There is no better distillation of the rich history of this sceptred isle than the English country house. Foxgrove Hall is one such example. In 1732, Edgar Lakeland constructed the estate with a fortune accrued from business dealings in the West Indies. Upon his marriage to the daughter of a prominent landowner in Barbados, he returned to England to manage the investments from his newly-acquired landholdings. The house itself sits on a 300 hectare estate of pristine parkland on the southern border of Gloucestershire. Approaching from the north drive, one cannot help but admire the building’s imposing facade, constructed entirely from locally-quarried stone. Large Corinthian pilasters support an elaborately stuccoed portico emblazoned with the family’s coat of arms: typical flourishes of Yorkshire-born architect John Carr. The main hall, painstakingly preserved by Lakeland’s descendants, remains one of the finest examples of the architecture of the period. Visitors to Foxgrove can expect to enjoy an unparalleled collection of Baroque art, and must be sure to drop by for a spot of tea at the café in the Kitchen Gardens.
Extract from The Treasure Houses of England by Jonathan S. Bailey, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).
I am delighted to inform you that your application for the position of Writer in Residence at Foxgrove Hall has been accepted. Your proposed exploration of historic connections between the Caribbean and the English countryside was met with much interest by the judging panel. We look forward to welcoming you to Foxgrove in the summer.
Extract from letter to Ms Cecilia Braithwaite, from the Office of the Director of Public Engagement, English Heritage archives.
Everything about this place feels unreal. The house, the people, even my view. From the window by my desk, I can see the sweeping slope of lawn that falls onto the southern terrace. The grass is the acid green of those sweets I used to love. What were they called? They were all sour and made your mouth pucker up – Toxic Waste. And the weather is glorious. A real Indian summer, Mr Beasley said, when he picked me up from the station yesterday. He’s the head groundskeeper here and looks the part, all ruddy cheeks and silver sideburns with the soft burr of a West Country accent. We drove down in a rickety jeep that smelled like wet dog and turned earth. I was distracted when he asked about my research, thinking instead about the unopened letter I’d stashed at the very bottom of my travel bag. The shaky handwriting on the envelope that had been once as familiar to me as my own. I didn’t want to open it, didn’t want to shut off that last door of hope. So I wasn’t ready when he repeated the question and added, ‘We don’t get many of you around these parts.’
I blinked. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Writers,’ he said, his eyes inscrutable as they met mine in the rearview mirror.
I was didn’t say much for most of the drive, allowing Mr Beasley to keep up a steady stream of chatter. He talked about his family: apparently they’ve worked on the grounds for generations. I asked if he knew anything about the history of Foxgrove, how the Lakelands made their money, but he shook his head. As far as he knew, the big house had always been there, providing work to the people of the local area. Initially as tenant farmers and household staff, and more recently from the tourism boom when it became part of the National Trust. It’s not until we arrived at the house, the jeep feeling like a child’s toy against the towering white pillars, that I felt the full weight of this project. My head reeled as he led me through the maze of high ceiling halls, chandeliered drawing rooms and echoing galleries, walls covered with paintings of long-dead Lakelands bedecked in finery. My thoughts are full of blood, all the stolen lives that these people have disguised as silk hangings and Chippendale furniture, as jewelry dripping from their pale necks. I’m not a scholar. I barely even feel like a writer. What can words alone do against all that?
The letter has been propped up on a stack of books on the far corner of the desk. I keep thinking, I’ll open it now. Now. Now. But always, the moment passes.
Sunlight steals into the house. It insinuates itself through gaps in the ivy, which shrouds the walls of the East Wing, spilling across our surfaces. It warms our varnish, makes it pliant enough that we can flex our limbs and crook our necks away from stiff poses. We wriggle our fingers, contort our once fixed features into grins, causing a shower of pigment to rain onto the hardwood floor. Slowly, we inch forwards, until our toes are curled around the edge of the gilt frame. Then we slip out of the canvas, easy as swimmers surfacing from cool water.
There is someone new here. New to Foxgrove. A presence that trails eddies of grief. Drips salt water onto the hardwood floors. Like us, not born of this land but bound to it. We watch you roam the grounds, flitting from room to room. We press our faces close to the windows to observe your night wanderings, unnoticed; we have no breath to steam the glass. We peer over your shoulder as you thumb through thick texts in the Library. Slink between your ankles during evening meals. We are the suggestion of movement in your peripheral vision. The draught that raises mounds of gooseflesh along your arms. We want to greet you, little sister. Lead you up to that dank attic so you might bear witness. Learn our names and our stories, the thousand moments of small joys, the shades of humiliation and of terror, the great loves. All this weight that we carry still. Blood of our blood. Can you see us now?
Two missed calls from mum. We’ve only spoken once since I opened the letter. A halting conversation immediately afterwards that skated around the specifics. She talked about our relatives, people I haven’t seen since I was a child. She talked about the food, how she’s never been able to recreate the smoky taste of party rice. She talked about how much the country has changed; there’s now a KFC in Ibadan. My chest ached, a tug of guilt at the new weariness in my mother’s voice. I wanted her to ask – no, command me – to come back. An order that would cut clean through the ties that hold me here, and carry me to her side. Last night, I dreamt about the last time I was home. The festival in the village. In the dream I am 12 again, being carried along by the crowd. Someone is holding my hand, whispering to me in a voice that tickles against my ear. The crowd is jubilant. People are singing, ululating, dipping cow-tail whisks low and flicking them skywards. I am pulled, pushed and prodded along as the procession flows down the broad thoroughfare and into the market. A horn sounds at the front of the procession. Low, a long note that vibrates through me, raising the hairs at the nape of my neck. I woke up, sheets soaked in sweat, covers tangled around my ankles.
I haven’t done any writing. My own thoughts are too scattered. I tried to start with the journals in the Old Library, struggling through entries in a faded fussy hand that griped endlessly about renovations, balls and social calls. Nothing about the plantations. Foxgrove is strange. Too quiet. Usually the place is crawling with visitors, especially in weather like this. School groups, day trippers, overseas tourists mad about Downton Abbey. But the House is closed for a month for repairs on the roof. I spot the builders sometimes when I’m out in the garden, the rhythmic rapping of their hammers on slate punctuating the birdsong that drifts up from the lake. There’s no one here but a skeleton staff, and the cleaners who patrol the empty corridors with industrial vacuum cleaners. I eat meals at the café and have made friends with a few of them: Maria Teresa, Anya, Laurence. Anya is about my age, tall with long blonde hair that’s always pulled up in a high ponytail. She’s living with her boyfriend in the next town over – he’s part of the crew working on the roof. They’re saving up for a big wedding back in Poland. I wonder what she makes of me, with my chipped nail polish and uncombed hair. She bumped into me last night, on a late shift, wandering the house in my pyjamas like some duppy. ‘You look like shit,’ she said, inviting me outside for a smoke.
We leaned against the sandstone columns of the southern terrace. The gardens below us, stripped of their sunlit hues, seemed transformed into a lunar landscape. I told Anya I wasn’t sleeping. And about the House’s tricks. She nodded as I shielded the trembling flame of my lighter against the wind as she lit up. Shadows danced against the sharp planes of her face, made sharper still as her cheeks hollowed at each inhale.
‘You could not pay me to stay here by myself at night,’ Anya sniffed.
A piercing shriek came from the mass of dark shrubbery at the end of the lawn – a fox maybe? I shivered. ‘It doesn’t feel like I’m on my own here.’
Before we went back in, she told me about something she’d seen in the East Wing that might help with the writing, a painting.
We make our approach. Dive through membrane and soft tissue and kick into the currents of your dreamscape. We share only fragments so as not to overwhelm you.
Footsteps on the upper deck. Pitch dark, but for moonlight catching the whites of desperate eyes. Reek of bodies crammed far too close, for too long. An infant cries and is shushed by a voice in a tongue unfamiliar to our own. Someone sings a melody, soft soft. A song of harvest, sweet and high that lifts us, if only for a moment, towards home.
The foul-tempered Italian, sleeves stained with lampblack, directing us to lower our gaze, stop fidgeting so he can complete his sketches before the light goes. The lady of the house posed earlier, retiring before the noon sun could darken her cereus-petal skin. We stand, we crouch, we scrape. Trussed in the starched livery of the household, some bearing platters of ripe fruit, others clutching silver horns. Trying to ignore the stench of the hounds that pant at our feet. Flesh of our flesh, can you see us now?
They buried my father today.
You have always made us proud, Cece. Your mother and I do not regret the sacrifices we have made to offer you opportunities that we did not have. Stay, my dear daughter. Finish your work. That little red booklet is no small thing. Do not throw away this chance for the sake of an old man who is not long for this world.
Extract from letter to Ms Cecilia Braithwaite, from Dr Korode Braithwaite, personal archives.
24,000 – acres held by the Lakelands in Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada and Tobago.
16? – insurrections led by enslaved peoples on Lakeland plantations.
£3,000,000 – compensation paid by the British Government to Lakeland family after Slavery Abolition Act 1833 in today’s values.
5 – Members of Parliament in the South Gloucestershire area descended from Edgar Lakeland.
1975 – year the Lakelands sold their last plantation in the Caribbean.
Extract from undated entry in notebook of Ms Cecilia Braithwaite, personal archives.
Sleep snatched, broken. My father is dead and I am stuck on this bloody island. In this house, this tomb. I am trying to focus on the writing. But the words run on the page, threads of meaning unspooling before I can fix them in place. I had the dream again. The festival. But this time the crowd wails. They scatter. The masquerade is here. I try to run but I’m knocked back by a sharp elbow. I fall into a fleeing body and am shoved to the ground. Sobbing, I struggle to my feet as a presence looms through the dust. Ozone burns in my nostrils.
The masquerade is a mountain, power radiating through layers of stiff cloth lappets, velvet and brocade, their undersides lined with bright swatches of silk. Constellations of charms, amulets and fetishes sewn into the material wink in the sunlight. Its headdress is heavy with cowries and gold-threaded brocade. Fine netting shrouds something impossibly ancient. It looks out at me –
No, at us. It sees us.
From the void beyond its veil comes a voice that is at once the rasp of grave-dirt on bone and the roar of thunder splitting heaven.
Sister-brothers, this is no place for you. Why are you not in Orun?
It speaks in the mother tongue of our mother tongues, known to us even before we swam in the womb.
Egúngún, we cry. Shrine to powers unseen, avatar of ancestors hear us. When they stole us from this land, they choked us with the body and blood of their dead god. Our names turned to ashes in our mouths. They branded us Caesar, Grace, Francis, Mary. We escaped the fields, but iron collars were replaced with lace so we could pour their tea, brush their women-folks’ hair, polish their silver.
Its voice is softer now, like flames licking the trunk of the lighting-struck iroko. It tells us what to do. With a breath it sends us spinning, tumbling out of dreamscape, through soft tissue and membrane out out out.
There is only one way this ends, little sister. Grieving daughter. Watch her climb the stairs of the East Wing, lighter in hand. Greet us in the dank of that dark attic. Flesh of our flesh. Blood of our blood. See us, now.