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And they bought six croissants and took them to the park and ate them by the boating pond, shivering in the spring sunlight, and Dee-Dee puked hers up but it didn’t matter, and back at the flat they began to clean and clear it, and Tessa sold all her hash and they bought paint and bleach and washing powder, and they scrubbed and scrubbed and Dee-Dee cooked a big pot of stew, and after two weeks she wasn’t being sick any more, and Tessa made bread and Dee-Dee started to knit a stripy jumper.
After two months the flat was how they wanted and Dee was becoming pink again. In the evenings they listened to early Incredible String Band and wept buckets and Nick Drake and wept buckets, and Astral Weeks and A1 Stewart and Donovan and Bob Dylan and all the songs of the innocence and peace they loved and wanted to re-create.
It was early afternoon. Tessa and Dee-Dee were not doing much but they were happy. It was May. Dee had picked a branch of cherry blossom from the square and put it in a jug on the kitchen table. Then Don arrived.
‘Well, this is very different,’ he said, looking round.
‘Don, I haven’t seen you for ages.’
‘I was up before Christmas.’
‘I think you were tripping … actually I think everybody was tripping
‘Dee-Dee’s here, she went to India and back.’
Dee rushed up and kissed him. ‘Don, is the countryside beautiful? India was awful and I got sick, and Jeremy’s still there, and Edgar left and never came back, and Tessa makes bread now …’
‘Tell us about the Hall, Don.’
Don laughed and sat down. ‘Oh, it’s still a wreck, but I love it, Tess, it’s going to be amazing. I sleep in the hall by the fire and read Geoffrey’s books and I watched the spring coming in and now summer’s coming, there’s martins under the eaves and a kingfisher in the moat, and five ducklings. There’s just me, Molly’s Charlie’s not well now, so they moved to a council house in St Lawrence.’
Don was wearing a pair of Geoffrey’s tweed trousers held up with braces. His hair was longer but he looked different from anybody else they knew. His face was fresh and healthy. Dee got bread and honey and they ate thick slices.
‘Are you down in London to sell something?’ asked Tessa.
‘No, I’ve come to see you.’ He smiled. ‘The flat looks good …’
Tessa and Dee had hung old lace at the windows, ‘The Awakening of Consciousness’ was painted over white, pretty china from the antique market stood on the kitchen shelves. Dee-Dee and Tessa wore thirties print dresses and coloured scarves.
Don nodded. There was something on his mind. Any minute now he was going to say ‘I’ve got a really good idea,’ but he didn’t, he finished his bread and honey. ‘So, Edgar’s gone. I didn’t really like him.’
‘He was weird, smack wasted him.’
Dee put on a record, I Looked Up by the Incredible String Band. Tessa rolled a joint. They sat on the floor.
… Each moment is different from another, each moment is different it’s now, ow, ow …
‘I’ve been thinking,’ began Don, and Dee-Dee and Tessa glanced at each other, ‘About St John’s. I can’t live there always on my own, sometimes I think I’d like to, but there’s money … one needs money. Geoffrey couldn’t do it and he had more money than I, and anyway, it’s selfish, isn’t it? I feel I want to share St John’s because it’s so wonderful, but then there’s another question, with whom? I’d like to start a community, there’s some already in Norfolk and Suffolk and they seem to be going fine. I went to see one and asked them “How do you know who the right people are?” and they said “You soon find out.” But I don’t want to make mistakes. St John’s is special, it’s got something, I suppose one calls it History. It would be a waste if unappreciative people lived there … There’s enough land, it’s got to be cleared, of course, but that could be done … What I’ve seen, the most successful communities are where people work hard, like Findhorn and monasteries. I’ve just been to stay at Downside, being Catholic does have advantages … the ritual, the prayer, the work, the belief keeps them going … but what’s our creed, “The road of Excess leads to the palace of Wisdom” … do we still believe that? Must we still base our identity on intensified experiences, tune in, turn on, drop out, wait for the next high? You see, I’ve been finding this out. The days and the seasons have their own rhythms, in the countryside one really notices it. In the town, OK … it’s a fine day. It’s sunny; it’s not, it’s raining, but since I’ve been at St John’s each day is different.’
Each moment is different from another, each moment is different it’s now, ow, ow …
‘Yes, that’s it. The leaves open in the spring, slowly each day, every minute there’s a change. When the snowdrops came out I cried, I did, it wasn’t sentimental, it was joyful. Winter’s dead, spring’s here! I never felt that in London … It’s medieval. Ancient people lived much closer to nature. The winter must have been long, long and dark, then the spring and summer. Wonderful! You don’t shiver any more … God, I was cold this winter, I was bloody freezing … but now, the hawthorn’s in blossom and the elder.’
He looked at the bough of cherry in the jug. ‘… and here I am in London.’ He smoked the joint.
‘I get fed up with London,’ said Tessa. ‘Parties and people talking, doing the same things, smoking dope, getting laid …’
‘But we’ve made it nice here,’ said Dee-Dee.
When you find out who you are, beautiful beyond your dreams …
They were silent. The record came to an end. Don’s face took on a distant look, reminding Tessa of a soldier on a war memorial.
‘Listen,’ he said, and they listened, to the electric hum of the fridge, the cars on Holland Park Avenue, an aeroplane, people outside …
‘What I hear at St John’s is timeless, it’s been heard since forever; wind, lapwings, ducks on the moat. Must I be the only person to hear it? … Come back with me, we’ll be the beginning, we’ll find more people. “Why may we not have our Heaven here and Heaven hereafter too?” Why not?’
They had not expected this at all.
‘Yes, you two, you’re prefect, I can see it … it’ll be hard work, but you don’t mind about that …’
They stared at him.
‘We’ll clear the land and grow vegetables. There’s two acres, we could be eating our own food.’
‘Oh,’ said Dee-Dee.
‘Come on then.’ He stood up.
‘Yes. Why not? I’ve got the van outside. All this—’ he glanced around ‘—Bring it. It’s yours, isn’t it?’ he began to unplug the record player.
Dee-Dee and Tessa in the middle of the room faced each other. Dee-Dee was becoming tearful. ‘Tessy, what shall we do?’
But Tessa was certain. ‘We’ll go.’
It wasn’t until they arrived at St John’s in the dark that they realised the enormity of their decision. Only the great hall was inhabitable; the rest of the house was a pile of furniture and rubble. On everything was a layer of white plaster dust. There was no electricity.
Dee-Dee and Tessa stood in the damp gloom of the great hall. Don, with a torch, sought out kindling to make a fire. In front of the fireplace was a large mattress and blankets. Tessa and Dee-Dee sank onto these.
‘I’ll light the Aga,’ said Don. ‘It takes a bit of time, but then we can have hot water. How about some food, are you hungry?’ Tessa and Dee-Dee’s faces were blank. Don sat next to them. ‘Well, it is primitive, but you get used to it.’ The fire was beginning to burn and smoke. ‘It does that,’ said Don, poking it. Tessa and Dee-Dee coughed. Wind blew down the chimney. Tessa thought of their comfortable flat in Notting Hill, now packed in Don’s van. She felt too tired to move. Don went to the kitchen to coax the Aga. They wrapped themselves in blankets and gazed into the smoke.
‘Oh, Tessy,’ whispered Dee-Dee.
‘It’ll be fine,’ said Tessa, not sounding very sure.
Don came back with bread and soup. ‘It’s nettle gruel, I picked them yesterday.’ He lit a large candle and placed it by the fire. There were no spoons so they drank straight from the bowls. It was lukewarm.
‘This is our first meal here,’ he said solemnly. ‘It’s a celebration, we have begun a new existence. It’s not going to be easy. We have chosen to live in this ancient and wonderful house. We have given up comforts … At the moment what we see is the ashes, but we will be like the phoenix and rise out of the ashes.’ He paused. ‘Do you believe in God?’
‘No,’ said Tessa.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Dee-Dee.
‘Nor am I,’ said Don, ‘but I think we need a prayer; prayer’s very strengthening.’
‘We could pray to the spirit of the house,’ suggested Tessa, feeling very much that St John’s was a living being they were going to capture.
‘Yes, that’s it.’ Don was very excited. ‘Let’s join hands, then … and close our eyes … how shall I start?’
They sat in a tight circle. The fire crackled. ‘St John’s, you have seen many people … um … look down on us now and have mercy … we have not come to destroy but to rebuild … we want to see you filled again with a working community as it was … oh, gosh … ages ago … St John’s, have mercy on us and give us strength, you were built by men, but have outlasted men, you have stood through storms and wars. Help us to achieve our purpose, to become a centre of inspiration.’
Tessa listened, to the wind in the chimney, the fire, the silence of a country night. She opened her eyes. Dee-Dee and Don were smiling at her. ‘Phew,’ said Don, and wrapped himself in the blanket too.
‘That was beautiful,’ said Dee-Dee, all dreamy.
‘This soup is disgusting,’ said Tessa, and they all laughed.
‘Where shall we sleep?’ asked Dee-Dee after some time. The fire was nearly out.
‘Oh,’ and Don was only slightly embarrassed; ‘I thought perhaps you could sleep here with me …’
Tessa put down her pencil. She had finished. Then what happened, she thought as she picked up her things. Dirty hippies have a sex orgy. But as she walked back to St John’s she was angry. It hadn’t been like that, it hadn’t been sordid, it had been beautiful and special … she opened her car door and Mirabelle came running out of the house.
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