An Unexpected Day Out

Thursday, 30 September

The air was tense when I arrived at Elmfield House on Tuesday morning. My repeated ringing of the doorbell went unanswered so I opened the front door and entered the workroom to find Leonard and Luke embroiled in a fierce disagreement. I had interrupted at the worst possible time when the argument had reached its climax. Both fell silent upon my arrival, then Luke stood out of his chair and quickly collected his jacket, deliberately avoiding eye contact with me. Leonard watched him storm out of the room with the cold eye of a father who had scorned a disobedient child and, as the front door slammed shut, Leonard collapsed back into his chair and proclaimed in a loud voice:

'Man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep…'

Shaken by the confrontation that I had witnessed and the solemnity of Leonard’s tone, I asked “did you write that yourself?”
“Shakespeare,” he answered simply, then added “I’m sorry if Luke’s little show has upset you…”
“No, not at all,” I replied as I sat down in the leather armchair as though nothing had happened.

Hooter was pacing in circles and he was clearly distressed by the hostile atmosphere in the workroom, so Leonard fished around by the side of his chair and took hold of the dog’s collar. “Are you hungry? I’m sorry dear friend, I’ve neglected to feed you, haven’t I?” he said as he stood out of his chair and walked into the kitchen with Hooter following obediently behind. Amidst the clattering of cupboards and dog bowls, I heard Leonard’s voice ring out from the kitchen telling me that he had bad news; Sophie's illness has worsened and it is unlikely that she will be well enough to visit us for a while. I told him that I was sorry to hear that she was unwell and I asked him to convey my best wishes to her and her father when they spoke again, although, to be honest, I had forgotten entirely about Sophie’s imminent visit since Leonard has not mentioned her for some time.

Leonard emerged from the kitchen and stood before me in the centre of the room and then, rather than returning to his chair, he drew in a deep breath and said something along the lines of “well, it’s a lovely day outside and although I am desperate to continue with our work, I can’t expect a young woman to spend her last days of summer shut away indoors with an old man in an old house now, can I?”. I laughed and suggested that we worked in the garden but Leonard insisted that we should go for a walk since ‘that way we can do something productive and healthy’ and, before I knew it, he had his beige jacket in hand and he was searching through the pockets for his house keys. It was an irresistible proposition and so I gathered my things together, helped Leonard to put on his jacket and Hooter barked from the kitchen door in utter disbelief as we left the drawing board and biscuit tin on the workroom floor and walked out of Elmfield House.

After checking, double-checking and checking once again that the front door was securely locked, Leonard finally put his trust in the door locks and joined me by the gate. The dogs in the nearby garden barked wildly as we passed them by and Leonard jeered playfully at them as we headed through the archway and onto the main street. It was difficult to maintain a conversation over the noise of the heavy traffic and the hordes of students rushing around us in their identifiable tribes; members of sports teams in shorts and hooded tops, postgraduates with armfuls of library books, first years looking bright and fresh in the latest fashion trends and downtrodden final year students in sloppy jeans and scruffy trainers. I was mindlessly following the broken pavement and the back of Leonard’s jacket when he suddenly came to a halt on a street corner and asked me to take him somewhere. I was taken aback by his request and asked where he would like to go; a coffee shop maybe? Or another visit to the university? He insisted that I took him to a location that had a special personal significance to me and I should not consider distance to be a constraint since we had the entire day at our disposal. I stared bemused at him for a while. He has visited St. Bartholomew’s Church and the university campus many times before, so where else could I take him? The only remaining location ‘of special personal significance’ that came to mind was the housing estate that I grew up on. It was only a little further along the bus route past St. Bartholomew’s Church and it wouldn’t take too long to get there, besides there were one or two childhood haunts on the estate that I had been meaning to revisit for some time.

We walked to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus that took us directly to the small estate on the outer boundary of the city (Leonard did not utter one word throughout the entire journey and I could tell that he was absorbing every detail of this new and unfamiliar territory). The bus dropped us at the edge of the estate and we both remained silent as we climbed the steep hill towards the main residential area, then, as we neared the top of the hill, I began to smile when I spotted a familiar flat piece of metal rising into view. It was the roof of the old bandstand. It was still there. And as it came into sight I was pleased to see that it was still the bizarre, fairy-tale construction that I remembered from my childhood - a dark green, weather-beaten circular shelter perched on top of the hill like a cherry on a cake. The surrounding field had grown wild which added to the eerie and desolate air of a neglected cemetery or abandoned war memorial that I recalled from years ago, but the shelter itself was largely unchanged; the green paint on the intricate ivy design railings had flaked away to reveal bare grey metal underneath and the railings were intertwined with real ivy that had overgrown most of the seating area and one half of the roof, but the seating area and the patterns on the inside of the roof were perfectly preserved where they had been protected from the weather and they were exactly as I remembered them, although accompanied by a little additional graffiti.

I explained to Leonard that I had brought him to the bandstand because it had served as a secret place of sanctuary during my childhood. It was located far enough away from the main estate to allow me to hide from everyone when I wanted to be alone and it was high enough to provide a comprehensive, bird’s eye view of the activity taking place below. I could spot a parent or teacher heading in my direction with plenty of time to make a hasty escape! Leonard was enchanted by the beauty of the dilapidated structure and he thanked me for sharing it with him, but he was annoyed that he had forgotten to bring his camera and he insisted that we must return sometime soon to take photographs of the area.

We sat together on the top step of the bandstand and from our high viewpoint we could see the patchwork of fields and wooded areas below and the warren of narrow roads that spread out like a complex rete mirabile across the estate. I drew Leonard’s attention to prominent locations that had interesting anecdotes associated with them, such as the dense wood that was situated to our immediate right. Although the wood looked small and ordinary from a distance, I assured Leonard that it was nothing like the flat and sanitised forests that are carefully designed and planted for delicate children and elderly ramblers these days. From what I could recall there was a fast stream that ran straight through the centre and there were entirely impassable areas with steep slopes and plummeting crevices that looked as though a giant hand had taken a scoop out of the earth. My school-friends and I would compete to climb the tallest trees and, although we spent many a Sunday afternoon beating a path through the wood, we failed to ever reach the other side. Those who did were revered as heroes at school. But there could have been another world at the other end, for all I knew.

One particularly prominent landmark that Leonard spotted was the tall brick water tower that looms like an imposing fortress over the entire estate. The tower once belonged to the local psychiatric hospital that opened in 1905 and, although the hospital and the tower have been abandoned for some years now, the derelict buildings still retained all the qualities of a creepy lunatic asylum from a horror movie. Unmarked white vans continued to visit the site long after it closed and rumour had it that if you peeked through the broken windows of the adjoining hospital chapel then it was possible to make out the rusty manacles hanging from the ceiling in which patients were hung during sessions of extreme physiotherapy. A secure mental health unit was built nearby to replace the old asylum and a number of infamous killers spent time inside the new clinic, which was always a concern to local residents because at least once a month a loud siren would wail out to alert everyone in the neighbourhood that a patient was missing and quite often I would wake in the night to the sound of a police helicopter circling overhead and the flash of searchlights hunting through the gardens. 

There were several other equally creepy locations in the surrounding area that set our young imaginations on fire; for example, a short detour on my morning route to school took me through a field of horses belonging to the local farm and the walk through the field was always an uneasy experience because rumour had it that the field was haunted by the ghost of an elderly farmer who would chase terrified trespassers off his land. There was also an eerie disused Cold War monitoring bunker nearby and a sprawling maze of abandoned underground tunnels ran beneath the estate for miles and miles. A few residents reported hearing loud, mechanical rumblings coming from these tunnels in the middle of the night and so my friends and I would embark on day-long expeditions to find the entrances to the tunnels and discover the source of these strange noises. 

However it wasn’t just the local geography that was responsible for fuelling our superstitious natures. The community library was heaving with books about the paranormal and reports of hauntings and ghostly encounters spread like wildfire across the estate and they were enthusiastically exchanged by children and adults alike. Take, for example, the rumours that were focused around a street corner only two streets away from my parents’ house. In a tragic foreshadowing of my own brother’s death, a boy in my class at school had dashed into the road to retrieve his football one Saturday afternoon and he had been hit by a speeding car and instantly killed. The local residents were devastated by his death and the lamp post nearest to the accident site became a permanent memorial to him, with flowers and cuddly toys strapped to it throughout the year. Shortly after his funeral took place my friends and I heard reports that motorists driving past the spot had seen a ghostly figure standing by the side of the road and people living on the street claimed to hear a child crying late at night. Needless to say, my pace would always quicken when I passed by that street corner!

The entire estate was teeming with similar urban legends and stories of paranormal activity and it was an ideal breeding ground for irrational fears and nervous disorders. In hindsight it was little surprise that many of the local children, including myself, were heavily influenced by the supernatural in one way or another.

“‘Influence’ is a peculiar word,” Leonard interjected at that point, “it is the poor defence that is given by addicts, serial killers and children who murder their brothers and sisters. It is the scapegoat that is sent out into the wilderness of rationality in order to justify the most cruellest behaviour.” 

He paused in his speech to swat at a fly that had been buzzing around us for a good five minutes or so. I smiled as I watched him take a swipe at the fly and brought my rambling commentary to a close, choosing instead to let Leonard take in the atmosphere of the place for himself. I thought about my words to Leonard and how surprising it is that my childhood was so heavily steeped in the supernatural and yet I have grown to reject any belief in the supernatural as an adult. I suspect that my unrequited desire to encounter the supernatural on a religious level is largely to blame for this, but I’m not going to dig too deeply into my psychological roots here!

After a few minutes of silence Leonard spoke again and he said that he was delighted that I had brought him to a location that was so visually appealing and my decision to choose somewhere from my childhood had pleased him for two reasons; a) it is clear that I am comfortable with my past and b) I must trust him enough to share my most personal memories with him. He made a number of comments that struck a chord with me and they have been rattling around inside my mind over these last few days. I cannot recall his exact words but they were pithy and inspirational statements, almost like he was giving a motivational speech. The first was something along the lines of “your history is the blueprint for your future and you must not be afraid to embrace who you were, who you are and who you will be”, the second was “make peace with your past because the greater it weighs on you the heavier it will be to carry through life” and the third was “the faster you run from your demons the faster you will fall backwards into your own personal hell”. The stern look that he gave me as he spoke was similar to the intense stare that Luke has when he is growing impassioned in his argument. It was a determined and forceful stare that pierced straight into my brain as though he was bypassing my conscious mind and directly addressing a deeper level of consciousness within me. Luke has given me this look many times before, but it was the first time that I had seen it in Leonard's eyes.

I was sitting in quiet contemplation and reflecting on Leonard’s insightful words when he suddenly slammed his hand down hard on the step beside him, instantly killing the fly that had been bothering us and causing me to jump out of my skin. The violence of the act was so unexpected and out of character that I was shaken by the moment and unsure how to react, so we sat in silence for a while until I felt obliged to speak and apologise, although I was not sure what for. At a loss on how to pacify Leonard’s agitated state, I apologised for walking straight into Elmfield House earlier that day and interrupting the heated debate that he was having with Luke, but Leonard dismissed my apology and he complained that Luke suffers from ‘the worst plague that is endemic in young men these days; arrogance’. He said that Luke is arrogant with regards to his intellect - and arrogance and intelligence, when combined, can be a very formidable combination indeed...