Thursday 8 June 2023

A house, a book and many silver teapots. By Keren David

Apologies. I have not kept my date with this blog for quite a few months. Life intervened. And then some.

First of all, my dad decided to sell his house, a year after Mum's death. The market was slow, we reckoned. And he wasn't quite sure where he wanted to go. What the hell, we thought. Let's test the market. After all, at 95, he didn't want to wait too long....and whooosh! An offer came in right away! Cash buyer, no survey needed, let's get on with it...

'I have a book to write!' I said. But it was too good an offer to refuse. That was early March. 

My sister lives abroad. She spent a heroic fortnight looking at care home options for Dad. But then she had to return home. And my brother doesn't drive. And Dad didn't want to be at home for the Jewish festival of Passover (too many memories). So on the day the festival began, I arrived at Dad's house north of London to pick him up. We drove to the solicitor's house in north London, so he could meet Dad and make sure he was compos mentis, and we weren't selling his house without his permission. Then  we drove on to the care home in south London which had room for Dad as respite care over Passover. 

The solicitor and dad got on very well, especially after they realised that Dad's brother had been his childhood GP. Then we drove through London -  past Mum's old school, past Dad's brother's house, past Mum's childhood home. The sat nav was full of ghosts. It even took us down Latimer Road, where Mum's grandmother once lived, "a real slum in those days," said Dad, not an easy place for a single mother with four children, an immigrant whose husband had abandoned her...and then the next wife...

I settled Dad into the care home, and as we unpacked, a call came from the solicitor. "I'm happy to tell you that I've exchanged contracts," he said. "Completion on May 12".  This was April 5. I've got a book to write, I thought. And then I went home to cook a huge and complicated meal for Passover. 

I work full time, did I mention, and at some point during this period I was promoted. Hurray! Great job, terrible timing. So I was doing my new job, but also semi doing my old job too, as I eased my replacement into the role. I had a cough, but I ignored it. Just a cough. My brother, my niece and I spent a weekend packing and sorting at Dad's house. My brother booked removers and storage. I booked house clearers. "I have a book to write," I said. But a house takes quite some clearing. Luckily there were several Jewish holidays in April (thank you, God!)  and many bank holidays in May (God save the King!). My daughter helped. My niece helped. We found old clothes and old photos and silver teapots and candlesticks. 

The house was a Tardis. It looked small from outside, but inside it was packed with decades of memories. "Don't worry about the garage and the garden shed," said my friend, a declutterer by trade, "no one puts anything valuable there." She never met my mother. Silver teapots, silver fish-knives, silver candlesticks were bundled away in the garden shed. And the attic. And the clothes cupboard in my father's study that I had never known was there, even though they'd owned the house for 34 years. Then there were the tea sets. And the dinner sets. And the saucepans. And don't get me started on the books. Angela Thirkell. Georgette Heyer. Diana Wynne Jones. And a zillion books of Jewish interest. ("Why does Grandpa have a book about Jewish furniture?") 

 I started trying to write in the evenings. I fell asleep over the laptop. I started trying to write in the mornings. My brain refused to co operate. Maybe, I thought, the publishers will forget about the book? I stuck my head firmly in the sand.  Deadlines whooshed by. 

I went to the cinema and started to feel ill. I came home. "Have we got any Covid tests?" OMG OMG OMG  IT'S POSITIVE. I THOUGHT COVID WAS OVER! OH NOOOOOOOOOO 

My husband got it. My boss got it. My son stepped off a plane in Toronto feeling grotty, and knew he had it. But most dreadfully my dad got it. "I've very ill," he told me on the phone from the care home, where he was in strict isolation.  "I'll come soon," I promised. "But Dad...I've got to clear your house..."

The book...I couldn't even.... 

The house clearers were amazing. I decided to concentrate on ideas, not things. 'Hospitality' was one idea. 'Love of nature' was another. I didn't need to keep every (or any ) teacups, I just took away the concept of tea parties. A  lovely friend turned up with cupcakes and flasks of tea and coffee and we sat in the garden and I took pictures of the tulips. Later, after she'd gone and they'd gone with their three vans of stuff, I looked up at a cupboard in the utility room. Hang wasn't quite empty. I climbed up. One silver teapot. Another silver teapot. Candlesticks. More teapots. Did I mention, by the way, that my great-grandfather ran a metalworks, and specialised in silver plate?

 The next day I came to get the last lot of stuff. I sat in the dining room. My mother died here, in a temporary hospital bed, all of us gathered around her.  I played her favourite music on my phone. Joan Baez, We Shall Overcome. Suite for Two Guitars by William Lawes. Mum was a guitar teacher, and for a moment...just a moment.... But the house didn't feel like hers any more. I packed the last silver teapots in my car and went home. I didn't even go into the garden. I didn't even say goodbye to the pigeon she used to feed (Mr Hoover). 

 The next day my daughter and I went to south London to see Dad, finally out of isolation. He looked even older than his 95 years. He was pale and shaking, his temperature was up, his oxygen levels down...CALL AN AMBULANCE!  And off we went to St George's Hospital in Tooting, where he was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia. ("Where's Tooting?" he kept asking the doctors, and they thought he was confused and I had to explain that he was from Hertfordshire, he really had no idea where Tooting was, whereupon he told them that he was from Wales,  born in Pontypridd in 1928 and I had to explain again that he really wasn't confused. But he was ill. Please dad, keep the diffuser over your face.) 

This was terrible. I had probably killed my father. What's more I had probably killed him between exchanging contracts and completing on his house, which everyone from my sister to the solicitor had agreed would be a fiscal and legal disaster. Plus he was in hospital, IN SOUTH LONDON and I had a new job and I'd been off for a week with Covid and now my replacement was ill too ...and I think I'm cracking up and did I mention that I HAVE A BOOK TO WRITE....

My sister, bless her forever, got on a plane and came to England. She sat by Dad's bedside every day as he got better. (His hearing aids, however, chose this inconvenient moment to self destruct). The house sale went through. I got a message from the buyers. "You've left clothes in the washing machine, dishes in the dishwasher and we've found a box of jewellery and a silver knife.." Not a teapot? "I want the knife," said my brother. 

Then a miracle happened. A place came up for Dad in a care home very near my house. It's a wonderful care home, which looks like a five star hotel. He was able to move there straight from hospital, and he loves it. He has a veranda to sit on, and a garden view. He is making new friends, he's tried indoor bowls and a poetry writing workshop. He's putting on weight. He's happier than he's been since Mum died. Mum would most definitely approve. Multiple layers of stress have lifted. 

My agent messaged me. What's happening about the book? Did you forget that your deadline was April 10? Gulp.

So I wrote. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. And luckily it was a very short book, and even more luckily it's an adaptation of a bible story -  in fact the one that's attached to the festival of Passover. So no need to invent a plot. 

And once I'd written it I had to fit it to the publisher's template, which was like doing the worst kind of maths puzzle. But I did it. Today.  And whoosh, off it went to the editor. An amazing five days BEFORE deadline (which was obviously a massively extended completely false deadline, thank you so much wonderful editors and agent). 

So that's why you haven't heard from me.

And the teapots? They're all in storage. But they've come to symbolise this strange period for me, and especially the support from friends, from family, from neighbours and community. Because love shone through the difficult times. And tea is always a comfort. 



Susan Price said...

Keren, I can only say: WELL DONE!

Anonymous said...

Amazing, I would have buckled under pressure.

Penny Dolan said...

Karen, what an onslaught to face and at such a time. Well done, echoed, for dealing with all that - and so many silver tea-pots!

(From Penny and not an anonymous.)

Keren David said...

I most definitely buckled.

Anonymous said...

Well done Keren! (From Anne Booth!)

Lynne Benton said...

Wow - how you managed to come up with a blog as well is amazing! Do hope your father continues to love his new home!