Wednesday, 20 July 2016

This Old House.

The house stands empty and unkempt in a row of occupied and tended ones. Its vacant pretty windows gaze down upon us as we pull into its drive. We go next door to fetch the key. “Good luck,” they say. "You'll be needing it."

The front garden is tidy, a gardener sees to that, the shed is full of pristine tools. But as we open the front door a leaf-strewn carpet greets us, deep with flyers and mail. And as our feet creep down the hallway, a creepy feeling steals along my spine.

It’s midweek. Husband has taken a day off to visit his father’s house in the heart of the home counties. The one his father walked out of one summer’s morning three years ago to travel north and see a friend, never to return. It’s not a job to face alone, so here I am as well. 

A strong smell overwhelms us: damp, mould, regret. Or perhaps that’s just me, about the regret, that is, the damp and mould are for sure. I open the windows wide. 

In the kitchen every surface is covered: plates, food, mouse droppings. In the dining room, the table dips under the weight of books and yesterday's papers. In the sitting room, more of the same, plus vinyl, loads of it, stacked high, and warped, and ashes in the grate. Lots and lots of ashes…

“Do we need a bin liner?” says Husband.

“One?" I say. "Don't be crazy. We won’t get through this in a day. We will come back another time, with help.”

Each and every room reveals fresh horrors, or rather, stale ones. In the kitchen it’s the fridge, with mould the like of which I’ve never seen before, and rancid milk that’s years old. In the bathroom: a ceiling stain, where a little rain has lately filtered through.

I’m wheezy with the dust, and guilty with the idea of him here alone. We told him to sell up when his second wife died. “Come to London,” we said. “Get a place. Could be lovely. The tube. Pubs. Us close by."

He shook his head. “And what would I do with my stuff?” he said. 

So here it all is: the stuff that rendered him alone, without the know-how to reach out. He never did get the hang of his mobile phone, or email. No man is an island, so they say, but they’re wrong. The world keeps turning, and he wasn't able to turn with it.

I talk to elderly people every week on the phone, scores of them. They’re unwell, they don’t eat properly, they don’t go outside, and they don’t see anyone. But it's that last that’s the killer.

Fuck the stuff, I think, you should have got away while you still could. Don’t get trapped at home with your pain, that’s the old fashioned song this house is singing me, on warped and knackered vinyl.

“There’s nothing here,” says Husband, “nothing worth saving.” But after a while he finds a few things he likes: books, a load of classical CDs to rip. I find glasses that will come in handy, a couple of straw hats that might prove useful now we finally have some summer, and good kitchen knives, left out of their dirty drawer.

I go upstairs and there are her things on the dresser: lipstick, powder, paint, the moisturiser she was using that fine day, in 2002, when she went to hospital and never came back.

I open the wardrobe: all her clothes, bags, shoes, even her knickers, still here. Her hairbrush too, pale wisps of hair still clinging to ageing bristles.

Back downstairs in the sitting room, I scoop faded picture postcards from the sun-peeled window sills, pop them in recycling, pick my way across the floor, and there on a table is… a shrine. There's no other word for it. The book of remembrance from her memorial service. Some of her writing, poems, and…

“Jesus Christ!” I shout. "She’s still here!” Her ashes in the urn. (I told you there was a lot.)

We load the stuff into the car to take it away. We chat once again to the neighbours. As we reverse down the drive, a whole view of the house fills the windshield. Hold on, old house, I think, and I imagine spiders scuttling from secret nooks, mice reappearing from crannies.

For the time being it sits as we found it: abandoned, but hopefully not for much longer. Folks from London are keen to take on projects such as this, we are told, even though it's on the wrong side of the road, backing onto a motorway, and needs rather more than a new coat of paint. Someone will snap it up - and do it up - before too long. All we have to do in the meantime is make sure that the ‘stuff’ has been removed, piece by piece, and that finally the place is completely empty.

Love E x


P.S. Hoping that I don't have to clear out a sad old house like that one ever again. 

And by the by, while at a party on Saturday I chatted to someone who said he lives near Ravenscourt Park. Oh yeah, I said, so does my brother, and I was at a shoot near there, way back when: Sophie Ellis-Bextor's place. Cool, he said, were you doing the make-up?

Sophie Ellis-Bextor - a while back.

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