The Humber really was ruby-coloured, and coldly frothed. Everything else was grey. The border force, two young grandfatherly men, were curious, then amused. The motorway was a flat streak of bleak cutting the country at a new angle – the power stations like space stations, hallucinated alien battleships invading. Brits obeyed the traffic laws, unlike everyone except the Swiss in Switzerland (they ignore them in other countries) as the motorway narrowed and the traffic swelled to a stop. All the roads and railways have congealed while we were away.
Via the Foodbank in Rochdale to collect the keys from Jenny. She and legions of small, bright-eyed retireds in name badges have a warehouse full of produce to be sorted, stacked and given, parsimoniously it seemed to me, to only those with vouchers. If you fulfill all criteria you can have up to three boxes in three months. One man had no oven or cooker, only a fire. Is he living in a cave on the moors?
Took the last road to the valley, and all the roads taken ended in a no-through, and near the very end was the little terrace. Pulled up. Got out. Chose the worn brass key and – as the door opened there was something like a sigh. As though the house and I breathed together – an exhale of cool held breath to my in-gasp. So. Finally. Here you are.
When I worried about it, about her – I think of her now like a small stone ship, still bouyant in the waves of the hills – I worried about the bathroom. So small! I would never be able to sell her on. And yet my favourite room, immediately. The window recess set with mirrors in mosaic, reflecting and rereflecting all the winter gardens, the banks of shrubs, stones and trees wrecked by cold and rain below the wood, and bright with berries, and aburst, here now there, with birds.
The house watched me closely. Not just over my shoulder, but no more than a pace or two behind. I unpacked plates, and had enough strength to make soup and lug a mattress upstairs, and settle into it and the dark, on the bare boards. The floor boards are broad and smooth as the paint some of them wear. An owl, a male tawny, squealed five times – yikyikyikyikYIK! and silence. Amazing silence. And I did one other thing, too, before I went up. Took the wine, lifted the grate of the hearth and poured some in. Gods all bless us in this house…
Lying very still in the dark I felt, heard, the spirits of the house moving around me. As though individual rooms held atmospheres, long stilled, which now shifted and changed – I lay as still as a homeless man in a feast marquee, hoping that if I made no disturbance I might be allowed to stay. The ceilings creaked, walls clicked and snicked, the heating was extraordinarily noisy. I slept beautifully, cushioned by the boards, and was gone to Liverpool before daybreak.
The time of to-do lists! On one I have ‘lampshades’, followed by ‘lamps’. Secrets slipped out of the house everywhere I went. The observations of nature and weather, everything from ‘merlin’ to ‘red flood’, pinned on the back of the stair cupboard door. The glass head, which has something of the power of a fetish, in the spring by the back door. The ruby berries of the hawthorn bouncing in reflection around the bathroom window. The gangs of long-tail tits which surge through our trees at intervals.
Being a householder is a striking injection of power and responsibility, though the power is mostly expressed in spending. Calderdale council agreed to send some bins, and a council tax bill, and a parking permit. We can recycle about a tenth of our waste, and have to hang on to refuse like nappies for two weeks – primitive, compared to Italy, or even to Germany in the early 90s. Made friends with the postman and the meter reader, who said my only problem would be tourists.
From our valley the road over the moors to Oxenhope was bleak beyond reckoning. Even a singing high summer day would be raw up here. A kind of duned grey darkness stroked into receeding emptiness. A red grouse, a moorcock, flew over the car, landed, and watched me closely as I passed. In a Homebase on the edge of Bingley I spent a hundred and sixteen pounds on lamps, bulbs, a drying rack, a baking dish, a bath mat, and, most resonantly, a lavatory brush. Reaching the age of forty without having owned one is a good feeling. My first is a simple thing which sits in an aquamarine tin tube. It serves as a metonym for a changed life. I fear it came from China, along with everything else in Homebase. Almost bought a chopping board of bamboo parquet construction, which at least seemed an authentic Chinese artifact, until I noticed the smaller ones were more expensive than the larger ones. Sod that.
As if you could own such huge rocks, and trees, and the spring! Growing up on the mountain taught that land was an endless mystery, someone – something else’s domain, a responsibility, a deep ocean of vegetation, creatures and habitats, infinite and changing momentarily. As a landowner I have very little of it – fifty paces up hill on mossy rocks, passed a channel, a pond, lots of rocks, to a smashed bower, and all of it leaning, bulging, slipping, dripping and overgrown. What an extraordinary feeling to have ‘title’. That is accurate, too, title. It’s no more than that. I feel like the new head warden of a tiny estate, unqualified.