We slowly creep the car up the ramp, off the Woolwich ferry, taking the road marked ‘The North’. At this stage that’s all the signposts say. It’s as if most Londoners are travelling into unknown territory. It’s going to be a long drive, punctuated by stops at motorway service stations. We can never remember which serves the slightly better food, so inevitably find ourselves stopping at the wrong one. All burger and chips with tea in a paper cup and long-life milk. It will have to do. It’s a break from the monotony of driving. Back on the road, a ‘book on tape’ helps while away the miles. It’s dark by the time we arrive and you can see the silhouette of the house on the corner.
This used to be my room when Dad and my stepmother first moved up north. I am allowed to choose the décor – I am going through a rebellious phase. Purple carpet, purple curtains, one purple wall. I am rather disappointed, it doesn’t look too bad when it’s done. Perhaps I have taste after all. Dad’s study is next door, a poky little room, a cut-off bit of the corridor.
My stepmother has tomato soup and ham sandwiches for us when we arrive. A good deal tastier than the motorway services. She has made up the spare room bed. It’s where we slept when we came up last time. You can’t see the sea from the window just the neighbours back gardens. I am too tired to unpack.
I don’t know when they decided to commandeer my room, it just happened, I don’t remember being asked. Plastic wood panelling is put up, obliterating my purple wall and blocking in the shallow cupboard in the corner. I wonder if anything is left in the cupboard when it was boarded over. Probably. There always are things in cupboards in untidy little heaps: a light bulb, a washed out plastic ice cream carton, flotsam and jetsam – broken pen, half used note pad, sock with a hole, old toy car. The new study is an improvement on the corridor annex. A new desk replaces my bed. Bookshelves line the walls. Dad has a catholic taste – poetry, nature, history, music, art, politics. Some are here just because he likes the look of the cover or title. You can see the sea from the window – George sits on the window sill.
I never sleep well away from my own bed, I miss my own pillows. My stepmother is busy in the kitchen: you can hear the familiar noises of a kettle being filled, toast being made and the table laid. We make our way downstairs, the house looks much the same as the day of the funeral. When she moves I wonder, will she take all the faded and dusty artificial flower arrangements with her? Over breakfast we chat about her new flat. She is looking forward to showing us, it must wait till tomorrow. We can not put it off any longer. It’s time. We must get on with what we came to do.
Daddy’s first study had been small with a sloping roof. George lives under the bookcase. Both springs work properly – I like to release and reset the mechanism. I must be very quiet; Daddy is working for his exams to become a Mr. I don’t understand why he wants to stop being a doctor. He sits up here night after night, books spread everywhere; there are no interesting pictures for me to look at. This is really important. At school they laugh at me when I tell them about my Daddy becoming a Mr. Just like when I explained we were all made up of cells like match boxes, no one believed me then, not even Miss Putter. But when I got home I asked my Daddy and he said, “Yes, lots and lots of cells.” So what does she know?
“Do you two want a cup of tea or coffee?” my stepmother calls up the stairwell.
We glance at each other. If we stop now we will never get the momentum back, but on the other hand it is exhausting work going up and down the step-ladder with piles of dusty books.
“Yes, a coffee would be great – I’ll come and get them.”
I clamber down the steps and thread my way along the corridor past various piles of sorted books. Religious, to be taken to the local church, we have carefully vetted them, don’t want to shock the clergy. A mounting stock will be heading for the local school on diverse subjects, the most impressive is the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, bought for my brother James as a reference set. All the medical ones are carefully set aside. The Eye Hospital is going to establish a library in my Father’s honour. I like the idea that some of his own books will be there.
We did not often have people round for Sunday morning drinks, but now and again my stepmother liked to, usually on the spur of the moment. Her victims, as my brother and I call them, are the neighbours from across the road. Can you call people neighbours if they live across the road? The mother is an eccentric artist and her son Timothy wants to be a respectable GP. We have to tidy up. George has come down to the sitting room. We have been experimenting. Dad has a big operation and wants to try something new he has been reading about it in his journals. He is always reading. He brings the stuff home to work out the formula. James and I gather together every egg cup and tea cup in the house, getting told off for taking the best tea set. Lining them up in the dining room, labelling each just like a proper scientific experiment. Combinations of the mixture are made and poured into the various egg and tea cups. We wait. George is fetched. Dad methodically assesses the mixture in each cup, the moisture content, its flexibility. Careful notes are made. A decision is taken. A difference to someone whom James, George and I will never meet. Not life and death but life changing. The front door bell ding-dongs. The invited neighbours have arrived. Hurriedly I open a cupboard and tuck George inside. We all go into the sitting room. I notice my step mother glance round to check James and I have tidied up properly. I can’t see anything wrong.
“Would you like a drink?” my stepmother ever the attentive hostess enquires of Mrs Artist. “We have sherry, gin, whatever.”
Mrs Artist goes through her regular performance.
“What shall I have, oh I don’t know, perhaps a sherry, gin, no sherry, gin, no definitely sherry.”
“Would you like sweet or dry?” my stepmother now adds to her conundrum.
“Oh, perhaps I should have a gin and tonic. Yes; I think that would be best.”
I wonder whether she is this indecisive when she paints.
“James, go and get the tonic it’s in the fridge, and lemon slices.” My stepmother issues her orders.
James has now left the scene, lucky him.
Dad goes to the drinks cupboard, slides open the door. I remember too late, George! Dad does not know I put George there for safety. There is George staring out at us all. Mrs Artist shrieks and falls to the floor in a heap of multi coloured fabric. Timothy stares open-mouthed. Dad, cool as a cucumber says,
“Oh dear, she appears to have fainted, can you fetch a glass of water?”
I make a dash for the cupboard and slam back the door with such force all the bottles rattle. Timothy continues to stare like a rabbit caught in headlights – not very impressive if he wants to be a doctor. I bring some water and the patient revives. She looks warily at the cupboard, pointing a paint-stained finger and in a dramatic accusing voice states:
“In there… something… I saw… not sure what.”
“Would you like that gin and tonic now?” enquires Mr Cool ignoring her histrionics.
Taking care to stand well in front of the cupboard, gin is dispensed and no more incidents involving George occur. My brother is disappointed that he missed all the excitement. But then he didn’t get the blame for putting George in the drinks cupboard. So it’s evens.
“How much do you think you can get in the car?” asks my stepmother.
Our car is not large. I have a nagging suspicion we are just about to put it to the test. There are numerous boxes and bags of books and other childhood mementos spread on the drive. It has to be squeezed in somehow. It takes us over an hour and two minor disagreements before everything is finally rammed in and the boot forcibly shut. I have put George in a box with miscellaneous titles. The journey back is uneventful. It always goes quicker when you are travelling home – I wonder why that is? I’m glad we are not stopped by the police, it could have been awkward trying to explain about George.
My step mother moves – a new flat, a new start. All the books are unpacked. The beautifully bound classics add distinction to our study shelves. George has a new home too – carefully wedged between Trollope and Dickens. The jaw springs have broken and most of the teeth are missing. Despite this, George is very good company.