Wet Splinters, Dry Love
The old oak panels of the front door are warped and darkened by the weather, so much so that it doesn’t fit in the door frame anymore. It is just wood, suspended by old hinges an uncomfortably new Yale lock that Harry Morning must have had fitted. No letter box – there is a small black tin box on the wall for that, now bursting with mail, so the door, in its decayed simplicity, now looks like an Old English attempt at a saloon entrance.
On my way in I accidentally head butt the door frame, the rotten wood crumbling away where I connect, leaving damp splinters in my hair that won’t be ruffled out. The first time I banged my head on this door frame, I hit it so hard that I could taste the wood through my skull. I had to sit for two hours, holding a bag of peas against my cranium. During that period of frozen-vegetable-aided meditation, it occurred to me that, if I was able to hit it at all, I was tall and tough enough to take Uncle Ted in a fight.
That fight didn’t end well. There were things my uncle was capable of that the door and its frame were not. Things of which, I hope, no other uncles were capable. On the inside of the door, where a handle should have been, there are scratch marks from that day. Now the handle sits over them like it has always been there and him and the door are rotting and I’m thankful of that. This is my house now.
The problem with my memory of this house is memory itself. Yesterday, Nat and I saw Harry Morning, the biscuit solicitor. We spoke for hours about this house and the legal proceedings, but I didn’t take note of his eye colour. Even so, if someone were to ask me his eye colour, because my brain can’t stand not knowing something, I would invent a colour, say blue, and, in doing that, it convinces itself. As I familiarise myself with the house, I’m aware that it might not be how it was, but at the same time, it might be.
The corridor to the kitchen has always has a blue similar to Harry’s eyes. The kitchen still has terracotta tiles, peppered with holes from the heels of fat aunties at past birthday parties. The wooden worktops are still stained with the things cut on them. Groves of green coriander and dark reds from a split jar of pickled beetroot. There are cracks in the enamel of the white farmhouse sink and my brain suggests that the smell of old veg has always risen from the plughole, along with the unwashed ‘cat fork’. A royal blue AGA is in the middle of the kitchen, raised one foot up, like a culinary altar. Its chimney rises straight through the ceiling, and above that, through the master bedroom. On cold days, it would be fed coal and wood and, while a chicken stew heated on top of it, the heat of the fire would rise up through the floorboards and the rugs upstairs to create a dusty warm smell, which I still think of as comfort.
In my memory this place is not any rural cottage. It is a living vessel. Here, electricity escaped wires and ran through the walls, filling the structure with electromotive strength. Doors would constantly sway and, if you tried to shut them, they would swing back in defiance.
The house used to creak. There has always being a creak happening in some part of it. It was healthy for a living house, especially one of this age, one that had been old when The Derby Ram jumped o’er a wall somewhere, or when Bonnie Prince Charlie rode down for not much. The creaks have all stopped. As if the house is comatose. It isn’t doing anything, and the biggest lack of its lack of doing is the cold. The leaning stone walls have filtered out the wind and the rain but let in, unaccompanied, the cold, which seems to have more penetrative power without the elements, so much that I catch myself blowing down my coat to warm up my chest.
I start with the fuse box. Each fuse is labelled with my uncle’s attempt to confuse anyone that messed with the house. The writing is horizontal and written in tiny scribbles: a mole can climb a mountain, but an eagle cannot enter a badger den. He means the cellar. Cunt. I switch that on, along with They don’t make ears like they used to and Wet Beige. The faint fizz inside the walls is back. They Pulse a little.
Back in the kitchen I have to use paper for the AGA as there’s no dry wood, so I roll and fold old Sunday papers until they look like cheese twists. They won’t burn very long but they’ll serve as a throat-clearing exercise for the house’s respiratory system. On top of the paper cheese twists, I add a thick leather photo album, probably full of pet photos and strangers that my uncle knew, it’ll give the flames something to work at. I light the paper and watch it burn. The flames flick away from the leather, not around it, and it doesn’t darken or warp. The flames move as if they fear what the leather contains. I sit, staring at the gap above the album where the flames join again, waiting for the whole thing to burn, and someone knocks at the front door. Three firm bangs, followed by a quick double tap on the letterbox. It’s a knock that hasn’t changed in ten years.
I open the door.
‘Hi.’ Saskia stands with one hand on her hip that gives for a look of casual impatience, like she’s been waiting there since I last saw her. She knows that her passive confidence always made me go for her.
‘It’s been a while, Saz.’
‘Has it? Thanks.’ She flicks her hair back and smiles. It wasn’t a fucking compliment. She still has the rusty mango low-lights that she buys from discount stores, knowing that her dark oak brown would settle the vulgar brightness into something she liked.
‘Yes, ten years is a while, Saz.’
‘Hmm.’ She eyes me up, as if to check I’m still there, ‘I wasn’t counting.’ And with that she edges around me, shoulders and back sliding across the door frame, careful she doesn’t make physical contact with me.
‘You’ll get splinters. It’s a crumbly door. Wet splinters.’ But she’s gone to the kitchen already.
I follow her in a way that’s too familiar. She leaves the smell of men’s eau de toilette in her slipstream, one of the expensive ones beginning with G. The way she sees it, girls perfume was made to smell nice for men and vice versa. Pour homme is actually pour femme, if you think about it, was her argument.
In the kitchen she has already found the kettle, which must have been in a box somewhere, and started to fill it up.
‘Find me some sugar. That fire will go out if you don’t shut the door.’ I knew that already. It’s the only thing distracting me from her arse. I left the AGA door open, and now the fire inside is big and rumbling and the photo album can’t be seen.
She keeps her back turned to me, getting heavy handed in the boxes on the side.
‘Forget the sugar. I’ve got it.’
The kettle’s whistle catches up with the sound of the fire and a stand, glancing between the fire and her back while she does nothing.
‘I don’t live here anymore, I live in Alderwasley. I just came back this morning to do some stuff… thought I’d pop in when I saw you.’ I hear her pour the kettle and slowly stir in the sugar, the spoon clinking around the side of each cup. I notice her head incline, as if waiting for an answer to her statement.
‘Why move to Alderwasley? It’s a collection of barns and broken tractors.’ Because Danny, my old best friend, the reason she left me, lived in Alderwasley. That’s why.
She turns around with the cups in her hand, walks to the AGA, then sits, cross-legged, in front of the open door. She places the teas on the floor, no milk in them, both teabags still in there, the spoon still in hers. Her face is pointed to the cups.
‘Sit.’ She gestures lazily to the half-made tea.
I sit down opposite her but she doesn’t lift her head. I keep trying to make eye contact and she keeps looking down at the tea and the fire rumbles a little in between us. And then the crying starts. She’s crying like her life is over, like someone has told her no.
I move my hand towards her, about to touch her on the shoulder, something to comfort her, but end up reaching for the tea instead. It tastes horrid and the teabag bobs up near my eyes. She stops sobbing and inhales deeply.
On the exhale she says ‘Danny’s dead,’ now looking at me, through saltwater lenses.
This time I did try and comfort her. ‘I’m sorry, Saz.’ I reach out and pat her on the shoulder. It feels uncomfortable so I quickly retract. I won’t enquire about his death if she’s not willing to tell.
‘It’s his funeral tomorrow, at the farm. It would be nice if you could come. It might bring back some good memories of the place.’ I’m not sure whether she means good memories for me or her, but she smiles hopefully at me. Amazing how quickly women get over things.
‘Thanks.’ With that, she stands up. ‘It starts at eleven. See you tomorrow. Oh, and I told you the fire would go out.’
She leaves on her own.
Inside the AGA, the ashes of the bent paper has dimmed down from amber to black. The leather photo album sits in the middle of it, unmarked by the fire. I take it out and the ashes fall off it like. It isn’t even warm.
As I open it I see there are no pictures of strangers or pets. They are all of me. In the first, I must be about eight and I’m sat with my uncle. We’re both smiling. A birthday party I don’t remember being at.
Another is of me painting the walls in the upstairs corridor. I don’t have a top on, but I’ve painted myself a tee shirt. I flick through rest of the album and quickly realise that, while it’s definitely me in the photographs, none of the events happened.