Back we go, deep into the Secret Heart – for one last look around.
[The Beatles \\ Tomorrow Never Knows]
A short riff today, just a reacquaintance, really, but perhaps time for some jasmine tea.
The Silent Wake
C. Llewelyn Sumner sat at his drafting, table lost in thought.
The site was simple enough, just a sloping city lot, but it was on the water and came with a view that took in both Shilshole Marina and the northern reaches of the Olympic Range across the Sound. The commission would be a visible one, too, seen by boaters transiting Ballard locks and passengers coming into the city on The Empire Builder, so the design would have to be striking, even eye catching.
The work would be, in other words, represent a last feather in his cap, and be an important commission.
Yet the man asking him to design this new house presented new complications, an inner landscape he’d never had to deal with before. Patrick Grey was a writer, but he had also been, apparently, a spy of some sort. Now this strange man was, allegedly, writing novels based on his many exploits and, strangely enough, these stories had been interesting enough to sell quite well in airports and with suburban booksellers. And Grey wasn’t an American, either, and despite growing up in Cheltenham, his tastes seemed more in keeping with a Japanese way of life. The Grey House would have to reflect all these varied influences, even though they seemed mutually, and often – almost – utterly exclusive.
Whenever C. Llewelyn Sumner contemplated taking on a new commission he first tried to examine the client’s life, looking for clues beyond the obvious that might guide his hand when he shaped the littlest details of the new house as it took shape in his mind. And quite often he looked at other architects’ life and works, not looking for mere inspiration but for something deeper. Maybe a connection to something deeper, beyond words. And, like so many of his generation, Sumner turned to Frank Lloyd Wright for both gentle solace and rough guidance.
So after walking over the site with Patrick, and talking about the preconceived design ideas the spy had in mind, C. Llewelyn Sumner sketched out a preliminary set of plans. He’d at one point thought of Wright’s Walker House in Carmel, California, but soon discarded the idea when he realized this new site was simply incompatible. Next, his mind ranged over the fin de siècle exuberance of the Gamble House, Greene & Greene’s masterpiece in Pasadena, California, yet in their talks Grey seemed to evince little interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the more Grey talked about what he expected in this house the more C. Llewelyn Sumner understood that the spy rarely, if ever, looked back. What Grey really wanted was something that mirrored his life and work in the here and now, something cold and austere, something dangerous yet at peace with his surroundings.
But Grey also talked and talked about small Japanese gardens and the spirits that came to inhabit such gentle spaces. One weekend they boarded a Japan Air Lines 747 and flew to Tokyo, then they flew on to Hakodate, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, and all the while Patrick talked and talked. At first he talked of gardens and the kami that resided there, but then he talked about his father and growing up in England, and soon enough they came upon the more complicated histories of his mother and wife. And then, finally, to the stubborn history that surrounded his daughter, Akira.
They walked the family’s ancestral home on the tiny peninsula off the western reaches of the ancient city, a sprawling feudal residence that at one time had been a low castle spread out among and between a series of interlinking gardens. They had walked beside a creek that seemed to split the house in two, into old and new, and C. Llewelyn Sumner marveled at the care taken to so carefully space the cherry trees among the spreading dwarf maples. Even the rocks within these gardens, he soon learned, had names. Everywhere he looked his eyes found seemingly irrelevant spaces that were home to various family members – long dead to this world but who nevertheless still resided somewhere within these walls. Or more precisely, in the gardens scattered along the winding pathway beside the stream that ran down to the sea.
C. Llewelyn Sumner had, once upon a time, been a stranger to chance encounters, but all that had come to a shattering end on the First of August, 1966. He had very nearly been killed that morning, when a suicidally deranged Charles Whitman began shooting people from the 28th floor observation deck at the University of Texas. That morning, and its immediate aftermath, took shape as a crystalline shard of memory, a shattered moment in time cast in cold, hard fear. If a motor backfired near Sumner he still often ducked for cover and his hands would shake for hours, sometimes for a day or two.
Then he would remember Tracy and he would find his way back.
And for a time the two had lived in pristine isolation, safely ensconced within a kind of manmade prism of the mind, a time of splintered light within the almost cocoon-like existence of urban nomads taken in by the sea. She had, as it happened, turned him on to living life on a sailboat, to living in a marina while they worked side by side drawing houses for a large architectural firm in Seattle.
Shattered by events in Austin and after growing up in near isolation, C. Llewelyn Sumner found it difficult to accept love – even when love was staring him in the face. As his career flourished in the light of his unquestioned talent, his relationship with Tracy withered in the icy echoes of Whitman’s endless rampage. In the end, Tracy had enough and moved on, and he finally moved his business into a nondescript storefront on Seaview Avenue, not at all far from Ballard locks, and his drafting table looked out over the waters around Shilshole Marina, and when his mood was dark enough he would remember what it felt like to love another human being. He knew she had been the one and that he had failed them both – but as age came for him those remembrances grew fragile and vague.
Until Patrick Grey walked in his door.
Because things keep changing, even as memories take wing. How did Yeats put it? Things fall apart? The center cannot hold?
Walking along the cliffs above the castle in Hakodate with Patrick Grey had been his undoing. Listening to Patrick talk of his marriage and of its unravelling in Palo Alto, Sumner felt echoes of his own disintegrations, of his own failures to love as a man should. And when Sumner saw the violence that lay at the heart of Patrick’s miseries, and how they related, however peripherally, to his own state of denial, he knew he had stumbled upon something most precious. He knew that Patrick Grey would become his friend.
So from time to time, as the Grey House took shape on the shores along Shilshole Bay, C. Llewelyn Sumner took Patrick Grey Sailing on Puget Sound. Cherry picking only the best days, they roamed the waters off downtown and shadowed the various ferries a few times, until finally Grey became interested enough in sailing to try a longer sail. So one July afternoon they took off for a days long adventure up to Port Townsend, and when they arrived Grey could see Vancouver Island across the Straits.
“What’s that?” Grey asked, pointing to a hazy patch along the far shore.
“Victoria is right about there,” Sumner said, as he pointed to a notch in the island.
“Victoria?” Grey said, his mood lifting. “How far away?”
“Oh, I don’t know, 35 – maybe 40 miles…something like that.”
“Could we go?”
“Got your passport?”
“Always. All five of them,” the old spy added with a sly grin, snickering at this tired, ages-old cliché.
So Sumner had moved the waypoint cursor on the chartplotter’s main NAV screen and simply punched Execute, and off they went – with all the tides and currents neatly accounted for. Of course, it took somewhat longer to cross forty miles of open water in a sailboat than it usually did an automobile on a motorway, with around seven hours being a decent enough crossing for a boat like Sumner’s beamy old Nauticat, but soon enough they were berthed at the tiny marina in front of the old Victoria Empress Hotel. Of course, paying more for an overnight berth than a single night in one of the hotels better rooms, and yet their stay lasted a week, and Grey simply paid for everything, no questions asked.
And Sumner thought it odd that what the old spy craved most was a bit of home. Afternoon tea with strawberry scones and clotted cream. A think slab of roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach in a small dining roof off an even smaller library. And he’d even fished an old Meerschaum pipe out of a coat pocket after dinner one evening and lit up, and not one mindless chatterbot had come screeching senseless prohibitions, and it was plain for all to see that Mr Grey was nothing more or less than a British gentleman. In the truest, most ancient sense of the word.
And Grey proved to be an able student. Few people take to sailing after a trip like they’d just completed, but Patrick’s eyes seemed alive out there on the water. He was scheming and planning and he loved danger most of all, and Sumner could tell something was up when he drove Grey to the airport one morning a few weeks after their return. Patrick flew to Maine, and he was gone for a few weeks, but when he returned he seemed quite happy with himself.
Yet as Sumner watched the years fall away from Patrick’s life when they were on the water, he also realized he’d have to redesign a few details inside the Grey House, and a few of these he managed to pull off without Patrick’s knowledge or approval. Little hidden details. Secret passageways and the like.
And when finally the Grey House was complete, the two friends walked around their creation admiring what they had cobbled together, and Patrick smiled at the little hidden details Sumner had fashioned almost in plain sight, even if they were just in the shadows. Things like two hidden stairways that led to a small basement. Auxiliary power supplies and battery backup systems, things of that nature that really didn’t seem logical. But then there was the small gym that folded into one basement wall, and a treadmill that disappeared inside another.
So Sumner was a little surprised when, the next time he visited, he found Patrick walking stiffly about the house with the aid of a walker. And Patrick had recently hired an assistant of some sort, and she pushed Patrick out to a modified van when she drove him to appointments or out for groceries, because quite suddenly he was venturing out only with the aid of a wheelchair.
But in the end C. Llewelyn Sumner only smiled as he took in all these new comings and goings, because ever since that first day of August in 1966, he could smell trouble from a mile away.
© 2023 adrian leverkühn | abw | just a bit of fiction, plain and simple…
[Paul MacCartney \\ This Never Happened Before]