The Empty House

My mum’s house was cold, despite the warmth of the afternoon. There was a touch of damp inside as well, and a thin layer of dust covered every surface. That was the most surprising thing, the dust. I’d never seen the house dusty before.

I didn’t want to sit down. Silly, I know, but it wouldn’t have felt right to make myself at home here. So I paced around the sitting room, feeling aimless. The room was in that prim, fussy style that she used to love, cluttered with side tables, and all done with floral patterns and little ornaments. There was a row of decorative china plates facing out from the top shelf of the dresser. I didn’t think much of those plates. When I was a girl I knocked one of them down, and my mum smacked me for it.

I found myself looking at the photos on the wall, arranged behind a sheet of glass. There weren’t many of my mum there, nor of me, but there were a lot of my daughter Helen: Helen as a baby, then in a school photo, again in a graduation photo, and then one of her travelling photos from the elephant sanctuary – her and Claire hugging each other, with the elephant’s trunk draped around their shoulders.

I heard the front door open, and Helen’s voice called, “Mum?”

“In here, Helen.”

“Sorry I’m late,” she said as she joined me in the sitting room. “I couldn’t leave while I was helping a customer. Claire’s coming at eight. She’s bringing Annabel; we couldn’t get a babysitter.”

“That’ll be fine,” I said. “Have you two had any luck finding a new place?”

“Not yet,” Helen said. “Running the health food shop’s taking up so much of our time. How are you feeling?”

“Not as bad as I could be,” I said. “Shall we get started? I think we should do the upstairs first.” I didn’t feel like I could face doing the living room just yet.

We started in the office. It had been my dad’s office when I lived here, and my granny’s office before that. Now it was just a sort of storage room, lined with bookshelves and cupboards. My mum had kept the rest of the house clear and tidy, but for some reason she’d been happy to let the junk stack up in this room. It went into three piles: for keeping, for charity shops, or for the skip.

“How is little Annabel doing?” I asked as we worked.

“Oh, she’s fine,” said Helen. “It was just a bit of a cold, like you and Claire both said, but you can’t blame me for worrying. Oh hey, look at these postcards! I didn’t know Gran had all these.”

“A lot from you and Claire in there,” I said, as she flicked through postcards of Bangkok and Vientiane. It seemed like they’d sent her more postcards than they sent me – not that it mattered, obviously.

“Some really old ones too, though. Look at this one – who was this guy Steve?”

“Steve Barnett? A friend of your gran’s,” I said, glancing over at the black-and-white postcard. “He worked with her at the hospital, although I think they knew each other from school. He died a few years ago.”

“Well, this one’s ancient. From Brussels – it sounds like he sent this during the war. Wow.”

While Helen carried on looking through the postcards, I moved on to the next cupboard. This was full of things from my mum’s working life: her old uniform, and a whole shelf full of medical books. There were folders of notes from her days on the council, too, and another folder of all her drawings. I’d forgotten she used to draw. She always wanted to be creative, did my mum. Well, she had the skill, but never had the time, and she was never the sort to prioritise it over her work.

At the bottom of the next cupboard on, I found a crate of battered old dolls. Mum had never been able to afford new toys for me, but she bought these second-hand, repaired them and sewed them clothes out of scraps. I never did play with them much, though. Dolls weren’t the toys I wanted. She thought I was so ungrateful.

In the same cupboard was a folder of issues of the magazine I used to write for at uni. My “bra-burning magazines”, mum used to call them. I only sent her the magazines to annoy her; I never dreamed she’d keep them this long.

And here on the same shelf was a photo of me at university – short hair and scruffy clothes, two more things I used to do to annoy her. She was of the opinion that a woman with short hair must be a lesbian, and I gave up trying to correct her. I can still remember some of the arguments, the insults I would throw at her.

‘You’re just not a good person, are you, Mum?’

“What do you think of this, Mum?” Helen said. She had found a photo album: a tidy, old-fashioned little book, bound in leather. Each photo was labelled in my mum’s neat handwriting.

“I remember her starting that,” I said, pushing memories of past arguments to the back of my brain. “Must have been twenty years ago, at least.”

“Who’s this? Not Gran?” Helen was flipping through the first few pictures, all in black and white. Most of them showed the same woman, thin, rather austere and primly dressed, sometimes with a genial-looking man beside her.

“That’s my granny, not yours,” I said. “Granny Edith. Your great-grandmother.”

“She looks like a barrel of laughs.”

“She had a good sense of humour, actually,” I said. “And a rough history that you wouldn’t guess at from the picture. Had a powerful will, too. I remember she put my mum in her place a few times.” I smiled. “She wasn’t going to be bossed around, not in her own house.”

“This was her house?”

“She bought it. She worked in a bank, did you know? She was pretty good at it, so I gather. And this was in the twenties, so it wasn’t easy for a woman to get that kind of job.”

The sorting was forgotten for the moment, as the two of us crowded over the photos of someone else’s memories, taken before either of us were born. These were the middle-aged Edith, a respectable broker and later a respectable mother, sometimes with her husband or daughter – my mother – beside her. There was no sign of the younger Edie, the one she’d always reminisced about. Then, she’d been a fighter: a member of the WSPU, a woman who’d thrown stones through windows and stamped Votes for Women onto coins. No wonder my mum, respectable before all else, had not wanted to celebrate that part of the family history.

But there was a picture of her as I knew her, my Granny Edie, reading the paper by the fire. She looked thoroughly annoyed, but she had always looked like that when she read the news: fed up with a world that progressed so much slower than it could, but that she felt was leaving her behind regardless. Still she’d had that fighting instinct, though she was mostly fighting with my mum. I remembered some blazing rows they’d had. Always working, never in the house! Does your daughter mean nothing to you?

And then here were pictures of my mother. Her wedding day, where she looked so young – less than half my age now. One of her in her nurse’s uniform, on her first day of work according to the text. And here was one she’d always loved: one with her campaigning group, most of them union staff if I remember right, all grouped around a visiting Clement Attlee, not long out of office.

Naturally she would put those pictures in, the nursing and the campaigning: my mum was always happiest when she was working, when she was helping other people. Which was a good thing, of course, only … she had expected everyone else to have the same attitude, especially me. Whenever I played up, particularly in school, she seemed to take it as a personal insult. I would get a smack when the teachers sent their letters home, but it didn’t change anything. The more desperately she tried to discipline me, the more fiercely I would rebel. In the end we argued our whole lives, from the start of mine to the end of hers.

The worst had been three years ago, the last time I’d been at this house. It had been about Helen, or more accurately about Helen and Claire. I’d always known my mum was a bigot, but until then she’d always had the decency to stay quiet when Helen’s sexuality came up. But that night she’d had a few too many glasses of wine, and her true opinion had come spilling out, hadn’t it?

‘Doesn’t it upset you that you won’t have grandkids?’

We had talked only a few times since then. Short phone calls and strained Christmas dinners, both of us careful to keep the conversation polite. Neither of us had ever mentioned the argument again.

Helen was looking at me, in a way that said my feelings showing on my face. I felt suddenly guilty for thinking aboutthese memories, so soon after the funeral. I turned the page with a shaking hand, andfound myself staring back up at me.

We were on to colour photographs now, pictures that mum had collected of my childhood. There was me playing on the patio, with our pet dog. The next page was me in a hospital bed, when we first found out I had diabetes – why did she include that one? And then there was me at the zoo with mum and dad, mum holding me up so I could feed the elephants.

And then there was nothing. There were blank pages left in the book, but no photos later than my childhood. She’d never finished it. Of course – and I knew why. It would have been around that time that my dad fell ill. While he was in hospital, Mum didn’t do much except sit with him, and afterwards … well, she was changed after that. She threw herself into work: went back to the nursing full-time, and with overtime where she could get it. It was typically her, really; when in doubt, work harder. It was how she’d coped with the grief, and she’d never really stopped.

“Are you all right, mum?” Helen asked.

The album had slipped from my fingers.

I hadn’t cried at the funeral. I hadn’t cried since her death, in fact. But all of a sudden, surrounded by memories of the woman I had hated, I found tears in my eyes.

Helen wrapped her arms around me as the tears came, moving down with me as I sank to the floor. “It’s okay,” she muttered, soothing, meaningless words. “It’s okay.”

Voices were echoing through my head. I remembered again my granny criticising my mum for not being at home enough, and my mum shouting back, ‘At least I’m doing some good in the world!’ I remembered my own attack on her, ‘You’re just not a good person, are you?’ Almost the same words. How much had my words hurt her that day?

“It’s okay, Mum, it’s okay.”

“I don’t understand her,” I said into Helen’s shoulder. “She tried so hard – and yet – she said such terrible –”

“Gran said some stupid things, I guess,” Helen said.

“What she said about you –”

“I know,” said Helen. “But she apologised for that. She apologised to both me and Claire. She was so upset when she realised what she’d done, Mum. I’d never seen her that way before.”

“And that makes it okay?”

“I don’t know,” said Helen. “But I think you’re asking the wrong question. You’re trying to fit her into a box, either an angel or the devil. The way I see it, Gran was a person who tried to do the right thing, but sometimes she got it wrong. And some of the things that were right when she was young aren’t right any more, and sometimes she struggled with that. But whatever. She was trying.”

At least I’m doing some good in the world!

You’re just not a good person, are you?

My mum had tried to be a good person. I’d never appreciated her efforts, just as she’d never appreciated mine. Was it always like this? Every generation rebelling against their parents, and every generation left behind by their children? The baseline of right and wrong moving so much faster than a person’s opinion could change?

It was starting to get dark. I pushed myself to my feet, brushed my eyes when I thought Helen wasn’t looking, and flicked the lights on.

“Come on. Lots of sorting still to do.”

“Can we wait a bit longer?” said Helen, straightening up as well. “There’s something else I’d like to talk to you about, before Claire gets here. As you’re executor of the will.”

“What is it?”

“You know that Claire and I’ve been saving for a new place for a while?”

“Go on.”

“I was thinking it’d be cool to move in here,” she said. “Into Gran’s house.”

I hesitated. To tell the truth, I’d been looking forward to saying goodbye to the gloomy old place.

“It’s an option,” I said. “If you’re sure you want to. It’s an old house, though, with plenty of problems. A newer place might suit you better. And you’d have to take on Mum’s debts, and keep up with those repayments.”

“We can manage,” Helen said. “We’ve been saving for a while. It’s just a thought for now, anyway. But this is, like, the family home. Edith, Gran, and you have all lived here; but I haven’t, and Annabel’s never even seen it. I’d like her to have some memories of it when she’s older.”

There came a knock on the front door, making me jump.

“That’ll be Claire,” Helen said. “I’ll bring her up.”

While she was gone, I bent to pick up the photo album, straightening out the pages that had bent when I dropped it. So many blank pages left. It struck me that some of the pictures from the wall downstairs might look good here.

Helen and Claire’s voices drifted up from downstairs, and baby Annabel was laughing. It was a long time since a baby had laughed in this house. It felt right. I had a sudden desire to see my granddaughter, to hold her and kiss her.

I brushed my eyes, tucked the photo album under my arm, and went downstairs to see my family.