The Ruskin Road House
I always knew I’d find my way back there. I’d dreamt about it often enough. In my dreams it was always exactly as we’d left it. As if we’d never moved out, but only vacated temporarily. As if all this time it was waiting for us to go back. A ghost house. A shadow. Long gone, yet ever present in my memory.
It isn’t really gone. At least, not in the literal sense. The house itself is still there. The same bricks make up the walls, the same mortar binding them together. But our house-the house we lived in-that is a thing of the past.
I knew this the moment I set eyes on it. It was Christmas years later, and we were driving past. There it was, the same house, occupying the same bit of land it always had. It had been ours not so long ago. Why then did I feel nothing? Why this curious detachment? Was it because, through my adult’s eyes, the whole place looked smaller, squatter, less imposing? Was it because the row of miniature trees Dad had planted along the edge of the front garden was no longer there? Was it because the front door had been replaced and was now of a different wood altogether? It was all of these things, and a hundred others besides.
We went in once. Dropped in with a card for my aunt and uncle, who moved in after we left. Setting foot over that threshold again was strange. Anticlimactic. I expected to feel nostalgia, but again I felt nothing. It had changed too much. The walls had been painted over, the wallpaper stripped away, and with it, my sentimentality. This was not our house. The rooms were too small, the furnishings too modern, the colours too muted. It was as if the place had shrunk. As if us leaving had caused it to fold in on itself. I imagined another house, sleeping, dormant, nestled within this impostor house. A house I could escape to, in the dead of night under the right kind of moon.
It begins like all the other dreams. Me, standing on the pavement outside at night time. Always night time. No one else around. The lights are on the in the house, a warm golden glow spilling out onto the garden, lighting up the patch of herbs Dad had tended so carefully. Rosemary and thyme and fresh mint. My absolute favourite. I know he is in there. Dad. And Josh. Where else would they be? This is their house. This is home.
A moment later Dad’s silhouette appears, moving between the glass panes on either side of the front door. Blond head, broad shoulders, barrel chest. He has been weightlifting again. Something he only does here, at this house. I want nothing more than to be in there with them.
The garden path is beckoning. The moment my sole touches the first slab, I feel a shift in the air. A tilting, as if the Earth has shifted on its axis. I hear a crack, as of rock breaking apart, or an old door being prised open after centuries of closure. I know then that it is no longer a dream.
Up the sloping garden path, a right turn, then a left, and there I am, standing before the door. I reach into my pocket and take out a key. Slide it smoothly into the lock. I never had a key; I was too young for one back then. But I have one now. Who gave it to me I do not know. It’s not important. The lock clicks back, and I am in.
Over the threshold into the mauve-painted hallway. In the corner in front of me is the wicker chair with the peacock back, frayed in places from doubling as a climbing frame when Josh and I were little. A glance to my left shows me the telephone, perched atop a narrow wicker stand. A thought strikes me. If I pick it up-if I dial that number-would I reach her? Would she be there? Only one way of knowing.
I pick up the receiver, hold it to my ear. Punch in the numbers, still imprinted on my brain after all these years.731542. The first phone number I ever learned. Nan’s number. I remember the first time I rang her. I can’t have been older than six. I asked Dad what her number was, and he told me. I remembered it instantly. It had a rhythm to it, a natural cadence. Up in the middle, down at the end, like a jingle.
After three rings it occurs to me that while Nan no longer lives there, someone else does. What would I say when a stranger answered? Mumble something about having the wrong number and hastily hang up. After six rings I almost put the phone down. My finger hovers above the button, ready to end the call in an instant. Just as I am about to lower the receiver, I hear it.
There it is. That deep, monotone drawl, the product of a lifetime of smoking. Distinctive. Unmistakable.
‘Oh hello, darling. Everything alright?’
I collapse onto the stairs. Gather the phone to me, as if by doing so I can preserve her life. Preserve her.
‘Yeah, fine. I just thought I’d give you a ring, see how you are.’
‘Oh, I’m fine, darling. I’ve been to Wednesfield this morning. I got loads of lovely things for you and Josh. I’m ever so chuffed.’
I smile at her use of the word chuffed, an old favourite of hers. Of course she’s been to Wednesfield. She’s been trawling the charity shops, although whether her purchases are indeed lovely remains to be seen.
‘Thanks, Nan. You know you don’t have to get us anything.’
‘I like to do it. I love buying things for you and Josh.’
It’s hardly the most enthralling of conversations. She prattles on about the old biddies at church, her neighbours, her daily comings and goings. And yet I could happily sit here all day just listening to her talk. So many times I have imagined what I would say to her, given the chance. Profound, soul-bearing conversations about life, love, family and loss. Not this mundane interchange. This is better. This is preferable. The sheer banality of it is more comforting than any heart-to-heart could ever be.
True to form, she doesn’t stay on the line for long. Less than two minutes later she ends the conversation with an abrupt, ‘I love you. OK, bye.’ Even this makes me smile. It’s good to know that she is the same as she always was. As if she never left.
‘You alright, bab?’
In the kitchen, Dad is peeling potatoes. He slices the newly skinned spuds into strips and tosses them into a bowl of water. On the side, the deep fat fryer is bubbling away. We got rid of the deep fat fryer over two decades ago, but here it is, fired up and ready to go.
‘Yeah, good thanks. I was just talking to Nan.’
‘Yeah, same old same old.’
I gaze around the room, take it all in. Everything I remember is here. The pine table with rounded edges pushed up against the wall, two benches tucked away underneath. I managed to drop one of them on my big toe once. The pain made me howl. Fixed to the wall above the table is a shelving unit with an arrangement of fake fruit. I never quite got the appeal of faux peaches myself, but Mom liked them. They are quite convincing. Auntie Lisa once asked if she could have one, only for Mom to reply, ‘You could if they were real.’
On top of the fridge is the clay teapot-cum-teddy bear house Mom made for Josh when he was a baby. I was so jealous of that teapot. It was exquisite, sitting on its circular base with a path winding up to the door, and a family of teddy bears arranged in various poses in the garden. I always wondered what became of it, after she died. I assumed Dad had got rid of it on the basis that it was too painful a reminder. Fascinated, I lift it down from its perch on top of the fridge. I always imagined it painted buttermilk yellow. It looked right in my four-year-old mind. I spend the next ten minutes peering at it from all angles, tracing my fingers over it. Dad is shooting sideways looks at me as he peels the spuds, a smile on his face.
‘She was very talented, your Mom.’
‘I know. I could do pottery for the rest of my life and still never be able to make anything like this.’
After dinner I go out into the garden where, curiously, it is daytime again. We’ve had some lovely gardens over the years, but none of them could ever hold a candle to the one at Ruskin.
At the bottom is the yard where Dad used to weight-lift. To my right is his bench press, an assortment of weights piled up around it. To the left is a building comprising the outhouse, shed and outside toilet. The latter is a filthy concrete cell full of spider webs and peeling paint. Nowadays I wouldn’t go near it, but when I was little, I didn’t care.
Up the steps where, at age four, I encountered my first hedgehog. At the top stands the hawthorn tree, the ground beneath it littered with petals from the tiny white flowers. I tried to climb it on multiple occasions, regarding the thorns as something of a challenge. I never did get very far. To my right is a rectangular patch of concrete where the potted plants are kept. Pansies mostly. One year we had a bed of African daisies. The colours were simply glorious. That is, until I turned the hosepipe on Nan one day as a joke. The force of the water caused the swing bench she was sitting on to topple backwards, flattening all but a handful of daisies.
Apparently, when I was little, I would often come in from the garden bearing armfuls of Dad’s flowers. I would cheerily announce that I had “found them” in the garden, and Dad would smile through gritted teeth and say, “You found them did you, bab? That’s nice.” I used to put the petals in bowls of water overnight in the hope of making perfume. Years later Dad confessed that Mom used to pour her own perfume into the water after I had gone to bed-a revelation that was both heart-rendingly sweet and strangely disappointing.
I am delighted to see that the two lilac trees are back, one in the bottom right hand corner, one in the top left. They are both in bloom, even though in reality that short window has passed. I discovered that if I clambered up over the compost heap in the back corner, I could climb down between the branches of the lilac tree. I would often take a book and just sit there reading, immersed in my own little world of purple and green.
The lilac trees are long gone now. I don’t know who uprooted them, or why you would remove such beautiful trees, but someone did. Gone is the flowering currant in the centre of the lawn, and the memorial garden Dad created for Mom after she died. Obviously, whoever moved in after us wasn’t going to keep it, why would they? But knowing it’s gone still makes me a little sad.
It consisted of a large letter J which Dad dug out himself and then filled in with white pebbles. One of her friends from the woodwork group she attended made a varnished wooden cross, which we erected in the top left-hand corner. I remember helping Dad prune the flowering tobacco plants that grew there, the vivid pink of their petals.
Whoever lives here now does not care for gardens. A quick search on Google Maps recently showed me that. It is now nothing more than a long stretch of grass with what looks like a patch of dirt at the far end. Forgotten. Neglected. All Dad’s hard work undone by carelessness. Those on either side are even worse, resembling scrapheaps more than gardens. Part of me wants to go round there, to bang on the door and demand to know why they didn’t take better care of it.
So it is wonderful to stand here now and see all three gardens restored to their former, well-tended glory. To see our flowerbeds bursting with colour. Lilies and honeysuckle and forget-me-nots. The upward sloping lawn with the rockery at the far end.
To the right of us is Rita and Ted’s garden. Impeccably kept, I always admired it. I was particularly jealous of their water feature, a small two-tiered fountain just the other side of our fence. Perfect poking distance if you had a long enough stick. Ted knocked the window to me once for doing that. A glance at the house shows me the familiar plastic butterflies fixed to the brickwork above the kitchen window. I used to think they were the height of taste once upon a time.
The garden to our left belongs to Mary and Tom, a lovely elderly couple too good for this estate, if I’m honest. Tom loved dahlias, and the garden is full of them. Nothing else, just dahlias. He could often be seen pottering about the flowerbeds, and always had a smile for us. A former navy officer, he worked on the gun boats during the war. One day one of the guns hadn’t been secured properly. It swung round and went off next to his head, leaving him completely deaf in both ears.
Their kitchen window is visible from our garden. I peer into it and see Mary standing there, cardigan sleeves rolled up, washing dishes in the sink. Her eyes are downcast behind the enormous lenses of her square-rimmed glasses. As if she senses me watching her, she stops, looks up, and waves. I wave back, comforted by the knowledge that this most sacred ground is back in good hands, at least for now.
After my little jaunt around the garden I head upstairs to my old room. Located at the back of the house, it looks out over the garden. Through the window I can see Tom watering the dahlias. He always said evening was the best time to do it.
As I sit down on the bed, I hear the twang of springs. I’d forgotten how awful this mattress was. I can feel the coils of metal digging into the backs of my thighs. I ignore them and let my eyes scan the room, taking in the glass-topped dressing table, the chunky blue CD player Dad bought me one Christmas, the row of porcelain dolls on the shelf behind the door. The terracotta carpet cannot hide the dips in the uneven floorboards. I discovered long ago that one of them is loose. Every so often I would pull it up and peer at the tangles of wires beneath. I’m not sure why.
To my left are my old inbuilt wardrobes, stretching from floor to ceiling. The sight of them reminds me of the bedtime story projector I had as a child. Dad would slide the cartridge in and images of Noddy and Big Ears would be beamed onto the wardrobes to my unceasing amazement. It remains to this day one of my most magical childhood memories.
The next night I go back. I don’t know how. It’s not a conscious effort. I simply find myself back on that same spot on the pavement. This time there is a dog barking. A deep, booming sound coming from somewhere behind the house.
Curious, I stride up the garden path towards the back gate. I unhook it, push it open, and am almost bowled over by a hulking white Alsatian. King, alive again after all these years. Tail wagging furiously, he rears up, places his front paws on my shoulders. On his hind legs he’s almost as tall as me.
‘Hello, boy. Long time, no see.’
Just then the back door opens and Dad appears.
‘I thought I heard the dog going the game.’
I smile. I haven’t heard anyone say going the game in years. He pats King on the head, ruffling the fur like you might ruffle a child’s hair.
‘Are you coming in, then?’
It’s unclear whether he is speaking to me or the dog. He stands back, and King goes charging past him into the house. I follow close behind.
‘We’re having Chinese for tea, is that alright?’
It’s not really a question. He knows I’ll never object to Chinese takeaway. Half an hour later the three of us sit down in front of the TV with platefuls of food from Ying Wah. A Ken Special they call it, supposedly named after the chef who came up with it. In truth it’s not that special. It’s just chips, rice and sauce. I’ve had far better, and yet I devour the lot like it’s the most sumptuous meal I’ve ever tasted.
After we have finished, King licks my plate clean and then hops up on the sofa next to me. As his enormous bulk settles down, a memory bobs up from the depths of my mind. Mom complaining that King’s hair gets everywhere. Picking up the sofa cushions one by one and shaking them. She did this on an almost daily basis, leading four-year-old me to conclude that all unwanted hair must be dog hair. Whenever Dad had stubble, I would stroke his cheeks disapprovingly and declare, ‘Dad, you’ve got dog hairs!’ Evidently, my dislike of facial hair began at a young age.
As it’s a Friday, we indulge in our long-established routine of watching comedy shows on TV. It started when Josh was little. Dad would put him to bed, and as I was a bit older, I would get to stay up and watch TV with him. So began my lifelong love of stand-up and panel shows. Tonight our favourite is on: Have I got news for you. It’s a new one, focusing on the events of the past week. I haven’t gone back in time. It is still June 2018. I am still my twenty-seven-year-old self. The course of my life remains unaltered. And yet here I am, back in my old house as if it’s still the nineties.
The next time I go back it is Christmas, which is strange because it’s actually August. I stand on the pavement as usual, but instead of balmy summer air, it is glacial and crisp. The sky is pastel blue. It looks fragile, as if it might shatter into a thousand pieces if I don’t tread carefully. So I tiptoe up the frost-encrusted path, past the empty flower beds and sleeping herb garden.
Once inside, I head straight for the living room. There is our old Christmas tree in all its multicoloured glory. Draped in tinsel and battered-looking nutcrackers, it is not the neatest or the most tasteful, but then nothing in this house ever was. Speaking of tat, I turn my attention to the streamers dangling from the ceiling. Made of red and green foil, most of them are years old. Some have bits missing or hanging off, probably from Josh and me ragging them around. To me they are beautiful vestiges of my past. Strange, how such mundane items can conjure up such nostalgia.
On my fourth visit I discover that the house can change. That it is capable of taking on any of the various incarnations it embodied over the years. I wander up to my bedroom and find it as it was when I was four years old. In the corner is the hammock that used to house my cuddly toys. I could never understand why Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me go in it. Now I can see that the only thing tacking it to the walls is a couple of nails. The quilt cover is white with a motif of gambolling cartoon puppies. As a child I loved it so much that I used to climb inside it and just sit there with a book. Mom always told me to get out as she was worried that I would suffocate.
The living room is different too. The first few times it was as I remember it in the late nineties. Electric fireplace, dark blue carpet, peach wallpaper with a light blue border. It occurs to me that people don’t really do borders anymore. Those were Dad’s choices. Today is different. Today the carpet is a curious grey-green colour with a floral pattern. Thick, olive curtains hang in the windows, and the sill is littered with the ornamental cottages that Mom loved so much. They are all here, intact, just as they were before I dropped and broke most of them. She must have been so annoyed at me for that.
Gone is the electric fireplace now, and in its place is the open fire we had when I was little. To this day I find the scent of wood smoke hugely comforting, because it takes me back to that time. No doubt Dad will be feeding it later with scrunched up newspaper and logs. I fed it too sometimes. Or rather Mom fed it, with the toys I had left lying around. Not the expensive ones, obviously. But things like stickers, building blocks, little toy animals-they would all find their way onto the fire if I failed to tidy up after myself. A heavy-handed way to teach me a lesson, perhaps, but an undeniably effective one.
Next to the fireplace is a gas fire. Another household item you don’t see anymore. Two fires in one room. I’m told this house was freezing, having no central heating, but because I was used to it back then, I simply didn’t feel it.
‘It’s like the house is reverting,’ I say to Josh later that evening. ‘Like it’s going back to how it was back when Mom was alive.’
‘I thought it was, but I wasn’t sure.’
He goes on to say that the giant red toy box has reappeared in his room, filled with the little plastic cars he loved so much as a child.
If Josh has noticed, surely that means Dad has too. I decide to broach it with him, as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
‘Why do you keep coming back here?’
I freeze, one foot half way out the back door, hand on the door frame. This is the first indication Dad has given that this is anything other than our usual existence. I remain silent, turn a quizzical face to him. Feign incomprehension, see where he leads me.
‘You know you’re not going to find her, don’t you?’
I feel the wind go out of me, as surely as if he had punched me in the stomach. I do my best to conceal it, but he must have seen.
‘Your Mom’s gone. It’s been too long. There’s nothing left of her here.’
‘If that’s the case then why do you keep coming back?’
‘Same reason as you.’
‘And what is that?’
‘Hope. In spite of everything.’
I have no idea what to say to him, so I nod to show I understand. Then I leave. I can’t bear to be in this situation any more. I go out to the garden, but that feels too enclosed. So I scramble up the compost heap and over the fence. Drop the eight feet to the ground below, and I am off. Swallowed up on the vast expanse of Bushbury Hill.
I run. Through the grounds of Morton School, out onto the gravel path. Past the reservoir, the telegraph pole they attempted to disguise as a tree, to the crest of the hill. Wolverhampton is laid out before me. I can see a train chugging along the horizon. The ground slopes away from me, Saint Mary’s church nestled at the bottom.
If she’s not here, then why am I? Why would life bring me back here if not to reunite me with her? Dad is wrong. He has to be.
The crem is not far away. I wonder. If I were to walk there, would I find her? If I go right and down the hill to the spot where I know she lies. To the stone whose inscription I can recite by heart. Will she be there?
I point my feet in that direction. I am about to set off when something pulls me back. I don’t want to know. Not really.
I sit for a while on a wooden bench, staring glassily at the city below. The sun migrates across the sky and dips towards the western horizon, trailing streaks of peach in its wake. Minutes later those streaks have darkened to fuchsia, and it occurs to me that I should probably go back.
As usual when I have been upset, Dad does not acknowledge it verbally. Instead he placates me with food, setting down a plate of fajitas before me with an apologetic half-smile. It is his way of telling me he understands, and it touches me deeply.
After dinner I go up to my room. Collapsing onto my bed, I am overcome with exhaustion. States of high emotion always leave me feeling drained. I am not conscious of closing my eyes, nor can I say at what point my thoughts begin to melt into dreams.
When I wake, it is the middle of the night. The house feels different. Quiet. Dad and Josh are not here. But I am not alone. I can sense it. There is someone downstairs. I can feel their presence radiating up through the floor. Hoisting myself out of bed, I pad across the landing. At the top of the stairs I pause, head cocked to one side, listening. I can hear nothing, but I know they are there. Down the stairs I go, treading softly, as if too much noise could frighten the visitor away. As if they are some skittish forest animal. One wrong move and they might scarper. Flit away into the trees and vanish.
The hall is dark. The living room door closed. A narrow strip of golden light is slinking out from under it. I should feel nervous. Instead I feel perfectly calm. I turn the handle. Push open the door.
And there she is.
She is sitting in an armchair, feet on a matching pouffe, and in one hand she clutches a glass of wine. Dry white. I still remember. There is another glass on a nearby table, as if she was waiting for me. She looks up as I enter, watches me close the door with a smile that lights up her eyes. Eyes the exact same shape as mine. Her jaw is a little squarer, her lips a little fuller. But the eyes, the cheekbones, the shape of the nose are all identical to my own.
I should say something momentous. Something that will transcend the decades of separation. Nothing comes to mind; I am not good with spoken words. In the end it is she who speaks first.
She moves her feet, beckons me to sit down.
I take the proffered glass from her.
‘Thanks. I’m quite partial to it nowadays.’