Chepstow

Visiting the Past

VISITING THE PAST by Judith Kelman

We crept nervously on to the grounds of the once beautiful old manor house. The old fear of ‘the gentry’ still lingered from the days when my mother and her sister had both worked in service as girls. I think they half expected to be told they were trespassing.

At seven years of age I already knew something of my mother’s early life, and understood her fear as well as her contempt for some of her former employers. I had seen her anger when faced by “Trespassers will be Prosecuted” signs when we walked in country lanes.

There was nothing I loved more than hearing stories about my mother’s early life, and that of other members of her family, except perhaps going on excursions with her to visit all the places where they had once lived or worked. I was born some years after my siblings, and I missed out on the many visits to Nanna and Grampy that they had so enjoyed, and had such happy memories of. I always felt I missed out on a lot. Today was a day I could catch up on some of those memories.

We had heard that the old manor house, which had employed so many family members in the past, had recently been demolished and the estate split up. My older brother and sister had spent many happy hours in the farm fields and woods here, and on the little boat at the ponds during the war years, and it was with a general feeling of sadness that my mother and aunt decided to have one last look at the old place.
I wasn’t sure why they wished to see it in its now sorry state. Perhaps it was because they remembered it in its former glory when both their parents had worked here.

The old manor house and estate had once stood amid beautiful rolling countryside and farmland, and much of the original gardens were still visible, with its greenhouses, mellow-walled kitchen garden and graceful mature trees. I was captivated. Everywhere was deep, deep green, with emerald moss and dark green ivy combined with rich green lawns and shimmering leaves when the sun shone though them.

Then we saw all the beautiful period fireplaces, laid out like dead bodies around the gardens. They were waiting to be sold. The shock of this scene seemed too much for my mother and aunt, and we turned to go. I was disappointed. I wanted to see more.
My seven-year-old heart had fallen in love with the romance of this now vanished time in history. I turned for one last look.

I gasped, and nearly fell over with the shock! Right in front of my eyes stood the house. The fireplaces were gone, replaced by gardens beautifully manicured and overflowing with summer flowers and green lawns. Why, there was even a man sweeping the driveway! I turned to tell my mother and aunt, but they were nowhere to be seen. I rubbed my eyes and turned back to the house, fully expecting the scene to be just in my imagination, but it was still there, and so was the man. He had stopped sweeping and was leaning on the brush, looking right at me. He was thin and wearing a cap. He looked somehow familiar. I squinted at him and was reminded of my grampy, who had died when I was three. It couldn’t be though, could it? I was too scared to ask him, and he didn’t speak, so I walked on into the garden where I became aware of birds singing and a strong scent of roses everywhere.

I wanted to find my mother to tell her the house was still here, and hoped to find her and my aunt in the walled kitchen garden. They would feel more at home in there, so I found a tall wooden door and tried the latch. Before I could go inside however, I became aware of someone walking towards me. Oh no! I had been caught trespassing. What would I give as my excuse? That I had lost my mother and my aunt, and was looking for them? But then they would get into trouble too.

I turned to face the oncoming footsteps and saw a little round woman with her hair scraped back, a wraparound pinafore under her coat, and a smile on her face. She looked as if she had hurt her back as she walked with a slight stoop and uncertain steps. In her hands was a basket, and two small children skipped beside her, a girl of 3 and a boy of 5.

I looked hopefully at the kindly face, but she didn’t seem to see me, so I spoke to the children, asking them if they had seen my mother. Just like the man I had seen earlier, the two children looked familiar to me, and looking closer at the woman, I thought she looked like the picture I had seen of my nanna, who had died two years before I was born. My mother loved to tell me how I had come along to help her get over her mother’s death, and I wished so much that I had known her. I felt very confused. My brother and sister were both years older than me, but the two children standing before me seemed very familiar. I asked them who they were and they told me they were called Fiffie and Sonny, and they were staying with their nanna and grampy because of the war. They were on their way to take Grampy his dinner.

I frowned. The Second World War had been over for nearly eight years, but these children seemed to be saying they thought it was still happening. They certainly had the same nicknames as my brother and sister. Curiouser and curiouser.
They hadn’t seen my mother and aunt, so I said goodbye. The woman seemed not to see me, and she scolded the children for holding her up when their grampy needed his dinner, but I could see she adored the little ones and she ended her scolding by calling them “my chickabiddies.”

The children waved to me and I reluctantly had to leave them. I was getting a bit close to the big house, and was scared someone might come out and shout at me. Some dogs suddenly appeared, running towards me and barking. I began to cry, and wished I could see my mother. As the barking dogs bore down on me I closed my eyes and wished very hard.

The barking stopped. I opened one eye and there was no sign of the dogs. In fact there was no house either! I blinked a few times, but it didn’t reappear. There was no man sweeping the drive and no little woman with her two grandchildren. Instead I was standing amid all the fallen fireplaces I had been so anxious to get a better look at.

Had I been dreaming? Had I really seen my nanna and grampy?
A voice behind me made me jump. “Come on! Where have you been? They will set the dogs on you mind!”
It was my mother.