The heatwave that summer kept us all in a tight chokehold. Distantly, the tinny voice of a news presenter told us that we were in for another few weeks of sweltering temperatures. I kept my music quiet so as to not disturb the neighbours, even though they were hundreds of yards away. Over the past week, I had tried my best to make myself look invisible as the pool boys and the gardeners came by to work on the grounds; I was fearful that they would be able to tell I did not belong here.
I would catch myself in the reflections of tall mirrors as I descended down endless sets of stairs. My mother was still working inside, cleaning the kitchen as she hummed along to a song on the radio. A little guiltily, I stretched myself out on a chaise-lounge by the pool, utterly enamoured with the thought of having it all to myself. The azure water was utterly still beneath the breezeless zenith.
The sun-baked white stone around it framed it like one of David Hockney’s landscapes of endless Hollywood summers that I had once seen in a gallery. I dipped my hand in. The ripples of the water glittered a golden hue. It was so divinely warm that I threw my towel and jumped in, uncaring about what I looked like. Sighing with the relief which the water provided to my sun-kissed skin, I floated on my back and looked at the cloudless day, breathing in the smell of chlorine, childhood holidays and freshly mowed grass. A plane droned overhead.
I was lost in my thoughts as my fingers skimmed the surface of the water. As a stranger staying in a home that was not mine, I treaded the surrounding paths lightly, my footsteps silent to not alert anyone on my presence. I had not seen my friends in a while; the nearest bus stop was a long while away from the house. They had not spoken to me much either – it felt like the tall, impenetrable trees swallowed you up when you entered their vicinity and shrouded you from view, rendering you invisible.
I liked to sit in the shaded garden where I often saw a family of deer who shyly peeked out from the dense bushes, their mother leading her two reedy offspring into the wide trimmed grounds. The slender, beautiful creatures cautiously grazed on the grass, ready to bolt at any moment someone discovered them. I would freeze in my spot to not disturb their moment of peace.
Later, under a sky so clear that I knew I was miles away from the city, I swirled the last few drops of wine around in a heavy glass. It was a balmy night and I did not really need the plush blanket I had around my shoulders. The cicadas that were as numerous as the stars kept me company as I swayed on a swing in the manicured garden. I had peeked at the full moon through the telescope in the attic, handling the cool metal like a precious treasure I was careful not to break. I inched closer and the moon shone back at me. I had never seen its scarred surface so closely before; it too had a long life of sorrow before this.
We had packed up the last of our things, leaving the bedrooms pristine and the heavy wooden doors shut. The clock ticked loudly as we sat absorbed in pockets of our own silence. As I pondered having to go back to my normal life in the small apartment I shared with my mother, I was struck by a thought – all of this will one day be mine if I want it enough.
The circumstances we are born into, or the setbacks we face in our lives do not define our futures. I straightened my back and told my mother I would buy her a house like this when I was older. She held onto my shoulder and her eyes disappeared into crescents as she laughed. Her face stilled momentarily as she saw I was being serious. Don’t do this for anyone else but yourself, she told me. I wished I could have stretched that moment of solace to an infinity. It unravelled quickly like a spool of string, and before I even knew it, the time to leave had come.
I had barely scratched the surface of what the vast estate had to offer, and I thought about how lovely it was to retreat by the sea, undisturbed and far from reach. If we can find little escapes and small bubbles of joy to lose ourselves in, we can get through the darkest adverse of times until we find ourselves bathed in sunlight, surrounded by people we love.
The next morning, we were driving home down the gravelly path. I looked back at the grand, sprawling house gradually getting smaller and smaller in my line of vision. It did not look quite so intimidating then.