FIONNA INWARD ALLEN
We are drinking sloe gin with Mr Darling, who claims to have once been friends with Spike Milligan. Milligan had once helped him publicise a project on otter conservation, of all things.
Another name is dropped. Woody Allen. Mr Darling ate breakfast with the king of introspective cinema just before an interview on extinct daytime television show, Pebble Mill. Mr Darling in a Birmingham television canteen with a fox in his pocket and also a tank of pink frogs - about whom he was rather concerned may be dying after the air conditioning in the Travelodge was too fierce for small amphibians. Woody Allen had seemed very concerned too.
Just two of many eminent names Mr Darling jostled into conversation during our stay on his estate in rural Gloucestershire. Most of those named were half-familiar literary figures.
Mr Darling sleeps in the upstairs of a monastic building, a converted farmhouse in which the bedroom is actually 'The Cheese Room’, though the beams no longer hang cheese. His bed is floor-level, monk-like, with only a painting of the farmhouse on his dresser. The windows do not quite shut, waking the room with a chill of Gloucestershire air and on occasion, the odd inquisitive wren.
The structure of this labyrinthine farmhouse is a jumble of eras: Cistercian simplicity alonside the grandeur of an Edwardian extension. The kitchen is warmed by a ‘70s heater and conversational tea making, and is the building’s true heart. From it, only cold, abandoned corridors extend like poorly circulated limbs. Each leads to darkened rooms full of the china of dead people. The warmth of the kitchen is darkened with brooding thrones of Victorian carved wood. Like obedient people sitting around a dinner table, they sit quietly with their own stories. They are really not for sitting on, and Mr Darling cannot disguise a flinch of worry when bottoms are seated.
He usually eats alone with his chairs. He won’t sit at the table, but squashes instead beside a refrigerator like a nervous watchman, overseeing his furniture. At Sunday dinner, covering the table with a bandage of cloths, we persuade Mr Darling to join us for supper. Serving him vegetables, I drop a rebellious sprout on the table which rolls along the surface, marking a buttered slug trail. Mr Darling is quick-to with a piece of kitchen towel.
Dinner conversation rolls in a rhythm of formality. Question, Question, Discuss. Question, Question, Discuss. He informs me that having many friends distracts a writer from their vocation. Some of his opinions compel me to drop another sprout on the table.
Among his more glittering acquaintances, there is also a farmer with whom friendship has been an unembellished affair. A ten minute stride across fields, through Priors Wood, stands Robert’s red-bricked farmhouse.
Robert sits behind his kitchen table, paunchy and gentle. A spill of rolling tobacco, machine parts and discarded lottery tickets decorating an unexceptional room. The Raeburn has not yet been lit and no tea is offered. Still, a generous spirit radiates from him, overflowing like the table itself. His fat, pink, apple-picking hands fidget as he reminisces on a final encounter with his late mother last week:
“The Raeburn is on” he had told her. “The kitchen is nice and warm.” She had smiled and then shut her eyes.
“And then she went sleep”, he said, eyes twinkling with a love for the most important woman in his life.
“The Raeburn is the centre of the house. It’s seen us bathe in front of it, and warm ill lambs during season.”