So here it is at last, just as my main character would say. This is the piece that I used for my final University assignment exactly as it was submitted - no corrections have been made based on the feedback I received from my tutor! Overall I was pleased with it, though I'd make several changes if I intended to use it in the future - it is as imperfect as its title suggests. And incidentally, the views expressed by John are solely his own and the bitter aspect of his character, and in no way my own opinions!
There it is at last. The house. THE house, in all its asymmetrical imperfection.
My eyes ache from hours of trawling through images on Google. A one-in-a-million chance, but I’ve succeeded. I flick through the directory on my iPhone. Within moments, I'm dialling the first estate agent in the area. 'Hello? I'm looking for a house in the Cotswolds ... it's not for sale, but I wondered if you'd approach the owner on my behalf ... money no object ...'
There's a flurry of confusion at the other end, but eventually they agree. I rattle off the address, and then wait.
'Hello? Yes. What do you mean, it doesn't exist?'
'I'm sorry, sir, but local sources inform us that the house in question burnt down over a hundred years ago ...'
‘But why are you so obsessed with finding that one particular house?’ Ian demands a few days later. Clearly our weekly meet-up to exchange the latest news is going to consist of him telling me to leave it well alone. ‘And you are obsessed. Don’t deny it.’
I sigh. I’m not going to deny it. It’s a good question.
‘I’m still looking for answers.’
‘John, you’ll be fifty-seven this year. I know being abandoned by your parents is going to leave a lot of scars, but, let it go. It’s too late now. What help is finding a house that doesn’t exist going to be?’
For a moment, we both gaze at a painting on the nearby wall. The coffee shop, a quaint little tourist trap in one of a hundred picturesque old English villages that seem to draw in the Yanks like wasps to a school picnic, sells artwork by the locals. Most of it is dross: demonic-looking corn dollies; musky-smelling pot-pourri mouldering in distorted pots hand-thrown by house-wives who believe imperfection is art; manic splodges of watercolour claiming to be landscapes; wind-chimes made from bent cutlery and glass beads. The painting of a house in distinctive honey-coloured Cotswold limestone, with gabled windows poking from the roof whose grey tiles are the only feature that prevent it from being the clichéd chocolate-box image, is different, strikingly so. It should be. I painted it myself.
‘Because that’s the house I remember; the earliest memory I have.’
‘For all you know, it was just another painting like yours on a wall somewhere. You were shifted around from one foster home to another for years after they rescued you from that rabid old aunt of yours. Maybe one of your parents was an artist. Maybe that’s where you get it from.’
‘Then what about the address? How could I have known that so perfectly?’
‘Memory’s a funny thing. You don’t know that it was “that house” at “that address.” No telling where you might have seen it.’ Ian pauses to drink his coffee, and in that brief moment of peace I sink back into the memory.
Me, too young to remember what age I am, running up a garden path towards that very house and charging in through the door. Then scampering along the hallway and grazing my elbow on the rickety wooden table half-way down, causing a flurry of letters to topple to the ground. My mud-covered hands grasp them desperately, trying to rearrange them into the perfect order they had been in before and hearing with dread the sound of footsteps clicking sharply on the wooden hall floor. A voice berates me, scolding in bitter tones. The letters fall again so I crouch down to reclaim them. Dirt from my fingers leaves grubby smears over them, marks that I know will cost me later. The hand-writing glares out in elaborate curls of black ink, dancing over thick, creamy paper of the very expensive kind. Words that carve their way into my mind. 7 Larkspur Rise, Little Dorrington, The Cotswolds.
Then there’s a whistling sound and the cane falls hard - thwack! I stare up into a face etched with disapproval beneath grey hair twisted into such a tight bun that it seems more like a sculpture of steel than anything natural. The anger in her eyes cuts nearly as deeply as the falling cane.
‘Stupid boy, careless boy! No wonder your parents left you, filthy child …’
‘And if it burnt down so long ago, there’s no way to check.’ Ian was saying, his words snatching me back into the present.
I shiver. Yes, memory is a funny thing. But the memories themselves aren’t funny at all.
‘The photo is recent.’ I murmur, watching his face to gauge his reaction. It’s almost like watching a mirror. Once in a while someone mistakes us for brothers; thin-faced, thick-nosed, both bespectacled, our brown hair streaked grey and eyebrows like deranged caterpillars. I think it’s the eyes mostly; we both have those very pale blue, almost colourless ones that tend to make people uneasy for some reason.
‘It can’t be.’
‘Colour photography wasn’t in general use before the 1960’s. So how could someone take a colour photo of a house that burnt down a century ago?’
Doubt flows across Ian’s long face, forging deep wrinkles of thought around the edge of his glasses. ‘So what are you going to do?’
‘I’m off to Little Dorrington tomorrow. I’ve booked myself into a B and B there, actually on Larkspur Rise. The old maid running it is a bit of an eccentric, but she’s an amateur historian too. She says she has some old photos of the village, some parish records and the like.’ Even though I’m pleased to have found someone with a trace of a lead, there’s still a sense of something out of kilter. Her voice on the phone had grated, like chalk forced across slate.
‘Have you ever thought about seeing a therapist?’ Ian asks suddenly. I find myself staring at him over the rim of my coffee cup, too startled to drink.
‘You think I’m crazy?’
‘I think you’re a talented artist.’
‘That isn’t an answer.’
‘Well, they say there’s a fine line between genius and madness.’
‘And you think I’ve crossed the line.’ I can barely restrain a chuckle. ‘I don’t need therapy; I just need some answers. I can remember the house, but I can’t remember their faces. There’s no record of what happened to them, or to batty Aunt Maud either. I’ve no other family, not even distant ones. I’m on my own.’
‘It’s never bothered you before.’
‘Things have changed. The mortgage is paid off and I’ve taken early retirement. I’ve money to do what I like. I want to know why my parents left me with Maud.’
‘You can’t go back into the past and reclaim them, John.’
‘I don’t want to go back into it. I just want to know what it was.’
After a restless night and no breakfast, I allow the TomTom to direct me on the seven hour car journey to Little Dorrington. Listening to the monotonous tones fails to keep my mind distracted from the strange thoughts churning within. Has the house really been destroyed? And even if it does still stand, if the estate agent got it wrong, would the current owners know anything of its past? Perhaps Ian is right, and it’s madness to even consider trying to discover the truth now. Perhaps I should be looking for a therapist and not the ghost of a memory.
Larkspur Rise is the very first side road on entering the village. As I drive past the rows of houses I count the numbers, where they can be seen. The even numbers run uninterrupted on their side of the lane, so I concentrate on the other side. There’s a wilderness of tall grass and brambles, a fortress of the stuff. Any ruins that might be there are swamped in overzealous greenery.
Then the housing begins again. The first has a name, not a number - Barley Meadow Cottage. The next is so drenched in pernicious dog rose that I can hardly see the door, let alone read the number, but its neighbour is trimmed and maintained to within an inch of perfection, a brassy 13 daring me to even think the word ‘unlucky’.
Some of the tension eases. There’s no number seven, just as the estate agent said. The lane curves onwards between a mixture of peeling white picket fence that looks like it has a bad case of eczema, and dry stone walls threaded with moss and the tiny mauve flowers of ivy-leaved toadflax.
Around the bend, the last house stands alone, the B&B signed screwed into the wooden fence. I stare. The address isn’t the same. This is Larkspur Rise, but it’s seventy-seven, not seven. And yet it’s the house. My house.
‘Arriving at destination …’ the Satnav announces, snatching me back to reality. My breath is catching in my throat, an ache deep in my chest as I slow the car to a halt. I don’t want to move, yet I’m leaving the car and entering the gate as if I have no choice.
Aunt Maud answers the door. The grey hair is still moulded into the tight knot, the eyes knifing through me. The face is still grim and grey, but now I can look her in the eye instead of her glaring down at me. She hasn’t changed in all those years - how? The world seems to shudder. Or perhaps it was just me.
‘Well, well, John.’ Aunt Maud greets me. ‘Seems you’re not such a stupid boy after all.’
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