When you live in an older house, you sometimes become aware of its previous life. It may be something substantial like removing a piece of board and finding a faded scrap of wallpaper chosen by a previous occupant, or lines inside a cupboard marking the passage of a child’s growth. Often it is more ephemeral. A glimpsed movement, seen from the corner of your eye, disappears as soon as your head is turned. The reek of boiled cabbage or the fragrant aroma of rich fruitcake, filling your nostrils with one breath and then leaving as you exhale, bears no relation to anything in your kitchen. Whispers, felt as vibration in the bone behind your ear rather than heard, convincing you that if you just tried a little harder you would know the speakers and, maybe, join their conversation.
Old things often carry their history with them. When they come into an older home, it is as if their stories blend with the spirit of the house to create something new. Adding more antiques to share their experiences makes the mix richer until, inevitably, they begin to make their presence known to the corporeal world.
In this old house where no children live, I saw a child. It was on the landing, its body angled away from me as it gazed through the open doorway adjacent to it. Soft blonde curls bounced lightly creating a halo around its head. It was perched on the edge of a small wooden chair in front of a half-sized desk.
Beyond the child in a small room I use as my study, sat the object of the child’s attention. The dappled light coming through the wisteria outside the window revealed few details, but I knew the person to be an adult woman by dint of her full skirts and swept up hair. The child was young, maybe four years old, dressed in old-fashioned rompers that gave no easy suggestion of gender. My subconscious said ‘her’ and told me the woman was the child’s mother. I believed it.
Mama – I was certain this woman had never been called Mum – had her head bent over the documents on her roll topped desk. Her hand moved across the pages, reached forward to dip a pen into an inkwell, then returned to the paper.
At her miniature desk, the child reached for a dark, wood framed board. A word from the stories of my youth leapt into my mind – a slate. In her other hand she grasped a piece of chalk. She watched her mother intently, copying her posture and, I was certain, imitating the expression of concentration on her face. When Mama dipped her pen, the child reached for a new chalk and continued to make marks on her board.
A breeze through the open window sent a floral scent toward me. Not the wisteria growing beyond but a smell that reminded me of grandmothers and face powder. Lilac? Lavender? No, Lilly-of-the-Valley.
Above the scratching of pen on paper and the squeak of chalk on slate, another sound came. The timeless peal of bells calling the faithful to Sunday worship. Mama raised her head and glanced out the window, a hand reaching for a cloth to clean her nib. With a sigh, she tidied her papers, closed the lid on the inkwell and rolled the lid of her desk shut. The snap of the lock closing was echoed by the clack of the child’s desk shutting.
Downstairs, the ting and ring of an old Bakelite telephone was followed by the claxon call of our modern handset. Irritated, I started for the top of the stairs. I glanced back, one hand on the banisters, but my visitors were gone.
Later I returned to the landing and examined the small desk and chair more closely. All the furniture was real. It had belonged to us in childhood or been purchased as a fitting addition to our home. I opened the desk lid, looking at the clutter that had accumulated over the years, then swivelled the little chair towards me. I had never sat on it, certain it would collapse under my weight. As it span beneath my hand, my finger snagged on a hidden catch. Surprised, I pulled back and the lid of the seat lifted with my hand to reveal a secret compartment. It was empty, apart from some childish scribble on the lid and, inscribed on the base, the names Susan and John. I wondered who they were. Was Susan the small child who had so recently sat on the chair’s battered burgundy cushion? Had a brother, John, been elsewhere, studying his Papa at work with the same intensity with which Susan had watched Mama?
I feel a responsibility to this family. They have given me a peek into their lives that I wish to repay. Maybe next time I visit a flea market or antique shop I should look for a new inkwell for Mama and a slate for Susan.