Little Monkhams

The doors of the tube slid open and a second later R felt the cold touch of the night air on his cheeks. He stepped off the train onto the dark suburban station, filing through the ticket barrier with the few other travellers, who dispersed once past the ticket hall – to the minicab office, into the corner-shop and underneath the rails, via the subway.

For a minute or so R stood outside the station. Although it was past nine, lights still shone from a few of the small shops on the Broadway, and a couple of cars lazily wound around the buildings and turned out of sight.

R buttoned up his greatcoat and buried his hands in the deep pockets, but still felt the cold. Dampness hung in the air, carried by a constantly thickening fog, which was beginning to envelop the trees on the edge of the Broadway. Not for the first time R wondered what exactly he was here for. It was such a familiar sight. He knew what all the shops contained, where the roads led. It had been a home for a few months and he had emerged from this station every evening after a day’s work in London, crossed the road and started the walk up the hill to the house. A fifteen minute trudge everyday, up to his grandparents’ house. But it was more than somewhere to stay; it was a perpetual presence, an anchor of family which had, for him, obtained iconographic status, perhaps from his first Christmas at the house, spent in infancy. He was here because tomorrow it would be someone else’s home, and it was an unashamed sentimentality that had driven him far east on the central line and which now took him across the road and up King’s Avenue one last time.

There was nobody around. The avenue stretched into the night, the lonely pavements half-lit by the weak orange glows of sporadic streetlights that forced their way through the fog onto isolated spots on the pavement. The houses crowded in from either side, mock-Tudor beams, the bay windows of suburban villas, recently landscaped front drives, un-identifiable leaves and bushes occasionally trespassing over low walls – the silence among such evident occupation made it seem hours later than it was. An inevitable sadness settled on R’s shoulders as he walked on. What would he do when he got there? The doors would be locked, the place empty – everything was lost to the past now: every Christmas Eve of excitement had been met by a Christmas day of wish fulfilment, all the planning for family summer events had been superceded by a summer, every summer had disappeared into a dark and rainy autumn.

As he passed yet another black cab, shed of a day’s worth of the city’s passengers and now standing quietly in a driveway, R forced himself to reflect on these things and also the more personal. Sitting with his grandfather in the garden drinking gin and tonic, lying half asleep in his then bedroom during the day - his grandparents tiptoeing around, acutely aware of the sensitivities of the hung-over. He remembered taking people there, showing it off with pride to friends, to someone who he thought loved him. But as he turned the corner off the avenue and headed up closer to the house he buried that memory, instead remembering the disbelief that clouded his head as he tried not to look at his grandfather’s empty chair in the long sitting room, while taking instructions on pall bearing.

And now here it was. The fence that surrounded the edge of the darkness – on the other side thick undergrowth pushed against the thin wooden boards. R stopped for a second to look at the big sign hammered into the fence. The name of the house and then, in bold black letters set on a yellow background, ‘Sold’.

He continued around the corner, onto Orchard Lane, following the boundary of the garden. Around another corner and on one side was the forest, on the other, its awkward high roof jutting into the sky, dully lit by lights of the endless suburbs beyond, the house stood, black and lifeless. R glanced into the forest, briefly tempted by the pillared dark, but there was no call to come in and he slowly walked up to the large white double gates, carefully unhooked the latch, and trod hesitantly along the drive. The security light attached to the potting shed clicked on. For a brief moment he expected the barking of a dog and a friendly greeting from within. There was nothing. He wandered around the side of the house, past the kitchen window, past the old well and down onto the lawn. The grass needed cutting – it was soft and springy.

The Life Of An English Student

R stopped in the centre of the lawn and looked up at the house. It stood, impassively, giving nothing away, but to R conveyed everything. He knew that in reality, behind each dark window there were now empty rooms, areas defined only, for the first time in 50 years, by walls and a door. But to him, as he stared, attempting to penetrate the murky gloom that lingered behind each pane of glass, he imagined the pictures, the furniture, the people and events. He stood, watching the house. The fog rolled across the garden in the direction of the forest, the only sound the drip of water on leaves. An unsteady dull pain rose from his stomach, he felt pressure on his lungs, his throat, constricting and he took a couple of deep breaths. Please, he thought, begging no-one in particular, let those things still be behind those windows. Let me look up now and see a light in the window of the sitting room. Figures moving around within, the warmth of the great fire in the hearth spilling out into the evening, a comforting chatter of idle talk, briefly animated discussions, the clunk of the wooden latch opening the door to the stairs. Let me in one more time. Let me slouch on this sofa again, examine this old map of Cornwall, sit and eat cereal at the kitchen table. Just one more time. Let me look to my right and see a figure emerge from the orchard, my grandfather, an attempt at silent approach betrayed by his failing lungs, asking, old man, can you climb this tree, saw off the branch?

R smiled to himself. It wasn’t so cold. But he should go. It was difficult to step off the lawn. He tried a couple of times but turned around before his shoes left the wet grass. Finally he moved off the lawn and walked up to the back of the house. He stood under the sitting room window, by the old flag-pole. He noticed a flag still hung at the top, swayed slightly by the gentle wind – black emblazoned with a white cross. Someone would be along to take it down tomorrow. After a moment’s thought R stepped onto the stone ledge under the window, blinkered his eyes with his hands and stared in at the sitting room. Empty.

As he completed the circuit of the house the security light jumped into life again. He walked back down the drive and onto the pavement. He paused a few metres down the road and turned and looked again. The old eccentric building, its many chimney pots high above the nearby houses, its irregular corners cutting through the fog, three stories sitting as always in an abnormally big garden, and although empty and with any tenuous claim of emotional rights that R had ebbing away, to him it radiated the same old mysterious charm. The security light clicked off. The building became a hunk of blackness. R turned to walk back to the station. It had been a sentimental journey - but there had been too many endings recently, endings without goodbyes. But this time he had been ready – and it had been his ending.

Robert Allen