“It was, then, in the imagination of Virgil, and of Virgil alone, that the concept of Arcady, as we know it, was born — that a bleak and chilly district of Greece came to be transfigured into an imaginary realm of perfect bliss. But no sooner had this new, Utopian Arcady come into being than a discrepancy was felt between the supernatural perfection of an imaginary environment and the natural limitations of human life as it is.” Erwin Panofsky “Et in Arcadia Ego”
“How are we going to get home?” Melissa asked, as we sat in the tiny café, the owner banging about behind us, “I don’t fancy getting even muddier.”
“There is bound to be a quicker way than back along the river.” I suggested hopefully, but perhaps less than convincingly.
“You and your impulses,” and her laugh tinkled like the sound of a small bell, and then fades away. That is the problem with ghosts; they disappear.
We had gone to bed early that Christmas night, our first as a married couple, to make love and to stay warm.
“Just think that a year ago I did not even know you existed” she said, beautiful and naked, and then she kissed me, a kiss that was at first affectionate and then swiftly became passionate.
We were awake by five.
“Shall we go to Chester?” I suggested, “I don’t think it is far”.
What with making love again and a long breakfast, it wasn’t until after nine we set off, but the roads were quiet, so that it did not take long to get there. After parking the car, we walked down to the River Dee.
“We should have brought sandwiches” she said, her hand on my arm, “I doubt anywhere is open.”
We crossed the bridge over the river and began to walk along the riverbank.
“Do you know where we are going?”
“Nope. It will be fun to find out though.”
It had rained a lot over the last few days, and the further we walked away from Chester the muddier the ground became, a few times one of us stumbled or slipped, but we held each other up laughing, so that anyone who saw us would have thought we were two drunkards returning home after a night of debauchery.
And then we pushed through some trees and came into a glade, and on our right, looking down upon us, was a villa; pink and white with a large garden sloping down towards us.
“That is my type of house” I told her, “close to the river, a good size and not far from Chester.”
I tried to walk up the slope towards it, but then I felt a pain in my left leg, and I realised that there was wire stretched out to stop intruders and the curious.
“That’s a pity,” Melissa said laughing.
“Oh well, if one of us becomes a millionaire then we can buy it and take down the fence.”
“Definitely.” And we kissed, pressed hard against each other, her breath smelt of chocolate and coffee. Perhaps we all have a tendency to romanticise the past, but I cannot remember ever being so happy.
I ring my daughter Esther.
“Happy Boxing Day” she says.
“Happy Boxing Day to you. How are my grandchildren?”
“Lisa has just been sick after eating all her selection box for breakfast this morning, whilst Dan is looking at the book you got him.”
And my son-in-law?”
“Still in bed, he had a bit to drink last night, well we both did, but the children woke me. How are you?”
“Okay. Off out for a walk in a moment.”
“Oh good, I hope Christmas wasn’t too dull.”
“No it was fine, I like it quiet. I watched a couple of films.”
“You could have stayed with us.”
“I know, I know.”
But their house is small, and I find the children hard work after a few minutes. I try to love them, but I much prefer the thought of them than the tiresome reality and my son-in-law Pete clearly makes my daughter happy but goodness he is dull, as only the well-meaning can be. I often wonder what Melissa would have made of him, I imagine our lying in bed together discussing him, Melissa urging me to be more patient with our daughter’s family.
“They are your grandchildren,” she says, “Esther could be difficult, don’t you remember?”
“But you were with me then.”
“I am sorry.”
“Where are you going for your walk?”
“I might go to Chester and walk along the river.”
“Oh well, have fun. Come and visit us before school re-opens.”
“Of course I will.”
I put the phone down and finish my coffee before getting into my car and driving through the Mersey Tunnel on my way to Chester.
The river was on our left, occasionally we could hear voices echoing from a distance, and then once we saw a boat go past us with a man and woman leisurely rowing, whilst at the front was a little girl shouting with glee. Melissa did not need to say anything, we kissed and I stroked her bottom through her jeans and for a moment we pressed tightly together before carrying on, the girl’s cries of delight gradually fading away. It was very muddy now and the path was becoming narrower and rising away from the river.
“We might have to go back soon” said Melissa, “we could end up slipping down into the Dee.”
“Don’t worry I will rescue you.”
“But would I be able to rescue you? I don’t like getting wet, and you have definitely put on a bit of weight over the holiday.”
And then we saw it, the back of a large stately home.
“Now that’s my kind of house” Melissa told me.
“I think it is Eaton Hall” I told her, “I am sure that it is somewhere near here, owned by the Grosvenor family, the richest family in England I believe.”
There was a fence to keep out the plebs, but Melissa was afraid of nobody in those days, and she hauled herself over it into the grounds, and so I followed her over, as I would follow her anywhere in those days.
“If we see anyone just run” I told her.
“Oh we can tell them we wandered in by accident.”
“With that fence?”
We squelched on the muddy grass, water bubbling over our boots.
The house was beautiful, symmetrical and with sandstone brick covered with ivy.
“I wonder if anyone is in?”
“Let us hope so, I could do with a cup of tea.”
Hand in hand we walk along one side of the house, peering into the windows, trying to see into the rooms behind their heavy curtains.
“I don’t think anybody is here.” Melissa said.
“Maybe there are servants upstairs. The family will be in London.”
“Who would want to be in London for Christmas?”
She ran ahead of me, she would be twenty-five next year, and probably would never be as healthy and fit again. I ran after her, and when she stopped suddenly, I caught her, my arm round her middle, and she pressed herself into me, and for a moment we wrestled, laughing.
There was an orchard at the side of the house, and we walked in through the gateway and admired the bare trees.
“Why don’t have apple trees?” She asked. “You could make us toothsome apple crumbles whenever we felt like it.”
“I don’t see why not. I will go to the garden centre and see what they have.”
“Couldn’t you steal a tree from here? I am sure that their apples would be delicious.”
In fact I never did get the apple tree, I always meant to, but a few days later Melissa told me that she was pregnant, apparently she had already suspected it that day, and then we had a house to prepare for our new arrival. Sometimes I look out at my pristine garden and wonder if I should get an apple tree, or maybe grow raspberries like my dad did; it would be easy to arrange and I have plenty of time, but I have never can be bothered, and who have I got to make apple crumbles for now?
In a shady corner close to the orchard, we came across a row of gravestones.
“To the dear memory of Katharine Caroline, 2nd wife of Hugh Lupus first Duke of Westminster and daughter of the 2nd Baron Chesham, born Dec. 3rd 1857, died Dec. 19th 1941” and underneath” Melissa read aloud, her voice losing her usual cockney tinge, and sounding proper and precise “her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”
“Sounds a bit boring” she told me, “I bet her husband was more exciting.”
“She lived a long time.”
“And gentle and peaceable the whole time, how dull. I bet she wasn’t, not really, she was probably a horror, in her own set of rooms, making her children’s lives a misery, and then when they had died, their children.”
I laughed, slightly shocked at Melissa’s disrespect for the dead.
“They probably killed her in the end; banged her on the head with a spade when she was doing the gardening.”
“At least it was quick.”
“Not that quick”.
The fence is larger than when Melissa and I had visited almost thirty years ago, or perhaps I am older and less athletic, certainly there is no way that I can climb over it now, and there is a faint humming coming from it, suggesting it is electrified; perhaps our incursion all those years ago had caused them to bolster their security. I am wearing wellington boots, remembering how muddy it was on our last trip, but it is much drier this time, and come to think of it, it hasn’t rained much this holiday, and the paths had been improved with gravel added. With a shock I realise that I have not done this walk since that Boxing Day so many years ago, and yet that day seems so recent, as if I could touch it and be back with Melissa, the succeeding years disappearing into oblivion.
And now I am lost, I don’t remember that happening last time; it had been an easy walk; just following the river, until we reached Aldford, but now the path stops suddenly at a fence, with “Agricultural Land. Please Keep Out” written on it. A cow stops her grazing to stare at me curiously. I wonder what has happened and if the village is cut off from me, like Eden. Frustratedly I retrace my steps until I see another path leading away from the river, which I follow less than hopefully. The path becomes concrete and there are “Private” signs on my right, and a cottage, which seems familiar, and then there is the small, hump-backed bridge that I remember us walking over, which lead us onto more land owned by the Grosvenor family.
We were quiet as we followed the tree-lined path, slightly awed and not sure where we going, but then we were out in the open and for a moment the Winter sun dazzled us and we both shielded our eyes. There was a church ahead of us, outlined against the white sky, and we headed towards it and behind the church we discovered a village, which proved to be Aldford, a Victorian model village built by Sir Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster about a hundred years earlier.
We wandered around the church for awhile; admiring the stained-glass windows and the memorials (more Grosvenor family dead) and then, tiring of holiness, we explored the village itself, which consisted of large houses with extensive gardens, and then further out farms.
“Would you like to live here?” I asked her.
“Eaton Hall maybe, but I am not sure about this village. I imagine that it would get dull pretty quickly, although it does look lovely, and much quieter than Liverpool.”
Just as we were beginning to get tired and hungry, we came upon a small courtyard and there was a small café, which doubled up as a bakery. I ordered coffee and tea cakes.
“What a beautiful village” Melissa said to the old man who served us.
“We were just closing” he muttered.
“Well we won’t be long.”
It was already getting dark, and the air had the smell of Winter afternoons, which I have always loved so much.
“Perhaps we should ask him to make us some sandwiches?” suggested Melissa with a mischievous grin, “and maybe cake and another coffee?”
“Or even a hot meal?”
We sniggered over our coffee and then when we finished, we left him a generous trip, and walked away, hoping to find a quicker way back into Chester, we could hear him locking the door as we left the courtyard.
The café is now a small supermarket, which is closed, there are – incongruously – a couple of boutiques too, which are also closed. I wander about the village; it is smaller than I remember it; whichever way I walk, I am soon out of the village, and on roads without pavements, and I wish I hadn’t come, even a day spent with my grandchildren and son-in-law would have been better than this, and I am overcome with self-pity; “a poor old man, as full of grief as age.”
“Come on “she told me, “that sign says Chester” and so we followed a narrow, but busy road, cars swooping past us, a couple of them sound their horns as they do so, I let her walk ahead of me, so that if one of us would be hit, it would be me. Every so often she looked back at me with a mischievous grin, and I smiled back, and that is how I mostly remember her, an image as firmly fixed as if it had been a photograph.
And now I walk back the same way, and for a moment I see her ahead of me; her long black coat, which she had had ever since I had known her, and her straight red hair, reaching down to her waist, which I had watched her wash that morning, long ago. I try to catch her, I run until I am breathless, and for just a moment I am so close; I can feel the touch of her coat as I reach out to hold her, I can smell her shampoo and hear her laughter, and then I say her name and she is gone and the road is empty in front of me, and as I stand there, a car drives past me almost knocking me into the hedge.
I walk the rest of the way back to Chester, breathing in the cold air, and wondering if Melissa would recognise the rather old man, puffing along, that I have become. Once I have driven back home to Liverpool and made myself some cheese on toast, I ring my daughter again, and she tells me what they had done that day, and then we talk of previous Christmases and I tell her that I love her. She seems surprised by this announcement, and then says she loves me too but that she has to go and put the children to bed, and I stifle the urge to tell her to get Pete to do it. Before she hands up she says that she is looking forward to seeing me tomorrow, that the children will be excited to see me, and that after dinner Pete will take me to the pub to watch Everton play on their widescreen television, and I tell her that it will be fun, which it might be.
They might not be perfect and long before the day has ended, I will be desperate to come home, but at least they will be company for the day, and at my age that is important.
Now lying in bed I hear a cat miaow from my garden, and I go down to let it in from the cold, but when I open the back door there is a scrabble of claws, and the cat is gone into the night, so I get a drink of water and go back to bed. In the dark I can see the photograph of Melissa that has been there for a quarter of a century, and I give her a smile and she smiles back at me through the dark.
“Et in arcadia ego.”