It’s a long drive to Devon, and worry draws out the miles. Years ago, traveling down from Uni, once I’d passed Bristol I felt as though I was nearly there, but it’s still another two hours. I’ve memorized the turns, the bends and camber now, making the same journey every weekend for the last four months — to see you.
At last I navigate the village and leave Passage Wood behind, to arrive at the end of the paved road where the footpath forks off down to the sea, where waves roll in from the Atlantic up the English Channel to break against Ham Rock. High on the cliff is Cellar House, caught in the beam of my headlights. It’s beautiful. And it still feels like coming home.
I understand why you don’t want to leave.
All those years ago, when you and Dad, your Ben, first moved in, the wooden doors had swollen closed, and the windows were boarded. Empty light fixtures dangled from damp-stained ceilings, but you and Dad didn’t care, you told us. You lit a fire, burned candles, and moved an oil lamp from room to room — it was make do and mend, back in those days.
Making Cellar House our home was your life’s work. You’d be up on ladders painting the ceilings and fixing lights; down on your knees restoring the flowerbeds and growing vegetables in neat rows around the back, out of the salty wind. Hammer in hand, you’d venture onto the roof to replace a broken slate tile, or go down into the stone-walled cellar, where Ben had set up some tools to weld and saw and fix.
Once Simon and I were old enough to hold a trowel or a brush, we worked alongside you. We had family days out, of course we did, but we loved staying at home nearly as much as you — it was our bond.
Of an evening, when you walked home from the village along the estuary road through the woods to the cliff above Cellar Beach, the setting sun turned the mullioned windows of your house to gold, and you marveled at your luck. Yet even as you exclaimed in wonder at your good fortune, I think you understood the cliff-edge balance of your house. With time all things, however strong, slip away.
As I did.
While I packed my childhood into boxes and carried them, one by one, into the attic bedroom, you turned away. After I left, you sometimes went up there and sat in the chintz armchair under the window beneath the eaves, counting my boxes. You didn’t need to see through the cardboard to know the contents: my Beswick animals, paperbacks, unfinished patchwork projects and school files.
Even though so many memories have faded, you still remember our weekly trip into Plymouth so I could visit the bookshop and spend my pocket money on a new story from the Green Dragon series. Sometimes, through the thickening mist of your mind, when you were resting downstairs, you told me you heard them in the attic breathing, “Jenny’s dragons.” You used to haul yourself up that last flight of stairs, ignoring the pain in your knee. You had to go and check because you worried my dragons’ heavy exhalations could cause a fire up there; flames catching hold of the wooden joists and boards combusting. But then you switched off the light, closed the door, turned away and forgot the room in the roof of your house.
These days, you don’t even expect me when I arrive for the weekend.
“I’m here,” I say. “Where are you? It’s been a long journey and I’d love something to eat.” But if I look in the kitchen, I know all I’ll find in the Aga is an empty casserole.
Are you so far away because you’re still trying to find my brother?
When Simon left, it was sudden. You thought he’d stay with you and Ben forever. Simon had never felt the draw of London, or even Exeter. It was as though the tide would always return him to you, until he swept away.
You tidied his room, left the hibiscus-flowered surfboard he hadn’t taken with him propped up in the corner. Simon’s Lego, his outgrown boardshorts and rash vests, easily fitted into two bags next to his guitar in his wardrobe. From time to time, you sit on the edge of his bed, and I catch you humming “California Dreaming” but the only words you sing are “on a winter’s day.”
Can you hear him strumming along still? Do you transpose his voice to a higher key from a time before you taught him how to drive, when he wasn’t allowed on the beach alone, and you could stand on the shore, holding his hand, keeping him close? Before he left with a shake of his unruly blond hair, smiles, and a wave goodbye.
Now, it’s another morning.
I expect to find you still in bed, lying on your back, waiting for your senses to reach out farther than the weight of your eiderdown anchoring you in place. Do you hear the screech of crows fighting in the woods, or the hammer of a seagull’s beak against your window?
You must hear my voice calling to you, “Beth?”
You still know you are Beth.
I knock sharply on your bedroom door, “I’m coming in.”
Do you wonder when I became too grown up to call you Mum? Do you know what I’m here to do? Are you so used to being alone now, just you, that you want me to leave?
I’m not sure you even know who I am.
You watch me draw open the bedroom curtains to let light and air in to nourish you for another day.
Perhaps you even wish I’d go away.
“Has my husband gone out?” you ask.
“Here, Beth, he’s here.” I point to his photo beside your bed.
“I’d like to see Ben, please, if you can let him know.” You reach out. Shaky handed, you knock the frame face down muttering, “I don’t need that. He’ll be here soon.”
“I’ll help you get dressed.”
You bat away my hand.
Your Ben was always up early to milk the cows and check the sheep. In a while, you expect he’ll be back for some breakfast.
You pick up some clothes left on the chair and sit slowly. You pull up your nightdress to examine the long scar running across your knee. “See,” you say, “it’s no wonder it hurts.”
Your hand is running over the back of your blue cardigan. “I made this,” you tell me again. “There goes Bethy with her little bare behind.” You giggle. “My mother used to say that when I wore this. See, it’s Rupert Bear. I knitted him into the back. It was quite tricky getting the yellow and black checks just right. Do you know my mother? She’s got such a sense of humor. You’d like her. Everyone does.”
You stop. You’ve seen the way I’m looking at you and I’m aware I’ve made you feel as though you’ve done something wrong. I know you need to talk because I hear you talking to yourself around the house. At first you worried that without Ben around you’d forget how to talk so you counted aloud, counted everything — the chimes of the clock in the hall, the stairs up to bed, even the drips from the tap. These days, sometimes you have whole conversations with yourself about what you’ll say to Ben when he gets home, words he’ll never hear.
Dressed, but not in the blue Rupert Bear cardigan because I said it’s too old and the cuffs are fraying, you stare out of the window over Cellar Beach to the mouth of the estuary and the sea beyond. I open the window. Today, it’s calm, a light summer breeze from the land causing hardly a ripple.
You gulp in salt air, it rushes down your throat, into your lungs, swirls around and then croaks its way up and out. Your eyes panic, as though you’re drowning.
“Come along, Mum, I’ve got things to do.” You look at me, puzzled.
“Are you Jenny?”
I never stopped visiting you, you know. Maybe less when the kids were small, but enough so you should recognize me.
As I worry the upheaval of sorting out the house will disturb you, I leave you in the kitchen with a cup of tea, the Telegraph, and a pencil. I know you can hardly write now, let alone come up with crossword solutions, but I need to settle you for a while because I have so many more boxes I need to pack.
Boxes to go to the auction house, boxes to go to the hospice where everyone was so nice to Dad, to Ben, in his last few days. There are plenty of other bits and pieces I’ll drop off at the tip, as I empty the house of nearly sixty years of accumulated belongings. I hadn’t realized what a collector my father was; he kept the stub of every check he’d ever written, a dozen in each neat stack, secured with elastic bands. I pick through one item after another, flotsam and jettison that will drift away.
Later, as I get ready to leave, I can see the tide is low. I know you too are ebbing away, but I can’t stay.
“I’ll be back next weekend,” I say.
I have a plan, a resolve to move you from this house to a place where you’ll be comfortable, supervised and properly cared for. Although I know it’s not what you want, each time I leave you alone I worry I have left my planning too late. Your home is here, but you need to be warm and safe, and I can’t come back here to be with you all the time. I just can’t. I’m sorry.
I kiss you goodbye, aware of the fragility of your shoulders, your slightness. I try to think of you as a strong, young woman, wandering the cliff paths for hours at a time with your spaniel, careless of warmth and safety, grasping life and joy.
Your current wanderings are limited to your mind. I’m sorry about that too.
For now, I’ve checked there’s food in the fridge and in the cupboards. You can still manage to put the kettle on, fry an egg, make toast, and enjoy a good quiz show. Your neighbor pops in from time to time, and there’s Joyce who comes to clean every other day.
Later in the evening, for the first time in months, you pick up the phone and call me.
“I seem to have mislaid my car key. Where is it?” I know you suspect I’ve taken it. And, of course, you’re right.
Before I left, I moved the key from its bowl near the backdoor, put it in an envelope labelled “Clio” and dropped it into a vase on Dad’s bookcase. I hope you’ll forget what you’re searching for and never find it. It’s safer that way.
“I need my car,” you say, “for shopping, and to see my friends. Where have you put it? Don’t expect me to walk from here to the village anymore. Not with my knee. The doctor says it’s a perfect knee, but he doesn’t know anything. It’s not his knee.”
“It’s okay, Mum,” I’m reassuring but firm. “No car necessary. Just tell me what you need, and I’ll get it delivered for you.”
“Diminished,” you say. “I feel diminished.” And I cannot find the words to reply because it’s true that you will never be the woman you were, and I will never be again the daughter I was.
After our phone call you go to tell Ben all about it. You open the door to his study and pick up his latest unread copy of Farmers Weekly, left lying on a pile beside his chair as you didn’t want me to cancel the order. There’s a Friesian cow about to give birth on the cover. You remember his strong hands that could help a newborn calf to its feet or cradle little Simon with such joy.
“Beth!” Ben’s voice severs your thoughts.
But his desk lid is closed, and he is gone.
“Where are you, darling?” Where, you wonder.
The clock strikes, you count to eight. You know you need to find him.
It’s Monday, just before midday, when I pick up the call from the police. As the officer explains the facts, my imagination fills in the details.
You knew it was too early for Ben to be in your bedroom, but too late for him to be in the fields. It’s a time when he could be down in the cellar fixing something. You wonder if he’d like some tea and a slice of angel cake.
Turn on the tap, fill the kettle, boil some water, and pour. It’s a familiar routine but you don’t always remember to turn the tap off. Ben’s favorite mug in hand, you try the cellar door, but it’s locked because of the steep steps down. You fetch a chair from the kitchen, drag it into the hallway, balance, reach up to slide the bolt.
You can hear running water. With the right moon and a high tide, waves could rush into the cellar, causing a flood. Local tales abound of the farmers who turned to fishing and then to smuggling. Although Ben never found the tunnel up from Cellar Beach into the rock base of your home, he always believed it was there.
You too believe in the stone-hewn passage winding down from the cellar through the cliff to the water’s edge.
Your hand clings to the wooden rail. One step, then another, you must search for Ben. Overwhelmed by the pounding waves, you feel Ben’s alarm as the sea begins to rise around his boots, soaking his socks, pulling him under.
You wade in deeper, the rocks close in, weeds clutch at you, and you dive down through the channels of your mind while the cold seeps up your thighs towards your heart.
“She was incredibly lucky, your mother,” the officer says. “Good thing it was summer, or she’d never have woken up.”
It was lucky, too, that the chemist’s daughter stopped by to deliver your prescription. She noticed you hadn’t taken the milk in, tried the door, banged on the kitchen window, and shouted. As you always answered the door for a chat, she raised the alarm.
Straight away, I leave work and make the five-hour drive to you. I sit in the hospital ward beside your bed and wait.
“Isn’t it lovely here,” you say when you wake and see me. “Everyone is so kind, so attentive.”
“Yes,” I say, looking at the monitor, the IV drip and the dark bruising across your cheekbone.
Your nurse tells me again how the police forced entry, found you sprawled unconscious on the hallway carpet beside an overturned chair and a broken mug. She offers me tea.
I shake my head. All I can think of is you lying cold and alone, listening to the hall clock marking the passing hours.
“Try not to worry about your mother too much, dear,” the nurse says. “As time goes by, one by one the lights go out. It’s only natural you’ll want to try to switch them back on, but…” she didn’t finish the sentence. “It’s the way it is, with her condition.”
Tonight, for the first time in my life, I am alone in Cellar House. Someone has rolled up the runner in the hall and pushed it to one side, collected the pieces of bone china and left them by the telephone. I pick up the remains of the mug and throw them into the grey bin under the kitchen sink but leave the chair blocking the cellar door.
Turning off the downstairs lights, I head up to the attic, stretch out on the single bed without undressing, and count the stars captured within the frame of the window to suppress the murmurs of guilt each creak of the house needles into me.
I expect our home will sell quickly. Most probably it will be converted into luxury holiday apartments. In our place, other families will come and go, and they will love it here, as we did.
As dawn begins to break, I close my eyes and try to silence my dragons.
Image: Sea Mist at Hope Cove by Andrew, licensed under CC 2.0.