The others had to rush off after the funeral for various reasons, kissing me on the cheek as they left and telling me I ‘looked beautiful up there’ as if that was what I wanted to hear most of all. It had always been an unspoken agreement that I take care of this sort of thing, so after everyone had gone, I made my way to the empty house.
I walked the mile and a half to Number Eight, despite Tim’s desultory offers to drive me. The familiar journey home guided my feet back to the house I had grown up in, as I barely had the presence to take myself there. Walking through streets so well ingrained into my memory was like hearing an album you stumbled across in the loft, so well listened to you still remember every word.
My cheeks were tear-streaked and rosy as I turned into my street, and I could see the willow tree waving at me from the back garden. It was like coming home from school again; I would amble round the corner and spot the ragged outline of my favourite climbing frame, swaying to and fro in the wind, beckoning for me to come and play.
The tree had been the selling point for Dan, Will, and me; Mum and Dad could hardly have said no to three youngsters tugging on their sleeves, barely containing their excitement at the prospect of so many adventures. The first time I brought my friend Susie home, we spent all night in it, pretending to be captured princesses, wearing our coats on our heads like cloaks and yelling out for help to nobody.
The wind was strong and the old willow looked positively ecstatic at my return. The housewife in me started thinking about hiring a tree surgeon to tidy it up, and how the roots would no doubt be growing underneath the extension by now. Already I couldn’t bear the thought of dismantling my childhood so quickly and finally. I had long since stopped referring to my parents’ house as home, something I had trained myself to do when Tim and I bought a house together, but I suddenly felt frightened at losing this place. It was a base, a memory-keeper, a piece of me.
I stopped and looked up at Number Eight, spread out in the corner like an old man in a comfy armchair. I liked how our house was the only one on the street that wasn’t a bungalow. It had always been different: the haphazard extensions, the different coloured brickwork; a youthful injection to an otherwise quiet and elderly street. For Mum and Dad, the OAP neighbourhood meant quiet Halloweens and no noisy house parties. For us it meant friendly old neighbours that smiled at us playing in the cul-de-sac and popping round with toys and clothes of grown-up grandchildren.
A voice pierced my thoughts and I realised how long I must have been standing there.
When I turned I saw that it was the woman from number six, then panicked as I searched my memory for a name that would not come to me. She was in a long black dress with tights and I realised she must have been at the funeral.
‘I wanted to speak to you at the reception but…’ She tilted her head sympathetically then came towards me with outstretched arms. ‘How are you, dear?’
In her warm hold I smelt talcum powder and potpourri; it was Mrs. Stevens. She had lived next door ever since I could remember, and her children and I had been playmates years ago. Every time I see glass bowls of scented chips I think of her house.
When we separated she looked at me in the thorough way she always had when I was a child, as if searching for truth. She relaxed her eyes and smiled. The lines around her face had multiplied and deepened, and her skin had a grey colouring to it that displayed small bursts of veins just beneath the surface. I smiled in return, wondering how my face would change over the next twenty years.
‘It was a beautiful service, wasn’t it?’ I offered, for something to say.
‘Yes, yes it was.’ We shared a stilted silence. ‘Well, if there’s anything I can do. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?’ The two thoughts seemed intrinsically linked.
‘Um, no thankyou. I’d better get on with…’ I motioned at the house.
‘Oh right,’ she nodded. ‘A lot of work, I imagine. Are Dan and Will helping out? I’d get on them for that, you know what men are like,’ she said with a wink. ‘Well! I’d best get on. Take care, Joanne.’
She placed her hand on my shoulder and smiled before walking back to number six.
I turned back to the house, hardly knowing what to do or where to begin. There was a lonely rake leaning against the garage door. I picked it up, wondering why it was left there. Maybe Dad had been in the middle of a job. I pulled my cardigan tight around me and decided to finish it for him. The rake seemed familiar to my body, but my limbs worked in a slower rhythm than the stick was used to. There was no rush to complete the chore before I was allowed more time out with friends. There was no competition with Dan as to who could collect a bigger heap on the compost. I ploughed on steadily, waltzing with the leaves.
Amy Hornsby is a freelance writer living in Krakow. She loves traveling and writing, and you can find out more about her wanders and wonderments at stillalotoflandstosee.wordpress.com