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Undertow by David Bradford

Just above the weir where the dyke turned east away from the farm towards Willow Shaw was the perfect spot: a clear pool, milky-grey and still as glass, the only small stretch unimpeded by lily pads. Irresistible on a warm, fecund day like this. I plopped my float dead centre like a pro and, fixing hawklike on its orange tip, groped for a tuft of grass to sit on. Before I had chance to settle, my float dove like a gannet and I snatched up the line, yanking from the depths a thrashing silver roach as thick and pristine as a new bar of soap. This place! A far cry from the seedy recreation ground pond with its submerged snags and skulking bullies, here was paradise.

 

And it must have felt the same to Dad, for the next time he came with us, and from that spot looked southwest across the field and saw in an empty house a home. He walked over there, nudged the door and stepped alone, unresisted into his dream. Scraping together the funds wouldn’t be easy — 110 grand was a lot of graves to dig — but he had to make it his. Our. Home.

 

It was Bill’s fault: he brought us here, that summer of 1990. Bill was Nan’s new husband — Mum’s stepdad — who had lived here as a boy half a century ago when the river was still tidal and swamped the fields every winter. I’ll always remember that first arrival: turning left off the main road, left again, the bumpy track, the painstaking zigzag between potholes. Bill was that type of driver. Polished green Renault, crocheted cushions on the parcel shelf, tartan blanket just in case. Driving gloves on, windows wound down. Alright in the back? — Yes — we just wanted to get there, bored of ditches and trees, bumping along for what felt like forever. At last the track rose and the view opened out on to a giant Fuzzy Felt kit of greens and blues, backdropped by velvety Downs, and right in the middle a castle, an actual castle — moat, turrets and all!

 

This is the scene that would infuse itself into my blood. Does everyone have one, a landscape that enters deep and never fades, a default for the mind’s eye, header image of the inner homepage? Perhaps it’s a privilege of the rooted. Perhaps it’s our curse. Home these days is more like a page than a place: flotsam identities in floating data — avatars and images — untethered from fixed origin. Not for me. Because this view, through my childhood eyes, is pinned to my internal timeline, the screensaver that won’t refresh. At its centre lies a castle both mythic and kitsch. Not a real castle, just a folly: a metaphor for memory.

The turrets are strictly ornamental; Laughton Place was a manor house, not a real fortress, refashioned in 1534 by the Pelham family. They lorded over this land for four centuries, until grandeur fell from grace. When Joscelyn Pelham died on 14th November 1926 and nine days later his son Francis succumbed to pneumonia aged just 21, the double death duties obliged divestment. Laughton Place was put up for auction in June 1927 and snapped up by local tenant farmer C.F Russell for the bargain price of £6,250. C.F, his granddaughter Rosemary (our neighbour) tells me, was a cattle man who sold flints on the side. In his hands, the vacated manor was rubble in waiting, best left to the ravages of weather and time. Briefly bolstered as a lookout post during the war, the manor’s time was up come D-day. Eventually only the central tower remained, a crack-ridden relic of a bygone age, teetering until 1978, when the Landmark Trust stepped in and shored it up as a holiday rental, a fairytale for hire to rich Americans. Such is the centre of my scene: intimately familiar and utterly strange.

 

It is here, this spot above the weir, I return. In the summer water tinkles down into the concrete-lined plunge-pool below, one little leap on its secret ebb south across the marsh into the river Glynde Reach, into the Ouse and away to sea at Newhaven. River to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow. I have got to leave to find my way. It is here in this fetid pool we would dunk our adolescent bodies one roasting-hot summer and I’d shriek as my brother Matt touched his foot against my leg, teasing ‘Pike!’ … ‘Eel!’. It is here in wintertime flood that the water would boil and rage, overtopping the weir’s gangplanks — at all other times safe to cross — and our beloved Jack Russell Monty would be swept in and dragged under as Dad, alone and powerless against the torrent, arms outstretched and hollering, could only watch in vain. That longest short walk home, telling Mum: He’s gone, swept away; her little bundle of love not just dead but vanished, lost to the infinite downstream. Together they’d roam the fields for weeks, scouring flood debris for a glimpse of white fur, but Monty never washed up. Mum was withdrawn and tearful for months, trapped in that helpless moment, and God knows how Dad felt.

 

This landscape seeks expression unsolicited. I didn’t choose it, and it hasn’t chosen me, but here we are. Dad chose this place; the rest of us went reluctantly, hating being uprooted from our smalltown semi, leaving behind friends, changing schools. (Still today, in anxious moments, I inhale the pungent unfamiliarity of that new cloakroom, my name above a hook where I want desperately not to be.) But even eight-year-old me couldn’t fail to feel the momentousness of a man stepping into his dream: the detached house in the countryside, fruit of his graft, final proof of his worth. They think I’m just a gravedigger, but now they’ll see. I’ll show them.

 

Finally he didn’t need to worry about being judged a failure, a nobody. An Englishman’s home is his castle, or at least his folly. Dad saw himself as allergic to pretence and bullshit, a survivor who stood on his own two feet, set his own rules — I don’t give a shit what they think — but in truth the disdain, imagined or real, tugged his strings like an inner puppeteer; an insecurity so deep it could never be acknowledged, only shored up with bricks, mortar and money in the bank. Trouble was, the wolf at the door sniffed for fear not food and so wouldn’t go away.

 

Not long after moving in, cracks started creeping across the walls. Dad should have known he couldn’t trust this ground: the digging in Laughton churchyard was some of the worst in Sussex: wet and claggy, basically a bloody nightmare. The fickle clay had shifted beneath us and subsidence was setting in. Surveyors came and stuck bug-like sensors beside each crack, and for months surveilled our every infinitesimal move. Finally there was no getting away from it: we were going to need new foundations.

 

***

 

Four years earlier, it was 1987 and we — Dad, Mum, Matt and I — were oblivious to the fact that five miles southwest on a exposed plot on the windblown Laughton Levels, under the gaze of a newly restored Tudor tower, a house was being built that would be ours.

 

On the night of 15th October 1987, a historic cyclone passed Michael Fish by and ripped across the marsh, tearing down the half-built house that was not yet ours, leaving rags of insulation snagged on hedges for miles around. The builders would have to start again. Five miles northeast, a five-year-old awoke to the crackle of falling power lines, padded into his parents’ room, round to Mum’s side of the bed and nudged her awake. I’m scared.

Shhh, it’s OK, it’s just the wind, go back to bed.

In the morning I looked out and saw a heap of mangled timber where our shed used to be. Full-grown trees lay stricken across the road, their roots still clinging to giant bowls of earth like impossibly toppled Subbuteo players; and for once my fear was in proportion.

 

In 1987, the year the house that would be ours was built, blown down, patched up, Scottish band Deacon Blue released their first single: a song in which a man who works for the council as a street cleaner dreams of buying a ship, naming it Dignity, sailing away and being admired.

They’ll ask me how I got her, I’ll say “I saved my money”

They’ll say isn’t she pretty  

 

People say it’s a happy song, but to my ears it never happens: he never owns a boat, never sails, never rests — because no chance on a street cleaner’s wage. At the end of the song, he’s still yearning:

 

And I’m thinking about home

And I’m thinking about faith

And I’m thinking about work

And I’m thinking how good it would be

To be here some day

 

In my mind’s eye I see a man subsisting on a fantasy, haunted by riverside memories, a man from a song of seven years earlier, begging to know: Is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse? Beneath his dream, pressed along on a tide of want, dignity is equated with the material evidence of having made plenty of money. What ultimately happens to this man? My best guess is that he scrapes together enough money for a shitty boat, then gets shipwrecked; or buys a half-decent boat, then bobs around discontentedly envying richer men’s flashier vessels. More likely, he dies, like my dad, in the first year of his retirement; a boatload of savings unspent.

 

***

 

Sixty years earlier here, it was 1927 and on 11th September Virginia Woolf wrote to her lover Vita Sackville-West:

I think of nothing but Laughton Place. Leonard is enthusiastic. We have written to ask if we can buy — and are ready to pawn our shoelaces to raise funds. Of course they’ll say they won’t or will ask too much. But suppose they did! My word! — there would be an entire barn given up to Vita: and the garden: and the moat: and scraping off wallpaper and so on — one’s life would vanish into Laughton like smoke.

 

Three days earlier Virginia, alone with Vita, walked here; she walked across the moat, straight up to the empty manor, and broke in.

It seemed, that sunny morning, so beautiful, so peaceful; and as if it had endless old rooms, she wrote in her diary. I came home boiling with the idea of buying it.

 

To vanish like smoke. Wasn’t it that same pull that had taken hold of Dad as he gazed out from that empty house upon the fields around the tower? Had the landscape repeated its silent siren call? Unlike Virginia, he went through with it, moved us in, and countless mornings vanished into the mist, striding out across the marsh, best time of the day, his time, alone with the owls and curlews. Untormented at last. No longer just a breadwinner, but a winner: detached home owner. It was a contentment he’d wear heavily for the rest of his days, vowing to Mum again and again: Everything I want is here: you, and all that out there, waving an arm towards the expanse outside, then waiting as Mum held back. Woom loves it here too, he’d switch to third-person, no less emphatic. I know she does. [1]

 

When I ask our neighbour Rosemary, now in her seventies, about her grandfather C.F.’s dealings with the Woolfs, it’s the first she’s heard of them. On 28th September 1927, Virginia noted in her diary:

We wrote to the farmer, Mr Russell, and waited, on all wires, edgy, excited for an answer. He came himself, after some days; and we were to go and see it. This arranged, and our hopes very high, I opened the Morning Post and read of the death of Philip Ritchie. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s lover, dead at 28 from septic pneumonia.

Sorrowful thoughts rose up — I wasn’t very nice to him — and faced down her longing for Laughton Place.

So the two feelings — about buying the house and his death — fought each other; and sometimes the house won and sometimes death won.

In the end death won the spoils of enchantment.

We went to see the house and it turned out unspeakably dreary; all patched and spoilt; with grained oak and grey paper; a sodden garden and a glaring red cottage at the back.

 

 

Laughton was purely a scene for Woolf; an escape into endless rooms, a queer fantasia, the antidote to home. As soon as death stalled desire, she returned to that room of her own and fell back on her blessing — mixed at best — to set the scars to work. (Dad could only dig.) On the very next line of her diary, she plants the seed for her next book.

One of these days I shall sketch here, like a grand historical picture, the outlines of all my friends… It might be a way of writing the memoirs of one’s own times during other people’s lifetimes… Vita should be Orlando, a young nobleman.

 

***

 

By the time I was in my teens, I was dreaming all the dreams Dad couldn’t permit me. I wanted new scenes, new words and, above all, my own androgynous prince of the ice: a beautiful boy-girl who would skate me away and show me the bright lights of the city. Someone differently dangerous who would touch me and trust me and be everything I wasn’t. Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue. We would have to learn the hard way, these things don’t come easy.

 

This is no grand historical picture; this is my landscape, my only. Who am I to demean his dream, which is no more or less than mine, to keep his head forever above water? This open habitat is ours, and it can teach us a thing if only we’ll listen. It’s too easy around here to stride into silence and pass it off as inner peace. Hard though it is to hear forgiveness needs an ear because pain won’t wait, and you’re never the only one.

 

Dad arrived home from a walk one afternoon and said something like, David, I want you to come with me. We have a job to do. No small thrill to be asked, but what could it be, a job with which I could be wanted or trusted to help?

I’ve found Monty’s skull. It’s down the brooks. We’ll bury it.

 

The years had washed it clean: nestled on a tuft of grass, the bright white carapace seemed too small as I remembered Monty’s big nuzzling head. Dad though was certain: he could tell by the missing teeth which Monty had lost in his countless underground fights with foxes and badgers. Hapless, bold, attention-craving Monty, recklessly greedy and recklessly loved for it. Dad walked along the broad hedgerow until he found a suitably sheltered spot. He clambered over the sagging barbed wire, into the hollow, and dug a neat, deep hole. Gently he lowered Monty’s skull to the bottom and scooped the earth back in, firmly repeating: Don’t tell your mother, she’d be too upset.

I’ll never really know why he wanted me there with him that day. He dug graves for a living and was ostentatiously matter-of-fact about death, animal or human. But this was one hole he couldn’t face digging alone. For once he was willing to show me that he had a soft place inside — it wouldn’t come again. How could I let him know that I knew what he was doing: letting me see he had loved Monty too, that he was sorry, that honouring remains — his life’s work — was something not nothing, that he loved Mum and wanted desperately to protect her… even, perhaps, that he loved me too? I stood there dumb and awkward (only now do I cry), silently hoping that being there might be enough. Dad puffed, boots squelched, breaths intermingled, and I prayed our bodies singing; still now. An old man is with me where I go, walking in the meadows of his son’s eye. Endlessly to that unmarked den beneath the tower but above the waterline, endless, we return.

[1]  “Woom” (pronounced “wuhm”), an abbreviation of “woman”, was Dad’s pet name for Mum.

 

DAVID BRADFORD grew up in Laughton, East Sussex, and now lives in nearby Lewes. He is an editor and writer, who tweets from @DeeBeeFree and posts some of his journalism on his website: www.dbfreelance.com .

Photographs are from the author’s collection.

 

 

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