Saint Kilda is a strange old bird of a novel and I can never really describe what it’s about.
So here is a short story that sort of introduces it.
As usual, I am awake with the crows.
I could have slept anywhere, of course I could have, but there are only a few places in Saint Kilda where I feel I belong, and very few of those places are any of the major bedrooms. I guess I could have slept down in my old room, my mum’s old room, but, well, you know.
So I sleep up here in the Green Dome; and when the crows wake up, I wake up. I quite like it, the dome is the lungs of the house, if not its very heart, and waking up here is like waking up miles outside of London. Not having to wake up in the city is a blessing – I sometimes wish I could have gotten out for real but then, well, you know. There are massive ferns here, and palms, and rhododendrons and all sorts of odd bushes everywhere you look. It’s been so long since the house was owned by anyone with any real sense of time or responsibility that I’m afraid the old place has gotten a bit run down here and there, but that has always been to the good of the Green Dome. It’s like a jungle in here, or at least how I imagine a jungle must be. At least the crows like it.
I don’t like to scatter my things around the house, so I keep everything where I sleep. I don’t like the kitchen, so I have my stove up in the Green Dome with me. Just a little gas stove, perfect for my morning tea.
The crows take their leave of me, out of the dome and off into their lives, they do seem busy. I should be busy, as well, but my body doesn’t seem to be able to move with the times, to the pace of it all. I should have been awake far sooner, you see, I should have been packed already.
Today I leave Saint Kilda.
They know that I’m here, but of course they don’t, not officially. That woman next door, that rancid tart cow, she told them, and they sent that man around to see me last week. You know the man I mean, that dead man. Why do they always send dead men to see me: men who can’t see, who don’t understand? I can’t be angry at them, of course, because when I get angry at them they just get more angry back at me. Dead men can be like that, that’s their power, to make up for their being dead: they can always get angrier than you. Of course, another reason why you can’t get angry with them is because they’re dead, and being dead is the worst thing in the world.
I know this, because I’ve been alive longer than anyone else. Everyone I have ever known is dead, I’m the last one left alive. It’s silly, isn’t it? I’m writing this all down, and there’s no one left to read it. They’re all dead.
I’ve been alive as long as this house has been a home. If a house isn’t lived in it isn’t a home, you see, it’s just a building. Anyone can build a building, but you have to be special to make a home. Mother said that. I used to get angry when she said it, because that was what she was told to think. I may not be as clever as the person who managed to stay alive long enough to read this, but I know that if you want a person, like my mum, to be happy cleaning for you and cooking for you and taking care of every little thing for you, you do it by telling them that they are making a home, when really they are just being your slave. I used to get so angry, but now I just get sad. Her job was to make Saint Kilda a home, and all it cost her was her life. I tried to make it better though, afterwards.
I was born here, more than seventy years ago. Mother worked for Mr and Mrs Hobbes-Crosse for about a year before Mr Hobbes-Crosse moved his family and his staff to this new building. Mr Hobbes-Cross called it Saint Kilda, because he was a religious man, and the night after everyone moved in, I was born. Mr Hobbes-Crosse said that I must be good luck for the house, and that I made it a home as well.
I thought that was great, but now I see that he meant that I must stay here and live here and make it a home the same way that Mother made Saint Kilda a home, by cleaning it and tidying it. Mother said that there were worse things in life than making a house into a home, and making the people in it into a family, and not just strangers.
Mother never realised that everyone is a stranger, at the end of the day. You can look at a person you have known for all of your life, someone you love and you trust and you do not think you can live without, and you will never know for real certain, exactly what they are thinking when they look at you. Perhaps I think too much, but I think that just like you have to work at a house to make it a home, so you have to work at a brain to give it a life. All those dead men walking around, they think they’re alive, because they’ve got brains, but they don’t have any life in them – they are just dead men.
The dead man who came last week didn’t want to talk with me, he just wanted me to know that today a family is coming to Saint Kilda to make it a home for themselves. If I knew what was good for me, then I would get out of the house before they got here. “If I knew what was good or me…” Stupid, stupid dead bastard. If I knew what was good for me I wouldn’t be in London, I would be out there in the country with my mum, in Devon.
I finish all my breakfast and finish writing all this in my book. I pack everything into my bag and look around the Green Dome one last time. It was one of my jobs to help the gardener prune everything up here. That was more than sixty years ago. I never did that job very well, though, because I knew that the Green Dome looked better wild.
The family that is coming today will not own Saint Kilda, like Mr and Mrs Hobbes-Crosse believed that they owned Saint Kilda, they will be “looking after it”. I think that this means that the new family will be like Mother and me. They will be tenants. It’s funny, how “tenants” sounds like “servants”. Maybe there aren’t any Mr and Mrs Hobbes-Crosse’s left in the world. That would be nice.
I have always lived in Saint Kilda, except for when I wasn’t. I stayed in the hospital for a while, and then a little later, when they were building here, in order to make it into a school and no longer a home, I just stayed in the basement. I have spent a lot of my life living here in the basement, but I prefer the Green Dome. There are lots of little hideaways down in the basement, you could hide there for years and years.
It is important to remember that although most people have bedrooms and beds, this is not the only way to live in a house and to make a house into a home. Saint Kilda would have been just a building, if it hadn’t been for me, a lot of the time.
When I hear the car pull up outside Saint Kilda, I have the good sense to sneak out of the way. I do this by heading down into the basement, then climbing out of the coal cellar door into the undergrowth in front of the house. I watch the family arrive at my home. The dead man said that I should be long gone by the time this happens, but it seems like it is the dead man who is long gone, like Mr Hobbes-Crosse and my mum. If it were not for the fact that I have to leave my home today, I would think that I have won again.
The family are here at last. There are four of them. They have their own mother, she is young and never takes her eyes off her two little children. One is a little boy and one is a smaller girl. The boy clings to the mother, like I used to cling to my mother. The dad is carrying heavy boxes and looks stern. Of course, I have no dad, so I do not know whether all dads look this stern or whether this man is extra stern.
Of course, Mr Hobbes-Crosse tried to become dad to the thing that murdered Mother coming out, and he never looked stern. Perhaps if he had been more stern, and less of a woman, things might have ended better for him and mother and me.
The woman calls the little boy Robert and the little girl Alice. She calls the stern man William.
My name is Davey Fremantle. My mum’s name was Rachel Fremantle.
I stay quiet and still for most of the day, so the family don’t see me. I don’t know what I will do tonight, because it is still very cold.
A little later, the little girl says to me “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
I don’t like talking and the little girl frightens me a bit, so I just smile, but not too much because I know my teeth are scary.
“Who are you?” she says.
“My name is Saint Kilda, Alice,” I reply.
“How do you know my name? Are you named after the house?” asks Alice.
“The house is named after me,” I say, and I suddenly realise that this is true and always has been.
“Then you must be very old,” she says, and I smile even wider.
“I am, I am older than everyone. Everyone older than me is dead now.”
She runs off. I want to follow her, but she runs into the house and I am not supposed to go in there anymore.
There are parts of Saint Kilda I do not like to go in, anyway. Mother’s rooms down by the kitchen, so she could work the house as soon as she got out of bed: I do not like it down there. She died in her room down there, of course, and I don’t go in there now. Mr Hobbes-Crosse’s rooms, and the rooms where he stored his family, I do not like those rooms either. They have always liked building new rooms in Saint Kilda, sometimes inside the walls and sometimes outside the walls. This means that I often get lost inside the house these days, but then that’s funny, because even when I was a little boy and the house was smaller I used to get lost in Saint Kilda. Of course, space can be like that.
But I like the Green Dome at the back of the house, and the big bathroom in the middle of the house, and the morning room at the front of the house. I also like the big lounge down on the ground floor. I was born there, because there was not enough room in Mother’s room for me to be born on that first night. But then again the night when the baby murdered Mother by being born she was in her room and not in the lounge so I do not know what was going on there. Mr Hobbes-Crosse said that it was a secret, but he said lots of things, especially when I killed him.
I spend the rest of the day around the back of Saint Kilda, in the bushes, watching the family move in. William shouts a lot, but they all ignore him or laugh at him. He laughs back and hits Mother, like in a game. Mother works very hard and keeps an eye on her children. Then I don’t see any of them for a while. Then Mother comes out to the bushes and, having checked that no one is watching from Saint Kilda, she crouches down where I am.
She is one of those people who is obviously very smart and can show this by understanding people.
“So, you’re Saint Kilda, are you?” She stares right at me and I know that I cannot lie to her.
“No, my name is Davey Fremantle. I used to live here.”
“Hello Davey, my name’s Coral. Did they evict you from the house?”
“Have you got somewhere else to go?”
“How long have you lived here, Davey?”
“All my life.” This is true, apart from the time I was in the hospital and the time I went wandering, trying to get out of London to join Mother in Devon, which is where Mr Hobbes-Crosse said Mother went before I killed him.
Mother looks very sad when I say this. At first I think that this is because I told a little lie, but then I realise that it is because she feels very sorry for me.
“You spoke to my daughter. She told me that you were funny and friendly. You do know what I would do to anyone who hurt either of my children, don’t you Davey?” Her face is very warm, but her voice is colder than anything I have heard in my life.
“I do, Ma’am,” I say.
When I say “Ma’am” she reacts, and I think she guesses that I used to be a servant like she is now.
And then my old trouble comes on. There is a horrible pain in my side and I fall back. I do not shout, but the pain is terrible. She moves closer to me and tries to help. She cannot help me, but she is so close that the pain fades away a little. I remember that when people are close to you, your pain stops, even if just a little.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I always have that, it’s just my pain.”
“Have you seen a doctor about it?”
“No, I don’t trust doctors.” This is also true – no doctor came for my Mother, but they came for Mr Hobbes-Crosse even though he didn’t deserve one because he was dead.
“Well, Davey, I don’t trust you. I can’t trust you, Davey, I have to think of my children first. But I’m sorry you’ve lost your house and I want to help you if I can. But if I am going to do that, you cannot talk to my children and you cannot speak to my husband, do you understand?”
I nod that I do understand, and she gives me a parcel. She smiles at me a little, then walks away.
The parcel is full of sandwiches.
It is night. It is very cold. I have not been outside at night for many years. I should have found somewhere else to go, but I couldn’t leave the garden. I wanted to watch the new family of servants. I did not want to leave Saint Kilda. Mother told me that Mr Hobbes-Crosse smiled at her when he told her what he had named the house. Mother loved Mr Hobbes-Crosse, but I do not know if she loved him because he was a good man, or if she loved him because that love of her’s made it easier for her to clean up after him and his other family. She did not love the rest of the family. I was fourteen when my mum died.
The pain in my side is worse than ever. I should have found somewhere else to go, but I always thought that I would die in Saint Kilda, like my mum did. But then if my being born in Saint Kilda brought good luck, perhaps it would bring bad luck if I died in Saint Kilda. I don’t know, I don’t understand a lot of this stuff.
And then I see a light. It is just a tiny light, but it is there, down in the coal cellar. I sneak over to the window, hidden behind undergrowth. Coral has opened the window down there – in the cellar is a little candle.
I creep back into the coal cellar. It is still cold, but not terribly cold. Coral has locked the main door back up into the house, but she has also left some blankets and a plate of cold meat down here. The blankets are packed to look like they are in storage, but I know better – they are for me, disguised so that Father will not know. I wrap myself up in the blankets, eat my food and finish writing this.
When I was young I did not want to be a servant, like Mother. But Mother was not just a servant to this house. She was something less than a servant, I sometimes think, and something more. If she could have stayed a servant she would not have died and we would have left Saint Kilda and left London together.
But because she was different from a servant, Saint Kilda became a home, and she couldn’t leave it. And I couldn’t leave her. We have a responsibility to the house, now that it is our home.
When I was younger I wanted to run away from Saint Kilda. I wanted to go to the other side of the world and have adventures, but I stayed here and just wrote about it all. That was probably a mistake, but it was how it happened, and since it happened that way it could not have happened any other way. So it was right for me to stay in Saint Kilda.
I am not a good man. But lying here under Saint Kilda, I think that I am being forgiven.
Even when I thought I wanted to run away to the other side of the world, to “take flight”, I actually always wanted to die in Saint Kilda.
And now I think I will stop writing and go to sleep.
(c) Ian Bird 2004