Moving house with just one helper – my indefatigable daughter, Louise – was achieved. Dealing with recalcitrant horses, shifting hay bales and mucking-out had their benefits – all these years later I’m still grateful for her stamina and strength. In the weeks before Christmas we’d worked like bullion traders on a bonus, going to bed at midnight and rising with the dawn to get all packed in time for the move. On the day itself, it was well below freezing. It was like Moving to Narnia http://annvictoriaroberts.co.uk/2013/12/moving-narnia/
Scott came home from boarding school a few days later, elated because now we were in York he would be a day-boy when the new term began. Capt Peter – training at Sullom Voe in Shetland as a marine pilot – also managed to get home for Christmas Day, making our 1847 railway cottage a family home at last.
But at the end of the holidays, if Scott was now resident, Peter had to go back to work. Feeling miserable after saying goodbye, I picked up my neglected manuscript of LOUISA ELLIOTT for consolation. Leafing through, trying to discover where I’d been working weeks before, I came to my description of the cottage where Louisa went to live after her mother’s death. It had been written something like a year previously, long before the book was submitted, and more than half a year before I saw that advertisement for Railway Cottage.
‘After two days of occupation and what seemed to Louisa a most profligate use of coal, the cottage was beginning to feel dry and warm, and, with at least the larger pieces of furniture in place, it looked attractive. Packing cases still stood in what would eventually be Tisha’s bedroom, but the kitchen was stocked with essentials and in the parlour Louisa had re-erected the children’s Christmas tree with its red streamers and silver star. Few of the chocolate animals and fancy biscuits remained, but most of the tiny glass ornaments her mother had kept for years had survived the move, glinting in the firelight as she came into the room…
For a moment she stood quite still, enchanted by the blazing coals in the grate and their dancing reflections of white walls and ceiling….. Her mother’s best winter curtains of heavy maroon velvet, glowed with plummy richness, and although the Turkey carpet was past its best, along with the furniture it seemed to have taken on a new lease of life… Her first impression, that the cottage would prove a haven, was suddenly intensified; it would respond to love and care and in return give back the peace and contentment she craved…’
Arrested by that curiously prophetic passage, for a moment my vision blurred. Wiping my eyes, I looked around and saw a picture I’d described a year ago. Our Christmas tree bearing a few of the real Louisa’s treasured glass ornaments; the fire crackling merrily, maroon velvet curtains inherited with the house, and even the dark red Turkey carpet. We were a few miles from the site of Louisa’s cottage, but nevertheless, the picture was here; this place had been waiting for me. No wonder I’d plunged so impulsively.
The following day, with the editorial notes to deal with, and the new part in Dublin to create, I focused on that and started to recover my balance. Surrounded by boxes in my designated writing space, I found them useful, providing a flat surface on which to stack my books and files. And a working oil lamp, since we’d discovered the house shared something else with Louisa Elliott’s little cottage by the river – an unpredictable electricity supply.
Several evenings that first winter, I was in the middle of a sentence when the house was suddenly plunged into darkness. Surrounded by trees, without so much as a street light down the lane, total blackness – and silence – was unnerving. A split second earlier there would have been music playing in Scott’s room, voices from the TV downstairs; then a sudden deprivation of light and sound. Heart pounding with shock, eyes straining to see through black velvet, I can still hear my voice sounding eerie and a little scared as I called out to the kids that it was okay, just a power cut. Feeling for my lighter, flicking it, trying to recall the strategic places – well, they’d seemed strategic in the daylight – where I’d left candles and matches. And uttering my usual complaint, ‘It’s like Castro’s Cuba – you’d never think we were just four miles from a city centre…’
With candles on the mantelpiece and others on the table, while the kids complained about no music and no TV, I wondered how people had managed to read and sew in days of yore. ‘No wonder they had poor eyesight,’ I said.
‘No wonder they believed in ghosts,’ came the rejoinder, usually from Scott.
‘I don’t think we’ll pursue that just now…’
Oddly enough, from time to time the TV would turn itself on again after we’d pressed the off switch. It was always late at night, and always Channel 4. I could almost accept it as an electrical hiccup when we left the TV on standby, but when it had been turned off properly, and I’d gone up to bed, the sudden intrusion of voices from below was unnerving.
Our two cats also had a tendency to look up and follow with their eyes an invisible movement across the living room and up the stairs; a little later Louise’s dog developed a similar habit. Shades of a former resident – the old crossing keeper, perhaps – with a taste in avant-garde films?