I notice that there is a spiders web forming around the door when I open the gate. The garden is full of weeds and the neighbours flytipping- rusty stinking cans of beans, a couple of boxes from the fast food place down the road and a cat jumping out of what used to be our dust bin.
It is good thing Susanna wasn’t here to see this. She used to be so proud of this garden. I can remember how she used to shout at us when we used to walk on the grass instead of the pavement.
I don’t know why she bothered. It was only a bit of grass, I informed her once and I got a clip around the ear.
It may be a bit of grass to you, but it’s the only garden we have got.
I let myself into the house and try hard not to sneeze at the damp and musty smell that hangs in the air.
I stare at the Susanna’s chair. Almost expecting her at any time to ask me to change the channel. I brought her a remote control device and she refused to use it even when the Macmillan nurse kidded her about it.
I draw the curtains and open the windows, making my way past boxes and black bin-liners. I see old Mrs Semple making her way down the road and close the windows again.
I make my way upstairs and head for her bedroom.
There are boxes and trunks in this room. There is a little box where our reports and school stuff were kept and a bigger trunk full of Susanna’s best clothes. I think she also kept her passport and marriage certificate in there as well. I had promised my daughter Anna I that I would show her some of my stuff; she needed it for a project they were working on in school; Education through the Ages. Then I spot a box helpfully labelled ‘School stuff’ and rummage thorough papers yellowed with age, photographs and notebooks from a lifetime ago.
Memories of St Agatha’s Primary dance in and out of my head in little disjointed patterns. Little women in long black robes and white rims telling you what to do, detention in cold draughty rooms, being forced to drink every drop of the compulsory bottle of warm milk long before Thatcher prohibited it. Then there was the food…we had to get school vouchers for the smudgy green peas, steak and kidney pie, bread pudding and fish and chips served in the canteen. Good stodgy food – no healthy options like salad or pasta in those days.
I see some of our colourful artwork and select one- a confused painting that I had done of myself, the twins and Susanna. Everybody was wearing black and Dad and Aunty Betty were standing far away from the rest of us. There were big tears streaming from our faces, tapering away into a blue sea that threatened to drown us.
I never knew why Susanna kept this picture.
I pick up my report card:
“Sandra needs to listen more in class. She is gifted and is good in most subjects apart from Maths. Although slightly distracted this term Might be good for the caring professions in the future” wrote Miss Y Thornton now dearly departed.
At five I was old enough to be ‘Distracted’ the term Dad left. The twins were too young to notice then. Susanna said he had woken up one day and told her that he did not love her any more. She said she hadn’t asked him any questions because she had felt the same way for a long time. I think Susanna was secretly relieved that he had gone. She said he changed the minute he got off the boat at Portsmouth.
Miss Thornton had been really kind and understanding. Divorce wasn’t as common back then as it is now. Despite her predictions I had done quite well in school and gone to college to study accountancy and qualified with my ACCA. Having grown up worrying about money I had vowed never that my child would not have the same problem.
Susanna kept everything. There was a picture of 4A’s trip to Brighton , birthday parties, trips to the zoo as a family.I look at the photograph of myself, my sisters and my parents grinning foolishly at the Camera.
I take the folder and the books and put them on the broken dresser that Dad had ruined during one of his DIY enthused moments. That’s when I spot the trunk that Susanna had told me about in the letter she had left for me after her death.
“There is a big brown envelope there with some letters for you. Make sure you live a good life.”
Susanna had been really ill for a long time and when she went to the hospice she was usually sedated. If not she became fretful, asking for God to forgive her sins.
She maintained that she was an awful wicked woman who didn’t deserve to go to heaven…
It didn’t make sense but the Macmillan nurse told us patients were often like this; towards the end. Susanna wanted to see a priest to confess all and we made sure Father Patrick from her diocese came to visit her. She seemed a bit better after that but her condition worsened that weekend and she died soon after.
The trunk was my father’s wedding present. Every time Susanna had a bit of money she would put something in the box. It was her way of rewarding herself for the effort expended in looking after her family.
It took all her strength – and I think the fear of losing the house kept her on the treadmill.
There was also the fear of someone from the social coming to take us away if she couldn’t take care of us properly.
Samantha worked 2 proper jobs- cleaning hospitals in the morning, working in a clothes factory in the afternoon and taking in clothes in to sew to bump up the family income. She had a gift when it came to sewing and I remember how it fascinated me as she would turn the most ordinary piece of material into something beautiful with a few stitches, embroidery and a lot of care. I take the key she left me and turn it in the lock and open the trunk to reveal neatly packed piles of shirts, trousers, suits, kente clothes, and expensive yards of fabrics. I pull out a little pink dress and swallow hard.
When I was around 8, I got invited to Jenny Pollards birthday and didn’t have a proper frock. We called dresses frocks in those days. Susanna knew how much I wanted to go and got some pink silk from Brick Lane. She embroidered the hem, neckline and sleeves with pretty white flowers and even came up with some shiny white pumps. My sisters were jealous because of this outfit.
We don’t have any money….so how come she gets a new frock and shoes! It’s not fair!
I don’t know why I had to go spoil everything by eating so much that I was sick over everything. Must have been the sight of that table groaning with all the food we seldom got to eat anymore; cakes, jellies, sausages on sticks, ham sandwiches, and jammy donuts. Mrs Pollard was nice about it though and gave me one of Jenny’s dresses to wear for the rest of the party. Everyone stared at me after that and when it was time for me to go home Susanna’s face was all squeezed up as if she was in pain. She thanked Mrs Pollard and yanked me out of the house and when we got outside she looked at me for a long time and made a hissing noise with her tongue. “Why are you disgracing me like this eh? Do we not have any food in our house?”
I was about to say that we didn’t- well not really nice food any way but the look on her face stopped me. We went home without a word.
I never did get invited to any more of Jenny’s parties.
Sometimes on Saturdays when Susanna had the morning off we would climb on the bed and watch as she opened the trunk and showed us her treasures. There were laces, gauzes, delicately embroidered laces with hand stitched jewels and pretend diamante, rich velvets and chiffons. Her wedding gown; all cream and embroidered sliver – neatly packed with mothballs and wrapped in cellophane waiting for the first of her daughters to get married.