I think we have established that my mother knows her own mind. I use the present tense, not because I’m a particular believer in the supernatural but rather because there will forever be a voice in my ear saying ‘Geoffrey’ – she’s one of only two people who use my full name – ‘don’t do that.’ Helping her buy a replacement for the family home proved that hypothesis beyond a shadow of a doubt.
They say one of the most stressful things to do is buy a house. It’s up there with having a baby, divorce and watching England in the Euros or, indeed, any football tournament. Buying a house with my mother was on the extreme end of that spectrum. I left you last time, on the way to view the properties my mother had earmarked for my consideration. The decision had been made to buy first and sell second – at 80 she didn’t need the hassle of combining the two moves and, well, you’ll see the other reason.
I may have left the impression that mum was stubborn to the point of intransigence. That was true but I would have said only when it came to what she considered right for her family. For herself, she was generally reasonably biddable. Well, at least when Dad was alive. Thus it was I felt sure, that, in the case of choosing a new home for herself – the first such purchase in 35 years, after all – she would listen to reason. Reason being embodied in her lawyer son.
She had developed certain criteria, in consultation with my Aunt, her sister in law:
1. It must have a south or west facing garden;
2. It must be a bungalow;
3. It must be within three roads of New Milton’s town centre to help with the shopping trips; and
4. It mustn’t be completely overlooked.
You will notice 1. The garden. She may be moving because she couldn’t mange her beloved garden but, even at 79, nearly 80 she was not going to be without something within which to potter and the last thing she was prepared to tolerate was an east or, worst of all, north facing garden. ‘I don’t have enough years to cope with that, darling.’
She and Anne had a list. Six properties. I read the details over breakfast. I’ll be honest. The first two bungalows appeared pretty unexceptional on paper and in practice but she wanted to set a tone, set a benchmark. One of the two failed spectacularly on point 3 and the other one on point 4, though with this one, the inside was a cosy delight. I could see her there but when I mentioned this, Mum described it as akin to a Priest hole for the hippy generation. And she thought the owner voted Labour. So that was that.
Number 3, on paper, seemed perfect. A neat, west facing garden. It wasn’t overlooked and was within an easy walk of the centre of the town. I mentioned this to her. The non committal way she offered me more toast told me there was an undisclosed problem. Which became apparent as soon as we drove up to it an hour or so later.
‘Oh right, I see,’ I said as I stood by the drive.
‘We can’t do anything can we? It isn’t something we can change.’ Mum looked at me, confident that what we had was a congenital flaw.
The estate agent for this one stood between us. He looked at one of us and then the other, not understanding, He said, ‘But it fits each of the criteria, Mrs Le Pard. To the letter.’
I looked at Mum and together we said, ‘Pebble-dash.’ You see dad had this thing about rendered houses, believing the rendering wasn’t a decorative feature but an attempt to hide a architectural wart, incipient dry root, or subsidence or similar. It would be disloyal to his memory to take this one forward. Mum felt for the young man who had clearly tried his best. She decided to point out another flaw, one she was sure he would appreciate. She waved at the front garden and, to soften the blow said, ‘They have gnomes, too. No, it just wouldn’t do.’
What was wrong with number four? The house itself was rather bland though only recently built so came with a string of impressive sounding guarantees. The garden seemed to be something of a movable feast, though. It was still a building site and we were told there were both money and plans in place for a make over. Which was more than you could say about the fencing. I looked at the proffered plan and tried to make sense of position of the fence posts and couldn’t. ‘I don’t think this is a good idea, mum. It looks to me like a dispute in the making.’
She patted my arm. ‘I’m glad you said so, darling. I felt there was something wrong and your sage advice settles it. There’s also an awful lot of bindweed. Next.’
I admit it. I beamed. I might be 50 something. I might have been a partner for 20 years in an International Law Firm of some small repute, but mum taking my advice just then filled me with a warm glow. She was going to listen to me as I had hoped. Off we headed for numbers five and six, mum holding tightly onto her stick – it wasn’t that long before that she had had a knee replacement operation. And I allowed myself a little moment imagining how I would help her come to the right decision for her next and final move.
The two bungalows left to view are what are known as Chalet Bungalows which means they aren’t bungalows at all but have bedrooms upstairs, built into the slopping roof. In both cases, however, they had plenty of space downstairs if at any stage Mum felt the need to give up on the bedrooms up top. There was a reasonable amount of storage built into what was left of the roof space. The room sizes were decent. The gardens were orientated to the west and, best of all they both resided on the first residential road after the shops.
All that said, one had been completely refurbished, in beautiful soft tones with the latest equipment and with full regard to the needs of an elderly resident. The other, built in the mid 1970s (they both had in truth) had been lovingly maintained but had had no major work done for at least 20 years. It oozed potential but needed a lot of work.
I kept my counsel as we walked around. I asked questions of the agents, I poked and prodded. Mum gave nothing away, chatting to the owners, admiring some feature here, some picture there.
We thanked the last agent for his time and withdrew back home to consider what we had seen. I was offered tea and crumpets.
‘Well mum. The first one was immaculate. You may want to change the odd piece of wall paper but it is ready to move in. Not all of it would be your taste…’
‘Oh no, I think it is lovely.’
Was that a clue? Or a trap? Hmm.
‘The other is just perfect for someone who wants a blank canvas to create their own home. It looks tired but someone could make a lot of it. That said such a person would be committing to a heck of a lot of work.’
‘Oh yes. Six months probably.’
‘Yes. At least. Walls to take out, plumbing changes, new boiler, a completely new kitchen and windows and so on.’
‘What about price?’
‘I don’t think that is too much of an issue. The difference would cover the cost of the refurbishment. But you would have to manage the builders. You couldn’t live there. It would need daily visits to check up. A lot to manage. Maybe you should sleep on it.’
‘We will put an offer in on Monday.’
‘Mum. That’s a bit soon. Shouldn’t we…?’
‘Darling, which one?’
I studied that seemingly bland countenance, the inexpressive eyes, the static eyebrows, the gentle curve of her mouth, suggesting a smile somewhere nearby.
‘Logic, good sense says a woman in her 80s with a dodgy knee, arthritis and eye sight that has seen better days should go for the finished product. However you want to do the doey-uppey, don’t you?’
‘Do you want my opinion?’
‘Will you listen to it?’
‘If it accords with my own, yes.’
‘And if not?’
‘I have spent nearly 55 years, apparently moderating my views to allow your father to think he was in charge of the big decisions and I’m not wasting time training you up. I need reinforcement, not resistance.’
‘Ok. I guessed as much. Well, let’s have some fun then. You’ll need to stay here, won’t you?’
She beamed. She had me just where she wanted me. ‘Mum when I gave you that legal advice, on house number 4. About the fence. If you had wanted that bungalow, would you have listened to me?’
She smiled. Mum could really unleash a smile when she wanted to. ‘I don’t think we need to consider speculative what ifs, do we? So do we offer the asking price or go for a negotiation?’
And to end with one more of Dad’s poems, this one about the Isle of Wight Ferry. We would catch the Lymington to Yarmouth Ferry every year to take a walk across the island, to the southern undercliff, to check up on the health of a colony of Marsh Fritillary. This probably reflects one of those blissful days of doing nothing yet feeling like what we were doing was very important.
Crisp and fresh the air this morning on the open upper deck
While the muddy river waters froth and churn,
There’s a drift of salty spray as our vessel pulls away,
And Lymington is slowly left astern.
The sun is still half-hidden in the early morning haze,
And all around the screaming seagulls fly,
And, ahead, the Island lies on a barely seen horizon
Like a supine giant, dark against the sky.
Across the gleaming mudflats the distant reedbeds stand,
A verdant carpet, lavishly unrolled,
While beyond, the tops of trees, barely stirring in the breeze,
Catch the morning sun and briefly glow with gold.
A solitary heron, still and silent, sees us pass,
Poised to strike and single-minded, shows no fear,
For the swirling tide reveals the writhing, silver eels,
And swiftly falls the deadly darting spear.
Past the Yacht Club and Marina, past a multitude of masts,
Past the posts and buoys that mark our course along,
‘Till the Solent is before us and seabirds’ raucous chorus
Is mingled with the rising seawind song.
The mist has nearly gone now, and across a sparkling sea
The Ferry, slow and steady, makes her way,
And all the world is bright in the shining morning light,
With the promise of a lovely summer’s day.