|original story text|
They lived in a rundown old mansion. It looked just like the haunted house licked by lightning you see perched at the top of the hill in spooky episodes of Scooby Doo. But unlike the cartoon, their house - the Middle House at Clayton Holt - was real and was set midway up the north facing slope of a woody hill on the Sussex Downs. It was always gloomy inside and for half the year it was ice freezing cold.
more about "ice freezing cold"
Trust me - when I wrote "ice freezing cold" in the story the words don't tell you what it really felt like. I remember shivering at the memory of that coldness as I was writing the first part of the tree troll story even though I was hundreds of miles away holidaying in an unbearably hot villa in Tuscany and my hands were sticking to the pages in my notebook.
As a frequent visitor to the house in the story Jamie and the Tree Troll I learned that staying overnight at Clayton Holt in winter was very different to staying in other types of houses - even though I had lived in the English countryside most of my life and enjoyed isolated rural stays in Wales and Scotland too.
And so oftentimes - when it came to me saying the last Goodnight to Jamie's father Mark - which was done long after the children had gone to bed and after many hours of solemn discussion about the merits of different types of trees in the woods around the house for firewood - how trees sometimes bounced and sprang towards him when introduced to his chainsaw, how easily the wood split with an axe, the awkward bits - where the axe would stick in the wood and be hard to pull out, or the bendy twisted joins - which wouldn't split no matter how many times you picked them up and smashed them again, the painful bits - which flew off and smashed you in the shins, and after going through all that hard work - how long it would take for the logs had to dry out before they would burn and give out good heat - this ranging from straight away with Ash - if you were desperate - upto years in the case of willow - which surprisingly burned with a very smooth flame - or seemingly never with some awkward types of trees which merely spewed out evil smoke and mocked you with a cold blue flame if you burned the wrong types of logs too soon - yes and after talking about these very needful to know things - I mostly chose to remain in the sitting room downstairs.
You can picture me there in my gore tex jacket and fleece, all tucked up on the sofa beneath a duvet.
And soon after my eyes were closed due to the lateness of the hour and the long journey getting there and the heaviness of the conversation and the red wine - I would wake to find I had been sleep-creeping inch by inch closer towards the gravitational warmth of the fading ashes in the fireplace.
This - staying downstairs option - was much less shivery and more sensible in my opinion than the more polite but reckless alternative of sleeping upstairs.
I had sampled the chilling delights of upstairs before.
Upstairs began with hauling myself up the gloomy heights of the main staircase - which was an adventure in itself - using a small pocket torch to reveal only the next few steps at a time - the pale beam of torchlight being partly so as not to wake the children - who couldn't sleep unless their bedroom doors open - just in case they needed help or had scary dreams - but another necessity for the torch being because the mains light switches were hidden in shadows in the wood panelled walls. Hidden so well - in fact - that even after many years of visits and even in the daytime I never did succeed in finding them. And silly me - I kept forgetting to ask where they were.
There are some details you never forget.
And I remember the first few winter nights creeping upstairs in my socks - and creaking as quietly as I could so as not to wake anyone while outside I could hear all kinds of unknown mad creatues of the night shrieking their death cries and warnings. Or that's what it seemed like to me and I didn't feel inclined to go outside and investigate. Laura and Jamie must have been used to the howling because these animal cries didn't wake them up. Perhaps - like vampires - it was perfectly safe inside the house as long as you didn't invite any of the screachers inside
Is that an owl or something being killed by a fox? I wondered pausing on the stairs with one hand on the rail and the other holding my little torch shining through a glass of water and my backpack slung over my arm weighed down by a printed book selected at random downstairs.
It was in the days just before kindles and smartphones and the house at Clayton had thousands of books I hadn't seen before.
Carefully - thinking about how big this house really was - you could fit most people's houses into just one of the downstairs rooms I reckoned - and in this way I made my way up many flights of stairs and after brushing my own chattering teeth - made my way at last to a freshly made bed in one of many mysterious bedrooms which was as cold as outer space and would have made a good survival tester for NASA astronauts.
But unlike the family who lived in that house all the time - and had become used to it - my blood never learned to adapt to having little ice cubes crunching through my veins. I learned the best thing to do when I got in the bed with all my clothes on was stay absolutely still and keep to the same warmed up spot.
Better still - I wimpily decided after sampling upstairs on more than a few occasions - was to learn from the experience and admit I didn't have any arctic explorer genes - and so on most of my later visits in winter I chose to stay downstairs with the cat by the fire.
But this story isn't about me. So let's get back to it.
PS - Jamie and his sister were born in the Middle House and lived there at the time of this story.
Later in 2007 they moved next door to the East Wing - which was a few yards closer to Anna's Wood where they and I had first seen the entrance to the tree troll's cavern.
The Huggetts moved out of Clayton to Hurst when Jamie and Laura were older.
Right now (2019) Jamie is in his 2nd year at University studying to be a writer.
Clayton still lives in the woods.