I’m wiping up spilt honey in a dead man’s pantry. It’s an easy meal for the ants that are crawling through the cracks in the walls, but I scrub until paint comes off the wood. Lately this house has been more than generous to the local insect population. My fiancé, Dion, is clearing out the fridge, gingerly passing dripping packs of green-tinged chicken to the bin. At least meat doesn’t bloat, I think, and wonder if, given equal conditions, food and humans decay at similar rates. Even the cherry tomatoes have grown furry colonies advanced enough to go to war.
We only moved out a year ago. While Dion studied and I struggled through the lowest ranks in journalism, we lived with his dad, who charged us rent high enough that we didn’t feel like charity cases but low enough for us to not have to sell toenail clippings to weirdos on the internet. After two years, we found full-time jobs and moved out of the three-storey townhouse in affluent Highgate and into our own bolthole flat in a converted match factory in east London, with a rickety mezzanine bedroom and windows that rattled when it rained. I love our tiny flat, usually. Today it feels like an indulgence, a place we’ve been horsing around in like kids playing house while Chris lay in bed, waiting for us to come home, waiting to be found. If we’d held off a year, I think, we’d have been here. We wouldn’t have been alerted by a cleaning lady. The dog wouldn’t have been trapped for a week, barking and howling to no one. I catch my breath and stop scrubbing. The honey is definitely gone, now. The sponge has splinters.
This is the only part of the clean-up we’re qualified or prepared to do ourselves. We put a £900 “trauma clean” of Chris’s bedroom on the credit card because, after eight days, even a professionally-removed corpse leaves some of itself behind.
It’s not the first time this house smelled of death. Last time it was a colony of rats. Chris’s house is Victorian. No one has ever described a Victorian house without using the word “draughty”; they seem to always be full of holes, as if punched in by a well-meaning giant who thinks we’re defenceless animals, unable to breathe inside our boxes. The holes usher in a safari of creepy-crawlies: the cold, damp downstairs bathroom has a permanent ant regiment marching up and down the walls, passing by the toilet paper and disappearing behind the shoe rack. Perhaps we never dealt with the ants because we always got distracted by the question of what a shoe rack was doing in the bathroom. Or, for that matter, a filing cabinet.
A holey house is also an invitation for rodents. I liked to think I was a conscientious tenant, so I’d told Dion and his dad I’d heard mice in the walls. I lived in the windy attic room, where the rats had not ventured — my wildlife problem was more usually a pigeon tumbling down the chimney. Rain and snow also got in that way. But the mice were making themselves comfortable on the lower floors. Chris, who we nicknamed Don Inertia, did nothing. He was less a landlord than an eccentric housemate and couldn’t motivate himself to take action on anything non-urgent — and his bar for “urgent” could cause altitude sickness. It probably involved present and uncontrollable blood loss. As such, the mice gave way to an under-floor rat kingdom. Going by the sound of their scuttling, these were not small rats. They sounded like a swarm of Chihuahuas. Dion and Chris let slip that they saw one in the garden but refused to describe how big it was, so naturally I assumed it was wearing a saddle and reading War and Peace.
Before long, the house smelled like a poorly-maintained pet shop. Eventually, Chris called an exterminator. A heat wave arrived, speeding up the mass decomposition happening out of sight. Our home was abuzz with flies, which no doubt travelled from far and wide when word spread of the bountiful feast.
I didn’t catch the trauma-clean man’s name. I should have. He was there to confront chemical compounds like putrescine and cadaverine, to act as a rubber-gloved buffer between us and our mortal terror, to do a job we couldn’t do, while we stayed downstairs disposing of out-of-date chicken, like children. He and Dion seemed far away and distorted as they discussed the job, as if I was watching them through the wrong end of a telescope — which I would have if I’d had one, if only to distract from the wretched subject at hand. I sat at the kitchen table, watching his papery hands gesticulate as he went over the particulars of how he would clean up the fluids left by the body of my father-in-law-never-to-be. He was dusty, what you’d call rugged. About 50 years old, but with grooves in his face so deep you could file tax forms in them. He had worn out, sandpapered vocal cords, and a voice like shovelling gravel. Tobacco-stained teeth flashing under pale, dry lips, which cracked as he chatted about clearing blood, dirty needles and rotting bodily excretions from otherwise lovely homes. I watched him, thinking, You were a baby once.
It’s when he said “fluids” for the sixth or eighth or thousandth time that everything went dark. The kitchen table pressed against my forehead, comforting and sticky. Nothing in Chris’s house was ever quite clean.
“Is she alright?” asked the trauma-clean man.
“I’m fine!” I chirruped, infusing my voice with sunshine and exclamation points but not lifting my head from the table. “Just resting my eyes!” Tears dripped onto my shoes. “Let me know if you’d like a tea or anything!” Did I really offer tea while pretending to be cheerful? I’d never been more English.
“No thanks love, you’re alright,” he said, “I’ll go and get started.”
I heard him turn and walk to the stairs, coughing like he had a badger in his chest.
“Are you ok?” said Dion, laying a hand gently on the back of my neck.
“That guy,” I said, still faux-chipper as I clasped his fingers in mine, “was a baby once.”
He cleaned away the trauma beautifully. Going into the bedroom, now missing both Chris and the bed, you’d never know death ever touched it. But the grief is visible enough. That this was his room at all is the first sign; the master bedroom is on the other side of the wall, with the four-poster bed and wardrobes he shared with Sylvia left practically untouched. He had retired from medicine to look after her when she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. She died on Christmas morning and he shoved a bed into what used to be his office, and became the cliché of the doctor who never went to the doctor. His accolades in the world of public health still hang on the wall, right above the spot where he died from undiagnosed heart disease.
“Hon,” I say, cocking my head to the side, “is that a Christmas present?”
“Under the desk.”
Dion moves the bulky wooden chair and slides out a box wrapped in red paper with golden reindeers, layered thick with dust. A tag on it reads, in faded black ink, “love, Sylvia.”
“He never opened it? For six years?”
Don Inertia, this is some commitment to not feeling pain. Where did he get the willpower? And a blind spot the size and shape of a big box? I’m impressed, and sad. But mostly I want to shake him.
“We’ve got to open it,” says Dion. So we do. It’s a turntable.
“Of course,” he says as he pulls back the paper, letting the dust fall onto the freshly-cleansed floor, “the one in the living room broke eight years ago. It’s still sitting there.”
We donate the turntable, and hope it gets to play something soon. After six years under a desk wrapped in dusty paper, it deserves to.
I love looking at floor plans. If I have a guilty pleasure, it’s property porn: trawling through online pictures of well-appointed nests, constructing imaginary identities for myself that would suit them. A Parisian chambre de bonne; if I lived there, my wit would be drier and I’d be so much better at walking in heels. A beach house in the Hamptons; if I lived there, I’d have smooth, tanned skin and 60% more friends. A stone cottage in the Cotswolds; if I lived there, I’d read more poetry and bake trays of perfect madeleines. If I’m really committed to the daydream about being a different, sexier, smarter version of myself, one that wouldn’t be out of place in these pictures, I check out a floor plan, look at dimensions, work out where my furniture would go, all the while knowing the dimensions of a house are as irrelevant as the song that was on the radio while it was being painted. Houses are compacted dirt that expand with memories and things. Clothes, trinkets, books bought and never read. Rugs you love the stitching on, but that irritate by slipping around underfoot. Two dogs and their awful smells and the plastic toys they chewed with destructive delight. An under-floor rat cemetery. A system of announcing you’re about to shower so no one scalds or freezes you by running the kitchen tap. Conversations, fights, burnt coffee, roast beef on alternate Sundays, glasses stained with the supermarket’s second-cheapest wine and dried-on candle wax. Toasts to successes, hurtful words, countless loads of laundry and hugs goodbye. Houses expand to the size of the world.
It takes Dion and I two days to strip away the imprints and adornments of the dead; his fluids, their furniture, the settled dust, the optimism of a stocked fridge. With every wipe, donation, every item we throw out or squirrel away in memorial, we shrivel our old home into something saleable — if buyers can look past the rat-nibbled skirting boards, hideous pink wallpaper and oblivious ant army. Yet another London assemblage of overpriced walls, ready to be expanded with the daily mundanities of another family’s love.
And when it’s all done, we close the front door as we’ve done a thousand times. We hold hands, go back to our matchbox, and climb into bed. We tuck the blanket under our legs, and hold onto each other like we’re falling. I find myself thinking of the ants, marching with purpose to whatever lies behind the shoe rack, so oblivious to the tragedy around them, and I wish I’d left a splash of honey.
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