This house is a familiar to her as her own skin, sometimes as comfortable as an old pair of jeans, faded, over washed, but soft to the touch and sometimes chaffing, restricting, making it difficult to breathe, scratching against her, making her prickly, angry.
But today, it is just familiar.
She moves from room to room, taking a pleasure from the physical memory when you fingers move automatically to light switches with no conscious thought, , remembering the third creaky stair, the kitchen cupboard drawer that must be lifted, just an inch or two, before it will slide smoothly in runners.
Even the smell of the house wraps her in a fug of comfort, unopened windows, imperfectly washed up dishes, cheap air freshener sprayed by the carer in lieu of proper, deep cleaning and a top note of tobacco, everywhere the lingering of cigarette smoke, in the carpets, the curtains, the sofa. The smell of a life time smoker, an unabashed, un-reformed smoker.
The smell and the memory it unleashes is so strong that for the first time on over a decade, she wants, really wants a cigarette, goes as far as checking the drawer of the sideboard, just in case there is an over-looked, dried out, opened packet, left there for such an emergency.
But of course there isn’t and instead she digs around in her bag, finds a crumpled packet of mints and pops two into her mouth and takes a deep breath.
She has a list, simple, numbered;
Sort out stuff
Pack away stuff
Charity shop the stuff
She has time, five days compassionate leave, granted the day after she stood in her classroom and without even realising what she was doing, began to cry and cried until some of the girls, the nicer Year 9 girls, frightened, went in search of a more senior member of the department.
In the staff room, still crying, refusing offers of cheap coffee and even cheaper tea, she remembers wanting a cigarette then and pushing down the longing until she was able to drive, slowly, still observing the school car park speed limits, out onto the main road and home.
Now, standing, one hand still on the sideboard drawer, she realises that in the last 3 months, she has wanted a cigarette, wanted to smoke, to feel the comfort of the fire in her mouth, dragged deep into her lungs on exactly 4 occasions in the last 3 months
She shakes her head, clears it, roots in her bag again, and pulls out milk, calorie free sweetener and a jar of instant coffee.
A hot drink and then on with the list.
The kitchen has changed since she was last here, then it was full of neighbours, trays of catered sandwiches, paper plates, offerings of cakes and puddings and incongruously a huge trifle, decorated with hundreds and thousands, an escapee from a better happier event than this one.
Now, the kitchen is clean, surfaces wiped, but growing dusty. The cloth draped over the tap is stiff, it’s fold set, sculptured and all the plants, the seedlings have vanished from the window sill.
There is something else missing and it takes her a few moments to work out what it is and then, of course, she realises, the kitchen is silent, the steady hum of the ageing fridge freezer absent. She takes the 3 steps across the tiled floor and opens its’ door, a smell of stale sanitised air, the hint of long lost vegetables and then she click the plug and the fridge throbs back into life and the kitchen regains its’ familiar sound backdrop. Placing the milk inside in the special demarcated place, re-assures her and she takes the 3 steps back and without needing to look, plugs in the kettle and makes a cup of coffee.
The plan for the next 5 days, such as it is, is simple. Go through the house, sort out possessions, paperwork , put everything about him away, tidy the grief into something manageable, something that will allow her to go back to her life, allow her to settle back comfortably into the space she has, so carefully, created for herself.
She might as well start in the kitchen she thinks and flick the switch on the plug where the digital radio [ Christmas present 2004] sits. The sound when it comes is disconcertingly loud, she can’t help smiling, remembering his vehement arguments that he wasn’t going deaf, people were just mumbling more.
The radio is tuned to a local station, adverts for double glazing, used cars and traffic warnings about holds ups on the flyover and all interspersed by hits from the 80s.
It is all surprisingly far more soothing than radio 4 and although she could re-tune the radio, listen to Women’s’ Hour, instead she gyrates, ever so slightly, to Wham and opens the first kitchen cupboard.
Plates, bowls, side plates, all neatly piled on shelves, the not so good plates.
The good plates, their outings limited to very specific events, live in a separate space in the dining room itself.
Her parents, habitually careful with china, had few breakages over the years and each one noted, mourned.
She can remember her mother, almost in tears when she smashed one of the willow pattern plates and then regretfully dropping the pieces, dutifully wrapped in newspaper, to ensure no danger to the dustbin men, into the outside bin.
The crockery does not need any special attention; none of it is good enough for anything except a charity shop.
She is about to close the cupboard door, move onto the bigger challenge of the under the sink cupboard when she notices a scrap of paper stuck with a drawing pin to the inside of the door. She looks more closely, it is a headline from the local paper, from the front page, just the headline, no story, and no indication why it is there.
Puzzled, her parents were not hoarders, did not, even in extreme old age, demonstrate any funny behaviour, had, as far as she know, no real interest in local affairs. Thinking back, she wasn’t even sure if they has the local paper delivered, even at a time when every 2nd boy had a paper round and to have your photo in the local press was your 15 minutes of fame or infamy.
But, somehow, her mother or even her father has at some point, read the story attached to this headline and then for reasons she cannot presently fathom, cut out the headline and using 4 drawing pins [ so clearly the cutting was placed for permanence, not a throw away action] has stuck it to the inside of the not so fancy crockery cupboard.
Of course, she reads the headline and it doesn’t help. It’s not about someone they know or local to this street, this neighbourhood, not even about somewhere her father, and in the 70s and 80s and beyond, greatly daring once she was seen as old enough to cope after school, or her mother worked.
In plain black type, the headline is simply confusing; she cannot see how it would possibly have any connection to her parents.
“Tiger kills woman keeper – Attacked from behind whilst cleaning cage”
Without really thinking, she crumples up the yellowing scrap of paper and shoves it into her jeans pocket and then she hits the kettle switch again and bends to better reach the under sink cupboard.