Runner-Up: Clearance

By Philippa Howell

Philippa says: I live in the Peak District with my Greek rescue cat, the subject of my next story. I have cupboards full of writing but have only just started entering competitions, so am thrilled to bits to be published on WriteTime! 

Angie found the letter on the third day. It was in Mum’s bedside cabinet, tucked behind a perished rubber douche and a packet of tissues covered in small pink roses. Like everything else in the house, the letter was a little damp. It was addressed to Mum, but the postmark was long gone. Angie studied the unfamiliar handwriting then put the letter unopened in the pocket of her overall. She must get on. The old place was almost empty. 

It dawned on Angie that it would always be ‘the old place’ now, no longer home. An unremarkable three-storey house on a main road in Derbyshire. Somewhere and nowhere.    

Angie picked up a framed photo lying on the windowsill. There was Mum in her wedding dress, and Dad as proud as a pigeon, his arm around Mum’s tiny waist. Ray and Jean. Looking at them, Angie wondered again why they had waited 15 years to have her. Perhaps there were difficulties in that department, but she hadn’t liked to ask. She studied their faces and tried to remember at what point her parents had stopped being young and started to get old. There was no change from day to day but go back 65 years to this photo, My God what a difference.   

She was 40 when she had finally moved into her own place. Mum and Dad gave her the deposit so she could think of no more excuses. After she left home, she took to calling in on them after work, but they took to being out around then. 

Angie worked in Credit Control, and was known to be a bit of a rottweiler when it came to chasing debtors. She would regale Mum and Dad with stories of her daily battles and triumphs, but they just listened and never seemed proud, which left Angie wondering if she had left something out. 

On the last Sunday of every month Mum and Dad came to hers for their dinner. Angie spent the week planning the menu. She would shop at Bakewell market on the Saturday morning. In the evening she’d write out the menu in her best calligraphy, date it, cover it in sticky-back plastic and prop it up against the condiments on the kitchen table. After the meal, when Mum and Dad went home, she would slide the menu into a folder labelled Dinners for Mum and Dad. At the last count Angie had 143 menus. She made plain food for them, nothing fancy like tagine or chocolate fondants; those were for her to eat alone in front of Masterchef of an evening.  

Angie realised she was still staring at her parents’ wedding photo. She put it down, and turned back to the job in hand. There was a heap of handbags in the middle of the floor, and she began emptying them into a bin bag, scattering safety pins, bus tickets, and coins. From a velvet evening bag, a golden lipstick case clattered on to the floor. Picking it up, she could just make out the label, Crimson Kiss.  She rolled it up till a bright red point appeared at the top of the tube, reminding her of a dog’s penis. Angie leant into the dressing table mirror and carefully outlined her thin lips. Then she studied herself. Mum had always looked so nice in that colour. She turned and looked out of the window on to the garden below. Angie could picture Dad in his old raincoat, pushing his wheelbarrow between the raised beds. His coat was still hanging on a peg by the back door. Angie knew that at some point, she would bury her face in it.

For years before the accident, Mum had pestered Dad to get a toilet put in downstairs, but it never happened. Dad would say, “I don’t want some cowboy doing a bosh job.” Mum would say, “Then we’ll have to move into a bungalow.” And Dad would say, “That’ll kill me.”  

The squabble was never sorted, and they continued to tug themselves up the banisters to the first-floor toilet when they needed to go. They had taken to coming down on their bottoms, stair by stair for safety’s sake, like little kids. Angie offered more than once to move back in to help them. “No,” said Mum. “Then there would be three of us needing the toilet. How would that help?” 

Mum had her do one Saturday morning. She must have lost her balance after using the toilet and toppled down all 15 stairs, landing outside the lounge. How she didn’t break her neck nobody knew. Dad phoned for an ambulance but did not phone Angie, who only found out from the neighbours when she called in after work. Mum was in hospital with seven broken ribs, a broken arm and concussion. She was on heavy-duty pain killers and lost her mind for a few days – thought she was a ballerina. Angie took time off work and drove Dad to the Northern General as often as he would let her. On other days he would get the tram, and she would drive there on her own to find him sitting by Mum’s bed, mute and watchful.  

One sunny September evening Mum’s light suddenly faded, and Dad watched it go out. Angie had popped to the loo and missed it. She felt cheated, always left out of things, even this. Dad was shaking like a leaf, but he refused Angie’s outstretched arms.  

After the funeral he told her it was time he went into a care home, and they must sell their house to pay for it. “I could come back and look after you Dad,” she said. Perhaps he didn’t hear. A place soon came free at The Glen and Dad’s life shrank to four walls, as is the way of things. A relay team of staff sorted him out, and when she visited Angie felt in the way. 

She set about selling the house, and to her dismay it went very quickly. She found John, the Man with a Van, on a card in a post office window between the Computer Wizard and The Loose Covers Lady. John reckoned it would take three full days to clear everything from the house as there was a lot of it, and he only had the one Bedford. “Sixty-five years of ‘it’ll come in’ eh?” he joked. She didn’t laugh.  

First, John and his lad dismantled and took away all the big stuff – beds, wardrobes, sideboards. Then on day two they cleared the top floor which had served as a dumping ground. The rooms had never been slept in and were stacked to the ceiling with rolls of cracked lino, Christmas baubles, surplus ceramic tiles, mouldy orange window blinds, and up to 100 bars of soap, their scent long gone. There was a vintage projector with 22 boxes of slides still waiting for their premiere, a steam-powered sheet press, Angie’s blue trike, and an iron mangle. “Who’d carry a mangle up three flights!” John laughed as he wrestled it downstairs again. He and his lad ran up and down like ants with crumbs, driving full loads away in the van every hour or so.    

Now it was finally the end of the third day. The clearance was finished, and John had taken the last load. Angie walked silently through her life from the top floor to the cellar, turning off the lights as she went. Alone in the kitchen, she reached into her overall pocket for the backdoor key, and her hand closed on the letter.  

Dear Jean, it read. It is very good of you and Ray to take Angie in, especially as I know you don’t want children of your own . . .  

Angie stood and cried, her mouth gaping like one of the cupboards. Finally, she took off her overall, and left home for the last time, locking the back door behind her. She got into her car and drove the half mile to her terrace house where John was waiting in the Bedford.   

He wound down his window. “Everything I can’t get in your house I’ve put under a tarpaulin in the back yard. What are you going to do with that mangle then!” He was still laughing.

Angie looked him straight in the eye. “Fuck. Off.”   

Three weeks later the police broke down the front door. They found a woman’s body, the head wedged at a nasty angle between a metal bedframe and a fallen cupboard. In her right hand was a handwritten letter.

The body was dressed in an old gentleman’s raincoat.