Excerpt: A Fearful Love

This is how L himself, writing his MEMOIRS in the last days of his life, described the Hampstead house where he grew up and lived until the revolution, and where he liked to have it believed that he was born:
“The house where I was born stood on a quiet street lined
with old trees, and the quiet houses were shady and shadowy.
Dogs slumbered in the gateways, and old men and women
slumbered in upper rooms behind drawn blinds. Our house
was wound to the eyes in ivy. It could not, so it seemed,
brush it out of its eyes, because its arms were bound to its
sides by the tough ivy-boughs. It was hooded by a dark roof,
and being so muffled, being a blind and snuffling house, it
looked equally unhappy in summer green or autumn brown.
… In front there was a stone wall and a lych-gate in which
a knotted bell-rope hung. I sensed that if I pulled that rope
it would open the flood-gates of the universe and the whole
solid world about me would be shattered. … The garden
was a large one, with square patches of green surrounded
by tall old trees. Near the bottom of the tree-trunks were
the scars where years before branches had been lopped off.
It was my belief that these were the mysterious holes that
snakes inhabited, and that the roots which sometimes stuck
up in humps from the earth were the bodies of long dead
and badly interred serpents, who, if trodden upon, would
lift their heads from the ground and destroy, destroy, not
me alone but the whole quiet, tree-lined, slumbering-dogguarded
world. … At the bottom of the garden was an
orchard, and I remember one old fig-tree that I loved. But
to venture all that way alone was a daring escapade, and
I went there only once when neither gardener nor nurse
was there, at the still, lonely, thrilling hour of three o’clock
in the afternoon, when the whole quiet world was asleep,and the sun was slumbering in his respectable heaven, and
I stood there in blue-brown shade under a pine tree on
the stony, needly earth looking to the fig-tree for comfort
and reassurance, but it stared back at me with its drooping
eyes, threatening me, and I was numb with fear. … There
was a sunken garden, a pond in the middle of a circular
rockery, where I once put a pet tortoise which I never found
again. And there was a sundial mounted on three round
steps which was in mysterious collusion with the sun to
tell the time to my father only. There was a conservatory,
which we called the Studio. In it on rare Sundays my father
modelled heads in clay, which were removed on completion
to the high places of the drawing-room. … They grew in
number over the years, but slowly, like choice souvenirs
of a reign of terror, the eternal accusers of children, baked
reminders of a still, dead world. The house was a place of
holy silence. For some reason we had always to be quiet: my
brother was ill, my mother was resting … It was a very big
house to me, the rooms very high, the passages very long
… My early memories of my mother are more numerous
than of my father, but are equally vague. I remember sitting
– whether on one or many occasions I cannot say now – on
the blue-carpeted floor of my mother’s music- room, under
the huge dark grand piano, as my mother played Scarlatti,
and I watched her shoe decorated with cherries going up and
down on the pedal. It seemed an angry noise pumped out
by the energetic little fruits from the great brute of a piano.
… And I remember her lying on a chaise longue, her red
hair glowing in the long nostalgic shafts of late afternoon
sunshine, her fingers playing with a string of pearls that hung
about her neck. … Kept in an antique bureau were a set of
china tulips and a pack of tiny playing cards which she would
let me play with. She seemed to me to be playing a part in a
story, not doing and unable to do anything irrelevant to the
plot, and the plot in which my mother and I were involved
was indefinite and interminable, the enemies invisible, and
the evil elusive, but more certainly present than my mother
or myself. … Through all those days I was afraid. In the
nursery I would sit and sort my particles of understanding,
feeling about my thoughts as with a hand in a box whose
lid I could not raise far enough to let my eyes help with the
search. And I explored the lawns and flower-beds, and the
paths and rockeries, with a bow and arrow in my hand, and a great space between me and the heavens, comforted to
hear the scrape of the gardener’s shears at the edge of the
grass-plot. The world of street and house and garden, and
all the silent walking things and the silent growing things
and the silent pushing and blossoming and aging and falling
things, and the silent sunshine and the rain and the noisy
thunder and the sweet wet smells and the first bird singing,
and the music from the house, and the crushing of little
stones beneath my feet, and the pushing-through-colours of
darkness, and the tasteless butter of the electric lights, and
the black sky mounting the stars, and ungreetable sleep,
and weak awakening dropped on familiar voices like cool
water through the warmth of a dream; the unclassifiable
details that made up the myriad shapes and textures that
my groping hand could feel in that dark box of being, were
worth the risk, the fear, the unframed questioning. For terror
was in the veins of youth, and made a child kin to the
earth, consanguine with the rooted things, with the little
animals in the grass, and with the whole precarious world
that would seem so firm, portioned out and bricked in and
dog-guarded, ivy-bound, sky-lidded. The bell-rope that I
must never touch might indeed be fixed to the flood-gates
of chaos, and though I never pulled it there was a slow and
dangerous leak. Through all those quiet unmoving days,
the terror mounted in the holds, in the sheds, in the houses,
gardens, countries, deserts, marshes, continents of the mind.
My mother fingering her long necklace in the blue music room,
and my father carving a fine eye in the studio, and
my nurse stitching in the sudden light of a window, have
ceased suddenly to man this world, have turned from me
into themselves, abandoning me, with a handful of china
tulips, to three o’clock, to the shade beneath the fig-tree, to
the secret of the sundial, to the path of the tortoise.”

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