Jane and I were enduring our homework. I chewed my tongue as I worked my way down a page of decimals but Jane’s struggles with history were beyond tongue-chewing. Mum came and peered over her shoulder.
It looked simple enough.
Queen Elizabeth I was portrayed standing smugly before two windows, outside one of which the Armada stormed towards England in anticipated victory and outside the other the Armada foundered in an actual storm. Various symbols of Elizabeth’s reign, ambitions, superiority and personality were placed about the Queen herself who was stiff with brocade, jewellery and cosmetics.
The teacher had drawn arrows pointing at various things in the picture and the aim of the homework was for Jane to complete labels to explain what they represented. So far, she had written Armada arrives, Armada sinks and was staring at the ceiling for inspiration. Mum told Jane to stop dawdling. She only gave a cursory look at mine, having less idea where the decimal point should go than I did before she went into the kitchen to start dinner.
Jane sighed. History she could get, just about. Symbolic art she couldn’t. And if she didn’t finish soon, the cartoons on children’s TV would be replaced by something boring. Pushing the homework as far across the table as possible and laying her head on her arm, she scrawled a thought next to one of the arrows and then gave up.
Mum returned to examine progress, preparing her ‘in my day we had proper homework’ speech and looked down at the label pointing at good Queen Bess with her hand on a globe. Jane had written ‘she liked jography’.
We could almost feel the seismic response working its way through our mother’s system. The only thing stopping her from yelling immediately was the fact that she didn’t know whether to start on history, laziness or spelling. She had just worked up enough steam to open her mouth when Dad came home early from work.
‘I’ve bought another house,’ he said.
Mum’s mouth shut, opened again, shut again. After a pause she choked out, ‘what do you mean you bought another house?’
‘Well, it’s more of a holiday cottage,’ said Dad. ‘It needs a bit of doing up.’
Mum peered round at the ancient anaglypta that Dad had tried to remove and then painted over in two shades of blue (going round the furniture rather than moving it) and the bit of plastering he’d started but not quite finished and finally in the general direction of the lean-to which was leaking yet again, despite all Dad’s attempts to fix the roof. If that moment had been frozen as a picture with arrows and labels explaining things, I suspect all the comments would have been very rude.
‘Everything will be fine,’ Dad said. ‘It’ll be an investment. We can let the cottage out. Besides, it’ll be good for the girls. Fresh air, countryside, wildlife, history and -’ he added as an aside to us, ‘pirate gold.’
‘Pirate gold?’ Jane and I breathed.
‘It’s right by the beach. There are caves. It’s Cornwall. Bound to be pirate gold.’
I often wonder how my mother’s eyes never got worn out from all the rolling.
A month later, we went to Cornwall.
By the time we got there, our senses were on overload. Four hours of trailing through country lanes had made us stiff. We had taken Harlequin the cat with us and she sat on our laps in turn. When Dad cornered too sharply, she anchored herself with her claws. Dad’s efforts to install a radio meant there was a hole with a draught and lots of dodgy loose wires in the dashboard. We were thus reduced to making our own entertainment. Dad had sung his way through the entire contents of the 1956 Youth Hostellers’ Association song book about three times. We joined in to start with and then simply sat back and suffered. Dad, I should point out, was tone deaf.
Jane and I discussed the cottage. We decided it would be white, with a thatched roof and roses round the door. The sea would be just a few yards away and when it stopped raining, we’d go down to our own private beach and swim before treasure-hunting in the caves. The sitting room would have window seats. We would each have our own bedroom with a sloping ceiling where we could pretend to be Anne of Green Gables.
Mum broke into our thoughts as the car splashed through another huge puddle. ‘It does have a functioning kitchen and bathroom, doesn’t it?’ she said as if that sort of thing was important.
Dad, as perhaps you can tell, had never got round to showing us any details.
‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’ said Dad, backing up a lane to let someone else go through for the four millionth time.
It was early evening and still pouring, when half an hour after that, we met the cottage.
‘I thought you said it needed just a bit of doing up,’ said Mum.
‘It’ll look better in the sunshine,’ said Dad.
‘Will it really?’
There are some things that whitewash can’t cover up and this was one of them. The cottage looked as if had been thrown together from grey lumps of rock without the use of a plumb line and each stone was fighting to escape back to the quarry. The windows were grimy. The roses round the door looked diseased and overgrown. They were whipping round in the wind and rain on a loose trellis as if they wanted to pull the house down on purpose. The gables were green. Or perhaps more accurately, they were mossy.
‘Chop chop,’ said Dad, handing us stuff to take inside. Jane and I exchanged glances. Most of it seemed to be camping equipment. Juggling a large box and a struggling cat, Dad unlocked the door and let us in. Harlequin jumped down and vomited on the cracked lino.
It improved the smell of damp.
‘Right,’ said Dad, ‘this way.’ He led us into a small bright room. It had a table. Otherwise, there were just spaces where a cooker and fridge should have been. He rummaged in the box for a camping stove, a kettle and a container of water. ‘While we’re waiting for that to boil, we’ll have a look around.’
‘You said this place had a functioning kitchen,’ said Mum.
‘What’s wrong with this? It’s got a roof and walls. Don’t you remember all the fun we’ve had cooking on camp stoves? It’ll be fine.’
‘Weeeelll,’ he indicated my box. I opened it to find the dreaded camping bucket with the loo seat.
My mother was not a swearing woman, but I thought she might finally break her rule at that point.
We started the tour.
What seemed to be the sitting room was large but very dark: overhead lights producing less illumination than a birthday cake candle. The grubby ceiling’s black rafters seemed to get lower the longer we stayed under them. Things dropped onto our heads.
‘We’ll just pop back to the kitchen and make something to eat,’ said Dad. ‘You girls go and explore upstairs. Maybe we’ll have a nice Spanish omelette.’
Jane and I exchanged a glance. Our friends said Spain was wonderful but we’d been put off by the thought that Dad’s Spanish omelette, which comprised undercooked potato, onion with bits of peel on, eggs burnt on one side and raw on the other with the occasional bit of shell for extra crunch summed up Spanish cuisine.
‘I’ll make something to eat,’ said Mum. ‘You find something to drink.’
With some foreboding, Jane and I went upstairs. A creaky flight of steps led up to four bedrooms. Sloping ceilings abounded, so did peeling floral wall paper and threadbare curtains. From the biggest room, we looked down onto the sea which crashed and slammed against the beach as if it was trying to eat its way towards us.
We went back out onto the landing. There was some sort of pointless cupboard with a warped, vomit green door between two of the bedrooms and opposite, a much smaller, even more pointless cupboard embedded in the thick wall of the house itself. Masses of cobweb stretched right across its small brown door. A large spider sat in the middle. It was hard to be sure if the web was trembling from the draught or the spider was stamping its feet in warning.
Above us tiles rattled and a steady drip had made a puddle on the thin carpet.
At the end of the landing was another door. Varnish had been applied in streaks and lumps, congealing as it ran down in dark trickles. As Jane reached to open the door, Harlequin, whom I’d been carrying, hissed, squirmed out of my arms and shot downstairs.
‘Shall I get Dad?’ I suggested but Jane was made of sterner stuff. She pushed at the door. Nothing happened.
‘Come on Laura,’ she said. ‘Help me.’ She grabbed my hand and forced it onto the handle.
‘You don’t want to go in there,’ said a deep, warm voice behind us.
We both jumped and spun round. There was no-one there.
‘Perhaps we should go back downstairs,’ whispered Jane.
A plate smashed in the kitchen followed by a muffled exchange. It sounded bad-tempered.
‘Oh don’t leave me,’ said the voice.
A breath of warm air wafting round our ankles made us look down. Out of the small, pointless, cobwebby cupboard poked a dark green snout.
‘Don’t go away just yet,’ said a dragon. ‘I haven’t had anyone to talk to for decades. Come and make friends.’
END OF PART ONE
Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.