I’m chipping away at a memoir. This is a little piece about the house my three older brothers and I grew up in.
When I was five we moved to Wellington and into a new house which I’m pretty sure my mother imported into our dimension from one of the Narnia stories. 32 Trelissick Crescent, Ngaio, stood on a slope looking out over the valley of Crofton Downs. A two story disheveled mansion on two acres that descended into a neglected orchard and an acre of native ‘bush’, (New Zealandish for ‘forest’. Get used to the lingo, any barbarous non-hobbit readers) bounded on two sides by rows of tall pines and on another by a grass covered vacant lot. Ragged, unpruned apple and pear trees poked up through a sea of sharp edged grass so tall and thick that it was an effort to wade through it on my five year long legs. Spread out in the valley below the orchard lay the dark forest, populated by strange native trees; black barked totaras, straight kauris, silver leafed tree ferns that loomed above our heads in the gloom like remnants of a primeval age. Dinosaurs peeked between fanned fronds, guarding the stream that chirruped as it wound its way through the damp heart of the forest.
On the slope opposite the orchard marched a border of pines like sentinels, cloaking the earth with a deep bed of soft needles, quietly killing all ground cover, save their symbiotic allies, the poisonous red and white toadstools.
Beyond this border lay a broad fire break, its bareness only interrupted by a single pine, the tallest of them all. It stood there like a dare, so that when I was a little bigger I climbed it, right to the top where I could perch in my erie, watching the whole world unobserved.
The many windowed house stared down on this slightly ominous, tree filled valley with eyes that never closed. The building stretched tall, its red tiled roof pointed like a witches hat. The white plaster ceilings were high, edged with raised whorls and sculpted curves. A long attic occupied the space above the upper ceilings, only accessible with a ladder through a hatch. It had no floor, so you had to step from beam to beam. If you lost your balance and stepped between the beams you would go through the plaster. We weren’t supposed to go there, but of course we sometimes sneaked up on little adventures. By some miracle none of us ever put a foot through the ceiling.
The wood paneled walls and carved plaster ornamentation spoke of an earlier age when telephones and cars were scarce and Britannia still ruled the oceans. Beneath the dogs leg of the stairway lay a deep cupboard. Only I was small enough to creep into its depths and peer round the corner to its very end, but it was a long while before I mustered the courage to venture there. It was occupied by numerous spiders and surely worse things. Clearly this large, old white house with its red tiled roof was haunted and we boys loved it!
The four of us quickly set to exploring, poking into cupboards and cobwebbed boxes, hoping to find some lost treasure, or a relic of Middle-Earth. Then to our awe, Ben descended the ladder from the attic clutching what appeared to be an ornately carved Maori walking stick, long and heavy. We examined it silently. My father took it and from the wooden sheath drew forth a single edged sword. A real sword! The blade was wide, and slightly curved, and it was sharp enough to cut your finger on. I know because I tried it.
“What’s that groove, running down the side of the blade?” asked Christian.
“That’s a blood gutter,” said my father, looking grim. He hated war, with good reason, for he had actually fought in one. “It allows the blood to flow out when you stab someone, releasing the pressure that would prevent the blade from going in deeper.”
This was a little too graphic for my young ears but I suppose my father was making a point. He kept the sword in the cupboard in my parents room and forbade us to touch it without permission. Sometimes we were allowed to look at it, or show it off to friends, but we were never allowed to play with it. Toys don’t have blood gutters.
That sword lent our house a sense of mystery. Where had it come from? Why would someone keep a sword disguised as a walking stick? Our house held secrets, a forgotten history surely involving blood, treachery or rebellion. This was to be our playground for years to come. For me it never lost its mystery, the unspoken hope that in our very own house there might be a wardrobe leading to another world.
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On the downside, there were tigers in the garden.