The Red House
A red house, in Gander Green Lane, was not lost not lost on smart school kids, as a clash of colour identity.
‘I wonder why it’s called Gander Green Lane,’ Paul asked.
‘It sounds like an old name, from the times when one shoed geese to get them to market,’ I offered.
Blank expressions. I elucidated. As the harbour of useless information, my classmates expected it.
‘Before railways, geese and turkeys walked the hundred miles from Norfolk to Leadenhall market in London. The journey would take months and the birds wore special leather boots to protect their feet. Geese wouldn’t allow themselves to be shod (hence the phrase “to shoe a goose” for something difficult), so their feet were dipped in tar and covered with sand.’
Clueless faces, followed by derision.
‘That doesn’t explain its name,’ John said, with teenage honesty.
I don’t know what had come over me. I usually hid my store of useless information. I fell silent and didn’t explain that the lane once connected two hamlets and is believed to date back to Celtic times as a path. The Victorian house, painted red, was once red brick, but in a fit of patriotic vandalism, many houses had their red bricks painted red, window frames white, and gutters blue, for the coronation.
The gutters have long returned to white, to match the woodwork, but no one considered how to get the paint off the bricks. Now, water has penetrated and the paint blistered in bubbles of damp. That apart, the red house was unspectacular, apart from the myth surrounding it, entirely created by burning teenage imaginations. And we were to make up another version, about the imposing, scary, red house on Gander Green Lane.
John said, ‘It’s red. I bet it’s a brothel.’
Geography, followed by RE, had wound their usual gruesome paths that afternoon, and diversion was essential if we were not to explode with frustration. Perhaps that is why Paul said the least expected thing.
‘I wonder how much it would cost. I mean, could we afford it?’
I looked at the house. Apart from its colour, there was nothing to suggest any ill repute. OK. The paint was bubbling and had peeled off in places and the paths were barely visible beneath the weeds, growing through the gravel. Hedges covered some windows.
Paul asked, ‘What would happen we saved our pennies and one day, rang the door-bell?’
‘Cross ‘we,’ out,’ I said. I wasn’t going near this one. Paul had to be joking. I mean – what would he say?
Joke or not, three days later, after some complicated dare I wasn’t privy to, we stood on the gravel – what was visible beneath the sheaves of flattened grass from the neglected lawn – and watched Paul ring the bell. Despite our secret prayers for no one to be in, the door opened immediately. I heard the fateful words cross Paul’s lips.
‘I’ve emptied my pennies jar. How much do you charge?’ He sniggered, then looked away to hide his mirth.
An elegant old woman, stood at the top of the high steps, framed by mock Greek pillars supporting an elaborate portico. I knew she was retired, but hadn’t expected her to still dress for dinner. Why else would she wear a black flapper dress from her youth, at 4.30 in the afternoon. I noticed, that her dress, although made of some amazing material, was stained after decades of battles with soup spoons. She was an embarrassment. We were mocking the afflicted and I wished I were somewhere else, but couldn’t move before hearing her response
‘Charge?’ She asked, her glissando climbing to a top soprano A, much like an amateur dramatic rendition of Lady Bracknel’s ‘A Handbag’.
For what should I charge, pray?’ she continued. ‘Do you think I am some kind of sedentary accumulator?’
That was witty, I now know, but beyond me at the time. She smiled at her joke, and I wondered if the layers of rouge wouldn’t follow the blistering masonry.
We waited for Paul’s response. I prayed he had prepared the scenario. Ad libs wouldn’t do.
‘I mean, it is a red house – obvious – isn’t it?’ Paul’s voice began to falter. We didn’t appreciate how little sense we were making.
‘I haven’t the foggiest what you are talking about, boys, but come in, all of you and I’ll make some tea and we will see if we can get to the bottom of this.’
She spotted me hanging back.
‘And you, young man. Don’t be shy!’
She moved to one side and allowed us to pass. We were a post-war generation drilled to do as adults tell us. Despite the lunacy of our predicament we obeyed, and if we got into trouble, we would use our highly developed low-degree of cunning, to extricate ourselves, or at least, charm our way back to safety. It’s Darwin. The war years had left us with a default position, where we obeyed, rather than face consequences. But sidestepping consequences often leads to deeper mire. That doesn’t matter. We had learned to operate like a squad of highly honed Sergeant Bilkos. It didn’t occur to us that we are out of our depth. Onwards and upwards – something will turn up. Just don’t deny an adult their will and above all, show no fear.
‘Sit down,’ she commanded in a familiar way, once we were in the back parlour. ‘I’ll make the tea.’
She left and we heard cups clatter in the distance.
‘She isn’t cross,’ I whisper to Paul.
‘She soon will be,’ says John, ‘if we can’t come up with some plausible excuse for having rung her bell. Just don’t tell her we thought her house is a brothel, because it is painted red. She’ll call the police, or worse, the school, and if they tell my dad?’
We dared not consider that one. I diverted myself from imminent danger by checking out the furniture. Her parlour was crammed and it was dark, despite the huge Victorian bay-window. The curtains were so heavy that, even drawn back, they obscured much of the window, not obscured by the bushes outside.
I caught a glimpse of the back garden. The grass was several feet high. Time to act – go on the attack, before defence becomes impossible. I walked through to the kitchen. She had her back to me, but heard me come in.
‘Do you have some shears?’ I asked.
‘Oh. The grass. I know,’ she sighed. ‘It’s got beyond me this summer.’
‘We’ll do it,’ I promised. ‘We’ll be back at the weekend.’
‘That’s kind, but you don’t have to.’
‘We do,’ I countered. ‘It’s not your fault you house is red, but the unkempt gardens around a red house, are leading people to make up things. We will put it right.’
‘Good Lord. What sort of things?’
‘Leave it with me,’ I answered, ignoring her question, and picked up the tea tray for her.
I explained over tea, how we would put Saturday afternoon to good use, chopping grass. No one dissented and the penny jars were not mentioned.
Saturday, we assembled on the gravel and looked in amazement. Not a weed. Bushes and hedges were trimmed, grass cut. We heard the door open. She was in the same dress, but it had been to the cleaners. Her hair was trim, the make-up more measured and without rouge.
‘I got a company to come in and fix it,’ she sirened in her Oxford English. ‘I much prefer it and feel so much better. It was a nice thought, but you boys would have never managed such a huge task. Tea in the back garden. I’ve made some cake. Teenage boys are always hungry – so I’ve heard.’
We trooped through to the back garden, now trimmed and weeded. Tea was ready on a central table with brand new garden furniture around it. We relaxed. No weeding was necessary and no crisis management to explain why we had rung her bell. There was tea and cake on the lawn, surrounded by a jungle of beautiful bushes. The sun came out to make a perfect afternoon.
‘Your visit the other day, got me out of my rut,’ she explained as she poured tea. ‘Did me good. Changed my life, in fact. Thank you. All of you. You were very brave to ring my bell and tell me where I was coming up short. Now, let me cut the cake and then you can explain the riddle of the penny-jar!’
Three brains crashed back into Sergeant Bilko-mode.