24 November 2010
The pivotal phase, in moving our family seat from the Hansel-and-Gretel magical cottage, which – for four decades – had been a vortex of peace, companionship and spiritual harmony, took place across three weekends.
On the first, we descended on Dad’s new place (a bungalow in the tranquil village of East Bergholt), he signed the lease, and we cleaned like maniacs. There was me, our godmother Janet, cousins Tobin and Kathy, and my big sister, Ruth. She was in charge (self-declared) and well bossy. We gave the bungalow a once-in-ten-years clean. Wardrobe tops were scrubbed, drawers pulled out, carpet edges vigorously brushed, and nooks and crannies made spick and span.
On the second weekend, a team of burley boys descended (along with Chloe, Rosie, my favourite Canadian lady, a one-year-old and a border terrier). We hired a van, wrestled furniture aboard and ferried it to the newly cleaned pad. Box-filled cars travelled hither and yon. Embarrassingly, just as the heavy lifting kicked off, yours truly – stiff through non-exercise – put his back out: the most ill-timed injury of my life so far. I was reduced to anti-spider duties and a lifetime of ridicule.
That day brought another end. With Dad refusing to kill living things (and feeding most of them) and Mum spreading peace and wisdom in her wake, over the years, the local ecosystem had adjusted itself. A super-tame blackbird lived in the tree by the back door. A local mallard waddled around pecking people’s feet. Two chickens periodically appeared to try and get into the kitchen. The extensive garden – which teems with butterflies, woodpeckers and squirrels – had been a safe haven. But no more. The border terrier wasn’t from those parts and went straight for a chicken. By the time it was restrained, the bird’s shredded body was eight yards from its severed head and spinal column. The end of the old order was brutally marked.
On the third weekend, I went down alone. It was just me, Dad, and a skip, as we commenced the final everything-must-go clearout. We lit a cleansing pyre in the orchard. It burned through half a day.
During the past three years it’s felt like I’ve spent half my life clearing things out: throwing human energy at logistical problems. One last room-by-room sweep of the old place. Nothing without memories at this late stage. Every item reflects them back. That was the cardboard box my mother’s coffin came in. Those are the plastic plates – covered with white daisies on green – left over from when Ruth and I ate Chinese food by her deathbed. In the garage is a well-crafted wooden box with ‘Aurora’ stamped across it. Looks like a story. No time to investigate. Burn it.
At the back of the garage was an ancient human skull. It came from the last grave of the last graveyard of the last church to fall into the sea from the medieval city of Dunwich: once one of England’s largest ports, now beneath the waves. The skull was retrieved by my great uncle Hugh who – for reasons known only to himself – gave it to his grandson, Tobin, who, for want of a better plan, left it in the garage, one more strand from the past. Throwing it in the skip didn’t seem right, so we left it for the new owners who (two weeks later) immediately called the police. I got a call at work, from a Detective Rachel Evermy of Colchester CID. She was terribly nice.
In the end, on that third weekend, we cleared Earlings right to its bones; down to its most difficult-to-reach corners; places most recently without-stuff in the 1960s. Panels I’d never seen lifted to reveal cubby holes I was unaware existed. The last space I came to – exhausted and aching – was an overhead storage area, chock-full of suitcases with ‘Baker’ on them, from long-ago trips that once seemed so fresh. There, in the deepest and least-often-explored corner of the house, I found a note.
When I was 12 I went through a stage of leaving time-capsule letters (and I quote) ‘Writen (sic) by Peter Baker’, inviting the finder to add their name then re-hide the note. It was one of those. I’d first hidden it on 12 September 1986, re-found it on 18 November 1987, found it once again on 8 January 1994 then, flipping it over, there was one last entry, written on 2 October 2000, by Mum.
That took me by surprise. And it made me cry. A final wave of blackness. A message in a bottle.
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God. – Aeschylus. Agammemnon, circa 458 BC