Bank holiday weekend, the end of summer. Early evening, the light beginning to fade. I was driving home from the other side of the county. An unbelievably heavy shower of rain fell from the sky, then just as abruptly stopped. The road I was driving along became more and more narrow. I was lost (I knew generally where I was, but specifically I was lost).
A sudden moment of recognition. The lane dipped down sharply to a crossroads, and opposite, to one side, were a pair of gate posts, the entrance to a great house usually kept strictly private (reputedly where a Russian prince and his family live). There was a hand-made sign saying “Open Today in support of St John’s Ambulance”. The prospect of getting into the park seemed so intriguing that I went through the gates and proceeded along a winding tree-lined drive.
It was nearly six, and although the place may have been open earlier, it was clearly closed now. But feigning innocence, I went on (I reasoned that the worst that could happen to me was that I’d be asked to leave). In a little valley I saw a few cars parked to one side, so I stopped my car next to them, got out, and looked around. To one side was a lake, with swans on it. I crossed a shallow river over a cattle grid. Walking upwards, a bend in the drive revealed a big mansion, built of honey coloured stone. Two Rolls Royce cars were parked ostentatiously outside the main entrance. Various stout people, dressed in the uniform of St John’s Ambulance Brigade, were moving about, carrying chairs and tables, obviously clearing up after the open day. No-one took any notice of me.
All the windows of the house were shuttered, making it appear mysterious. In an upstairs window towards the back, obviously a child’s room, teddy bears had been placed in the gap between the wooden shutter and the outer glazing. These toys looked as if they had been trapped and were signalling for help.
I walked round the side of the house onto a terrace bordered by flower beds. The edge of the terrace fell away in lawns, leading down to the broad lake, with woods rising up the valley on the opposite shore. At the water’s edge was a small spiky gothic building, possibly a folly. As I stood on the edge of the terrace the sun came out, quite low in the sky, casting long shadows. The rain had made everything wet, and the sun caught the raindrops so that the whole landscape glistened. It was very beautiful.
Two elderly ladies, obviously volunteer helpers, were sat together on a bench. Snippets of their conversation floated across to me:
“It’s turned very cold now.”
“Yes, it is cold. The rain’s made it cold.”
“I wish I’d put on something warmer.”
“Yes, I wish I’d put on something warmer.”
Mumble, mumble, then (I think they were discussing tapestry):
“It was in a frame. It was ever so old. I wish now I hadn’t let it go. But I took it out of the frame and then I didn’t know what to do with it. I wish now I hadn’t let it go.”
Mumble, mumble, then (said with reverence, so possibly they were discussing the Russian princess):
“She’s very nice.”
“Yes, she is nice.”
“She came and sat at our table when we were having tea. She asked how we all were.”
“She sings in the choir. She’s got a very good singing voice.”
“Yes, she’s very nice.”