I knew from the first day – from the moment the removal men left – that I wanted to leave.
I closed the door behind them, and took a deep breath. I turned to face the hallway. Mess. Muddle. Cardboard boxes and plastic tubs of junk stacked to my waist. Every step of the stairs covered in magazines and plastic bags, with only a narrow rung in the middle allowing access to the upper floor. The kids racing from room to room, banging into bubble-wrapped table legs.
I wanted to go home.
The house never welcomed me. I was the wrong owner; an interloper. I was too soon; Mrs Peterson sat in her vinyl armchair at The Meadows, blind to the cheerful sitting room and the other residents, looking inwards. Looking at her house. The house she’d moved into as a bride; the big front bedroom where she had conceived and given birth to her children. The cornice she’d gazed at every morning and every evening, for forty-nine years.
I didn’t know that, of course, while I was unpacking the contents of our old life and trying to fit it within the meaner accommodation of the new. The children both got flu from unfamiliar schoolmates. I nursed them through long autumn nights, and trudged through the shortening days. We were always cold. The radiators hissed and banged, and I bled them once a week, releasing jets of air and hot black water from their valves. Pipes in the attic ticked above my head as I fell asleep at night – the ticks sounded like a leak, like droplets falling in a steady stream upon plasterboard – and so, half asleep, I climbed the loft ladder with a torch, and peered into the angled darkness.
A few of our boxes lay tumbled on fibreglass insulation – just clutter; some wallpaper rolls, our summer shoes. There was a water tank in the corner I couldn’t face – neither the dust on its surface, nor the apocryphal horrors within. There was no sign of calamity, no pools or patches, and so I gave up, and let myself subside back into bed, fenced in by Mrs Peterson’s cornice. I got used to the ticking pipes, but never the chill. The heating stayed on all night, but no warmth ever travelled from the radiators. The children and I would cling together, our hair freezing on the pillows, just as cold as if we were sleeping outside. I’d wake in the night and imagine I saw the stars in a clear black sky above our heads, as though the house had been dismantled around us, laying us open to the Milky Way.
‘It was a tragedy, what happened to her,’ said my neighbour, Judy, flipping shut the lid of her dustbin. ‘She was no age at all really.’
‘I didn’t know that she’d – ‘
‘Oh, she didn’t die. That’s the pity of it, in some ways. She’s clinging on. In a home.’ Judy mouthed the last word, as though it was indecent.
‘Her son – ‘
‘Yes, he took over. Put her away. Well, he had no choice, in fairness. She was incapable. A tragedy, like I say. She loved that place.’
I thought of old Mrs Peterson clinging on, in an old peoples’ home. She was incapable. She loved that place – my place. Her place.
I went back indoors and put my hand to the tepid buzz of the hall radiator. I thought of our old house; the family house we’d all cherished before the divorce, summoning to mind every knot of floorboard and waver of wall. The handles of the kitchen cupboards. The warp of the bathroom window. I was back there – I could touch it, smell it. I wondered if the people living there now – the ones who’d been so excited about colonising my home – could sense me watching them from doorways, and trailing my fingertips along the honeyed oak of the banisters. I wondered how they could feel at home, how could sleep in the last place I’d made love. I wondered if they could hear my children, finding their first words in their own house. Because they were silent in Mrs Peterson’s house. Silent.
The chill must have spread from our walls through the party walls, keeping our neighbours cold in their beds. It was all we could speak of when we met on the street – the weather, the big freeze. Plumbers’ telephone numbers were handed around as pipes burst and boilers clanked to a standstill. And yet everyone was cheery, I thought – everyone seemed to face the winter like a great adventure. The kids spent time with their friends, grateful for sleepovers in ship-shape modern houses. I lay on the ice floe of my bed, surrounded by solidifying hot water bottles, waking in the early hours to shudder at their fleshy touch.
The house was dirty, too. Hopelessly dirty, as though dirt rose up from its foundations, or as though the house was sinking. I found great blankets of dust underneath the beds two days after I’d Hoovered. The laundry never dried, and our clothes seemed to acquire an invisible but tangible coating of slime.
It was the snow that warned me to leave.
I had slipped out to the corner shop for supplies. The children were staying with their Dad, in a tiny flat that glowed, in my imagination, like a jewel box. He lived there with his girlfriend – his mistress, if we are being precise. They had cleaved together in a confined space, beginning anew among glossy units and mirrored surfaces. It was warm there. That was the main thing. It was warm.
I needed spirits. Wine no longer did the trick. I wanted whisky – just a small bottle, a nip. Medicinal. The corner shop was full of light, with portable heaters glowing everywhere – the edge of the shopkeeper’s sari touched the incandescent bars behind her, and I pointed a warning although I envied her, really. She smiled, and swished the fabric away. I gazed at the sparks of sequins leaping from the layers of her many cardigans. I could have stayed there all night.
As I turned into my street, I made plans to keep my coat on and huddle against the long radiator in the bedroom. Heat rises, I thought bitterly. The bedroom would be a fraction of a degree warmer than the Arctic of the living room. Logic. Scientific method. My thoughts had frozen in my head and lay jumbled and covered in powdery ice, like loose out-of-date fish fingers at the bottom of the freezer.
At that moment, Mrs Peterson would have been in her chair at The Meadows. Someone was flipping the TV channel, and a trolley with tea and biscuits was doing the rounds. Mrs Peterson sitting immobile, impervious, her gaze turned inwards, her body and surroundings forgotten, or perhaps transcended. It was summer. She was pegging washing out in her garden, walking in her slippers along the straight concrete path. Her husband would be home soon. Her children laughed somewhere in the depths of the house as she slipped a hand over her belly, to acknowledge the new life growing there.
I looked up at the house as I approached it. And when I saw the snow, I knew I had to leave.
Not the snow – the lack of snow. Every other roof of the terrace was thick with a silver blue crust, testament to their muggy, airtight micro-climates; their cavity walls had been filled, and their lofts – their lofts…
I staggered a little on the street, and my small whisky bottle fell to the pavement and cracked in the slush. A lavish golden stain spread over the kerb. I thought of the fibreglass insulation in the loft, the wallpaper rolls, the shoes. The radiators that were always on. The house must be hot – so hot that snow liquefied and melted from its roof in rivulets, spattering the front garden with a constant rain. So hot that heat pulsed out from it in waves and thawed the ice from the air. And yet, if I were to go back inside, I knew my breath would mist in front of my face, and my skin would shrivel, and my hair would freeze.
The house had never wanted me. I was the wrong owner; an interloper. I was too soon.
Mrs Peterson sat in her vinyl armchair at The Meadows. Looking inwards.