Chepstow

Buried Secret

A BURIED SECRET by Liz Eastham

The moment I stepped into the greenhouse I felt as if I'd been there before. This feeling was overwhelming like the heat, the heaviness, the weight of the fruits dangling down. Tomatoes, large fat green, bursting buds of passion fruit, purple yellow white spiky flowers. The atmosphere was oppressive, airless, pungent, musty, still. I knew I had never been here before but I felt it so strongly like an ache in my memory, like waking from a dream you desperately want to hold on to. Maybe that was it - I'd dreamt of this place, not here in this garden, but in a greenhouse somewhere, anywhere. That would explain it. Yet I couldn't help thinking, knowing, that something else must have happened - there must be another part of the dream - to explain the feelings of sadness yet excitement, of fear, intoxication, heady in the moment, yet seeming far away.

Then I suddenly felt a jolt as my companions snapped me back into the present reality. Admiring the gardens of a country estate with its wide spaces of lawn contrasting with small enclosures with gazebos, follies, brooks, shrubs with leaves glowing like flames, the playground of the wealthy family who had lived there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As we left through the gift shop, too late to see the house, I purchased a book to make up for it. I could always come back again and felt a strong urge to do so, my curiosity having been aroused by the strange experience of deja vu in the greenhouse.

That night I sat up in my bed in my hotel room reading the book on Staveley House, built in the late eighteenth century by the wealthy Billingham family. Despite my interest, my eyes started to droop after the first two pages, so I put out the light and fell into a deep sleep. I did not dream of the garden or the greenhouse, but of stairs, lots of them, grand carpeted stairs and spartan wooden ones, of a plain curtainless landing window with views out onto fields. My legs started to move restlessly as I woke and there were tears in my eyes. I felt a heavy sadness, which dissipated as I woke fully and the dream receded into insignificance.

I returned to the book, the photographs of the splendid gardens, the exterior of the house, ivy clad, solid, with stables at the rear, a large fine front door and large windows set in wooden frames. A group photograph of the servants in front of the house had been taken in 1885. I turned the pages to find the son and heir, James Billingham, thick wavy hair and handsome features. He had an air of authority and arrogance, his face well-sculpted with a distinctive mismatch of the shape of his cheekbone, the right side higher than the left. A knock on the door prevented further reading as my friend summoned me for breakfast and departure.

Two days later I was in my mother's living room. There were photo albums on the coffee table, large black pages with faded photographs in black, brown, white and cream, brittle at the edges. Someone had painstakingly stuck every photograph in place and written the place and year below in white crayon. Some had fallen out of the little corner frames, which had become unstuck over time, some had writing on the back, loopy and neat, in the way that was standard then.

My mother was unable to tell me much beyond her grandparents. Family history was not a popular subject until recently. Nobody was interested in whether great aunt Maud had worked in a factory, only in the heroics of relatives who served in the war. The war was the great defining event for everyone - nothing else was relevant.

“There's a good one.” Mum passed over a picture of four adults. “That's granny and grandpa and that's granny's parents.” A tall woman with striking eyes, my great-grandmother looked proud of her daughter at her wedding in 1936.

“Do you have any others of great-grandma?” I asked. “Do you know anything about her?”
“I vaguely remember her,” Mum replied. “All I know is that her mother was in service, like a lot of people until she married. Her father was quite a few years older as you can see from this picture.

Mum handed me a picture taken in 1905. My great-grandmother was twenty. She had thick hair, bundled on top of her head, like a large framed hat. Her right cheekbone protruded out above the left.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I'll be back in a minute.” I went to get the book about Staveley House from my bag. I opened it to the picture of James Billingham and passed it across to my mother before turning to scrutinise the one of the group of servants. I saw two things in my mother's face: her cheekbones and an expression of amazement.