This week, a lonely old man in South London reflects on trivial developments in his life that had existential repercussions.
For my other stories, check out the archives.
It started nearly 40 years ago when my wife Maggie and I first bought our home in South London. It was a three-storied townhouse with plenty of living space, a garden with a small shed, and a basement with a few paint cans in it and not much else. It was, in the first instance, paperwork. When you become homeowners, nobody ever prepares you for the amount of paperwork that’s fired in your direction: bill after bill, advert after advert, letters from the tax man, letters from the bank. They never end. If anything, becoming a homeowner is, more than anything, like becoming a businessman. I had my office on the top floor so that’s where the papers were naturally filed. First in drawers, and then in folders on shelves, and then, without folders, on top of the bookshelves. After that, the window sills filled up, and then the top of my desk, and then I started to pile them on the floor between the bookshelf and the window.
Before you knew it, ten years had passed, and Maggie stopped nagging about all the paper everywhere because she got breast cancer and died. After her funeral, I spent several days on my own in the house: I grieved, I contemplated, I panicked. I struggled for sleep. I never acclimated to the loneliness. I lay awake at night, hoping the hall light would switch on and Maggie would walk in in her raincoat and comment on how it’s chucking it down out there before getting into her pyjamas and crawling under the duvet beside me, her cool skin brushing up against mine. Of course, that never happened outside of my imagination.
With regards to my hoarding, this was a real turning point. It became more than paperwork because, of course, after Maggie died, I still had all of her things in the house: her clothes, her books, her trinkets on the mantelpiece, her jewellery in our room. There was no chance whatsoever that I would get rid of any of it. Why should I? This is still as much her home as mine, I told myself. She’d find it rude, she’d find it offensive should I do such a thing. And, indeed, she’d naturally conclude that I was moving on, that I was forgetting her, that I was removing signs of her existence from the house in order to start again with my life. Well, it wouldn’t be that way. No, I was determined that she’d be proud of my loyalty to her. That she would stand beside me day-by-day through everything left of her in this house.
Beside that, of course, you also accumulate things over the years quite casually, almost just by existing. You have birthdays and Christmases, you buy new furniture, you replace this picture frame and that door handle, this rug and that crockery set. And before you know it, you’ve filled the dining room with boxes of Maggie’s prints, the ones I never liked that much, or the candle holders that are wax-ridden and colourless, or the silver cutlery set gifted to us by Maggie’s parents on our wedding day that I want to keep out of the sun. The shed too became a dumping ground for anything that I didn’t need in the house, the things I hadn’t touched for twenty years but was scared to lose in case they had some significance I couldn’t quite grasp in that moment. The garden, for what it’s worth, I lost all control of within a year of Maggie’s death. I was never the gardener between us, mostly because I can’t stand the idea of being out there in the pissing rain, which would be every day in this South London weather. And on top of all this, the paperwork still came. They don’t even need paper anymore, they offered me a ‘paperless reality’, which scared me half to death in itself. If I didn’t have a physical copy of something, how could I know it was real at all?
So, in the end, I’m sitting here in my living room, surrounded by boxes, watching the television as the dust swirls in front of me, and trying my hardest to beat the guests on Countdown, as I do the same time every day. And, to my surprise, there’s a knock at the door.
‘Hello, who is it?’
‘Hi, there, is that Edward?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I’m from the Art of Ageing charity. My name is Andrea. Do you know Art of Ageing?’
‘Never heard of it.’ I’ve heard about these people on the radio. They go around pretending they’re from some benign charity, befriending frail, vulnerable older people, before getting into their house and stealing their TV, their jewellery and frankly any value they have left.
‘Well, we were referred to you by your neighbour, Jackie. She told us about your hoarding, and I wanted to let you know that we have a support service for hoarding at Art of Ageing. We can help you to declutter your home, and help think about how to organise all your things, in order that you can live safely and healthily.’
‘How does Jackie know about my hoarding?’
‘Well, sir…’ Andrea nodded towards the front window. ‘You can’t see an inch beyond your window screen for piles of boxes…’
‘Look, I’m not interested. I live safely and healthily as it is. I’ve never had a problem.’
‘Please, I’ve heard about your type. Trying to get in here so you can steal my things. I’m not interested.’
‘Oh, no, not at all. Look, we're a registered charity. Let me at least leave this with you.’ She thrusts forward a little slip of paper which bears a few images of smiling older people with a phone number and email address, a list of services they offer. ‘If you change your mind, call this number and they will help.’
‘I don’t want to call any number,’ I state. ‘Let me be clear, I’m happy as I am.’ I thrust the paper back and let go. ‘Thank you for visiting.’ I close the door as the woman stands still, watching, a pained expression on her face. I return to Countdown. Why does everyone have to insert their beaks into everything I do? Can’t they just leave me alone? There’s no need for interference in the lives of ordinary people? Want to help? Go help some old dying person who really needs it.
The following day, I wake up late, cook myself a big breakfast (as a treat) and put the tellie on. After about an hour, I hear the flap of my letterbox. I go and see what it is and, to my surprise, lying on the doormat are the smiling faces of those old people, and the words ‘Art of Ageing’. I put the flyer on the fridge in the kitchen.
Some days pass and I go about my business as usual. The temperature drops and the rain leaves, replaced by frost. I wake up one morning, and there’s snow piled high to the edge of the wall outside my house. In the afternoon, while watching Countdown, the lights, the television, anything electrical switches off in a moment. I go to the fuse box to see if I can bring it back, but I can’t. It’s a power cut.
I go to the front door and look out at the nearby houses, who are also all blacked out.
Digging through some old boxes in the basement, I find Maggie’s candlesticks that we were gifted. I find some candles too, and light them. I take one to the sofa and put it on the bedside table. I look around me at the room, grey and cold. I take a book, a P.G. Wodehouse novel I’ve had since I was a boy.
Since I knocked the candle to the ground in my sleep, and it set alight to the carpet and subsequently the settee, and the boxes by the window, I’ve only ever lived one story over and over again. It was the moment that young woman, Andrea, came to my door, with her Art of Ageing flyer, and offered her ‘decluttering service’. But in this story, I accept her offer. She comes in, lighting my home with a smile, and helps to take down the boxes, sort through things, and keep what I want in the shed or the basement. And the rest, she takes to the tip with her colleagues. We talk about her life and future, how she helps people in need. I talk about Maggie, how much I miss her, and how beautiful she used to be.
After Andrea leaves, I sit on the sofa, open the window and enjoy the clear air of the day. I put on Countdown. On the coffee table, there is a picture of me and Maggie from 1971, the year we met, which I haven’t seen for maybe thirty years. We’re standing atop a grassy knoll on a little island off the coast of Devon, the wind blustering our hair. Maggie’s is stretched out in a strong wind, covering my face and we’re both laughing. Andrea found the photo, working through one of her boxes, and she brought the picture frame for us to put it in. I pick up the photo and examine it closely. A tear tickles my cheek. I replace the photo on the coffee table. I lean back and close my eyes and fall asleep.
And then it starts again: a knock at the door, I step over boxes, through the dusty living room, to meet Andrea for the first time again.