Nobody liked her and everyone cheered when she died. Or would have done if she had ever taken the time to get to know anyone. I only knew her by way of being related to her. I am Mary Veronica Findlay’s granddaughter and it has fallen on me to do her house clearance.
It’s not like people haven’t tried over the years. I wrote her a letter when I was 18, saying my mother wouldn’t disclose why she fell out with her, but I bore her no ill will and would she like me to come and visit. “I’m too old to be entertaining young guests” was her reply. When my mum passed away of cancer, Mary declared she was too frail to attend the funeral. Eventually everyone Mary knew grew weary of her frostiness, her excuses, the pessimism that seemed to pervade every little interaction. Even the Christmas cards which I kept up just for a hint of normalcy were filled with how she, the country and its people were all going to wrack and ruin, before she’d quickly sign off, claiming she had to ‘run’ to the post office before it closed.
There’s only a few things left to go now. The mattress (the charity van guys would not take it. One of them cited hygiene reasons as I watched him pick his nose and flick it into the tulips). A few bits of crockery, which I’m going to take to my ex Jerry for valuation as he loves his Wedgwood (more than he ever loved me, but I’ve made my peace with that now). A grandfather clock (Mary’s substitute for my grandfather? – who shuffled off in his late fifties, a myocardial infarction I always suspect was nagged into being by his wife constantly tearing into him). And a beautiful peach coloured leather jacket, that seemed a beacon of fleshy hope on the grey gloomy bones of the stripped back house.
My plan was by uploading the coat on the local listings pages under the title “I’m Free!”, the curious and discerning folk of Faversham will be lured in, then see the further four bags of clothes, most of equal beauty or above, peeping out from the bedroom whose door while carefully be left ajar. Which I’ll be charging for based on what I think the new would-be models can afford. Hell, I’ve been judged throughout this process, from the nurses that were calling four times daily to do blood tests who were obviously wondering why I hadn’t showed up sooner, to the guy I sold her lawnmower to who asked if I needed my topiary trimmed while I was there. So it’s time to turn the tablets. And turn the nest of tables that were in the living room into firewood, as there were no takers and I already called the energy company to close Mary’s accounts. I did laps of the living room while on the phone to the funeral directors just so I could get some feeling back into my frozen feet.
Back when I finally unearthed my spare key and first set (warmer) foot in Mary’s house, to the untrained eye it looked like something straight off the cover of Ideal Home. A floor you could eat off, a ceiling no spiders dangled off, and a kitchen in which you’d be proud to host a bake off. But take a closer look and you would have spotted the photo frames that lined the windowsills and mantle were just that – frames. She’d either left the pictures that they came with inside or cut pictures out of National Geographic and stuck those in. Making it appear to the casual observer that she had lived a life well-travelled, when in fact she had rarely ventured further than the bottom of the garden to put the bins out on collection day.
I had knocked on the neighbours’ doors to inform them of Mary’s passing and was met repeatedly with indifference that occasionally morphed into intrigue; not as to the circumstances of her death, but whether I was looking to give away any of her belongings. They were all in council accommodation too, they knew the rules. You had four weeks to clear the place before you had to hand the keys in. Sally from No. 65 insisted on walking me back as I looked “so pale and overwhelmed, dear”. She held my elbow (bit weird) and promptly dropped it as we turned the corner into Mary’s garden and swept up as many plant and garden ornaments as she could fill her arms with. She saved me the tedious job of listing them or the physical effort of disposing of them, I suppose. Then some woman I’d never met in my life knocked on the door at 8am the next morning to say she’d heard the news and could she have the sewing machine. I pretended not to be in after that and spent sunny days indoors, photographing and posting descriptions of items in Mary’s bedroom on my laptop with the curtains drawn.
Turns out it’s harder to give something away for free than it is to try and sell it. Here’s a selection of the many, many messages I’ve had about the coat over the last 72 hours:
“Can I see some photos of you modelling this”
“Hi is it the coat shown in the picture?”
“Can you bring it to me please, I am in Glasgow”
“Is this still available?”
“Hav u got this but in size 12 insted of 16?”
“I have a leather fetish. I hope this doesn’t offend you xx”.
Dear reader, it turns out I do take offence. Offence at having my time wasted.
I logged in to edit the listing. Vintage leather coat, £50. I had a reply within the hour from someone asking could they come to view it that afternoon, saying they’d bring cash. Everything was spelled correctly, they didn’t ask if I was on Kik, and they didn’t include a string of kisses at the end. And their username was a plain old first name/last name, instead of DickBigly69 or HornyDevil666. I nearly wept with gratitude. The first time I’d come close to tears since Mary’s passing. With blurry vision I managed to reply, suggesting a time. Gemma wrote back instantly, accepting.
The knock came at 5pm on the dot. I opened the door to a beaming, curvy, blonde-ringletted woman who I liked immediately. Something about her face being so open and kind after days of opening the door to timewasters, bargain hunters and creepers.
After exchanging pleasantries, Gemma (who I learned was a care worker who’d just got off her shift) lunged for the coat when she saw it like it was a long-lost friend.
“Oh, isn’t it just darling?”
I murmured in agreement while twiddling the silver dragon ring on my finger. Pastel pink wasn’t really my thing.
I watched her shrug it on. Combined with the yellow of her hair, she looked like a morning sunrise. She made sure the zip worked, then started patting at the pockets.
“Oh! Something in this one, sweetie.” She brought out something wrapped in tissue paper and handed it over to me. “Always check the pockets”, she said with a wink. “I used to work in a charity shop. Some people forgot to remove wallets, change, lucky charms, the kitchen sink, you name it.” She began investigation of the label while I unwrapped the mystery gift.
I instantly recognised it as I also have a copy, and, well, it was a photo of me. With mum holding me, a few days after coming home from the hospital.
“Everything okay sweetie? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Gemma’s eyes dimmed with sudden concern.
I swallowed. “Just an old photo.” I suddenly wanted to be alone. Bubbly though she was, I Gemma was also intuitive. She fished out the £50 from a Betty Boop purse and with a few exclamations about how delighted she was, went on her way.
Later on, in the evening, watching the nest of tables go up in flame, I took a last look at the photo. Then I tossed it on to the bonfire. Like I said, I already had a copy, and I didn’t want to add any more burden to the heavy weight of memories that I had been trying to lessen with every plate, gardening shears, mirror and cushion I’d watched people walk out the door with over the recent weeks.
I set my alarm, ready to hand the keys in the next day.