Leaving the nest

The Daily Inkling prompt about the hardest nest-leaving prompted me to write about the last time I ever set foot in my parent’s home. I’ve never written about it before. It must be time.

 

There was a stillness about the house as if she had just gone upstairs, or out to buy the bread, an expectancy, a trail of her perfume in the air. I could almost hear her departing steps, the click of the door. My eyes went to the chair by the window that my dad hadn’t sat in for ten years. Exactly ten years. The symmetry was unbearable, as hard as the tidiness.

She had known before anyone even knew she was sick, terminally sick, that it was over, life, living, walking the hills with her friends, nattering with us all on the phone, always a visit planned. She had spent those last weeks folding the linen away neatly, cleaning out the fridge, throwing away everything that was worn or torn or would be of no use to anyone else. Afterwards.

She permeated the air particles with that faint scent of a perfume that nobody else wore. Nothing was out of place. Everything was clean, shelves dusted, the rental paid on the TV up to the end of the month. She had even renewed the subscription at the DVD place, up to the end of the month. By then, the funeral would be over and we would have all gone home.

I wept over every still, faintly perfumed corner of that house where I had never lived. It had been my parents’ house, where they lived. Their nest. But I realised then, in that moment of sitting in a front room that had never been mine, with siblings around me, together as we had so rarely been in that house, that the house didn’t matter. It could have been a pile of dust on the dark side of the moon, but that tidiness, that delicate thoughtfulness, the faint perfume that permeated it, made it home.

After the funeral, the house died too, and we put it to rest. We emptied it of the carefully folded linen, the mementos, photos, her paintings, the furniture, all that she had thought would be useful or would please us to have, and we laid the stones to rest. My parents’ nest was empty. We have it all now, the twigs and pebbles lovingly gathered, in our hearts.

 

In springtime

spring clouds

 

I always think of them in spring

though they died on the sill of winter.

I sprang from them, was formed by them

in the shelter they built of gardens and painted quiet.

I think of them when the flowers start to open

and the leaves,

when the breeze is brisk but the sky is haphazard blue.

I think of them beneath this sky,

so far away from where they called home,

but the sky is the same everywhere,

and the blackbird’s song.

Flash fiction: A few words to lost parents

Sacha Black’s challenge this week is to write a story of less than 200 words about nostalgia that hurts. I started this piece and let it run on, as, I think it is meant to. Sorry if I passed the word limit, Sacha. Maybe I’ll try again with a different subject.

The painting, by Alice Liddle is of Holmfirth, not too far from home.

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You have both gone now, both buried in a corner of a churchyard that had never been yours. Beneath a tree, because trees don’t mind if you were Catholic or Protestant. Or foreign. Or if your living heart had always ached for a place not so far away, but unattainable. Trees understand and bow and bend and whisper in sympathy. You had both put down roots here, children, a scattering of friends, too much to let you pack up and leave when you retired. Too much, too late. The furthest you moved was to a small house down in the town to be close to the shops and the buses, pretending it was only temporary. But you stayed and you sighed, and eventually you died, and the setting sun carried all your longings away into the west.

We dry our tears, we children left behind, and walk up the steep hill out of the town, the road that curves and uncoils as it rises up to the moor. The house of our childhood is beyond the bend after the bridge over the disused railway, that peaceful, tree-filled gulf that has been silent since before we were born. We walk, remembering the way we poked our fingers in the holes of the millstone grit walls, remembering long-dead dogs that ran barking behind garden fences. We cross the bridge and remark how tall and dense the birch and hazels have grown, obscuring the valley bottom and the stream that runs there instead of railway tracks.

We fall silent when the road curves again. Beyond the last sharp rise we will be able to see the tiny hamlet and the house where our childhood ghosts still play. I hear the foxes playing on the lawn, see the dewy morning rabbits, the banks of opium poppies and broom, roses and laburnum, stone flags and apple trees. I hear the songs of bees and swallows and see white clouds scudding overhead in the summer breeze.

Soon, in a moment, the gentle barrier of time will fall, and harsh, brash reality will jackboot its way across tender memories. I will see what the new owners have done to the house in the ten years since you both moved out. I know, without ever having seen it, that there will be a garage now and a fitted kitchen, and your Victorian scavengings from junk shops, Dad, will have been replaced by furniture from Ikea. There will be a sterile lawn and a trampoline and begonias instead of the savage mass of vegetation you loved so much, Mum. I will feel the imprint of these unconscious Philistines like a physical violation.

I stop, we all stop, we grown-up tiny children. I shake my head and my siblings too hang back. I turn back down the hill, the last bend in the road impassable, like the entrance to a lost domain, my precious dreams, your dreams, clutched tight against my heart, safe from the shredding claws of disillusion.

Holly

This short story is too long for Sacha’s challenge, I know, and I usually don’t have any trouble writing very short pieces. But this one needed a bit longer.

photo ©Martin Bodman

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I’d never much cared for what my mother did to the cottage she bought after our dad died. I didn’t like the way she’d stripped down the interior, opened it up and let in the light. Cottages are supposed to be dark and poky, low beams and paint the colour of pub ceilings. I didn’t like the way she’d brought only her favourite bits from the old family house. What about the rest of the stuff? All our memories were in that house. I couldn’t take it, not with our décor. Old, worn-out just wouldn’t fit in. Without Dad, surely she should have hung onto as much as possible. His old chair with the bottom that sagged on the floor, the wardrobe with the broken hinge he was always going to mend, the rubbish he collected because ‘it might come in useful.’

I resented what she’d done, what she’d let go, what she had made of her life after Dad died. Because she did make a life, let it take a new turning. It didn’t seem fair. She did new things, took up painting again, joined a choir, did voluntary work at the wildlife sanctuary. All things Dad would have pooh-poohed. She got rid of the car, Dad’s pride and joy. Said she didn’t need it, went everywhere on foot or took the bus. And she planted that blasted holly tree in the driveway, right in front of the kitchen window. It had just been a big bush when she put it in, but after ten years it was quite a size and it was impossible for us to get the car in when we visited. Dave grumbled every time when he had to leave it on the side of the road. He’d get up every fifteen minutes to check it hadn’t got a scratch.

Dad would never have let her do such a selfish thing. Even if she didn’t need the drive, couldn’t she see how inconvenient it was for the rest of us? Jim might say he quite understood that Mum preferred to look at a holly tree rather than his old car, but that’s because his car is old. Another scratch or dent wouldn’t make any difference.

When she went, we had to decide what to do with the cottage. Jim said he was attached to the place and wouldn’t mind living there. His Sharon liked it and it was convenient for her work. But he didn’t have the money to buy my share, and is never likely to either. We had to sell. There was no choice really.

I’ll give Mum that at least, she made tidying her stuff away easy. Not that there was much left of the ‘clutter’ as she called our memories. Getting rid of the tree blocking the driveway wasn’t an option either, whatever Jim said afterwards. Dave wouldn’t do it so we got a professional in. He got the stump out too. Jim threw a fit when he saw the tree lying on the ground. He bent over it, parted the branches, not caring that the leaves were scratching his arms bloody. When he found the nest, I swear he had tears in his eyes.

“Mum loved watching the birds in this tree,” he said. “She could see them when she was in the kitchen. Her eyes weren’t good enough to see much further than this.”

I looked at the woven tressed twigs, the downy feathers sticking to the inside, Jim wiping his eyes. I imagined Mum washing up, gazing out of the window, that dreamy smile on her face she always had when she was thinking her own thoughts. She would have shaken the tablecloth out of the door and watched the birds come down, stood so still they’d forget she was there.

“In the winter, they liked the berries. That’s why she planted a holly tree.”

But sentiment doesn’t sell houses. We’d never have sold the cottage so quickly with that tree stuck in the way.

Jim hasn’t spoken to me since.

Flash fiction: Crocodiles

A short story for Ronovan’s Friday Fiction prompt.

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The two grown ups were leaning on the rail, looking down into the river. Nat peered through the wrought iron of the bridge parapet; his interest caught more by the water as it swirled around the stone piers than by what his parents were saying.

“There just isn’t the money.” His father often said things like that.

“We can’t go on like this,” his mother said. “This isn’t living. It’s surviving.”

“The car’s on it’s last too, you know.”

“No holiday, the spare bedroom’s still not finished, and now the car!”

“At least we won’t be needing the bedroom.”

His mother sighed. A dramatic sigh that Nat didn’t believe for a minute. “Who can afford kids these days?”

Nat’s ears pricked up. This was when they usually started arguing about when they were going to give him a little brother or sister. Not that they ever did. Nat would have liked to have someone to talk to, someone who listened to what he had to say. He looked up. His parents were both staring into the water. Maybe they’d seen the piece of tree that looked like a crocodile too.

“Sometimes…” His mother sighed again. “I really think it might just be easier…”

“Tempting, isn’t it?” his father said. “Drowning’s not a pleasant way to go, though.”

Nat reached through the fancy ironwork and opened his hand. He pressed his face close to watch the pebble hit the water. His mother sucked in her breath.

“Stop that!” His father’s voice was hard. Like the pebble.

He looked up in surprise. He had stopped. He only had one pebble. He glanced down; the pebble was gone. Not even a ripple marked the spot. The river flowed on and on, over the place, thick, muddy ropes of water, carrying the trees that looked like crocodiles. The voices picked up again, lower, murmuring. He didn’t listen. The crocodile slid by, joined by a stag with great antlers. And a cloud of gulls were settling, riding down the river on the back of the crocodile and perched in the stag’s antlers.

The river rolled down to the ocean, Nat knew that. The crocodile, the stag and the gulls were all going down to the beach. On the riverbank, a pair of magpies were shouting at something. And in a tree that bent low over the water a little bird was singing, so sweetly. He listened and smiled. The sky was full of cloud faces, and all he wanted was to ride on a crocodile with the gulls, down to the sea. He didn’t wonder if his parents would want to come with him. He knew the answer.

 

Poem for my parents

Time was

Once there was a time
when a house stood on a hill
filled with poems and a deep, warm voice.
The scent of turps and linseed oil
hung heavy and mysterious
amid the comforting smell of baking pastry.
Home was a ship riding a grassy sea
and green hills ran along the rim of the world.

They are gone now, into the shadows
with the home they made to hold our dreams.
But I will keep the memory of those times,
bright as a summer morning
until I too go into the shadows
beyond the rim of green hills.