While cleaning out my mother’s house, I came across a small wooden box, which held a hotch-potch of things belonging to her father; a broken pipe, a specialist knife of unknown purpose, cufflinks, a variety of dried-out fountain pens. With all the junk that I’ve kept of hers, I fully understand the drive that made her keep the box. It’s difficult, sometimes, to explain to ‘outsiders’ the immense value of the memories imbued in an inexpensive, broken, or otherwise nondescript item.
Right at the bottom of the box is the sleeve of a matchbox. It’s just an ordinary, “family size” box of matches, with a call to support the “Guide Dogs for the Blind” printed on one side. On the other, a picture of a golden labrador, resplendent in harness, sitting patiently as the photographer gets the “perfect” image.
I remember it from my childhood. It was propped, empty, on the mantle, and I always wondered if the reason my grandparents kept it was because it was a picture of Honey, the golden labrador, “not a pet!”, that slept in the woodshed and, when nobody was looking, was petted to within an inch of her life…
Unbidden, a long-forgotten memory leaps into vivid relief:
Every year, the “big house” opened its doors to the public, raising money to support “Guide Dogs for the Blind”. A variety of stalls, amply supplied by the ladies of the parish, with refreshments, tombola prizes, and sundry items intended to part the visitor from their money. The local branch of the charity usually turned up with a number of Golden Labradors, puppies mainly, which kept the children amused while the adults did whatever it was that adults did at such events.
My grandfather had been kept busy with preparations and had little time on the day to keep a small boy amused, or to have him trailing at his heels. I was introduced to an older boy, one who I had never met before but must have been one of the other estate worker’s children. ‘D’ rings a bell, but now, for the life of me, I can’t recall whether he went by Douglas or David, or an entirely different name altogether.
“Go off and explore,” grandfather urged, “but keep away from the lake.”
We trotted off into the woods, along a well-maintained path, set to explore the enormous parkland which surrounded the house. Inevitably, of course, the path led to the lake, terminating at the boat house. I hung back.
‘D’ looked around and asked what was wrong, suggesting we should take the boat out. I wasn’t keen. We were to keep away from the lake. Getting into a boat seemed the opposite of avoiding the lake. He sneered, called me names, and huffed that he would do it anyway.
I moved towards the water’s edge. Sparse lily pads punctuated the lake’s surface; an expanse of dark water surrounded by mature trees, some appearing to lower their branches to sip from the mirror-smooth surface.
‘D’ stood on the dock and looked back, urging me to join him. I shook my head, sullen. He shrugged before stepping into the boat which rocked wildly under his weight. He caught his balance, laughing. From the corner of my eye, I watched as he seated himself, pulled an oar from the gunwale, and pushed the boat from the dock. His rowing action, far from perfect, left a skipping of fading eddies, scarring the surface as he moved off.
A soft breeze kissed the lake, which responded with a shiver, breaking up the mirror-like appearance of the surface. At the water’s edge beneath me, beech leaves and dry dust dance in a lazy circle on the surface of the clear, cold water. There is an ant, marooned on one of the leaves. Underneath them, the thick, grey mud appears lifeless. I poke a stick into it, and clouds billow beneath, spreading slowly to a pale coffee.
I get bored and look up to see if ‘D’ is coming back yet. The boat, apparently abandoned, now floats at the far edge of the lake, a few feet from the shore. I’m annoyed that he hasn’t brought it back to the boathouse. I return to the house alone.
Only a handful of visitors remain, milling around on the gravel drive in front of the ornate staircase leading up to the main entrance. Grandfather is among them and, casting an eye in the direction from which I’ve come, asks where ‘D’ is. I answer, honestly, that I didn’t know.
He presses: where did I last see him? I explain; his expression changing as the possibilities unfold in his mind. He shouts for one of the other men to go with him and bundles me into granny’s arms.
I don’t have an ending to the story. I’ve wracked my brains for days. Did I ever see ‘D’ again? Was he mentioned around the house? I’ve even done a search online, in case there are reports of a boating tragedy on a sunny autumn afternoon while a seven-year-old boy watched leaves dance on lakeside eddies.