In 1955 I moved with my family from Corstorphine to Bonnyrigg. Moved from a pleasant suburb of Edinburgh to a small industrial town, that had a constant aroma of jute from the carpet factory just down the High Street. My new school was in the village of Lasswade that nestled in a valley below Bonnyrigg, that had a constant chemical stench, a byproduct of the paper mill, that pumped technicolor effluence into the River Esk. But, for me it was the start of a magical childhood; I had come back to my spiritual home.
My mother’s family had lived in Lasswade for generations. I went to the same school that my mother and my grandmother had attended, and where, before the First World War my maternal great-grandfather had run a successful, upmarket, painting and decorating business from the family home. Long before the 1950s, the business had folded, a victim of the economic turmoil and social upheaval, that followed in wake of the First World War. But the family house, 10 Polton Road, remained, like a ship, washed up on a reef, the surviving bemused crew stranded on board.
The house, unchanged in almost thirty years, faced Lasswade Parish Church at bottom of the Wee Brae. As it was on my way home from school, before the steep climb up the Wee Brae, I would often call in, to scrounge pocket money or simply to hang out with the remnants of my mother’s family; my granny, her sister Jen and brother Harry. Uncle Harry was the Office Manager and Company Secretary at St Leonard’s Paper Mill, granny had her widow’s pension and Aunty Jen didn’t seem to work.
A mausoleum of sorts, the front elevation of the house had a large window, which in the heyday of my great-grandfather’s business, would have had arrangements of wallpaper and fabrics displayed to entice passing potential customers, but now was an empty void. To the right hand side of this window there was the door into the shop. A matching door on the left led into the house. I would walk through this door, a portal into a lost world, cross the small square hallway and jump down the two steps to the dining room. If granny or aunty Jen weren’t there I would walk through to the kitchen, a long stone paved room, with, bizarrely, a bath down one wall, and, still used ancient ringers and wash tubs. Then continuing my search, would open the door in the far left hand corner and look in the garden at the side of the house where a path led to the outside lavatory. If, when I eventually located the two sisters, and they were busy, hanging washing out or gardening, I would explore the rest of the house.
Two doors from the dining room led into the disused decorator’s shop and show room. One opened into the public area, the other into the space behind the counter. I wander around the shop, look into drawers, try on uncle Harry’s Air Raid Warden helmet, play with the rifles (Harry had thrown the firing mechanism into the river), look at the Special Constable’s uniform that I would, later, wear at a fancy dress football match in the park. While I explore, the ghost of my great-grandfather, Alex, is standing behind the highly polished mahogany counter. He is watching the apparition of his wife, Ellen. She has entered the showroom, with tea and biscuits, to discuss wallpaper selection with a customer from one of the large houses, in the Braeheads or Broomieknowe. Marvelling at her cultured Kent accent, he is recalling how he had met her, then a Nanny, when visiting a house in Bexley, the assistant to a Senior Designer who was advising the owner on the decoration of some of the rooms.
After exploring the shop I wander through to the entrance hall and climb the stairs to the first floor, walk past uncle Harry’s bedroom and open the door to the drawing room.
Like the shop it had remained untouched since the end of the First World War. Unseen by me there are more ghosts. My granny, who’s soul had died with her husband at Arras, is sat with my grandfather Clem on the settee in front of the elegant fire place. They are betrothed and her brother Al is sitting on a chair opposite, acting, unnecessarily as a chaperone. Al and Clem are best friends, Al the artist and Clem the writer. They are talking excitedly about Clem’s plan to join his brother Richard in Los Angeles to establish a publishing house. As the ghosts of my family talk, I walk, in the sunlight, around the richly decorated room, examine the ornaments, the bright brass Russian samovars, oriental ceramics and look at the watercolour and oil paintings set in tasteful gold frames. My great-grandfather had assembled a treasure trove of art and artefacts.
Then, in this life, granny calls me, and I leave my ancestors and head downstairs. In the dining room I sit, drink a glass of milk and devour an unhealthy plate of Scottish cakes. Aunty Jen might tell me stories, fictional or historical tales of the village, or I might quietly read the cartoons from the Sunday Post: The Broons, Oor Wullie and Nero and Zero.
Aunty Jen was the life and soul of the trio. In my sixteenth year she died and my brother and I were handed cards with the shape of a coffin edged with numbers. We had been allocated ropes. She was buried in the graveyard that lay across the road from the Primary School. To the harsh grating call of the carrion crows in the woods, we strained on the ropes. As the coffin disappeared Willie’s feet scrabbled for purchase in the loose soil as he nearly joined Jen. She had been a muckle woman in body and in personality.
Then there were two. My eternally mournful granny and my disaffected uncle. They were both war casualties, my granny robbed of her beloved husband Clem, and Harry, like many surviving soldiers, war damaged. One day, when I was about ten years old, Harry found me in the old shop where, to my joy, I had discovered bound volumes of a magazine, with superb illustrations, published throughout the First World War. He sat down next to me and started to talk about his war experiences. I was taken aback at this, as he hardly ever said a word to me. A machine gunner in the trenches, he described how he had to ensure the trajectory of the bullets hit the chests of the advancing Germans. How too low was no good, as hitting their legs didn’t kill them. He was like a farmer instructing an apprentice in the art of scything corn. A killing machine at eighteen, it was no wonder that uncle Harry was slightly unhinged.
With the death of aunty Jen, granny and Harry decided to sell the house and move into a residential caravan on the new Kevockvale Caravan Park. The contents of the house, my grand-grandfather’s treasure, was sold to a sharp antiques dealer from the city. Anything that the dealer didn’t buy or that wouldn’t fit into the residential caravan, Harry burned in the back garden.
In my final walk through this empty house, through this time capsule, I wondered at the kitchen with the bath against the wall, at the rooms empty of the furniture of life, the sad squares and rectangles on the drawing room walls, evidence of missing pictures. Then, for the first time I go into the workshop that stands to the side of the main house. The door stiffly creaks open and sunlight floods in to illuminate worktops covered with paint pots, brushes and other tools of the decorating trade, as if the workmen had just finished for the day; a landlocked Marie Celeste.
With the sale and modernising of the house it became, along with the school, the paper mill, the post office, a faded memory of the village as it metamorphosed from a vibrant close knit working community into a commuter hub of Edinburgh.