“God gave us memories that we might have roses in December. ”
J.M. Barrie, Courage
It was the suitcase that really got me. It’s weird but I felt like I could tell a lot about Martin Carter from that little brown leather case. Neatly but sparsely packed, just a few modest personal items, no frills. Even his pyjamas looked pressed. The case, sitting on the bed, stood out a mile: its pristine order at odds with the crowded chaos of the rest of its surrounds.
Martin lived alone and it seems somewhere along the way, his past and his present collided and it’s hard to tell in which he was really living by the end. Everywhere you looked there was mementos and memories gathering dust. The leftovers of his life lay lonely, tangled and knotted in amongst everyday bits and pieces: His sister’s collection of sewing patterns, news clippings from the Pope’s visit, faded photos of smiling, happy strangers mingled in amongst table salt, shaving foam, his VHI appointment reminder card.
It’s funny. I thought clearing out the house would make me excited. It felt like a very real step forwards for us and our big project. Sure we’d done all the paperwork stuff, but this was proper tangible progress you could see and touch and feel. For once, I was the one barrelling ahead, mad keen to create a clean slate in the hope it would make the place feel more like ours and less like we had wandered in through someone else’s front door.
It was also necessary. Getting the planner out to have a gander to see what we might or perhaps more importantly might not, be allowed do with the place should give us an idea of just what shape this island-bearing dream might take and just who this house will be when it grows up. Plan A, aka what seems like the easiest and more importantly cheapest route, would be to just roll in the bulldozers, knock the whole thing and start from scratch. Plan B will come into play if we have to keep the facade of the terrace that’s already there, not a disaster but a bit more hassle. There are also loads of other permutations but bottom line, its all down to the planner. (oh God love them, he or she will be getting the most intense love bomb from my over friendly needy please love us persona). But first things first, they need to be able to see the whole structure when they come which, to be honest in its existing state, would have required scuba diving equipment to get through the rooms. So there was nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and wade in.
Like I said, I thought it would make me excited. It made me so sad. As hard as we tried to keep our blinkers on as we plundered through the rooms, we both found ourselves getting to know Martin. Just little snippets: the same faces popping up in photos. His joinedy uppy handwriting. A taste for hobs nobs and apple tarts. His love for white roses that are happily still blooming unawares in the garden. It, and we, felt terrible. This was his home. And here we were, perfect strangers, trawling through this old man’s everything, ready to black bag what remained of his whole life. I just kept thinking what happens to all his memories now there is no-one to remember them?
Part of me thinks well maybe he would be glad a family is coming to live here, that it had been too quiet around there for a while and that little girls will chase away the ghosts of the past with giggles, ring o’roses and Peppa Pig. Another piece of me thinks it will always be Martin’s house and that his memories will always echo in the bricks. But maybe that’s ok. There’s plenty of room for all of us and perhaps we just need to allow our own thread free to stitch its way through this cemented memory box we all now share and embroider new memories in the walls.
We didn’t know Martin but I think we have gleaned enough to think he was happy here and that despite appearances, this was a treasured and much loved home.
Martin never got to unpack his suitcase. So we’ll do that. And we’ll keep his photos. His white roses too. And we’ll remember to smell them. January to December.