The months roll forward and summer approaches. The builders have nearly finished the now total internal upgrade of my mother’s new bungalow and the prospect of selling the family home looms large.
My mother is sanguine about the prospect. She has already moved emotionally and enjoys each final season with a slightly melancholic relish, rubbing eucalypt leaves between her fingers and collecting seeds from fritallaria and foxglove for her new beds.
The contorted willow sheds its deep olive green leaves for her last time and her sighs contain yet another packaged memory – of my father’s rootless anxiety when she announced she was planting this willow next to the illegal overflow from our cesspit.
Dad knew of the overflow though he refused to acknowledge it – in dry summers the verdant green strip across the lawn rather gave it away – like some early punk rocker who experimented with agreen Mohican, the grass nourished by diluted faecal matter that seeped from 70 year old pipes stood loud and proud for all to see.
‘Barbs, the willow finds water. It’ll be in – you know where – like a ferret up the trousers and if the council gets wind…’
‘Don’t be ridiculous darling.’ Mum’s put downs always comprised a mix of infantilising the speaker with a leavening of love.
Dad waited for disaster which came some fifteen years later when a council man, cleaning the ditch alongside the garden hedge after yet another flood ‘got wind’ in a tangible way one steamy summer afternoon. ‘Did you know you had an illegal overflow mate?’ He asked dad.
‘Really? That’s appalling,’ said dad, ‘The previous owners never said.’ He omitted to mention we had lived in the house for 25 years at this point. ‘I’ll get it sorted at once.’
A shame in a way. One feature of our growing up, for the Archaeologist and me, were the occassions when ‘Lavender’ Jim came to empty the cesspit. We’d make ourselves scarce as he pumped and bucketed it empty, making a mental note of another career choice that was closed to us.
The modern septic tank sits buried next to the greenhouses. They, more than any other feature represent the gradually deterioration of mum and dad’s garden, no longer tthe old man’s refuge from any of his many frustrations.
My children, by contrast, are devastated at the idea of the sale. It’s a tangible part of their upbringing, a place of the happiest of memories. Why I am both asked and ask myself do I not feel the same way? Isn’t it home?
The answer is that it will always be a part of me but home has never been a place but a state of mind.
It is a Saturday, early July 2006, when I come to mum’s. We have an appointment with reputedly the best estate agents in Lymington. That turns out to be something of a misnomer but we don’t know at the time. More to the point we have no expectations on how attractive the house will be. Mum and dad bought it in 1969 for £6,500. Since then, they have extended it and added to it. It is well proportioned, sits inside the boundary of the New Forest National Park and has a fabulous garden. It is surrounded by farms and another ten houses but otherwise resides in rural isolation. On the other hand there is no public transport nearby, the nearest shop is well over a mile away and it is on a fast road, by a junction where accidents happen with somewhat sickening regularity.
‘Ooo,’ he says, he being the agent we speak to. ‘Where exactly?’ He’s dribbling, metaphorically, as he imagines the fee. ‘Circa £450,000 I’d say.’
Mum nods, I smile.
‘We should put it on at £475. Perfect time too.’
‘Why?’ We both ask together. We are stunned by the price, only capable of querying the timing.
‘Start of the school hols. Loads of people come here for a break, fall in love and decide to buy somewhere. This is ideal.’
Mum and I exchange another smile at our foresight, as if we had deliberately chosen this moment.
The man – Mr Gubbins, perhaps – begins to scribble. It becomes apparent that he wants to launch the property on an unsuspecting but inevitably receptive audience within a week. Ah, problem number one.
‘Next weekend we are going away – a residential course in Marlborough for a week. Maybe we launch when we get back.’
Gubbins is not happy, his dribbling now a pout. ‘If you leave us with keys we can show people round.’
Now Mum isn’t happy but she allows herself to be persuaded – generally she doesn’t fall for the charms of snake oil salespeople but Gubbins must have a secret musk undetectable to 50 something lawyers. Gubbins will produce the draft particulars for our approval and show people round, ‘a pre-look, if the particulars aren’t ready’ he says, staring on Saturday afternoon. We will have left on Saturday morning.
We are content. Mum and I head off for a well earned lunch with her brother, wife and my cousins and leave Gubbins to swoon in his office. On Monday he will appear to photo the house, take measurements and agree the descriptions with Mum. I, in the meantime will organise a seller’s survey, something I’m aware can save time and argument if any likely defects are noted before offers are made – too many times in my property selling life, both personally and professionally have buyers sought to chisel the agreed offer when they have a survey done. Not this time, I tell myself, smugly.
We are standing by the car while I fiddle with the keys. Mum leans on the roof and looks at me. ‘What do you think of that young man?’ she asks.
‘I guess he’ll do a good job.’
She pulls the door open and begins to lower herself in gently, her new knee not yet fully mobilised. ‘Yes I suppose. It’s just a shame he was such a prick.’
And here are a couple of Dad’s poems to Mum, as originally typed by him
Next time: Apprenticed to my mother – offer and acceptance