Sometimes when I watch the kids I wonder what experiences they will remember as adults and which ones will pass them by. Why is memory so selective? Why do I remember the day I jumped from the Mountain Ash tree into the neighbor’s garden only to be yelled at so vividly and yet a whole year at elementary school passed by in a blur?
But some memories are vivid down to the smells and sounds. They tinkle like the first time we hear church bells on a sunny morning deep in the countryside. So it was with the House of Aunts and Uncles. Somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere in a time warp we’d visit, although I don’t think my parents had much in common with the white haired folks inside; less so my sister and I for whom the House of the Aunts and Uncles was like stepping into Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop.
I remember it as a rambling place of fading red bricks, down a lane under wide boughed trees, sycamores with their winged seeds rotting quietly into the autumnal loam, yellows and greens that were fading to brown, behind foreboding privet hedges the house loomed large, although if I revisited today it would probably seem small and insignificant. The House of Aunts and Uncles was in reality two houses that were interconnected. Dorothy and her brother Stan lived in one and Mabel and Charlie the other.
Dorothy’s place was low and dark and a fire seemed to burn in all weathers. While my memories of the furniture are vague I recall the lines in the brown rug and the wide portraits of Cavaliers and their dogs, down the features of their faces. A dark work by a Dutch master, a Rembrandt, perhaps.
The saving grace and sanctuary from the mundane adult talk in the low, stuffy dark room was the large glass conservatory, a playground of work benches, tumbled porcelain pots and climbing plants and the bright fountains of daisies that rose up to greet us in the back garden, festooned with dew and the veils of cobwebs.
Mabel’s place was another matter. From Dot’s living room a passage would lead to a home stripped bare of all darkness. Bare boards and cold blue wood and stairs almost too steep to climb. But we’d ascend, a sharp sun insufficiently diffused by a tall stained glass window, edges of diamond and ship-shaped navy blue. The scullery would open up, a cold cubicle with a deep stone sink and a bar of roughly hewn Carbolic hanging on a string.
Mabel herself always seemed to be upstairs in a high and airy parlor, a big boned woman with a shock of white hair. I don’t remember much about Charlie, apart from his thick circular spectacles and a vaguely condescending air. But I recall a faltering conversation about how the skies were filled with shrapnel, whirring planes and pieces of men and how the mud and the blood thumped against him as he wove across the battlefield with a rickety stretcher, walking low to avoid the monstrous anger of the guns.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on June 1, 1916 more than 58,000 British troops were killed. The generals told them the artillery barrage had torn down the wire but the wire was still in place and men were blown apart even as the barbs pierced their skin. Charlie wove his way through this lunar landscape of shell holes, blood and human limbs, patching up the wounded where it wasn’t too late and lived to tell the tale.
But he didn’t talk about it much. In the House of Aunts and Uncles people spoke about the weather and their ailments. And that was about it.
Years later I went back there with my father in a Ford Transit van. He had failed to get the measure of the thing and kept bouncing off the kerbs. We had to pick up a few pieces of furniture that Dorothy had left in her will but the house was already receding. Dorothy had left it to a couple of carpetbaggers called the Simpsons who had forced her hand on her death bed. I remember them now, awkward and wringing their hands, impatient for us to pick up out battered items and to be gone.
Sure enough the house seemed smaller now and the sycamores no longer the majestic specimens of my childhood. There was no Charlie or Stan, no Dorothy or Mable. The House of the Aunts and Uncles was bare and meaningless. The memories had left with them. We left never to return.