a hammer or a crowbar lying around, given Geraldâs mania for security, and the best I could do was half a brick, which I managed to liberate from its setting in the crumbling back step. Holding it in my right hand, I wrapped my fist and lower arm in my jacket for protection and slammed it into one of the panes of the kitchen door. The whole structure shuddered in its frame and my knuckles rang with pain. Toughened glass. Breaking and entering always looked so easy on television: bolted doors yielded to the merest nudge, and windows crumbled when tapped. Perhaps because it was my house, and I knew that any damage I inflicted would have to be repaired, I lacked a proper burglarâs wholeheartedness.
At last I succeeded in breaching the French doors to the dining room, which were older and more rotten. One of the panes already had a crack across it which someone (Gerald) had attempted to disguise with Sellotape. I hurled the brick at it and the whole sheet fell out intothe room. I managed to get my head and one arm and shoulder through the gap to reach the key, noticing, as I did so, an unpleasant, stagnant smell. I opened the door and stepped into the room to find water lapping at my shoes. Whole sheets of wallpaper had peeled away and were hanging at half mast. Above my head the ceiling bulged menacingly. The top of the piano was corrugated with damp. A few framed family photos, blurred with condensation, lurched tipsily on this uneven surface. As I moved into the hall I could hear the plip-plip of water dropping from the light fitting. I tried the switch. Nothing.
On the front doormat was a soggy pile of post â mostly free newspapers, flyers and charity begging letters. These I ignored, but on the window ledge, beside the dead telephone was a hand-delivered letter addressed to me care of 76 Gleneldon Road. The envelope was soft with damp and the handwriting was neat, feminine and unfamiliar. I put it in my pocket for later.
The sitting room, though also flooded to a depth of an inch and a half, was less damaged, the water having come in under the door rather than through the ceiling. Geraldâs salvage operation had progressed no further than an attempt to preserve the furniture â three-piece suite, coffee table, grandmother clock, bureau â by raising it up on bricks. Other threatened items â a plant stand, video recorder and a large urn of dried flowers â had been dumped on the couch. I noticed with amusement that a set of leather-bound hardbacks, purchased by Dad in instalments from a mail-order company, part of a seriesentitled âBooks That Have Changed Manâs Thinkingâ â all immemorially unread â had been left on the bottom shelf to take their chances.
I climbed the stairs, squeezing more water from the spongy carpet with each step. It was the same story up here: the rooms at the back of the house, directly below the water tank, were devastated, fronds of wallpaper hanging down like seaweed; beds and bedding saturated and reeking. Only my old bedroom, at the front of the house and two steps up from the landing, above the flood plain, had been spared. Gerald had evidently been encamped in here for some time, as a tower of
s, their crosswords meticulously completed, sat on the bedside table, alongside a number of unwashed plates. On the window sill stood a candelabra from the dining room and several stumps of candle. The image of Gerald holed up in here without electricity in the middle of winter, doing the crossword by candlelight, while the house rotted around him, was almost too much to bear.
Various items from around the house, deemed worthy of rescue, were stacked on top of my chest of drawers, brought together, by this emergency, in surreal proximity. A breadbin disgorged hundreds of family photos; china shepherdesses clustered around a cast-iron mincer; a plaster bust of Beethoven glowered down at Dadâs hearing aid. A leather rugby