The silence of number thirty two Edmund Road is broken by the rattling of the key in the lock. The door swings open into the dim hallway, welcoming the mid-morning May sunshine, in which dust motes dance like fireflies. In my mind I see Gran banishing them with a flick of her duster. I nudge Mum in and close the door behind us. It’s the day after the funeral and we have come to sort through furniture, clothes and bric-a-brac, under orders from the local council, who are anxious for a family to occupy the property. Gran and Grandad moved in just after the war and, to me, it will always be theirs. The old dear was a bit of a hoarder so we’ve brought plenty of black bin bags and stickers to put on items the clearance people will be taking.
I look over Mum’s shoulder at our reflection in the hall mirror. There are just the two of us, but I can see Gran there too. Mum’s in her mid seventies, petite, with shoulder-length grey hair threaded with silver. I am taller but my hair is still blonde. We look more like sisters than mother and daughter; Mum was still a teenager when she gave birth to me in this very house.
My glance shifts up the stairs to the landing, half-lit by an eerie skylight, and I smile at memories of my imaginative younger self creeping up the stairs on the way to the bathroom, so as not to disturb whatever lurked in the shadowy attic, and running as fast as I could back down again after pulling the creaky old-fashioned chain, petrified of the toilet monster!
I look back in the mirror. I’m not looking forward to this; it’s like snooping in Gran’s life, but it has to be done. We agree to start upstairs in the front bedroom, where Gran and Grandad slept in a high rosewood bed – I had to climb onto it for a Sunday morning cuddle – with matching bedroom suite. A faint scent seeps from the lavender bags in every drawer. I open the doors to what was once a magical wardrobe, a bit like Narnia, and feel the good sense of Gran’s old-fashioned coat, with its fabric-covered buttons, her best red polyester dress and the slacks she always wore in cold weather. While I remove the redundant items from padded hangers and stuff them into dustbin bags, Mum takes off her serviceable dark blue pea coat, rolls up the sleeves of her sweatshirt and sits down at the dressing table, caressing the cut-glass perfume bottles and trinket dishes. I watch her pluck white hairs from the bristles of a silver-backed hairbrush and, as if she were still a child, run it gently through her own silvery hair, before replacing the brush exactly. I remember doing the same thing when I was five or six years old. Mum tugs open the drawer and puts a couple of handfuls of mostly costume jewellery into her bag, leaving only Gran’s engagement ring and a dragonfly brooch in a trinket dish.
‘Sophie.’ She turns to me. ‘Gran would have wanted you to have these. If the ring doesn’t fit or you don’t like the style, by all means sell it. It’s worth about a thousand pounds and Gran would want to help you out.’
But it’s not the ring I am staring at. My eyes are glued to the brooch and words from the funeral service reverberate in my head: ‘Life is like a dragonfly… death is the dragonfly leaving the cocoon, and its past, and the soul travelling towards a new life.’ I recollect reading that Native Americans believe that each person has a totem animal spirit which serves as their guardian or guide. The dragonfly spirit means you must seek out the part of your life and habits which need changing.
Once the bedroom and sitting room are packed up, there are only the dining room and scullery left. I draw the floor-length dining-room curtains and look out at the tiny garden which had always seemed expansive to me. The roses are so old they have become straggly trees; the hydrangeas are brown paper and the lawn is a wilderness. I remember running round the central rose bed with a skipping rope, pretending to ride a horse; mid-gallop, I slipped and got caught up in the vicious branches, wrapped in a gauze of rose scent which made me retch. I was lifted to safety by Grandad, who sat me on his lap while Gran removed each thorn with tweezers and covered the scratches with pungent Germolene – the antiseptic smell followed me around for days.
I look around the familiar room and am drawn to the huge, old Marconi wireless, standing in its place between the French windows and the scullery, where Gran could hear it when she was cooking or doing the washing up. It has an old creamy Bakelite and veneer cabinet and stations that light up. They originally bought through Grandad’s brother Tom, who worked at the Marconi factory in Chelmsford. I remember the crackle and gabble of faraway foreign voices when searching for a programme. The main body of the wireless is a cupboard where we used to keep newspapers and magazines.
‘Mum,’ I call into the scullery, ‘I think I would like the Marconi. It’ll go with my vintage furniture and the colour scheme in the flat – and it brings back so many memories.’
‘That’s fine, love,’ Mum replies.
I lived with Gran and Grandad for just over five years during one of many crises in my parents’ marriage. They had a routine that never varied. Gran woke me every morning and we ate breakfast together, boiled egg and soldiers or Marmite on toast houses, with a cup of tea. Then Grandad would pull on his black boots and overcoat ready for work; I went with him as far as the gate and waved goodbye until he reached the end of the road. Even when I was at infant and junior school, Gran collected me every day at a quarter to one for dinner, which we had together with Grandad. In the cold months, at four o’clock we ate crumpets, with hot chocolate or Bovril to warm us up, and by the time the news came on, Grandad would be home again for tea. I always wondered why the summer holiday I turned four stretched into years and why I couldn’t be with my mum. She steers clear of the subject every time I ask. I wonder if she missed me as much as I missed her. But by the time I went back, I was so used to Gran and Grandad that I never felt I belonged with her – to her.
The following day, the house clearance men arrive and Mum pays extra for them to deliver the Marconi to a local electrical repair shop that Grandad used when he was alive. They specialise in old radios and TVs and she trusts them to ensure it is functional and there is no dangerous wiring.
On Friday, the specialist delivers the radio and I spend at least an hour dusting and polishing it to Gran’s high standards, as she taught me when I was small. I stand back to admire my work and then switch it on, playing with the knobs, hearing the squawks and squiggles of white noise and distant voices as the dial passes through Hilversum, Lille and Luxembourg. I twiddle the pointer to the Light Programme, Gran and Grandad’s favourite. They couldn’t live without radio.
‘The time is a quarter to two. This is the BBC Light Programme for mothers and children at home. Are you ready for the music? When it stops, Daphne Oxenford will be here to speak to you.’
I wonder if I’ve tuned in to Radio Four Extra, but know it’s only available on DAB radio. I twiddle the knob again. There is white noise for about ten seconds and then the sound of a piano playing the very memorable signature tune: Berceuse from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite. When it ends, the voice says, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ I reach for The Times Saturday Review and flick through the radio listings; there is no sign of Listen with Mother.
I listen to the unearthly radio all weekend, remembering my childhood. Nan always cleaned to Housewives’ Choice, Music While You Work and Mrs Dale’s Diary, and ironed to Woman’s Hour and the afternoon story. I also iron to the radio. Grandad listened to the news at one o’clock every dinner time. I would wait for him, swinging on the garden gate in the summer and warming up his slippers in the winter.
I continue to listen all Monday, ignoring the ringing of the phone and the doorbell, and can’t turn off the wireless until I hear: ‘Well that’s the end of broadcasting for today in the BBC Light Programme. But we shall be back on the air again tomorrow morning at half past six with the news summary. So, good night to you all. Good night.’ After that there is nothing but static.
Early the next morning, I send an urgent text to Caroline, my best and oldest friend. I pace the flat, avoiding the Marconi, looking out of the window and checking my mobile every few minutes. When the doorbell finally rings, it’s mid-morning. Caroline’s wide smile wraps me in a comfortable cocoon. I steer her to an armchair next to the Marconi and, without explaining, I switch it on. There is silence while the valves warm up and the display is illuminated, then white noise and finally sound. Surprisingly, it is tuned to Radio 2. Caroline opens her mouth to ask what’s wrong, but I put my finger to my lips, twiddle the knob and find Radio 4 – Woman’s Hour – with the familiar voice of Jenni Murray. My eyes prickle with tears and talons claw at my empty stomach, so I decide not to share my ghostly radio phenomenon here. I click off the wireless, grab my bag and drag Caroline out of the flat.
Over a cappuccino and a Danish pastry, I describe my weird hallucinations. Caroline just shrugs and suggests: ‘Why don’t you get your mum round and see if she can hear what you hear?’ I pull my mobile out of my pocket and dial the number.
Mum arrives at half past one. After taking off her coat, she makes us both a cup of sugary strong tea, finding mugs, teabags and sugar without any help, even though her visits are rare. I pull another chair over to the armchair and we sit by the radio. I have to reach out three times before I can switch it on. I hold my breath. After a while, a disembodied voice says: ‘The time is a quarter to two. This is the BBC Light Programme for mothers and children at home. Are you ready for the music? When it stops, Daphne Oxenford will be here to speak to you. Ding-de-dong. Ding-de-dong. Ding, ding! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’
A shadow crosses Mum’s face as it tightens and she gasps, ‘I’m amazed that old thing can receive digital radio!”
‘But Mum, it’s been playing all the old programmes I used to enjoy with Gran and Grandad. It played normal radio shows when Caroline was here. Why is this happening to me?’
Mum’s face contorts. She stares at the wireless, its stations alive and illuminated.
‘I used to listen to that radio with your gran and grandad when I was little. I can remember it during the war. What’s in the cupboard? Did you clean it inside as well?’ Mum asks
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Does Mum take after Gran after all? Is she criticising my cleaning?
‘I didn’t even think to look in it, Mum.’
But she has already opened the cabinet door and a pile of musty, tea-stain coloured newspapers and magazines slide like an avalanche to the floor.
‘Why on earth did Mum keep these?’ my mother exclaims.
In amongst the old news there is a pale blue envelope addressed in Gran’s loopy handwriting: To Jan. Mum rips it open, removes a piece of blue, lined paper – Gran’s favourite, Basildon Bond – and reads it in silence, her eyes moving across the page, her eyebrows tucked into a frown. I can hear her rapid breathing and pull her into a hug as she bursts into tears. I take the letter gently from my mother’s fingers and read the words:
I know that you were not solely responsible for the breakdown of your marriage to Steve, but I want you to understand what you missed during the years that Sophie lived with us.
A child needs quality time with her mother and I am afraid that I stole some of that time from you.
Please try to make it up to Sophie as I have tried to make it up to you.
Your ever-loving Mum
My mother sits up and takes my hand. ‘Come on, love. Let’s find a better position for this beautiful antique, where everyone can see it. Then we can talk about smartening up your flat so that I can visit more often – maybe even stay over sometimes?’
I go over to the bookshelf, where I left the other heirlooms, and return with the dragonfly brooch.
‘Here, Mum,’ I say as I pin it to her jumper, ‘I think this was meant for you.’