small amounts, mind you), Megan was never shy for an answer and really clever with her hands. She could make summer crowns out of tall grasses and wild flowers in less than five minutes. I’d never even tried a daisy chain before. I was so intrigued, I felt lucky Megan liked me back. That’s all I remember though. I don’t remember how we actually became friends. I just know that we were at some point, a bit like magic, voilà, friends.
That long drive from the airport was the beginning, the preface to our many weeks at Three Oaks, and even if Zoë came to visit us on Thanksgiving, all I really wanted were those summers of freedom and running barefoot in the grass, seeing butterflies flutter in the meadows, and spending so much time in the soft sun that Mom sometimes complained I was spoiling my colour.
Those were the days when we’d ride our bikes into Stocksonbury and buy cones of ice-cream from Luigi who only stayed in Stocksinbary (he never got it right) because Sarah, his wife, cast an old spell on him, right out of King Arturo and the druidios, you know them don’t you? Tall men, many beards, liked to carry harpies. No? Anyway, she got him like a big fish with nettings, and since he was already stranded on this island, he might as well start an ice-cream shop, eh? Then Luigi’d wink at his wife and ask us what we wanted, squishing large scoops of his delicious creations on the home-made cones. We then sat on the low fountain across of Luigi’s ice-cream parlour and took as much time as we could to eat our ice-cream without having it dribble all over our hands. Or fall into the fountain. Victor was always trying to push one of us in.
The fountain was actually quite nice, St. George of the Cross slaying the dragon who looked like a Sea Serpent, jaws wide and lichen all over the lance. It was made by Paul himself. Unlike Paul’s latest sculptures it was almost elegant, the lines smooth, fluid motion. Luigi liked Paul’s St. George because he looked like he should: a Roman soldier, all curly hair and daring. There were never fish in the pool though. Martha always said the dragon ate them, but later we found out the Council just hadn’t bothered to put them in.
So, anyway, ice-cream at the fountain across of Luigi’s, that was always part of it. And, once done, one of us bought a scoop of vanilla in a foil-wrapped cup which we brought back to Three Oaks for Baby Beth, who was silent for a whole hour while getting all sticky eating it. Summer really wasn’t summer without ice-cream from Luigi’s.
There were other culinary perfections, Martha’s strawberry salad, for example, with toasted almond flakes and large bits of sweat bread (though she only made it if she ‘wasn’t getting anywhere’ with her latest script), or the lemon sorbet that was best to eat when the sun was melting everything outside. On cooler days, we’d take turns to swing as high as we could on the swing behind the Shed, one of those really long swings that made your stomach drop once you swooped down, not to mention watching the waves rush past while the sails of the Leodegrance billowed in the sun.
Sailing was Paul’s favourite pastime. He bought the sailboat from a friend of Eduard’s, a friend Eduard met on his year on a large schooner, which he called ‘an experience’. He never said more about it, though Martha always asked him to go on and tell, it would be a wonderful story for a book. Eduard just shook his head. He had a way of doing that, that made everyone change the subject.
On deck, however, quiet Eduard put on his red socks and sailor’s cap and transformed into someone else. He became lively, shouting commands and turning the boat when nobody expected it, (making everyone throw their weight against the railings), smiling mischievously when the Leo was even again. He looked a little wild then, a bit like Captain Nemo even, but much nicer. Everyone joined on sailing days, even moody Richard who never stopped worrying about his children’s books. We’d get into the three cars and drive the half hour to Portsmound, park at the pier, get on deck with the baskets and rucksacks of provisions, and everyone would help with the sails.
Once out at sea, Eduard was at the wheel, arguing with Paul about nautical things, while the rest of us lounged on deck, some hanging in the ropes, others sitting at the side letting the waves splash icily against their feet. We’d spend the whole day out at sea, returning to Three Oaks in the evening, smelling of salt and sun and everything else wonderful, and I remember how I’d just fall asleep in that wonderfully tired way you can as a kid, that deep sleep that leaves you perfectly at peace.
The way I remember them, summers at Three Oaks were always very warm. I know they weren’t since we spent quite a few days inside due to the rain, learning to crochet from Sally, or how to play chess from Richard who always killed you half way, no matter how clever you tried to be. But in general, my memory of Three Oaks has always been full of sunshine and blue skies, way different from the usual stories of dark clouds and dirty weather.
I know that the house itself has something to do with that. It was a place of warmth and adventure, a place that you could genuinely explore. At times it felt like it was a person all on its own, full of little secrets I’d find out about bit by bit over the years. Three stories high as it was, if you counted the attics that is, each room in the house had something new, even if it was only the floor. Every room had a different one as if the planners had decided to experiment: bright stone, dark wood, black and white tiles like a chessboard, and the one at the front door made out of red bricks that sometimes snagged your slippers. There were fireplaces and long halls with sand-coloured runners – both halls had an almost eerie feel to them actually. Usually they were dark and gloomy, but that changed the moment you opened the doors to the rooms. Then light flooded onto the floor in slanted pillars, and the long passages looked like something sacred in a temple. Every time that happened I kind of expected to hear chanting and cymbals, probably because there was always a trace of incense in the air from Zoë’s yoga things.
Anyway, so the largest room was a parlour with couches, sofas and coffee tables, it was huge actually, half of it because it opened up to The Jungle. The Jungle was the large conservatory chockfull with plants and potted trees Sally and William liked to keep or experiment with. The place was so full of plants, it was so unbelievably green, from teal to mint to evergreen, once in, you virtually disappeared from sight and often had to shout and wave to be found again. We played out The Jungle Book at least once every summer until we were teens; it was an epic place to play hide and seek in, everyone got lost all the time.
Then there was that tiny room with just one huge wardrobe stacked to the brim with blankets and sheets. It was weird because it was so small compared to the other rooms, and all it had in it was this giant wardrobe. It was a little creepy actually, this large wooden box that seemed to eat linens and kids, stay in there too long and nobody found you for hours. Martha always said The God of Socks lived in there, and his acolytes were in the washing machines.
Another niche I remember was that hidden corner in the lower hallway that was filled with books printed ages ago. The oldest I remember finding was a first edition of Various Plants and Species of the Southern Americas, by a Winthorp K. Jessop, printed in 1769. It was an incredibly dull book, nothing more than a list of plants and animals you could apparently find in what’s now Brazil, but I remember being surprised, intrigued actually, that Winthorp K. took the time to write down all the plants and species he’d heard of. He never left wherever he lived in Hertfordshire, he spent three pages explaining why in the introduction. I guess he was honest, he kept on pointing out that the book was merely ‘a gentleman’s compilation’, a helpful list for ‘the gentleman reader’ who wished to know more about the world at large. Reading that, I wrote down What about the lady reader? Wasn’t she curious about the world too? I picked up Martha’s really bad habit of writing into books, with pencil though. I can’t seem to stop either. Back then I was pretty annoyed actually, about that ‘gentleman reader’ that is, but later I figured that in 1769, ‘the lady reader’ would probably never have occurred to Winthorp K. Jessop who wrote like he’d swallowed Johnson’s dictionary.
The house had a surprising amount of windows, some of them even stained glass, like the two beautiful ones in the parlour, one stylised lilies, the other stylised roses, both in really elegant art nouveau. There was a third one, sun flowers, but ‘some Neanderthal’ destroyed it years ago, Martha wouldn’t say who. She did give Paul that look right after though. The large amount of windows allowed for a lot of light, never mind the rain. They were a pain to clean, but it was always a group effort since nobody could wash and wipe all twenty-six alone, and those were just the main ones.
Sally was the one who started window-cleaning on a day we least expected it – probably because she knew that everyone would run away if she gave prior notice. Whoever was currently ‘on the grounds’ had to take a sponge, towel and pail, and at least an hour was spent clearing out the sills to clean the windows, stripping the cushions of their cases, piling up blankets and stuffing them into the two washing machines, dusting the window-seats, wiping the shelves, vacuuming the carpet, mopping the floors, and doing what dishes were left while making sure Mildred didn’t get indoors.
Nobody was allowed to leave until everything was done, the house finally gleaming, looking freshly scrubbed as if it had just come out of the tub. If we were lucky and Martha had decided to bake that day, we were let off our duties to be Martha’s kitchen help, on the basis of who came first was allowed to stay. The Olympics were nothing to that sprint, everyone got shoved into a cabinet at least once. Bruises and screaming were inevitable, but if two did manage to arrive at the same time, the inevitable coin was tossed, and the Fates sometimes smiled on you. We were surprisingly accepting of that coin toss – come to think of it, nobody really complained once, no matter if it was heads or tails.
As for the rooms themselves, some were connected, others could only be entered by the hall and there were photographs and paintings everywhere, like the framed posters and newspaper clippings that covered the left kitchen wall. Oh, and in a small niche in the main hallway, just across the impressive wooden staircase, there was a marble bust of Beethoven on a waist-high ionic plinth. In the beginning, I thought it a bit disturbing that everyone greeted the bust with a nod in the morning, Martha even talked to it when she dusted the large, grave head, but then I started greeting it as well. It was the way it looked at you, all silent and ernst, which is German for ‘serious’. Megan was into German a lot at one point, and annoyed half the house with her refusal to answer in any other language. Anyway, coming down the stairs, Beethoven just sat there and stared at you, so you somehow had to acknowledge he was there, nod at least, y’know, be polite. Three Oaks was the kind of place where you did that and it didn’t seem strange. Each room in the house had its own character, to a point that you could walk into a room with your eyes closed and still know where you were. Each room had its own scent, some so soothing they were like perfume. There was a particular scent to Zoë’s room, for example, that I’d recognise anywhere. It’s a soft, warm smell, mixed with paint and the lemony note of the detergent she used for the long light curtains lining her four-poster bed. Oh yeah, Zoë’s bed.
Ok, so Zoë’s my aunt and all, and I love her, but she’s a bit not normal. Her bed was the only piece of furniture she took with her after leaving her husband Alessandro – he’s a GP. He grew up in Switzerland, but his family’s Italian and he only ever spoke French to Zoë, even though his English was genuinely excellent. They met very young and married more due to rashness than love, at least that’s what Zoë said. ‘Sandro enjoyed annoying his family and I didn’t mind,’ she’d smile.
They were twenty-one when they said ‘I do’ and it went well for a while, seven years to be exact. Then, for some reason, Zoë never explained why, they went their separate ways. It didn’t seem as though they fought, since Zoë said, ‘We had different plans and it was better for us to be on our own again.’ They’re still married. I once asked why, I mean with Sandro everywhere and Zoë in Three Oaks, it made little sense to me back then, but Zoë smiled there was no reason to complicate things. Sandro was with the MSF in Palestine back then when I asked, and he always sent Zoë letters with pictures of the places he saw when he had the time to see them. Zoë had all his letters stored in a small casket she bought years ago in Cordoba. It looked like something out of Arabian Nights with its sandalwood and mother-of-pearl, and all the more untouchable. I peaked, once, but didn’t dare check more, it seemed … sacred in a way. Very private, like something you really shouldn’t snoop around in. Zoë’s room otherwise was large and airy, with white walls, framed black and white photographs and posters from world-famous exhibitions, two large, very tall plants, and a small vase of wild flowers from the meadows outside.
Facing her easel where she made her sketches for her Projects was this high-backed old-fashioned sofa, an ancient Louis XVI actually, upholstered by Zoë herself with wine-red crushed velvet, festooned with multi-coloured cushions. Zoë bought it somewhere in the Camden markets when she still lived in London, and apparently spent a rainy month turning it from a piece of junk into something wonderful. It was really comfortable and one of my favourite places to read and listen to music on. Facing the two windows that showed off the meadows shining brightly all the way to the Wold, it was a place where peace was real and I could just sink into the music, forget everything and just be.
Three Oaks wasn’t the only reason why those holidays just stuck. It was the anchor of those summers, but we actually did a lot back then. Next to the sun-soaked days on the Green and rainy days playing Polly and Digory, there was that one day when Zoë announced it was ‘time to go’, which meant we were going to take the train to London in a day or two and then travel to the Continent (trains, planes, or plain old automobiles, you never knew), never without taking someone from Three Oaks with us.
Our usual group was Zoë, Mom, either Martha or Richard and always all of the kids, except Baby Beth of course, who was too young to be out without Sally back then. Zoë had friends everywhere, still does in fact. Her friends always asked her about Alessandro, they all knew him pretty well which confused me like nothing else, since he was never actually near Europe when we were visiting, but I guess it’s hard to understand how packed an adult life can be as a kid. Zoë’s friends were a lot of fun to visit actually, they let us roam around everywhere, look at things and ask questions. From the conversations I remember, they really enjoyed having Zoë visit, offered to connect her with galleries and curators, and suggested exhibitions she should go and see. They also always promised to visit her at Three Oaks and buy some more art, promises most of them did keep. They were chatty, lively friends who were often quite well off and had genuinely interesting homes. One was half a castle, for example, the other one was an old farmhouse that was built before the 30 Years’ War. Listening to any of those houses’ stories was a bit like reading about d’Artagnan.
On a couple of our visits to the Continent, Alessandro did actually join us which was when I’d end up wondering why he and Zoë lived so far apart, they seemed so in love when they were together again. They kissed and flirted and whispered with their heads close together, walking hand in hand, two bona fide lovebirds giggling in corners, I caught them at least twice. Even so, Zoë refused to stay longer than three weeks, since letting too much time pass before ‘implementing her impressions’ and turning them into ‘her own version of art’ was ‘a criminal act’ or worse. It would ‘destroy the authenticity of the whole thing’, which was ‘a cardinal sin’ for any artist, so I stopped asking questions.
After three weeks of foreign foods and places, we went back to Three Oaks and spent our days soaking up the sun, learning to cook from Sally (boys and girls alike), and baking various cakes with Martha (again, all the kids), lying on blankets on the Green, going for long walks with Lord Nelson and Dog Fen, and swimming in the Lake where Sally joined with Baby Beth, her little arms held up high while she tried to walk on the waves we made.
Those were wild days full of laughter, but also loud, screeching arguments and hot, angry tears, we were children after all. Oh, we fought. The way I’d get furious at Megan and Victor when they became a dictatorship of two like brothers and sisters sometimes do; or when Alan wouldn’t say that he broke the vase in the parlour and Victor and I got the seeing-to because we were the ones who usually broke things. Megan and I spent some nights lying back to back because we’d argued about some petty little thing, and sometimes I’d really kick Victor because he’d nearly turned my arm out when pulling me away from the TV screen. But those were short disturbances in our general joy, because it was joyous, that time. We got along pretty well, the four of us, we were constantly together actually, like those evenings in front of the fireplace, lying in a haphazard heap, reading our respective books while eating popcorn from the enormous bowl William had made. Or we’d huddle up on the deep sofa in the den, hide underneath blankets while watching a movie, laughing at the jokes together, jumping every time the monster came back, inevitably arguing about who was first to identify the bad guy – that could last for days.
There were certain peaceful days back then I like to call deep summer, y’know, that time when the soil finally soaked up the heat and you can feel it in the air? Those slow, gentle days that are a particular kind of summer calm you don’t get anytime else during the year? Those deep summer days were spent lying in the tall grass of the meadows behind the Green, playing with Sammy and Dickens if they happened to come by, watching the clouds and talking about things the grownups weren’t supposed to hear; quiet days sleeping deeply next to Megan in Megan’s wide bed, we were still small enough to fit in it together; mornings where I’d wake up to the rain gurgling through the drainpipes and the wind whipping through the trees outside; perfect days chasing chickens and finding Sammy’s kittens behind the coop, until Zoë or someone else announced it was time for an adventure again and another few days were spent exploring the world, with all the bustle and excitement of tickets and trains, arriving at Kings Cross, or stretching and making faces after arguing in the back of the car. We always argued. Someone was always touching someone, or looking at someone wrong.
That second trip was never more than a weekend at a place of some meaning, Nottingham, for example, Stratford-upon-Avon, Canterbury or Tintagel, excursions that were filled with endless tales of history – the grownups were always out to educate us – though the one to Tintagel was pretty neat, or ‘lustig’ as Megan kept on saying back then, she was deep in her German phase.
And it was fun to hear Richard and Martha correct each other as they explained how the legend of King Arthur came to be. Once there, seeing the ruins of the castle and the sea crashing blue and white against the green cliffs made everything Martha and Richard said more real. Once back in Three Oaks, I found The Mists of Avalon in one of the many bookshelves, but wasn’t able to read it to the end because I could actually feel the disaster looming at the horizon. Megan called me a coward, laughed in my face, she did. It was a legend after all and epic legends like that were never nice. As if I didn’t know. In epics, heroes live valiantly and die tragically due to one fatal mistake, and lovers always end up lost, lonely or dead. I never liked it, they always made such stupid mistakes or the game was rigged anyway, but epics are like that. Ok. Mists was nothing to the Nibelungen anyway, let alone the Greek myths, which apparently meant I shouldn’t even think about stopping, Megan had read it in the space of days. She always read these things in a space of days.
I did try. I kept on, forcing myself to read to the end of chapters, following the fates of Igraine, Morgause, and Morgaine, and all those famous Merlins and men around them, but I was genuinely unable to keep away the feeling of impending disaster, until I simply had to put the book away. It was too much. I could see it all too clearly, Avalon, Camelot, and the Lady of the Lake. It was as if it was all happening just behind the Wold, and so I finally put the book back in its place on the shelf. I could see all the unhappiness weaving itself to life and I just couldn’t bear seeing it in print. It was bad enough knowing it would happen anyway.
Megan just rolled her eyes at me. She kept on teasing that I should go on and stick to Charlotte’s Web. She stopped after I worked my way through Martha’s copy of The Lord of the Rings, plodding through the descriptions until the real action began, finishing it all with a sense of triumph, and not only because Megan looked impressed. I refused to rise to Victor’s bait of the Simarillion though, which so far only Eduard had read, and of that only half.
We got a bit carried away after I finished the six books, for days all we talked about were Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and Humans, their strengths and weaknesses, and what we’d have been if we would have lived in those ages. In a place like Three Oaks, you could really believe something like that once took place. We argued and argued, but we all, at least Megan, Alan and I agreed that Victor would have ended up as a Ringwraith, which he didn’t take very well. We’d set it all up though: Megan was the Princess of Rohan, Alan the Lost King, I belonged to the Elves because I kept on returning from across the sea, and Victor had fallen to Sauron since he could be really evil when he wanted to be.
Baby Beth was Frodo Baggins trying to get the Ring to Mordor, as in Paul’s kiln out behind the Shed, and sometimes Megan would run rings in the parlour with Beth in her arms, followed by Victor who was walking like a zombie, bowling Alan over who did his best to keep the Ring from returning to its Master, wrestling with Victor on the carpet floor, while I laughed out loud on the sofa, I was really bad at being all composed and Elvish, until Megan handed over our improvised Hobbit before jumping into the fray.
That left me with Baby Beth on my lap, Beth who loved watching the others wrestle, the more violent the better, like that one time when Rohan’s Shieldmaiden beheaded the Witch-king of Angmar by slamming a book in his face. Beth was thrilled, clapped her little hands and pointed excitedly, squealing at the tangled mass of bodies in front of us. Beth was the best audience back then, you knew it was good if you got her to laugh out loud like that. Holding her while the other’s tried to tie up Victor was usually when I wished I had siblings as well, but it’s not like that would change, so I made do with my summers at Three Oaks. Not that I was really complaining or anything.
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