I loved their house, adored it to a degree that was direly unfaithful to my own.
It was an old house, and that appealed to me greatly, the idea that it had a history. It was set in a small village, a street really, with a chapel at one end and a general store at the other, enough of a bump on the map to have an extremely patchy bus service, but isolated and high up enough in the dale to seem like a world of its own.
Once upon a time it had been a farm house. Before my friends' parents bought it, it had served as a garage for a time and had been almost a wreck. One bedroom had been a storage room for car batteries and still smelled a little of tinny, lead-acid once in a while. There had been rusted out wrecks and broken tools in the yard. More exotically, when the workmen had come to set the roof right and recover the fireplaces from their unsavoury twentieth century replacements, witch bottles had been found, containers full of urine, hair and bent pins to protect against curses. This impressed us all, naturally.
Aside from the main house, there were further buildings. There was a former coach house where my friends' mother had her loom set up. Sometimes she showed us how to use it. My friends, like her, were artistic and nimble-fingered, but I never was, so that didn't work so well with me. There was a paddock with a wendy house in the bottom, an actual real house in miniature, built with bricks and rendered with plaster, harl and lime wash. It was cramped, full of spiders and cold, but home to a number of toys which lived there alone and excellent for games. Above the garage was a granary, essentially another playroom, and where my friends' rabbit lived along with a number of canvasses that their mother produced. It was a fantastic place to make a mess – with paints, with chemistry sets, with what ever came to hand – for once we had cleared up, however inefficiently, it wasn't as if we could have made too much damage. This was immensely liberating.
Outside, in the woodshed, was my best friend's own cat, a wild cat hybrid who was feral and sweet for my friend alone. In the living room, you could always find her sister's smelly, old tom, gently and benignly reeking and shedding hairs everywhere, very amenable to being stroked in between bouts of sleep and food. Her mother's cat roamed everywhere, over hill and dale, appearing at intervals for care; the gypsy cat. In the father's study, there lived a wood mouse who had originally been rescued from the gypsy cat. By the time it had recovered from its ordeal it had become too tame to go back to the wild and therefore resided safely in a tank full of twigs with room service beyond its wildest dreams. A hamster lived in the sister's bedroom, bolted away safely from the depredations of the others. This is to say that it was the kind of household where they didn't mind acquiring animals.
Sometimes the mother would decide to take us out of the house and its environs, pile us into her VW Caravette, and go walking on The Stang. Every outcrop of stone and stream there bloomed lumps of quartz, spiky assemblages of clusters of amethyst and plates of sandstone full of the impressions of snails, snakes, ammonites and nameless bivalves which we collected with alacrity. The garden was decorated with these fossils.
Sometimes we went out for tea and behaved ourselves with due decorum, eagerly ordering the jasmine kind so that we could watch the blossoms unfold as the hot water was poured into the cups.
Sometimes we watched the soldiers going by on their exercises or attended to our 'art' projects or self-importantly performed small administrative tasks for our 'club', an activity which seemed less vital if we were meeting in my prosaic bedroom in my mundane home. This was another world.
This was the sound of my friend's sister eating Monster Munch, a noisome maize snack. Back in the 80s these were still riven with artificial everything and were bright yellow and stank to high heaven. The best ones, therefore, were the pickled onion kind, eye-watering to eat and odoriferous enough that they had been banned from everywhere in the house but the sister's room and the side room containing the piano. Pocket money snacks, very much for babies, and I can still see her eating them, twisting her legs around the piano stool, as she sought to not be heinously disregarded by us older two.
Monster Munch still exist, of course, much denatured. The house and village do too, despite us all having moved on and away. The Stang doubtless persists. But sometimes, when there is a smell of old house in the air or a certain quality of light or certainly when I see someone eating Monster Munch, I am right back there, in that time when everything was full of benign possibilities and a fresh world was under every stone.