A City Full of Ghosts

It’s been an odd few weeks, really. A week that’s made me think a lot about time passing.

It started when I went to help my mum clear out my gran’s house. Gran is in a home now and her house has been sold. Mum’s been working hard for weeks tidying up and throwing away. I wasn’t really much help, but maybe I gave a bit of moral support. Because it’s hard clearing out the home of someone you love – a home that’s filled with a lifetime of memories. Being there just for a few hours I was flooded with them, so I can’t imagine how it’s been for mum.

As we worked, I kept flashing back to all the Christmas Eves Neil and I spent sleeping in the little spare room. All the Sunday teas – salads and cold cuts and pickled onions and chocolate cake – laid out on that dining table. And all the games played on that little square of lawn that looked huge to me back then.

Now someone else will move in and all that will be completely unknown and unimportant to them, which is as it should be, but which still makes me a little sad. As though part of my family’s history has been wiped out like chalk on a blackboard.

Things didn’t get any easier that evening when Phil and I decided to drive over to South Milford, the village where I grew up. We were checking out a house that’s for sale, but of course it became another journey down memory lane and another reminder of how quickly time is passing.

Some things stay the same of course. The Norman church where we got married is as it ever was. It’s stood there for hundreds of years and will stand there for hundreds more.

I can’t count how many times I looked out over that graveyard from mum and dad’s house – especially as dad lay dying in the spare bedroom. But even during that terrible time, the graves didn’t seem ominous or frightening to me. They were markers of a long-gone past, a symbol of the church’s stability. So I was jolted as was walked through the churchyard to see a familiar name on one of the gravestones.

That name on the gravestone is the man who lived next door during my childhood. The man who was so close to us that we called he and his wife ‘uncle and auntie.’ He and dad helped each other with DIY projects. On sunny days we sat in their garden or they came to ours. He collected old bottles that he dug up from the local fields. He knew everyone locally and everyone knew him. He loved photography and took some pictures of me that I still have. He had Perry Como records. He cried at my dad’s funeral. He was our friend and now he’s just a name on one of the graves outside the church that’s been there for 900 years and will probably be there for 900 more.

I knew he had died of course, but somehow things don’t seem as real when you’re 3,000 miles away and think you’re never coming home. It’s only when you get back that they develop the power to hurt. I didn’t have any flowers to leave, but I’ll take some next time we go.

We took a look at the two houses mum and dad owned but that’s another weird feeling, harking back to the sense I had at gran’s house, of the past having been completely erased. New people live in both houses now and none of them have any idea who we are.

Finally, we went in the pub where I once worked part-time.

Again, the past had been eradicated. The cosy village local I knew has been replaced by a tacky, corporate-owned place where they told me, with a completely straight face, that they had ‘run out of wine.’ Once packed with people who all knew each other, it was now almost empty save for a few tattooed young guys hanging around the bar. My old bosses, who put years of love and attention into making it a wonderful pub, might never have existed.

I felt deeply sad as we drove home, and I haven’t yet quite been able to shake that sadness yet. So many people gone for good, so many ghosts. But amid the melancholy there is also a feeling of thankfulness. Those ghosts weren’t there in New York, but they’re all around me here and, in the end, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

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