I still remember when you told me stories about the war. How people did things differently then. Your brother was killed in action, and when they brought his body home, it was kept in the front room of the house overnight, the next morning being the burial day. I remember my surprise; the front room? I exclaimed. Yes! You said; we lived in a small house, like this one, two up two down, and they kept him in the front room. My mother stayed up with him, well with his body, all night. When me and my sister got up in the morning we found her in there with him, she was crying.
I couldn’t imagine it, but like you said; things were done differently back then. We were sitting in your sweet, warm living room, red carpet, with large purple flowers, dense, but faded and worn in places. The armchairs, a deeper maroon, made more comforting with age. The off-white textured wall paper, the electric fireplace that was always burning. David, your only nephew’s photo on the mantlepiece, grinning, light brown hair, freckles, cheeky mischievous eyes with so much light in them, he was only eight or nine in the photo, a typical British schoolboy picture, I never looked close enough to see the school logo embroidered on his navy school jumper. Later he we would die from brain cancer aged forty-nine. I was already your neighbor then, I remember condoling you. You told me about the funeral, how his artist wife read a poem he loved, how when she described him, she said: “he took me, a wild, untamed woman, and made me feel safe”. I condoled you when your husband Wally died too, but I was so rubbish at condoling people, I never knew what to say, and I always made it more awkward. Then in a burst of guilt I offered things; can I mow your lawn Marie? can I buy you some groceries Marie? It’s snowing, and the roads are slippery, do you need help with anything Marie? Let me take out your bin for you Marie. And when your eyesight deteriorated; can I read your letters for you Marie? All the shame we carry when we know we can’t be the people our loved ones need us to be.
Whenever I came to see you, your magnifying glass lay on top of the newspaper. The red plastic roses in the cheap white porcelain vase. Your floss white hair, the checked apron you wore when you did the cleaning. Always a simple elegance, even when you weren’t going out; a red M&S wool cardigan, with an ankle length midnight-blue pencil skirt, demure and feminine. Both our houses were ‘two up, two down’, a British description used for traditional terraced properties. tiny homes with two rooms upstairs, and two rooms down, a small kitchen, and one small bathroom. Row after row of identical Terraces, sharing sidewalls, along narrow streets of unattractive, affordable neighborhoods. Their slanting roofs, their small chimneys, symmetrical, and grave, against the grey wet sky.
Our neighbor Roy, e-mailed me, telling me that you died today. The first thing I thought was how much you liked the color red, as much as I do. Whenever you saw me wearing red, you admired what I wore; it’s such a warm color, isn’t it? you said. then I thought about how we weren’t really close, I couldn’t come talk to you if I had something on my mind. I couldn’t really ask you what your thoughts were on this or that. The generation gap between us too wide. We exchanged pleasantries, that’s all. And yet, you were important to me, knowing you gave me something. I never dared ask you; why you and Wally never had children? Or if you couldn’t have them, whether or not you ever considered adopting? it was too personal to ask such things, rude even. I never asked you how you cut the top of your left middle finger? Was it an accident? Was it in the Kitchen? Or at a factory where you worked decades ago? It was too inappropriate, why provoke such unpleasant memories. Now I wish I did, now I wish I had the courage to really talk to you. To ask you things, to learn from your incredible ninety something years on this earth. More, more stories about the war, more beautiful poems recited at funerals by loved ones, more intimate conversations in your red living room, by the electric fireplace, David’s photo on the mantelpiece.