Unpacking the past

I hadn’t expected my mum to die. I remember that, as I look at the shoes – a pair of cheap, shiny black ballet pumps that I had to go out and buy, because I didn’t have any shoes with me that were suitable for a funeral. Shoes I haven’t seen in 8 years, because they were packed away in a suitcase and stored in a friend’s loft. A case I am only now unpacking, unearthing the things that I saved.

I was already homeless the weekend my mum died. After nearly a decade renting at ‘mate’s rates’ in London, I’d had to give up my flat when the friend I rented it from broke up with his boyfriend and needed his place back, leaving me abruptly adrift in a property market I could no longer afford. After fruitless weeks of trying to find somewhere that I could afford and that would be willing to rent to a freelancer, I had decided to relocate to Brighton – only to find that while property there was (marginally) cheaper, the market was even more cut-throat. Many was the time I turned up to a viewing only to find the place already gone, snapped up at the appointment before mine by prospective tenants who realised there was no space for hesitation.

With my things all in storage, I was living out of two suitcases. One was larger, a ‘two-week holiday’ size (bought despite the fact I had never had a tw0-week holiday in my life) that had taken up permanent residence in my friends’ spare room and which, over the next few months, I would revisit at increasingly desperate intervals. The other, a smaller wheeled travel case that was to become more and more battered as I toted it from one friend’s spare room or sofa to another. I didn’t know it at the time – less than a month into my search for somewhere to live – but this was just the start of a long, grim summer of being without a home.

I was meant to be going to a wedding. I was in Brighton for a week, house-sitting while I house-hunted, but was due to head back to London that weekend for a friend’s big day. I’d been calling the hospital regularly to check up on my mum, who was in for an operation that was meant to finally address the pain she’d been in for months, and the news was mostly reassuring – enough so that both my uncle and my mum’s best friend were content to take the holidays they’d had scheduled, enough that when I suggested to a nurse that I bring forward my travel plans to come back earlier, she poo-poohed the idea with a cheery dismissal. My mum had family and friends around her, she was recovering well, there was nothing to worry about. Then suddenly she wasn’t, and there was.

I didn’t make it to the wedding. Summoned by a panicked call from my cousin, the urgency reinforced by another conversation with a nurse, I arrived in Newcastle on the Friday and went straight to the hospital – after all, I just had the one case, and I was used to taking it everywhere. My mum had been in and out of hospital for years, so I had plenty of experience of visits – those wards that looked like they had barely changed in centuries, bar some clunky new tech and TVs. But visiting the ICU was a very different world. The place felt almost space age, and I was torn between gratitude that we have an NHS that provided this level of specialised care even to those with little money, and terror that my mum required such treatment.

Her death a day later was, in its way, as kind as such things can be. The brother and sister-in-law she adored had flown back from their trip, and she passed, without pain – without ever waking – with me and her beloved family at her side, my aunt gently stroking her hair.

The aftermath felt both more brusque and more brutal. My mum lived in social housing, which had to be cleared quickly, another tenant already lined up to take her place, the overstretched system allowing no time for leisurely grieving. All at once, I found myself with all of this stuff, and no idea what to do with it.

Because God, my mum loved stuff. As someone whose finances had been precarious ever since her divorce when I was a young child, she used possessions like a beaver builds a dam, to stave off chaotic tides. My own minimalism was in many ways a reaction to that, honed further by a peripatetic life (until my move to London it was a running joke among my friends that they used post-its in their address book under my name, tired of me filling up the S pages). I had never owned a single piece of furniture; I rarely bought anything I couldn’t wear, read, or write in, whereas my mum never met an ornament she couldn’t find shelf space for. And here I was, surrounded by the accumulated detritus of not just one life but two. Because while I was ruthless in my lack of sentimentality, discarding mementos and souvenirs as I went, my mum had kept as much of my youth as she could. Old letters from university, school projects and report cards, even childhood toys.

With more time, I might have been able to sell some of the household goods, defray the cost of her funeral, which was woefully underserved by a meagre insurance policy. With somewhere to put them, I could have kept more things. She had a home full of decent furniture, and I was looking at a rental market where most properties came unfurnished, but the cost and logistics of transporting it to Brighton and putting it all into storage for an indefinite period simply defeated me. Instead, everything she owned was parcelled out to family, friends and neighbours, anything unclaimed going to charity or the skip. When I left her flat for the final time, it was with almost nothing I hadn’t brought with me, bar a file full of death certificates and paperwork.

I’d forgotten about the suitcases. Two bags, hurriedly assembled, left at the home of the friend I stayed with for a few days after I surrendered my mum’s place, finally stored in the loft when it became apparent that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon to claim them. Brought to my flat now, when she rediscovered them as she searched for Christmas decorations, and opened with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. What had I thought important enough to preserve?

The first hammer blow of memory came quickly. The teddy bear I’d loved as a kid, laundered and clean, kept despite my protests that it was weird for my mum to hold onto my stuffed animals, the sight of it instantly rendering me a child again. It’s not a small toy – it’s the biggest thing I saved – and I’m astonished that I kept it, having discarded so much else.

The haste of my packing was evident, as was the fact that I clearly expected to reclaim the contents promptly. The shoes that I had bought for the funeral but had no room for in the bag I was taking back to Brighton, kept for practicality – who throws away a new pair of shoes? A couple of letters addressed to my mum, that I obviously intended to deal with later. Some notebooks I’d bought to distract myself in the aftermath of the funeral, and saved for future use.

Other things betrayed a temporary sentimentality that I once would have scorned, but now find myself grateful for, pleased that past-me had a brief moment of mawkishness that made me want to keep things that, once out of the initial fugue of grief, I would likely have abandoned. The framed photograph used at the funeral, the commemoration book. A handful of photos, selected from the hundreds that I gave to my family to keep. My degree certificate, which had hung on her wall for decades, giving her bragging rights over the neighbours. A medal I won at university for philosophy, the only medal that someone who loathed sports as much as I did was ever likely to win. Copies of my books, signed and dedicated to her. A string of (presumably fake) pearls and a purse, still with the loyalty cards inside. A paperweight that I bought her with my pocket money – one of the first gifts I remember buying, a glass orb with coral at its core that fascinated young me with its exoticness, though given that I bought it at a corner shop on Felling High Street for less than a fiver, its provenance was likely less fancy than I thought at the time.  

A figurine of the Discworld’s Death at a party, one skeletal hand held out to hold a spindly scythe that is no longer there, now lost to the ravages of time, a pink streamer draped over his robe. It was a gift to me from a friend in my teens; my mum thought it was creepy, but kept it safe in her china cabinet for me to reclaim when I was more settled, until it just became part of her accretion of ornaments, forgotten by us both, now finally back in my possession.

It’s perhaps inevitable that moving back North has made me think more about the past. After all, I now live only minutes from the flats I grew up in – only recently I wandered through my old neighbourhood, finding it both changed and unchanged. I’ve reconnected with a family I only rarely saw – although my uncle died the year after my mum, I’ve been lucky enough to spend lots of time with my much-loved aunt, until she, too, was taken this year. I often wonder what my mum would make of me so fervently embracing my roots after decades of distancing myself from the place I came from. She’d be pleased I saw more of my cousins, who she loved. Probably a bit sad I’m not married. Proud of my work, though baffled by what it is I actually do. And absolutely bloody delighted that after all these years, she’s finally made me have some ornaments.

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