mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Sunday, August 24th, 2003

Time:9:12 pm.
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........#8 – Family Home, Essex [Christmas 2005]


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A short walk from my house, on the borders of a nature reserve, there stands a derelict house. Remarkably, it remains full of its tenant’s possessions - everything from a young girl’s diary to her mother’s tax returns.. Jackets still hang in the hallway and there is even a saucepan on one of the hobs. …Indeed the more I visit, the more I seem to unearth. This morning it was a drawer full of schoolwork (exercise books from primary school all the way up to college) while yesterday it was a silver dish commemorating one of the children’s christening..

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It seems that the house was vacated last winter. Calendars still lie open at November, and the last entry in one of diaries was from the eighth. In amongst some toys, I also found a clue concerning their departure – a tattered list of phone numbers. All related to planning committees or government departments - while beneath one contact, someone had even written “green belt”. Perched on a hillside to the rear of a farm, the house is little more than an outbuilding - a single-storey, prefabricated chalet – and it appears that it had been deemed illegal or unsafe.

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It was at this point that I started to feel sick – the sense of enforced displacement overwhelming. The house may have been cramped but the location and views it afforded were extraordinary. Even more than this, the family seemed genuinely happy there, and had lived in the house for at least a decade. It’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful place to live (particularly in childhood) - and much of the sadness stemmed from the realisation they must now be somewhere infinitely worse.

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Also, such was the wealth of personal artefacts, it was impossible not to feel some kind of connection with the family. From the fragments left behind, I was able to piece together a great deal about each of their lives, particularly the three children. Among the most interesting discoveries was a trophy from a national gymnastics competition. It appears that two of the girls were highly gifted gymnasts, excelling on the trampoline (indeed, there was an entire folder crammed full of their certificates).

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Elsewhere, I discovered several parcels from an absent father, in addition to the diary of the eldest daughter – Zoe. A warm-spirited, generous girl, she appears to have been extremely popular. Seemingly every week, there was a friend’s birthday party, not to mention committee work or nights out in the town centre. Her last few entries reveal that she had started training as a dance teacher.

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[As the houses border a footpath, I’ve walked past several times in the last few years - on one occasion as the children arrived home from school. (I can’t quite recall their faces, but can still remember their surprise at someone walking by)...(It had become hopelessly overgrown and its entrance was extremely well concealed)… Interestingly, the path has recently been cleared and I wonder if someone from the council noticed the house and reported them………]

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Another reason I found it so affecting was that it mirrored an experience from my own childhood. Until I was nine, we’d rented a beautiful farm cottage (located only a couple of miles away) but were forced to move when the landlord decided to change tenants. As we searched desperately for somewhere to live, we quickly realised we had little chance of anywhere even remotely similar. In the end, the best we could manage was a small council house on a run-down estate. (Every weekend for the next two years, we’d drive past the old cottage, wishing we still lived there.)

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My first instinct after visiting such a place is usually to return home, but on this occasion I headed back to our first house – the cottage from which we were evicted almost fifteen years ago. Each time I return, it seems smaller, the roar of the motorway a few decibels louder – but given the choice I would still move back tomorrow.

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I’ve decided to write a letter to the mother – posting it to the farmhouse in the hope they’ll be able to forward it. [I shall keep it simple, I think - explaining that I ventured inside out of curiosity and was distressed by what I saw]. I still can't believe how much they’ve left behind. It’s almost as if they didn’t have the heart to pack.

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