House of X

Perhaps it is a sign of us inching towards something resembling normality, but I received a message over the family WhatsApp that I recognised from the beforetimes. My daughter, home from uni, asks if she can have a lift to X’s house on Thursday afternoon.

I haven’t had one of those kind of messages for quite some time. Giving lifts to hard to find locations was one of the skills I honed as part of my portfolio career as a dad/cartoonist/dogsbody/taxi driver. Easing restrictions will allow socially-distanced meetings in the outdoors around a fire pit. I had better reacquaint myself with the lesser known thoroughfares of the surrounding countryside.

The name of X is supposed to spark my atrophied synapses into life, connecting it to a location. Nope, the old brain is coming up empty, the battery flat from lack of use. I have no memory of who X is (sorry X) or where they live. New information is forthcoming. X lives, “out in the sticks past Y’s house”. Who the hell’s Y, I mutter to myself, and why do all of my daughter’s friends live in the middle of nowhere in a mobile blackspot on unadopted roads that abrubtly end in an automatic gate?

I ask where X is. Who X is doesn’t matter, it will be some old friend from school. Not to be unkind but outside of the tight circle of her close friends I can not distinguish one X from another. They are a bunch of names of people who’s houses I have possibly dropped off and picked up outside of at some point in the previous six or so years.

Furnished with a postcode I take to Google maps to familiarise myself with the route. The B road snakes its way deep into the dense greenery of the satellite view. A brief flicker in the depths of my brain stem feebly lights up and then dims. Is this the one who’s dad used to work for one of the intelligence agencies? Or is it the one where I have to cross a ford? It’s the ford one. Ah, yes, I have vague memories of the place. Not of how to get there, but of driving through the shallow water many moons ago and thinking that we were surely closer to The Shire than a teenage knees up.

Getting in the car I tell my daughter I will get us as far as the roundabout and then she will have to navigate. She takes us on a route that avoids the ford. It briefly flashes past on my left. I feel a little disappointed, like a child promised a trip to the park who is denied a turn on the swings.

After the drop off I am not given a pick up time. Back home I yawn and make another cup of tea. Around 8 o’clock a 10pm collection is requested. An hour later the time is revised to 9:30. Eight minutes later it is 9:45. Another three minutes and it’s back to 9:30. I’d forgotten about this too.

I surprise myself by finding the place again at the first attempt. On the way home my gentle enquiries as to how the evening went are deflected and my daughter and I settle into our familiar companionable (or resentful, it’s hard to tell) silence. I drive along the narrow lanes in the pitch dark. Hedges run parallel to the road obsuring any landmarks. Inevitably my sense of direction fails me. I’m not going the way I came. I follow the road as it winds endlessly through the countryside. A white shape glides through the dazzle of the headlights. A barn owl.

I hit the brakes as a T-junction appears out of nowhere. I peer over the steering wheel, looking left and then right. It looks vaguely familiar. If I turn right I believe I’ll pass by the front door of Bag End.

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