In the photo the mill looks derelict, abandoned, a far cry from the spacious, comfortable holiday home it is now. A second photo on the wall shows how it appeared in1999 when the renovations were well underway.
This 200 year old Norfolk water mill ‘in an idyllic rural position’ is, for two weeks anyway, to be my home. A hideaway, a retreat, where I can rest and begin my recovery. That’s the idea anyway.
It really is a delightful setting. The mill stands directly over the mill stream, so the calming sound of the water bubbling over stones is already beginning to have an effect on me. Four storeys high, it has a huge family kitchen with a pine table in the middle, and an even bigger reception room with old armchairs and sofas and a massive oak dining table that could easily seat 12. Plenty of room for me then! The wooden floors, exposed brickwork and beamed ceilings add to its charm.
The rooms are furnished in a variety of styles, all with comfort in mind. An old chest on the first landing, a child’s school desk in one of the smaller bedrooms, a rocking horse on the landing outside ‘my’ room, alongside an old doll’s house. Did children ever really live here, or have these items been cobbled together to create an image of a family who have just left the building?
The mill stands in about an acre of ground, surrounded by fields and woods. Not a single building in sight even from the windows on the top floor – one of the reasons I chose this particular location.
Friends suggested that I shouldn’t be alone at this time, but, for me, it seemed the right thing to do. Everyone has been so kind after my …. loss… but I was beginning to feel smothered. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, but already, here I can feel the fresh air filling my lungs and my mind.
I was hoping I could begin writing again. I haven’t written a word since.. Well, even for months before, to be honest. I was so wrapped up in my life and the future that I hadn’t thought about picking up a pen, or opening my laptop.
Here, with no interruptions, no hushed voices, I might be able to take up where I left off.
Feeling tired after the long journey I make a quick supper of toasted cheese and turn in for the night. The bed is old, but soft and comfy, with crisp white sheets and duvet, and, thankfully, I sleep well for the first time in ages.
It is still dark outside when I wake with a start. Disorientated initially, I soon remember where I am and hold my breath to listen. What woke me? I can’t hear anything and soon go back to sleep.
I wake again to bright sunlight streaming through the gaps in the curtains. It’s early yet, but I feel so refreshed after a good night’s sleep that I leap out of bed and into the shower. Fully dressed I open the curtains and flood the room with light. On the chest of drawers I see a well-loved, old, rag doll that I hadn’t noticed yesterday. Her head is nearly bald and her clothes are faded, but she was obviously beautiful once. I wonder about her owner as I tuck her in my bed with her head resting on the pillow.
My first full day is spent walking the footpaths, returning to the mill only when hunger strikes. After a late lunch I open my laptop. The Wi-Fi is good (phone signal is non-existent) and I send a short email to Jeff just to say I am here and doing fine. He will let the others know I am ok, so I won’t be inundated by messages and questions.
I read through the novel I was working on a lifetime ago, type today’s date August 25th 2018, and, without warning, I am sucked into the lives of my characters and my fingers fly over the keyboard.
Something disturbs me and I realise that the room is in shadow as the sun sets. A repetitive creaking noise coming from upstairs has broken my train of thought. Only to be expected in an old building as temperature changes cause the timbers to expand and contract. But.. it’s very regular.
I won’t settle until I find the cause so I climb the stairs. I can see movement before I reach the landing. The rocking horse’s tail is swaying as it rocks backwards and forwards. How odd. Maybe a breeze has set it off (although it’s quite a substantial toy, and I can’t feel any moving air) or the expanding/contracting floorboards have moved and started it rocking. I place my hand on the worn saddle and still the movement.
Downstairs again I make an omelette which I enjoy with a Greek salad and one or two glasses of cold, white wine.
Feeling delightfully sleepy I go up to my room. It is warm in the bedroom and I open the wooden, sash window to let in some cool air. The noise of the river washes over me, relaxing me further. The sound is almost like the tinkling sound of a child’s laughter.
As I am about to climb into bed I notice the rag doll on the chest of drawers.
The morning starts grey and wet. I wander through the rooms, feeling vaguely unsettled. I’m not ready to settle down to writing and I can’t go for a walk yet. I lift the lid of the old school desk. Empty. Did a child live in this small room? The mill has been renovated and decorated so no evidence of previous occupants remain. On the landing I look at the old chest, imagining what it could have held. Opening the lid, stiff with age, I expect it to be empty, another prop to add to the image, but it isn’t. Under an old, brown blanket, the chest is full of old clothes, toys and books.
An hour later I am still sitting on the landing, surrounded by evidence of a little girl’s life. One old, creased photograph shows a pretty little girl, standing by a chair, wearing a frilly dress and buttoned up boots. She looks about four or five years old and the contents of the chest appear to have belonged to her. Everything appears to belong to a child of about 5, a time capsule of her life.
A soft thud comes from my room and I rise stiffly and go to investigate. The rag doll lies in a heap on the polished floorboards. Something strange is happening here but oddly, I don’t feel scared, just sad.
Packing the contents carefully back in the chest, I notice a newspaper cutting inside an old copy of ‘The Water Babies’ by Charles Kingsley. It is yellowed and fragile but I unfold it and see it is a cutting from the Eastern Daily Press. I cannot believe my eyes when I read the date. September 2nd 1918. Very nearly 100 years ago.
I take the cutting downstairs to read at the oak table in the light from the big window. The font is unusual and very small. It soon becomes clear that the contents of the chest belonged to Elizabeth, only daughter of John and Alice, who drowned in the stream on August 26th 1918.
I cry quietly, grieving for Elizabeth, her family, and my baby.
The rain and the tears stop and I search the area on Google maps. The local church is not far and a walk will do me good. I want to see if I can find her grave and pay my respects. At the last minute I get the rag doll and carry her with me. The sun shines weakly on my walk to the graveyard. It takes some time but eventually I find it. ‘Here lies Elizabeth Hill, daughter of John and Alice’. The engraving is worn and difficult to read, but this is the one. The dates are right. She was 5 years old. I gently lay the doll on the grave, propped up against the stone and say a silent prayer.
During the rest of the week a feeling of peace and calm fills the old mill and I begin to feel that I have a future, that my family and I can recover.
I say goodbye to Elizabeth as I leave.