The Path From Tree Hill (1/5)
The train from Kings Cross was even more packed than you might expect at three o’clock on Christmas Eve. The one before had been cancelled, so both my seat reservation and the ‘quiet coach’ were nowhere to be found. I did get somewhere to sit – even these days, people tend to make way for an elderly lady, however grudgingly. I suppose they don’t want to feel responsible if she collapses in a heap.
I fought claustrophobia and kept my eyes closed as much as I could. I knew it was no good hoping for sleep. Sleep and I have never been on the best of terms.
They say we get less tolerant around other people when we’re elderly, but I don’t think that’s true. We just get more frightened. We know our opinion doesn’t count for anything anymore, and that makes us sour. We don’t understand a lot of what goes on around us. The chitter of tongues and the beeps of devices are often like an alien language. Other people hold the keys to the world.
My cousin Lena was waiting for me on the platform at York station.
‘Bugger me,’ she said, as the train disgorged behind me. ‘Was it completely hellish? Never mind. Home soon.’ She took my holdall and strode up the steps to the bridge over the platforms. She’s only three years younger than I am, but considerably more vigorous. Perhaps it’s always having had money.
York station was both entirely the same and entirely different. The arrangement of the platforms and the arc of the glass roof, that marvel of Victorian railway architecture, were as I remembered from fifty-five years ago. But the floor of the station concourse was now cream instead of dusty black, the ticket office was a Travel Centre lined with self-service machines and, of course, food and drink concessions elbowed each other for attention. But the old station still jostled for space with the new one, in my mind. It was like seeing someone with a face-lift and new clothes that don’t really work.
We wove our way past travellers streaming out of the bright station into the cold and dark, and with a brisk turn here and there finally reached Lena’s car, one of those that looks like a grown up mini. She hefted my holdall into the back while I sorted out my seat belt in the front. My fingers don’t work as well as they used to, especially in the cold, and I always have trouble fixing the clip thing into the slot.
She got in and turned to face me.
I have seen Lena at intervals over the fifty-five years, but the intervals have been lengthy. It would be stupid to say she hadn’t changed, but that was how it felt, looking into her bright enquiring eyes, and seeing the way her smile still reached into the dimples at the corner of her mouth.
‘You look well,’ I said.
The dimples crinkled. ‘So do you, Jill. I’m so glad you’ve come.’ She put the car into gear and reversed smoothly out of the parking space.
‘It’s so kind of you to ask me.’
‘Well, when I read in your card you would be on your own again, and there’s me rattling around the Manor all by myself – I mean, how daft would that be?’
As we waited for a break in the traffic on the main road I said, ‘I was sorry to hear about your mother. And so sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral.’ Her mother died the previous year, and I hadn’t seen her since.
‘I understand. We all have busy lives. She talked about you, you know, a couple of days before she died. We were thinking about the last Christmas you were here. Do you remember?’ She raised her hand to acknowledge the courtesy of another driver and turned into the traffic.
It was such an extraordinary question, and I wasn’t sure how to answer it. ‘It was a very long time ago.’
She stopped at a red light. ‘I expect being in the Manor will jog your memory.’
I looked at her profile, dimly lit by car headlights and street lamps. Lena had always been kind, in a brusque sort of way. There was no reason to think her invitation came from anything else.
Haizby village is a thirty minute drive from the station, so Lena’s version of ‘home soon’ was different from mine. We listened to music on Radio 2, and I was grateful she seemed disinclined to small talk. I realised how tired the journey had made me. I don’t travel much, these days.
The village is just within the Vale of York, although you can see the swell of the Dales in the distance, and there is one moderately sized hill on the edge of the village itself. It’s called Tree Hill, because at the top of it stands a large and ancient oak, framed by the sky. In the summer leaf-laden branches rise to drink the sunshine, and in winter its bony fingers claw upwards, as if tearing the clouds will bring back warmth and light. You can see the tree from the bedroom windows at the Manor. You can see it from every single one of them.
I was a bit disorientated by the sudden appearance of a housing estate, its neat windows gleaming curtained light into the darkness. ‘This wasn’t here before, was it?’
Lena chuckled. ‘No. It was all green fields. There was a bit of a fight when the farmer sold the land. Daniel Leatherwick, do you remember him?’
‘No. I don’t think I knew him.’
‘Oh, you would have done. You’d have met his daughter Maisie at least. She was in Kit’s class at primary school, and after he went away to board they always picked up during the holidays. She was for ever hanging around the Manor. I think there was a little mutual crush there. The family moved away after her father sold the land, must have been five or six years after that last Christmas.’ We passed a sign, Haizby Welcomes Careful Drivers. ‘You remember Maisie. Tall girl with freckles.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I’m sure it’ll come back to you.’
The road was sparsely lit, but I recognised the shape of the village green, and the turning off down the lane to the Manor. A few minutes later we passed the redbrick gateposts – there never was a gate that I could remember - and were on the curved drive leading to the house.
Lena has lived here all her life. Her maternal great-grandfather bought it, derelict, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then it was a relatively small, ugly Victorian villa, a replacement for a Georgian building destroyed by fire, which itself replaced something from much earlier. Over the years the family added bits and deleted bits and even sold off odd patches of the land either side of it, though never the land at the back that looks towards Tree Hill. Even in the darkness it looked the same as it had fifty-five years before: a collection of angles that didn’t quite add up. It was the place where the extended family came during the summer holidays, and often Christmas, all through our childhoods.
The panelled hallway, opening out onto the central staircase, still had the same faded Persian rugs, but they looked cleaner without a patina of dog hair. Some years ago Lena wrote in her Christmas card that she had decided not to replace the last of the Labradors. I’ve never gone in for animals myself. We had a dog when my daughters were at home, but the girls and their father did all the walking and feeding and clearing up. I got rid of it when they left.
The watercolours painted by Lena’s grandfather still hung from the picture rail. They were all local landscapes: the village green, the almshouse cottages, the fields that were now housing estate. Even the one of Tree Hill was there.
Lena headed towards the staircase, my holdall in her hand. ‘You’re in Kit’s old room,’ she said.