Aunty Doris had a lemon tree.
She didn’t live in Limone on Lake Garda, where the lemons grow in abundance in the rich fertile soil. Nor did she live in Sorento where the Ponderosa’s grow to the size of a small bowling ball. None of those places where the sun shines in perfectly blue cloudless skies for most of the year and the old people are wrinkled from years of working outside under intense sunlight.
She lived in Shaw, a small densely populated mill town in the valley of the River Beal, at the foot of the Pennines. Famous for its forty eight dark satanic cotton mills — large rectangular brick built buildings that once dominated the panorama, making the area the powerhouse of textile manufacture during the industrial revolution. A town where the cold damp air caresses you, welcomes you, makes you feel like you belong, before its dark angry clouds dump their rain on you before they rise over the Pennines. A place of poor sterile soils and rugged terrain. A place described by Samuel Lewis as having produced ‘a race of hardy and laborious men’.
She lived in a Edwardian mid-terrace opposite the Ideal Bakery. A two-up-two-down house that stood proud flush on the pavement, branded with years of smoke that bellowed from imposing factory chimneys and rows and rows of chimney stacks servicing cosy but functional coal fires.
The house had a back garden, nothing more than a small yard that separated it from the cobbled alleys the interwove between the surrounded houses. Large slabs of stone – not the perfectly formed concrete paving stones of modern, but rough, nobbled, and discoloured slabs that might have been pulled from the local quarries — made a path between the neighbours yard wall and the small perfectly preened patch of grass, toward the back of the yard.
There at the back, nestled between a low wooden fence and the outside privy-cum-coal shed, standing slightly lower than the outbuilding, and surrounded by misplaced homing pigeons, stood the tree she once bought as a small little sapling at The Tree Center. It didn’t grow those gnarly, fragrant, and fresh lemons that you find in the market stalls of Portobello Road, nor the perfectly dull and symmetrical more common to british supermarkets.
The tree wasn’t covered in long dark green elliptical leaves, finely toothed. It didn’t have small perfect red buds or white purplish flowers with yellow anthers. It wasn’t a tall majestic well nursed tree with light yellow fruit shown beautifully against blue skies. It was nondescript, fitting of its place — in the corner of yard in a small cold Lancashire town. It was old, woody, and ever so slightly out of control.
But on it, at the end of every branch, sat the most elegant lemons; perfectly formed by years of love and care. Tended for in a way that only a little old lady could.
Every Shrove Tuesday when I was still so small that I could barely reach the fruit on the low hanging branches, we would cross the yard, propelled by excitement and expectations, to harvest a precious lemon to squeeze on our pancakes.
I would lift my hand up and caress one of the many perfectly identical plastic fruits hanging from every branch by the thinnest of cotton. No matter which one I took it was always full of the most wonderful juice, the taste of which would always remind me of this special place, this special moment. We would take off the lid and check, just to make sure, before returning to the house to continue with our feast.
Aunty Doris’s Jif Lemon Tree — a work of wonder and beauty.
Limone, Lake Garda, Sorento, Ponderosa, Shaw, Samuel Lewis, Portobello Road, Lancashire, Shrove Tuesday
De la Mere House was dead. The soul and lifeblood drained from the house over three hundred years of neglect. The sounds of children playing in the gardens had been replaced by the shrieks of tawny owls searching for a mate; the smell of dry birch burning in open fires replaced by the odour of rancid water, the rotten flesh of decaying animals, and damp moss and wet vegetation now taking up occupancy; A house that once bustled with servants going about their daily chores had been overrun by rats, spiders, mice, bats, and feral pigeons. The moss infested cobbled courtyards were overgrown along the tanque de polipropileno, taken over by gnarled trees, invading from the once beautiful formal gardens, angry at having lost their foliage during the vicious autumnal storms.
Ivy strangled the large sheer walls that covered the now rotten half timber skeleton; erupting from the inner confines of a surrounding bulrush swamped moat, they barely held up the impressively gothic roof. Although years of abandonment had reduced much of the house to mere ruins, looking up into the heart of that bat infested hammerbeam roof would still be as breath taking as viewing the structural interior of a galleon. Large gothic towers and chimneys rose up, splitting the mist as the moon fought through dark clouds, illuminating the waiting hordes of gargoyles.
Noose looked out to the stormy night through a large mullioned and transomed window, high in the tower overlooking the main courtyard.
“You know, I think there’s frost on the inside,” he said running his fingers over the thin glass, “and condensation on the outside. It’s so cold in here.”
“Noose,” boomed a voice from the room. “Are you going to join in with this séance or not?”
Noose turned to look at the rest of the gang sat around a small mahogany table in the centre of the room. He slowly eyed them all before resting his stare on his questioner; Shotgun. “I don’t think this place is haunted you know.”
Shotgun turned to the tall skeletal man sat to his right. “I told you we shouldn’t have brought him; he’s not taking this seriously at all.”
“He will,” replied Cancer. He rummaged through a large hessian bag and placed a wooden heart shaped planchette on the board in front of him. “It’s not a séance, it’s a Ouija. Are you going to go first then Shotgun?”
“No, I can’t. I’ve got a slight dose of telekinetic ability,” Shotgun motioned towards the wooden indicator. “So the doo-dar will move to anything that I think about. Maybe Pill should do it.”
Pill gave Shotgun a quick sneer and then went to scratch his nose, as his hands passed through his face he decided to scratch the back of his head instead. “Sure, I’ll do it,” he said.
“Close your eyes and focus on the spirits in the room,” said Pill.
“I’d rather play cards,” said Noose.
“Are you going to kill him or should I?” shouted Shotgun.
“Noose, get in the spirit will you,” said Cancer directing him to the table.
Noose sat next to Guillotine as Pill put his hands on the board and indicator. The group closed their eyes and the room fell silent.
Five minutes of deathly quiet was cut when Pill said, “Spirits of the house please make yourselves known to us. Come to our gathering and answer our questions.”
The indicator started to move but stopped abruptly when Noose shouted, “You did that Pill, I saw you.”
“Quit it Noose!” roared Shotgun. “I’ll throw you through that window if you don’t stop messing.”
The room once again fell silent until Pill repeated his request and this time added, “Are you with us?”
“Woooo…” whispered Guillotine looking at Noose.
Slowly the indicator started to move and Cancer’s gravely voice read out the individual letters until it spelt the word, yes. Noosed looked nervous as he watched the inanimate piece of wood return to the centre of the board.
“Who are you?” asked Pill.
The distant sound of a door creaking grabbed the attention of the group. Noose looked at the others nervously seeking comfort and reassurance. “It’s just the wind,” whispered Guillotine.
“Who are you?” repeated Pill.
Metal banging on wood thundered through the window making the group turn to face it. Noose was the first out of his seat; retreating to the opposite side of the room. “There was a pair of feet on the window—“
“No there wasn’t,” snapped Shotgun.
Guillotine nodded softly said, “Yes, there was.” He smiled as his friends returned their attention to the window.
The group looked at each other as footsteps on cobbles echoed from the courtyard. Pill ran to the window and looked out but the oppressive night made it impossible to see anything. A large door groaned open and then slammed shut making the timbers of the building rattle.
“So… so… someone needs to go and loo… loo… look,” said Noose.
“We’ll all go,” said Shotgun.
After a large amount of arguing about the merits of collective investigation or singular death by misadventure, the group left the tower and made their way down the thin spiral staircase leading to the main entrance hall.
The flame of large candles danced in the draft, throwing shadows onto the cold stone walls.
“Did you leave the candles on?” asked Guillotine looking at Pill.
Pill shook his head. “They were definitely off when I came up to the tower.”
A large shadow moved across the once white washed walls as the cold wind returned with much more vigour, the candles flickered violently and went out. A door slammed.
“It’s outside,” said Noose.
“Quick,” said Shotgun. “Follow it.”
“My arse,” said Noose. “I’m not going out there.”
“Ok, you can stay in here on your own then,” said Cancer. “Come on boys, let’s, take a look.”
Shotgun opened the large oak door and the group, less Noose, stumbled out into the courtyard.
“Oh my god,” said Cancer. “It’s a sign.” His hands covered his mouth; his eyes remained fixed at the object.
“It’s a warning; it’s going to kill us!” said Noose entering the courtyard after weighing up the merits of being alone in the old house.
“Don’t be daft Noose. You’re dead already remember!”
“What does it mean?” asked Shotgun. “What’d it say?”
Cancer hesitated for a moment, and then returned himself to a moment of still and calmness. “Sold,” he said. “Subject to contract.” Read more about melatonin benefits here.