A giant cobweb, intricate in its woven design, blocks my path, an almost invisible barrier between the old days and now. I step aside, reluctant to mar its beauty. A patina of leaves coats sculptures and decorations near the cracked Spanish ochre wall. They drift into the swimming pool, with traces of algae. A greying plastic pool-cover, long unfurled, lies rotting in the harsh light, broken swimming aids abandoned.
I seem to hear the sound of distant laughter, of children grown into adults, the splash and swish of water.
Ghostly screams emanate from an outside billiard room, abandoned to a garish collection of money boxes. In my mind I see a youthful Larry and Neville playing a game of snooker, fighting to the death. Sort of.
Time plays her waiting game. A miniature bridge over a garden-pool wobbles as my granddaughter Emma runs over it. A metal bird, one wing hanging at an angle, soon to be lost in flight.
Voices of the past echo inside the studio, paint-brushes long unused, pictures piled willy-nilly against the walls, damp and mouldy. Stairs unstepped, leaves and dust leaving their trail of ownership.
In the house flashes an image of my son, James, now over forty, crawling around the sitting-room playing with their granddaughter, Sandra.
The success of a long life jostles with the frailties of old age. Long-forgotten joys veil the pain of lost hearing, fading eyesight, and unsteady limbs. Larry, once so full of jest and wisdom, sits in an imposed silence, a bearded patriarch, isolated by deficits. When I go to take a photo, we glimpse the enfant terrible , Larry poking out his tongue and pulling an ugly face. Once he would have been the one charging around with the camera, taking prize-winning photographs, or writing articles for magazines.
He says Howard looks like James, as a little boy. He peers at Emma. ‘What’s her name?’
James tells him.
Ninety-six, and his gaunt face peers at us as he concentrates on chewing on the few remaining teeth. His jokes and painful jibes are a thing of the past. The boasting and self-aggrandisement are forgotten. The glowing eulogy he wrote for himself, in his sixties, remains unused.
Thin, tremulous hands reach out for another piece of toast and red salmon, the black coffee grown cold. Sally, his daughter has popped by. She reminds him the drink’s there. At her feet romps a pretty grey French poodle. The curls of his coat have a tactile quality which one can feel without even so much as a touch.
Can this be the little Sally I first met in the 1950s? The little girl posing with their cat, busy with her homework, taking piano lessons? Then, later on, celebrating her 19th birthday, while my own little daughter, Maria, crept under the table and out of sight, little-knowing she’d appear in the picture.
Buxom now, a grandmother herself, Sally oversees her parents, and ensures they are able to remain in their own home. I’m shocked to hear her sister, Anne, has retired, and has grandkids. Mark’s son has kids of his own. Arthur has remarried. ‘No children.’
‘ Such a shame,’ she says, ‘he was a whiz with young people.’
Camel is sprightly for her age. After a lifetime of spectacle-wearing a laser operation restored her sight, making it better than ever. She no longer wears glasses, not even for the intricate and beautiful designs she weaves in her tapestry. Medieval, the Lady and the Unicorn, her work much appreciated.
She has abandoned the tortured sculptures and strange animal shapes that emerged from her hands in her sixties, gained a new dignity, even more energy. Well over ninety, she cares for her elderly husband, and still does the Cryptic Crossword daily.
The house reminds me of a museum. Tiny in scale, yet filled with the most amazing sculptures , paintings and objects d’art , an antique globe of the world, Japanese masks, paintings galore.
Emma is wide-eyed as we enter Camel’s special room. It’s walls seem to have reached bursting point, to accommodate her doll collection. One manoeuvres in the smallest space to admire everything. Big dolls, little dolls, happy dolls, sad dolls, twin dolls, character dolls. Long ago her younger son Arthur, made Carmel two dolls houses, complete with electric lights, furniture, and miniature figures of the period.
At the flick of a switch, a merry-go-round spins, the figures moving up and down like the real thing to Emma’s delight. Take out the dummy and a baby cries. A piano waits for Carmel’s hands to ripple over the keys. In her prime she was in a flute group; now she rarely plays. In the dining-room, we hear the gurgle and splash of a fish tank.
Larry stirs from his reverie to ask, ‘What’s the little girl’s name?’
‘What age was Neville when he died?’
He cups his hand to his ear. I raise my voice to repeat. Larry shakes his head. ‘Too young. Far too young.’