Looking back to that summer, the memories develop in my mind like a photograph in black and white. A simple unblemished nostalgia evoked in a grainy image of smiling faces on a summer day. The grey tone camouflaging the dirt and hiding the smell, a moment captured unspoiled by babble and clatter, romanticized and disguised in a fading snapshot.
As I remember it, the old house had been empty for months before we moved in. Joe had witnessed the owner, an aged and reclusive man, fall into sickness and eventually be taken away into care. Resparking a flippant idea from our adolescence, he invited us down to stay and within a fortnight five of us had moved in. It was the start of June.
The house was small and set well away from the country road. There was no real sense of a garden, just overrun wilderness, shrouded by hedges and trees. It felt as if we were amidst a miniature enchanted forest, giving the home the allure of something out of a children’s fairy tale. Inside it was dark and cluttered, full of old trinkets and worthless treasures. It reminded me of exploring a forgotten attic.
It was a good summer. The days were long and hot as summers should be. We walked down to the river every morning as the sun came up through the mist. Each dawn was like a baptism as we shed our clothes and leapt off the weir into the racing water. Every evening we’d lie out on the roof and bask in orange glow and each night we would write songs and make up tales about the peculiar old man who had once lived where we lived now. On hot afternoons we would have barbecues and fill our faces till our bellies ached and burst. On the days it rained we sat under the porch, watching and listening until the water finished falling. On those days we didn’t say much to each other. When the nights were cold we’d grab our blankets and walk up to the woods. We would sit around a fire with an old cassette player humming music from our childhood as we shouted, sung, joked and laughed. It was then that the never-ending feeling of our youth returned.
None of us had jobs. We didn’t need them. There was no rent to pay, no electricity, and being the summer, no heating to worry about. On the weekends we would pile into the van and drive and drive. We drifted to hills and fields, woods and rivers, always returning to our mystical home in the trees. This was our sanctuary, a kind of creative kibbutz; the walls were plastered with paintings and poems and the halls were filled with songs.
We read the poems of Blake and Wordsworth and believed ourselves visionaries, enlightened, wanderers above a sea of fog. With Nietzsche and Sartre we were ourselves philosophers, and with Kerouac and Thompson we were like them; free spirits, carefree and comfortable, vainly believing ourselves eccentric, reckless and effervescent. We would paint on the walls and proclaim ourselves artists. With our songs and riffs we were musicians, and with our poems and stories we were writers. The stale stagnant feelings stayed away.
But nothing stays the same; nothing remains constant, not even for a moment. With the falling leaves and slow onset of a chilling winter came a knock one day at the door. It was the owner’s family, peering in through grimy windows and tut-tutting at the dilapidated home. We kept quiet and hid amongst the empty beer cans and moldy plates. But we couldn’t hide forever. The summer was over and so was the dream. With no belongings we filed out of the house into the cold bright sunshine.
Each of us went our separate ways. It was years before I saw any of them again. As our lives each took their own course we became unrecognizable to each other. We forgot about that house like the autumn forgets the summer.
Nothing is how it was, not even in memory. Images of faces recede like the dead, the sounds and smells recalled are now distant and distorted like a disappearing echo. I found an old photograph of the house, dog-eared and fading to a rose tinted sepia. In the foreground are the five of us smiling happily. It is all that is left now of that summer, faded like our memories, but perfect, a moment captured and remembered Shangri- La. Fictitiously flawless, a time too ideal to be real.