Sunday, 13 June 2010

Laughing and Having a Party

I think people tend to live, whether they like it or not, influenced by what's next door to them.
Campbell Scott

WHEN I WAS TWO YEARS OF AGE my parents bought a half-acre plot of land (with my mother’s parents’ money) and my father drew a simple design for a house which was soon built by professional builders and friends and family members, all pitching in. I can remember my grandfather up a ladder with a bucket of plaster, and the sound of limestone roof slate being cut from big blocks on a wooden platform supported by saw-horses. Some earliest memories.

Before our house, the first in the private sub-division called Tamarind Vale, was finished, our neighbours, on the lot to our north, had their house well under way. My father had sketched the plans for both dwellings, and both plans were flawed, not thought through. Nowadays one would have to submit plans drawn up by a professional to some governmental board for approval. My father would have spent on a ruler and a pencil, and not much more.

The half-acre immediately to the south of us remained unsold for a year or two while homes rose here and there through the Tamarind Vale estate. Eventually the dead cedar trees were cleared and burned, and the excavations began for a good-sized unit there. I was old enough to walk and climb about this latest house, so near us, as it was under construction. It was the first in Tamarind Vale to have two floors. Norman and Adele Jones bought that house when it was completed, and Adele lived there until her death earlier this year; for about 55 years I’d guess. I’d sold our place when my mother died in 1992. I’ve looked down on Tamarind Vale and my mother’s house by way of Google Earth, and (as I’d heard) the house is almost unrecognizable: much bigger, and the main entrance to the property is now on the side we called the back garden, our front closed off.

I can, in my mind, still walk myself through Tamarind Vale as it was when I was young, a boy with a fishing line and some bait walking barefoot on the hot tarmac, sometimes hopping from one foot to the other, to our dock on the Harbour. The children from Tamarind Vale spent unsupervised holiday time at the dock, swimming and fishing, even though one of us, Mikey, had fallen overboard when there with another neighbourhood youngster, Billy, who couldn’t save him from drowning. An adult neighbour got little Mikey’s body to shore.

Before the drowning, Norman and Adele Jones’s eldest son, Bobby, had died of cancer. He was perhaps seven years old. I can remember Bobby quite well all these years (decades) on. Bobby was the first person that I knew “my age” to die. I didn’t understand death then, and I had older relatives dying; but I felt keenly the departure of friends, whether for a holiday abroad or to live overseas. It was (and is) more difficult to be separated from the living than from the dead.

In 1967 another lad from the neighbourhood, Eddie, passed away after a freak accident and resultant surgery he did not survive. Eddie’s father died not long afterwards; a broken heart we all said. They’d lived in the house where Mikey, the boy who drowned, had lived ten years earlier. That had spooked us.

Those boys’ ghosts do not haunt me in my dreams and mental revisits to Tamarind Vale; neither does my mother (and so many neighbours of my parents’ age now dead). Rather, they are part of the background sights and sounds and as alive now as those of us who have survived. We are all part of it.

I did not live a particularly solitary childhood, but I could amuse myself with a book and pass on a game of softball on one of the empty lots. Saturday mornings did mean a few hours at the movies, our friends our age would go too, catching the bus at the bottom of Tamarind Vale. After the film got out we might take the Belmont Manor ferry back to Harbour Road and walk the mile or so home to Tamarind Vale.

On Harbour Road, not far from our home, the English actor, author and playwright Noel Coward lived in the gatehouse at Spithead. I remember being aware of that, but not being much impressed. I’ve read the biographies and now know that Coward would have been having a pretty gay time in Bermuda, avoiding the taxman.

Our neighbours were, almost without exception, extremely kind to us. My father had left my mother and their children not long after I’d started school. Single mothers were rare in the 1950s. So rare that my mother, who had been an enthusiastic and active member of the Church of England, was told by our parish priest that if she divorced her husband she would not be permitted to take Holy Communion. My mother never went to church again. Over 30 years later that same Vicar, raised to a Canon or some such, turned up at my mother’s bedside in the hospice where she was dying of cancer. By then my mother was unconscious, she was to die the next day, and the Canon said to me: “Would you like me to conduct your mother’s funeral?” I muttered something about him not wanting her in life. Why only in death? That Vicar - who preached “Love thy neighbour as thyself” – struggled to be a good neighbour.

I often played music at a considerable volume if I was home by myself. I know it disturbed neighbours downwind of us. Perhaps, especially, because my music of choice was the long-haired variety. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I’m paying for that loud music now, being fairly deaf and requiring a hearing aid. Eh? Sorry?

My childhood was a time when one left doors unlocked if one went out. If one’s laundry was on the clotheslines and rain threatened, a neighbour would bring it inside. Many homes might be left with doors and windows wide open, while families gathered to watch the kids playing baseball or softball, or for a picnic at the dock or at the beach. Baseball because a number of our neighbours were families stationed in Bermuda with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Tamarind Vale is a long while ago, and close at hand. My youngest sister was telling me that she doesn’t like neighbours, homes close together, and doesn’t much like company. I told her that I liked living in a small block of flats. I rarely see my neighbours, but I know them and quite like them (as does Cailean). I enjoy community dwelling.

That said, when I win the Lotto I would almost certainly buy a large home with lots of space between it and any neighbours. But I would have people living in it with me (a valet, cook, maids, and a gardener) and be open to visitors. Come and spend the summer. The winter. And I know just the place.

On a hilltop above the Northumberland seaside village of Alnmouth there is a very large and rather antiquated building that has some history. It has been a private home, a club, a small hotel, and it is now a friary. The Friary of Saint Francis is a retreat for a better class of retreater, I’m guessing, having seen some awfully posh sports cars on the gravel in the forecourt. The few friars wear long, brown, monkish robes and sandals, but look quite well-off, a better class of friar. I imagine their paying guests, arriving in the costly cars with designer clothes, wouldn’t be comfortable with scrawny, gaunt, perpetually-fasting, hungry friars lumping about in hair vests. Hell, until Henry VIII put his oar in, the religious houses were comfortably well off, and then some. Storybook Friar Tuck was a big man, man. And Jesus wears a Rolex.

The Friary building has been added upon, and there are portions with a religious flavour, but it is, at heart, an enormous country house overlooking the north end of Alnmouth Beach. There must be four floors and masses of windows facing the North Sea. I have no idea what a property like the Friary would go for on the market if the Brethren wanted to sell up, but the view alone would be worth a small fortune. When I win the Lotto, and I have a large fortune in mind, I would make the Friary an offer so enormous that they could not resist.

I’d probably have to leave the basic outside structure of the Friary intact, unchanged, but I would remove all of the Christian iconography. The inside would be completely renovated. I’d want my any-time-at-all visitors to have all the comforts of a hotel on Park Lane, luxurious accommodation with a spectacular view. And when the storms rage in from the North Sea, my winter guests might warm themselves at an open fire and watch the surf smashing onto the beach and WW2 fortifications below, or read in a recliner chair, a blanket over the knees for extra warmth. At least one miniature dachshund to maintain order. Two to run riot.

I might be some measure from the nearest house, beyond spitting distance, but with my Lotto money I could bring the neighbourhood inside, bring my friends in. It’s a dream, a fantasy, but better to be prepared in case one does win the Lotto. My Lotto Dream, in which I entertain at home, and make a place for friends and family to come and be pampered for a spell, fits in with my Childhood Remembered Dream in which friends and family (excepting my father) were all around. The main difference between the dreams of things to come and those already done would be the level of comfort, some nice touches: art, music, books, fine food, company, and conversation. These things I had as a boy, but it was a struggle. One might borrow a record or book, go to a gallery to see a Vincent van Gogh, talk beyond one’s mental means about the Coming of the Counter-Culture, but it was a bugger to get regular invitations to really upscale dinner parties. I went to dine at the homes of lovely friends, and had the steak my mother could not afford, but being waited on was rare.

I’d love to move my mother (who has been a ghost these past 18 years) into my Lotto Dream home, the former Friary. It would be nice to have her in the flesh, but with time and times rolling on, her spirit would be welcome, perhaps walking a gallery. Calling out, as she did when she was ill and worried in bed: “Ross! Ross! Are you there?” And I’d tempt the ghost with a dish of bread-and-butter pudding into a well-lit room overlooking the Sea. I’d read a book, and my mother would stand at the window for a spell. A magic spell. The sun shining through her. And a mini-bus load of friends arrives that evening. Dinner, then charades, perhaps cards or Scrabble, and somebody will play the piano and sing something by Cole Porter. “The girls today in society go for classical poetry. So to win their hearts one must quote (with ease) Aeschylus and Euripides ...”

We could all sing along, quite loudly, because the neighbours are far down the hill, and the neighbours are us.

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