Our train continued to hurtle through the mist. Patched coarse fields ran beside the track, and the windows were misted over, and I brushed a hole with my sleeve. Frothed black brandy and guinness shook in its thermos on the table before me. The mist was going a little blue outside now. Hills rose up, barren and waste. Grey towns went past, remote and unpeopled. This mist! It was like the mist in a horror film when the instruments waver and spark and the dials no longer register, and the scientists issue long explanations and things appear at the windows, and make the blonde secretary scream. Irish airmen were singing further down the carriage, lying back, legs astraddle, their boots amid the rolling bottles;
‘Teen angel, come near me,
Teen angel, can you hear me ... ?’
‘This train is like a refugee train,’ said Thomas Pakenham. He had become a friend of mine at Oxford, and now I was travelling out with him to his castle in Ireland.
He said now, ‘By the way, there’s a pinetum at the castle – you know, a collection of pines.’
‘What else is there at the castle?’
‘How many rooms?’
‘A hundred and eighty.’
‘No, I don’t know.’
‘We’re there,’ said Rachel, Thomas’s sister, waking.
‘No, we’re not,’ said Thomas, ‘We’ve been watching the mountains. Now, Jeremy, there’s some interesting trees passing now. Oaks. Quercius Ceris and Quercius Ilex. See? There’s a Pinus Silvestris, and that’s an Abies Pectinata.’
I looked out through the window and saw mist and hills and cattle in groups, and more mist. Then all went gold as we rounded a curve and the rising sun caught us.
‘The ancients used to worship trees,’ said Thomas, ‘And other people have found a connection between trees and the human soul. Other cults have been drawn to the open spaces.’
‘Now we must be arriving,’ said Rachel, standing up.
‘Nonsense,’ said Thomas, ‘Do shut up.’
The train lurched heavily, spilling the remains of the brandy and guinness.
‘Here we are,’ said Rachel self-righteously.
The airmen sang louder in the silence;
‘If I were a tower of strength ...’
We’d been travelling all night. They sang louder still, almost aggressively, as we climbed out into the dawn.
‘I don’t think I quite believe this,’ I said as I glimpsed from the motor a castellated archway.
‘I’m thinking of having these down and starting again,’ Thomas said, pointing out trees. We passed through the arch. The drive took various directions, between trees and mountains. The mist was thicker here, and great wispy clouds surged past us.
‘See that?’ asked Thomas. ‘Abies Pinsato, very rare in Britain.’
I peered into the mist and saw distant rows of sack-swarthed statues. Then, ‘Oh Thomas!’ I cried, as towers loomed above us. Two cedar doors stood open onto the gravel. The motor crunched to a halt. Thomas pushed open one of the doors. An elaborate antechamber with steps culminated in another pair of doors. I ran ahead, pushed open these doors and gazed upward at the highest dome I had ever seen. Pointed purple stained glass windows let in little light. Opposite were lancets giving onto some distant space. In the semi darkness, the many pipes of an organ loomed. In a massive steel grate flames and smoke were gushing.
Through the laurels and dripping rhododendrons, through forests that seemed at times likely finally to enmesh the castle, at the end of a leafy alley we were confronted by an ancient hatted man with a gun. His bland sweet grubby blue-eyed face creased into a smile; ‘I was looking to see, could I find a fox?’
‘What’s the path like through here?’ asked Thomas. ‘Can we get through?’
‘No. The path is very contrary now. Through the dendrons. Contrary. Twas a fine path a few years back. But now ...’
‘You can still get through though?’
‘You must be able to. Come on, Jeremy.’
Into the dripping undergrowth. I was unable to raise my head for the next thirty yards, I was battling too hard with the contrary branches. Then, in a small clearing, I was able to stand. The black shapes of pigeons were rising from the trees overhead. Then came a pair of herons, flapping slowly with hoarse cries. Thomas was firing imaginary shots into the sky.
‘Come on Jeremy!’ He plunged again into the undergrowth.
We visited one of the neighbouring castles, standing on a hill with two rivers joining beneath it, the huge towers hunched up at the side, perforated with windows. I went up to the nursery where a couple of beautiful blue-eyed children greeted me. One said, ‘Aren’t we lucky children? We have so many toys.’ The other said, ‘Our butler stabbed our maid, so he had to leave.’
I had been playing Vivaldi’s ‘La Stravaganza’ on the organ. When I came to the end of the slow movement, Thomas waved his hands through the air, as though dispelling inspired vapours. Neither of us spoke. We wandered off separately into the night. I climbed an iron ladder to the top of a tower and sat, while warm mist wafted about me. I returned to the Hall, and saw Thomas on a sofa before the great fire, asleep.
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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