Elsie’s house

by Ashley Hay

IT WAS EARLY in the morning when she fell, and the sun coming in through the back door made a triangle on the kitchen floor. From where she lay, quite comfortably tucked on the thick green carpet between the sofa and the sideboard, she could see how it picked out the pattern on the kitchen lino, almost as if had been slightly raised, and how it touched the little nests of dust that her broom must have missed under the lip of the kitchen cupboards.

The bright shape of the sunlight changed as the minutes passed, disappearing from the kitchen to pop up first in the back bedroom, then across the busy pattern of lavender and white tiles in the bathroom, and then, later, in her bedroom – it almost reached all the way across the floor to the thick rose-coloured chenille of her bedspread – before it swung around further in search of the sunroom. The pile of the carpet, from this angle, looked like blades of grass.

From outside, she could hear cars on the road, the squeak of the swing in the park, the rich buzz of aeroplanes climbing up from the airport, the chatter of kookaburras, corellas. All that activity; it was nice to lie still amid it – although the kookaburras would be disappointed she'd put nothing out for them today. And then the house muttered a little too, its boards creaking and stretching as the day warmed. It was a consoling sound.

It was lunchtime, and then afternoon, and as the sun sank lower she wondered how cold it might get, there on the floor, overnight.

The neighbours came then: one to the front door; one to the back. Elsie, they called, are you right, love? Are you there?

I'm not in, she said, and lay still, wondering if she could turn her head far enough to see the fiery clouds of the sunset through the windows at the front of the house.

There were sirens in the street then – she could see the reflections of blue and red flashing lights on the wallpaper above her head – and then a policeman broke in through the front door. By whose authority, she thought she said, but no one seemed to hear and she was onto a stretcher and into an ambulance before she had time to realise she didn't have her shoes on.

Imagine leaving the house without shoes.

In the hospital, after a while, she thought they said she was going home, but it wasn't her home they took her to, but a home, with four to a room and meals coming round on a trolley. She wondered about her shoes, but kept forgetting to ask her son or her daughter to bring them to her whenever they came to visit.

She'd lived in that house more than fifty years, the house that held her shoes, and her photographs and her teacups and her memories, the house whose every wall had been carefully papered by her meticulous husband – God rest his soul. And yet that day, lying on the floor, was the first time she'd seen the way the light moved from one room to another, the way its warmth tracked from the back to the front, calling into corners, illuminating her space.

Such a lovely thing to have seen, she thought. Such a lovely day to have spent.

 

IT WAS SOLD, as the real estate agent had promised, in next to no time – open on the Friday; gone on the Saturday. A big block like this, with the park at the back, and the shops, and so close to the city no trouble at all, the agent had said, and she was right. Elsie's children began to clean it out, sending furniture to an op shop, and clothes, and almost everything from her glass-fronted kitchen cupboards, her glassware, her crockery, her pots and her pans. Of course she's not dead yet, they reminded themselves from time to time, setting aside a particular cardigan to take to her, a painted vase they thought was her favourite, a book they remembered her reading, years ago, when they were kids.

They set aside no shoes. What about my handbag, my handbag my purse, my keys, a bit of lippy? she asked, and they brought her a small beaded coin purse she thought she'd meant for a present for her granddaughter, with a rattle of one– and two-dollar coins inside. But what about my wallet, my savings card, my house keys how will I get in?

In each room there was something they baulked at removing: the sideboard stayed on in the lounge, a plastic fern still hung in the sunroom, the three-tiered dispenser – foil, film and paper – remained bolted to the kitchen wall and the velvet-covered stool still sat by her dressing table, lined up in front of the tarnished mirror.

Your father did that upholstery lovely rose-coloured velvet; a present one birthday, Elsie would have said, if they'd mentioned it to her. It was one of the few pieces of her furniture she did think about sometimes, remembering sitting on it, watching her reflection change through the decades, and wondering now if anyone was keeping up the dusting, and the sweeping, while she was away. All those crystal canisters on the dressing table, and the phials of perfume she'd never quite managed to finish: was someone keeping them bright and sparkling? Was her daughter chipping her nail polish pulling out the little weeds that grew between the white pebbles in the front garden?

When the new people came they put the stool, the fern and the kitchen dispenser straight into the skip with all the wallpaper – a different pattern in every room, said the husband, Alex, meticulously lined up and stuck on with a very generous amount of glue – and the thick green carpet. Last vacuumed – he shrugged. The baby's already eaten a cockroach out of it.

But it's a lovely sideboard, said the wife, Lucy, in the lounge room. Beautiful wood, and those beautifully curved edges and look, they've left some tennis trophies, and a pile of doilies. And she stood for a moment, stroking the dust away from the shiny racquets and flicking through the delicate white linen shapes – stars, circles, runners, mats – all carefully embroidered with flowers and fruit and elaborate twirling curls. Look at this – holding up a linen star for her husband to admire – so fine: the stitching's as neat on the back as it is on the front. I wonder if they meant to take them; seems a shame that no one wanted them.

Sitting on the rich glow of the newly polished boards, their baby packed a pile of small white pebbles into the back of his bright plastic truck.

Star, he said, looking up at the shape his mother held. Star.

 

THE FIRST NIGHT they slept in the house Lucy woke at three, disoriented by the geometry of the beading that decorated the newly painted ceiling. Here I am, she thought at last, in bed in the new house. She liked the soft glow the streetlamps let in, and as she filled a glass at the kitchen sink it started to rain, blurring the reflection of the lights beyond the park into rainbows on its concrete path.

Standing in the doorway of the baby's room she could see his face, tranquil, his arms flung out as if he was diving through the air. Who else has slept in this room, she wondered, and did they dream good dreams?The baby stirred and turned, and she padded quietly away, patting at a doily she'd left lying on the arm of the sofa.

I know we're not really doily people, she'd said to Alex, but it seems wrong that no one would keep at least some of these they really are exquisite. Now, her fingers registering the stitching in the quiet dim of the night, she knew that this one would stay on the sofa, half deliberately, half forgotten, for as long as they lived here.

What would Elsie think of the pale walls, the bare floors? Lucy finished her glass of water, refilled it, and emptied it again. What would she think of the new stove, or the colour we've painted the kitchen cupboards?Such a strange process, ageing; leaving your home without knowing you wouldn't come back, and then the thought of new people arriving in it, changing everything in it, living in it, with no reference to you.

Heading back to bed, she checked the lock on the front door: We should change these, Alex had said. You should always change the locks when you move into a house.

What? Lucy had laughed. You think Elsie's going to come back and let herself in?

Elsie's house: they knew her name from the settlement. Wonder why no one calls babies Elsie anymore?Lucy had said. And in the middle of the night, snuggling back into her husband's warmth, she decided that she would, one day, if she ever had the chance.

 

THE FIRST NIGHT they slept in her house Elsie woke at three, disoriented by the breathing from the other beds in the room. Three in the afternoon, she thought, looking at her watch. How could they have let me sleep so long I've missed breakfast and lunch, and there was a bus I wanted to catch.

She buttoned her cardigan, and as she felt around for her still-missing shoes, her still-missing handbag, or at least that curious little coin purse they insisted was hers, she knocked the china vase onto the floor, cracking it into four or five pieces. She'd never liked that vase, a present from one of her husband's – God rest his soul – cousins when they were first married. How strange that it of all things should have lasted so many years: she dropped the broken pieces into the rubbish bin, wondering why it was so dark. Then she heard the rain against the window and nodded. This time of year you always had to expect thundery showers of an afternoon.

The street was very quiet, and although she waited patiently at the bus stop the bus didn't come – she wondered if there was a strike she didn't know about. Still, it wasn't far to walk: just along the main road a way, and down through the park towards the river. She should be able to do it in an hour – even in bare feet.

The sun was rising when she reached her street, which confused her for a moment – wasn't it five in the afternoon? – and then she saw her front garden, neatly weeded, and with new clusters of violets planted in around her hydrangeas, her azaleas. Someone had repainted the front door a very bright blue, which she wasn't sure about, and she could see through the window that the walls were all cream now, stripped of their carefully papered patterns. Her husband – God rest his soul – would be disappointed when she told him that. And who'd been dusting his tennis trophies while she was away? He was always so proud of them.

At the back of the house she climbed the stairs and negotiated a strange new metal gate – couldn't see what that would be for – to look in through the kitchen window. So, someone had finally bought her a new stove; well, she'd been saying for years that she needed one, and this one was lovely, shiny and smart. And the floor: she'd always wondered what the boards were like, under the lino, under the carpet. They shone and glimmered like backlit stained glass. Just as I thought we were walking on light for years.

She smiled: she'd just pop back to that place she was staying, pick up her bags, and get back here in time for dinner. There must be buses running by now.

 

LATER, TAKING THE baby out to play in the garden, Lucy paused at the top of the stairs, registering the stray flecks the paint from the front door had left on the walls of the house, on the porch's balustrade. Such a strong colour, and so blue; it looked like it had been lit from within. She scratched at one streak, loosening the paint from under her fingernail and rolling it into a little ball. There was so much you could do with a house like this. They'd been lucky to find it. And she loved the way the sun travelled around it as each day turned, calling in at every room.

A kookaburra lit on the rail, its feathers soft and furry and its head tilted a little to one side, expectant.

Hello, said Lucy. Are you a regular here? Is there something I should be doing for you? Look, sweetheart: isn't he beautiful – and she turned her little boy around to see the smooth feathers, the still trust, of the bird.

A car came around the corner then, slowing a little as its driver peered across at the house and at Lucy and the baby on the stairs. The bird took flight in its wake. Lucy raised her hand, waving to the car, neighbourly, to the bird, to the house itself and the morning and to finding themselves there. It was a good place; it was going to be their home.

She steadied her little boy's feet on the landing, helping him down each step. And as she turned at the bottom to head him out across the grass to his trucks, his toys, she saw the imprint of footprints, smaller than her own, and closely set, pressed into the still-wet grass.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.