Last summer, my mother had some unexpected visitors. An unfamiliar car pulled into the drive and an unknown late-middle-aged woman knocked tentatively at the door.
“Hello, I’m so sorry to bother you, um, you see, this is the house I lived in as a child…”
“Oh, you must be one of the Batt children,” said my mother.
The visitor nearly fell off the doorstep in astonishment. “How did you know….?”
“We bought this place from your parents,” said Mum.
The lady looked even more knocked for six. “You remember them? The thing is.. we’re doing a tour of the places we lived, because it’s my mother’s ninetieth birthday. She’s in the car. Would you have time for a chat?”
“Of course!” said my mother, delighted. She invited them in, showed them all over the house and let them discover what was ‘new’ and what remained unchanged, served them a copious afternoon tea, regaled them with decades-old gossip about various village worthies of their mutual acquaintance, and waved them off with a new address in her bulging contacts book and a standing invitation to drop by in Dorset, should she ever find herself down that way.
That the Batts had managed to accommodate even more children than my parents ended up with, may have been one of the selling points of the house. At least we didn’t have to be stacked in bunk beds, four to a room. But this year, after almost half a century, my mother is selling up. A four-bed, three-recep., two-bath house, with a quarter-acre of garden and various ancillary buildings, is just too much for a lone woman in her early eighties. Especially a lone eighty-something woman with a dodgy hip.
Mum had a hip replacement just over four years ago. I (re)wrote Sloven-spun Shitespeak in the train on my way to visit her while she was convalescing from the operation. I found her on her usual irrepressible form and despite her crutches, she took me on a route-march round the local park, in quest of fresh air, a cup of coffee and some cake. Regrettably, the prosthesis doesn’t seem to have been fitted well and it has recently worked loose, distorting her leg and causing a lot of pain. Limping, her lips pinched tight to stop herself from complaining about it, bereft of the unflagging energy that previously took twenty years off her, she suddenly looks old. Second Youngest Uncle is taking her to his home for a few weeks, the plan being that she will stay with him until she has recovered from the revision surgery. Then she will move into a bungalow. But before arranging this, we needed to clear Mum’s house, so the prospective purchasers could move in as soon as they were ready, without us having to run around packing while Mum is immobilised. This weekend was the final push.
Mum had done a sterling job of packing loose items in tissue and butcher’s paper and stowing them into cardboard tea-chests. My sister, who lives fairly nearby, has been nipping over and getting things out of high cupboards and off the top of wardrobes for sorting, packing or dumping. Not a jar of preserves remained in the pantry, nor a sheet in the linen-cupboard. Various bits of surplus furniture have been donated to charity and two skiploads of miscellaneous unwanted items disposed of. Much of this weekend was about dismantling furniture that could be taken apart. I spent a whole morning mummifying mirrors and glass doors from bureaux or book-cases, in bubble-wrap. The afternoon was devoted to swathing all my father’s antique clocks: removing the pendulums and delicately stuffing the mechanisms with tissue to immobilise them in transit, before bubble-wrapping and boxing them.
Saturday evening was needed for emptying the attic, unpacking the contents of trunks and passing them hand to hand, bucket-chain-fashion, down the steep, narrow stairs from the attic and the wider ones to the ground floor. Then the trunks themselves came down two flights, to be repacked in the hall. The last (and heaviest) box wasn’t a trunk, but a squat chest with ten wide, shallow drawers. Each drawer, only three or four centimetres deep, was divided up into dozens of match-box-sized compartments.
“It’s a printer’s type-chest,” said Eldest Uncle, as he carefully transferred a drawer without spilling the contents. He fished out and displayed a couple of minute, oblong metal slugs, each with a back-to-front letter on one end. Most of the drawers, however, contained household hardware. A drawer full of nails and panel pins, sorted into the little boxes by size. Another drawer of screws, divided into steel and brass and graded by length and thickness. A drawer full of washers, metal and rubber; and a drawer full of odds and ends – jubilee clips, sink plug chains, various amperages of fuse, replacement bulbs for Christmas tree lights, all sorted and labelled as neatly and methodically as a museum exhibit. It was so characteristic of my father’s meticulous precision, that I almost looked over my shoulder for him, to pull his leg about it, before I remembered.
Sunday was about the garden. My mother’s container plants, which include things like acers and other trees in ginormous pots, have needed a whole van to themselves. We team-handled them onto a sack-barrow and trundled them, wobbling ominously, round the intricacies of the garden paths, from the courtyard to the side of the garage. We stacked garden furniture and the washing hoist.
When it was finally done, I went for a last walk around. I’ve not really been into the garden since Dad’s death. The garden was mostly his place – Mum did weeding and dead-heading, but Dad did landscaping, mowing, planting, pruning and harvesting; so despite all the pots going, most of ‘his’ garden is staying put. No-one can move the massive oak, or the mature maple with its metre-thick trunk (set in sixty-something years ago, as a sapling, by Mr. Batt) or the gnarly apple trees, left from when the land was a market-garden and orchard and cossetted by Dad into annual cropping, nor the stone- and brick-work of the ornamental raised beds that he built, now studded with sea-thrift, lavender and curry-scented helichrysum.
In my mother’s herb garden, the sage and thyme are in flower and full of bees. The rhubarb patch is flourishing and the gooseberry and currant bushes are jewelled with unripe fruit, but the strawberries, untended since my father died, are sparse and stunted. I thought I had found a more or less ripe one, but when I turned it over, a cloud of tiny flies mushroomed out of it, and all that was left was a damp, pink, hollow shell.
In the long grass under the orchard trees, oxeye daisies stood tall, and beyond was a drift of dark-pink dianthus and a firework explosion of mallow in the hedge. I took pictures. Lots of pictures. But you can’t photograph scents, and my father begrudged flowers growing room if they didn’t smell as good as they looked. The pinks smelled of cinnamon and further down the border, the mock-orange was in full, honey-scented bloom. I went from rose to rose, taking photographs and inhaling lungfuls of the delicate, powdery perfume of the pale-pink Albertine climber rioting along a fence, the sweetly spicy smell of the old-fashioned roses with their crimson-edged petals and the fruity, slightly acidic scent of the more modern varieties.
At last I came to the end of the garden, where the bonfire platform sits. I turned and saw my brothers, all lanky six-footers like Dad, wandering about on the other side of the vegetable plot, somehow dwarfed and isolated by the expanses of grass, foliage and flowers. I looked to the side of the platform, at the patch of turf that is still a different colour, and I wept. My brothers hurried over and hugged me.
“Tea,” said Youngest Uncle, firmly, tugging me in the direction of the house.
“I hope the new people like rhubarb,” said Eldest Uncle, eyeing the abundance of large, shiny leaves. He went over, pulled an armful of sticks and put them into his car. In the back porch, my father’s old, faded gardening anorak still hung, emptily describing his absence.
On Monday morning, my mother was up at 5.30, lining up dusters. The removal vans – three of them – arrived at half-past eight and as the men cleared each room, she hoovered behind their heels and wiped down paintwork and windowsills. The removers and my brothers rolled their eyes. Eventually, Mum was persuaded to relinquish the vacuum to my sister and go to a neighbour’s, to rest before her journey. At noon, the caravan rolled out, and after a number of stops, it arrived and was offloaded by 8.30 pm. Mum went to bed at nine. It’s sixty-five years since she left school and her parents’ house, and now she has left the home she knew for longest.
But in a garden that henceforth exists only in memory, my father is forever at the far end, his shirt hung on a branch, his lean, brown back warmed by the sunshine, whistling a conversation with the robin as he digs over his strawberry-patch.
She’s leaving home / after living alone / for so many years.