Three days before my mother’s memorial in Bury St. Edmunds, my husband and I enter my mother’s, now my bungalow with the estate agent. I walk across the house’s slanted floorboards, my fingers tracing the wall cracks brought on by damp, and purse my lips in disappointment. The place that my mother once told me was her last tie with England was a dump. When a gleam of light in the middle of the living room’s wall catches my eye, I discover that I can put my finger in a small hole through the mortar and have a keyhole view of the front garden.
Though my mother had spent thousands of pounds a few years ago to refurbish the kitchen and the bathroom, the well-executed improvements had the appearance of roses blooming in a patch of thistles. Marginally better outfitted and constructed than one of the college houses I preferred to forget, this house was legally mine. With the probate maze conclusion, my husband and I were now absentee landowners of a dilapidated house built between the First and Second World Wars when building materials were in short supply.
My parents bought the house for 4,000 pounds from old Mrs. Ridley, my grandmother’s friend. Mrs. Ridley’s failing memory led to her death when she forgot to turn the gas off the stove and accidentally asphyxiated herself. The house that once had been the answer to my mother’s dream of reclamation of her English life was the cornerstone of my modest inheritance.
The scales abruptly fall from my eyes; the prospect of ever living in this house has never been dimmer. The diagonal crack in the wall may indicate damp seeping through the plaster but maybe more damaging; the house was likely sinking into the earth recently saturated by weeks of rain.
“I’m afraid this house should be torn down,” Steve whispered as I opened the back door to the rickety conservatory my parents had built in the 1970s. Upon invitation, I played with the tenant’s children in this narrow tube, scuttling in and out of the open doors. Painfully overgrown and neglected foliage blocks any view of the cantilevered fence I once climbed over from my great Aunt Stella’s garden. I can neither see the present nor the past in this garden, in this house, and now the prospect of its future dissolves.
“With the departure of the current tenants, new ones will have to be found unless you want to sell,” my mother’s estate agent muses. “Trees will have to be seen to and clipped back, too. The garden is truly wretched,” the woman, with a verbal pace of any Londoner, frowns.
Tracing a pattern with my shoe in the dirt, I pick dead leaves off a bush. Thinking? Dreaming? Panicking? Finally, turning my attention from the bush in need of much more help than my distracted pruning, I respond.“I think it’s best, Pat, if we find another tenant. Though my mother made some improvements to the bungalow over the years, I fear that the house has some structural issues that should be addressed before we hope to sell it. I agree that the trees in both the front and back gardens are sorely overgrown. Please go ahead and contact a trimmer as soon as possible so it can be done before another tenant moves in,” I answer, noting that my statement is my first instruction uttered as a property owner and will likely be far from the last one.
I turn away, not quite ready to tread my mother’s path of loss.
Each morning, a cacophony of crisis emails flood my inbox. Cracks in the house’s interior walls widen. Plaster disintegrates into dust. Rainwater and birds destroy the roofing—roots from a tree near the front door rupture the concrete walkway. Bit by bit, stone by stone, tree by tree, the property that was once my mother’s salvation has become my inherited nightmare. Though I approve bids for repairs long overdue and request detailed accounts of work completed, paying invoices from contractors suggested by the estate agent, the house, and its future, like my mother ignoring her chronic, life-threatening symptoms, is terminal.
The proverbial shoe I waited for dropped like a bomb six months into my overseas ownership. The mortar’s degrading in the brickwork jointing was due to a chemical reaction, probably a sulfate attack requiring mortar testing on the affected walls for laboratory testing. A sulfate attack, the source of the house’s crumbling in the mortar joint, had been evidenced when I poked my finger through the brickwork after my mother’s memorial. The rapid expansion of the evident plaster cracks diagonally crossing the house’s interior walls suggested a weakening of its structure.
With this internal assault of chemistry and its resultant damage, all my suspicions pointed in one direction; my mother’s house, the first house I have ever owned, was crumbling.