by Cath Barton
The light was dying on the winter afternoon when I arrived at the house. It betrayed its emptiness, dark again the curve of the hill, where the sun was still striking the stones on the ridge. I found wood behind the shed and lit a fire in the grate. The tiny warmth could not contend with the months of damp since Mother had gone, and I was glad of the smother of her baggy jumper, one of the few things I’d taken of hers. It had sickened me the way the others fell upon the spoils, such as they were: a few bits of silver and glass; they’d meant nothing to her anyway. So I’d just taken the jumper and an old toy Koala bear, though even he had sharp claws.
The task loomed. It had been infecting my dreams and I could put it off no longer. I climbed the stairs to her room, the room she had so very long ago shared with my father. The twin beds were still there stripped naked, the wardrobe alongside where once I’d found a sewing basket which I’d thought intended for me as a Christmas present. But it had never appeared and I’d swallowed the disappointment.
Everything was as it had always been. I closed my eyes and I was 12 again, bored on a sticky summer’s afternoon. I walked over to the window. My father was far down the garden, digging. I could hear drawers slamming downstairs in the kitchen. Mother, angry again. She was so often angry. Or sad. I pulled open the top right-hand drawer of the dressing table. It smelt of lipstick and face powder. I shut it and opened the next one. On top, a letter in a florid script on thick paper:
“My dearest Margaret,
Will you ever understand how much it means to me….”
Footsteps on the stairs, quickening… I just managed to dodge out in time, but I’d left the drawer ajar. From the bathroom I heard Mother go into her bedroom. Then nothing. No slamming of drawers. No sobs, which other times I’d heard at night, until I put my head so far under the bedclothes that I could hear no longer. Nothing, until the footsteps again, going back downstairs. Heart thumping, I crept back to the bedroom door. The drawer was closed. I never dared open it again.
I had told my sister-in-law Cicely that I would deal with Mother’s boxes. She had done everything else. It was only fair. She’d kept an eye on Mother’s papers in the last years and she was very thorough, so there wouldn’t be anything important, Cicely said. Just keepsakes, she said. Cicely had no time for keepsakes.
The papers were in three boxes. A lifetime in three boxes. So little. I pulled my chair closer to the fire and opened the first. It was full of photographs. Mostly of me and my brother when we were young. I’d seen them all before. No surprises. For a moment I wondered why I had been worried. Maybe there were no secrets. But then I remembered that summer’s afternoon, the letter in the drawer.
The second box did contain some things I hadn’t seen before. Souvenirs of holidays mostly. The trip to Australia with Granny, the yoga holiday in Switzerland with Cicely, cruises with Mr York, whose garden she’d tended after my father had died. I had wondered about Mr York, but if there was something to tell about him it wasn’t in this box.
I was hungry by now. I’d brought bread, cheese, wine. I ate, I drank. And then I opened the last box. It was full of letters in that florid script I’d read on the summer’s afternoon of my thirteenth year. They were tender, loving. Mostly they thanked my mother for all she had done. They were from my father. The last one was dated the week before he died.
I finished the bottle of wine and sat by the fire in Mother’s jumper as the embers glowed and, one by one, went out. And then I cried, long and hard, for my mother, my father and all the wasted love in the world.