There are many houses in the lane. They're all very different; big ones and small ones, grand ones and humble ones, familiar ones and strange ones.
One of them is a little cottage, with hollyhocks and butterflies, with thatch and warm, butter-coloured stone. I can see the garden if I stand on tiptoes. It somehow manages to be tidy and disorganised at the same time.
There's a sign on the gate, and it says 'Beware of the Dog', but I've never seen one. I don't often see the little old man who lives here either, but he's there today.
He's pushing a lawnmower that doesn't have a motor. It looks like hard work to me, but he's smiling under his floppy hat. The sweat runs through the shock of white hair, and it drips off the end of his ruddy nose, but he's smiling for sure.
I get the urge to be brave.
'Hey, Mister! Can I see the dog?'
He looks up, and waves. His sleeves are buttoned at the wrist, like someone out of a school-book photograph. He shuffles up the gravel path towards the gate, scrunching along in his funny brown shoes.
'Hello, young man', he says, and the voice is friendly, and polite, and old. It puts me in mind of something.
'Are you a teacher?' I ask.
'One question at a time', he replies, with a wag of a finger and mischief in his eye.
'I was going to tell you about the dog', he continues. 'She isn't with us any more, I'm afraid. She was a very fine bulldog, and she won a lot of competitions in her day. Her kennel-name was 'Aurora Britannia Princess of Albion', but I liked to call her Penny.'
'I'm Mr Bull', he says, extending his hand. I grasp it in wonderment, and I cannot help making a little bow.
'Do you speak Chinese?', he asks.
'Yes', I say. 'It's where my family comes from.' I guess he could tell that, just by looking at me.
There is a little pause, in which bees hum and brook tinkles. He carries on smiling, as if it's still my turn to speak.
'Have you been to China?' I ask, hopeful of hearing more of his fascinating talk.
'Oh, yes', he affirms. Two simple syllables, but I can tell by the faraway look that there's a wondrous history hidden behind them.
'I went all over the place in my travelling days.' He looks wistful.
His gnarled fingers curl over the bar of the gate as he leans towards my ear. The continuation is conspiratorial and intimate. 'When we are young', he says, 'we sometimes travel for all the wrong reasons. We go hunting for what we can take, instead of looking out for what we can share. And we sometimes do set out to teach, only we teach all the wrong things.'
The bees hum some more.
'So you're right, you see?', he adds, mock-sternly. 'I was once a teacher, but not a very good one.'
Just for a moment in the near-cloudless sky, a shadow masks the sun. A large black car with dark windows sweeps down the lane, and into the drive of the big white house at the crest of the hill.
'Their curtains are always drawn', I find myself saying.
He nods, seeming a little sad.
'It wasn't always so', he replies. 'But, of late, yes, it's true.'
He sighs, and hitches his silly drab trousers.
'Your time is coming, young man', says Mr Bull. 'Believe me; I've been around long enough to have seen it all before. I can remember when the people in that house were bright, young and optimistic, like you are today. It was a simpler house then, but it was a noble one. They graced this lane, and they were well-loved here.'
To my horror and disbelief, I realise that he is weeping. The ghost of the smile is still etched on his face, but the brightness in his eyes is now the sparkle of tears.
'It's your turn now, young man of China', he whispers. 'Nothing can resist your vigour and energy. The other houses in this lane will fade, as yours grows in splendour.'
He shrugs. The tears are gone, but in their place is an expression of resolve. Something tells me that Mr Bull, in his younger days, must have been terrible indeed.
Now he is talking with the authority of the ages. I listen obediently. There can be no argument here.
'Whenever this change happens', he declares, 'our future hangs in the balance for a little while. Our security depends on the humility of the last big house. Its occupants must accept that their time has ended. They must accept it with equanimity and with dignity.'
We gaze silently at the great white house. Its opaque curtains and its air of mourning suddenly strike me as sullen self-pity.
I am frightened. 'Do you doubt that they'll accept it this time?', I ask.
He looks at me, and I long for his smile to return, and the smile is somehow there and yet not there.
'I think that they will accept it', he says finally. 'I think they will be more reluctant than others in the past, and I fear that they will cause great pain, not least for themselves, until they come to terms with it. But they must accept it in the end.'
There is a burst of birdsong and a fresh breeze stirs the hollyhocks. He throws back his arms and stretches his aged frame. 'But it's not for me to pronounce on such things any more', he adds, 'and, to tell you the truth, I'm glad of that.'
Emotion and the portent of the moment is flooding over me. 'Mr Bull', I declare, 'in time to come, I will make a garden as tranquil as yours, and I promise that everyone will be welcome there. Even if my house does become the biggest house, I will always respect the wisdom of the cottagers.'
The smile has returned. 'I believe you, young man', he says. 'In your time to come, just remember that you felt that way today.'
The Pinniped Portfolio
20.05.04 Front Page
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