Tools, trees, nerves
March 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
The weekend before I started my new job, I went back to the place in Suffolk where I grew up. My idea was to relax completely, away form the stresses of London. My phone barely works in Great Bealings, unless I head out of the front door and climb up the field opposite my parents’ house. I would run in the countryside, I thought. I’d read, sleep, enjoy the silence. None of this happened.
On Saturday I visited the house where my grandparents lived, for the first time since they died six years ago. The kitchen has been remodelled, the carpets replaced since the last tenants. The curtains are beige, the walls smooth magnolia, the rooms empty.
Walking into the living room, I saw the space as it was. At the same time, I saw the place as it had been, in detail I wouldn’t have thought possible. Along the main wall, opposite the gas fire and the television, stood a dark-flowered chair – my grandfather’s – and a sofa, its cushions re-covered in a foresty green hardwearing fabric, slightly faded from sun and washing. Between the sofa and the chair a reading light was mounted on the wall. It consisted of a backless box of thick glass, patterned into crystal shapes, and was operated by a pull string underneath. Where the string hung, the blue stripes of the wallpaper were worn off, leaving a scuffed white patch. The result of thousands of gentle motions, the reaching up to pull the string, the light going on or off, knuckles brushing the paper.
I liked that light as a child. It reminded me of the glass-lidded biscuit barrel containing Digestives which, over years of staying one night a week with my grandparents, we ate dipped into cups of tea in bed before breakfast. The wallpaper held a fascination, too. It was thick and slightly spongy. The top layer – as evinced by the scuffed patch – was thin. A thumbnail could be pushed through that layer, with a satisfying feeling like popping the bubbles of bubble wrap. Though bubble wrap is not, of course, permanently affixed to the living room walls.
In every room this past reality coexisted almost naturally with the present. Every space was, after all, the same proportions, every wall and window in the same place.
The garden was stranger. My grandparents’ garden was a beautiful place. For an ordinary suburban house, it was a huge amount of space, perhaps 60m long and full of trees. The garden I visited last weekend was almost featureless. A concrete path led from the back door towards the end, dividing the lawn into two and petering out about half way down. To the left of this sat a large and battered trampoline, abandoned by the previous tenants whose children had, during their five-year stay, grown out of bouncing. A few cupresses , vigorous but deadening evergreens, hung around near the fences.
Where the trampoline lay like a huge beached jellyfish, there used to be a walnut tree. Walnuts are beautiful, with a light, close-grooved bark and big smooth-sided leaves. We rigged a swing from this tree, made from rope and a chunk of yellow plastic tubing. Most of the other trees were apples; three large cooking-apple trees, big enough for climbing though not to satisfying heights. A small and constantly disappointed Cox near the house. There was a weeping willow.
Though my grandfather loved trees, he didn’t have impeccable taste, so there were also always a lot of cupresses with foliage like big black fins, a fir, and one or two acacias, the salamander-green of their leaves like pointillism on the muted background. By the shed at the back (one of three) was a damson tree, and at the sides were a Victoria plum which gave amazing fruit that tasted of England, and a pear which never produced anything worth eating. In front of the house, near the parked-up caravan and the self-built porch, were a silver birch and an almond tree.
So all of this lived, that Saturday, alongside the reality of the tufted grass and the raw edges of things, the absent roses, the fishpond missing its glowing kois and full instead of dead creepers. The effect, strange rather than sad, mimicked a loss of recent memory; the world as it is refusing to fit with everyday vivid life which has, in fact, past.
It was only in the garage that the realities met. The place smelled as it had always smelled – of damp and engine oil. Piled in boxes on the shelves, in an extra lean-to section tacked on to the back (my granddad loved building things, and loved sheds), were a load of dusty, greasy, heavy things which it turned out were his tools.
The stuff left behind by a life – clothes and false teeth and papers – are too personal to endure and therefore, I suppose, take on a dead quality when the owner dies. The tools were personal too, but they had a liveness to them. There were wooden-handled saws and old-fashioned hand-drills, planes and wrenches, a glass-cutter, clamps and hammers and spanners, a last for making shoes of different sizes. Everything was a bit rusted, but probably salvageable. Everything had been handled, used, liked without the excessive liking of a prized piece of china or the family jewels. They were built to last – even, to outlive.
This was, it turned out, the only really calm point of the weekend. By Saturday afternoon an unplaceable tension, which felt like misery but I now realise was nervousness, had taken hold. To everything – birdsong, sunset, the Chart Show in the car on the drive back to London – clung the same sense of doom, the only cure for which was Monday morning, when it dissipated completely with the energy of actually doing something.
I had been scared, in a vague way, of ever going back to 681 Foxhall Road. Tonight, I sifted through my clothes and piled up everything I don’t wear. The Frank Lloyd Wright phrase, that everything should be both beautiful and functional, was in the back of my mind, along with a sense – less morbid than it sounds – of not wanting to leave behind me a lot of crap for someone to sort out. On the kitchen floor, a heavy metal box, from which the turquoise paint has chipped, has been getting in the way. I couldn’t resist bringing a few things back to London where they will no doubt gather more dust, and go unlooked at, but retain their quiet usefulness.
 My grandparents called the trees “cupresses”, pronounced ‘kew-press’. It was only in writing this that I looked up how to spell the word, and realised there is no such tree. They must have meant “cypress”, but had never heard it said.