The wind whistles outside. Voices of a thousand ghosts.
There are no ghosts, I know, but in the stone stillness of my great aunt’s old house you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
The faint ticking of that old clock in the hallway punctuates the silence. Over by the old front door, so overgrown outside it’s impassable now. The clock’s feeble snicks are the only thing that move time on here. Wind whistles, birds cry and sometimes rain patters gently on the glass of the small conservatory – but they all flow so consistently together, so smoothly and organically, that in their rituals, time, as we might know it, is nowhere to be found.
I’m brought back to my surroundings by the entry of my father. “Busy?” he asks slightly bemused. “I need a hand moving some stuff from the living room if that’s alright.”
I nod, then follow him through a doorway into the antiques collection that is the living room.
The back door is so dirty now, I observe as I return indoors after putting the last few items of living room furniture in the car just outside. I scrape my feet back and forth across the mat to get some of the mud and rotting leaves off, and something in me wants to laugh at the idea of somebody complaining. “What’s next?” I call, as outside, dad shoves the last piece of furniture into the boot with a grunt.
“Uh—” he replies then, his voice slightly muffled. “I think I’ll hoover in the bedroom while we’ve got the bed away from the wall.”
“Alright,” I mumble.
“Give me a minute though to get the hoover out.”
The kitchen still feels so homely to me, even now. It’s been so long since my great aunt and I sat at that table, its agrarian motifs of wheat and barley carved into the wood of the chairs and an ancient flower-patterned tablecloth cast neatly over the table itself. The cloth is gone now, of course, I’m not sure where. But without it, the whole collection looks so bare, so vulnerable – decapitated, almost.
Oh, the evenings we used to spend there, over meals my aunt had spent hours preparing while I played in the living room, lovingly served as she gave me her usual twinkly smile. A child of five or so, and then eventually of seven, eight, until about the age of eleven, I had grinned appreciatively back, I’m afraid more due to the plentiful helping of sausages I’d been given along with those crusted greasy hash browns than anything else. Mum and dad had never made that sort of thing at home – quite the treat at aunty’s.
I run my fingers across the kitchen countertop now, my gaze still fixed on the dining table. My attention suddenly asks for a change, and I find my eyes drawn round to the oven behind me by the door. So long aunty would spend there, cooking away. In a flash of memory my mind links it with the thought of me cooking ready meals for myself back at university. It brings a lump to my throat, one that’s difficult to suppress. I hate the thought of her being so lonely towards the end, making meals like that, just like I do, but all alone.
I never understood it as a kid, but ever-increasing maturity at this age brings with it new viewpoints on life that were inaccessible before. I think about my own having children, eventually, how I will see them, and how I will see their children in turn. Still me, just as I am today.
I turn, and see myself sitting at that table where my aunty was, quite alone, just another meal, another evening, just as I do now – musing on the calls of the birds and the strength of the wind today, on the news and the situation of food, what might need to be bought for the week ahead.
I’m not sure dad ever really understood quite how much she meant to me. I suppose a great aunt isn’t a hugely close relative, and I did tend to spend more time with granny either way – but time spent with an older relative like that, especially when you’re as young as I was – it can really mean the world when you’re older.
I see dad wrangling the hoover out of the car outside.
He had seen aunty the most before the end. I’m still ashamed I couldn’t go to visit, but her decline seemed so fast. The family feud when I was eight hadn’t helped things. I had taken to jokingly calling it the “Great Schism.” I didn’t know much about it or why it happened, but my great aunt was on the ‘wrong’ side, so I’m afraid that took its toll. They had no real personal grievances with each other, aunty and my parents, sure. But prejudice can spread like wildfire.
A bumping and clattering from the side door we’d entered through signalled my father’s arrival with the hoover. “Right!” he began, implicitly initiating our next course of action.
I’ve decided I hate this place.
Okay, maybe hate is a bit of a strong word. But as another bramble thorn pricks my finger and I toss the twisting branch angrily in the wheely bin beside me I’m feeling the breeze bite. It used to be nice here, warm and welcoming. But what was good then is gone – now it’s just cold and empty and dead.
I lean over to press the organic contents of the bin down further – with so much of the overgrown vegetable patch left to clear I’m going to have to find a more potent crusher. A pole, maybe? I saw some by the garage earlier. I’ll fetch it later maybe.
Despite my ‘wounded’ finger I can’t help appreciating the view. Everyone who comes to the house mentions it. The house itself is a hovel, no denying that, gradually falling to pieces out here. But the view out across the downs, the rolling felt hills of emeralds and hazel hues, tiny brooks of white bubbling through, the great sky above open as an ocean all around and the storms, the sun and all the heavenly goings on clear for all the world to see, all around.
And to think the dual carriageway’s just over there.
I wonder if that’s where aunty is now – the heavens, not the dual carriageway.
Dad said how she was always sitting watching the sky when he visited. How she remarked on it once as well. I hope she’s there now, a part of the very thing she always loved so much.
In the overcast midday light I can only wonder what a sunset would look like from here. Quite the vista I can imagine. We never come in the evenings so I doubt I’ll ever see it.
I take a moment to stretch as the hoover powers down. My spine is cramped. Can a spine be cramped? I mean mine is either way so whatever.
“Thank you!” Dad smiles. I can never help noticing how matter of fact he is about this. It’s not a bad thing, I just find it interesting. “I can do the last one by myself, I think. Start sorting the books a bit if you want or you can go and have a wander outside.”
I nod, thinking for a moment while knowing an immediate response isn’t required. “I think I’ll go and have a wander.”
On my way out of the door something catches my attention through a doorway to my left. It’s a small room, a tiny little bed crammed into a corner, and all the slightly pretentious furnishings that might suggest a room at least ten times the size of this one.
The guest bedroom.
I notice a small ceramic sculpture on the dresser, a dolphin in that style that doesn’t look like a dolphin. Quite ghastly really, that gentle ceramic shine on such a relatively grotesque figure.
How could I forget it? So deeply etched into my memory since the first time I saw it at the age of three or something, every time I came to aunty’s I noticed it. It used to be in the living room I think, last time I came anyway. I suppose that must have been something like a decade ago now. She must have moved it here at some point in that time.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” says dad as he passes in the hallway behind me. Clearly it caught his eye as well. It occurs to me I don’t know if he’d remember it from before. He may never really have come here for long enough at a time. And I was too young to notice things like that for most of it – even when I was a little more ‘grown up’, I wasn’t paying attention to how familiar he seemed with the environment.
“Mm,” I chuckle in agreement.
He’s right, after all. It is horrible. Not the foggiest idea why aunty liked it.
But just from looking at it that nostalgia is creeping back. Golden echoes of a past age, but one that I saw and heard and felt with my own senses. Voices and sounds that resonated in these walls, such happy memories that happened, really happened here, in the present moment so many years ago. That age of calm when there were no worries, no responsibilities or cares beyond what was going on in your childhood games and whether you were going to be having something tasty for dinner or not.
And all that’s left now is this bloody dolphin.
As I look through it I realise the parlour was never going to be ordered. Do people even have parlours anymore?
It’s pretty heart-wrenchingly clear how unravelled aunty’s mind was by the end just looking at the dates on the jars here. Ten years out of date? Twenty?
It seems so brutal, inhuman almost, thinking how kind and together she was when I used to stay. How she’d sing me a song at bedtime when I was younger, talk to me over dinner and answer all the questions I had about life and the world, however dull or interesting. And then this. To be so unfathomably disordered, things left in places that made no sense, neighbours talking about random phone calls at random times of the day and night asking things she had been told not 24 hours before, if that. Distraught about something that was easily found or easily sorted.
What a cursed dream life can be.
The parlour is thick with the smell of chipboard. Everything went off so long ago it doesn’t even smell anymore – most of it’s unopened anyway so still sealed. The chipboard panels form the shelves everything that’s left is sitting on.
I take the first jar of the ten that are left and reach to put it in the crate at my feet. It’s heavier than I expected I have to admit. I set it down in the plastic crate with a dull thump. The thought occurs to me suddenly that I should feel like a robber, something in me trying to make the situation make-believe as usual, as I stack away someone else’s belongings into crates and bags, and take them away.
But there’s a haste about robbers, I feel.
We are not moving with haste. We are moving with a slow, languid studiousness. A sort of melancholic ritual, one that must have been played out by so many people so many times in so many different places across history.
And now it’s for aunty.
All the things you held dear, that greeted your awareness every day like friends, all those things you saw every day – outliving you. Still there, as others come and take them away as if they are worth nothing. But then I suppose they’re not. Because the person they were worth something to – is gone. Things so precious to you once, now being carried out and carted off as if refuse. Some will be sold for money, others given to family and friends for a different kind of sentimental value. But none of them worth any more what they were once worth to you.
My mind is coursing down that path of memory again. All the things we did when I came to stay. So little time relatively speaking, and yet so significant. I remember how aunty spoke to me, helped me, calmed me when I cried, cared for me and fed me. Before her mind unravelled.
I think a part of me perhaps just can’t believe that that human being, my great aunty, who I used to be able to look at and I’d see a human brain, a living heart beating, a healthy being moving, interacting, talking with me – is gone. I will never see her again. My memories are more current than the very person who created them.
I think I’m going to have an existential crisis soon.
“Okay,” says dad, “but I’m having the mayonnaise.”
“And they’ve both got salad in.”
“That’s alright,” I chuckle.
I’m surprised the bench hasn’t collapsed under us to be honest. It’s secure enough but you only find that out if you’re brave enough to test it.
As we sit, backs to the house wall, I’m faced again with that huge vista over the downs. The rolling greens and browns. The breeze has dropped and even the sun is starting to nod towards its destined horizon in the increasingly late afternoon.
“Do you think she’d have remembered me?” I ask the view.
I hear silence from dad.
I glance sideways to him. “Near the end,” I clarify, “do you think she’d have remembered my face?”
He slows his chewing, then pauses for a moment. “I don’t think she remembered many faces,” he replies, his words only half audible through the bread, cheese and lettuce.
I nod thoughtfully.
“You okay?” he asks after a moment, in his ‘Dad trying to emotionally connect with son’ voice. I almost chuckle at it.
Dad nods for a few moments. “Good. Good.”
“I just…I’m just…struggling to process, you know?”
Dad’s silence indicates that he doesn’t know. Let’s try and keep it simpler.
“It’s just sad, you know, all the nice things that happened here and now we’re clearing it out ’cus aunty’s— gone.”
Dad nods again. I can see him searching for words – I know he has a thought though.
“That’s fine, I get that. But it’s always possible to see things from several different angles.”
A bird starts singing in a tree somewhere a way off. The melody adds to the ambient serenity of the scene, I find.
“You can remember that those things happened without it having to be that it’s sad because they’re gone.”
“S’pose so,” I mumble.
“It’s always going to be sad – I remember that when grandpa died. But grief and all isn’t really a thing you have a choice about feeling. What you do have a choice in is how you deal with it.”
Something in me feels irritated, but I’m not sure why if I’m honest. I can see dad’s right though, in what he’s saying. Maybe it’s the part of me that doesn’t want to let go, getting angry as it’s slowly ripped away and it realises its fate.
“When grandpa died, I struggled to grapple with it a bit too. I remember granny saying to me, ‘if something good happened in the past that’s gone now, just celebrate the fact that it was good at all.’ It’ll hurt, it’ll be hard, yes, but if you take the good bits for what they were then – good – and let the sadness of separation go, are you really that far from them? The moments and the people in them.”
That’s profound. I’m not sure I’ve ever really heard dad say something so profound. But he’s right, and I’m grateful for it. I leave it time to sink in while we finish our sandwiches.
It’s definitely sinking in now if it hasn’t already sunk in completely.
As we pack up, and dad closes the car, I do one final check around the house. Every room, just to check we haven’t left anything behind. Honestly my mind is too focussed on the task to think about what dad said as I do it, but as I complete the house and come to the last room, the kitchen, checking around and about to leave, I take a moment. To pause. Taking it in.
I see again that same kitchen, where we used to have such lovely meals together, where I would be so excited about what aunty was cooking, where we’d talk about life and the universe and everything, where I’d so excitedly tell aunty about a video game she didn’t understand but tried to nonetheless.
But this time there’s no sadness. Well, a little melancholic nostalgia, a little sadness that she’s gone. But it’s a beautiful melancholy. Like a debt being paid to someone who gave you so much, so many good things and golden memories.
“Right!” comes dad’s distant call from outside. “Come on, let’s go.”
I step back into the hallway ready to go, and my eye is caught by an orange glow reflecting off the bungalow across the road. I glance back, looking out through the glass back door, as the sun just touches the horizon, tangerine and bronze hues and glows billowing out from it across the dimming sky. I smile. Thank you, aunty.