A dear friend of mine died the other day. He was an irascible old bugger but one of the biggest supporters of my writing.
I once wrote a short story for his wife (another of my biggest supporters) as a thankyou for a theatre piece I was involved in with the theatre company started by them both. He was a tad jealous, I think. He wrote to me soon after and said how much he had enjoyed the story and so he thought he would write a sequel to it. This he duly did and emailed it to me. In response, I emailed back a continuance of what he had started.
And thus a back-and-forth formation of a story developed. That is, until the day he asked if he could make some minor alterations to the last bit I had sent him. I agreed but when he sent back my bit with his next bit added, only about 300 words of my more than 800 word contribution remained. I then suggested that perhaps he should drive the story home as he obviously had more invested in how it should end than I.
He hadn’t thought he’d done anything wrong. When his wife pointed out how hurtful and inappropriate his action had been, he was mortified. Such a frustratingly endearing man.
I had thought we were just having a bit of fun with the story and so in one of my additions, I moved the action to Peru. There might have been a bit of political intrigue in there. When you’re just writing for fun, it’s no holds barred so why not be ludicrous?
Unbeknownst to me, my lovely writing partner was actually formulating a plan to present the story as a radio script at a performance opportunity.
It went ahead. I was slightly embarrassed. Particularly as I had to sit through each performance as sound and lighting technician.
Fortunately, the local theatre critic was complimentary if not effusive. At least he wasn’t abusive.
For his 80th birthday I wrote my dear friend a story of his own. I left it open-ended so he could add to it if he wished. Which he did and we had a minor back and forth but life had changed for both him and me and it never quite took flight as the other did.
In honour of Dennis and in his memory, I give you the original story I wrote just for him.
The Old House
He stood on the other side of the street, trying to suppress his disappointment. It had been more than fifty years, he reminded himself. He had tried to prepare himself. Of course, it will have changed. It will be a different colour. Maybe even have been built onto. In the cloud of his misery, he had to admit he had not been prepared for this.
The house had gone. Completely. Not even the large beech tree in the front yard, at the top of which he had hidden on more than one naughty occasion, remained. The new house was a monstrosity, creeping right to the front boundary, edge to edge, no room for grass, trees or the freesias that used to pop up every spring, even though no one could remember ever planting them.
He noticed a curtain twitch and looked away, studying the map in his hand as if looking for something. Out of the corner of his eye, he tried to make out a face, but there seemed to be no one there. Perhaps he had imagined it.
Never go back. That had been his brother’s advice. Never go back. It will only hurt you. But he had to go back; had to see the old place just one more time. This would be his last trip back to the old country. He was getting too old for trans-continental travel.
Scanning the windows for movement, he crossed the street. Standing in front of the house, he peered down the side, hoping against hope that perhaps the old magnolia tree was still there. It had been his mother’s favourite tree. He had hated it as a child, having to pick up the dead flowers as they dropped in their multitude all through the late spring. Of course, it had been nothing but trouble. Temperamental as an old maiden aunt, it had driven his mother to distraction. His father had threatened to pull it out one year, but Mother had insisted it would improve. As if to snub his father, the next season it was at its most glorious. The following year, it refused to flower at all, but Mother had made her point.
As he was craning his neck to see down to the back fence, the front door opened. A woman emerged and stared at him curiously. Embarrassed, he stepped away, for a moment considering the option of walking away quickly as if he had not been staring pertinently into another person’s backyard. This is ridiculous, he thought.
“I used to live here,” he said. “Well, in the house that used to be here.”
The woman, small and dark-haired, nodded and smiled. “Would you like to come in?” she asked.
He stared at her, uncertain if she meant it. Then he ducked his head and nodded. “If it’s not too much trouble,” he mumbled.
She led the way through the door and into the front passage. The house seemed even bigger inside. It was all gleaming white marble and pristine ivory walls. Nothing like the dark and cramped childhood home he remembered. He caught a glimpse of large plate windows at the back of the house, open to the view, and tried to spot anything recognisable, but there almost seemed to be no backyard at all.
“My name is Annie. My husband is in the study. He’d be very interested to meet you,” the woman said as she ushered him down a shining corridor. Coming to a large white door, she knocked and entered.
“Peter, this is… I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Martin.” He followed her into the study. Seated at a large oak desk was a man who seemed twice the size of his tiny wife. He rose and reached out a massive hand.
“He used to live here,” Annie said as the two men shook hands.
“Ah. Well, then, I’m very pleased to meet you, Martin. I have quite an interest in the old house.”
Martin pushed aside the thought Then why did you pull it down?, just nodded politely and sat in the chair Peter was indicating. Annie slipped out of the room, hardly noticed.
“Can I get you a drink?” asked Peter.
“Just soda water, please.”
As Peter walked over to a sideboard and poured two drinks, Martin took the time to glance around the room. It was only then he noticed the pictures on the wall. They were all of the old house. Not quite as he remembered it; it was in a pretty poor state and someone at some point had painted it orange. But there was the old beech tree and, he gasped, the magnolia in full flower, even amongst the ruin of weeds and long grass of the backyard.
Peter handed him his drink and looked up at the photos. “It was in a bad way when we bought it. Irredeemable, according to our builder. We had no option but to demolish.” He said this last line softly, his eyes on Martin.
Martin nodded and swallowed hard. “Even the magnolia?” he asked.
“It had to be moved. I guess it had spent too long in the one place; it didn’t survive.”
The two men sat quietly for a moment. Then Peter said brightly, “But as you can see, we took as many photos as possible of the house. We figured its history was linked to the new house in some way.”
“How long have you lived here?” Martin asked, trying to match Peter’s bright tone.
“About 15 years.”
“Do you have a family?”
“Two boys, both away at college now. Yourself?”
Martin shook his head. “I was married, once. It didn’t work out. Always just found it easier to be on my own after that.”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Peter drained his glass and stood up. “Would you like to see around the house?” he asked.
Martin nodded, rose and followed him out of the study.
As Peter took him through the house, Martin found himself trying to superimpose the locations of each room of the old house. Here, was the good sitting room where nobody ever sat, except when Great Aunt Gemma came to visit. He remembered it as a place of stuffy discomfort, forced to sit for hours in his best clothes – always too tight – but never allowed to speak. When Great Aunt Gemma finally died, the sitting room was never used again.
There, would have been the bedroom he shared with his three brothers. Crammed into a room barely bigger than the pantry in this new house, the boys had fought and played. Martin remembered, as the youngest, he always seemed to get the worst of it. He hardly saw his two oldest brothers now, one living in South Africa, the other in the United States. The siblings had been flung all over the globe. He and his next oldest brother, Jerry, were the closest, both based in Melbourne, Australia. His sister Prudence was in Brazil, while the baby of the family, Millicent, was a truck driver in the West Australian mines.
He remembered the boys had always been jealous of the girls. The two of them shared a room bigger than their own, an unforgivable injustice. Their parents had excused the inequity by pointing out the boys’ room was the furthest from the front of the house and thus from the attention of the neighbours. Enough aware of their raucous behaviour, the boys had no answer to this logic.
As Peter ushered him from room to room, Martin had the disquieting feeling that it was his home, but not. The view out the windows was much the same. Some trees were taller, some had gone altogether. Some of the old houses remained, some, like his own, had disappeared from the landscape to live only in the memories of old men.
They were standing at the back of the house, in front of the enormous windows, when Peter asked “Sorry, Martin, did you say what your surname was?”
“No, no I didn’t. It’s Randler.”
Peter nodded and returned to his contemplation of the view. Suddenly he turned to Martin and said, “You’re not related to Henry Randler, are you? He was a teacher.”
“He was my father. Why? Did you know him?”
Peter laughed. “He was my father’s history teacher. The old man talked about him all the time. Apparently he used to do these crazy stunts. Once, they dressed up as knights and held a tournament in the gymnasium. Another time he had them building a pyramid on the oval using hay bales he got some farmer to ship in. Dad was always keen on history and credited your father with giving him that passion.”
He looked at Martin and shook his head. “Imagine if Dad were still here and I could tell him I had Henry Randler’s son in my house. That I lived where Henry Randler lived. He’d be tickled pink.” He smiled. “Dad said your father used to go digging out in the farmlands somewhere. He’d come into class with his latest find. Arrowheads, potshards, that sort of thing. Although, Dad did say he once came in with gold. It was a misshapen lump but your father claimed it was probably a crown. Never told anyone where he got it, of course.”
“I remember that,” said Martin. “He used to get into a fearful row with my mother because he’d clean them in the kitchen sink and she was forever scrubbing mud and muck out of it. We always wanted to go out with him, but he’d never take us. Top secret, he said.”
The two men laughed. Then, Martin, a memory churning in the back of his mind, asked “Is the old brick kiln still here? The one in the back corner of the yard?” Even as he said it he was scanning the garden below, but could not see the distinctive red brick walls of the kiln and his heart sank, even before Peter replied.
“The walls were pretty unstable. We had to knock it down.” He glanced at Martin. “We still have the bricks, though. Down the side of the house.”
Martin looked up at him and grinned. “Feel like going brick-hunting?” he said.
Peter looked at him quizzically, shrugged and said “Why not? How much stranger can today get?”
Peter took Martin out a side door and down the far side of the house. The bricks were stacked neatly along the fence line, their reddish hue just as Martin remembered them. He scanned along the bricks.
“What are we looking for, then?” asked Peter.
“There should be one with a sort of purple stripe through the middle of it,” replied Martin.
The two men searched along the pile, but, to Peter at least, the bricks all looked much the same. As they reached the end of the pile, Martin slumped. “I guess it was a bit much to expect it to still be here,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure we put all the bricks here,” said Peter. “It should be here somewhere.”
They moved back along the pile, more slowly this time. Just before they got to the end, Martin felt his shoe scuff something in the grass. He looked down. Half buried in the grass was a brick that had obviously fallen from the pile some time ago. He dug it out and picked it up. Turning it over in his hands, he smiled as he picked out the distinctive purple discolouring along one side of the brick.
With Peter eyeing it expectantly, Martin took his keys from his pocket and used one to scrape along the edge of one side of the brick. Then, using it as a lever, he slowly removed a small panel.
“How did you know about that?” Peter asked breathlessly.
“I watched him once when he’d been out on one of his digging adventures. I saw him hide something in one of the bricks. I managed to find the brick but I couldn’t get the panel open. I forgot about it after a while. I didn’t think it would be anything important anyway.”
Peter stared at him. Martin shrugged. “I was a kid. My father was always doing something odd. We didn’t pay that much attention.”
He stuck his finger into the exposed cavity. Wriggling and twisting, he eventually pulled free a yellowing, torn piece of paper. As Martin carefully unfolded it, they moved their heads closer to peer at the tiny diagram.
Martin looked up at his new friend and grinned. “Well, what do you make of that?”