Below the Hills, as heard on Either Author/Wandsworth Radio
Deep in the heart of the Lake District is a small flint cottage.
We lost it.
We didn’t mean to lose it. In fact, it was such a gradual process that we didn’t realise we were in danger of losing it until it was too late.
The cottage was old and worn away. There were holes in the roof, age-old coatings of paint were visible in shapes on the walls and the floorboards were bare and weathered. Brick by brick, over time, we rebuilt the house. Summer after summer we drove up from London to our little place in the wild. We filled up the cracks, secured the roof, dusted, swept and planted things in the grass around the brickwork. We added bits and took bits away but never, not ever, changed it too much. It was our cottage. It had always looked like this even before our time and we wouldn’t have changed it. Inside the house on one side of the room lay a dusty red velvet sofa, a pink armchair and some wooden stools around a small table. On the other side of the room was a kitchen layout and a big fireplace with a rack to dry our soaked through clothes, clothes that were besieged by the rain. The windows, having witnessed many generations, wore a layer of dirt on the skirting. The relatively newer bathroom lay to the side of the small staircase leading up to two bedrooms. The beds were old Victorian hospital beds, springy and rusty, with mismatched rugs and quilts.
We bought the cottage in an auction. It was the remains of an old farm that burnt down in the 1800’s. It no longer belonged in the world we know, it had fallen back below the hills like the whistle of a bard’s song. No road, no address and it was too old to be on any map. Time cast it aside into the wilderness in which it lay. We had a map with a black spot in the middle of a green patch on the page, but this was not a particularly useful illustration unless you already knew where you were going. Nevertheless I could always recall the way as we went, vaguely perhaps but with certainty that every step we took was in the right direction. Down the dirt track past the pub in the village, past the oldest looking tree on the hill, across the old bridge and then over the hills for quite a long while. Our father always held the map under one arm but we didn’t need it. Not us, the young and sprightly warriors of the woods that we were: me with my pee-shooter and fishing hat, my sister with her magnifying glass investigating the conspiracies of the grass.
We filled the house with things. Things that were teapots, brooms, blankets, a stove, people, dogs and the smell of outdoor cooking drifting through the ground floor. Once we cooked a hog roast. After not very long a childish storm came, annoying but not dangerous, which very nearly left us without a fig to eat. We made a shelter from some tarpaulin and sticks to finish off the hog and we ate like kings by the fire, playing cards into the night, safer still somehow with the assuring sound of rain pattering on the dirty windows. On nicer days we went fishing. Once we saw wild deer across the lake, six in total dancing across the field. It was an astonishing sight to see so many in one place even for a child. Our father used to say that they were beautiful because they were rare, from a distant England that existed now only in stories.
Back in London my sister and I used to build fortresses in the living room. We made them out of tables and chairs and used duvets to cover them from any prying adult eyes. We’d fill our temporary home with odd bits from around the house. My sister had one of those mini doll-sized drawer sets, which she insisted we only kept for the essential items of the fort and the top secret biscuit compartment. Sometimes the fort would stay up for the entirety of the Easter holidays. Sometimes it would just fall to pieces by the end of the day. This all depended on the craftsmanship and how equipped the chosen location was to sustain us. The adults would never disturb us during this ritual. It was an unspoken rule that we were not to be acknowledged, except of course on those occasions where the fort itself lay between an adult and a routinely necessary piece of equipment such as the airing cupboard or a cutlery drawer. Once we camped with some of our friends at the bottom of the stairs, which eventually led to another fort being built at the top and warfare between the two. This lasted nearly three days and was escalated when we discovered we could use duvets to slide down the stairs into a cushioned heap at the bottom.
It’s strange that when we are young a hideaway, a shed in the garden or a fort in the living room, is such a stimulating venture. We’re drawn to the idea of being far away from everything that makes up our roots. Then when we are older all we want to do is find home.
One year our father got sick and we didn’t go back to the Lake District that summer. Time passed, and eventually other things grew more important, the chance to go abroad or some one off occasion: a wedding, a job, or a graduation. We didn’t think of the cottage because it didn’t seem important anymore. When I was twenty-two I got a job in Covent Garden working for an advertising firm and my little sister went away to university to study philosophy.
Over a long stretch of time my sister’s visits home became somewhat important to me. The feeling of wholeness I got with our rare family mergers outweighed the brazen and pompous disposition I had adopted towards life as an upshot to my duly spent adolescence. I thought sometimes of the cottage and I wanted to go back. I wanted to find that missing piece of our past and see if it was still the same. No one knew the way though, so for some years more I forgot about it. There was the map and on it we’d drawn directions to the cottage, but this left us when everything else did. All of dad’s stuff, save a few treasured items, the things that last when we are gone: his old pilot wings, his watch, some photos, we put them in a box and stored it in a safe place, but not the map.
Every now and then I’d think back to the time we spent below the hills but they gradually became a distant memory, and yet as they faded they became clearer, a romantic notion of summers passed. One day when I was much older I decided I would find the house. It became a quest for which something, perhaps part of my salvation, depended on. We went on a road trip one year to find the cottage. The pub was no longer there; it had been turned into a hotel. The trees had grown thicker and taller and the undergrowth had swallowed up the outline of the valley. The dirt track still survived - larger and dustier than before - and yet of course so much smaller than I remembered. We could not find the bridge. So, without a starting point we walked for a day or two, searching for some sign of something we could pinpoint. Nothing. If we were near we did not know. The trees and the water, the slopes and the ditches, they were none of them similar enough. All were almost but not quite the right size or shape to be familiar. We camped in a clearing in the woods that night. I’d forgotten what the stars looked like.
There is a house in the heart of the Lake District.
We lost it.
I tried to find it, but some things in life once lost cannot be redeemed. It was a choice, you see, and though I will never have it back that very feeling of longing for it is what brought me back to life. I am still searching. I am inevitably searching for that irretrievable past tended only by the beauty of my memory, for that irrevocable moment in time when I let go of my foundations and drifted seamlessly into life’s current. And if I could just reach it I might, luck permitting, bring myself back to the simplicity of my youth, and the purity and clarity of life that the bravest of us eventually give up for something much darker.