Alex slammed the door on the last removal man and stormed into the kitchen where Tony was making a fresh pot of tea.
'How much did you give them?' he asked.
She lied about the tip. She increased it by a third. He always reduced the cost of things he had paid for by a third so it all cancelled out.
'Was that each?' he asked.
'All together,' she said defiantly. 'How could you be so mean?'
'They're lucky to get a tip at all. Have you seen the front door? Great gouges out of the paintwork. We should have tipped them before they started. You'd think their own houses were furnished with priceless antiques. Did you hear what the fat one said about the stains on our mattress?'
'Did you tell him they were old stains?' sighed Tony. He poured boiling water into the two mugs they had left out of the packing. He kept Tony the Tiger for himself and handed her the Pope. It was her daily reminder to take the pill.
'You think you're going to a new house, a new start, and the same old rubbish comes down the drive,' said Alex bitterly. 'It's all so tatty and tired.'
'Like our mattress,' said Tony. He stood up from the box he was sitting on and scrabbled at the parcel tape that sealed the top. It was marked KITCHEN UTENSILS in Alex's writing. 'Don't do that now. I've got to wipe everything down first,' she ordered.
'Nonsense. Action. Now.'
On top was a toaster box full of photographs. One of them was taken on the day they got engaged. After ten years of marriage and two children the hopeful, innocent, radiant girl was still recognizable. The camera had caught the mischievous expression in her clear blue eyes and the slightly parted lips of passionate women and incurable mouth breathers. The photos were followed by a high-heeled shoe, a set of spanners, a wicker basket full of used tissues and cotton buds, a packet of felt tip pens, a jar full of curtain hooks, two rolls of striped wallpaper, three packets of sparklers, a lampshade wrapped in an old T-shirt, two cans of deodorant, one empty the other full, a crumpled pirate's hat. the guarantee for the dishwasher and a packet of vacuum cleaner bags. He laid these objects out ceremoniously on the kitchen table while Alex wiped down the shelves. At the bottom was a dog-eared porno magazine which he had never seen before. He left it in the box.
'You can turn round now.'
She turned round and her eyes narrowed accusingly. 'Who put all that in there?'
'If it was the same person who wrote KITCHEN UTENSILS on the top that person needs help.'
'I told you we should have thrown everything away.'
'We did. Into these boxes. And then we brought them with us. You can't escape.'
'We can,' she shouted as he carried the box out into the hall, 'we damn well can.'
While Tony sneaked down to the cellar with the porno magazine Alex looked for the kitchen utensils. She started in the sitting room. The woodwork was thickly encrusted with lugubrious brown paint. The floorboards were bare with a black stained border around the edge like a funeral announcement. The main feature of the room was a monumental marble fireplace. It was hewn out of white marble criss-crossed with dark blue veins. She promised to wear support tights whenever she saw it. The room was furnished with a blue denim sofa, two director chairs with red canvas backs, a bamboo coffee table with a cracked glass top and an old fashioned wooden standard lamp with a tasselled shade. In a couple of years they would be replaced by her parent's Japanese lacquer table, floor standing spot lights and new sofas in green velvet from the January sales that someone would spill red wine over the day after they were delivered. She would scatter salt over the stain and when that failed she would make a cushion that would be placed carefully over it when they were expecting guests.
Edwardian glazed doors opened on to the back garden. She folded her arms and peered into the dusk. This is how she would stand when she stomped out of the kitchen when they were in the middle of an argument. The Christmas tree would stand in the corner opposite the door. Every year Tony would find the cardboard box of decorations in the loft and fix the lights. One year he would put his back out standing up on the kitchen stool and Mark would do them instead. For ever after that would be his job, even when he went away to college.
The kitchen utensils were not there. She went into the front room. It was decorated like an Indian restaurant with red flock wallpaper and a brown carpet too decrepit even for the executors to have taken away. They called it the dining room although it would rarely be used for dining. It would be the room for making curtains, doing homework, laying out the electric train and the table tennis, sorting stuff out for garage sales. It would be the playroom until the children preferred their own bedrooms. The only furniture was a stripped pine sideboard with mahogany handles and oak legs. They were using the dining table and chairs in the kitchen. There were two cardboard boxes marked DINING . had the contents of Louise's wardrobe and the other a collection of tools, screws and nails and bits out of the car like the door to the glove compartment. But no kitchen utensils.
She went out into the hall and up the stairs. She looked for the step where Tony would trip and fall downstairs and the place where Louise would sick up the cider of her first teenage party. She looked in the bathroom. The bath and basin were pink and the walls were painted almost to match. The black and white plastic floor tiles were curling at the edges. In the bath was their old bathroom cabinet with the mirror in which they would watch their faces getting older and older and older.
The lavatory was separate, down a long corridor with a tiny barred window at the end. She wondered how many times she would sit there in middle of the night thinking she was going to die before she turned and knelt and roared down the big white telephone. Cardboard boxes labelled piled in the master bedroom. They were full of toys, records, a set of Reader's Digest condensed books but no kitchen utensils, The movers had insisted on erecting the bed, no trouble love. She was embarrassed about the stains on the mattress. Had they all come from you know what? Surely one or two must have been spilt tea or a sodden child imiddle of the night. One day they would decide that the bed was too small and the sag in the middle that made them roll on top of each other in the middle of the night was bad for their backs. They would buy a king size so they could go to sleep without touching each other. And an electric blanket.
On the landing their art collection leaned against the banisters. A poster of a Picasso exhibition in an aluminium frame. Wishy-washy imitation water colours of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, subtitled PARIS in anyone was in doubt. A Dutch clog. Turner's Sunset pasted on to curling hardboard. She would stand here at the top of the stairs with the doctor whispering about appendicitis and tonsillitis and three times a day and plenty of liquid. She went into the children's rooms. Nightmares. Visions. The tooth fairy. Shrieks of laughter. Adolescent fumblings. Calf love. Christmas stockings. Sulky moods. Tumbling horseplay. Please God let. Please God if you exist. But no kitchen utensils. There was nothing inguest room. It was the room her mother would stay in just for the weekend at first, then just for a week over the holidays, then for a month or so to get over her op., then until she couldn't upstairs and they brought her bed down to the dining room. You mustn't put yourselves out. I'll go into a Home. But we love to have you living with us, don't we Tony?
She went downstairs again, the future of the house unrolling before her. She could see blocked drains, leaks in the roof, dry rot, creeping damp, burst pipes, pigeons in the water tank, floods in the cellar. She would get to know that banister, this door-handle. that light-switch. Now alien things they would embed themselves into all their lives. She would gaze at this one, trying to find words to console Louise. Mark would fiddle with that one while he confessed to his father. Tony would grip this one with sweaty fingers while they tried to decide if his indigestion was a heart attack. The peeling paper and rotting plaster would soak up their miseries and happinesses and worries and joys and never leave a stain. She hadn't known the previous owners. Their executors had cleared out everything except the carpet in the dining room. They left no trace of the life they had lived here. The past was over and done with. Instead the house was haunted by the ghosts of the future. They were so real she could almost touch them as they crowded in on her, suffocating the present. Those would be the days.
She clattered down the uncarpeted stairs, determined not to be stifled. They had a lot of work to do. She shouted for Tony in the echoing hall. Down in the cellar Tony carefully folded the magazine and tucked it behind the gas meter.
'Coming dear,' he called, and trudged up the cellar steps