“I’m never, ever going back there!”
My childish vow haunted me all the way to my appointment. If only I had known where my client lived… I would have said, ‘No!’
Well, actually, maybe not. He was my first client, after all, meaning my new accounting franchise was finally in business.
I had to go, but I would pretend the house was in Second Street, not Clayton Street, or that it was a different house number. After all, I had never actually seen my client’s house – the white two-storey edifice that I had heard about. If I could just ignore the houses on each side of it…
With luck, his neighbour, Myra, would not see me. She wouldn’t recognise my different car, at least – that would help. I didn’t particularly want to hear how my client had bulldozed Mrs P’s house. I knew he had. And neither she nor I had the right to complain, after all, my sisters and I had sold the house – Mum’s house. It was no longer ours.
Myra would not see it that way. It would be my fault that nothing of Mrs P was left.
Back then, we had all been glad that the house, old as it was, had not gone to a developer, who would have put units on the double block. We had felt glad that another family would live there. I was happy that my home of over thirty years – Mum’s home for nearly fifty years, and the place where my roots were – was still there.
Well, here I was, at the address I never wanted to visit again. I looked at the façade – nothing about it or the meagre front yard was familiar. I did not let my eyes wander.
I collected my business case and laptop computer from the passenger side. I glanced up as a car going past slowed, and turned into Myra’s place. I kept my head in the car until it was out of sight in the garage. Then I took a deep breath and told myself I could do this. I had a smile firmly on my face as I strode up the path and rang the doorbell.
I heard a faint ding-dong-ding from somewhere deep in the house and waited, trying to ignore my nervousness. The sound of the door opening made my heart beat faster. I was about to meet the people that tore down…
I was about to meet my first clients. I did a quick check to ensure that my ID card was visible, just as a lady opened the front door.
“Hello, Mrs Grace, is it? I’m Erin Patton, A1-Accounting.” I smiled. The woman didn’t seem like an ogre.
“Yes. Come in. My husband isn’t home yet, but he shouldn’t be long. Do you mind waiting?”
“Not at all,” I assured her as I stepped into the entrance hall. “I have some preliminary work that I can get started on. Where would you like me?”
“Through into the lounge,” she suggested. “There’s a table there where you can work.”
“That will be fine,” I answered.
As I followed Mrs Grace into a room on the right, it was very hard to ignore a feeling of deja-vu. It made no sense. I had never been in this house before.
As I busied myself with unpacking my briefcase and starting up my computer, I could not help contrasting this large area with my mother’s lounge room. The floor to ceiling windows with the vertical drapes bore no resemblance to the smaller windows with green homemade curtains. There was no pelmet with Mum’s shooting trophies proudly displayed.
Nor was there a heater in the side-wall, where my mind recalled a brick surround under a polished wood mantelpiece, with a multitude of ornaments presided over by the big blue vase with the peacock feathers. The painting on the wall was an abstract thing. It went well with the mauve walls but I felt there should have been an outback scene with two gum trees, or the big old painting that I remembered from an even earlier time.
I shook my head to dispel the memory and went through my mental checklist. Yes, I had everything ready. How much longer would I have to wait?
It was a relief when John Grace arrived and I could finally get started. I had too much to do to allow insidious comparisons to fill my mind.
The phone rang, but I ignored it until Mrs Grace came into the room and interrupted her husband.
“Excuse me, would you?” John Grace stood up.
“Could I get you a drink?” Mrs Grace asked me.
“Yes, please. Just a glass of water,” I answered with a smile.
Her return was preceded by the passage of a medium sized labrador, chased through the room by a boy of about ten.
I pretended not to hear Mrs Grace speaking sharply.
“Put him outside, Scott, and see if you can clean his feet. I am sick of him bringing mud into the house. I think we will have to put up a fence to keep him from digging up the garden down the back. I can’t imagine what is so fascinating down there.”
A slight smile twitched my mouth.
It might, I thought, be the faint lingering smell of the chicken run, or the smell of rabbit from where the shed used to be. Well, maybe not. Both the chickens and the rabbit were long gone now, though the shed had been there when we sold the house.
I had heard that they’d bulldozed the whole block before they rebuilt, so the shed, all the trees, even the plum tree with the delicious blood plums would all be gone.
Somehow, that thought made me feel disconnected – as if I too had been uprooted and dumped down in a strange place.
Mrs Grace returned with the water. I gratefully took a sip, and then put it down.
“You’d have a pretty good view from here, wouldn’t you?” I asked casually, for the sake of making small talk.
“It’s better from upstairs, you can see over the trees. I like looking over the lights on the hill.”
“You’re lucky,” I agreed. “I’d like to have a view like that.”
I used to love that view, my mind whispered. When I came home late at night on the train, I saw the lights and felt I was home. I wondered if the house at the back still looked like a ship when its outside lights were on.
“You’ve been here a few years, I believe,” I heard myself saying. Did I really want to prod that touchy spot?
“Five years, but this house has only been up for three. There was an old brick house on the block when we bought it. We were going to try to do it up, but when we went into what would have to be done, we decided it would be better for us to rebuild from the beginning. We had to take down the front porch – it was almost falling down…”
Yeah, I thought, we were relieved that we would not have to fix it.
“… and the garage was poky. We couldn’t have got two cars in there.”
I used to like poking around in the garage, and following my dad around, back when he was still alive. Later, I still liked poking around.
“Most of the rooms needed painting at the very least,” she continued. “The toilet walls were a ghastly shade of blue, the shower and bathroom walls were starting to mildew and the kitchen – it had was a bright red roof. That was weird.” Weird?
Unusual, yes, but the red reflected in all the silverware, the pots and kettle, and the chrome plated tables, chairs and door handles. It wouldn’t suit this house. Mum’s house had a higher ceiling.
Mr Grace returned, just as thumping noises were audible from upstairs.
“Tell them to keep the noise down, Jo,” he said sharply to his wife. She retreated and we got back to sorting out his business accounts.
The noises continued more quietly. It made me think of the cat, Patch, who had got in the roof on more than one occasion. I wonder if they had ever discovered that I had painted ‘The Patch Hatch’ on the manhole cover? I had meant to paint over that, but by the time we had finished emptying the old treasures from the three cupboards high in the wall of the passage, I guess I had been distracted. We’d had over forty years of accumulated stuff to go through and some of what we found was much older still. We had discovered things about Mum’s family, and Dad’s too.
Every now and then, John Grace looked up and frowned.
“It’s not bothering me, Mr Grace,” I assured him, when he noticed that I had seen where he was looking. “I have two boys at home who can be a lot noisier than yours are at the moment. I have learnt how to tune them out. And I don’t believe in ghosts.”
John snorted slightly and relaxed. “Fortunately, I don’t either. This was a deceased estate – the neighbour took delight in telling us that the woman who owned it, died here.”
Delight? More like a touch of spite. That had to be Myra. Mum was her friend, and she said once to me that she was a better daughter to my mum that I was. Just because I didn’t live as close to Mum as she did!
I wonder if Myra thought my mother’s ghost lingered here. I knew better. Mum died peacefully, in her sleep, in her chair, near the fire. Just the way she wanted to go.
No, the ghosts I was seeing were from my own mind – not the spirit world.
After another hour, I sat back in the chair. I had done all I needed to do tonight.
“That’s all up to date now, Mr Grace,” I told him. “I have saved it all on disc. I will leave a copy here with you. When would you want me to come again? ” I handed him the invoice for this initial visit and began to pack up my computer.
John Grace saw me to the door, but as I walked into the hall, I saw something that I had missed on my arrival. I stopped and almost gaped.
In a frame on the wall was a small bronze casting of an aeroplane.
John saw my attention was on the object and he explained, “We found that amongst the dirt before the house was built. We don’t know where it came from or who made it.”
I knew! My husband’s grandfather had made it. My son had been spinning around with his eyes closed and thrown it. We had not found it, even though we had looked everywhere, combed the garden inch by inch, checked the roof of the shed and even the neighbours garden.
I almost spoke up – then I changed my mind. My son had forgotten the snub-nosed plane; we had all accepted its loss. I would rather think there was still some part of my family in this place.
No, I wouldn’t solve the mystery for them.
The door closed behind me. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
I had survived. I had done my job well. I was officially in business.
That thought made me feel really good. Now, I just wanted to get home.
I could not help the ghosts and memories that came into my mind, but I banished them fiercely. I could not let them free. Not while I was driving home.
My house was quiet when I got there. I was glad of that. I moved quietly, not wanting to rouse my husband from his sleep on the couch, or the boys in their beds. After putting down my cases, I made myself a hot drink.
The euphoria of my first job had died. I felt depressed, disorientated – as if everything had suddenly changed.
I knew it hadn’t really, that it was only my perception of things that had changed. That was why I had not wanted to go back to Clayton Street.
It is a stupid way to feel, but I had not wanted to be forced to admit to myself that Mum’s house was actually gone.
I wanted to be able to pretend it was still there. That Mum was still there, only a phone call away.
I put my cup down and walked to the side of my fridge.
I removed the photo from under the magnet and took it with me to a chair.
I looked at it for a long time. I closed my eyes and walked around the house that I had known so well.
No – the house wasn’t gone.
It was there – in the photo – on the side of my fridge.
This article first appeared in the Australia Times Fiction Magazine