POLLY DEVLIN’s remembrance of people and times past is triggered by her collection of treasured antiques and the backstories of their acquisition …
For new readers and seasoned ones … This is the fifth episode in the loose concoction called The Remembering Rope – a series of memories describing the fruits of my travels and my addiction to collecting – an addiction which skewed my life as all addictions do. As I move through my house past the pictures and objects I also see my past life in geographical detail and in memorable panorama. I try not to be like a priestess guarding a shrine but there’s an element of that in it. So I also try to cull – and it’s difficult. I still slightly mourn the ones that get away.
The last time we met I mentioned a ceramic model of an Elizabethan house, with a faint air of fortification because of the towers on its long façade. The fact that model exists is a kind of miracle, because by all the rules of the kiln-firing game it should have burst in the heat. I don’t want to make the ancient mariner of myself and hold you with my glittering eye but I am compelled to tell you that whenever anyone, who knows anything about the art and craft of clay and ceramics, sees this house, they are dumbfounded at its improbability. It breaks every rule about working in clay and glazes and kilns.
The towers contain spiral staircases which, in the real house, lead to the bedrooms and attics. The narrow oak newels around which the treads cling are reputed to be made from ships’ masts. Such legends are associated with old houses and since this one was built in 1588 there has been time enough to create many a myth. This was the first house in which I lived after my marriage.
In 1981, eleven years after we had bought it, I started evening classes to learn about working with clay. This was the first time I had ever done anything crafty but I knew what I wanted – nay, needed – to make, and I also sort of knew I was punching far above my weight in attempting it. I wanted to create a model of the house with its patchwork walls and mullioned windows with stone lintels like huge eyebrows over every one, its stone slate roofs and all-round crazy Elizabethan Jacobean architecture.
I started off dead wrong by using a single huge lump of clay – huge – and as I worked carving and cutting and chiselling copying every nook and cranny everyone knew that even if the thing didn’t soon collapse like a chocolate cake in the sun, it could not be fired successfully. It was too massive, too solid, too long, to bear its own weight and was naturally full of air bubbles which would cause it to explode in the kiln. I should have been working with slabs of clay and sticking them together to make the walls but by the time I knew this it was too late and I was well into the big solid business.
I glared at well-meaners in the class and at my teacher and kept right on working: I outlined every window, every slate on the rooves, the very ivy on the old gnarled walls. When I’d finished in the late evenings I’d damp the thing down, mummify it in plastic and drive home thinking about when I could get back to it. Obsessive. It took me a year to finish it (and clay doesn’t like to be kept hanging around). I deliberately wasn’t there when it went into the kiln, nor when they opened it. To everyone in the studio’s amazement, the house emerged intact – gnarly, ancient, weather-beaten. I didn’t burst into tears when I saw it. Pure control. I know magic when I see it. I’d managed to make a finished shrine of what I knew one day I would lose: my past is this house. I loved it so much.
On the very day I brought the model home into the hall of the real thing, my husband told me he wanted to sell the house. I realised – at some deep level – that when I had started to build the simulacrum a year before, I had divined that he was going to do this. He maintained that he had not thought of doing so back then. Perhaps my apprehensions sparked it all off – whatever … in a long marriage there is a lot of sinusoidal communication. But when I finally left the house the model became for me like the house of the dead that the Egyptians put in their tombs to help them or house them in their journey to the afterlife. In a way I never got over its loss.
On the very day I brought the model home into the hall of the real thing, my husband told me he wanted to sell the house.
The man who built it in 1588, Thomas Banks, was a wool merchant in the rich Cotswolds with ideas of grandeur. His new fashionable mansion rose out of its swards like an organic growth, as though it had roots. It had peaks and valleys, high chimneys and gables and porches. Now lichens that look like vegetable graffiti and mosses and ivies cling to the rosy and umber walls. To open the massive studded oak front door took both hands and considerable weight, and the sound effects were those of a Boris Karloff movie. Over the centuries the house was added to – a big Georgian drawing room at the back and larders, kitchen quarters, but the integrity of the front has remained untouched for nearly 450 years. When one entered certain small rooms it was like opening a casket and breaching the sweet exhalation of layers of old scented air.
But one room was not so sweet – a big room on the first floor with an enormous fireplace. It had been the previous owner’s study and the walls must surely have been panelled but this had been removed to show the old brick and stonework, strangely raw and cold and painted red.
We painted it a light colour and made it our best guest room. My mother-in-law gave us large hideous furniture for it, including a double-doored oak wardrobe, with 1604 engraved along the top lintel. No matter how firmly you closed its doors and lodged them shut they would swing open to reveal an interior big enough for at least three people to hide in. In an effort to tame this wooden brute I had it lined in a pretty fabric but when the door swung open on the vast flowery interior it was like hearing a falsetto voice emerge from a wrestler.
The first person to stay in the room after we’d decorated it was Jean Shrimpton. For those of you born yesterday she was the most ravishing and beautiful woman and a down-to-earth person, for all she was the most famous model of the times. When I came down in the morning I found her asleep on a sofa. Something dark and large, amorphous and frightening had slithered into the bed alongside her and she could not move. She had been terrified. Only towards dawn had she finally been able to get out of the room. I ran up the room.
The doors to the wardrobe had swung open.
I don’t know why I allowed it – why was I so sanguine about what I had been told – but the next person to stay in the room was one of my sisters. She came down early in the morning shaken and white-faced – the same thing had happened. A dark horror had insinuated itself alongside her in the bed and lain there unmoving and dreadfully heavy and paralysing her with fright.
The doors to the wardrobe were open.
I thought, I suppose, that it surely couldn’t happen to a married couple and so when Johnny and Kate came to stay I told them about these events – far from being frightened they were both fascinated and intrigued. The next morning was a different story. The Thing had crawled between her and John and she could not even move an arm to reach across it to ask her husband for help. She lay awake staring at the ceiling unable to move and terrified until, exhausted, she was suddenly free and able to awaken John.
Of course the doors to the wardrobe were open.
I loved the house in spite of its ghost and I never went near the wardrobe, never used the room again, never opened its door and when I look at the model on my trunk I avoid looking at the windows of the room in case I see a creature scrabbling at the glass.
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