The paperback edition of Craig Higginson’s The Dream House hit the shelves recently, and in celebration of this joyous occasion Pan Macmillan has shared an excerpt from the book.
This updated 2016 edition contains new content, with Higginson exploring the background to The Dream House, his varied experiences in a farmhouse in KwaZulu-Natal and the subsequent and poignant motivations for this moving novel.
The Dream House, published in 2015, was one of the novels shortlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.
Read the excerpt, in which the author tells the story behind the inspiration for his novel:
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The First Dream House
There are many houses we pass through during our lives. Maybe it’s true that they also pass through us. Some of them remain with us, and we are able to return to them long after they are gone. One such house was a farmhouse in KwaZulu-Natal, just over the hill of the boarding school I attended between the ages of ten and fourteen. This hill stood above our school like the promise of another world. It provided the title for a novel of mine – simply called The Hill – and it now lies buried under a pine plantation. Where the air was once filled with the song of stonechats, longclaws and sunbirds, there is now only silence.
I came to know this house over the hill because on that farm were horses and my family was involved with horses. I forget the details, but I think my mother wanted to buy a horse from them – a Welsh pony, in fact – and we met them just as I was about to start at boarding school. We spent the night in that house and the next day I put on the strange new clothes for my school – a grey blazer and shorts, a black-and-white striped tie, a cap with the school logo sewn onto it and military tan shoes.
The farmer was a man from Yorkshire originally. He had a strong impenetrable accent, pale blue eyes and was always making jokes that insinuated themselves just around the borders of my comprehension. He was forever hinting at something sexual, it seemed to me, and I tended to smile at him whenever he looked in my direction – hoping to reassure him that I was quite fine as I was and that he needn’t bother himself with me further.
It was the farmer’s wife we were more concerned with – on that first meeting and afterwards. Even then she was a very large woman. She had a mop of frizzy greying hair, yellow teeth like bits of sweetcorn and laughing halfhidden eyes. She was also always making jokes, usually teasing me and my sister for being spoiled city kids. Actually, we lived in a very modest suburb in a very modest house, but to her we were shy, obscurely fastidious, possibly fussy children. We liked horses and dogs – and on that farm there were plenty of each – but we had never been in such a house, where the corners of every room hadn’t been entered into in decades, and where everything smelt of old leather and wet wood and leaking gas.
I am not sure that the house made much impression on me at first as there was so much going on inside it and I must have been worried about going to a new school, but the farmer’s wife said I should come and visit them on my first Sunday out. I could come for lunch and learn how to catch a fish. I dreaded the thought of this, but no one was going to take no for an answer and my mother was probably grateful there would be someone to pick me up – on a day when many of the other boys were being picked up by muddy bakkies from the neighbouring farms where they had grown up.
On the day in question, the farmer’s wife was there to meet me outside the school library. She was in a large cream Mercedes and even then the car was being driven by a driver – Bheki – who wore neat blue overalls and never said a word. I sat in the back between two Alsatians. She sat in the passenger seat with at least three Chihuahuas on her lap. She chattered all the way through the woods and the dark thin road that led out the school, and didn’t stop until we’d reached a dingy little shop run by an Indian man by the railway, where she gave me a few coins to go inside and buy myself some sweets. I did so, while they all waited in the car, and came back outside with my strange selection of toffees and ‘nigger balls’ and other little fruity sweets in a brown paper packet, immediately feeling that the day wouldn’t be wholly bad after all.
I was in a daze for much of the time in those days and was probably far off and polite and eager to get my answers right. I was taken down the long dirt road that led to the farm, got out – large dogs sniffing my crotch, licking my hands, pawing at me with their mud – and joined her for tea and cake on the stoep. This ran along the front of the house, which had a shallow corrugated iron roof and resembled Karen Blixen’s house in the film version of Out of Africa, in spite of being more modest and shabbier and perhaps not quite as old. That day I went fishing with Bheki and he hooked the fish and I ran with it up the bank – exactly as it was described in this book. The only difference is that the fish was a bass, not a rainbow trout, and we did indeed kill it. There is a photograph of me wearing the clothes of some other boy who once visited their house: a red T-shirt and tight blue shorts, holding up what was in effect another man’s fish. My hair is brushed and I am standing upright, as if proud, although what I really felt at that moment is lost to me. I tend to look sceptical in photographs.
That was the first of many such visits. In time, I would come in the afternoons – usually with a friend or two – and we would drink Coke and eat some chocolate cake and get back to school just in time for showers. The house was a secret, a bolt hole that no teacher at the school knew about.
It was my home away from home and I loved every bit of it and the farm around it. On my weekends out, I would often spend the night – staring at the high ceiling of the spare room while outside dogs barked and eagle-owls hooted and the rain smacked against the window. I continued to fish with mixed success and started to explore the surrounding hills – where I found a cave by a stream, a waterfall and the nests of malachite sunbirds, cape eagleowls and crowned eagles. I could be happy for the day simply because I had spotted a rare kingfisher.
I think my imagination found a home during those years. When I started writing for the first time, it was in that spare room at a little desk, lit by a hurricane lamp. When I was working as the assistant to the theatre director Barney Simon, he encouraged me to start writing a play and the play took place in that house. This would eventually become my first original play, Dream of the Dog – later revisited and extensively developed as The Dream House.
I have farmers in my family but grew up in a bland little suburb in Johannesburg – so this place provided me with magic, with a more abundant life.
In those days, I wanted to be a vet. I would read books about horse ailments, I would watch cows and sheep and horses coupling and giving birth. I knew the house as a cool cave on hot summer days, as a rattling tin drum during thunderstorms, as a place of damp linen and crackling fireplaces when the mist filled the valley and seemed to invade every cupboard of the house. My time there opened my heart to such writers as William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes – so that when I arrived at their great poems I knew exactly what they were talking about.
I think the people who invited me into their home would be faintly
horrified by what I’ve made of them. The farmer’s wife would be amazed that Janet Suzman played her on London’s West End. They had no idea there was anything artistic about me. If they had known, they would have laughed at it. They have long ago passed into the darkness we have all come from – and these days it sometimes feels as if I simply imagined them. They were people of their time, increasingly uneasy in a world that was rapidly outstripping them. But they were kind to me. Most of all, they left me alone.
They provided a starting place for my imagination – as modest and meek as it might have been – to produce a little root, take hold and quietly nose its way towards the light.
1. A version of this piece first appeared in the October–November 2015 edition of Visi, the architecture magazine.
2. I recently came across the couples’ graves in a small churchyard near Nottingham Road. The teacher who inspired Mr Ford was also buried there. It was very strange to see the people who inspired three of my characters lying together there. I had made them love each other and hate each other in a way they never had in real life.
Their real lives were already far off – and wholly unreachable.