Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. No I didn’t – it was Nantwich. I realise that’s a lot less exciting, but we have to work with the dreams we’re given. And most of us, I think, have a house that to our sleeping mind is The House, the place some primitive part has chosen to stage all our trivial and less trivial inner dramas. In my case, it’s my grandparents’ house in Nantwich, in Cheshire; a place I never actually lived in but which I used to visit every summer, and where many of my childhood’s best adventures happened. In my memory it’s a very large house, with an even larger garden, and indeed I’m sure it was substantially larger than my parents’ crowded semi, with exciting features such as a balcony you could climb onto and a hatch window from the kitchen into the dining room that I remember crawling through when I was small. The garden had a long lawn with a rose arbour, suitable for afternoon teas, and behind it fruit trees that closed ranks into a tangle of branches. If you burrowed through the branches there was a kind of corridor at the back that linked the ends of several gardens, as the fences didn’t go the whole way to the rear wall. I remember it always being summer there, and always the school holiday, a place where I would play, make friends in the neighbours’ houses, and emerge at intervals to be fed.
This particular dream carried me back to the last summer I was there, the summer I was ten, the year before my grandmother died. I dreamt I was playing piano duets on my grandmother’s grand piano. In my dream, I played the piano wonderfully, better than I’ve ever managed in real life; the music flowed from me without effort. Playing alongside me was a man I hadn’t thought about for years, but he was the reason I could date the dream, because that was the only summer he was there: my aunt June’s fiancé Adam. He was playing at the bass end of the keyboard, I at the treble, and the roses from the garden had grown into the room and were garlanding and applauding us with their colours. The piano seemed to be floating up into the air, so beautiful was our music. Maybe the dream deteriorated afterwards into some standard anxiety scenario – maybe I played so long I missed the train, or maybe I noticed I was naked and now in my adult body, not my ten-year-old one – but what stayed with me when I woke was that vision of pre-lapsarian confidence and ecstatic music, at the piano among the roses in my grandparents’ house.
So, awake, I thought back to that summer and reconstructed what I remembered about Adam. There were, I think, seven of us in the house, sometimes eight: my grandparents, my mother, Pauline, her much younger sister, June, my sister Caroline and me, and Adam, plus my father for part of the time; he only had a short break from work. My mother and grandmother and June loved to have these weeks together, since normally they lived fairly far apart, and I remember them sitting in the garden, drinking tea and talking endlessly. My grandfather sat in his chair and read. Caroline listened to her walkman a lot and wrote letters to her schoolfriends; she’d grown out of spending much time with her baby sister. I went for my usual excursions from the garden and found some of the neighbours I knew from previous visits, but I remember being glad of Adam. He was a mathematician, as I recall, and supposed to be very brilliant, but he seemed happy to talk to me. He coached me through some maths problems that were officially too hard for a ten-year-old and was delighted when I got them right. He tried to teach me to juggle, which was less successful. He also played the piano with me, and that was obviously the source of the dream. I’d only recently begun lessons, but he hunted out some duets hidden in the piano stool and played the hard parts while I added the melody over the top. It was my first taste of making music that sounded genuinely good, and of the excitement of being inside a lovely harmony. In a way it’s bittersweet to look back on, because I didn’t manage to become the stunning pianist that, aged ten, I was sure I would turn into, but on the other hand it was the start of a love of music that has remained one of my greatest pleasures. And so, although that summer was the end of some things – of summers at my grandparents’, for my grandmother died and the house was sold; of June and Adam, for they never did get married – I remember it as a happy time, when I was safe and loved and felt life unfolding before me, when the roses were full of colour and I knew I could do anything.
The evening after my dream Caroline skyped me. We talk at irregular intervals but when we talk, we talk intensely; we’re closer as adults than we were as children, now the six-year age-gap seems so much less significant. She wanted to vent about her sons, who are carefully adhering to the official manual of annoying teenage behaviour, but when her feelings were safely discharged she also had some news to pass on about Aunt June: she’d finally decided to leave her teaching job, because the school had become simply too unbearable to work in, and she was thinking of concentrating full-time on her garden and her chickens instead. This prompted me to tell Caroline my dream, wondering how different June’s life might have been if she’d married Adam.
“I don’t think she would have stayed married to Adam,” said Caroline. “I think you remember all this very rosily, Becky. I was that much older, and I can tell you one thing about Adam I doubt you noticed: he was a sexy bastard. With the accent on bastard. You realise he went off to Australia after that and simply didn’t come back? Poor June. If he hadn’t gone, perhaps the wedding would have gone ahead, but I can’t see the marriage would have lasted.
“It was so tense, that summer. Granddad buried himself in his chair and wouldn’t come out, and snapped at us when we talked to him. He didn’t want any man taking his little girl away, I reckon. Plus he was going a bit deaf by that point anyway. Grandma wasn’t her usual self either – she had headaches all the time; I think it was the start of her tumour, though none of us knew that then. And she and mum and June were endlessly chewing things over. Mum’s never said anything to me, but I’m sure they knew Adam wasn’t right for June. I caught bits of conversations – I remember hearing Mum say something about ‘blowing hot and cold’. Grandma talking about babies, how it would be hard if she were on her own. And there was some friend of June’s they were talking about, Michelle or something like that – I think he had a past with her. I mean, I was never quite present at those conversations; they tended to shut up when they saw me. But I got impressions… Of course June and Adam went off together sometimes, but less than you might expect, given they were engaged.
“He hurt her a lot. I can’t recall her ever mentioning him again. But it was easy to see what she saw in him. Well, it was for me – I was sixteen and frankly I fancied pretty much everything male and under thirty with a pulse, and there was a good deal more to him than a pulse. He wasn’t handsome, exactly, but he had really flirty eyes, and those pianist’s hands. You don’t think of maths as a sexy subject, do you, but I’d probably have tried a lot harder at it if my maths teacher had been anything like him… And he was good with you, I must say. I guess you gave him an opportunity to show off, and he liked to be admired.
“You could say he was good with me too. Or maybe bad with me. I had my first kiss with him, you know.” On the fuzzy skype screen I can see her pleased, secret smile. “In the garden shed one day, up against the bicycles. Like I said, he was a bastard.”
A month or so later I was near Nantwich and I decided to visit and look at my grandparents’ house. It was for sale; I knocked on the door, explained who I was, and asked if I could have a quick look around.
It was smaller than I remembered, unsurprisingly, but still generous. I was startled to find there were only three bedrooms – where had they put everyone? – but then I worked out that one of the bathrooms had once been a bedroom; when Adam stayed, he probably occupied it in solitary splendour, for my grandparents would never have roomed him with June, and she must have shared with me and Caroline. I was sad to see the hatch from the dining room to the kitchen had been lost, along with the whole wall it had been in, as the casualty of a trendy knock-through.
As I left, the owners put into my hand a small box. “We found this in the attic. We think it belongs to your family.” It contained letters of various dates. One of them, unopened, was addressed to June.
20th December 1987
it’s now almost three months since I’ve heard from you. I’ve written and I’ve rung you, but the time never seems to be right for you to answer the phone and I haven’t had anything by post. I’m writing to your parents’ address, in the hope that maybe my letters to London have been going astray somehow. I miss you. I’m hoping you will reply.
In case you didn’t get my previous messages, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you: as we thought might happen, the university has offered me a job. My temporary fellowship is being turned into a permanent contract, and I want to take it. I want us to live here together. This could be a wonderful opportunity for you as well as for me. I’ve been making contacts in the history department (they wonder what sort of interest I have, from the perspective of maths!) and I believe they are doing good work in exactly your area. You have a flair for research and did extremely well in your MA; you should register here for a PhD, and I think you could end up with a job here too – I really do. I want a family too, but first I want you to do what I know you’re cut out to do. I love you and I admire you. I want you to use the talent that you have, and I can look after you and support you while you study.
However, I think probably you did get my letters, and in that case I hardly know what to say. I know it’s difficult for you to contemplate leaving your country and your family; your parents were unhappy enough at the thought of you moving permanently to London. I’m not quite sure how I endured that stay in Nantwich, with you blowing hot and cold on me and only Pauline on my side. I was very glad of Becky and the piano; she seems like a nice little girl. I wonder if you’re still angry with me about Caroline, but can’t you see that the very fact I told you about it shows there was nothing else to it? What was I supposed to do when she backed me against the bicycles and flung herself at me? Well, since I’m being completely honest and I don’t think you’re going to answer this anyway, I admit I waited a little longer than I need have done before disentangling myself; she’s very pretty (she’s very like you) and I wasn’t getting much of that sort of thing from you that week. So be angry with me.
June, your house was so beautiful. I remember the roses and how lovely you looked among them. I remember the three of you, your mother, your sister and you, and how similar you seemed, how fond of each other, how closed to me. In London I knew you, but in Cheshire I only desired you. I still do, but it doesn’t seem much use now.
Yours, even so,