I knew every inch of this house, he had said, passing a shaky hand over the wall by his bed.
Grandfather, you can’t smoke your tobacco in here. You know what the doctor said. There, I’ve opened the window for you. After the stroke, that last time, when words had failed him, he had scratched that grizzled chin and a tear came into those pale blue eyes.
We saw the big man, light as a feather, whisked away in a bag. We said goodbye to him and peeled away the wallpaper in his room. Paint on paper, paper on paint, distemper on plaster, plaster upon lath, lath upon brick, layer upon layer, the sediment of a life lived in one place.
Ah that stripe! That was the year he won the football pools. That dry old rose bed making way for a place where the new caravan could stand. The neighbours were livid.
Carefree daubs and flecks of orange and olive green. Oh dear, blame the Ideal Home Exhibition for that one. Drummer boys all in a row, nursery patterns for the new baby welcomed home. Doting father and grandfather, both born in this very house.
Back from the war with demob overcoat and brown cardboard suitcase in hand. Bombs had buzzed by overhead but they never came here. A lick of paint to cheer us all up, that’s what we need.
Layers of grey, pink, brown and beige. Another war, and before that, another. Armistices, the comings and goings of kings and queens. Births deaths and marriages.
Here’s great-great grandfather with a jug of ale. The old photo albums suddenly come alive when we reach bedrock. London Brick. A horse and cart carrying their few sticks of furniture up from Clapham. After three in a room and another on the way, this place is sweet.
The deeds are handed over, a celebratory cigar, the shaking of hands. A lifetime’s savings staked on the promise of a pile of brick and plaster and slate.
Irish navvies digging up the meadow to let the railway through. Neat rows of terraced houses rushing in to fill the vacuum when the navvies move on. A quick buck for the London and South Western Railway Company. New homes for the shopkeeper, cabinet maker and wages clerk.
A skylark rising in the clear air of the russet heath. The intoxicating smell of wild thyme, the hubbub of bees, the distant call of a cuckoo in the wood.