As the gates creak open revealing a dusty driveway and a crumbling house beyond, the visitor is transported back in time to the last years of the 19th century.
There’s the crunching of a carriage wheel behind me, I jump instinctively to the side of the path. A polished black conveyance jolts through the dust and comes to a halt at the foot of the elegant, symmetrical staircase. A lady in white linen waves from an open window. The horses stamp and grunt impatiently.
A gentleman in formal dress descends from the carriage, he walks up the stairs, confidently and defiantly. As the sun sinks in the west a hint of breeze drifts in from the sea, the cicadas cease their endless cacophony for just a moment. There’s the murmur of voices, greetings and embraces.
Then on the edge of my hearing a tinkling of notes on the piano dance into view. I’m at the steps now and I walk up, slowly deliberately, I don’t want to intrude or disturb the occupants. Cautiously I peer inside, reluctant to cross the threshold from light to dark. This liminal space where rough-hewn stone becomes a patena of polished, painted tiles. I’m reminded of a Moorish house in Cordova that I visited as a child. A dusty character in the corner, standing in silence offers me a glass of fortified wine, I think it might be Marsala, syrupy in consistency. Hesitantly I take a sip as I absorb the room around me. Darkened paintings fill the walls, portraits, and landscapes compete for attention.
The music and voices are fading, I advance into the next room. There are elaborate wall decorations, reminiscent of the art found in the Roman houses at Pompeii. The family crest, shields, weaponry, baskets of flowers symbolise power, strength and abundance. I’m becoming curious, who are the people that live in this house?
There are mannequins, life-sized models dressed in silk, lace and satin. They are tailor’s dummies bedecked in velvets and furs. Evening wear, day wear, hats and shoes, scarves and handbags. But no people. A wave of anxiety hits me, I feel anxious, the sweet Marsala wine sticks in my throat. The house is dusty, closed, oppressive. There’s no air. I decide to introduce myself to the lady I glimpsed earlier and then to leave. I advance into the next room, it’s a library, filled with leather bound books, I think the family were estate owners, aristocratic farming types. Many of the books are agricultural records, details of land and cattle bought and sold.
The hum of conversation a few rooms ahead of me is almost imperceptible, the mumbling moves further into my dreams. I’m distracted by a children’s toy room filled with dolls, games and puzzles. A feeling of melancholic abandonment fills the air. One of the porcelain dolls gazes at me, woefully through her one glass eye. She conveys a curious sense of resignation. I find her gaze intimidating as I back out of the room clumsily.
There’s a chink of light coming from under a door at the end of a gloomy corridor. I head for the light. Determined. There’s a 1920s bathroom on my left hand side, complete with a metal bathtub. Some ladies summer dresses, possibly pre-war are hanging, ready to be worn. But there’s no sign of any people. Suddenly the silence hits me, there are no sounds, the voices have stopped, the house is still. The atmosphere weighs down heavily on me, it’s like a millstone around my neck. I need to get to the door, open it and let the light in, I need to do this immediately.
I stumble across the wooden floor, the light increases slightly and I approach the door. The handle is sticky, years of dirt and sweat have accumulated on the metal surface. I twist the door handle to the left, nothing happens, I twist again to the right, the handle lowers and I push the door open. Fresh air floods into the room and my eyes squint and narrow as I adjust to the early evening light. There’s a courtyard ahead of me and a beautiful outdoor terrace at my feet. I expect to see people, but there is not a soul. A solitary, scruffy cat meanders across the paving. The cicadas resume their repetitive chorus.
Out of the corner of my eye I observe a cloud of dust gently dissipating over the terracotta paving below. Then the sound of wheels rolling over a loose stone surface, cracking and displacing the gravel. I’m not sure but I think I hear a delicate, peal of laughter. I descend the steps eagerly ready to introduce myself. But deep down, rather sadly, I already know, that as I turn the corner to say ‘hello’ there’ll be no-one there to greet me.
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Updated: August 2022