This week I had the unpleasant duty of clearing out my nan’s old house. 

Muriel died around 2007, having outlived her husband for nearly ten years, and left behind a small but sturdy house in Sprotbrough near Doncaster.  I was there to help lift some white goods out of the empty house now that it’s finally found a buyer.  Years of waiting through the recession had left the place faded, dry and lifeless.  No presence of my maternal grandmother remained, even in the few remaining possessions that littered the place.

The carpet of the hallway was worn thin and made filthy by muddy boots.  I was shocked from seeing the hall so dirty after years spotlessness.  The little kitchen was lined with brittle-looking cupboards, old fashioned surfaces.  The only gleam came from the murky water on the floor, no doubt spilled from the recently disconnected washing machine.  The lounge was not empty, but it was not the place of rest and comfort that I remembered it to be.  Two bedrooms felt totally unoccupied, barren, and like all the rooms, too small.

I helped our fine removal guy (, 07917011765) haul the white goods, wardrobes and bedside tables into his van.  There was a writing bureau, probably as old as the plot the place was built on, filled with dried-out biros and papers crisp with dead yellow Selotape.  We did this as quickly as possible.  I wanted to get away so that visions of the house didn’t make it to my long-term memory. 

I needed to remember the house as I used to.  Years ago, following nan’s death, I wrote some notes on the place so that I wouldn’t forget.  I intended to compose a poem.  The note is lost now, or maybe trapped in a scrapbook I keep full of random fiction ideas, clippings and mnemonics.  But I remember how it felt to be in that house back when it used to be a home.

The first thing to strike a child was the hallway chandelier.  It wasn’t the grand construction you might think of when you hear ‘chandelier’, but a narrow ‘lampshade’ made of strips of plastic jewels.  To a child they looked like diamonds, and I routinely stole two or three of the refractive gemstones to marvel over at home.

The kitchen had a deep larder choc-a-bloc with cereals (Scots Oats), fruit cordial (lemon and barley, orange or lime) and endless tins of fruit which in the 40s would have been a luxury.  There were Kit Kats by the dozens, and tins of butter biscuits and ancient fruit cake.  From here we would make tea to drink out of china cups and sample these snacks from a gleaming three-tier caddy.

Across the hall would be the lounge, where books in leather were protected within glass cabinets.  A plastic banzai tree in a tray of polished stones was a wonder I still can’t shake.  The TV was in a cabinet, attached to an electronic magnifying device for reading the newspaper.  There would be a cassette player with one or two books on tape nearby – Agatha Christies or other harmless thrillers.  The mantelpiece had photos of my mother and uncle, my sister’s graduation snap, and three wooden gazelles of ascending size beside a chromed mantle clock.

My brother and I would routinely annoy the household by touching the speaking clock beside the turntable in the corner.  BING!  The time … is … three … twenty … three … pee em.

Upstairs was a forbidden place, with bedrooms concealed by closed doors.  A few sneaky trips revealed the plush master bed (which shamed the narrow flat spare bed in the second room).  Cupboards and cabinets, shelves with books on native wildlife or painting.  The carpets were think, pinkish, well-kept.  Curtains had a faint perfumed smell.  A light catching mobile in front of the front-facing window, when illuminated by the sun, cast colours that my near-blind nan could see.

Even the bathroom holds distinct memories.  I’d never been in a carpeted bathroom before, which seemed luxurious (if slightly insanitary).  One week I spent a night or two in that house, jealous of my sister who’d had the same privilege, and in the morning felt the carpet with my bare feet.  It wasn’t cold tile or mat.  As a boy pees, he can see a porcelain heart hanging on the wall to his right, filled with potpourri.  To his left, a gleaming bath and mirrored medicine cabinet, and a modern wonder: a two-sized shaving mirror on a scissored extending arm.  What is it for?  It’s a marvel of engineering!

The morning of my first sleepover I had porridge for breakfast.  Scots Oats ain’t Ready Brek.  And jam should not come in an apricot flavour.  What is this?  These people are strange.  Granddad takes a pin to his thumb to check his insulin levels.  Nannan cleans the place, and looks out at the garden with its sloping lawn, potted plants, and sycamore tree that casts its beautiful spinning pods across the lawn.

Granddad calls them “spinning jennies”.  Nannan has names for the blackbirds that pluck worms from the dewy lawn: Henry and Henrietta, who entertain us through the peaceful morning.  We leave the house to take a walk along the canal.  Back then I missed home.  Now I miss my nan’s house.

— db