Constructing a life together

It was the 50s, which to be honest I don’t remember much about but wish I did. (I thought that was supposed to be the 60s, which I remember only too well.) Mum was hugely pregnant with my sister; I was small(ish) and annoying, I suppose, and Mum, Dad and Grandad were building a bungalow. All I can recall from the time before building the bungalow was journeys on the top deck of the bus to see Nan. I remember hanging on to the silver rail at the front, and bashing my front teeth painfully one time when the bus made a sudden stop. We were a twenty minute bus ride away from Nan then. Once the bungalow was finished we would be in the same street.

It was a huge empty plot that had until recently been an orchard. A few of the trees had been left in the ground and for the rest of her life Mum gardened around them. She loved trees, and planted more. Eventually the Council slapped Tree Preservation Orders on them all, which meant all sorts of complications and permissions to be sought, and visits from an expensive, qualified tree-surgeon if anything needed doing to them. Things often needed doing to them as they got older. Branches fell off and landed on things, including the neighbour’s ratty little junk-filled garage, which had to be sorted out. She thought her insurance covered her for that sort of event, but it didn’t.

All I remember of the building of the bungalow is the arrival of the new loo – probably the same one that’s there now. Just unpacked from its cardboard wrapping it sat, as yet unplumbed, in the corner of the living room that would later be occupied by Dad’s armchair, an ordinary armchair at first and then, as he grew old, a monstrous adjustable armchair from which he could hardly move. Day after day he sat there, his neck supported by a special circular cushion, trying and failing to think of anything at all to say to visitors, just waiting to be allowed to change back into his pyjamas. When he died, it was found to be so heavy that strong men were needed to get it out of the house. My memory is simply of being placed on the closed lid of the shiny new loo, to eat my sandwiches in the midst of a sea of packaging.

Anyway, I skip forward half a century. That’s the thing with a family house: each room contains all the memories, layer upon layer. In that one room, simultaneously, I am with seven year old me, suffering from influenza, watching the boy next door build me a snowman in the front garden between dead-looking hydrangea bushes, and Mum seeming surprised that anyone should have bothered to do anything like that for me, and telling me to be grateful. I was grateful, and embarrassed. I didn’t know why he would build a snowman for me either.

In that same room my teenage sister sits filing and varnishing her long fingernails and I watch enviously because mine are all bitten.

In that same room I sit with my arm flung back over the sofa one Christmas – a characteristic “bored” posture – and my newish husband sits beside me, making slightly more of an effort not to look bored. He is like some exotic beast amongst my family, with his long, wild hair. I am wearing a sulky expression and those ghastly flappy trousers that hippies used to wear – the sort that trailed in the mud and went ragged around the hems. Acid yellow. Yellow, as I realised later, was the one colour I should never, ever even attempt to wear.

I burst into that same room after school to find my aunt and uncle from Devon, visiting. I didn’t know they would be there. I wish they weren’t. I am twelve, tired and stressed from a day at my new school and the journey home. My, how you’ve grown, says Devon Aunt as usual. Devon Uncle, shorter than Devon Auntie and all but blind, blunders towards me arms outstretched for a hug I really really do not want. He is wearing thick, green glasses like the bottoms of lemonade bottles. He has this tendency to put his hand on my knee. I kind of admire him, but I don’t want his hand on my knee and I don’t want to be hugged by him. I duck his flailing, outstretched arms and know at once by the awkward silence that I have committed yet another social gaffe.

In that same room, now clammy-damp and half-emptied of furniture, English Sister and I sat with my mother from two in the afternoon until eleven at night, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. She had been sectioned against our wishes. At first she didn’t understand what was going on, but after a while she did and started screeching. Then pleading. Then wheedling. Then screeching again. I don’t need to go to the hospital to have my tablets sorted out. I’ve got an appointment with the nurse on Thursday. She’ll sort them out to me. I’ll be good, I’ll be very good. You’re not really going to send me away, are you? Nothing seemed to work in the house by then. I went into the kitchen to try to make cups of tea but she’d hidden the kettle now, as well as the toaster. I boiled some water in a large saucepan but it wasn’t hot enough and the tea I brought in was kind of cool and fizzy. I remember sister looking down her nose at it and realising I’d stuffed up yet again.

In that room I sat on the back of the sofa with Canadian Sister and had my photo taken. I was seven, or whatever age it is you lose your two front teeth. There I am, grinning gappily in black and white. I am wearing a scruffy cardigan with no buttons and my hair is scraped up in a ribbon on top, coming undone. Canadian Sister is chubby at that age – around four. She has a perfectly round face and a seraphic smile. I have a long face. I look like a small horse, and mad.

They built the bungalow and our lives, and theirs, are layered within it, gradually disappearing under a final layer of dust and mildew. Sometime after Christmas English Sister will put it on the market and it will be sold to pay Mum’s ongoing fees. I have never been back since the day of the screeching, the fizzy tea and the eventual ambulance, and doubt if I ever will. Sometimes physical places get too full, too heavy, and then you need to steer clear of them, referring instead, when necessary, to a lifetime of stored images.