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Three Houses

Three Houses: The Geography (click to enlarge)
Cae Cottages, Penceiliogi

Memory paints my grandparents like the characters in a Dutch interior: Granny in the doorway between the porch and dark scullery, D’cu sitting in a low chair by the fire where two brass horses rear on blocks of polished oak. I enter silently, from daylight on the unpaved lane, stepping down over the stone hearth into the shadows, as if even the slightest noise could tear the membrane that divides remembering from not remembering.

I am sure I stayed here once although my mother cannot be sure. But I know the two connected bedrooms in the eaves, the cool lino beneath my bare feet, lying in an iron bed with my sister watching the squeeze of sunlight and dust around the edges of the pulled curtains.

The garden is a field with long grass and trees and an outside privy where, a young woman with auburn hair tells her two wide-eyed daughters, I was once chased by a goose.

35 Glasfryn, Dafen

When the cottage was sold and they had nowhere to live the council moved them here, a terraced house with a squeaky iron gate and a long arch-roofed alleyway that ran from the side of the front door to the back garden. Each morning D’cu swallowed a raw egg, breaking the yolk in the chamber of his throat. Sometimes he melted cheese on a glass plate in front of the open coal fire and spread it on thick slices of white bread. Granny fried chips in lard, kept toffee bonbons and rainbow drops in white paper packets in the sideboard. There was always an open tin of condensed milk on the kitchen table to sweeten their tea.

When he died I said, No, I didn’t want go upstairs and say goodbye. A week later, he was the old man who called me his ‘lovely girl’ as I packed his frozen chicken and packet of custard creams at the supermarket checkout. And now he is always leaning on the front gate in a collarless white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows. Sunlight glints off the close-cropped silver stubble on his head that he had trimmed monthly without fail.

Llandaff House, Llangennech

I did not know her. Language fails me when I try. She was only ever Granny, progressively stranger and more stubborn as I grew up and the longer she lived alone. She still wore bandages for her burns; she knocked a pan of boiling water off the grate and over her leg in 1943. She’d eat stale bread rather than buy fresh with the money she hid down the sides of the sofa, in the sideboard, and in old handbags at the back of her wardrobe, tight rolls of notes like fat cigars, the accidental discovery of which sent irrational fear and guilt racing through my ten-year-old heart. She refused gifts, insisting she didn’t like chocolate and she most certainly didn’t drink alcohol, or she inquired suspiciously after the price of any new clothes my mother bought her.

I saw her once, maybe twice, in this house where the walls might have been cream or pale green, where the framed prints were of flowers or seascapes, but where the women who bathed her, cleaned for her, and made sure she ate, were kind and called her Alice.

Alice was ten when her mother died in childbirth. She walked with her father behind the horse-drawn hearse, a father who would re-marry, who would lose another wife in childbirth, who would marry again.

Sometimes I try and imagine the story of the life that shaped her, that persuaded her to stubbornness and suspicion, that fed her neuroses… but that would be my story.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about a house from your childhood.
  • Write about someone you didn’t know.

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