The Stuff of Life

I drove up north at the weekend to do the last bit of clearing in my brother’s house. When he left at the beginning of May, there was still some tiny question about whether he’d be back; I think we all knew really that he wouldn’t but it seemed important to leave it open to the just-in-case and the maybe.
And there was so much stuff to pack – his entire past life, really. He’d had a lot of cupboards and storage hidey-holes that I had not even known about. All full of old clothes, photographs, postcards, badges, the memorabilia of a lifetime. Lots of things I recognised from all our years together. I hadn’t even known they were there until the last days of helping him get his stuff together for the move. Seeing them was like a punch in the chest, a physical recall of the old Nick and how he used to be. Funny, lively, engaged - a collector, a cyclist, a clubber, a baker. A reader, a thinker, a dandy and a ladies’ man.

I had carefully organised all the things he now used on a daily basis, and the range was increasingly small so packing was fairly simple. But coming upon so many treasures from a time when he was fit and active was a shock, a bit overwhelming for us both, and suddenly it felt too much to move absolutely everything in one go.
It was a bit daft when we’d got a professional removal company putting everything in boxes for us on the day of the move, and it wouldn’t have taken two minutes for them to pack these things up with all the rest, but that’s how our minds were working.
So we’d left a few things behind– all his old photography and darkroom equipment; a stack of his old framed photos and our dad’s paintings; a big suitcase full of dress shirts, silk ties and beautiful suits from his days as a hotel manager. We left them as guardians of the space, so Nick hadn’t left entirely.

I have missed the drive up the A1 so much, the long straight road and those big skies gradually opening up ahead, the signs for The North and a sense of coming home the way I never feel going south. But as I stopped at the usual service station for a coffee and a wee, I could feel myself reluctant, stalling for time.
I realized that I didn’t really want to go back into that empty house. It was the house that had seen Nick’s slow decline but he’d been happy there too. I dreaded seeing it so bare and desolate.  

Nick’s ex, Nikki, was going to come and meet me there as she still lives locally and is supervising the rebuilding work. Naturally she was late – she’s always late – but it helped to know that someone else would be there.
It was a beautiful day, the key was still there in the keysafe and the front door opened easily into a room full of sunlight. Inside, the house felt calm and welcoming. Bare, and barely recognisable – such a big light space with no furniture and the ceiling stripped right back to the beam. No radio. No cats. No Nick in his chair.
Lots of dust balls and curling pizza flyers but no ghosts in the house.

By the time Nikki arrived I’d disposed of three bin bags of crap and put all the suits and the pictures and the boxes in the car. Almost as an after thought (ain’t it always the way) we opened the meter cupboard in the hall to check there was nothing left inside, and under a pile of Christmas paper was a box of ring binders full of Nick’s old letters and diaries. Letters from me, our parents and from Nikki – and that’s when it did feel as if we were encountering the ghosts of our former selves as well as his.
So many memories. Nikki said she felt a bit of a shudder as she realized that it was exactly the time they had got married, 17 years ago to the day. The richness of their lives together, all the people they had known and the places they had been. All this, still existing somehow in a parallel universe where she and Nick might have grown old together.

We put all the last bits and pieces in her car for the charity shop and went to the Grey Horse for a gin.