‘The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.’
Amelia Earhart, quoted in ‘Soaring Wings : A Biography of Amelia Earhart’ (George Palmer Putnam, 1939)
The air is milder, the days little-by-little longer, now, I feel it is but a short hop to Spring. In the morning, I leave for work as the sun comes up, and in the evening, I leave for home just as it sets. Winter is clocking off.
Last night, I left work with a colleague – we both walk to work and when we work together our paths cross awhile. We chatted about Spring – it was a mild evening for January and the birdsong was loud, there was an air of hope. As we do, we went our separate ways just outside the Roman walls marking the boundary of old Colchester. As he headed due south, up Balkerne Hill, I headed due north to cross the River Colne at the foot of North Hill. I stood on North Bridge and took this view as it took me. The warmth of home reflected on the river as I reflected on similarities with Hopper and Van Eyck and the intimacy of painted detail. Lighter nights are coming on, but real home comfort is now.
Some years ago, I was moving on as I do. I had decided where I did (and did not) want to stay and fixed my budget. So prepared, I visited estate agents, compiled a list of possible properties, and arranged viewings. Just before the first, I had a phone call. A property had come onto the market and the agent thought I should view it, that it was ‘right up my street’. I asked for more information, only to find out that it was out of my budget and not in any area I wanted to live. Why? I asked, had he suggested it. Because, he replied, the place had suggested me. He sent the particulars. They irritated me. The only photograph of the property was a tiny thumbnail of the exterior, the description of the interior was written in obscure prose. So, of course, I rang back and made an appointment to view.
It became the first and only property I did view. Why? Because, I turned up on a mild, almost sunny, early summer’s day. I turned right into the street, and right towards the building. In front of me was a mid-nineteenth century semi-detached house, with a cottage garden. The front door was deep blue, approached through an avenue of green. The garden was heavy-full. The front door opened, I was shown in and I knew I was home. I’d never seen a house quite like it, yet it was instantly familiar. I negotiated the price, I fretted my budget, I signed the contract and went to visit my sister in Cornwall while the paperwork went through. There might have been a delay in my moving in, the adjoining house had a major water leak through the party wall and so I arrived to no kitchen at all. No problem, it was a good summer and I was travelling a great deal. The issue was sorted out in my absence and by autumn the workmen had left me alone at The Blue Door.
I settled in and learned more of the neighbourhood – Chav Central – and the house. Part of property belonging to long-since gone local ironworks, the house faced what had been the local church school and schoolhouse. It soon turned out that I was the only working person in my street and I became the source of fascination to my neighbours; some second or third generation unemployed, some full-time students. On the whole, they were an interesting group and we all got along fine. I was even amused more than annoyed by being woken by the neighbourhood poet playing with garden machinery in the early hours of a Sunday morning. How that would have played on one of his TV performances I had no idea.
Next door had been a two-woman business, operating discreetly as ‘The Two Cherries’. Their clients had not always been so discreet and the brothel had been shut down just before I moved in. The current occupants were pathologically shy PhD students who I never saw and barely heard. Ideal semi-neighbours. Directly opposite, in the old school house and also at number one thanks to an arcane street numbering and naming system, lived a couple with a dog the size of a pit pony. This dog sometimes delivered my post, and collected its owners’ letters. During our ritual mail swaps I developed a fascination with the canine dental imprint on paper. Next door to them, lived a single mother home-educating her son ‘for medical reasons’. These reasons were her only mystery as she spilled even the most intimate details of her life at the slightest jolt. Others in the street I saw less.
Regular callers to the street, post-brothel, included The Sinister Ice-Cream Van. Through the depths of winter, its chimes could be heard playing ‘Three Blind Mice’. It would park up outside in the snow and any child foolhardy enough to want an ice-cream (in that weather from that van) would be turned away. The driver was, however, only too keen to invite in one of my female neighbours. I’ve not been able to look at ‘Mr Whippy’ or ’99’ signs in the same way since. From time to time, The Philosophy Van would also arrive, never at the same time as The Sinister Ice-Cream Van, though. A small light grey vehicle, sporting signs such as: ‘No problem too large or too small. Perhaps there is no problem.’ Its driver wore a matching baseball cap.