March 23, 2019
My grandparents lived in a bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac, with a field behind them. I loved their house very much – it seemed full of wonder to me, and still does in memory. My uncle and his wife live there now, and I haven’t been back since the strange little pilgrimage I made when I first moved back to England, not too long after my grandmother died, when the house was empty but exactly as they’d left it. I went by myself on the bus, which I’d never done
before and took some research, and took photographs of the house so I’d remember it forever. They’d had a metal ornamental camel with a slightly broken leg on a shelf in the living room, and my granddad had playing cards with Native Americans on them in the low drawers in the dining room – all the little artefacts of my childhood (we called the “Red Indians” in Essex in the ‘80s, not knowing any better).
When I was very young I thought the front of the house was fake, like a film set or something. There was a path leading across the lawn to the front door, but we never went that way, and windows in to the rooms on either side, but we rarely went in those rooms and the net curtains blocked the view. We always took the path that went around the lawn and turned to the left, down the side of the house, past the garage (another place we rarely went, but I always found it very exciting when we did – there was a large wooden wardrobe with a full-length mirror) and past the tree where our “treehouse” was (just a plank nailed between two branches where I could sit and look out over the field next door). Then the path led into the back garden, where there was a bomb shelter that’d been raised above the ground and was used as the shed (another mystical place) and in the far corner a small gate, leading out to the lane. The lane was possibly the most exciting place of all, though I don’t think I ever explored it – it stretched between the gardens of the houses on the cul-de-sac and the neighbouring street. I’m not sure why I never investigated it once I was older, but
I’m thinking now that perhaps I didn’t want to be disappointed. In my mind the whole site is fantastically rural – it’s like when I imagine my father working at the Ford factory, which I’ve always pictured as some sort of dark satanic mill. In my head, my grandparents’ plot was some sort of time-warp with pre-industrial fields all around and a World War II bomb-shelter full of secrets in the back garden (it’d originally been on the other side of the garden, under the vegetable patch – my mother told me that several times, as though it was important for me to know the history of the land, and now I’m writing it down even though I don’t know if any of it’s still there nowadays). The back of the house was L-shaped, because the bathroom had been added later (before that, my mother remembers bringing in the bath tub and filling it up with hot water). The bathroom was one of my favourite places because it had two doors, required because it opened directly and awkwardly into the living room. One of the doors had frosted glass, which I loved; the bathroom was Barbie pink. I must’ve taken a bath there as a child at some point but don’t remember. It was always cold.
When you first entered the house through the back door, as we always did, you walked straight into the kitchen. My grandmother was often there cooking or peeling something. You then walked through the door to the right into the living room. There was also a door to the left, which we rarely did – in the corridor beyond, to the left was my uncle’s bedroom, where the hurricane had blown the window in and shredded the bed, although my memory might be exaggerating that story, and to the right was the spare room, which was where my sister and I spent the night when we’d stay over. It was always dark, I think. I can’t envision it in daylight at all. I think there were boxes and boxes of old photographs – ‘40s glamour shots of my grandmother and her sister, and family portraits from earlier decades. My grandmother would tell us stories (or my mother would retell them)
of being a dancer, and dancing with “The Two Blondes”. I don’t remember the stories but I don’t think she thought much of the blondes. That might’ve been one of the times she’d say someone was “no better than she ought to be”, which remains one of my favourite insults. I think the spare room involved an eiderdown, but I definitely didn’t know what an eiderdown was at the time. At home, in the modern world, people had duvets on their beds, and their bedrooms were upstairs; in my grandparents’ time-warp bungalow, beds were downstairs and decked with quaint-sounding unknowns like bedspreads and eiderdowns. I remember not being able to sleep; I think that’s my first memory of insomnia.
In the living room, there were three doors. The whole layout was intriguing as a child – now it seems obvious it’d just been added to bit by bit, but when I was little the lack of logic gave the house a choose-your-own-adventure tone. You’d enter through the door from the kitchen, and opposite were the twin doors to the tacked-on bathroom. The third door, to the front of the house, was rarely used when we were there. It led to the hallway, which was dark because the window in the front door was small, and contained only a telephone on the wall. To the right was my grandparents’ bedroom, where I didn’t often go (sometimes we’d stand outside the door and call to my granddad to get up and play with us –
he’d tell us he was slow because he had a bone in his leg. Years later when I spoke to him on the phone from California, he asked me how it was out there. “Lot of Americans?” he said. “They get everywhere.” I miss him.) To the left was the door to the dining room, where we’d go for Christmas dinner. It was another dark room – I think the windows must’ve been small, and the net curtains thick. There was a hatch to the kitchen; watching everything being passed through, dish by dish, was exciting at Christmas. My grandmother always did apple sauce, which no one else served, and for which I would treat all other foods as a vehicle. I do the same with cranberry sauce now, but it’s not the same.