Scuffed skirting boards

‘I hate the smell of other people’s lives,’ says Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s creation, when faced with the prospect of moving into someone else’s house to escape New York into Maine during the Covid pandemic.

Instantly my nose twitches. Not so much at the thought of other people’s lives – by which Lucy means the smell of their lives as it radiates through their houses – but at the smell of my own house, over one hundred years old and tired.

It can give off the dank smell of mildew and decay. Especially now that autumn’s cold is setting in and I’m too mean to use our ancient gas central heating for fear of the unspeakable costs every quarter. 

It’s not just the life of me and mine that seeps through the bones of this house, but the lives of our predecessors, those who lived here during the first half of the 1900s, when this area was more industrial, and miners’ cottages flanked the side streets.

This house, large by comparison, was occupied at one time by a doctor who used our front room as his surgery. After he sold the house they split it, one flat on either side of the corridor, to create homes for two families.

The back of the house when we bought it in 1980, consisted of two separate lean two kitchens and bathrooms. We pulled them both down to make room for one proper bathroom and kitchen. 

If I do not die here I will be sad to say goodbye. For all its foibles this house has served us well.

Death tricks my mind into thoughts of my father.

If I could meet him, now long dead, and had courage enough, the courage of my age and understanding today, I might ask him, 

‘What were you thinking to treat us the way you did?’ And in my impossible meeting into the future, he might say. 

‘I wasn’t thinking. I was compelled. Driven by dark forces within me that hark back to a time when I felt as helpless as a kitten and could only fend for myself by scratching or lashing out.’

My imaginary father of the future is poetic. My actual father was not. 

The paint peels on the walls of my memory and the skirting boards are scuffed with the marks of too many feet in shoes bashed against them as people walk by.

Funny how memories like this eclipse all others. They cast a shadow over your life and like rising damp bring out a mould of black, to which some can be allergic.

My body bears such scars, and my mind is streaked with the mud of memories as they throw up more mud. I cannot get a foothold on dry land.

You find yourself thinking, I must not speak about this. It might be contagious, like a virus, or it might lie like a damp dishcloth over your heart exuding such a stink it stays on your fingers for hours. 

All the metaphors I can find do not do justice to the dull ache of memory as it thrums its way into my vision. 

All the words evade me, only the smell remains.

‘We’re all children when we sleep,’ Miranda July

Even my father in his hospital tall bed in St Vincent’s in the city after a burst of pleurisy, a harbinger of his last days with emphysema, looked vulnerable. A far cry from the monster who towered over us when we were little.

He with his long feet, encased in black leather in my memory though there were times when they were naked, those long-elongated toes with tufts of red hair on each phalange, his wide hands, that were good for slaps, his stubbled chin, so awful to brush against when bedtime came. 

There he was in the white sheets of his hospital bed full of apologies on the visit I made one day after work. ‘I have been bad to you children,’ he said.

I wanted none if it. I wanted only that I could get through this visit without too much eye contact, too much meaning transiting between us, too much of anything. The strange reversal when children grow up and confront the vulnerability of their parents. 

As July reckons, ‘All of us are children when we sleep’.

And so it was I gazed at my mother when she was laid out on her final hospital bed, eyes closed, body still, soon to leave her body, her heart stopped in its regular rhythm.

One day in the last three weeks before she died she tried to usher me away. The slightest hand gesture, an expression on her face, a glint in those tired eyes that said, leave me alone. Then she closed them as if by shutting out light she could shut me out too. 

But I stayed. I held back, close to the door, out of her sight, and watched as the forced eye closure became involuntary and my mother slipped back into sleep. I watched her face, the wrinkles smoothed into the pillow under the weight of gravity. And imagined that she did not want any of us to see her like this. 

Like Susan Sontag railing against death but allowing those photographs so that people could see, not only the bright side of this life, her life, her amazing ability with words, her bright sharp eyes, but the drag on her body as cancer took over.

Since my mother died I have started to feel the cold in ways I never did before.  As if her presence kept my body a couple of degrees warmer and her absence becomes a cold chill through my bones.  

I knew it even before she went, that her death would leave me older by at least ten years, at least by the feel of it.  

Over time this sensation has settled but the loss remains, along with the cold. I shall never feel again the natural warmth of my childhood metabolism, the way even on cold days, underdressed in shorts and t-shirt, I did not notice the outside temperature, warmed by the way I felt inside, warmed by the presence of my mother.