About a girl.
You married one of my older brothers – the one Lady Luck always had her eye on – and fitted right in. A lot of people might have problems joining such a large family but like any accomplished individual, you’d enough class to muck in while remaining your own person. My parents, especially my father, established one of those close relationships with you and I think it’s safe to say after all these years we were all a little bit jealous. As a sprat, I used to turn up occasionally at your place and I’m sure got underfoot of someone raising a young family.
We’re both by now a long way down the timeline from those days, our families have been raised as much as they’ll ever be and you’ve got a big birthday coming up, so I hope you don’t mind me recounting a few stories to celebrate the occasion. I promise not to embarrass – well, not too much. Obviously I can only tell the ones in my personal experience and which are not covered by the thirty-year rule but I’m sure they’re only a top slice of the things you’ve got up to.
I suppose the first one was standing on the cold windswept side of a mountain that would have made an alpine goat come over all dizzy. You’d come into a modest inheritance from your father’s estate and bought the acres we were standing on. The plan was to build a house on it.
Great stuff, but the worrying aspect was my brother was going to build it himself, that meant with his own two hands. The wind howled about us, I buttoned up my biker’s jacket all the way to the chin and looked from one to the other of the pair of you. Him, build it, you two are having a larf with me, aren’t you?
You have to understand that much as I loved him and unaccountably still do, at the time he knew more about iambic pentameter and the brush technique of obscure renaissance painters, than how a door worked. He was generally perceived as a very well-read chap but not one you’d call on to fix anything that was broken. To be direct, he was the only one our mother had had a good go at getting into the priesthood, because he simply couldn’t see any other way of him making some sort of living. I though that was a very realistic bit of trading down on her part.
You guys rented a cottage not far from the site and as and when some money became available, more materials were bought and building work could resume. Visiting over the years, I saw the breeze block edifice gradually taking shape as you both learned a host of new skills and put in the hard construction hours building the thing. He held down a job, you raised a family, but the summer evenings and weekends were given over to both of you doing the building work while the kids played on the site.
Since you were the only one seen working on the building in daylight, the rumour grew amongst the sparse local community that it was all your own work. Then you being spotted heavily pregnant clambering about on top of the roof hammering tiling nails in to finish off the roofing before the onset of winter clinched that suspicion – God, she’s a fine woman. Does that feckless bloody husband of hers do anything at all? For years afterward, my brother, no doubt having given up trying to explain and taking a leaf out of Liberty Valance, referred to it as the house his wife built.
It often occurred to me, and I’m sure others, to wonder if you two knew what you were attempting to do was probably impossible, but I recognised that too-close-to-home style of thinking. Theoretically, a man can’t fly, but in practice, everyone knows Superman whizzes around like a birdie.
One year I arrived at the cottage on a big thumper of a motocross bike. We settled into a good routine. Once my brother had driven off to work back in the smoke of civilisation and the kids had been safely ferried down the mountain to school, we’d clear up the wreckage of breakfast and settle down to our twin pleasures. They were a ferocious game or two of German whist and a good cryptic crossword. I can’t express the pleasure of occasionally getting away with pipping that fifth deciding misère round or getting that last clue we’d both been tearing our hair out trying to crack. If you want to get good at any game, always go up against the best.
Afternoons, I’d go roaring up and down the mountains on the beast, risking life and limb leaning over the handlebars with my nose nearly touching the front mudguard on the determined upgrind or just plain on a high and airborne beyond caring about a safe landing on the mad bouncy banging career down an unforgiving mountain studded with granite. Young, immortal, invulnerable, crazed and in the addictive grip of a total adrenaline rush.
It was only a matter of time until a certain person proposed I should take a pillion passenger along, which I thought might not be a good idea as far as my bro would be concerned. Then there was a casual offer of playing a few hands of whist for it, which is when I realised with a sinking feeling that my wonderful batting average had been a bit too bloody good to be true. I’d been played. What a scheming …
I poodled around the dirt roads with you on the back of the bike for what must have been a whole ten minutes at least, until eight fingernails and two thumbnails dug deep into either side of my waist and the message was clear; open the beast up or the pain will get worse. I throttled it slowly up and after a while and no objections from the pillion, we were soon hurling down unmade twisty roads at gas mark insanity speeds.
We skidded around corners on full reverse lock, leant over in tandem like speedway riders, braked for no one because no one was on them but I did misjudge a corner one time and we nearly ended up in a ditch, so we dropped back down to sanity speeds for a bit. Pretty soon though, the impatient nails started digging in again and we went back to being totally irresponsible, disgraceful, and having too much fun. You’ve always been such a game girlie at such moments.
Quite wisely, we’ve successfully discouraged any of our children from having anything to do with motorbikes. That sort of madness stops with us. iSkateboards and rubbish like that are so much more thrilling and a helluva lot safer. Yes indeedy. They’re so gullible really.
It took a few years, but between the two of you, that house on the side of the mountain was built. It overlooks a fine valley glaciers scraped their way through for a few millennia and over the years I’ve seen the lights on the other side blossom from a solitary one or two to a star-spangled landscape that’s been repopulated. That sight had last been seen well over a century and a half ago by people long-buried in foreign lands and far from their place of birth. You two were the advance guard, the pioneers back into the abandoned wilderness and the first to breathe family life into it again starting its rejuvenation.
Having built the house in such an unconventional manner, the interior décor steered its own course well clear of flock wallpaper. It’s wood, light walls, paintings by both of you and murals. Not many dining rooms have one wall covered with da Vinci’s Last Supper and another with Renoir’s le Déjeuner des Canotiers. You’re both accomplished painters well out of the amateur zone and I wouldn’t mind a painting of that nearby river we all like to fish; hint, hint …
I suppose that leads on nicely into some fishing stories but for a change one you mightn’t have heard. One summer’s evening the three of us were ambling across a meadow towards a good stretch of river. Fly fishers never rush into the fray, they’re more like gunfighters; they take their own sweet time getting to the OK corral. You suddenly picked up the pace and shot ahead of us into the river and started lashing the water for all you were worth.
In response to my querying glance at him, big brother nodded at a figure downstream studiously ignoring us. “The only other woman in the county who really fishes. There’s a certain competitiveness between them.” He left the perfect pause and added “We don’t stand a chance tonight …” We both laughed but we didn’t either.
My wife reminds me of another story which in an indirect way, illustrates your composure under pressure. We were visiting for the week and all the children were finally asleep and the four of us were enjoying some grownup time and some homemade vino, which was your latest venture. We’d all had the first glass, which from memory leaned more towards Grappa than Grigio, and were half way through a second. There was one of those long considered silences in conversation as we all sought something reasonably neutral to say about the vile stuff. Bracing would cover it I suppose. You broke the silence by carefully enunciating a sentence I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
“I can’t move my left arm.”
Describing the effect as electric would be understatement. Lots of arm rubbing, walking up and down the room, keep walking, keep walking, march or die, get the coffee on, make it black and strong, panic, panic etc etc. Fortunately the effects of pinot paralysis proved to be transitory but I believe that was the end of your nascent careers as vintiers.
There are a lot of good memories of our holidays with you and I’m sure our children and yours could add a ton more. The one that sticks in my mind is our youngest child picking away at your piano. You took time out to show him a few things, basics I suppose but made sure he was doing it right.
A small thing.
When we got home, he wanted a keyboard and as he was always a compulsive finisher, we bought him one. I’ve by now lost track of how many instruments he plays, which band he’s in, and never mind who he’s currently giving music lessons to. Good people, despite what many people might think, cause waves and the ripples from them spread across other people’s lives and sometimes become tsunamis.
Those ripples are like those granite rocks in the picture above of the top of your mountain. They shouldn’t be there. Rocks are designed to roll down mountains and certainly not for carrying back up to make things. It’s when people like you two choose to do the unusual, the difficult and uncertain things that they make their mark not only on the landscape but on the lives of others.