I went to my mother’s house recently, to say goodbye. She is moving away, after 35 years. My stepfather is living in a care home now. Mum can’t bear to be in the house any longer. It’s too big for her. She needs a new chapter in her life. It is a difficult time.
I arrive late at night while Mum is away on holiday. The house is all but empty, and I am glad to have it to myself. My baby Sid and I sleep in the bed Mum and David shared for so many years. In the morning light, I can see the faint mark on the wall in the bedroom where David’s huge wardrobe used to be. It had been painted around and not behind, leaving a shadow-wardrobe. I gaze up at the high window above it that Tom and I used to shimmy up to, over the mahogany giant, to clamber through it onto the roof. I took my rat out there once. We would creep around up there feeling clever and looking in through the bathroom window and the kitchen skylight.
This time, there are crows looking in at me through the skylight as I sit on the floor eating soup from the saucepan in the house with no crockery or furniture.
I walk around the house, looking at every room, slowly taking everything in, smelling the place, touching it, whispering to it. Every inch thick-laden with memories. Each room contains some bits and pieces yet to be bagged up and moved or tossed out and every one of these things is a precious relic to me: a scented rubber. A photo of a trip abroad. A thing made in Pottery. A postcard from my father. My mum’s office is still quite cluttered with these bits and pieces. I touch them, and choose a few to take away. Mum’s office is in the room that used to be mine, and then Tom’s. I always think about the gerbils, the ceaseless massacre of the gerbils and hamsters in that space. Our three-legged cat Busta was unstoppable. There were other accidents too. When Tom got bigger and dismantled his bunk bed he found a long-lost hamster flattened down the side of it.
Many times, Tom and I would get home from school and rush up to his bedroom, lock the door, and immerse ourselves in our secret world of Ouija boarding. At one point I thought I was possessed by the devil, which put a stop to our experiments. At night on Mondays, as teenagers, we locked his door and burned dodgy incense so that we could smoke weed and watch Twin Peaks.
The cupboard in Mum and David’s bathroom is empty now. I inhale its residual smell, and I go to the airing cupboard to do the same. Towels, smelling of holidays in France. Towels with pictures. Snorkels and masks piled higgledy. Old tea towels, possibly from my grandmother’s house. Ugly rags really but to me they are heirlooms.
I find a letter written by my mother to hers in 1968. Such a sweet letter – Mum consoling Granny on the anniversary of her husband’s death. I’m moved by the loving tone and the warmth in it. I wish I had had Granny for longer. I think about the way I speak to my own mother. I think of her loneliness now.
I climb into the cubby hole in my other bedroom, the one Mum moved my stuff into when Tom and I were away on an adventure holiday one year, the year we turned vegetarian. I came home to a new room painted yellow, with a frilly bedcover on Granny’s childhood bed. The cubby hole is built into the wall. It goes up to the ceiling. Mum used to keep a skeleton called Fred in it. I used to sit on top of the shelves in there. There are Care Bear stickers and pencil drawings of Grey Cat pinned high up on the wall in there. They are covered in dark grey cobwebs now. I say goodbye.
I go downstairs to the garden level. I stand in the greenhouse for a long time. There are faded folding chairs, a broken pump for the pond, the nuts and bolts from our climbing frame. Everything has meaning to me. There used to be a grapevine in here. When did that die? I have an urge to touch the glass. I try to close the greenhouse door – I remember it had some idiosyncrasies, and sure enough it doesn’t close at all. I remember all the pets in here. The menstruating guinea pigs. We actually released some of our guinea pigs into the woods. I still feel bad about that.
I go out into the garden. It’s amazing. There are purple primroses growing up between the cracks in the patio slabs. Mum’s pots have gone but the place is still full of colour and life. The trees she planted are big now. She has made this such a beautiful space. I stand, looking, in awe at what she created. I remember runner beans trained up bamboos, with the bright red flowers. I remember strawberries, and the snails she would flush down the toilet. I remember the silver birch tree that grew half way down the garden, and blew over in 1987. I glance next door and see the green swing that our neighbours used to let me play on; I could shimmy into their garden over a hidden wall down the side of our garage. I wonder if they are still alive. I imagine they are dead. Next door on the other side used to be Lorraine and Jodie. Lorraine and I would paint each other’s faces. They have gone. Now there is a couple with a spaniel and a sports car.
The pond is murky and I can’t see the frog spawn in it that I am used to delighting in. This worries me. Has something gone wrong? I am drawn down the lawn towards the gate into the woods. I take my time. I try to take everything in on my way: the Buddha in the rockery; the bees on the thorn bush; the daffodils; the moss on the lawn. The cobwebby shed. I poke my head in and sniff – it scarcely smells of creosote anymore. I marvel at Mum’s composting system. Four huge heaps. I am so proud of her for that.
Finally I am in the woods. Woodpigeons. The oak tree. The oak tree! I love you. I touch the oak tree that was my guardian, the huge dignified presence that I took for granted and loved unconsciously all through my childhood. I love you. Thank you. I touch its bark and encourage Sid to do the same. Around it, daffodils and ivy. Waxy leaves. Soft leaf litter underfoot. I look at the area behind our fence where our pets were buried. Goodbye Sooty, goodbye Busta. I walk very slowly out into the woods. They are full of birdsong. The redwoods are incredible. They make me think of the book I have just read, about a woman who lived in a giant Californian redwood for two years to prevent it from being felled for its timber. Sidney is motionless, watching, taking in the dappled light and the sounds. I am grateful for his calm.
I return to the house and walk slowly up the lawn, looking into the dark windows as I go. I am ready to leave now. As I lock the side door on the way out, I see a scrawl in black enamel paint on the concrete floor: ‘Tom Was Here’. I take a photograph. It starts to rain.