Here are “before and after” pictures of my mother’s flat, first as cluttered as it was, then cleared out and waiting for redecoration before it is sold.
My mum moved here reluctantly in 2008, having been persuaded to sell the modest family home that she and my dad had shared since 1964. I remember her telling me that they were living as lodgers in Petts Wood and that they went for a a weekend coach trip to Scotland. She refused to speak to my dad until he agreed that they would buy a house of their own. Believe me, that would have been almost unbearable for my mum. Their house was ex-housing association, in a rather shabby part of a very well-to-do suburb. Good local schools and parks.
My mum had the values of 1920s rural India. She went back to work part-time when I was 7 and in my school holidays I had to rise early and do chores and housework, making sure the house was immaculate before she came home from work, or else. Our vacuum cleaner was old and cheap and didn’t work so I used a dustpan and brush for the stairs and washed my one set of school uniform by hand every Saturday morning between my piano lesson and travelling to Eltham Sainsbury’s to bring back the family shop on the bus. Mum still had her washboard recently, the sort that 1950s skiffle bands used as an instrument. A brand new washing machine sits, almost unused, in her flat. If she had known how to get there, she would have taken her clothes in a bundle on her head to wash them in the Ravensbourne.
A few months before my dad died, in 2006, I returned from Paris, where we were living at the time, after a telephone tip-off from my father in law. My mum had gone into hospital with high blood pressure and my dad was sitting alone in the house, unable even to make a cup of tea. He was blind, you see, and my mum refused to buy a kettle. There was no need to have anything new, to learn anything new. She had learnt enough. So, with no technology, my dad couldn’t feed himself or make a drink.
As I set about scrubbing the now filthy house I wondered how on earth my mum, who had been such stickler when I was a child, had been able to live in such squalor. I took my dad to Bluewater and bought him a kettle and a microwave and a new cooker and a new fridge and freezer, so that he would be able to cope in my mum’s absence. Well, it turned out that he was the one to go first, his depression probably hastened by my mother’s increasing belligerence. And the new white goods remained unused.
Well, all the stuff from a three bedroomed house couldn’t fit into the small one bedroomed apartment and had to be cleared. My mum had become a hoarder of plastic bags and junk mail, which she inexplicably placed underneath plant pots and vases and the telephone, somehow to protect the filthy surfaces on which they stood. We tussled at every useless piece of plastic, every scrap of paper we threw out. Of course they were more than litter to her: my mum was struggling to give away her independence.
She eventually admitted that she was glad she’d moved into the flats, furnished as they were with an entryphone which she never quite mastered; building managers and tea and coffee in a communal lounge, with visiting singers and parties for landmark birthdays and organised trips to the countryside in the summer. At first she got on well in the block and made some friends but as time went by it became apparent that she was becoming more isolated and her behaviour was causing problems for the other residents.
Regular readers of this blog will know that my mum is now safely ensconced in the Indian countryside very close to where she was born and that now her flat has to be sold to secure her future there, even though it is much less expensive than the £1,000+ per week that she would have to pay for a care home here.
I called in Martin from London and Kent Clearance and they cleared my mum’s flat in a couple of hours the week before Christmas. Martin warned me, however, how traumatic it can be to see the personal effects of a loved one dismantled, possibly sawn up for speed, and put in a trailer for disposal.
I went round to the flat that still smells of cooking spices to check if there was anything that should be kept. I came away with two carrier bags – like that old woman in the song Streets of London – a silk rug I brought back from China when I was a student; my dad’s walking stick and his unused white stick; his A level certificates from the 1950s; the burnished red silk sari my mother wore to my Indian wedding; my old coin collection.
My mum had little else worth keeping. I went through the tatty, cotton saris that she favoured – silk ones slip. (This is true, actually. I once spent the vast majority of an awards ceremony at the Globe theatre, at which I was receiving an award, in the loo adjusting my parrot-green silk sari which kept falling off.) The torn blouses that latterly she never fastened properly causing her to expose herself at Marathi community gatherings; the hand knitted acrylic cardigans from a time before knitting was so trendy that cashmerino and alpaca yarns are widely available. The Yamaha keyboard that we bought her – it was US and not my husband, even though he’s “the musical one.” She used to say she loved music. I don’t quite remember it that way, having fought her nightly complaints about my piano practice, but the staff at her care facility say that she joins in with old Marathi songs from her youth.
She no longer has any need for the cassettes of Indian music, classical and from 1950s Bollywood, or the paperbacks of increasingly shrill Hindu nationalism. Our old vacuum cleaner, a wedding present from my cousins. I’m sure she never used it.
I read through all the paperwork on her successful Race and Sex Discrimination case, taken with the support of her Union, COHSE. How it was all kept from me until shortly before the court date. The cutting from The Guardian. How she had had to submit to “re-training” but eventually failed one of her tests. How she was victimised by her employer, who refused to let her retire on grounds of ill health even as she recovered from TB which she had fought for a month in that very hospital. I felt the anger rising and decided to clear it out. To let it go. We know it happened. There’s no need to hold on to the humiliating scraps of paper, is there?
So here it is, the flat. Empty. Ready for some carpentry work and a good lick of paint. A deep clean. Ready to be comfortable once more for someone who wants a place where people will look out for them, that’s convenient for all local amenities and public transport. “I’m so lucky. I have my Freedom Pass. I can go anywhere.”
Thanks to Martin at London and Kent Clearance Services for his sensitivity.
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