‘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.