‘Is it really a year since I saw you all?’ Mrs. Bannister wiped her hands on her apron and ushered her guests into a cool, lavender scented hallway. ‘Welcome home, my dears!’ She beamed, opening her arms to gather them all in. ‘Welcome to Newland. They all nodded, remarking that it hardly seemed possible, even a month was too long. ‘Then time really has stood still!’ she smiled.
For fifteen summers they had ‘come home’ to Mrs. Bannister’s, the Carmichaels by train from Derby and the Dunns from Bedford in their old Ford Cortina.
Long before their train approached Tilford Junction the Carmichael children would gather excitedly at the carriage window to catch their first view of the sea, while the young Dunns, bored with ‘I Spy’ and car spotting, watched eagerly for ‘water’ on the road where sunlight struck the camber. A sign, Mr. Dunn would pronounce, of a hot spell to come.
There were five children in all but as the years passed only the youngest came, Susannah Dunn and Christopher Carmichael, the others having left home or become too old for family holidays.
Mrs. Bannister had lived at the top of Cloud Hill for as long as anyone could remember. Newland was a pretty, sun-bleached house with yellow shutters. It had seven bedrooms: the Harbour, the Garden, the Sunset and the Sanctuary and, at the top of the house, a large attic with windows that opened to the heavens. This was divided up into three smaller rooms, each decorated with stars and moons. It was known to the children as ‘The Sky.’ Here, silence hung like a mist, undisturbed even by the sound of gulls or the breakers beyond the sea wall. Here time stood still.
At the end of a long drive there was a gate which, when unlatched, swung noisily on its hinges. Hearing it, Mrs. Bannister would appear in the doorway, a small figure with a face that was neither young nor old, a face that had never changed in all the years they had come.
Once installed, the first to arrive would come down to greet the others. And in the cool, familiar hallway they kissed cheeks and marvelled at how the children had grown in a year. This year though the boy and the girl hung back, forgetting past friendship and eyeing each other awkwardly as strangers might. And it was true, they had grown; Christopher, almost thirteen, was already a sturdy young man with a hint of hair on his top lip.
‘Hi.’ He greeted the Dunns politely but his eyes avoided Susannah whose golden hair, no longer plaited, had been cut prettily to frame her face. Then Mrs. Bannister, sensing their awkwardness, took their hands at once. ‘To the Sky!’ she cried playfully and together she and the two young people raced up three flights of stairs to the top landing, their faces lit by excitement and by the yellow-gold light from stained glass sailing ships on the landing windows. Now they knew they were home!
From the moment they set foot on the stairs Susannah and Christopher had entered another world. Here in their Sky home summer promised never to end. And here, like Mrs. Bannister, they too were neither young nor old. Emboldened by rediscovered freedom, they were soon chatting eagerly through the partition wall that separated their little attic rooms, all shyness gone. And just as it always had, time stood still.
That night when supper was over the two families took a stroll around the harbour, ‘For a good dose of sea air,’ as Mrs. Dunn called it. Afterwards the adults chatted over coffee in the lounge the children returned to The Sky where they talked till late.
‘I wish I was Mrs. Bannister,’ Susannah murmured. ‘Imagine always living by the sea.’ It would be like being on holiday all year round, Christopher agreed. They lay in their little beds, watched over by wallpaper stars and moons – and the ghostly faces that appeared to emerge from the walls when darkness fell.
‘I don’t want to grow up,’ he announced solemnly. ‘I want to stay a boy forever.’
‘Mrs. Bannister hasn’t ever grown up, has she?’ Susannah said. ‘I wonder what her secret is.’ She yawned, made sleepy by the sea air. Soon the two friends fell silent and gave themselves up to sleep.
When night became morning their attic rooms were suddenly filled with seagulls’ cries and the delicious scent of fresh toast. The ghostly visitors now gone, the walls and ceilings revealed the little stars and moons that brightened again as morning light penetrated their rooms.
Each day Christopher and Susannah filled their bags with apples and cakes and climbed the sea wall that skirted the bay. At the top they would wait, panting in the silent heat … then hurl down the sandy slopes, squealing and clutching at sea grass to slow their fall. And, having anchored their towels and day clothes with a stone they ran, feet slapping on the wet sand and gave themselves up to the sea.
Gasping, they soon emerged, their appetites sharpened by the delicious shock of the water. Wrapped in their towels, they feasted on doughnuts and apples and warm Tizer while seagulls swooped low to feed on their crumbs. Afterwards they drew their names in the sand, six foot letters that, looking back, they could still see from the sea wall before the tide swept in and washed them away.
One day they looked up and, hearing the sound of an aeroplane overhead, waved. They paused, watching the thin chalk line it drew behind it in the sky. They began to imagine it carrying people from distant places, half-remembered from Geography lessons – Bali, Reykjavik, Marrakech. People who, seeing their names in the sand, might call to them in strange foreign voices which the two friends mimicked loudly: Chreestophair! Sootzahna! The wind carried their laughter out to sea and time stood still once more.
Returning home (for that is what Newland was), they staggered up the long driveway and trailed sand behind them in the cool, lavender scented hall. Here they were carried up on the air currents from the open door and on light beams from the landing windows, their feet light on the stairs. In their Sky world they emptied out their bags, now filled with salty treasures – shells and seaweed and little stones shaped like sugared almonds.
Every evening the adults went off in the Dunns’ car and the young friends stayed behind, happy to spend extra time with Mrs. Bannister. For years they had sat together in their dressing gowns on her old sofa, feet barely touching the ground. There was a mirror on the wall, yellowed with age, its brass frame shaped like eagles’ wings.
Mrs. Bannister always liked to sit by the window watching the light fade, at her feet a flatulent old dog, which for some reason smelled of chocolate. Rudely mimicking the poor creature’s affliction, they would shriek with laughter each time he ‘forgot his manners’ and Mrs. Bannister laughed too. Then without any warning she would press a finger to her lips as though listening intently. For what seemed like an eternity she would stare into the distance, her ageless face still and alert. They always knew then that they must be silent. But how almost impossible it was because of the urge to laugh, and how hard to breathe lest the old dog farted or snored. When they were quite sure that Mrs. Bannister wasn’t looking they would pull faces in the eagles’ wing mirror or nudge each other, one testing the other’s strength of will to be silent until, heads bowed, they buried their laughter stricken faces in their dressing gowns. Eventually Mrs. Bannister would sigh deeply and with a mysterious smile say: Nothing is ever lost because now is forever. Then, although mystified, they would sigh too and settle back against the shabby cushions.
One evening, the one that would be their last at Newland as it happened, Mrs. Bannister announced:
‘Before you go home I shall tell you a secret.’ A clock ticked unsteadily and chimed as one hand jerked to the half hour.
Over supper the Dunns had been discussing plans for their holiday next summer. Mr. Dunn had found a good deal on a time-share in Spain. The Carmichaels thought it an excellent idea. The kids, they said, would be too old by then for Newland after all.
Christopher and Susannah complained loudly. How could anyone ever be too for Newland?
‘But I don’t want to go home,’ Christopher said bleakly.
‘No,’ said the girl, ‘because here is home.’ She had seen how late it was and grew solemn, knowing that their last holiday here would soon end for they were leaving early in the morning. Through the open window the sweet scent of honeysuckle and night stocks drifted on the breeze.
‘Well, actually my angels,’ Mrs. Bannister said gently, ‘the secret is just this: you’re always home actually, no matter where you are, because Now is home. Now is forever. N-O-W …’ She sounded it slowly, drawing it out for what seemed like an eternity. ‘Remember this and I promise you, you’ll always be happy.’
Then hearing the kettle whistle on the stove she got up from her place by the window and went into the kitchen to make tea.
A fantail of light beamed in through the window and caught a piece of crystal on the sideboard, scattering rainbows across the worn carpet. The walls swayed with leafy shadows and the old dog yawned.
Mrs. Bannister was busy in the kitchen. A spoon struck a cup and water gurgled into a teapot, such comforting sounds that the boy and the girl relaxed a little.
For a very long time the room was silent – even the clock had stopped its ticking.
Eventually Mrs. Bannister returned and set a tray of milk and biscuits on the table for the two friends. ‘My goodness, time really has stood still,’ she said and began to wind up the clock with a key. Soon it began its unsteady ticking once more.
They couldn’t imagine a time when they would no longer stay in The Sky. Whispering through the partition that night they planned to return even when they were old. ‘Thirty or so,’ Christopher suggested.
‘And we’ll bring our children,’ Susannah said. ‘What a perfect place for them to grow up.’
Then Christopher, wondering what ‘our children’ meant, blushed a little into his pillow. ‘Goodnight,’ he called but, hearing no response, knew that Susannah was already asleep. ‘Goodbye Susannah,’ he whispered, remembering that the Dunns had an early start in the morning. The day was already a memory so all that was left really was ‘now’ and the delicious duck-down comfort of his bed. ‘Now is forever,’ he reminded himself, willing it to be true. ‘Now is home,’ he sighed. Soon there would simply be the silence and the stars and the wallpaper ghosts until, at last, he gave himself up to sleep.
As the years passed the Dunns and the Carmichaels no longer came to Newland. Yet twenty years on Christopher Carmichael is standing at the gateway once more. Silence hangs like a sea-mist on Cloud Hill. The house with yellow shutters is boarded up now and there is a ‘For Sale’ sign at the end of the drive. In his mind he can clearly see the ageless Mrs. Bannister at the door, her arms open in welcome. He remembers the lavender scented hallway, the lightness of his feet on the stairs and the yellow-gold light from the windows, as he is carried up once more to The Sky. There in his attic room he runs a hand over the embossed stars and moons and taps on the partition wall, half expecting to hear Susannah’s reply. ‘N-O-W is forever,’ he murmurs, knowing it to be so. ‘Now is home.’
Suddenly he too is neither young nor old but exactly what he always was and always will be. He sees the past with all its regrets and pleasures, and half-sees the future, shaped by his own hopes. All blend together in this one eternal moment: Home.
A car is parked at the bottom of the drive where his own children wait, a boy and a girl and a golden-haired woman who appears to be sleeping. He opens the gate which still swings noisily on its hinges and makes his way up the long gravel drive. The garden is overgrown but it still carries the sweet scent of night stocks and honeysuckle. Evening sunlight shines through the treetops, casting leafy shadows on the drive. His face is lit by excitement. He remembers the shabby room once more and the crystal rainbows and the long silence when time really did stand still. Just as it has right now.
He turns and slowly walks back down the drive. Seeing him, the boy calls impatiently from the car: ‘Can we go home now, Dad? Pleeease!’
His sister frowns. ‘Yes, we’ve been here forever!’ Bored, she breathes on the window and writes a name in the steam: Susannah. The golden-haired woman opens her eyes. ‘But we already are home sweetheart,’ she smiles. ‘What a perfect place to grow up.’
Christopher gazes a moment longer at the house with yellow shutters. Even the children’s impatience hasn’t troubled the silence. Then he presses a finger to his lips and, for what seems like an eternity, stares into the distance.
‘Your Mum is right,’ he says at last, ‘Welcome to Newland.’
© Moyra Irving 2011