The news reached the old man rather late.
‘Haven’t you heard,’ said a friend of his, visiting him in his small bed sitting-room, ‘they’re pulling down the old House in the park? People are being allowed to take away the timber for firewood. If you want any, you’d better be quick!’
Even so, he was slow to act, not quite able to grasp the significance of what he had heard. That House had stood there all his life and for a considerable time before he was born. He had always lived within a stone’s throw of the park. He remembered it being opened to the public when he was about five years old. He had played in the park as a boy and knew every inch of it. He had courted his young lady in the flower-gardens and continued to live near it after his marriage. He still lived in the same house, a widower now, pushed into a small room at the very top of it under pressure from younger generations crowding in below. He still walked in the Park when he felt like it and the days were fine, to sit on the familiar seats and chat with old friends. The old House, in Regency style, had been used as a museum after the Council had taken it over, housing, among objects of local interest, some curiosities collected by the late owner. Then it had been found structurally unsound and had been abandoned for lack of funds. And now, according to his friend, it was being demolished and the site cleared.
What worried him was something hard to define. Ostensibly, like any other humble pensioner, he welcomed a little gratuitous fuel. But actually he wished to see for himself what was going on, while nursing a secret resentment that he, a local man with long-standing communal rights, had not been consulted on the proposed demolition. Of course, he had no material rights at all. It was simply that the park and its contents, having remained more or less unchanged for eighty years, had built up in his mind a pattern that was almost sacred. Any change in this pattern now could affect him quite seriously.
Ever a practical man, he took his handsaw with him wrapped in an old sack, foreseeing that in all probability the more portable bits of timber would have been carried away by now.
With his warm scarf tucked well over his chest dragging his legs a little (they were inclined to grow numb without warning), he got along with more than his average speed.
His first sight of the demolished House rather bewildered him. The skyline was unrecognisable and litter lay everywhere. The lawns, damp with winter moisture, had been cut up and ruined by lorry-wheels and the tread of countless feet. Even the two well-known, unnamed, ever unidentified, Greek-looking garden statues had been overturned and broken, perhaps accidentally.
Slightly dazed but remembering he had come for firewood, he began to look around for suitable pieces. There was nobody about. People would be at work, children at school. He tried to see in himself the poor old pensioner who had come in gratitude for his share of what a charitable Council thought fit to offer. But the role sat uneasily on him. He found his mind wandering. He searched about without picking anything up. Then once more looking around, surveying the whole, he said aloud,
‘Who said it has never been mine?’
That seemed to be his trouble. He hesitated to pick anything up because he failed to acknowledge the authority of those who said he could. Yet the House was no more, and to see it whole as once it was, he must not look too closely at the ruins. So he wandered aimlessly, rummaging about among the timber but without bringing himself to select any. He remembered that when the House was a museum, there had been among the many varied objects on show, of all things, an Egyptian mummy. Information printed on a card beside it stated that in Egypt all deceased persons were identified with the god Osiris. The original Osiris had been killed by his evil brother Set and his remains scattered over the earth. His wife Isis, who was also his sister, (a relationship which he thought only made her sense of belonging more pathetic), had searched for a long time in order to gather his fragments together again. He must have read that label hundreds of times.
He wondered whether he might not be wandering aimlessly among the wreckage because, like Isis, he was trying to find something to put together again. He really loved that house. It had been not only the Centre feature of the park, but of his universe, built, he had imagined, to stand for ever. Might it not yet be possible to find a bit here, a bit there, which would go together again, if only symbolically, in the semblance of the whole?
He wandered about for some time, unable to find what he wanted. Nothing seemed to have in it the precise concentration of energy which he sought. Tears came all too readily to his tired, enfeebled eyes and he allowed the drops to fall straight down onto the earth.
Then dimly he became aware that he was not alone. Two men were watching him. He tried to ignore their gaze while his search became ever more desperate. Perhaps his movements seemed to them suspicious? After all, he was but a poor old man who had come for firewood. What else should he expect to find?
He picked up a piece of timber at random, noting only that it was too long to carry as it was. Freeing his saw he began to cut the wood a foot or so from the end.
Being a little deaf and because of the rasping of the saw, he failed at first to hear what was being said.
The two men had come nearer. He looked up, his vision bleared. One man wore a cap and the other a dusty trilby. Both seemed quite young but adopted cocky, official attitudes. Looking down again, he finished cutting the piece off.
‘Enough of that!’
Slowly he straightened his stiff spine, his expression one of offended dignity. He blinked his eyes to try and get a better vision of the two men.
‘The available timber for firewood’s all gone.’
They waited, no doubt intending to stay until he showed signs of moving off. He faced them trembling while two contrary forces fought him into inaction. The saw dropped from his right hand and in his left was the short length he had cut off.
So the poor humble pensioner was to be reduced to his lowest point of humiliation? They had razed his House to the ground and now there was not even any firewood for him!
But they hadn’t reckoned with the god-like fury of which the other half of him was capable.
Raising his voice to a shriek and with the strength of a madman, he literally snapped to slivers the bit of timber he held, pursuing the two men (who instinctively turned to make off) and hurling the fragments after them.