This blessed plot, this realm, this attic
I wouldn't say it was a guffaw, exactly. And it wasn't quite a yell. Either way, it broke into the night with unexpected jubilation and made me look up from my downhill walk with the dogs.
A teenager appeared momentarily at a high-up window. It was a dormer window, sticking out from the roof tiles of a large mansion in an avenue of large mansions. It wasn't a cold night for this early time of year, but all the same I wouldn't have had that window wide open, as it was, half an hour before midnight. Then she - the whooping teen - disappeared again.
I would have thought no more about this moment if it had not brought back my childhood so powerfully. What struck me was precisely where the hijinks, games, dizzy dancing, pillow fights, late-night feastings, sleepless sleepover, or whatever kind of whale-of-a-time were taking place: high up in an attic room.
Until I was 14, we lived in a large stone-built Victorian house very like this one (but in Yorkshire, not Scotland). That childhood house was an absolute treat for boisterous children. We were very liberally allowed the run of it, and we played everywhere. But it was the attic that was, I think, our favorite bolt-hole, and where we felt splendidly far from the adult world. This attic was a domain, our domain. A small dormer window was the only link to the outside.
To reach the attic involved climbing an extra flight of stairs. This in itself was a deterrent to grownup invasion. I have no recollection of my father coming up to our sanctum, though I suppose he did occasionally. Mostly it was just voices that wafted up from below, summoning us to meals or bed. We were frequently so absorbed in what we were doing that these voices had to be repeated a few times before they took effect. What were we up to?
Nothing sinister! Ping-Pong was a major attraction. There was room for the table, and just about enough extra space to fool ourselves into thinking we were Japanese champions standing well back and top-spinning the ball from afar, low and devastatingly fast. Well, that was what we imagined. More factually I was a blocking player, steady, persistent, hoping to wear my older brother down or lure him into attempting a smash that might misfire into the net or miss the table altogether.
It was in the attic that I developed my love of table tennis. But the table was not always available for a game. It had another, no less fascinating use. It was the perfect surface for setting up the trains. My brother, again, was the expert. He was way ahead of me - four years ahead, to be precise - in his grasp of laying track, placing bridges and tunnels, negotiating corners, working out where switches should go.
Hornby Dublo (they were 00 gauge) trains were our superbly crafted miniature engines and rolling stock, and my brother would stand at the controls rattling the trains furiously down the straights and slowing them at the corners and other tricky places in the hope that they wouldn't (though they frequently did) derail. The entire table was landscaped with fields and cows and houses; and even at one time, I remember, we used little light bulbs to add a sparkle to the whole effect. So elaborate was this train set-up that Ping-Pong had to take a back seat for long periods while this enthusiasm was indulged to the full.
The attic, since there were no sisters in my family, was a male domain. But I recall two instances when a female element intruded, if that is the right word. The first happened when I was very young, with our nanny Adine. She was a Scot, wonderful with children, and I loved her. I think the attic must have been where she lived, because one occasion up there with her sticks in my mind indelibly.
She decided it was time I learned how to use a knife and fork properly, and she took me up to her room to give me lessons. There was a proper table setting all arranged for me to see and use, and she sat me down and gave me instructions. I have had little doubt about knives, forks, spoons, and their correct placement and usage ever since.
The second incident was much later on. This involved the redoubtable Percy. She was really a nurse. She, like Adine, arrived at some point - and stayed. She helped Mum cook. Adine got married and left, presumably freeing up the attic; but Percy (so named by my brother, who called her Nursey-Percy) stayed and stayed. Her room was in another part of the house.
Percy was a firm and obstinate Yorkshire woman who knew best about everything. Contradicting her would lead to embattled argument. She was right even when she was wrong. And she seemed to us boys to be often wrong.
Just once, Percy decided that she would climb up to our attic to make us come down to lunch. We were far too involved in a darts championship to break off. We had ignored all her calls. She stood at the stair top. "Lunch now!" she commanded. Then a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eye. She grabbed a dart. It was obvious she had never held a dart before. We were the champions, thank you very much, and no mere woman - least of all the knowing Percy - was likely to hold a candle to us.
She balanced herself, hesitated, waited some more, and then launched the dart. Its passage was unpromising, just as we'd expected. And then it suddenly split into the surface of the board like William Tell's arrow into the apple - a bull's-eye!
We had been trying for a bull's-eye all morning without success. Percy collected herself knowingly and announced carelessly: "There we are. Now, boys, lunch."
She was tickled pink with her achievement. And so - though it was not to be admitted - were we. Flabbergasted and admiring, we followed One-Dart Percy, Indisputable Champion, down the narrow stairs into the adult regions below. Amazing things can happen in attics.