Prologue - In My Father's House: Elegy for an Obsessive Love

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"Three obituaries!" a fierce old relation wrote after my father died. "What on earth for! What did he ever do?" The point was fair. Her own late husband, a handsomely moustached man with an outstanding war record, was of the type who earn such tributes. But George FitzRoy Seymour - he was concerned that the FitzRoy, recording some royal bed-hopping in the seventeenth century, should never be overlooked - had done no such service to his country. He had no war record. Long and dutiful service as a magistrate had earned him commendations and praise, but no official honour. The fat red handbooks in which he listed his London clubs - Pratt"s and Brooks" in the issue of 1982 - offered no history of worthy activities, while revealing (father "great great great grandson of Marquess of Hertford"; mother "sister of 10th Duke of Grafton"; wife "daughter of 8th Baron Howard de Walden") that here was a man who took exceptional pride in his connections. It saddened him that he had no title. His links to those who did were a solace.

Eccentricity has not always been encouraged by the prim editors of Debrett. Invited to list his recreations, my father omitted motorbikes and wrote instead: shooting, deerstalking and tennis. Identifying himself as Lord of the Manor of Thrumpton provided a greater source of satisfaction.
His address provides the clue to George FitzRoy Seymour"s most substantial achievement. Deposited with its childless owners as a baby, he fell in love with the House that always seemed to be his natural home. His vocation was announced in one of the first roundhanded essays he wrote as a schoolboy. When he grew up, he wrote, he wished to become the squ"arson of Thrumpton Hall, combining the role of landowner and parson as his uncle, Lord Byron, the poet"s descendant, had done before him. He would look after the tenants. He would be kind to his servants, especially when they grew old. He would cherish and protect the home he loved. The master who marked the essay, repelled by such priggishness, scribbled a terse comment in red crayon, advising young Seymour to find a style and topic more suited to his years. The following week, my father handed in eight pages on the importance of preserving the family monuments in Thrumpton"s village church. He was eleven years old. No suggestion had been made that he would ever inherit the House to which he had vowed his love. Uncertainty was not one of his failings.

My father died in May 1994. A gust of wind blew in through a newly opened window, rippling the yellow hangings of the bed on which he lay. My brother went along the landing to find our mother and consult her about hymns for the funeral. I walked out into the garden. Reaching up into the swaying branches of the lilacs, I snapped them off until I stood knee-deep in the heavy swags of blossom I had never, until that moment, been licensed to cut. Returning to the House, I pushed at the wooden shutters of the rooms on the ground floor, parting them to let in a flood of lime-green light. Standing, hands on hips, at the far end of the garden, I hurled shouts at the red-brick walls and arching gables until they echoed back their reassurance: Free! Free!
In the little village church later that week, the vicar spoke of my father as "a man with a wound in his heart". The description, which startled nobody, could have been a reference to the anguish he had recently experienced. It seemed more likely that the vicar, a man who had known my father for thirty years, was thinking of his aching need for a love greater than any one person had been able to provide.
We buried his ashes privately, in the garden of the House to which he gave his heart. The wording on the tablet that marked the spot was borrowed from Christopher Wren"s epitaph. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. The pride of it, loosely translated here, felt right: If you wish to know me, look around you. Here I am.

We chose the words and here, still, he is. On troubled nights, he comes to me in dreams, stalking back through the front door to survey his home and take charge of it once more. He complains that unknown people are sleeping in his room; that his cupboards are filled with the sordid clothes of strangers. Speaking in a flat voice, thinned by resentment, he explains that he intends to put the House, his home, not ours, to rights. We buried a phantom, a creature of our own wishes. We wanted him dead. Our mistake. He never died. He just went travelling.
A white hand reaches out to pull down a parchment-coloured blind at one of the library windows. Wearily, he reminds me of the need to protect precious leather-bound books and rosewood tables from the glare of daylight. Helpless, I watch him take his familiar place at the head of the long dining table. Awaiting instructions, I find myself dismissed to a side seat, far away. He observes, looking pained, that the silver is tarnished, that the wine has been insufficiently aired, and that the soup plates are cold. Standards have slipped, but all will be well again. Everything, once again, is under his control.
I watch his body harden into the familiar lines of authority. I long for him to leave. I know he never will.
It takes days for the sense of dread to wear off, not only of his reproachful spirit, but of having failed the House, of having been unworthy of his expectations.
His taste was not always for objects of beauty. This morning, I came across a battered white plastic chair in the courtyard at the back of the House, turned east to face the morning sun. The seat is soiled, the shape is ugly. I want to throw it away. Sam Walker disagrees. Sam and I read our first books together at the village dame school where Sam"s aunt kept order with a ruler and a whistle. Sam has grown up to be a true Nottinghamshire man, plain-spoken and reserved. He"s worked at the House for forty years.
"You can"t get rid of that," he says. "It"s your father"s chair."
"The seat"s broken. I"m sure he didn"t mean us to keep it."
Sam Walker"s belief in preservation is legendary. Old lamp fittings, massive radiograms, towel racks, broken deckchairs; they never disappear. They go to rest in one of the stables to which only Sam holds the key. Their return may be a matter of years, not months, but their time will come.
Resolute, I fold my arms. "There"s no reason to keep it now."
Sam looks at the wall behind me. "Your father always sat on that chair when... he carried it down to the lakeside every afternoon he was here after..." Hesitating, he stares harder at the wall. "You know. After it happened."
Long-jawed and high-cheeked, Sam"s eloquent face could have been carved by a medieval mason. At this moment, it conveys no expression. The message is clear. The chair may look empty, but it still has an occupant.
The chair stays.

I can never hope to banish my father"s presence from the House that possessed his heart. I can make my peace by trying to understand what made him the man he was. Sifting through the drawers of diaries and ancient letters - like Sam Walker, George FitzRoy Seymour was a man who threw nothing away - I can assemble the fragments and see plainly what I always knew: that a single passion governed his life, a love so great and so certain that he was willing to sacrifice everything and everybody for it. "Dear Thrumpton, how I miss you tonight," he wrote in 1944, when he was twenty-one and had just paid a summer visit to his uncle"s home. "As I grow older the House exerts an ever greater hold on me - I love every tree and stone on the place, and every hold and corner of the place. God send I never have to leave for ever."
The House, constructed from rosy bricks and crowned with curved stone gables, stands among the meadows flanking the River Trent, in the middle of England, a hundred miles to the north of London. Starting life as a modest Nottinghamshire manor house built in the time of Shakespeare, it was enlarged twice. An ambitious owner redesigned it in the seventeenth century, to incorporate a large carved staircase and a grand reception room on an upper floor. In the 1820s, the House gained a courtyard, a library and a lake. The estate, easily encompassed by an hour"s brisk walk, is surprisingly varied in its landscape, incorporating traces of an Iron Age fort and a Roman trading post. An eighteenth-century stone weir breaks the level of the river that runs alongside the park"s expansive fields; pretty copses and airy beechwoods climb a long line of hillside that blocks out all evidence of the twenty-first century. (Until, that is, you walk the ridge along the hilltop and look the other way, out to where a distant line of motorway traffic snakes across a green plain and cooling towers puff steam clouds at the wingtips of low-flying aircraft. This landscape has a different kind of beauty, a kind my father did not acknowledge.)
"God send I never have to leave for ever." There"s no doubting Thrumpton"s charm, but what was it that could lead a boy of twenty-one to make such a declaration? How could bricks and mortar exert such power? What was "the wound in his heart", so painful to see, so difficult to comprehend?
To find the answer, time has to be turned back and confronted.

"I"m sorry, but I simply don"t see the point."
My mother and I have been discussing my wish to write this book for ten years. Anger and self-pity have kept me on hold. Listening to myself as I talk to friends, telling them the stories, polishing the details, I hear sourness in the tone, feel rage twist a knife in my throat, and know the time hasn"t yet come. I"ve wondered if my mother"s way, the path of silence, is the wiser option. There are things it"s easier to disclose in private than expose to public view. There are things I"ve never understood, that I"m not sure I want to examine.
"It"s not as if you"d be writing one of your biographies," she goes on. "He"s your father."
"Was," I say fiercely. "Was."
We"re sitting late over supper in the kitchen of the House, our faces lit, like uneasy conspirators, by a couple of candles.
"I don"t know," she says after a long pause. "What do you want me to do?"
"Be my conscience. Tell me when I go wrong."
She gives me a sharp sideways look. "I can tell you. It doesn"t mean you"ll do anything."
"I"ll listen."
"It doesn"t strike you," she says after a pause, "that you"re too like him to be objective?"
"Like him!" I can feel the heat of blood rushing to my cheeks. "Like him?"
She winces. "Is that so dreadful? Did you hate him so much? He did love you, you know."
"After his fashion." Don"t do this to me, I think. You know what he was like. You know what we went through. Don"t make me soft, not now.
"Well," she says, standing up and brushing crumbs off her skirt, "you"re set on it and I can"t stop you. But you"ve gone wrong already."
"I have?"
"I"m afraid so." Solemnly, she nods. "Cutting down lilacs? Darling, do you still not know the difference between lilacs and a buddleia, a butterfly tree? In our own garden? Good grief, George must be turning in his grave."
Even a phrase like that can summon him back. Later, brushing my hair before the dim glass in my bedroom, I catch the flicker of a shadow behind me, hear the sudden squeak of a pressed floorboard.
"Goodnight!" I call. I wait for my mother"s voice to answer me, but the House is asleep inside the tall closed shutters. Not a sound is to be heard now in the muffled quiet but the deep steady thud of my own heart and the busy rattle of a distant train.

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