Where do we start?
With the clothes, I think. Mrs Jones is propped up on the edge of her bed, by the wardrobe.
“Let’s imagine that you’re going to a hotel for three weeks,” I suggest. “We’ll pack for that to start with. Then I can always bring you up more stuff. Or bring you home to choose more – um – stuff.”
“I don’t see myself coming back,” says Mrs Jones.
I don’t see Mrs Jones coming back. Once you’ve left the house you’ve been in for fifty five years, you don’t just pop back again. But we don’t know how big a space there will be in her new room: neither Mrs Jones nor myself have actually seen it. And we have to start somewhere.
So we work through the hanging rail from left to right; me holding up the clothes, Mrs J saying yay or nay. It’s cold and rainy outside – has been for weeks – so we are packing for cold and rainy. That should safely cover fifty-one weeks of the year.
We’ve done half the wardrobe when I come across a hanger on which is a boy’s brown tweed suit, jumper, shirt and tie; straight out of the illustrations from a ‘Peter and Jane’ Ladybird book.
“Those are Stephen’s,” says Mrs Jones. “What shall I do with them?”
Stephen had cystic fibrosis at a time when it had only just been identified as a condition. Mrs Jones has often spoken of the ground-breaking care given to him by Dr Archie Norman, who pioneered work into CF at Great Ormond Street and was instrumental in founding the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. With his help, Stephen lived for ten years; he would have been nearly sixty now. Dr Norman himself died just last year, at the age of 104: we’d read his obituary in The Guardian.
What shall we do with them? We decide not to decide right now and they go back into the wardrobe.
The pile on the spare bed grows as Mrs Jones says yes to cosy cardigans and woollen trousers and no to summer frocks and blouses. Eventually we get to the last hanger: Sue’s wedding dress. Sue died at forty six, sixteen years ago. Which is why it’s me, and not her, helping Mrs Jones to pack.
Actually, if Sue had lived, Mrs Jones would almost certainly have moved into residential care long before now. The house really isn’t suitable any more; hasn’t been for ages. Steep steps at the front, no downstairs loo, difficult bathroom. But memories have kept Mrs Jones stubbornly staying put until staying put was no longer an option. A bout of gastric trouble has now tipped the scales.
I have my own memories of this house. We’re above the room where, as teenagers, Sue and I got more than a little squiffy; so learning that if you’re holding a dinner party when the grown-ups are on a cruise, best not to have alcohol in every course. Happy days.
Sue’s wedding dress stays in the wardrobe next to Stephen’s little suit and we start on the shoes. Again, Mrs J chooses warm and cosy; sandals are left for another time. Next to the shoes, there is a box. “Pull that out,” says Mrs Jones. It’s a box of diaries; lots and lots of diaries. Fairly small, some clearly quite old. “I kept a diary for years,” she says.
I have heard about other would-be writers coming across old diaries and letters which propel them into literary masterpieces. “May I look?” I ask.
“If you like.”
I rummage through and find a diary for 1945! I turn to V.E. day and prepare myself to be transported. That week, Mrs Jones tells us, the war ended. She saw some bonfires. She had her hair cut and didn’t like it. It rained.
Perhaps a tad less interesting than I’d hoped. The box goes back between the sandals and a largish tin. “That’s my theatre memorabilia,” says Mrs J. “From RADA and my time in rep.”
“We’ll go through it when ActorLaddie is around,” I say.
And we start on the chest of drawers.