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Authors: Linda Newbery

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The Shell House

BOOK: The Shell House
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To the other A.C., with love, thanks and
admiration; also to the real shell house and
its Friends, especially my mother, Iris Newbery,
whose caryatid photograph provided the
starting point.

Water

If I were called upon
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes.
My liturgy would entail
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the East
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

 

Philip Larkin
from
The Whitsun Weddings

 

 

He couldn’t face going back indoors.

If he walked in, their faces would look up at him, polite, expectant; they would be ready to make allowances. The meal would be finished: his plate and his scattered cutlery would have been removed from the table, his toppled chair replaced. His mother would have said something to smooth over his rudeness, and the others would make sympathetic noises, some of them genuine.

No-one understood. They would be having coffee now, passing the cream, passing the sugar, in the large room with the windows closed against the spring evening, as if nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

At the top of the steps to the garden, he filled his lungs with cool air. It was dusk. Light from the windows fell on the terrace, and a fountain played below. Its soft, regular trickle ought to have been soothing, but nothing could soothe him; he had to get away, down the steps, out of sight of the house. Mown lawn welcomed his feet, yielding silently to his tread. The cool toughness of cypress leaves brushed his face as he pushed through a row of conifers; the air smelled of grass and damp earth. He closed his eyes as memory surged through him like the delayed after-shock of pain. He felt detached from his body: from his walking feet, his breathing lungs, his mind registering smells and sounds.

In the lower garden, he paused for a moment to listen, looking in the direction of London, thinking of Kent beyond, and the coast. People said that you could sometimes hear the guns, even at this distance. Nothing. He felt oddly disappointed, hearing only the whirr of moth wings, seeing the flicker of a bat; an owl hooted down in the woods. Nothing else disturbed the silence.

He lowered his head and walked on, down a flight of steps towards the glimmer of water, along a mossy path to the grotto.

Chain gang

Greg’s
photograph:
a huge eighteenth-century
mansion standing alone. It is built in classical
style: weighty, monumental, symmetrical. The
frontage is of Portland stone; twin flights of steps
rise to the pillared main entrance. The central
section is surmounted by a decorative triangular
panel sculpted with reclining figures and a Latin
inscription. At a glance, you’d think you were
looking at a stately home—a National Trust
property, perhaps. Only when you look properly
do you see that the door and windows are blank,
that there is no roof, and that the house is an
empty shell.

‘You can’t do it,’ said Faith. ‘You can’t make a bargain with God.’

Greg would always remember her saying that, in the grotto, where cold sunlight on the lake rippled patterns of light on the curve of the wall. She sat shrugged into her fleece jacket, her hands tucked up inside the sleeves; her eyes were dark and intense. She was a girl in a shell, cupped and held like a pearl in an oyster. He saw her as part of an accidentally beautiful composition: dark hair and eyes, scarlet fleece, tile fragments in a swirling pattern behind her.
Frame,
click!
went his mental camera. These were the photographs that stayed in his mind: the ones he hadn’t taken.

The first time they met, at the end of summer, he saw her as bossy, imperious. She manipulated him.

He was trespassing. The burnt-out mansion was visible from the main road: sometimes a silhouette on its ridge, sometimes golden in sunlight. Out on his bike with hours of Sunday freedom ahead, he had let curiosity reel him in. He cycled past the sign that said GRAVENEY HALL—PRIVATE on the lodge gates, and on down the long driveway to the ruined mansion, with its commanding position over acres of wheatfields and woods. If it hadn’t been for the cars parked along the front drive, he would have poked about, inside and out, taking photographs, ignoring the DANGER signs. He hadn’t expected anyone to be here, and was annoyed.

The day was still and humid; sweat trickled between his shoulder-blades and down his back. He leaned his bike against the fence and stood gazing up at the vast shell. Must have been some fire, he thought, to destroy a place this size. It was roofless, open to the sky. All the doors and windows were huge, as if the house had been inhabited by giants. Most of the outer walls were intact, but through a door beneath the steps he glimpsed piles of collapsed brick, and nettles and even slender trees growing out of the debris. Although the house must be past repair, he saw people working inside, a team of them: shovelling, hacking at the layer of sediment that coated the ground, carting stones in wheelbarrows. A woman with a tray of mugs was picking her way across the rough floor. He hung back, expecting to be challenged, but they were all absorbed in their tasks.

Retreating, he found a way through the makeshift fence that ran along the farthest side of the house, making the place look like a building site. The house was almost as deep as it was wide; there were remains of brick walls here, perhaps from extensions or a conservatory. Making his way round to the back, he emerged into an expanse of derelict garden. He saw a pair of stone summerhouses, and a balustrade dividing the garden into two levels. From the driveway, you wouldn’t know this was here at all. He took two photographs, imagining how the garden must have looked a hundred and fifty, two hundred years ago. There must have been statues, fountains, the lot, and a whole team of gardeners. The outlines were still visible: the bases of statues, and a raised walk of rough grass down the whole length, with sunken areas either side. And this was only the formal part. He guessed that there would have been more: a kitchen garden for the house, orchards, wooded areas down in the valley.

No-one stopped him as he crossed to the far side of the garden. There was a large area of grass beyond, roughly cut between trees, some sort of crumbling stone tower on the far side, brick outbuildings to his right. Beyond the tower, the ground took an abrupt plunge down a bracken-covered hillside, at the base of which he saw the gleam of water and the domed roof of another small building. A temple or summerhouse? Drawn by his photographic instinct, liking the idea of a small classical building almost overwhelmed by wilderness, he began to push his way down the slope. The tough, dried fronds of bracken resisted his progress, backed up by brambles and nettles. Thorns tore at his shorts, nettles prickled his legs, and he would have turned back if the watery gleam hadn’t spread itself, to his surprise, into a large stretch of lake. Well, a place the size of Graveney Hall
would
have a lake, a piece of landscaping on a grand scale. He imagined a picturesque island, a boathouse, women in long dresses (Edwardian? Victorian? Longer ago than that?) decorously taking the air, and swans and ornamental ducks coming to be fed.

It was so quiet here. The voices of the workers couldn’t carry this far. Even the birds were silent in the heat of midday; he heard the
crukk
of a coot, the faint rustle of leaves, and that was all, apart from his own feet brushing through vegetation. He pushed on down to the water’s edge, seeing the surface all hazed over with pollen and the quick silvery flip of a fish breaking the surface. He paused to rub at a nettle-sting on his calf, noticing a trodden path along the shore where it would be easier to walk. Heading for the summerhouse, he threaded his way down the slope.

The shore path was of dried mud. He slid down the last bit of the bank and looked out over the water. Dense slopes of trees rose on all sides, holding the lake beneath a bowl of sky. The nearest end bristled with reeds or sedges; in the faint breeze the stalks moved against each other with a small sighing sound. A moorhen bobbed out of view among them. Greg walked on towards the summerhouse, his feet slapping on hard ground. They obviously went in for summerhouses, whoever had lived here; had to keep their delicate aristocratic skins out of the sun, he supposed.

Closer to, he could see that it wasn’t so much summerhouse as grotto; open-fronted, it was built in a curved shape, like a cupped hand or an oyster-shell. He heard the plash of water inside, and glanced in, seeing that the inner curve was a mosaic of tile fragments, blue and white. And a girl was sitting on a stone bench, startled, staring back at him.

Damn! He wanted the place to himself.

He backed off two paces. ‘Oh, sorry. Didn’t know there was anyone here.’

The girl held a hand to her throat. ‘I heard your feet coming, but you still made me jump.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. In this setting he could have seen her as water-nymph or wood-sprite, except that she was obviously a modern girl: splayed bare legs with feet in grey trainers; short denim skirt and a skimpy red T-shirt. Her hair was long, dark and sleek. Recovering from her surprise, she regained that air of self-possession girls seemed to convey so easily. She made Greg feel like an intruder. Which he was.

‘What are you doing here?’

Greg shrugged. ‘Trespassing, I s’pose.’

‘You are—there’s no public footpath.’

‘I can read. Saw enough PRIVATE signs. You?’

‘I’m with the volunteers. I come here a lot.’

He noticed, by her feet, a raffia basket, sagging, displaying its contents: a bottle of Perrier, a mobile phone, a paperback book and a rolled-up sweater. She held a spiral-bound notebook, now slammed shut, her place kept by a pen. The bench she sat on was marble, a curve, in two halves, round the interior of the grotto. A grotesque stone head, set between the bench’s two sections, spouted water from its grimace of a mouth into a pool, which decanted into a thin channel running out and down to the lake. The base of the pool was set with pebbles, not tiles like the rest. Greg smelled the water and damp moss—a cool respite from the heat outside.

The girl was still looking at him, requiring him to account for his presence.

‘Who are they, the volunteers?’ he asked.

‘Friends of Graveney Hall. They’re restoring the place.’

‘Oh.’ Moving forward, he waggled the toe of one trainer in the ribbon of water. He thought of the place tarted up into a National Trust kind of stately home, with visitors’ car parks and gift shops and guide books. ‘Why not leave it as it is?’

‘If it wasn’t for the Friends,’ the girl retorted, ‘the whole place would be demolished by now, turned into a country club or a conference centre. You’d prefer that?’

‘No,’ he conceded. ‘But a group of volunteers, restoring that enormous house? I’d have thought it was past help.’

‘The house, yes. They’ll never do more than tidy that up a bit. The grounds aren’t past help. That’s what they’re concentrating on.’

‘You’re not one of them?’

She looked at him. ‘My parents are. My father’s a landscape gardener. He’s leading the project. I help out sometimes, when I want.’

Stepping inside the grotto, he traced with one hand the pattern of tiles on the wall nearest him. Most of the fragments were blue and white, like the Willow Pattern design, with occasional deep red; each piece was firmly embedded in plaster, the whole design coated with glaze.
My father’s a landscape gardener
. Yes, he would be. She had that sort of voice. She probably called her parents Mummy and Daddy.

‘Do you trespass here often?’ she asked him, with an irritating little giggle.

‘Never been here before. Saw it from the road and thought I’d have a look round, take some photos.’

‘Is that your job? You’re a photographer?’ the girl said, looking at the camera slung round his neck.

‘I wish. I’m still at school.’

‘Oh. I thought perhaps you were from the local paper or something. They sometimes give us a bit of coverage.’

‘Then I wouldn’t be trespassing, would I?’ Greg countered.

‘What are the photos for, then?’

‘I like ruins.’

‘You don’t have to fight through brambles to get to them.’ She was looking at his legs. He glanced down and saw two long scratches, across one knee and the other shin, beaded with drops of blood. He should have worn jeans; the irritation of nettle-stings prickled his legs all over.

‘You came down the slope?’ She indicated with a turn of her head.

‘Yeah.’

‘There’s a better way. I’ll show you.’

She was gathering her things together, stuffing the notebook into the basket. As she leaned forward, a silver cross on a chain round her neck swung forward, catching the light.

‘Wait.’ Greg wanted to look at the grotto. ‘This place—it’s amazing.’ The tiles made swirling patterns—loops, waves, curls like tentacles. He thought of someone standing here with a heap of tiles, smashing them into bits with a hammer, choosing each fragment, then placing it in the mosaic of cool colours. ‘I wonder who made it?’

‘Oh—the gardens were laid out about eighteen hundred. It’s probably a bit later than that, wouldn’t you say? More romantic than classical.’

Her assurance irritated him. He had been wondering about the individual, not trying to pin it down to an architectural period. She was, he thought, about his own age, possibly younger; it was hard to tell with girls. She was skinny enough for twelve, poised enough for eighteen.

‘What about the main house? When did that get burnt down?’

‘Nineteen seventeen.’

‘In the First World War,’ he said, sure of something.

‘Mm. Nothing to do with the war, though. It started with a kitchen fire, they think.’

‘They?’

She made an impatient gesture. ‘People who know about the history of the house.’

‘Could have been a bomb, I suppose—we’re not that far from London.’


First
World War, not Second,’ she said, with a trace of scorn. ‘Years before the Blitz.’

‘London was bombed in the First World War. Near the end.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

Greg, with GCSE History still recent, did know. He shrugged, wanting to convey
You don’t know everything
. He turned away and stood looking at the lake, wondering how deep it was. The sand or mud of the shallows near his feet was gradually obscured by thick tangles of vegetation—too weedy for swimming. A pity. Hot and sweaty as he was, the thought of plunging into coolness was as desirable as an iced drink. He thought of Jordan at the pool, his taut body piercing the surface in a racing dive. Perhaps there had been a diving board here, once, before it got so weedy and neglected.

‘Coming? I’ll show you that path.’ The girl slung her bag over one shoulder.

‘If you want.’

She turned towards the farthest end of the lake, keeping to the trodden path. He followed her, taking in the fall of hair over brown shoulders, the narrow waist and the vulnerable backs of her knees. He could make something of this, if he wanted to, for Gizzard: he heard himself saying, ‘I met this girl . . .’ ‘Yeah?’ Gizzard would say, his face alert with interest. Girls meant sex to Gizzard, and that was about all.

She turned, shaking back her hair. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Greg. Yours?’

‘Faith.’

Oh yeah, he thought. Posh.

‘Don’t tell me,’ he said to the back of her head. ‘You’ve got two sisters, Hope and Charity?’

‘Ha ha.’ She didn’t turn round.

Abruptly, she veered away from the lake into what looked like a dense slab of shrubbery, mounting two steps half-hidden in grass. There was a narrow path, marked by log steps, cutting diagonally up the slope between hollies and sapling beech trees. Definitely easier than the way he’d come down. She went up quickly, with long agile strides. Following, he glimpsed smooth inner thighs and a flash of white knickers.

‘Didn’t you mind being down there on your own?’ he called.

‘Mind? Why?’

‘Well . . . anyone might be prowling about.’

Reaching the top of the slope, she turned to face him. ‘No, not here. That’s why I like it. There’s no-one around.’

‘But there could be. I was.’ Greg resented being dismissed as
no-one
.

She looked at him levelly. ‘Well, I’ve got my mobile, in case I thought I was being attacked.’

BOOK: The Shell House
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