Hannah waited for the surprise that always remained a surprise no matter how many times you drove down the driveway to her favourite house. Speke Hall comes at you when you least expect it. A glorious Tudor manor house left behind by time on the edge of Liverpool, stranded in the middle of an urban landscape right next to an airport. Hannah had been there plenty of times but her daughter had only just turned six and it was the first time she had risked bringing her. She was old enough now to build a den in the woods next to the hall if she got bored and sit at a table in the little cafe properly to have some cake.
“Shall we have some cake later on?”
Keira wrinkled her nose.
“Whatever you like. There’s one called Wet Nelly.”
There was a snort from the back seat.
“There is not.”
“There is too. I’ll show you. You can eat some.”
“Wet Nelly. Urgghhh.”
“It’s yummy. I promise.”
This was a lie. Her daughter would definitely not like it, Keira hated fruit cake but she might not realise what it was until it was in her mouth.
“You can have a bite of mine.”
The car filled with laughter as they swung into a parking space. This was going to be a good day.
It was touch and go getting Keira to walk straight to the house when she saw the piles of sticks and logs, all ready to play with, as they made their way through the woods but they finally stood in the little queue at the front door ready to be allowed in and she was happy. She allowed her mother to tell her how the house was built and nodded wisely.
“It’s a Hansel and Gretel house, only it’s wood not gingerbread. Made from sticks.”
Hannah smiled. Speke hall was like something from a fairytale, a carefully constructed pile of interlocking patterns, sloping eaves, high chimneys and dark mullioned windows. It was a house built with flair, imagination and love. A confident house for people who knew their worth.
Keira was thrilled that only a little part in the corner of the huge heavy front door was opened up and the grown ups had to duck their heads. She bounced through into the central courtyard straight away and stood there jumping up and down.
“There are trees mummy- big trees. And more house!”
Hannah followed her quickly. She didn’t want any trouble. Sometimes people who began by thinking that Keira was cute could change their minds very quickly.
“Don’t start pulling at the trees.”
Keira looked at her mother in disgust, as though she had never been known to do anything like that.
They walked around the trees, peering into the windows and finding patterns in the house walls.
“The trees would have been a lot smaller when they were planted.”
Keira rolled her eyes.
“I know that.”
“They have names.”
“I don’t know one’s like these.”
“Not just what kind of tree they are. They are yew trees but they have their own names as well. Can you guess what?”
“Boys or girls?”
“One of each.”
Keira bit her lip and pointed.
“That one is called Jack and the one over there is called Sarah.”
“Nearly. They are called Adam and Eve.”
“Which is which?”
“I don’t know.
“That’s no good.”
“But I do know how old they are.”
“Older than you?”
“Much older. Five hundred years old.”
“That’s a lot of years.”
“There’s something else to show you- over here.”
Hannah took Keira’s hand, ignoring the pull away, and led her to the other side of the courtyard.
“See up there? Can you see a spyhole?”
It took a while but finally Keira did. She jumped up and down on the spot shouting. People stared.
“YES! YES! YES!”
When you first came to the house in the olden days they had a special man inside the house and he looked through that to see if you were allowed in.”
“Are we allowed in?”
“Well we paid, so yes. You can look through it yourself later on.”
Now that she knew about the spy hole Keira had completely lost interest in the courtyard and the trees so there was no alternative but to take her straight on into the house itself. Hannah had been dreading this part. There were a million and one things that her daughter might pick up and wave around, bounce on, or sit on without permission.
“Be good. You mustn’t touch anything- all right?”
She always said that to start with. Before she got bored.
The beds were the biggest hit- except for the fact that she couldn’t crawl up and bounce on them. She looked at the faces in the carved wood and the flowers on the counterpanes and announced that her bed was boring in comparison but that she liked her Moanna duvet cover better.
“I wish I had a roof on my bed.”
“When this house was built a lot of people didn’t have a proper bed at all.”
“Homeless, ” Keira said instantly, without really understanding what that meant.
“Not homeless- just without a bed.”
Keira ran on ahead and her mum sped up to keep her in sight.
By the time they reached the billiard room Keira was in full flow and Hannah’s patience was wearing thin. The kitchen had been pronounced “boring” and there had been too many rooms, too many “brown paintings”. She was thankful there was nobody else in there. The row of settees at the end of the room were empty. The house guide who was guarding the billiard table smiled at them. He was having a slow day.
“Would you like to play a game?”
Keira frowned at him, used to being told no.
“Am I allowed?”
“Of course you are. I’ll show you.”
She darted a look of triumph at her mum and Hannah sat down wearily to watch, thankful to be given a few minutes off. He fetched a step stool for Keira to stand on and showed her what to do, allowing her to roll the balls towards the pockets by hand when the cue proved too unwieldy and giving her a round of applause each time one went in. By the time ten minutes had gone by he knew Keira’s name, how old she was, where she lived, how often she saw her dad, what she was having for her tea, that bananas were yucky and more about Disney princesses than he probably wanted to- especially Moanna. It was the undivided attention that Keira needed and couldn’t always get and both of them were enjoying themselves. He smiled at her mother.
“It’s a lovely age, six. I have a granddaughter the same age.”
Hannah smiled back, it was good to be envied rather than pitied. When she was with other mothers she so often seemed to be kept on the back foot, sneered at without words.
“Thank you for being patient. She’s very full on. Let me know when you’ve had enough.”
Hannah amused herself by looking at the information sheet for the room. It had been very elegant in its day. There was a painting by Whistler on it showing the room full of wealthy, fashionable people whiling away the time in elegant clothes after dinner, sitting around watching the game, flirting and gossiping. Lots of flirting. The billiard table had been made by Gillows of Lancaster- it would have cost a small fortune and no novices would ever have been allowed to risk that baize top back then- let alone children. They would find it strange now to see a parade of strangers coming through the room to gawp at what remained of their lives, allowed to poke around a delicate skeleton which had once been fleshed out with their hopes and dreams, now emptied of warmth and joy. It was just as well that they couldn’t see the room now, however beautiful it still was.
The last ball slipped down into a pocket and Keira straightened up to receive her final round of applause. It was time to move on- quit while you are ahead. He had been very patient.
“There- you enjoyed that didn’t you?”
Keira jumped down from the stool.
“Say thank you.”
She pulled at her mum’s arm.
“Can I build dens now?”
“What about cake?”
So dens it was. Hannah sat deep in thought, and very hungry, while her daughter made herself thoroughly hot and grubby, dragging branches around and putting them in piles. By the time they were ready to eat cake the cafe was almost closing.
Keira could recognise fruit cake whatever name it had been given so they shared a large piece of chocolate cake and both had some lemonade while Keira chattered happily about what she had seen.
“Who were the pretty ladies?”
“Which pretty ladies?”
“The ones watching me play on the big table. In the long dresses. They wouldn’t smile at me.”
Keira had a vivid imagination and Hannah had learned not to contradict her when she made things up. It was best to play along, humour her.
“I don’t know sweetheart.”
Keira took a big bite of cake.
“Maybe they were fed up.”
“A bit bored maybe, just watching.”
Then Hannah remembered the painting on the fact sheet. Perhaps there was nothing to contradict.