by Ronan Cartwright
When I was a child, there was nothing I loved more than going to see my grandparents. Their tranquil cottage was a home away from home, my memories of it forever filled with the colors and smells of summer, mainly because we’d go there during the holidays when the Dorset seaside could substitute for a trip to Disneyland and the days were long enough for a car ride back to Surrey in the early evening light. According to my mother, I’d jump out the car the moment we arrived, and rush to the front door, waiting for what felt like an age for my grandmother to answer. Then my sister and I would dart inside and track down my grandfather, while my parents made a cup of tea and engaged in small talk with my cousin, who made an art form of turning up unannounced.
The house itself was something of an old curiosity shop. There was a room devoted entirely to my grandfather’s amateur golfing trophies, while another was filled with models of historic ships he and my grandmother had collected over the years, even though neither of them had sailed a day in their life. Then there was the garden, lined with palm trees they’d planted on a whim in the sixties and a pearl-white playhouse they’d built for my sister, and by the time I was old enough to enjoy it had become a storage unit for lawnmowers, hedge trimmers and Calloway putters.
It’s at the end of this garden where most of my memories take place — by the goldfish pond, a place I’d so often sit, alone in my thoughts, watching streaks of bright orange and yellow flash beneath the shallow water. It was here I’d idle away the long afternoons, snatching at the fish before dropping them back in so they could live to fight another day, only to carefully scoop them up with a net as I grew older, in those difficult years when my grandfather would forget to feed them.
Now, as I return to the house for the first time in a decade, the site has an altogether different feel. I call it a site, as that’s how it’s been discussed in countless probate documents, legal tangles and estate agent sales pitches. I ask the Uber driver to stop at the side of the main road, as I want to walk down the driveway myself. I wait patiently for the memories to attack me, stabbing my senses with nostalgia and regret for lost youth. Yet nothing stirs. I keep walking and waiting, for I have rehearsed this trip down memory lane ever since I first learned I’d have to make the arduous journey down south a fortnight ago.
Instead, I smile politely at the locals glaring at me through their ground-floor windows, unable to put a face to the name clogging up their outbox with countless threats concerning rights of way and century-old covenants that they’ve used with all their might to block the sale. As I approach the house and see the gutter dangling off the roof, I remember something only triggered by the sight and smell of actually being there, in the moment, the here and now. It occurs to me how, in fact, I didn’t used to rush in at all — how my mother must have used this as colour for her anecdotes at the funeral to help ease the pain. The truth is that I’d knock at the door, quietly, as though waiting outside the headmaster’s office, hoping never to be called in, dreading the lunch that would be eaten in stone-cold silence, the antipathy that would simmer between my sister and cousin, the quips my grandfather would make about how my mother married beneath her station and how my grandmother would sit by herself in the kitchen, smoking herself to an early grave that never came.
I’m the last to arrive, and what greets me is exactly what I expected: a house that hasn’t been touched for a generation, that’s stale, squalid, left to rot as the rest of us get on with our own lives before we too find ourselves diced up for the inheritance tax sweepstakes. I step inside and find my mother dusting the curtains, which makes little sense since the house is being bulldozed next week and we’re only here to talk the agent through the boundaries. She pretends to be cleaning out of respect, when really she wants to wipe away her guilt, having checked out at that difficult age when parents stop being parents and slowly become problems. It’s a long and winding road that I too am beginning to take — when a child is no longer willing to pass messages between parents like a double agent; when the doctors’ appointments pile up and spill over into false alarms at A&E; when visits are relegated from summer holidays to a pop-in at Christmas and then, eventually, a quick phone call on Boxing Day.
She glares at me in a way only mothers do, and then tries her best to look betrayed, as though tutting that famous line of hers: you’ll regret it when I’m gone, a mantra used to get me to visit on weekends. It seems she successfully managed to blackmail the rest of the family to get here at the crack of dawn and tidy, a tragic fiction I wanted no part in, because by the time we drive away, this home will no longer exist, apart from on my mother’s mantel, where she keeps a photo of her parents standing by the front porch, watering dying flowers.
Then there’s my father in the conservatory, eyeing up my grandfather’s golf clubs. There’s a hole-in-one trophy on the window sill, from 1977, when my grandfather struck it lucky on a local par three. I pat Dad on the back and give him a hug, for unlike my mother and I, there’s no latent hostility between us, no mutual disappointment at our failed family unit. Instead, I see a face eroded by my mother’s venom, a poison I tried so long to protect him from, until one day I ran out of antiserum and left home for good.
It’s sad to see my father now studying the golf clubs as though learning a first principal. His recent diagnosis is a topic of fierce debate within my family. I still find myself justifying his daily calls to congratulate me on graduating from a university I left fifteen years ago as nothing more than slips of the tongue, while my sister uses them as evidence to up his dose in a hopeless attempt to reverse the irreversible. Meanwhile, I have to contend with my mother’s resolute stance that it’s all an Hamlettian act, his madness a studied ploy — as if my father has chosen to wander blissfully into the cold winter of old age in order to disguise his true purpose, which apparently is to escape a lifetime squandered as her household stooge.
Upstairs I hear my brother-in-law hammering away, tasked with fixing a bathroom that will be rubble this time next week, probably keen to ignore my mother, due to an off-the-cuff comment she made at Easter about his receding hairline. The sound is quickly drowned out by the playful screams of my nieces outside, running amongst the overgrown garden weeds as my sister tries to corral them back into her embrace. I’m not surprised to find my sister standing outside, as this house must be a constant reminder to her of chronic childhood underachievement, when my grandparents would lavish me with praise for my school marks and flying colors, while she would spend her schooldays smoking round the back and letting spotty boys play with her gullibilities. How the tables turned when she became a television producer with a loving family of her own, while I swipe right for a living, measuring my hours in Costa cups and trips on the Metropolitan line as I go in search of experiences to write about, bereft of the work ethic required to do a proper 9-to-5.
A hand on my shoulder and a sweaty shake of my palm. I’m startled that this stranger has let himself in, yet I’m quickly reminded that, technically, this house no longer belongs to us. As I try to identify just who this Lynx-soaked trespasser is, the penny drops. The hapless demeanor. The ill-fitting suit. This must be the estate agent.
“Sorry for your loss,” he sighs, which is strange as he knows my grandparents passed away three years ago. “Shame it has to go — it’s in a lovely state.”
With that, he hands me a brochure. It’s for eight luxury flats that will soon replace this crumbling mausoleum, but for which we were told they’d never get planning permission, so didn’t up the asking price.
As I study the CGI plans for Sea Breeze Homes, I hear a car pulling up outside. At first I think it’s the builders, but I can tell from my mother’s reaction that it must be my cousin. This is what we feared. Cue a constant stream of crocodile tears and spiteful asides, all the while politely forgetting that she twice tried to sue my parents as executors in order to take sole control of this very building.
I show the agent around the house, and cringe at every turn. Part of me thinks I’m taking him on a viewing, the other half a forensic specialist walking a detective through a crime scene. All the telltale signs of death are there. The pile of unopened mail. The decaying bathrooms painted in that awful, sickly green I hoped my childhood memories had exaggerated but had evidently underplayed. The kitchen wallpaper, once a dazzling citrus, now a dirty yellow from years of chain-smoking and chip-frying. The plastic sheets covering the carpet. The stairs my grandmother fell down. The chair my grandfather never got up from.
‘I knew your grandparents, briefly. I tried to convince them to sell before…well. They looked very much in love. Right until the end. I can’t imagine the pain they went through, losing one another so quickly.’
What pain? I ask myself, thinking of the strict instructions in their wills to not buried in different cemeteries.
‘Hello, one and all!’ announces my cousin at the front door, notebook in one hand, tape measure in the other. She hugs me and then my mother, who smacks the duster against the curtain as if trying to swat a fly. My cousin goes straight for the dining room where there’s a giant set of cabinets that nobody can get out of the house. It makes sense now. She’s not come to start a fight. She’s come to collect, to rescue the priceless artifacts before they’re turned to dust, for everything here is up for grabs, and we’re the only bidders. It’s strange how we fought over every penny here, how the contents of this house caused so much hardship — and yet, when push came to shove, everything has remained exactly as my grandparents had left it. Nobody wants the rug, because it’s too heavy. Nobody wants the porcelain, because it doesn’t go with the twenty-first century.
I leave the agent to pester my cousin about the boundaries, knowing that the ink is dry on the contracts and the deed cannot be undone, and decide to take a stroll out into the garden, where I hope the pangs of nostalgia will finally take their grip. I approach my sister and begin to reminisce about who we once were, then gradually turn to lament who we’ve all become, drifting apart like tectonic plates, breaking then sliding, tearing then splitting. But the bond between my sister and I remains steady. I’m happy for her: how she’s built a family of her own, a foursome who do their bit for the rest of us but always put one another first. And in her own way she is happy for me too, knowing that I still have that all to come, when I finally get off the apps and out into the real word.
Then I take a moment to myself and make my way to the back of the garden, to the goldfish pond, where my well of emotions runs deepest. As I approach, I think of the way I’d use the grass to clean the sand from between my toes, or when a wasp once stung me after I helped fish it out the water and how that episode may explain the trust issues that have unravelled my relationships ever since. And finally, I’m reminded of how I would come here to avoid having to meet my sister’s early boyfriends and cousin’s awkward one-night-stands. It was always just me, here. Me and the goldfish.
When I at last find it, I await the wash of memories to lodge in my throat and pour out my eyes. But then I realize, of course, the water is gone. The fish are dead. All I see is stone, dried out by the sun, hollowed out like a half-dug grave.
‘Hey! Who the heck are you?’
I look up, startled. It’s a disgruntled neighbor craning his neck above a fence, no doubt terrified I’m a potential squatter.
‘I used to live here. Well, my family did.’
‘Oh. It’s you lot,’ he grumbles, gnashing his chipped-pottery teeth at me. ‘I’ve heard all about your plans here. Mark my words: I’m going to make your life a living hell over it. I have friends at the council. Just you wait.’
Good luck with that, I joke to myself, for little does he know that the soundtrack to the next eighteen months of his life will be a crescendo of tractors, drills and scaffold alarms tripping in the middle of the night.
I sit on its edge and breathe in my surroundings, trying to conjure up the sadness I was expecting to have overwhelmed me by now. The garden is so much smaller than it felt as a child, but then everything is smaller when you realize what life looks like from six feet tall. And then there’s the palm trees, once bright with a flourish of green and brown, now wilting, waiting to be uprooted and put out their misery.
‘Come on, old chap.’
It’s my father, who has wandered out whilst unattended. He stands beside me with a sense of authority, which I’m pleased to feel. Perhaps the familiar surrounds have helped him roll back the years, to slip back into old family roles.
‘The builders are here,’ he adds. ‘So we’re going to make a move.’
‘Visit more often? And bring that lovely girl of yours, we’d love to see more of her.’
He’s referring to Priya, a brief attempt at falling head over heels I had when I was in my early twenties, but who left for pastures new before I had a chance to offer her a key to my flat.
‘I will,’ I reply, bringing a smile to his face and sadness to mine.
As we trudge back to the house, I wave goodbye to my brother-in-law, who’s busy chatting to the builders. My nieces hug my legs and run off to my sister, while I shake my father’s hand one final time. All that’s left now is to say goodbye to my mother. I realize I haven’t exchanged a single word with her since I got here. She’s sitting on the front steps, her hands pressed against the paving stones.
‘I’m really sorry, Mum,’ I mumble, my bottom lip trembling, just like it used to, back when she could make it all better.
‘You’ll regret it,’ she replies. ‘When I’m gone.’
I ease her into the car and watch my parents drive off in one direction and my sister in another. I nod to the builders as they make their way inside, while I wait for my Uber to connect so I can make my train. Then, as I turn to wave goodbye, to put the past behind me once and for all, I see my cousin with the rug, trying in desperation to drag it out the front door.
‘A little help?’
‘Sure’, I reply, smiling through the tears. ‘Why not?’