The House and the Mansion
We never told The Parents about our visits to The Mansion. Parents had a way of forbidding us to do the most exciting things in life and besides, we knew we were trespassing. It never occurred to us that we could be putting our lives in danger.
“Can we go and play outside?” we would ask whenever we went to Janet's house. And, in their innocence, the grown ups would smile and nod and my mother would say: “It's so nice that the girls can go and play outside whenever they like. They couldn't do that in England because of the weather.”
And Janet would nod. “Yes, it's great for kids to be outdoors. It keeps them out of mischief.”
So we four sisters would open our eyes wide with innocence, before slipping from the cool depths of the house, with its jungle of pot plants and sofas and head out into the hot, yellow and green and blue of the world outside.
This was a different world to the one we usually inhabited, in the town of Harper, on the coast of Liberia. Janet's house lay outside the town, away from the exploding Atlantic breakers, away from the swarming activity of the tribal villages and the markets, away from the fragrance of woodsmoke and rice, the odours of fish and faeces.
Janet's house lay in a world of open grasslands - a world where the sky was enormous and empty, where the air was heavy with the smell of hot yellow grass and guavas and red earth; a world where the only sounds were the roaring of the cicadas, the rustling of the breeze in the grass heads and the liquid twittering of the tiny brown and yellow weaver birds.
We walked in single file, the Big Girls flanking us Little Ones: Mary-Anne, the oldest at thirteen, leading the way, followed by nine year old Bernadette, and then myself, the youngest at a mere seven years old. Bringing up the rear was Lalla, eleven years old and quite grown-up already.
Sometimes Mary-Anne made us march: “LEFT, LEFT, LEFT, right, LEFT.” Sometimes, we would sing as we walked: “I love to go, a-wandering, along the Mountain track...” But most often we would wander along the track through the grass, not even talking, simply luxuriating in the glory of existing in this place - in watching the weaver birds as they busied themselves with their basket nests, which hung, like overgrown dew drops, from the tallest blades of grass, or keeping an eye out for snakes, or lifting our faces to feel the kiss of the hot sun on our noses, or the soft touch of the breeze on our cheeks.
The Mansion was ten minutes walk from Janet's house, standing by itself, amongst the grasses, the garden encircled by a barricade of barbed wire. We would slip between the strings of wire and enter yet another world - a world of mystique and fantasy. This was a world which lay in a realm somewhere between The Secret Garden and Sleeping Beauty. Untended bougainvillea exploded in a profusion of thorny branches, starring the head high golden grass with its luminescent pink flowers; a paw-paw tree stood bowed under the weight of fruit the size of rugby balls, filling the air with a thick sweetness; frangipani stems, with their bouquets of white blossom and fat green leaves ran rampant.
We crept through the grass, hearts pounding, avoiding thorns and trying not to crush the flowers, and tiptoed up the wide stone stairs to the front door, which stood slightly open, enticing us to enter. One by one, we slid round the door and into the front hall. Before us, a curving staircase swept up to the floors above; but the banisters and treads were covered in a thick layer of dust and, lying scattered over the floor, were a thousand rainbow droplets from a fallen chandelier.
“Do you think they're diamonds?” Bernadette breathed in excitement, but Mary-Anne shook her head in scorn. “No, of course not - they're just coloured glass.”
Bernadette and I exchanged a raised eyebrow. We knew otherwise. Surely, in an enchanted place such as this, they must be diamonds. When the Big Girls weren't looking, we slipped a couple into our pockets. It didn't really seem like stealing, and besides, even if it was, we were pirates in training, after all.
On either side of the front hall, room after room lay quiet and still and filled with golden light. Some were carpeted in thick, white, dusty carpet, others were tiled. The bathrooms had gold taps but they didn't turn and gave off a rancid tang; the sinks were covered in a film of dust and stained with streaks of blood coloured rust. Over all the floors was a scattering of dead leaves and cockroaches, and the corners were clogged with spider webs. We found an old beehive in one of the rooms upstairs, a dead mouse in a chest of drawers. In the kitchen somebody had lit a fire on the floor and the tiles were cracked and covered with ash and soot.
The whole house seemed to be lying in wait – but for whom?
Walking home again to Janet's house, our imaginations would run wild. Had the owners been abducted by aliens? Perhaps they had been struck down by some deadly disease? Perhaps they were merely on an extended holiday? Perhaps they had lost all their money and become paupers overnight, forced to live the rest of their lives on the streets or in the jungle? Perhaps - just perhaps - a witch had put a spell on the people who lived there? But though we came up with countless explanations, none of them were completely satisfying - because they never answered the question as to why nobody else had moved in - why, in a country with so much poverty – where so many people lived in the worst possible squalor - nobody had taken the furniture for their own use, or even for fire wood. We wondered who had made the fire in the kitchen - but we didn't worry unduly. And it was probably a good thing we never came close to thinking of the answers that now, thirty years later, come so readily to mind.
In fact, if anything, I felt safer prowling around The Mansion, fingering the silk drapes and gazing, lust-stricken, at the diamonds, than I did in our own house – the house we had moved into several months earlier and christened, with our usual originality, The House. Though we loved our new home, living in it could also be the stuff of nightmares.
The day we first drove down the road which ran beside the beach and saw The House, we children thought we had died and gone to heaven. It was a hot day in February 1980 – and we were blissfully unaware that this was about to become one of the most significant years in Liberian history. As we stepped from the car and stood gazing up at the massive building before us, we had no idea that over the next couple of years we would see The House as both a place of refuge and of terror.
What we saw was a massive, palatial house, even bigger than The Mansion, with its six storeys - three floors of living quarters and three floors of ornamental balconies and roofs above, built around two massive rainwater tanks.
Painted a bright aquamarine with red and yellow trimmings, it looked like an enormous, psychedelic wedding cake. We children hardly noticed that the paintwork was faded now, the walls streaked with rust stains, the grey of the concrete showing through in places. We saw the Kru village built up beside it, but did not notice, to begin with, the stinking quagmire of mud and filth in which it was built. We gasped in awe at the marble tiled floors in all the rooms - marble was surely something that you only got in Palaces, after all - but didn't notice the film of slippery brown grease that covered them. We ran our hands over the smooth mahogany of the stairs and the window brackets, hardly noticing that the mosquito netting hung in broken folds and that the windows themselves were almost opaque with dirt and salt spray.
We moved in, the next day, full of hope and excitement, ready to explore and discover.
The ground floor was rented out to various mysterious people and a scabrous dog the size of a horse called Rastus, but our domain covered the two upper floors and the roofs as well. These living floors consisted of a myriad large rooms – five bathrooms, most of which never worked, seven bedrooms, a dining room, sitting room, kitchen and several other rooms we never found a use for and which never quite shook off their smell of abandonment and mouse nests. As for the three upper floors, the first two were a delight of balconies and mysterious dark corners and nooks. A flight of stairs led to the top roof where one was mistress of all she surveyed - from the palm feathered roofs of the town behind, to the heads of the villagers below and, at the front of the house, a glorious vista of golden beach, scarlet hibiscus, pink and orange bougainvillea and waves that reared in glistening cliffs of aquamarine, before exploding onto the beach in fountains of crystal spume.
At the back of the house was a concrete courtyard with a lone almond tree, which we shared with the house next door. Mrs Anderson lived there, though there always seemed to be an assortment of at least twenty other people coming and going from it at any given time. Mrs Anderson was a widow, we were told, the daughter-in-law of old Mr Anderson, our landlord - a wizened old nut of a man, who came round every month to grumble at us and collect the rent. James Anderson, his son, had built both houses a few years beforehand.
We children were not officially told the full story of James Anderson, but we picked it up from eavesdropping on the adults.
It didn't take me long to work out that when my mother was having a cup of tea with Nuela, the Irish girl who worked for the Catholic mission, or with Nancy, the wife of a Baptist missionary, and they looked sideways at me and leaned in close, that that was the time to go very quiet and pretend a deep and abiding interest in my drawing, or my books, or in picking the scabs from my mosquito bites. I became expert at exuding an air of non-interest, whilst keeping my ears pricked hard enough to hear the whispering of a mouse.
“He was hung for murder and cannibalism last year – he and his gang. Have you seen the gallows out by the airport? Nobody's been game enough to take them down yet.”
Hanging around my Father while he talked to his colleagues from the local college could be even more enlightening. They tended not to notice we were there and so didn't even bother to lower their voices.
“It was all political.”
“You mean they didn't do it?”
“No, they did it alright. Killed about one hundred people all told, and ate their eyes and ears and livers. All part of some ju-ju rite - James Anderson wanted to be Liberian representative to the UN and knew he hadn't got a hope in hell, so he decided to use black magic to get himself there.”
So this was the man who had built our house.
And was this the man who we sometimes saw leaving a room when we entered? A shadow man who flicked the light switches and plunged us into darkness even on days when there was no power cut? The man whose footsteps followed us up to bed at night when we knew there wasn't anybody there? The being who caused doors to shut and glass to shatter for no reason?
Our parents told us not to be silly, that there was no such thing as ghosts, no such thing as black magic, or any sort of magic at all.
But, if they really didn't believe, they were an island in an otherwise believing world. At least once a week I would lie in bed at night, eyes frozen wide; and in spite of the fact that the sweat was running down my body, I would pull the sheets up over my head and shiver at the sounds that issued up from the village below. Sometimes it was just a party, the voices raised in song, feet stamping the earth around the fire, raucous laughter and drums that throbbed on and on and on, throughout the night, drumming away evil spirits, calling up the good ones. But oftentimes it was a funeral; for a baby who had died of malaria, or a man who had been bitten by a shark, or a woman who had been struck down by the Evil Eye, or a child who had been beaten once too often by its parents. As the sun went down and the world turned swiftly to black, a woman would raise her voice in a terrible, wailing, keening and soon the whole village would be screaming and crying and beating their chests, tearing at their hair and stamping the earth as the drums beat a rhythm of menace and heartbreak into the night sky.
And I would lie quaking in bed, and think back to those conversations I had heard earlier in the day.
“And did they capture all the members of James Anderson's gang?”
“So they said. But people still go missing from time to time. Didn't you hear about the little boy from the Grebo village? He disappeared a month or so ago, and they found his body floating down the Hoffman river – all of it, except his eyes and liver. And then there was the Bishop's sister, you know. Found dead on the embankment near St Theresa's with her ears cut off. And there are a couple of deserted houses around town that the gang were said to meet in – the locals still won't go near them. They say they're still haunted by evil spirits. But you've got to wonder whether it's just spirits...”
Even though those words chilled me in the heat of the night, it never occurred to me to make a connection between such evil and The Mansion that we explored with such excitement and delight, during the day. It never occurred to me that this could be the explanation as to why the house had been left, apparently untouched for so long.
Not that the Mansion was the only deserted house in the area.
Four months after we arrived in Liberia a group of soldiers scaled the walls of the presidential compound in Monrovia, five hundred miles to the West, and shot President Tolbert dead, to the general jubilation of the people. But whilst the population of the Kru village danced and sang their exultation, shooting repeatedly into the air from an old rifle, the weathered fabric of Liberian society and economy was finally tearing apart. Within hours, members of the aristocracy – the “Congo People”, all descendants of freed American slaves - were fleeing for their lives.
For several days, we huddled inside The House; we weren't allowed to go swimming at our favourite beach, weren't allowed to go and see friends, or go shopping in the market. Instead, we stood and watched from the windows, as khaki clad soldiers with glittery eyes and concrete mouths walked the street below.
“Come away from the windows,” Mum and Dad would say, “Don't stare.” So we would sidle away from the windows, but as soon as their backs were turned, we would creep back again. We hadn't seen guns like that before – long shiny black guns with spears on the end, that looked as though they Meant Business – and we had never seen the streets as stark and empty as they were in the wake of the soldiers.
All those miles away in Monrovia, men were being tied to stakes on the beach and riddled with bullets, before being left to die in agony. There were stories of people being shot by snipers in the street, hundreds of students rioting and being mowed down with gunshot.
Randolph, who lived below us and came up to wash the floors twice a week, was thrilled. Samuel Doe was a great man, he said. Randolph was so excited by the reforms taking place in Monrovia, that he didn't even tell us Little Ones off for running over his wet floors with dirty feet - merely swinging us over his head and spanking our bottoms instead - to our great delight.
In the meantime, we still had to stay indoors, while they waited to see which way the wind would blow. Our new baby sister was due to be born and my mother was suffering from very high blood pressure.Though we had been issued with emergency exit visas and given permission to make our way over crocodile infested waters to the shores of Sierra Leone, we were stuck where we were.
And a few days later, our little sister came into the world, a faintly mewling baby who looked, to me, like a little pink prawn.
A little pink prawn who took to bleeding copious amounts of blood every few hours. The only doctor within five hundred miles was now under house arrest – a man who had give his life to helping the people in the town, but who, unfortunately, came from a line of “Congo People” and was therefore unable to help.
So, for the next few weeks, Mum held our baby tight, feeding her and praying and we all tiptoed around the house, not sure whether to be more afraid of the threats inside or outside. And, somehow, for no apparent reason, little Clara began to recover, gaining weight and strength. The light of life grew in her blue eyes until she became a fat little pink and white baby, beloved to the children in the Kru village, who ran up to us whenever we left the house - “Starra! Starra! Baby Starra!”
Life, after a fashion, was returning to normal. People adapted to new ways and continued on with their lives. Due to the new curfews, the fishermen could no longer row out to sea at sunset to fish through the night, as they had for who knows how many millenia. But they had to find food for their families, and fish to sell at the market, so they adapted, fishing through the blinding heat of the day instead.
Along with the rest of Harper, we all spent weeks battling various bouts of malaria and hepatitis. Over the course of several months my father became dangerously ill - his flesh melted away and his skin turned yellow, till he looked like a jaundiced skeleton, his eyeballs bright enough to light up a room – and we had to adapt like everyone else. So we called in the local Witchdoctor, a sombre man who dressed in Hawaiian shirts and checked trousers. We children were thoroughly disgusted as we had been hoping for someone with a bone through his nose and a grass skirt, but he prescribed my father a diet of several pints of green palm-tree goo, to be drunk twice a day, and, eventually, Dad recovered.
Between times, we went swimming in the warm ocean, befriending octopus and eels. We fished for barracuda in the still waters of a Lake. We drove into the deep, emerald green bush on roads carved from bright orange earth and discovered yet another world of hushed and living mystery. We made friends among the local children and taught them how to play French Skipping with an old length of elastic. We children were hardly aware of the increased price of rice, the increase in power cuts. We became used to the stories of more riots and more shootings. Here in Harper, there were more important things to do – and what with the funerals and parties going on in the Kru village next door, more than enough to worry about.
Sometimes, we went to Janet's house for the afternoon and we girls would excuse ourselves to explore a deserted Mansion.
Whilst even Randolph could see that the freedom and riches that had been promised to the Liberian people with the death of Tolbert were not forthcoming. and the students at my father's college were growing restless, my heart unfurled its roots and buried them deep in this beautiful country.
And then one evening, whilst we sat around the table after dinner, the announcement came: “Girls, we'll be moving back to England at the end of the year.”
From outside came the sound of the sea, the waves breaking on the beach, the chirruping of frogs, people chatting in the village below.
“For how long?”
“Do we have to?”
“Yes, we do. We might go somewhere else, maybe even somewhere else in Africa, but we won't be coming back here.”
A woman's rich voice, raised in song, drifted up from the village below and the sea murmured it's twilight song.
“Because it's not safe.”
“But that means we won't see Mary again, or John, or Randolph!”
“We know that, but you'll make more friends. Sorry children, but we have to go. You'll have to say good bye to all this.”
So we did. We said goodbye to our friends, to the lagoons and the beaches, to the waves of the Atlantic ocean. Goodbye to the golden grasses and the hot amber earth and the unique, salty, smoky, fishy, flowery fragrance that was Harper - goodbye to the earthy, grassy, fruity smell that was the Bush. We said goodbye to The House and to The Mansion.
And then we packed our belongings and left - and we never returned.
But I never forgot Liberia, though I know that it is now a different country to the one we knew. Thirty years on, thousands of people have been massacred, tortured, raped. Thousands have lost their homes and in the last year, the terrors of Ebola have been enough to make Liberia a household name.
I try not to wonder whether any of the people we knew are still alive. I try not to wonder what horror they may have witnessed, if so.
But sometimes I allow myself to wonder whether I would still recognise any of our old haunts. I wonder if The House is still there. I wonder if The Mansion is still there and whether there is anybody living in it now.
And I still wonder why the Mansion was deserted. I wonder whether its owners had fled Liberia, or were tied to stakes on the beach and shot. I wonder whether it was always deserted - whether it remained deserted when the sun disappeared beneath the sea and the shadows blackened and the frogs and owls took up the chorus of the night.
I wonder if I will ever be able to go back and see it all again.
And if there is such a thing as magic, then I think I have a good chance of doing so; because, thirty years ago, two little girls dug a hole beneath a bread fruit tree and buried a stash of treasure - a green glass hair bobble, some cowrie shells, the blue carapace of a beetle and a diamond from a chandelier: their most treasured possessions, buried in the Liberian soil so that surely, surely one day they would make it back to Harper again.