I decided to take the keys without telling anyone, and show the house to Roderick. We had just enough spare change to take the train one stop from Chalkwell Station to Leigh. Or perhaps we had more than spare change. Roderick often had money in his pocket; when I asked how he managed to get so much money when I never seemed to have more than a couple of threepenny pieces, he said “where do you think? Got it from my mum’s purse. She never notices. Got some menthol cigarettes too, they’re good for your lungs.”
We walked up the crumbling stone steps from Leigh Station through the Cliffs Gardens to Marine Parade, and on up Thames Drive towards the house. I knew that what we were doing was unlawful, but for me it was a lawless period. We unlocked the front door, like invaders.
The house was empty. The clocks had gone. I had never before known the house silent. The carpets had gone. Even the linoleum in the hall had been removed, and some floorboards had been pulled up.
We went upstairs. My grandmother’s room, the largest in the house, was almost stripped. I had explored it many times before as my grandparents set no store on privacy. The thick pink carpet was still there, still smelling of face powder and cologne, but all the furniture was gone, and there were pale patches on the walls like tan lines where pictures had hung.
There was a glassed-in wooden balcony on the first floor that ran around two sides of the house. This balcony had been my grandmother’s geranium forcing house. There had been geraniums in terracotta pots on the floors, on trestle tables, on fitted shelves. Despite the fact that the available types of geraniums are unusually diverse in form and colour, from tiny glossy-leaved dwarf shrubs to tall and leggy varieties with leaves like large handkerchiefs and exorbitant blooms of white or purple or every shade of red, my grandmother’s geranium world was uniform. Without exception the plants were of a single variety, a sort with dry leaves like a fine sandpaper that tended to brown and fall to the floor, and very small short-lived flowers that were orange with dabs of pink.
The powdery scent of the geraniums had always spread through the house. Up on the balcony the plants had formed an impenetrable shield against the outside world – it was barely possible to see through the glass to the street outside or to the garden – and the perfume there was thick.
Now the plants had gone from the tables and shelves. My grandmother had taken a few with her to the new house. The remainder had been removed from their clay pots and consigned to plastic bags at one end of the balcony, where they were now expiring.
“Funny old place,” said Roderick, getting out the Everest brand menthol cigarettes. “Want to have one of these?”
We took the cigarettes downstairs to the living room, which was now a bare cube. The only remaining sign of what had been was the green telephone, which was sitting in a corner on the floor.
I picked up the receiver and to my surprise there was a dialling tone.
Roderick decided he wanted to take advantage of the telephone and make a call. But he could not think of anyone to anyone he wanted to speak to, and in the end he settled for calling his own house which in any case was the only number he knew. “I’m going to get my mum and pretend I’m someone else,” he said.
The call was made but after a long wait the telephone was answered by Roderick’s brother Christopher. Roderick attempted to disguise his voice but this was not a talent he had and Christopher knew at once who was calling. “Oh shut it you shitter,” said Roderick, cracking the phone down.
Later it occurred to me that the telephone call had probably left some kind of trace of our visit, and for a short while afterwards I expected some trouble. However nothing happened. Before long the fact of our visit and the telephone call was consigned to that part of my mind where I banked different transgressions, all blurring one into another and forming the generalised sense of guilt and fear of retribution that I have always carried with me.
Roderick had brought matches, so for a while we concentrated on smoking the Everest cigarettes. This was the first time I had tried a cigarette; I had not anticipated how difficult the job would be. Surrounded much of the time by adults who smoked incessantly, I had assumed that a cigarette would be just another form of immediate refreshment and gratification that required no prior training, perhaps something like a sherbert fountain, the only downside being that as soon as one sherbert fountain was finished you really needed another.
I had not anticipated the upwelling thickness of sensation in my back and arms and neck, or the fact that the cigarette caused an immediate erection the meaning of which I could not fathom, or the near paralysis of my sense of balance as I tried to stand. I had not anticipated that instead of immediately wanting another cigarette after the first one was finished, on the contrary I did not want another, and preferably would want to un-experience the first one.
I got to my feet and immediately fell over. “Got to get used to them,” said Roderick. I could see what he meant. I went in search of some water from the tap in the kitchen while Roderick embarked on a second menthol cigarette.
At some point we went into the garden. Nothing much had changed there, except that the summer house had been cleared of its store of mouldering flags and broken floodlights. The garage doors stood open and there was a void and an oil stain where ‘the Daimler’ had stood. The ‘Daimler’ was actually an exceptionally unreliable Rover saloon which spent most of its time with the mechanics at the Esso garage, when it wasn’t engaged in the minor road traffic accidents that my grandfather seemed attract with surprising frequency. It was an article of faith in my grandfather’s world that he was an exceptionally talented driver, one of the few people who actually knew how to drive a car correctly, although like many people of his age he had never had driving lessons or taken a driving test. Unfortunately – we were given to understand – most of the other drivers on the roads of Leigh-On-Sea were ‘villains’ who as well as being born irresponsible and careless also had the infernal ability to win arguments over matters of fault and responsibility.
We lay on the uncut grass and looked back on the house. There were leaves piling unswept against the back door. Around us lay many jam jars full of water and dead wasps. My grandmother had a firm belief that wasps were responsible for anything that went wrong in a garden. Apparently they ate flowers and poisoned trees. They therefore had to be killed. The method was to half fill any used jam jar with water and put it out to catch the wasps attracted by the sugar. There were hundreds of these jars spread under trees and on brick stands and in summer the garden would be filled with the sizzling sound of wasps and bees expiring in the water traps.
As for the house it was astonishing how quickly and completely it had lost its identity as a place of living drama. It had become an abandoned set. My grandfather’s workshop had been cleared of its many hundreds of tools acquired over decades, the hammers and pliers and pincers and vices that he used to make and mend things – although he had no skill in this work and usually ended up resorting to sellotape and glue. The massive motor mower – suitable for a lawn twenty times the size of this one – had been removed from its purpose-built shelter.
Inside the house we could see right through the curtain-less windows and open doors through to the windows on the other side. It was as if someone had already begun knocking through the structure in preparation for final demolition. What had not long before seemed like a massive and permanent fixture in the universe now seemed temporary, as if at any moment it could be picked up like a wooden crate and removed.
We took some fruit from the Victoria plum tree. Roderick lit up a third Everest cigarette, and to my surprise I found myself sharing it with him. It did not seem to be quite as bad as the first one.
Later we explored the back of the garden, behind the bamboo screen, where my grandfather had created a fishpond with a brick-built bridge across the middle.
Although the water was low the fish were still in the pond. They were golden and silver ornamental carp, fish that live for many decades. Some of them were almost a foot long. They barely swam but seemed rather to drift around the oval pond in an unending circle, sometimes rising to the surface to gulp some air before sinking back down under the lily pads. I remembered how I had seen them below the ice when the pond froze in winter time. They were completely motionless, in suspended animation and waiting for the spring.