I visit every other Monday. By the time I arrive, apologising for being late, smiling at the staff as if needing their forgiveness, she’s usually downstairs from her room. She likes to sit by the window in the blue chair, looking out at the garden, noting the sparrows, the occasional squirrel. She smiles at me, lets me kiss her cheek. And each time I visit, I am astonished, appalled even, at finding her old. My mother has become an old woman, vulnerable and helpless, and I am constantly shocked at the transformation. It even angers me a little, as if she is being wilful in choosing such a state, in allowing it to happen.
Ida tries to say something, my mother, Ida Foster, tries to speak, but words do not come easily, as if language has become foreign, remote from her grasp. She searches in her mind, grovelling in a cupboard that has become disordered, muddled. I talk, recite a sort of monologue and too rapidly cover the immediate topics: my journey, congested roads and traffic delays. The dead bird the cat sneaked in through the back door just before I left. Sad remnants of a garden sparrow. I pause and look around the large room, at the dozen or so old people in varying stages of decline, beached in their chairs, entirely dependent upon the whims and indulgences of others. Others like me, who are fortunate, so very fortunate not to be them, but are disturbed by such proximity because it is a stark reminder of our place, our position in the line. I turn back to Ida, take her hand as she fumbles for sense, letting words come out singly and in the wrong order so that I try to pick up the clues, piece together the idea she wants to share.
“Him… he… what’s… what’s his name?”
“Dad? Jack, you mean. He’s all right. Coping well, really. He came to see you yesterday, didn’t he? I spoke to him last night. He’ll be in to see you tomorrow, I expect. He doesn’t like to miss more than a day or two.”
She shakes her head quite vehemently and I feel as if I have insulted her, assuming her meaning, suggesting a senility that is not hers.
“No, not… not him. Not… no, the other one…”
I prevaricate. Shuffle and dodge. I cannot be sure of the implication of her words, but I feel suspicious and suddenly wary. Her memory of long-gone events is, after all, still intact. Past histories are brought easily to mind whereas recent days and weeks are knotted and confused. So, intentionally, I try to confound her, head her off from the direction in which she might be leading us. After all, we have waded through several decades with certain knowledge suitably crushed and suppressed. Maintaining the habit seems obligatory.
“Felix? He’s fine, growing so fast. You wouldn’t believe how tall he is. Busy with school, of course, and his football club and he’s playing a lot of tennis these days.” My son is an easy distraction for her for a while, her only grandchild, and a name she can fix upon, even if I feel unkind for thwarting her attempt to direct the conversation. It’s as if I am the cowardly parent steering my young child away from an unsuitable exchange. The subject of Felix provides me with endless material that seems to divert her and provides a content of sorts. She smiles as I talk of him, even manages to focus on a photo I find in my bag. It would not be kind, after all, to venture into the dubious past with her, to somewhere that would offer at best, embarrassment, at worst, profound distress.
The day is too cold to take her out.
Sometimes we go for a drive, find a garden centre where we look at bulbs and annuals and perennials, sit in the café eating cake until she grows anxious and wants to leave. But today rain threatens and even this far inland the breeze off the sea seems to penetrate and is bitterly sharp. I’ve brought magazines that I know she won’t read, but I prop one on her lap, turn the glossy pages and feign interest in lives supposedly glamorous and enviable. This is not Ida, my mother, sitting next to me, fingering the garish photographs, passively listening to my empty talk. It is some other woman who has covertly stolen her identity, crept into her skin and infiltrated her mind, her temperament. This stranger bears some fleeting facial resemblance to my mother, but she is nebulous, a blurred image of a person, a bland reproduction. I glance at my watch and she sees.
“Go? You… must be… late.”
“Soon,” I answer, “I’ll go soon. I like to be back for Felix if I can and he’ll be home from school in no time.” I am ashamed of my own thin excuses. Ashamed of my intense desire to be out of this place, driving away, feeling with each mile covered a confusion of both guilt and relief. She closes the magazine, leaves the others untouched on the table in front of us. Later, the staff will come and take them, read them over their lunch break, their sneaked cigarette by the back door, then put them in the hall for visitors to see.
“Just want… can’t remember…” Her hands are conducting a small invisible orchestra in their attempt to substitute for words. She laughs thinly at her own inadequacy and perversely I wish she would show more frustration, a rebellion, however pointless, against her regressed state. I put on my coat, pick up my bag, ferret for keys and kiss her cheek, attempting to hug her narrow, shrunken frame. Her eyes are unsettled, roaming as if in search of focus. Halfway across the room, I stop for a moment to say something to a care assistant, then turn to wave and see that Ida’s face is suddenly animated and her voice, when it calls out to me, is sure and firm.
“Fred,” she says, “Freddie… Freddie Jarvis. That’s him. He’s… it’s… did he… die?”
The answer is simple. “Yes,” I reply. “Mr Jarvis is dead.”
This is where I have to begin.
This is where the story of the past has to start.
After all, before we moved to the house at 8, Sea View Parade, to live close to the sea, our lives were blithely ordinary with nothing of note to recall. We were simply Ida and Jack Foster, my normal, predictable, faintly dull parents, and me, their only child, Mary Elizabeth, whose dark brown wavy hair refused always to lie straight and with skin that was prone to freckles. And we were living normal, inconspicuous lives in our semi-detached, pebble-dashed house with a bit of garden at the front and some more at the back in a suburban slice of North London.
But then the tea chests arrived.
I was eleven years and seven months old. Precisely. To the day.
Yes, if I am rash enough to go back, wilfully choose such a task, it’s those tea chests that abruptly hook me to that morning in late August and the business with the huge removal van outside our house and the men with their tattooed arms, the sort I had only ever seen on fairground people guarding the dodgems and helter-skelters.
So here I go. Stepping recklessly back some forty or more years out of curiosity. Out of a need, at last, to know.
Remember, I am Mary Elizabeth, and eleven and a half years of age. Or thereabouts.
And it was the summer in between.
Primary school was over and a secondary of sorts lay ahead and my best friend, Anne Thompson, and I were spending most days in the memorial park, endlessly watching the canaries in the aviary, carefully avoiding the loud boys smoking and swearing from the seesaw and swings. Anne Thompson was off to the county grammar across town in September and had been boasting about her smart grey hat and blazer with a Latin motto all summer. She’d managed her mechanical arithmetic paper in the 11 Plus while I’d hazarded guesses, left gaps. She’d breezed through the intelligence test and sat with folded arms, sucking the red ribbon on her plait in the desk next to me. I had only been interested in the composition exam and consequently was down for the secondary modern two streets away, along with the smoking, swearing swings and seesaw boys and destined for a navy tunic and scratchy cardigan that would make my skin look sallow.
But this morning, the huge removal van and the tattooed men halfway down the path were suddenly of more importance.
“You’re in the way, love,” the man said to me, as I stood with my skipping rope in one hand next to the bed of dahlias. The man had a snake’s head inked from wrist to shoulder on one arm and the words, sexy Sue, on the other. He was carrying armfuls of cloth, large grimy dustsheets like the ones my father used when he decorated. He pushed past me down our path, between the two squares of neat grass, and others followed him as if our house had suddenly become a place of enormous interest. Obviously, there was some mistake and I waited to see the men retreat, sent next door to Mrs. Owen or down the road to people like the Parkers, my mother cursing and railing at their inefficiency. We were not moving. Nobody had told me we were moving.
And it was not the sort of thing you forgot to mention like you might the visit of an irritating aunt or an appointment at the dentist. But the men did not leave. My mother’s face did not appear at the window, exasperated and annoyed. I forgot Anne Thompson, I forgot the shilling in my pocket intended for Woolworths, threw my skipping rope into the dahlias and went inside.
The house felt invaded, disturbed, as if a rather cheeky kind of burglar had decided to chance his luck. Upstairs, the floorboards groaned and creaked. My mother was in the kitchen, kneeling on the stone floor of the larder, scrubbing bare shelves. She smelt of bleach and disinfectant.
“There you are, Mary,” she said, glancing up at me as if she’d just remembered who I was. “Now you can give us a hand by starting to pack all those books of yours in your bedroom. There’s a lot to do, you know, if we’re going to clear this place by tomorrow morning.” She turned back to her cloth and rubbed hard so that the veins in her hands stood out. Upstairs, men’s voices and the shove and push of furniture seemed to threaten the ceiling. I stood there, my hands stuck out on my hips, watching my mother wring out her cloth in a pail of scummy water. I waited for her to tell me more. After all, yesterday, things had seemed quite ordinary. She’d been busy, one of her brisk days when she was forever vacuuming or rubbing down the paintwork or cleaning the bathroom tiles. But there was nothing particularly strange in that. My mother often behaved as if Princess Anne was about to come to play and stay for tea and get picked up by her royal mum and dad later. I crouched down, wedging my back against the larder door so that her face was only inches from mine. She stopped rinsing her cloth, found a handkerchief in her apron pocket and sneezed into it.
“Too much dust,” she said. “I haven’t cleaned properly in here for months.”
“What’s going on?” I said in a quiet voice, as if asking the question loudly would make something unpleasant become real. She looked at me for a moment then stood up and went to the sink to empty the bucket of dirty water. Her blue apron was wet, clinging to the pleats of her grey skirt like glue.
“We’re moving, Mary, surely you’ve grasped that,” she said sharply. “We’re off to the seaside, which will be nice for all of us. A new start down on the south coast. Everyone wants to live at the seaside, don’t they? Now take yourself off and start being useful, there’s a good girl.”
Upstairs, the removal men had already begun to attack my bedroom, shoving the furniture into the middle of the room, an island surrounded by a sea of pink carpet with a stain where cough mixture had once spilt when I’d had bronchitis. Out of the window, in the back garden, I saw my father mowing straight lines in the grass, which seemed a reassuringly ordinary sort of occupation. Except that my father should have been at work at the tax office on a Wednesday morning, not dilly-dallying with grass cuttings and the wheelbarrow as if it was Sunday afternoon before tea. He caught my eye, staring out of the window at him, half waved then shifted swiftly back to his mowing. I turned to my shelf of glass animals, looking shipwrecked on the wall instead of sitting comfortably above a bit of furniture. My bookcase was bare and my animal bookends stood deserted on the windowsill. I looked for my bed, planning to throw myself under the candlewick bedspread and bury my head in the pillow and hide. Hide until everything had returned to normal, until this odd nightmare had dissolved and disappeared from sight. But the removal men had got there first, stripping my bed of its sheets and cover and pillow and standing it up on end against the wall, its steel springs looking like lots of hedgehogs in a row. I rescued the glass animals, shoved my seahorse, the polar bear, the Dalmatian dog and the starfish into the pockets of my skirt and went into my parents’ bedroom. Two very large men were emptying the wardrobe, gathering handfuls of my mother’s clothes, her camel hair winter coat, her skirts, her best grey dress and her sensible shoes. My father’s three dark suits lay under a polythene cover on the bed, a tangle of ties, snake-like, at their side. I went next door into the box room, the room at the front of the house where I’d slept when I was small. I’d had whooping cough and chicken pox and the measles in quick succession when I was two and my father had stuck a frieze of nursery rhymes around the wall so I could watch Bo Peep and Humpty Dumpty as I scratched and itched and grew hot. Curtains were gone from the window, a solitary curtain hook remaining. Outside in Ash Gardens, boys were playing football in the road, taking it in turns to be Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks, and chanting They think it’s all over… it is now over and over again while two girls at the other end of the cul de sac were racing scooters along the pavement. One of the boys kicked the ball into someone’s front garden by mistake and a window opened in protest, causing them all to scatter, disappear down side alleyways and through front doors. The game, it appeared, was over. For that morning, at least.
* * *
Yes, this is the start of it although, of course, I didn’t know it at the time. Years later, once I realised how pivotal that moment had been, leaving Ash Gardens for Sea View Parade, and how easily the lies had then begun to thrive amidst such change, I wish I had insisted on some sort of explanation, asked more questions, for then, perhaps, the fabric of deceit might have failed to weave its way quite so seamlessly into our lives. But, of course, I was a biddable child of my time, pliable, acquiescent, demanding and expectant only of what was likely to be given to me. Children occupied a very different place in the hierarchy then and I was entirely used to toeing the line that my mother, Ida, firmly drew, conditioned and comfortable with conformity, finding any other behaviour too inconvenient to consider. Even at the age of seventeen, once I began, at last, to see the levels of deception, I was still too naïve and ingenuous to respond adequately. I judged the lot of them, of course, despised them, but then simply withdrew into hostile, entirely tacit condemnation. Inevitably, my evasiveness had its consequences. For later, when my attitude began to wane, thawing slowly like a clod of snow losing its hold, the absence of an angry, vocal confrontation at the moment of my discovery made it somehow easier to pretend that nothing extraordinary had actually taken place. As if it was possible to erase it from knowledge, from the fabric of our past. It was what the three of us did, a sort of familial herd instinct, perhaps, choosing a complicit silence, a cowardly kind of appeasement.
But that was then. Not now.
Now we are in another century where we play by such different rules and the idea of perpetually suppressing truth and choosing to live alongside distorted memories seems absurd. I blame Ida. Blame the blatant way she called out across that beige, insipid sea of carpet on my last visit to her at the nursing home. Fred Jarvis. The name like a litmus paper for family secrets, scandalous deceptions. Perhaps even Ida needs some final blazon of truth. Or her muddled mind no longer censors itself so effectively so that his name slipped out brazenly, as if trying its syllables on the air after decades of silence. So I am pulled back, along with my ailing mother, for whom speech is now an elusive and precious commodity, frustrated by ignorance, by a lack of understanding. I want to talk about the man. About the late Mr. Fred Jarvis and his place in our lives.
* * *
Early the next morning we left our semi. The night had been spent lying stiffly on a mound of old blankets, floorboards sticking into my backbone each time I moved, so that it was almost a relief to climb into the car. I sat in the back of our loaded blue Austin Cambridge, wedged in between paisley eiderdowns and a box of bone china dinner plates we never used, as we drove sedately out of Ash Gardens. Mrs. Salter from across the road stared from her front window. The boy who’d once stolen my bike for an entire day watched from his garden wall. I pulled a silly face at him and stuck out my tongue. We turned into Bridge Street and drove past the Langham Cinema, where they were showing The Heroes of Telemark. Past the expensive greengrocer’s that we never went to and the cheap one that we did. On into Marsh Road and the draper’s that sold buttons and elastic and ribbons and darning wool from glass drawers that were pulled out to reveal their neat, orderly rows. The station went by on our right, men in suits, one or two with hats, stopping to buy newspapers at the kiosk and a few women with handbags and skittery heels hurrying into the underground. which was actually overground until it passed Wembley Park. Bus queues trailed along the pavement, people waiting for the 183 and 209 in the thin sunshine. I watched it all pass, lose its solidity, become a faint outline through the rear window then a smudge before dissolving entirely from view. My father in his tweed jacket, that always smelt of petrol and peppermints, drove resolutely on.
“We’ve made a good early start,” he said, “although I expect we’ll meet the usual jam on the South Circular.”
My mother glanced behind her.
“All right, Mary? I shouldn’t read if I were you. It’ll only make you queasy.” She passed me two glucose sweets even though I’d grown out of carsickness when I was seven. They talked about the traffic, about something in the news they’d caught on the car radio, in normal kind of voices, just as if this was a normal day. A day like any other instead of one snatched crazily out of nowhere with no right to attach itself to us. They talked until suddenly silent, as if having run out of things to say. and then the quiet of the car seemed worse than their chatter. My head ached. I tried to sleep then I tried to read, wanting to do what my mother had told me not to do. But even Noel Streatfeild and Lalla and Harriet in the skating competition failed to hold me and the words jumped around the page, refusing to stay together in sentences to make sense. I gave up and shut my eyes and let my mind play a pretend sort of game. What if we weren’t moving at all, but simply heading for a day trip to Brighton? Yes, that was it, just a day out. Every now and again, we’d do it, on a hot summer Sunday. There’d be a picnic of paste sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, still with bits of shell attached, then some dabbling in the icy cold sea, water as far as my thighs. Pebbles would pierce through my sandals as I went in search of shells and graze my shins. My mother would complain about blood on my white ankle socks, find a plaster and stick it unsuccessfully onto wet skin. Sometimes, there’d be Roll a Penny on the Palace Pier with my father and maybe even a fish and chip supper in newspaper on the way back. There was a place near Kingston that gave you more chips than you could eat and the smell of vinegar would hang around the car for ages after. A day’s trip to the seaside was what we did, all we did, coming home late to our house in Ash Gardens with pockets full of sand and seashells, hair matted with saltwater.
Then I opened my eyes and let myself remember.
They’d packed it all up, our house, emptied it, boxed it up, left it vacant and tidy for other people who would sleep in my room and play in my garden. Find my best marbles lost last summer in one of the flower beds. Laugh at my growing chart my father had pencilled against the hall wall. I turned myself round, knelt up on the back seat and stared out of the window as familiar places slid by and out of grasp. Longer stretches of green appeared and fields with cows and big houses hidden behind high hedges. After a while, I grew sleepy, the way I always did on long car journeys, dozed a bit then woke with a jolt when we pulled up at a level crossing. My mother and father were talking again, saying something about keys and electricity switches and my mother sounded excited, talking in the rapid way she did whenever she was particularly pleased about something. Like the time she bought an ugly, old chair off a rag and bone man and could not believe her luck in finding what she called an antique. The chair had sat in the living room until its smell of tom cats and seedy old men became too overpowering. I must have slept again for when I opened my eyes, there was a thin line of something very like sea on the left, a long stretch of promenade with empty benches and then we turned sharply right, another right and finally the car was still, the drone of the engine gone. We had, apparently, arrived.
The house was old. It was the first thing I noticed when we pulled into the kerb in front of the long terrace of houses. Number 8, Sea View Parade was an old house. The estate agent’s board, stuck into the overgrown pretence of a front garden, shouted out SOLD in bold letters as if not quite believing the fact. If the faintest glimmer of anticipation had begun to stir in me when I had first spotted the sea, it was instantly extinguished. Like a firework that finds itself placed in damp, sodden ground. Besides, it was a cheat. There might have been a sea view when the terrace was first built a century or more before, but a couple of roads of squat bungalows now sat barring its claim to the name. My mother fished for keys buried deep in one of the many bags gathered around her feet while I sat firmly entrenched in my back seat. Although my legs were stiff from three hours in the car, my head thick with the stifled air, I was determined to be stubborn. It was the only thing I could think of to express my fury.
“It’s quite a project, you know,” my father said, rolling down his window so that a breath of sharp air flooded the stuffiness of the car. “Take a bit of time to get it into shape, of course. But then…” He got out his pocket diary, found his propelling pencil and made a note of the mileage. He always did that on long car journeys, a bit of routine I usually found comforting, but on this occasion, foolish, since we were clearly not going to be making a return trip.
“It’s just what we need, a real find,” my mother said, grinning a little alarmingly and looking out at the tall, thin house as if at an extravagant mansion. “I can’t believe this has just fallen into our laps. You’d think it would have been snapped up instead of being on the market for over a year. But then, people are so short-sighted these days, snapping up new, ready to move into places. It’s all this silly trend for modern houses since the war. Whereas we’ve got a real investment here. And space. Just think of it, Mary, a big house at the seaside!” She turned round to look at me, her eyes bright like a thieving bird. She made the whole thing sound like an adventure from one of my precious books. Five go to the Seaside, The Secret Seven’s Sea Venture. Summer Term at Soppy St. Clare’s. Seaside White Boots. I was not so easily convinced.
“But it’s so far away. So far from everyone we know,” I said in a voice that was quieter than I intended. I had only ever lived in Ash Gardens. My parents had started their married life in two rented rooms in Kentish Town and had moved to our cul de sac soon after I was born. I’d heard all about how thrilled they’d been to buy their first house, a house with an upstairs bathroom and a back garden and their own front door and a bargain because of the fixed prices for house developments in the decade after the war. I could not imagine living in a place without a station that swiftly delivered you to Finchley Road or Baker Street, without red double-decker buses heading for Hendon or Harrow. Besides, people who moved got new houses. Shiny red brick houses with porches and garages and driveways. Like my friend, Anne Thompson, who was going to the grammar school, in her four bedroom and downstairs toilet and parquet flooring detached house in the new estate near the memorial park. That was why people moved. For something smarter. Better.
My mother was already out of the car and moving down the stone path to the front door of Number 8. She moved a couple of old tyres out of her way, stepped over an ancient mangle, turning round to grin at us as if this were all part of some entertaining obstacle game. My father seemed to be my last hope, my only chance of escape from this madness. I leant forward from my back seat, positioning myself to speak close to his ear. Surely, he’d listen, he’d understand how impossible and idiotic this whole idea was.
“If we don’t like it, we’ll go back, won’t we?” I said quietly but insistently into his ear. “Promise me if it’s horrid, we’ll go home to Ash Gardens?” I locked my arms around his neck, felt the soft fabric of his shirt, smelt the coal tar soap smell of his skin. His Old Spice cologne. An angry batch of seagulls squawked overhead, startling both of us, jerking us apart. I replaced my arms, held tight. He said nothing for a moment and I waited patiently for the reassurance I felt sure of finding. Then slowly, he disentangled my hold around his neck, turned round to face me, smiling falsely in the way people do when they are about to deliver unwanted news.
“It’s a new start, Mary. You’ll get used to it, tuppence. After all, everyone wants to live at the seaside, don’t they? You’re really a lucky girl, you know, very lucky indeed.” He opened his car door, closed it gently and stood on the pavement, looking up at the old, skinny house. So that, apparently, was that. My throat felt strangled, my eyes stung and I jammed the nails of one hand into the palm of the other, the way I always did when entirely at a loss for whatever else to do. In the road ahead, a huge removal van had started to unload, filling the pavement with our furniture. There seemed something shocking in seeing it all sitting there, homeless and forlorn. Our mahogany sideboard with the water-marked surface, the big radiogram that I used to sit on when I was small for Listen with Mother. The sludge-coloured three-piece suite that suddenly looked shrunken and thread-worn. I watched my father trying to give instructions to the men who were drinking tea from thermos flasks, lighting cigarettes and laughing loudly. Then my mother came out of the house and the men threw the contents of their cups into the curb, stubbed out cigarettes and began to shift the furniture strewing the pavement. It suddenly seemed an ideal moment for me to disappear, to jump out of the car and run. Run down to the sea and drown myself, run to the main road and hitch a lift to London, run into the arms of the first stranger and risk my life at his hands. That would make them sorry. That would put worried looks on my parents’ smug and satisfied faces. The fantasy occupied me pleasantly for a while, although my imagination stalled at thinking of sufficiently grim and grizzly outcomes as I tended to read books about poor vicarage families and boarding school feasts rather than desperate kidnaps and abductions. Then, unexpectedly, I was rescued. I saw the girl.
Sitting on a low wall the other side of the road, in front of the row of bungalows, she was first watching me, then watching the removal men, as if deciding which was the more interesting. She was dressed in shocking pink shorts and an orange top that clashed gloriously. My grey pleated skirt, white blouse and white socks felt grubby and dull in comparison. I was glad she couldn’t see the stain of spilt orange squash on my sleeve. Suddenly, as I stared, she got up, the girl, yanked a bike from where it had been left on the pavement and pedalled away ferociously fast as if remembering somewhere crucial she needed to go.
A flash of pink and orange disappeared swiftly around the bend, accompanied by the cling-cling of a bicycle bell.
* * *
Of course, it was probably not entirely like that. Those shorts might have been purple. Or even dull beige. Memory distorts, plays games, invents what it fails to recall in an effort to paint as authentic a picture as it can.
But I am being stringent in viewing all this through the prism of the child, Mary.
Not with the interpretation of hindsight or through some clumsy analysis that the adult Mary could so easily substitute.
That’s not the point of this at all.
I want to go back to see it as it was then.
The young are not interested in the past, of course. It’s a bore, an embarrassment even, full of tales of far more fallible and flawed generations. It’s the future that engages them, hooks them to their own unmapped stories of success.
But the coin flips.
There is a point when what lies ahead holds too little to excite and the years already stacked up behind become unexpectedly compelling, potent for dissection. So I am finding Mary, in the grey pinafore dress or that red tartan kilt she used to wear, with short summer socks or fawn winter ones, who suddenly feels not so much four decades away, but simply a small stretch so that, with a little effort and careful reminiscence I can bring her faithfully to mind. And Eva, too. For Eva, the girl in the pink or purple shorts, was certainly there from the start too.
* * *
That first night, I was given the attic bedroom. My mother warned me that the arrangement might not be permanent, that it was very likely to change in the coming months, but I forgot to listen, too glad to escape up two flights of stairs to the top floor where my white chest of drawers from Ash Gardens and my bed were already waiting for me. Even my winceyette nightdress and candlewick bedspread had been unpacked and a box of my books was splitting out onto the thin carpet. I picked up my battered paperback of A Dream of Sadler’s Wells and my hardbacked Little Women, its cover hanging on only by a hinge, and felt reassured, as if my books confirmed that I was still me and had not been exchanged for some changeling child once we had left the south circular. There were two skylights and I stood on my bed and peered down into the street far below and looked over the bungalows towards a band of grey, like a pencil margin drawn against the sky. My mother had insisted on an early night and sent me upstairs soon after tinned tomato soup at seven, saying I must be tired, although I’d done little more than sit in the car all day then helped her hang some old curtains at the big windows that spanned from ceiling to floor and rattled every time a slight breeze blew. I could hear my parents now two floors down, low murmurs of sound rather than words, furniture pulled over bare floorboards followed by footsteps and doors closing clumsily. It was barely dark, the late August evening light filtering so easily through the skylights, and I lay in bed listening to the new noises outside. The sea swallowed up and smothered sounds of cars so that it was the to-ing and fro-ing of waves I heard instead of engines, the tide drawing in or out, heaving and tossing pebbles, rearranging them in its path, like some gigantic harvester. I lay on my back in bed and traced the ceiling cracks into sea monsters and horses with long flying manes.
It was the gulls that woke me in the morning, screeching loud and piercing outside, so that I stood on my bed to watch fans of white wings flying past. And the girl was there again, the girl in the shocking pink shorts, her top bright yellow now instead of orange, wearing black plimsolls that looked like large ink blots at the end of her thin bare legs. She crossed the road, dropped her bike on the pavement outside Number 8 and started to walk down
My elderly father, Jack, spends a lot of time in his shed these days. So often when I ring he’s out there, sorting things, mending, measuring bits
of wood that might, as he says, come in useful. I gave him a mobile phone at Christmas, tired of leaving messages on his landline answering service that he never checks. He wasn’t keen on the idea, of course. It took ages to convince him it’s only a sensible, safety measure, not intended as a constant intrusion.
“What do I want with one of these things?” he said. “Not as if I go many places these days.”
In fact, he’s still remarkably independent, still driving the car and looking after himself quite adequately in the small house they moved to ten years ago. The burden of the big house, of 8, Sea View Parade, had been absurd, but it had taken years to persuade my mother, Ida, to leave. She had clung on stubbornly, her usual pragmatic approach apparently dormant when it came to that house. Eventually, however, they left and settled several miles inland in a quiet street away from the onslaught of sea storms and the excessive traffic that had transformed Beach Parade.
Now it is just Jack here alone, adjusting.
Once he finally agreed that Ida would be safer, happier in the nursing home, he set himself a daily routine as if to justify a good reason for getting up each morning. Consequently, the house is neat and clean, the cupboards always stocked and his meals taken regularly. I’ve seen the lists he pins to the back of the kitchen door, ticking off his household tasks as he completes them each week. Washing, ironing, bathroom cleaning, vacuuming. It’s his way, no doubt, of keeping going, and he’s always been an endlessly practical man. A man, some would say, without imagination, with his feelings and passions kept firmly in check. You could say this has been the saving of him. Or, alternatively, see it as his failing. There was certainly a time when his placid attitude enraged me and I came close to despising him for it. But that’s all a long while ago now, feelings hitched to another time, another stage in our lives. My father, Jack, is here, living out a pleasant enough existence, coping with being alone, managing his awareness of the limited span remaining to him.
A week after I visit Ida, I call in, ostensibly to collect a few more things she may like for her room. A footstool she was fond of, her photograph albums, a warm dressing gown. Jack’s made me tea, strong tea that he’s forgotten I dislike, and arranged small fondant iced cakes on a plate. We carry the tray into the living room, look out at his garden that’s dense with white and purple crocuses, early daffodils and a scattering of primroses. He’s always been a dutiful gardener, never allowing weeds to thrive, roses to go unpruned. I remember the order he so swiftly imposed upon the back and front gardens at Sea View Parade so that there was always a healthy profusion of shrubs and seasonal flowers. He used to let me pick bunches of marigolds for the kitchen table, sweet peas and lily of the valley for the hall. Ida said it made a good impression on the lodgers, flowers welcoming them into the house. Or rather it’s what she said when they first arrived, when Miss Mackie moved into the basement room next to the kitchen and Mr. Jarvis took over the attic. Later, when Miss Mackie left and only Mr. Jarvis remained, Ida said he was too much like a member of the family to bother about such touches as flowers.
I drink my tea, eat a pink cake, refuse a second and head upstairs to the main bedroom – orderly, a precise tidiness as if ready for snap inspection. I quickly find the dressing gown, a spare pair of slippers from the bottom of the wardrobe, the cardigan I bought her last birthday. I pile them up on one of the twin beds, open the drawers of her dressing table. For ten minutes or so I’m looking, sifting through old powder compacts, lavender linen bags long absent of any scent, hairbrushes and combs, a small leather ring box, a bracelet with a broken safety chain. Jack comes up the stairs and I shut the bottom drawer guiltily as if caught pilfering.
“Got everything you want, love?” He sits down on the chair in the corner as I fuss over the articles I’ve collected, slip them into a bag. He looks suddenly tired, old, his thin face a little more gaunt, and I wonder if I should offer to take him home with me for a couple of days. “What was it you were looking for?” he asks, seeing my eye dart around the room, glance at the chest, the bedside cabinet. “The photo albums are downstairs, I’ve got them out for you.”
“Thanks, that’s fine, then, I’ve got everything she needs. I thought the albums would be nice to share with her when I next visit.” I follow him downstairs, feeling thwarted, interrupted in my search. Yet I have absolutely no idea what I am looking for. Ida is hardly the type to have kept a diary, written a memoir. And the idea of stumbling over a bundle of letters, pulling open a drawer to discover a romantic correspondence neatly bound in red ribbon is ludicrous. I insist upon washing the teacups and Jack parcels up our leftover cakes to take back to Felix. He won’t come home with me, shows me the ham salad he’s prepared for his evening meal. Wafer thin slices of cucumber, an egg hardboiled and quartered, beetroot already staining the yolk purple. He’s planning to grow tomatoes this summer, he tells me, and radishes and Cos lettuces if he can find a way of preventing the slugs. His face comes alive, talking of his garden, and he shows me the seed catalogues that he’s asterisked and circled in black ink. He thinks he might plant another rose bush, a fragrant climber that he can train around the front door. I leave him standing there, contemplating the brickwork, load the car with the items I’ve collected, sensing something not found.
It’s driving home later, switching on the radio to the six o’clock news, that I realise what I have been looking for. I have been looking for Ida. And I am exasperated by the futility of my task and even its arrogance, as if I have some extraordinary prerogative to know her ultimately. I remind myself that the best I can hope to gain is some sort of clarified understanding, an acceptance, if you like, of her actions, of Jack’s apparent complicity. Of the part played by Fred Jarvis in their lives. It’s one of the reasons for going back, after all, for trawling through those years, starting with Mary on the cusp of discarding her Alice bands and socks for tortoiseshell slides and stockings. (It took quite a time for tights to reach our south coast backwater, for cumbersome suspender belts to lose their utilitarian function and reinvent themselves as underwear of allure.)
In the meantime, though, I need to concentrate on the dense traffic of the A23, the nightmare of the intersecting M25, and turn up the volume on the radio to flood my thoughts more glibly with international atrocities and global disaster.