I’ve come back to the empty house for the second time in the six weeks since my mother died. The last time I came back, I felt her lingering presence: benign, modest, humorous. But this time she’s absent. Alison, who came once a week to clean, told me that my mother’s last words to her were: ‘Don’t forget to clean the skirting boards behind the beds.’ My mother liked her house to be clean. She kept on top of it, wielding the vacuum cleaner when she’d reached the stage where she couldn’t stand unaided.
It’s a lovely old house on a rainswept promontory overlooking the bay. It badly needs money spent on it — the roof, the tarmac drive, a new heating system to banish the damp from an increasing number of interior walls — but she did what she could within her meagre and diminishing means to keep it up. She and my father had bought and run it as a small residential home. There are nine toilets. While she was still fit she tried twice to sell it. Once it failed to attract a buyer and once the sale fell through at the last moment. Then she was an invalid and the upheaval would have been too much. Now she’s gone and the house is once again up for sale. I’m guessing that whoever buys it eventually will do so because of the view and will knock it down and start again. This appears to be a growing trend around here now that money has decided it likes the area.
As with the last visit, I’ve come back to find out what my cancer is up to with a scheduled blood test, scan and a visit to the oncologist, Mrs God, who will give me the results and any implications for my health with satisfyingly scientific precision. Then I’ll leave again, this time for central Africa, for a cycling holiday that I will pay for by submitting a piece about it. I must try to remember to ask the oncologist about yellow fever, and whether the vaccination could react adversely with the other stuff I’m taking. Earlier this year, the much-loved and dynamic head of the Marsden hospital in London died following a yellow fever inoculation. His adverse reaction to the vaccine was merely a tragic fluke though; he was the one in 100,000 statistically likely to die from a yellow fever inoculation.
I came here on Thursday night. The blood test was on Friday. I faced the oncology music on Monday morning. On Saturday and Sunday I did little except read and keep the kitchen hygienically clean. Apart from the sympathy cards crowding the sideboard in the hall, the house is exactly as she left it. I open a cupboard and there are her familiar coats crowding the hooks. I don’t sit in her kitchen chair or her electric recliner in her sitting room, but I might nick one of her butterscotch sweets from the bowl beside it.
I don’t feel sad, but I do feel slightly deranged by change. Suddenly everything is different. Even my body shape — massive gut, tits — has changed.
I can still read though. While waiting for Monday I did practically nothing but sit in the kitchen and read with absorption and a strange devotion. On Saturday I lost myself in I Am Dynamite! — Sue Prideaux’s amazing Nietzsche biography. Amazing to me anyway, because not only could I understand it but it also turns out that Nietzsche was a comedian whose life was a hilarious farce which tipped over into a grotesque tragedy that was also quite funny. And a nice man, too. Ernst Krieck, a prominent Nazi ideologue, sarcastically remarked that apart from the fact that Nietzsche was not a socialist, not a nationalist, and opposed to racial thinking, he could have been a leading national socialist thinker. Nevertheless a whole day spent in the company of such a subtle, articulate and ferocious iconoclast, and West Ham capitulating so spinelessly at Goodison Park about halfway through, was not the ideal antidote to my mild derangement.
On Sunday I again read all day. I read Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals in the light of my new understanding of him as a funnyman and coincidentally in the light of the bullshit coming out of the radio every top of the hour, which I suppose Nietzsche would have dismissed as the reversed morals of a slave revolt, or yell ‘Bad air! Bad air!’Again, not ideal reading. And I compounded the error in the evening when I impulsively drove to the local cinema and sat in the front row with a pint of gin and tonic and a couple of Co-codamol 30s inside me and watched Joker pull most of its punches yet remain the most radical Hollywood big-studio film I’ve seen for a long time.