Greyfriars is a National Trust property in the heart of Worcester
Curiosity and communion need frequent updating. Historic houses are doorways through which we can glimpse other worlds, where we may assume the lives of people long gone. We get a flavour, but only that. We reach out to touch their reality, but can never quite bridge the gap, nor shake off our knowledge of what’s happened since. We reflect on our present reality, reaffirm the choices we have made living in our time, in our way. We may pretend for a moment, “wouldn’t it be nice to have lived here then”, but deep down we know it would not.
Because we want to experience that different life, we half-way imagine these unknown people, sketching in their lives, their loves, their victories and their losses. Especially their losses. Every life trades in loss and missed opportunities. Every time we choose – this person; this job; this town; this country – the ‘what if’s sear our souls. We strive to reclaim that which we never had, futures which never came to pass. It’s hard, too hard, so we insinuate ourselves into other people’s lives, try them for size, see how they work for us. They never do, not completely. So we keep searching, and sampling, snatching glimpses: a swish of skirts rounding a corner, a scrap of paper falling on the floor, a cat being shooed off the bed. Soon, even those fading memories are gone. Lost, we cling to that life’s embellishments, those objects that were other people’s choices: a broken quill in its inkless well, a bird in a diamond pane, a nine point star in a bedspread, an elephant with a castle. These become our tokens for paths we could never take, yet we hold them dear, assigning to them our feelings, our desires, our hoped for pleasures. For once again we have arrived in the middle of the story, not knowing how it started, nor where it might lead. Such a truth applies to every life. We even think we know our own story, but we are mistaken. We do not pay attention, misread the signs, misremember what it was really like. Blindly, we stumble eagerly into the worlds of others. Will we never learn?
Not all is lost. You provide a presence, just being there, bringing your humanity into this fragile space, guiding us when lost, bringing fragments of messages from this resurrected world, urging us to explore further. Your own curiosity opens boxes and pulls out drawers so that we may breathe that ancient captive air. Such small gestures deepen our contact with completed lives. Alas, nothing lingers of the polite conversations, the snuffled laughter, the earnest inquiries, the calls for dinner. The books here never tell those stories. We are left with china ornaments, and metal doorstops that hold open the space between people. The dolls in the pram look blindly back at us, merely hinting that children once played here.
The clock ticking in the library quietly feeds its pulse into our veins, telling us with every swing of the pendulum that a moment of decision has arrived, uniquely now, never to come again. Here, time is released to connect with all time, as each second decays into dusty silence. It slips between our fingers. What might have been eludes us once again.
Those people lived here fully, feeling the cold chill of the fireless room, straining their eyes in the dark corners and suffering the acrid smells of burning tallow and beeswax. Now the four poster bed with its history of love and anguish no longer offers comfort, but tidily repulses the visitors, each of whom has savoured just a little of the private soul of this building. Simply by coming here, each person has brought new life, has reached out, caressed the tapestries, drawn back the curtains, and encountered pilgrims on this quest for meaning and understanding. And so we connect. Briefly, fleetingly. Then we must depart, taking with us new memories of as yet unknown significance. For this short time, measured by the quiet heartbeat of the clock, we share a universe.
© Peter Young 2015