OLD NOTEBOOKS: Chiang Mai: I used to have a house on a hill in England, so far away from here – it’s just a memory now. I had it for 36 years and it was sold just a few days ago… feels like a part of me has become extinct. Another part of me says, what’s gone is gone, let it go because I never really lived there. I’d stay there for a while, go away to Asia for a year, then come back; very long grass in the garden and generations of spiders.
Curiouser and curiouser it was part of a larger building owned by my Great Aunt Liz, a spinster, a recluse and she could read fortune-telling cards. Aunt Liz gave me the house by Deed of Gift in 1978, then became a bit distant and elderly and quite stubborn about allowing me to help.
I’d send Aunt Liz postcards from the places I’d been and bring back gifts but she became more and more remote. Our communication dwindled and in the end she hardly spoke to me. When I knocked on her door, she would open it on the chain, smile and say: ah, so you’re back. You’re looking well… then close the door. I’d hear the lock go: click, and I was left outside.
This is how it was, a kind of companionship, no more than that. She was probably disappointed that I wasn’t going to just come and settle down in that place and be what she’d imagined I’d be. But what could I do? Her decision to create a situation for me to have a ‘home’ next door to her was just so kind. There I was in the centre of rural life and the simple rumbling-along of things, but… never for very long, always moving on to somewhere else.
She died in 1989… I was in Japan and it was impossible to return. I negotiated with a relative who inherited Aunt Liz’s part of the house and to cut a long story short, eventually I owned the whole building. Contractors were hired to renovate the place, but it was two or three years before I managed to get back. The house on the hill had long since become a dream… years and years spent thinking and planning how I could go live there in the end, and just get old sitting by the fireside. These last few days I have revisited that same place in the midst of these rememberings, knowing that sometime soon I have to disengage from it – it’s not my house anymore it’s somebody else’s. People I don’t know walk around in these rooms where I used to be, sit by the fireside stare into the flames.
How long do memories remain? One time I was sitting there burning some old floorboards removed during the renovation of Aunt Liz’s bedroom. The wood was dry and old and good for kindling. They were also painted along the ends – she had a carpet in the middle and painted floor boards all round the edge. It all came back to me when I found it… stuck in the paint on a piece of the floorboard, a human hair – a single strand of hair, quite long. It got stuck there as she was applying the paint. I kept it for a while; would hold it between thumb and forefinger for a moment and pull the tension of it gently… still attached to the painted wood. Then one day I placed the wood piece in the flames and watched it burn away.
Everything is always in the process of ceasing to be, turning into ash. There’s a reluctance to leave, drawn towards the extinguished fire; something peaceful about the absence of everything…
As fire, through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source, so thought by loss of activeness grows still in its own source… For by tranquility of thought one destroys good & evil karma. With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul, one enjoys unending ease. [Maitri Upanishad 6.34]