I lobbed another bag of clothes onto the fire. They joined the cushions, pillows, and a mattress that were already being consumed, prompting a sheet of flame to flare gloriously into the air, sparks sailing high above the trees. As I turned to grab another bag I noticed a man, perhaps in his 70′s or maybe older, not someone I knew, standing near my open gate. Living at the end of a single track road, a dead-end, in a rural area, such visitors were either lost, or….well…visiting.
I waved. He waved back, but hesitantly. A reluctant salutation.
I needed a drink. Stoking bonfires is hot work. Big bonfires, such as I was tending, suck the moisture out of you, and on this sunny day it was hard work, and I was well crisped. So I walked over to him and asked if I could help him, if he was lost. “No” he said “But thanks for asking, I’m well acquainted with this place”. Then added as a peculiar afterthought “It’s nice to see this gate open and be welcomed”.
“Pardon me?” I said puzzled. “Oh nothing….” he replied, his voice tailing off, before quietly adding “….I used to live here, it’s just that…well….I wasn’t ever welcomed here in recent years.” and then fell silent.
“I’m parched and just stopping for a drink, would you like to come in and sit in the garden and join me?” I offered, smiling. He looked me carefully up and down then softly replied “You know, I would like that, that would be welcome.” And in he came.
As I carried the tray of tea out to the garden bench I noticed he was curiously studying the pile of things awaiting their turn on the bonfire. “A big fire you have there, getting rid of old stuff?” he asked.
“No. I wish it was. It’s a long story, and not one you’ll be interested in” I replied, my voice tinged with regret.
“I take it you’ve just bought this house?” He asked. “Yes” I confirmed.
“From Mrs S?”
“Yes. Why do you ask? Do you know her?” To which he simply nodded in agreement, pursing his lower lip as he did so.
A short silence. Slightly awkward.
Then: “Why are you burning your belongings in a giant fire?” he wondered…..
“Oh well – it’s a long story…..but….the short version……. we bought the house only a few weeks ago, and then discovered that it’s been carefully and deliberately disguised to look as if its sound but in truth its riddled with dry rot and is having to be demolished and rebuilt. Before it was put on the market the previous owner had a builder carefully cover over all the evidence of rot so it would fool the surveyor, which it did.
And it’s also totally infested with bugs, some sort of tiny mite, and all our possessions are infested, and burning is the only solution. We can wash some clothes and they might be ok but everything else has to go, according to advice from the Environmental Health Dept. That’s my bed which is burning just now. Currently I’m sleeping on the floor. But I’m pulling all the floors and ceilings out next week and the roof is coming down after that, all going in the bonfire. The previous owner has gone off with our money to the Western Isles to be with her daughter who lives out there, and apparently intends to build a new house for her retirement. We’ve got a bill of more than £70,000 to fix this mess she’s left us with. ” And I fell silent.
Behind us the bonfire crackled as a waft of breeze fanned the flames.
“She got you too then” he said.
“What? What do you mean?” I queried.
“Mrs S. She got you too. She got me as well.” he said quietly.
And then his emotional tale unfolded, tears welling up in his eyes as he recalled the story of the house. This house. His house. The house that had been his childhood home. He’d lived there with his brother, after his parents died, and then they both had gone off to the army, called up for National Service in Palestine or Korea. In his absence their family home had been empty. One day he received a letter from his grandmother who lived nearby – as he said this he pointed down the hill towards some cottages lower in the glen – and recalled how the letter had detailed that the local minister’s daughter had become pregnant, and needed somewhere to live and would the boys mind if she used their empty house for a spell until she got herself sorted with something more permanent. “We thought this was a good idea, she’d keep it warm and dry and it would be good to have someone living in it until we returned home.”
Many months passed. The brothers did their duty for their country, and eventually they returned. “We came up to the house and…well…to cut a long story short Mrs S refused to leave. We tried to evict her, and then we found out what she’d done. She had gone to my grandmother and said that she felt bad about not paying any rent so could she set up a rental agreement, and asked gran to sign it, which gran did, and then every month she paid money into gran’s bank account. We had authorized gran to sign stuff for us in our absence, and had put that in writing, and Mrs S knew this.
But what was presented by Mrs S to gran was a carefully and deviously worded sale agreement, not a rental agreement. And gran didn’t realize that, and had signed it. So we lost the house. We took legal action over it, but Mrs S had been smart enough to get a very astute solicitor to draw up the ‘rental’ agreement and stitch us up, so we could do nothing, and lost our case. And the house. This house. And here we are. This is the first time I’ve been in this garden since then, and that’s about fifty years ago. I live in the south now, in England. I don’t think I’ll be back here ever again. This visit was one last look at……well………at….hmm… it’s been nice to be welcomed into…..into….welcomed here, so thank you. It’s a small thing, but……..but…..it means a lot to me, this one last time. “
I sighed. A tear welled up in my eyes too. We sat together in silence and watched the smoke from the bonfire……..it curled and looped, drawn skywards to drift off into nothingness.
Then, almost ten years later…..
I was invited to be a guest speaker and tutor at a photography festival on an island off the west coast of Scotland. I was sharing a house with another participant, Alec, a gaelic scholar, storyteller and fiddler whom I’ve known personally for more than a decade, and known by reputation for several decades before that. He now lives in the Western Isles, semi-retired and interested and active in all that goes on in his small close-knit community. The house we’d been lent for the week is owned by another islander, and has some ‘history’ having been associated with several famous musicians and featuring prominently on a well-known album cover a couple of decades ago. It was warm and cosy, but imposing, set alone on a hillside with glorious views across the island, over the nearby crofting township and common grazing, to the restless sea beyond.
We’d not met for a year or two and had a lot of catching up to do. One evening after several drams and some fiddling – slow airs which Alec excels at and which I love, and which were accompanied by the atmospheric spatter of rain off the window – I recounted the ‘Story of The House’, but mentioned no names. I recounted the five years of legal wrangles, having to sue a corrupt surveyor and having his equally corrupt accomplice, a solicitor supposedly acting for us but secretly acting for our opposition, exposed and humiliated. The huge financial and personal cost of it all, the destruction of my relationship. But rebuilding the house, then walking away from it.
I offered a damning opinion of the vendor and her actions.
Alec poured me another, larger, dram. “Well well well” he said. “Let me guess, her name wasn’t Mrs S was it?”
“How did you know that?” I exclaimed.
“She arrived on my small island to live with her daughter several years back. There’s more of this story to unfold, best put your feet up!”. So I did, and as the wind rose and rattled the window panes behind us, Alec continued…
“She moved in with her daughter, intending to stay there until she got some land sorted and had her house built. The building plot was a glorious spot with views to die for, out west toward the ocean.
But how she’d obtained it was the subject of some…er…um…’controversy’, and it transpired that one or other of them, mother or daughter, or perhaps both, had befriended a local crofter and one night got him very drunk and made him sign a transfer of ownership agreement for the plot of land on which they intended to build the house for Mrs S.
Only thing they didn’t bargain for was the tenacity of the old crofter’s family, and heirs to the land, who launched legal proceedings. It went to the High Court I believe, the Crofter’s Commission got involved and it was a mess. Mrs S put up a brazen fight but lost and got legally hammered and financially ruined, having to pay all the costs.
Your money is all gone, but not on a comfortable house for Mrs S to retire in, it paid for her legal team, some of Edinburgh’s finest solicitors I believe, and her opponents solicitors as well, and rumour has it they weren’t cheap either. Last I heard she’d fallen out with her daughter and had been thrown out of the house and was living in an old damp caravan, friendless, penniless, in her late 70′s and with as little of worth in front of her as she had left behind her.”
I shook my head. My feelings of anger at this woman dissolved, my loathing of her turned to pity. I could not fathom what her motivation had been, how she could possibly justify her actions. She’d lived her life at the expense of others, and now, at a time when she should be surrounded by friends and family, with tales to share of good times past, and more to come, there stretched before her only dimming twilight. Perhaps filled with bitterness. Perhaps regret. But surely loneliness. But I’ll never know for certain.
We sat back in our armchairs, the fire glowing. Outside the rain persisted, telling weather stories to the window glass, a soft hiss of wet. Alec reached for his fiddle and this time played a happy tune for us, before we toasted each other, and the four fine walls that surrounded us on this stormy night. We had become part of the story of this, another house. One with music in its soul, and warmth in its hearth.
They are what we make them, houses.