A Visit to My Uncle

Emma Tennant

Pamela, my grandmother, is in her garden. The photograph shows a woman in the cloche hat and low, belted dress of the early Twenties; the face is smooth, and the jaw more pronounced than in the dreamy pictures of the years before the war. The sun is shining: whoever holds the camera is a favourite, neither a stranger nor a threat.

Behind Pamela lies the mock village green she created when the manor at Wilsford was built for her by my grandfather in those years, so distant yet still so near, before the death of Bim. Like an aura, a violent halo, the sunlight encircles the whiteness of Pamela’s face. Her death, in this garden, is less than half a decade away. Bim’s terrible death – along with so many others in the September battle of the Somme – is written as clearly by the white sun on her face as if it had been worked there by a knife in marble.

It is winter, and a protective wall behind Pamela hosts espaliered trees, apricot and peach. No shadows are visible, anywhere: the dark runnels of shade cast by the fake dovecote at the side of the green are out of frame; the rackets court, disguised as cottages for the rural population Pamela loves to mimic, to cover with kindness, to ignore, has birds strutting on the picturesquely tiled roof. Another, deeper shadow, from the Norman church of Wilsford – real this time, but just as easily seen as part of the fantasy of those years – lies just beyond the glare of wall and light where Pamela sits. A young coachman, Louis Ford, emerges from the stables and comes into the walled garden to ask if the carriage is needed. He must go for provisions to Salisbury. And Pamela, knowing the reason for the sudden, unpredictable shortage of supplies at the Manor, and frowning at the thought of the ecstasy of the servants and the children as they ran up onto the Downs, to arrive at Stonehenge at the rising of the midsummer sun and return famished, to eat the larder bare, smiles now at Louis and tells him to take the carriage. She knows he will never learn to drive a car – though David’s Alvis sits in the stables and Salisbury can be reached in 15 minutes. Louis, for all his youth, belongs to the past.

It is Louis I first see when I arrive at Wilsford in June 1965. It’s a strange arrival: told that a cottage lies empty by the River Avon, I’ve come down from London in a small furniture van. My companion is the playwright Heathcote Williams; he’s just completed the play which excites the Sixties, AC/DC – and he’s brought as luggage a large radio and no more. He’s promised to help unload two beds, a table and some rudimentary cooking utensils, so I can move into this possible cottage – my friend Mark will come later.

The cottage – constructed by my father from two abandoned rural slum dwellings and definitely not a part of Pamela’s William Barnes rustic dream – seems at first not to exist. All I know of it, as we drive down the narrow road, where ivied trees allow light in blinding flashes or not at all, is that it was put together as a new home for my father’s brother, Stephen. Wilsford had long been far too expensive for this eccentric solitary to run, if ‘run’ was a word which could ever apply to my uncle. Here, only a few hundred yards from the old house he had always lived in, was the solution. Teasels had been Pamela’s most loved wild flower. My father, in a revealing burst of sentimentality, had apparently named this uninhabited building ‘Teasel Cottage’.

The building was uninhabited because Stephen had refused to move into it. Worse, it was said he had not even bothered to walk along the riverbank and see what his elder brother had put together for him. And now, to make matters worse still, the place had apparently disappeared altogether.

Louis came out of the back door into the stable yard and stared in apprehension at the van and at Heathcote’s wild physiognomy. The van driver wanted a pee. The deep stillness of Wilsford – even here at the rear there was a sense of thicket and briar, of a hundred years’ sleep rudely punctured – resumed as we backed out and drove on down the green, thin ribbon of tarmac that runs between Wilsford and Lake, the two houses once owned by Eddy and Pamela, and on down the Woodford valley to Salisbury. I knew I would have to introduce myself later to Louis, and the picture of his face, puckered in great age, crowned by white hair, remained uncomfortably with me. People came quite often, I told myself, people who had less right than I had to disturb the peace of the mock village green, almost derelict now, as I had glimpsed, a village-that-never-was reduced to a ruin no one could ever want to repair. People came, who demanded to see my uncle Stephen. But it was well known that he would see no one at all.

The van driver brakes suddenly. There is a modern wooden garage in a small bay by the side of the road, on a dangerous bend. No sign, no indication of what may lie beyond it, but we know by now that it’s the only construction between Wilsford and Lake. And as we pile out, to stand under trees of an alarming height, I see the roof of the cottage my father went to so much unrewarded trouble to make. Thatch lies under the bank like the back of a well-groomed animal. There is even a kind of hairnet on it. A virtually invisible path winds down beyond the garage; we follow it, in a gloom of trees untended since the days of Eddy’s stewardship forty years ago.

Our emergence onto the terrace in front of the cottage makes us blink, then gasp and shout. What would have been Stephen’s view – water meadows, gentle hills in the distance, the silver loop of the Avon as it winds down to the weir at Lake – will now (but for how long?) be mine.

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