Saturday, December 9, 2023

Short Story: Number Four by David Gladwin

It was emptying the little garden shed out the back when I first felt it really hard, that this was my Dad’s old house, that he was dead and gone and I’d never see him again. I sat there on an old stool with legs all different lengths and cried myself dry. Don’t know how long I was there, but the old lady from along the terrace brought me a cup of tea and asked was I all right. I was by then, just about. Dried my face on a dusty old rag and thanked her. She must have seen. Perhaps she was waiting, watching me from Number Six. You know this is Number Four, but it was number four for Dad too, the fourth house he’d lived in. There was his parents’ house, the house he rented with Mum after they were married, the house they bought together, and then this one. I’ve been six months or more getting it ready, clearing out the house, having the carpets taken up, painting all the walls, sanding back the windowframes, repainting them in that nice green, same as the door is now. Don’t know what I’ll do with myself now, at the weekend and in the evenings.

This back room, what’d be a dining room if a family lived here, was full of his junk, all the things he kept. Why would he need car batteries, three of them? He didn’t even drive, thankfully. And milk bottles, the old sort with the wide necks, a dozen or more. You’re right, I shouldn’t expect to make sense of it all, I just feel like I ought to try and understand. At least there’s a bit of light comes in here of an evening now. When it was piled up with stuff you couldn’t even get to the window, never mind open the curtains. There used to be a door to the stairs here, probably from when they had coal fires and didn’t want the heat to run away up there. He took that off himself, one of the first things he did when he got here, although I’d struggle to remember anything else you could describe as constructive. I’ve always liked these old stone houses, but they take some looking after. Tried to keep it nice and plain mostly, but I like a little touch of colour and pattern – those blue tiles in the bathroom, see? The walls on the way up the stairs were all blackened and fingermarky, looked terrible once I’d got some light into the place. I remember cursing him when you could still see through the second coat, telling him he was like a child, running his hands along everything. Then I pictured him getting worse on the stairs, imagined how he got up and down here when he couldn’t walk so well, never mind the drink. I had another little cry then, it does you good sometimes, doesn’t it?

To begin with he used to sleep up here at the very top, we even had this little shower room made for him when he first moved in. I don’t think he took many showers. Or enough baths, by the state of the bathroom, never seen such a tidemark. I’ve had a new suite put in down there, the old one was finished. Later on he started sleeping on the first floor, perhaps never coming all the way up the top here, and by the finish he was just living in the front room downstairs. I like the beams up here, and the bare stone. You need to kneel down, but the view from the window’s worth it. This local stone shows all the chisel marks, the flat faced browny-pink blocks of the houses with the mortar standing proud between and the dark smoky lumps of the garden walls. There’s a honeysuckle in the front next door, smells lovely on summer evenings. Mossy though, these front gardens, never get much sun across them, facing east with buildings close either side, and all this little terrace three floors high. The backs make up for it, nice long gardens, narrow but easy to mow once I could get his old machine started. I let it all go to grass at the back, behind the little shed, easier to look after. The front was full of shrubs and I thought I could make something of them, but they’d all grown too legsy and lanky. In the end I grubbed the lot of them out until there was only that cindered earth, dug it all over, prolonging, could feel I was taking my time, digging the garden he never dug himself as if it was still contact with Dad, never mind that I lost him years before. Ever such broken old pots and bits of clay pipestem, you find in that soil. I’ve tried to keep it free of weeds, and if nobody shows any interest I’ll put a few plants in to stop it looking bare, but at this time of year anybody that comes could still do something with it themselves. Most of the other houses here have a vegetable patch, you could do that with this one. I wouldn’t bother at the front. Nice little spaces they all are though, walled and wooden-gated. I suppose we’d better go down, now. I don’t know why I’m getting so upset, it’ll probably take ages to sell. Been telling myself today was the end, getting my nerve up to face it, but what if it’s only the start? These old places don’t always go quickly.

I know our houses are a lot more modern, but you’ve never seen such spiders as there are in here. It’s all right, they mostly come out at night. When I’ve been here over winter working of an evening and put the fire on there’s one comes out across the floor from somewhere behind that big stone fireplace and sits in the warm. Dad used to talk to them, you know. He did! Said they were his old ladies, reckoned only female spiders get big or old. Called them ever such names, but they were part of the house to him, he’d never put them out, far less kill one. ‘Look at this big old bitch!’ he’d say, pointing. Didn’t mean to be nasty, there was a real affection for the crawling things. Still can’t stand them myself. But I owe them, the ones in here.

I think he was happy, or at least the reason he started on the drink was long-forgotten, didn’t matter, by the time he died. Whatever it was, I’d always associated Dad with the stuff, always knew he was a drinker, because whenever I remember him, and on all the old photographs, he’s got a glass in his hand, or on the table in front of him. And yet I never saw him drunk. Maybe that was the problem: it didn’t make him ill like it does other folk, or he was ill already, given to the drink, taken by it. People have it wrong, you know. They talk about drunks, but the biggest drinkers never get like that. They put it away every day, and you wouldn’t do that if you were still sick from the night before. Makes me laugh to think that little old man could sink more than the hard young lads round the pubs in town. Funny thing to admire your father for, isn’t it? If I hadn’t been so tied up with work and the bloody divorce, maybe I could have looked after him a bit better. He wouldn’t look after himself.

He used to be fun, though. He was a lot of fun. Being an only child he was my playmate, always made time for me, more so than Mum. Every night when he got home it was Dad who put me in the bath, read me stories. All our teenage friends liked to visit the house, because he was funny, wasn’t he? Not intimidating or remote like some of the other parents, and he didn’t care if we were going out to pubs, or drinking at home. ‘Just don’t do it in public,’ he said, ‘not in the River Gardens, or the Memorial Gardens. People will leave you alone if you leave them alone. Act like a wino and they’ll treat you like one.’ The only thing he ever warned me about seriously was getting myself pregnant and married to some local oaf with no prospects. Unlike Mum, he didn’t care what I did, as long as I didn’t hurt myself, or anyone else. I wonder how much sooner than me he saw that I’d married an oaf from Cumbria with plenty of prospects but little else to recommend him. Anthony used to bait my Dad, saying the Lakes were the finest land in Britain, that Derbyshire paled by comparison. The answer he got was always the same: ‘That’ll be why you don’t go back, will it?’ It wasn’t as simple as that, and I think Anthony couldn’t help himself, liked to mention the home he’d run away from, just like Dad would compare every place we went on holiday to somewhere in Derbyshire. We drove through a forest in Scotland and he reckoned it was a long way to come if it was no better than Via Gellia. ‘It’s just like Matlock Bath, this,’ he said in Austria. That was the only foreign holiday we ever went on, before they even had the cable car at Matlock Bath, too. On the telly once we saw the Grand Canyon – they watched a lot more holidays than they took – and me and Mum both asked him if that was better than Monsal Dale before he could say it himself.

The wheelie bin for recycling out the front was always full of bottles. The odd wine, but mostly whisky, a nasty cheap brand I’ve never seen anywhere else, not that I could tell you the first thing about whisky myself. You know I like a drink, but seeing how Dad was with it married to it before he even met my mother – I’ve always held back. I knew where he bought it from though, the kitchen here was full of their bags. I saw the receipts, too. You’d think they’d be suspicious, might refuse to sell him so many bottles at once, every week. Not that I blame them, they’ve got to make a living, and if they hadn’t served him he’d only have bought it somewhere else. No point shooting the messenger. Most people can have whisky in the house and leave it alone, only have a glass a few times a year. A bottle didn’t always last Dad a day. I should have known he’d give himself to it, after Mum died. She was all he had, apart from the drink. I was too busy pretending my own life wasn’t falling to bits.

Am I surprised he lived so long? Not really, because he was never ill. Never went anywhere to catch anything, he used to say. I do still wonder what he did here for all those years, on his own most of the time, apart from drink. If he ever did anything much else. I half-expected to find a clue here when I was clearing the place, something to explain it all. A diary he’d kept, or some old love letters, anything. There was nothing. The last bit of his writing I could find was on the back of one of those receipts. ‘Tell Christine,’ it said, not in his neatest hand. The date on the other side was a couple of months before he died. I don’t know what it was, or whether he told me.

I wonder who’s going to come and live here. I could have tried letting it out for tourists or something, like you said. But that might not be good for me. I’ve never spent very long here, or I didn’t when Dad was still alive, but it’s nearly all I’ve got left of him, and if I don’t let go I’ll be clinging forever. I’ve got a future to find for myself. It’s all changed these past ten years: first Mum, then the divorce and now Dad. There’s only me left, and I want to take some time, find out what I’m really like now, what I want to do with myself. I know one thing, I don’t want to be a sad old single woman putting flowers on a grave.

That’ll be the agent at the door, for the keys. Thank you for coming down here with me, it’s made it a lot easier. Can we go and get a cup of tea or something now? I’d like to talk a bit more, you know, before I have to go home by myself.

2 thoughts on “Short Story: Number Four by David Gladwin

  • Danielle Spencer

    Beautiful story

  • Lesley Kinney

    Put a lump in my throat

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