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.

We opened the door and went in. A long room, with beams that had been stripped; a bright wooden floor; and doors at each end so wide that a procession could have walked through them. Wide doors were a fad of my father’s – and indeed his influence was everywhere, in this new construction from old materials. The symmetry of two staircases, one at each end of the cottage, each leading to two bedrooms and a bathroom, the evenly spaced windows and the well-planned kitchen all spoke of an architect’s eye coupled with the neatness and balanced view of the world that belonged to the only one of the brood who had gone, at the age of 12, to Dartmouth Naval College, and thus away from my grandmother.

Teasel Cottage was a triumph of good financial sense and economy of space. The fact that it was empty only underlined the folly of self-indulgence into which my uncle had descended. To look, stooping slightly, from the deep-set windows onto the terrace and beyond it the river at the foot of a sloping expanse of grass, was to understand why ‘normal behaviour’ would in any case be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve here – not that Stephen had gone through life under the label of ‘normal’. It was too operatic: even the path that wound along the side of the Avon was of a jewelled, unnatural green. The tangle of giant yellow flag iris, bamboo and rushes that made up the land lying between Wilsford and the cottage grounds looked like an unconvincing stage set. Anyone who had spent their life in these surroundings, but especially Stephen, would expect a pageant, a pantomime, on every occasion of going out of the house. The knowledge that the old stones lay up above the Manor – that a walk over the Downs led directly to Stonehenge, with all its terrifying associations – would add to the sense of melodrama in the place. I began to see more clearly: my uncle was pinioned, in the old house guarded by Louis Ford and by the piles of his own past clothing, cuttings and memorabilia, like the victim of a Druidic rite on his slab of stone. There was no getting away from it: Stephen was made for Wilsford, and when he took it over at his mother’s death, he fashioned it for no one but himself.

It was very hot – midsummer – and we all ran down to the water, Heathcote stripping off energetically as we went. The van driver, with Heathcote’s help, had carried in the few bits of furniture, and was certainly the hottest of the three – and even he, as we came to the riverbank, hesitated before announcing that he was going off instead in search of a pub. Someone had said there was one beyond Lake, at Great Durnford. He waved, turned on his heel, and was gone.

For a moment I stand alone on the path, staring up at the cottage and taking in for the first time the small redbrick house perched above it on the perilous road. My father had mentioned an ‘old schoolhouse’: I wonder whether Pamela’s children, spending so much of the year at Wilsford, had taken lessons there. Perhaps Clare, always eager to move on, away from Pamela, to new men, new sensations, ways of squandering and regretting, had sat in there, her beautiful face pale with boredom in the long summer afternoons. I try to remember if I was told about a governess. Then, as Clare vanishes from my sights, I glimpse something that moves, in the grey-green wash of willow that borders the river path. It moves, then is gone, then flashes bright again, green as any emerald, eyes blue as the crude backdrop of the sky.

‘Oh yes, a tree frog,’ says Heathcote, who is now wading, and grinning in enjoyment at the mud which rises in black circles about his knees. ‘Very common round here, so I’m told.’

Of course, the animal is not a tree frog. Heathcote’s imagination is already providing him with a bestiary for this improbable tropic. It’s a lizard – and I see several more, on the path itself this time, streaks of the enamelled green found only on Chinese porcelain. I see, too, why the van driver preferred the dark comforts of the local pub: the lizards, though small, are unsettling, out of place, in what should be a typically English scene of chalk stream, water meadow, accommodating cattle and even a pair of swans. By now, though, the appearance of a reptile with sky-blue eyes seems more in keeping with the landscape than the rest.

‘Escaped from my uncle’s snake house,’ I invent – and yet I do now remember hearing Stephen beg my father, on a rare visit to London during the war, for ‘something to go with my reptiliary – a seal pond – Christopher, wouldn’t it be fun?

If Heathcote is fazed by the thought of further escaped inmates from my uncle’s neglected zoo, he doesn’t show it. The swans glide by; he climbs out of the mud; and looking, if possible, wilder than before, joins me on the journey to Wilsford by way of the riverbank. A broken-down boathouse lies a few hundred yards ahead; just before it a wooden bridge, rickety and grown round by iris and swamp weed, leads up towards the garden and the chequered façade of the Manor. Already, as we make our way cautiously across the cuts, on bridges that dance like stilt-walkers in the ooze of summer-dry streams, I feel the silence return: the sleep, the sense, in each faint rustle of bamboo clump or overgrown azalea, of a hidden, waiting presence in the place.

The lawn at Wilsford – the lawn which forms a travelling-rug, tattered in places, pulled up almost to the shadows of the dining-room and drawing-room at the back, and spread sparsely down the shanks of land as far as the reed beds encroaching the river – is run across by Heathcote, who laughs and grimaces as he goes, as if aware that a hand may come suddenly from the grey upper regions of the house and pull him in.

I follow at a slower pace. Perhaps the imp Heathcote has become, mud-faced from the Avon, hair in a mad mop, eyes aslant so he resembles a green man of early German sculpture, a goblin, a creature made from the stuff of the surrounding trees and water, knows somehow that he will be greeted kindly by my uncle. Whereas I, for all my kinship with the resident of Wilsford Manor, will not be taken to at all. It is unheard of for a woman visitor to gain admittance, or so I have heard said. Jokes had been made about a call from two literary women, Rosamond Lehmann one of them, genuine recipients of an invitation from Stephen to visit Wilsford, who were greeted at the door with the astonished comment: ‘How could you have taken me so literally?’ It is foolish of me to approach in this way, even if I do bring the message from my father that I am permitted to become his brother’s neighbour, but my presence must not disturb Stephen in the least. I have a strong feeling that Stephen would never have noticed my occupancy of Teasel Cottage, that my father is quite wrong still to imagine him as interested in the dip of land beyond the trees where Pamela planted snowdrops and aconites to brighten winter days. He cares for the flowers, he may stroll a little way under the beeches in February. He would never come as far as the banned cottage. The short walk would take him from youth to the reality of old age.

I am apprehensive, I try to remember the visit I did make here with my mother when I was a child of ten. A late spring, hot again; the nervous expression on my mother’s face when, she and I sitting in the dining-room at a table covered in shells, she looked up at the window to see Stephen, plump-cheeked, florid and lion-haired, a posy of bluebells pressed to each side of his face. She wanted me then, I think, to see the strangeness of the place – even, as a comfort, to laugh secretly with her – but I was too young to find the place or atmosphere unusual: I had paid few visits to other houses; and most grownups seemed strange to me. My uncle ran in, after making the apparition at the window, and placed what looked like a raindrop on a leaf, on my finger. The transparent drop didn’t tremble or slide away. He said it was a moonstone – and spoke with great emotion. My mother looked up at the ceiling, where more shells lay embedded, each gilt-edged, softly pink and blue, as if lapped by the seas of Stephen’s distant travels. Mrs Ford came in, with chicken and bread sauce, the most English of meals. But there was nowhere to put the dishes, among the conches and cowries all around. These memories were not reassuring, and I found myself increasing my pace, running the last stretch across a lawn designed for an Edwardian tea-party. The cedar, supported by an iron crutch, had out-lived the heroes of the Somme; a paved garden with palm trees seemed ready for a band to play, a girl to step from the French windows in the inevitable muslin dress. But here, as on the riverbank, everything seemed to have changed and to have remained the same, to be both exotic and unsurprising, like the jewelled lizards running free from my uncle’s reptiliary. Sand the colour of a wartime postcard sunset is scattered in the tiled loggia. What looks like hibiscus and bougainvillea make a lurid splash against the walls of a sagging conservatory. A copper heron covered in green slime stands one-legged in a dripping pool. The country house idyll has gone to Hollywood, and there has faded, rusted and run riot, so that Pamela’s box-hedged walks and mellow kitchen garden are no more than traces of the past.

My father never spoke of his mother, so I am barely aware, as we follow a gesticulating Louis through the great soft door that separates Stephen’s Wilsford from the snug little parlour where Mrs Ford, lifting a hand to wave (they are still not sure who I am), sits ensconced with knitting and goldfish in a bowl, that the pictures on wall, piano and low tables everywhere, are pictures of Pamela. The house is a shrine to her: she is a dark deity, serious, stubborn face and few signs of the beauty and sex appeal to which so many admirers testify. Alone, or encircled by her children, slim-waisted, soberly dressed, Pamela looks out from every angle at the interior that once had been hers, white-walled, oak table-plain, and is now a gaudy temple to the pleasures of the bright and ephemeral.

Louis is talking as he goes. His speech is fast, confused and hard to understand. But he’s working it out for himself; asking if I am ‘David’s daughter’, he has reached my identity before I can find a space in his incessant flow to set him right. With hands clad in white cotton gloves (he also wears a white cotton jacket, as if preparing to serve cocktails on a cruise liner) he indicates the excesses of Stephen’s arrangements. It occurs to me that the Fords know themselves to be curators of a singular taste, that, as was the custom in the 18th century when a stranger coming to the door of a great house would be shown around with no questions asked, it gives them pleasure to play host while Stephen lies immobile in his room. It comes back to me, almost guiltily – as family anecdotes, ignored at the time but found to be relevant later, are inclined to do – that my father had expressed exasperation with Stephen’s habit of letting any rogue ‘antique dealer’ into Wilsford. In exchange for a pocketful of cash he had apparently parted with Meissen birds, with a Chelsea dinner service, and had even seen carried out of the door a Sheraton sideboard and valuable chairs. Word of Louis Ford’s amicability when it came to paying a call at Wilsford must have got around speedily.

What the ‘connoisseurs’ had left was, indeed, pretty tatty. Polar bear rugs, once glamorously lain on by famous people, now bore the unmistakable brownish patches of a pet dog – or perhaps another escaped inmate of a long-abandoned cage. Sofas in their white satin covers were similarly afflicted. Venetian console tables, presumably fixed to the wall and to the elegant ormolu mirror above them and thus a harder proposition when it came to a jingle of florins and a quick getaway, were chipped and misty. If the garden from which we had just come showed some ghosts of order, design and well-chosen planting, then the interior of Wilsford certainly did not.

Things had gone far beyond what they had been when I last had come here. Then, despite the pervading presence of puce and magenta striped wallpapers, cornices ablaze with what appeared to be gold cake-braid, wide banisters of a fine pale wood obscured with draped fish nets, like a Brighton restaurant, there had been room to walk and sit, to examine Stephen’s ‘treasures’ as he had laid them out. Now, with an Eastern sense of the equality of importance of an object and a medley of paper flowers, all distinctions had disappeared. Where there had been shells, coral, and the remnants of objets de vertu from his father and grandfather’s collection, there was now a jumble of ties, silks in bales that spilled from Bangkok suitcases, old photos of Hedy Lamarr and an assortment of journals, open to the scared eye of the viewer, each entry in a different coloured Indian ink.

Louis pulls me along a passage that leads under an arch from the hall, and we stand under the shells which my mother had gazed up at so earnestly on the occasion of Stephen’s appearance at the window with the bluebells. He is talking – he is trying to tell me something while chuckling with glee. I realise he is telling me of the morning, all those years ago, when he and the other servants and the children went up to Stonehenge at dawn to see the sun strike the sacrificial slab. The white-gloved hands point excitedly in the direction of the front sweep to Wilsford; the low gate which leads to the churchyard where Pamela lies in her Rex Whistler-designed grave; the way to the pale blue sky over the Downs and the old drove road. There had been nothing left to eat, after they had wolfed down the food on their return. The carriage – Louis spits the word, makes galloping movements with his arms in the white cotton jacket that is far too short – he needed to take it in to Salisbury to make up the loss, but he’d left it too late and had to ask if he could go, instead of just slipping off there.

As I stand listening to the tale, I see, on a table piled with junk in the dining-room, the photograph of Pamela in her garden. I see her frown – and then smile at Louis as he admits the blunder that has taken place. He is tugging at my arm now. He wants to show me that same carriage in the stables.

But I want to get out of this place, with all the uncomfortable questions that arise. Pamela’s presence is so powerful that I have to ask why my father does not speak of her: is it because his first wife, Pamela’s goddaughter and also named Pamela, is now unmentionable? Is that marriage, engineered by his mother, between the daughter of one of her many suitors and the son who followed the sainted Bim as eldest son of the family, further proof of the power Pamela exercised everywhere? Is my father still afraid of her? And if so, what does this mean?

The straightforward lines and total lack of mystery in the cottage just a stone’s throw down the valley seem more and more inviting. But Louis, gesturing to the upper floors, is dragging me out to the hall again and beginning to mount the stairs. Surely – and I become increasingly panic-stricken at the thought – he cannot want me to go up, to risk a meeting with Stephen? The fact that I was not greeted downstairs has already confirmed my suspicion that he has no desire to see a niece, particularly one who might make a habit of coming over and disturbing him. Or his beauty regime: my distracted eye catches an entry in gentian ink in a logbook that forms part of the arrangements near the foot of the stairs: ‘Rest eyelashes for a month. My resolution. No mascara, no eye pencil.’

Of course, it is too late. Louis, already accustomed to conducting any passing burglar to the upper quarters, has news of a more urgent nature to report. I run up now, fearing what I will find there.

From the top of the stairs – I’m on the landing, despite all Louis’s tugs and pulls – I see the end of a great bed, part of a room where more piles of bright mementoes are gathered, on the floor and on a vast sofa where not one inch remains for any person to sit, and I hear a rustling, as if tissue paper is in the process of being gently pulled apart. Another memory comes to me: a letter from Mrs Ford to my father; his rueful laugh; and, on my mother’s demanding to know what the matter can be, the reply that ‘the Fords have found a nest of 12 mice in Stephen’s bed.’ My mother’s reaction: ‘Oh no ...’ And my father exchanging glances with me, to see if I laugh, which I do.

Louis looks round the door like a child. He’s enjoying himself: he puts his finger to his lips to enjoin silence.

The rustling sound turns out, after all, to be tissue-paper-bright pink and mauve, like nearly everything in this house devoted to murdering memory and keeping it intact at the same time. Heathcote is perched on the end of my uncle’s bed. He wears a sardonic expression, as Stephen, unwrapping the packaging, reveals his treasures: a cameo ring, a little blue enamel clock with gold hands; suddenly a plain pigeon’s feather. Heathcote looks up and sees me. Stephen, intent on his trove, does not.

As we walk down the road to the wooden garage in its bay, I wonder if Stephen is now feeling disappointed that a shower of coins did not meet his wares.