The woman stands in the doorway, her hand is raised in a half wave, caught in mid movement, unsure if the correct response as the battered removal van pulls into the driveway.
The house clearance men have arrived and she is, by the skin of her teeth, ready for them, final cargo of boxes and bin liners delivered to the nearest charity shop only an hour ago. She feels their weight lift from her shoulders, feels lighter than she has done for days.
In the hallway, there is a neat stack of boxes, yet more black bags, it reminds her of her first move from this house, the shift to college and student living, a pile of books and posters and the items listed in the helpful University handbook as essential for 1st year student living and this, this pile, is the final move, the shift from daughter to, her tongue stumbles to connect to the correct, accurate word and then she finds it, orphan. Experimentally, she rolls the word around her mouth, orphan, it feels both familiar and completely strange at the same time.
“Orphan” this time she says it out loud as she walks toward the 2 men who have jumped out of the van and are heading towards the front door.
They are not quite what she expects, in her mind she had conjured up some Del Boy, wide boy character, so, their quiet offer of condolences wrong foot her, leave her speechless, biting her lip, the word orphan still bitter in her mouth, on her teeth.
She needs to get another taste, some sweetness, comfort
“Tea ?” she asks, expecting requests for sugar, biscuits, but they confound her again. The older man smiles, shakes her deadlocked head and asks if they can herbal tea and so they sit, 3 of them, an echo of every breakfast of her childhood, at the kitchen table and they sip peppermint tea from tea bags they have brought in from their van, while she sips over sugared coffee and is the only one to dip into the packet of biscuits.
She had hoped that they would be smokers, that she could, with a shame faced grimace, scrounge a fag, smoke it while they carry out the furniture that no-body has any need of to their van to be sold to strangers, but, seeing them now, in the flesh and not the scenario that she has invented, she knows that there will be no smokes, no re-tuning the radio to radio 1 and so, she stands up and the men follow suit and the younger one smiles and asks her if she has marked any special items that she wants to keep and then the older looks directly at her and suggests that she goes for a walk or a drive, gets away for a while and then looks her up and down and asks when she last ate and she realises that she is starving and so, gently chaperoned towards her car, she finds herself heading toward the shopping centre, in search of breakfast.
The coffee shop, generic chain, she is not even sure which one, is busy, coffee machine steaming, filling the space with the smell of warm milk. she joins the line, orders a cappuccino, an apricot Danish pastry and finds a table in the corner. The coffee is good, strong, hot and the sweetness of the cake wipes away the ashy taste this morning has left in her mouth. She looks around, most of the tables are full of people on their own, plugged into phones and gadgets, avoiding eye contact, fuelling up for a work a day work day. She wonders, just for a moment, what would happen if she stood up and said out loud
“I’m sitting here while 2 Buddhist removal men are taking away all my dead parents’ furniture and I’ve just realised that I’m an orphan”,
wonders if anyone would actually notice, take their eyes away from the screens for long enough to register what she has said, but instead, she stands up, return to the counter, orders another coffee and a pain au chocolat, takes a copy of the free newspaper and sits as the work day crowd ebb and flow and finally, when she is sure that she has allowed enough time, she leaves and drives very slowly, very carefully back to the house.
The men are standing in the garden, clearly waiting for her to return, but they greet her with smiles and walk her through the empty house, rooms echoing, marks in the carpets where wooden legs have rooted for so long. The house feels impersonal, just a space where people used to live, it is hard to imagine her parents here, harder even to imagine her life in this house.
The clearance men show her the packed van and then there is a moment of exquisite awkwardness and the older one digs into his jeans pocket and produces a wad of notes and hands them to her, she wonder s if she is meant to haggle, to count them out, instead she shoves them into her own pocket. They sit uncomfortably, digging into her hip bones and then the men are gone and she is left, standing in the garden, not really sure what to do next.
She is not quite sure how long she stands there, but suddenly realises that she is cold, very, very cold and she moves quickly into the house, understands that motion, constant motion si the only way to manage this, so grabs the first box, throws it into the boot and then the next and the next, until the car is packed, stuffed and she is panting, out of breath, warm, but alive, very alive.
She goes back into the sitting room to collect her bag, the last few items of clothing and crams them onto the passenger seat, goes back and checks doors, windows, locks, a parody of her mothers’ leaving the house routine and then she gets into her car and starts to reverse down the drive way, but stops, engine still running and digs into her bag, locates the note-book and places it carefully on the seat beside her, pats it with one finger, smiles and drives away.