I bought an old house and I forgot to look at the piles and scratch my chin whilst gazing sceptically at the roof. I forgot to be shrewd and instead gushed at the heritage dahlias.
My old house is a foreign land. The walls speak in whispers when my back is turned and they make polite small talk to my face. The weather. The whatever. The whether or not the winter will bring snow. The wallpaper was hung with an accent and it’s well brought up...not dragged up, but politely elbowed into a tasteful corner.
I apologise to it all the time. This house I own. Partly because my kids are kicking it in the guts but mainly because it’s not mine, never will be. Not really, truly.
It’s Nancy’s. Everybody around these parts will tell you that. Nancy’s house, Nancy’s garden. She lived here for 70 years, she was young, middle aged and old in this house. She made secrets, kept them, gave parties, took offense and shed skin here. I have no blood left in my body after this place has bled me dry, but still it is Nancy’s house.
And I love her and I hate her and I see her and I hear her. And I never met her, but oh heck could I tell you a thing or two about Nancy. She liked gin and tonic. Three lemon trees? Well really!
She liked to see and hear and smell. She was a head of the table type, the fizz in the Moët and her garden is an unbound Sunday school braid.
In Nancy’s flower beds the dahlias shout like a race day hat and asters demand a blue sky backdrop. There is no Maeve Binchy lavender here, hell no. An acre of garden and not one lavender, now that I can applaud.
Her family moved her to a rest home a year before she died, a home to rest, a home to wrestle a life down. I apologise to the scrim for that too, I imagine her leaving, resting her hand one last time on her home while her son’s car waited to take her to her own foreign land just down the road.
I hope there is no lavender there although I suspect there is and I promise her that no purple will ever be planted in her garden. And I dig and I dig. I dig for Nancy’s sake and my soul and I look over my shoulder when I unearth a bulb just to check that she isn’t looking.
I pinch the fat part of my thigh for never going to visit her when I could. I never did go and knock on the woman’s door who I say good morning to when I wake and curse, on occasion, for her tangle of wisteria. But someone does knock on mine.
It’s a man. It’s not her husband, he died long before she did. No, it’s a man who wears his old age bound up in a jaunty bright scarf, not to hide it but to laugh at it, out loud and with abandon. He has come to see Nancy, he has come to see Nancy but instead he sees me, a slightly muddy, very dishevelled me with a more-than-is-acceptable amount of cursed wisteria in my hair.
I have been wrestling it. And he laughs. “You have wistful in your hair.”
“Wistful?” I ask. This man is likeable and Nancy is hovering.
“That’s what Nancy calls wisteria, wistful. She said it was full of yearning. Is she here?” “No, well sort of but... no.”
I explain and the man unwinds his scarf of holiday colour and I wish he hadn’t. He is old now and sad and I bring him in for a cup of tea. I prepare it in the way that my mother taught me, carefully, respectfully, a ritual that if done well, not only produces a brew that will pause the day, but will also magic things better again.
Biscuits are necessary and I put my offerings on the table. We sit in silence for a moment until the walls remind me to talk about the weather.
“It’s been so warm, I think spring might just be around the corner.”
He smiles and yes, I do declare that I like this man. “Nancy’s daffodils will be here soon. A spread of yellow that you wouldn’t believe. Oh that woman was a riot.”
I nod, the wallpaper hums and the man in front of me pours us both more tea. And he talks and I listen and the house settles down on its old and wonky piles. It passes us by at some point, the day, and in the walking away light this man tells me how his love for Nancy was planted, grown and then hidden for being too bright, too bold and altogether too much for a young woman about to be married to another man.
Nancy came from a good family, a well to-do and watch-what-you-do sort of a family and she was to be married to a man whose last name graced a street sign, various town plaques, was embossed on stationary and murmured tastefully from the top of the school honours board. He liked lavender and the proper order of things and for rights never to be made wrong.
But Nancy fell for the man who worked on their farm. He was a man who strode not just with purpose but with a particular jaunt like a jangle of coins. He was colour, he was a scent in the air and a whistle on your lips. This man was trouble.
This man was as impossible for Nancy’s popped-in-a-box life as a gate that swung wrong and so she pushed herself down like a sack full of kittens.
He left the farm, his job, he got on a boat and he threw words at the wind, “don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back.”
He tells me this as the lone street light across the road blinks on. It always seems to startle itself and the neighbour’s dog barks. The man’s scarf is skew whiff and my teapot is empty, a vessel holding space, filled with time and held breath.
He turns his hands to me, I look, he looks back and he wonders why life takes us to foreign countries when it was all here, right here once. And I take his hand in mine, I put his laugh-in- the-face-of-it-all scarf around his neck and I lead him to the garden.
“Put your hands in the soil.”
And so this man, who knew Nancy not just as a ghost, kneels down and that’s just what he does. And with his hands in the dirt he turns his face up to me and his heart flies up as well and he says, “She’s here, she’s been here all along.”