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Not the House that Jack Built!
'Tumbledown' is an appropriate word
It wasn't quite 'the house that Jack built'; more like the house my father bodged.
It happened every time I visited my elderly mother. The first day I was there I'd become an odd job man. Her tiny ‘tumbledown’ terraced house in Plymouth was a renovation project by anyone's standards.
My April visit was bordering on ridiculous. It had been eighteen months since my last stay and I soon found the whole house was falling to bits. To my mother's usual protests of ‘It'll last me my lifetime’ and ‘I'm not going to be here much longer anyway,’ I managed to change light-bulbs that were well out of her reach, replace fallen curtain tracks and change batteries in smoke alarms and clocks. Some things were downright dangerous, grown worse with the passage of time and zero maintenance. ‘You clumsy girl,’ she would tirade at me when something fell apart as I touched it. ‘It was perfectly all right before you came!’
A widow for seven years, mum had done little to improve her surroundings, not realising the expectations people have from their accommodation nowadays. She was fast approaching eighty nine and the fact that she'd been through two world wars made her more robust than some not so hardy folk many years her junior. She wasn't badly off financially and I failed to see how anyone could choose to live so frugally when they had more than adequate means at their disposal.
I was horrified to discover she'd been sleeping all winter directly beneath a window that wouldn't close. The house was an ice-box when I arrived. There were further protests from her when I mentioned the open window. ‘But I have my two hot-water bottles and my fleecy thermal blanket!’ I soon found that EVERY window in the house was stuck fast, a problem easily fixed with a pot of Vaseline, except for the window above mum's bed which became even worse when I tried to rectify the problem. It was soon wide open and would not close whatever I tried, then the ratchet decided to drop out of line with the frame and I had to admit defeat and call the UPVC repairman. Had mum frozen to death over the winter there would have been an outrage - I can imagine the headlines:
ELDERLY WIDOW DIES OF HYPOTHERMIA IN OWN BED - ONLY DAUGHTER LIVES 400 MILES AWAY
The papers would no doubt fail to mention that it was her who left the window open. She could have had heating installed at no cost to her because of her disability, and loft insulation and cavity wall insulation too, but she still preferred to use antiquated plug-in fan heaters that did little to keep the house warm.
I began to develop a persuasive plan. ‘Come up to Yorkshire to live. You'll see the grandchildren and have visitors every day. I'll do all your shopping and you won't need to worry about anything.’
‘Not worth the bother at my age. I'll be off into orbit soon anyway.’
‘No you won't, bet you'll outlive me yet with all the worry you're causing me.’
In spite of her self-inflicted hardships, mum didn't appear to be going into orbit just yet as she was so fond of saying. She'd survived the London blitz unscathed (apart from cutting her finger on a broken cup when working in the buffet on Waterloo station) so I reasoned that she could easily have a few more years ahead if the stairs or hypothermia didn't get the better of her.
‘Mum, I really think you should consider moving!’
More horrors were to come. I tried to place black bags full of rubbish out in the lane at the rear of the house ready for the bin men to collect. The bolt was stuck fast. More Vaseline! Once the bolt was loosened the gate began to groan with a painful splintering sound that wasn't healthy. The hinges had rusted through and most of the screws were either loose or missing. I managed to place the rubbish in the lane and secure the bolt before I was almost flattened by the gate to the cries of ‘Stella! Whatever are you doing out there?!’
The 1950s utility furniture had been slowly but surely consumed by woodworm since my teenage years; something mum had always been in a state of complete denial over. No mere parasite would dare to invade HER house, and that included the moths which had devoured her fur coats inside the woodworm infested furniture.
It was not just the state of the house that worried me. Seeing mum climb the stairs was a painful experience too. Her knees were not what they used to be. Over a cup of coffee I again tried to persuade her to sell up and buy somewhere modern and all on one level. I told her she could have a brand new ground floor apartment with a walk in shower cubicle and all mod cons if she wanted. ‘Well, I could get a stair-lift I suppose... that would be cheaper than moving, wouldn’t it?’ she asked pensively. No use pointing out that it would be far better to spend her money on removal costs and live her last years in luxury.
The overflow to the upstairs toilet was dripping merrily outside the kitchen window. ‘I must get a builder in,’ mum said, choosing not to take notice when I told her it was a plumber she needed.
Perhaps my father had a lot to answer for; his repairs were always makeshift to say the least and the house was never exactly the Ritz even when I lived there. Mum laughed as we talked about his exploits. The time she chose some lovely tile-effect wallpaper for the kitchen and dad's paper-hanging skills left a lot to be desired. Some tiles depicted windmills and others had ships on them, all in delft blue. Mum would visit my grandmother in London while the decorating was being done and on her return there were windmills coming out of the sides of ships, all down one side of the wall. Dad never did have very good eyesight. And then there was the year he decorated the whole house battleship grey, courtesy of Devonport Dockyard when a job-lot of paint miraculously fell into his hands, along with a couple cans of red lead which he used to highlight the window frames.
After nearly half a century in the same house mum eventually agreed it was time to move. ‘All right then, you win. Send me some details of suitable properties when you get back to Yorkshire.’
A few weeks later I had found a lovely little detached bungalow in the next village to mine. I sent the details for mum's approval and she began to summon up some enthusiasm. I assured her I'd take care of all the paperwork and financial arrangements. The main problem would be finding a buyer for the house my father had bodged.
After several first-time buyers pulled out in horror when the surveyors issued their reports, we had no alternative but to drop the price dramatically so it would appeal to developers. Eventually at almost 30,000 GB pounds cheaper than other houses in the same street we managed to find a willing purchaser who would be undeterred by the dilapidated state of the property.
All went far better than I'd expected and long before the onset of winter mum was safely ensconced in a nice warm bungalow, none the worse for the six-hour train journey. And I could breathe a sigh of relief after managing to clear forty eight years' worth of clutter in a week, including an assortment of various car parts under the stairs - another legacy from my father.
The train journey went well but wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance from the rail network that provided a wheelchair and official to help us navigate the steps between platforms. We managed to book a direct train service and mum’s possessions followed the next day in the removal van. The train was a little fast and although mum was sick in the evening she was fine the following day.
It's now been eighteen months since I first suggested my elderly mother should consider moving from her terraced house in Plymouth and travel north to live her remaining years near me in Yorkshire. Last April, things could not have been worse for her but I'm pleased now that I ignored her frequent protests of: ‘I'm too old to move’ and ‘it’s hardly worth the bother at my time of life.’ She too is glad that I persisted in sending her details of two-bedroom bungalows once I'd returned home. She is now happy in her new centrally-heated home and has no regrets.
I recently downloaded pictures of her old house from the estate agent's site on the Internet, printed them off and showed them to her. What do you think of this place then? Nice little refurbished terraced house in the West Country.
She was amazed. ‘Oooh... it's my old house isn't it?’
The nightmare dump she parted with for a mere 90,000 GB pounds last October is now a first time buyer's dream home and back on the market for 134,950. She nodded her head in approval at what the developer had done. ‘They've even kept the old apple tree in the back garden - that's nice, and the kitchen looks wonderful. Shall I buy it back?’ she smiled mischievously.
‘Over my dead body!’ I protested, remembering the stress of getting her up to Yorkshire on the train. ‘Anyway, however nice it is now, you still wouldn't be able to manage the stairs!’
I knew she was only joking. She loves her cosy, compact home and has no complaints about living in the North of England, although the water is too hard according to her and makes the tea taste peculiar - nothing that a bottle of spring water wouldn't solve. I know she's secretly elated with her new lifestyle but she still enjoys her little complaints about things nonetheless.
She never goes out but has an endless supply of novels to keep her mind occupied and enjoys the television too. I do her housework so she truly is a lady of leisure. It's a bit ironic that she has the time and money go on a permanent world cruise if she wished but she remains happy in the knowledge that she's already been to all the places she has ever wanted to visit and has done everything she has ever wanted to do. She's perfectly content to stay perched on the sofa for the rest of her days. ‘If death came for me now, she often says,’ quite cheerfully. ‘I'd just get my slippers on and go.’
‘Don't be daft. You've got to get your letter from the Queen yet!’ I'll say in reply and that may well be true. I'm not sure I'll make a centenarian though (and it would be King William V who would send me a card by then anyway) because it's me who has to dash to the chemist now to collect her tablets at short notice when she's desperately close to running out. If I make it to fifty I'll probably be lucky at this rate.
Today, mum had a prescription for some ointment but as luck would have it, it was Saturday and the two chemists nearby were closed when I arrived by bus so I had to retrace my footsteps to the nearest town. At least I can buy a day ticket for unlimited travel. Boots didn't stock the medication, which worried me slightly. ‘Don't tell me the Doctor has prescribed you something not widely available which I'll have to scour the entire county for!’ I said to mum over the phone. Eventually I struck lucky at a pharmacy only a few miles distant.
‘Where have you been all this time?’ Mum glared at me when I arrived back several hours later. ‘Have you remembered my All Bran? You know I can't go without it!’
‘I had to cross boundaries to get your ointment!’ I sighed, staggering through the doorway, dishevelled, after getting caught in the rain twice but at least I wouldn't have to water her hanging baskets.
‘Yes. North Yorkshire and South Yorkshire.’
‘Oooh.., did you get me some of that nice lean ham from the co-op?’
‘Don't push your luck... there's an old people's home a little further down the road,’ I found myself muttering under my breath but she had heard me perfectly well and had conjured up a way to exact her revenge.
‘You'll have to scatter my ashes in the Plymouth cemetery when I pop off you know... there's a clause in my will says you have to.’
Peering at me gleefully over the tops of her bi-focals, she raised and lowered herself in her newly-acquired electrically-powered recliner looking more like a child enjoying a new ride at a fun fair than a ninety year old.
‘What?! After all the bother I had in getting you up here, there's no way I'm ever going to take you back down to Devon in an urn!’
© 2015 Stella Kaye