In previous episodes I have, I hope, conveyed a sense that my mother, now widowed, fully intended to do things her way. She bought a bungalow close to the town centre of New Milton in the autumn of 2005 and instructed her trusty and trusted builder, Roger Torah to plan what needed doing. The place was tired, 1970s tired which frankly wasn’t a decade where you felt inclined to try and preserve and refurbish. One can have too much avocado.
But any idea I might have had that she wanted a tidy up plus a few new appliances was scotched on Roger’s first visit. First up, my train was late getting in so Mum and Roger were already engaged on a detail debate. I didn’t need to hear the words. I just had to see him tapping walls to know we were talking structural, not superficial.
‘Your mum seems to think knocking through the kitchen is a good idea.’
She didn’t meet my eye. I smiled at him. ‘Oh yes. I think it is essential.’
She beamed at me. Craven. Coward. Quisling. I could hear my wife and sister in law ready to point out why such extensive works were unnecessary.
Perhaps a slight backtrack is needed. Like a lot of rural homes, circa 1965 to 1985 the advent of central heating hadn’t changed the attitude that you didn’t just heat everywhere. Oh no. You turned on radiators in bedrooms (a) if there was a sign of damp (b) if guests were due (c) if advised by at least two medical professionals your child’s life depended on it. You certainly did not do so because a child complained about the ice on the inside of the window pane.
As a consequence the one room where you might always find someone was the kitchen, filled with steam – not always pleasant steam: boiled handkerchiefs are not in the same olfactory ballpark as vanilla pods and crusty white bread. But steam is begat by warmth. We now have a little wooden sign on our kitchen wall ‘No matter where I place my guests, they always like my kitchen best’. It summed up life with my parents and mum was never happier than when in the kitchen. So creating the perfect kitchen was, to me, as essential as making sure the toilets flushed.
Mum waxed lyrically about Bessemer beams and supporting columns. The best place for the sink and… She stopped. ‘Come with me.’
She was on a roll, the sort of roll stones embark upon when intent on gathering no naysayers. Off the narrow hallway, just outside the kitchen sat two cupboards, full of bits of carpet kindly left by the previous owner in the expectation that purple and cerise onion swirls made from a polyester and Brillo mix would one day reinvent themselves as the must have floor covering. Mum opened the one to the right. ‘Imagine,’ Mum didn’t use words like imagine – not practical enough, ‘a toilet.’
I breathed again. Actually a downstairs loo wasn’t a bad idea but.. ‘There’s a bathroom behind here, mum. You don’t need another toilet, do you?’
Mum was of the school that considered an extra toilet in the same way a starving dog considers a rotisserie chicken. Gift horses were never so orthodontically ignored as when they comprised a toilet. ‘I have plans.’
Gradually Mum unveiled these plans. They translated into a quote of 14 pages in length. In amongst the basics there were a gravel drive replacing tarmac ‘I’ve always wanted to have a crunch when I drive up to the house’, an electronic door to the garage and a car port to keep her dry as she unloaded her shopping, all labour saving devices which Dad would not have countenanced. When someone pointed this out she said, ‘Exactly’.
While she focused on the house I began clearing the garden. Most of it was lawn but about two thirds the way back there was a line of trees and shrubs that gave the garden some character. Mum loved this line; not her usual mix but I set about de-weeding it and making the whole thing presentable. While I was working on it a neighbour lent over the fence and offered to buy the back 60 foot of garden. With it he could build a second bungalow on his plot. Really mum didn’t need it, she was still left with a generous 50 foot, more than adequate for the size of bungalow and what he offered would pay for a lot of the building works. But mum would lose the trees and shrubs. I had to ask but I knew the answer. Or rather I could interpret the silence easily enough.
Roger was excellent; I think he enjoyed working with Mum. She demanded high standards but she wasn’t silly, she made quick and sensible decisions (building decisions that is; the cost wasn’t a factor high on her list) and he made sensible suggestions accommodating her age and physical limitations in a sensitive way. But even so my plan to have her moved in before the winter proved well short of the mark. And we had agreed she would only move and we would only sell the family house once she was in.
Finally, in the early months of 2006, the end was in sight. It looked fantastic. Everything was ready. All we had to do was pack up her home of the last 37 years, moved five miles down the road to a house half the size and sell the family manor. Easy peasy.