Today Josh has come to play. A diminutive seven year old, quick and intelligent with the best of hearts, Josh is now tearing round the house as part of the English Legion. From what I can gather, the English Legion is dedicated to chasing girls and stuffed owls.
When Josh comes to play, no-one has to try, or limit behaviour. He is an effortless guest, one of us. He is Felix’s BFF.
The initials will be instantly identified by anyone under ten: Best Friend Forever, a term that is so artless it can only be bandied around safely by the young. I talked to Josh’s mum. We marvelled at how it must be to find a best friend, so early on in life.
Friendship is rarer than we might admit, and real friends hard to come by.
So often, friendship happens against a backdrop of a place, a job of work. For Felix, it’s school: for me, somewhere different.
When Felix was one, I felt an insane need to stretch. My life had contracted a long way, from being a fast-lane teacher and journalist to- it seemed- no-one at all. Strange how, when you step off that employment train and turn inwards towards a new family, the post stops coming through the door with your name on it.
So I looked around for a job. And found the most startling occupation just around the corner.
I became a manager of a haunted mansion. Just part-time, you understand: from 4pm till midnight, three days a week.
It is an arts centre and theatre complex, in a great house which has been occupied since the 1600s. It sits in gracious grounds with great cedars and rolling lawns, an italian fountain plot, and a knot garden. It has shabby chic, and is inhabited by a mixture of pensioners, hippies and others with time to spare.
It was here that I found some of my best friends, because in this place were all the flotsam and jetsam of a town’s artistic community.
As we ran the bohemian mansion and managed its inhabitants, from ballet companies and repertory groups to spectres and drunks, we formed a tight community with a common outlook. We thought the same, told the same jokes, rolled our eyes at endemic incompetence, soothed and welcomed the customers in a broadly similar fashion.
All good things must come to an end, especially if they pay peanuts. My teaching job bought the groceries and gave me a little independence, so I said a reluctant goodbye to my spectral stately home.
The friends I made, however, have remained. They include a backstage Tennysonian beauty, who wanted to be in the army, but instead became a lighting wizard; the circumspect catering manager, who manages an often tricky clientele with straightforward compassion and humour; and a high flyer who has managed shows in London, but has taken a step back to look at her mid-life.
I haven’t been back for a while. But a week or two ago the kids asked to go there. I think they feel the creative life that seems to flow through the veins of this ancient place.
So we got on our bikes and popped round for a drink. And I thought no-one would know me. I though it would be a practice in the art of anonymity.
But everywhere I went, there were exclamations of recognition, long catch-up conversations to be had. We roamed the building as I had when the children were young, and people exclaimed at how they had grown and chatted to them as if no time had passed at all.
The place is still there, and it still binds us together. Who knows what the magic ingredient is. Maybe its just the ghost of an old building, writing its next chapter.