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George squeezed between the pillar of cereal packets and the column of reddening tin cans, trying to reach the telephone. It rang insistently, threatening to topple off its temporary table ‒ a mound of mildewy shoes. George knew it would be Janet. He pictured his sister tapping her foot, tapping her pen, tapping her computer, her mobile wedged between her shoulder and chin, waiting for him to answer.
George scrambled into the crack of air between two stacks of biscuit boxes. Stale flakes of pastry rained down from an ancient packet of croissants knocked from somewhere above. George breathed in, trying to escape the clinch of the containers without inhaling the crumby confetti. Battling through the last of the boxes, he grabbed the phone to his ear.
“She’s coming today.” It was Janet.
He looked up at the towers of food wrapping and sighed.
“Did you hear me? I said she’s coming today.”
“Yes, I know. When?”
“10:30.” The tartness in her voice sent a delicate tangle of coat-hangers sliding to the floor.
George carefully cocked his wrist to look at his watch. It was nearly 10am. “Okay.” “I’ll be along at noon.”
“I’ve got to finish the spread for the April issue.”
“And George, make sure you’re dressed this time.”
George put the receiver down. There had been nothing else to say.
He propped his leg on a swollen stack of newspapers and waited, resting his arm on a thin slice of windowsill. He’d kept the ornate wine bottles that lined the window ledge to hold candles, or perhaps flowers, should the occasion ever arise. Between the shapely containers, old jam jars, pill pots, upturned aerosol lids, and slimy saucers clotted the sill. Inside them lay pins, nails, pen-lids, key-rings, obsolete coins, and bits and pieces of plastic and metal that had broken off other things ‒ George didn’t know what. But he was afraid that if he threw them away, he’d find out, too late, that he was missing a vital part of something larger and more necessary.
The doorbell rang, its chime muffled by a wall of egg cartons. George fought off a tumble of socks as he shuffled back through boxes. It took him a good five minutes to reach the door. He hoped that the visitor might have gone away already, but she was waiting for him with a wide, glossy smile.
“Hello, Mr. Weylock. And how are you today?” She was scrubbed, peach, spotless, dressed in a well-ironed jacket and skirt.
“You’d better come in.”
“Just a minute,” she said. “Health and safety.”
George mumbled to himself as she pulled a pair of latex gloves out of her colossal handbag and snapped them over her hands.
This was the second time he’d met Miss Blitt. The first was following a fatal telephone conversation with Janet.
“You always sound so slurred on the phone,” his sister had said.
In Janet’s head, she called every two Tuesdays. In George’s, it was every other month.
Janet was a magazine editor in London with two kids and an overfull life. She did miss the odd call. But so did George. He didn’t always manage to reach the phone before it rang off.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” George had said. “I didn’t say… Are you working now?”
“Not really. I’ve been poorly.” He didn’t dare tell Janet about the splintered cricket bat secured to his shin with layers of duct tape. The pile of motor parts that barricaded the bath had tripped him up again. He didn’t know if the leg was broken or just cracked. Whiskey and a stubborn refusal to think about it had made it not matter much either way.
“Have you been to the doctor?” asked Janet.
“Sssort of.” This time, he heard the slurring himself.
“For God’s sake, George.” The words alone wouldn’t have meant much, but they were compounded by that long sigh of Janet’s that swallowed his name whole.
Two days later, the doorbell rang. George answered it in his underpants, assuming it was the postman, who no doubt would have understood the difficulty of slipping a trouser leg over a cricket bat. Instead, the door opened on a soapy-faced, middle-aged woman, who didn’t look as if she understood at all.
“Mr Weylock? Miss Blitt. I’m from social services. Your sister called us. She’s rather concerned.”
It was too late to close the door and George’s scrawny arm couldn’t prevent the stranger peering at the squalid structure within. George teetered on the doorstep in his saggy, grey Y-fronts, while Miss Blitt stared, round-eyed, at him and his home.
A hoarding disorder, she’d called it. A contradiction if there ever was one, for there was a neatness and order to his collection of items that George couldn’t explain to anyone else. Everything had its place, its purpose, its meaning. It was not as if he had scoured the streets for bits of litter and brought them home. Items had gently accumulated, each seeming important enough to hold onto at the time. He’d saved snatches of his existence in cards, trinkets, food packets, scribbles on paper. It was a lovingly-crafted landscape, a house with faithfulness and treasure crammed into every crack.
George prepared for Miss Blitt’s follow-up visit by wearing trousers. They were creased and smeared with something white, but they were the only pair large enough to fit over the cricket bat. The handle protruded out of the bottom, giving George a peg-shaped appearance. He guided Miss Blitt through his moth-eaten palace, traversing the brief columns of light and air in the soiled hallways. Her footsteps were slight, her breath inaudible. George wasn’t sure that she was still following. Turning around, he caught Miss Blitt’s unguarded expression: a twist of disgust. She tried to melt her grimace into a wrinkle-nosed smile as she caught his eye.
George stopped as they came to a cramped clearing. A dented drum of cooking oil stood at the edge of the snug space. George signalled to Miss Blitt to sit, and she perched awkwardly on the drum, wrapping her long skirt around her knees. George settled on an impacted mound of rags opposite.
Miss Blitt exhaled. “Phew, that was a tight squeeze. I’ll think nothing of my daughter’s bedroom now.” She had an unnecessarily bright voice. George guessed that she usually worked with doddery seniors or children, neither of which he was.
From her giant handbag, Miss Blitt retrieved a ball-point pen and a clipboard. A neat piece of paper was pressed against it, lined with boxes. George read his name, upside down, at the top.
“I have most of your details,” she said. “The purpose of today’s visit is to see how we can help you. Have you lived here a long time?”
“All my life. When my mother died, I took the house over. I took it on, I mean.” “So it’s just you living here alone now?”
“Would you say you’re managing?”
“Yes,” said George a little sharply.
“Mr Weylock, there’s no need to worry. I’m just trying to find out what sort of assistance we can give you. Now, when did your hoarding problem start, would you say?” George had never thought about it. When had it become hoarding, rather than just hanging onto things? He’d never considered his collecting a problem. He felt guilty about the jam-packed rooms, but it was an innocent twinge, a knowing that someone would disapprove, like putting your feet on the furniture, or voting blue in a red town. He never imagined he’d done anything seriously wrong.
“Have you always been a bit of a clutterbug?” Miss Blitt shone him an over-familiar smile.
George sighed. He’d always felt the ache of throwing things away. His childhood birthday cards and school reports were still in the attic, yellowing away above the beams.
In his teens, he’d bought a noticeboard; a cheap Hessian affair with a balsa wood frame. He’d pinned takeaway menus and tattoo parlour ads on it, along with travel-cards, ticket stubs and other little keepsakes of time spent with friends. When everyone else left for college, the board recorded the shows he’d seen with his mother. It held receipts, prescriptions, the address of his sister, and shopping lists of things to buy for supper. When his mother passed on, he fixed other things to the noticeboard ‒ his social security number, the exact size of trousers that best fit him in various brands, and food processor warranty cards. As he ran out of pins, some items had to share a tack.
Then things had started slipping off the board. At night he heard the papery whisper of things letting go and falling down the wall. He couldn’t bring himself to buy a new noticeboard. Childish graffiti, cigarette smoke from teenage parties, naive lipstick marks, and sloshes of wine stained the yellowing frame. So he placed a chair below the board and made a sedentary pile of the things that fell. Miss Blitt coughed.
“I don’t know how it started,” said George.
“Okay.” Miss Blitt ticked a box with a clean flick of her pen. “I’ll send someone over later to talk to you about that.” She turned the paper over so she had a fresh side. “But, more urgently, I’m concerned about you living in this mess. You’ve got a lot of stuff here, haven’t you? It seems rather unsafe. Now, what are we going to do about that? ”
George noted the we. It was a trick he’d learned from Janet, a way of putting him on a side he hadn’t agreed to be on.
The doorbell rang. George jumped, hitting his elbow on a bicycle wheel. Janet was early. George rubbed his elbow, excused himself from Miss Blitt, and limped in the direction of the door. On his way to the front of the house, he stopped, pulled a bottle from beneath a hill of pillows and sipped at it long and hard. George wasn’t an alcoholic. But his veins were thirsty and empty, and the pain in his leg was getting worse.
As George opened the door, Janet was peering at her watch She had her work face on, her lips lined with stern, red pencil, her cheeks blushered into razor-blades, almost cutting into the outer edges of her mercilessly-plucked brows. She looked up. “Good God, George, you look rough. Is she here?”
As they made their way back to Miss Blitt, Janet made a great show of sighing and gasping at the mountains of things. She squeezed through a slim path of space and greeted the social worker with a firm pump of her hand. “Even from what you’d told me, I didn’t think it would be as bad as this.”
“It’s not that bad,” said George.
Miss Blitt looked at him with a polite, practised sort of sympathy.
“There’s barely anywhere to breathe,” Janet said. Her horrified shrug shook the army of bracelets that circled her wrists. “You can’t enjoy living like this, with all this junk.”
“Not exactly,” said George. He wondered when had it become classed as junk, rather than his belongings.
“It’s so untidy. Good grief, it smells. My God, what on earth happened to your leg?” Janet put her palm against a wall of boxes to lean in and look at George’s swollen shin. She withdrew her hand as a hail of dust descended over her arm. “What are all these boxes? Nappies? Since when have you needed nappies?”
“They’re empty,” George said.
“There must be thirty umbrellas here.” Janet was poking around in another pile.
“I wish you’d leave it,” George said.
“There’s no way I can leave it. God, this stuff must be making you ill.”
George wistfully eyed his dusty castle. It wasn’t easy living in it. He’d had to abandon
the kitchen entirely. It was blocked by a bric-a-brac of teacups, car parts, fish-tanks, and lampshades. Since injuring his leg, he’d found it impossible to wade through the sea of cellophane and tissue paper to get to his bed. And he often had nightmares about the walls of things. He dreamt that green tendrils had grown from the top of the boxes and that the umbrellas had sprouted like trees, pushing branches of semi-ripe fruits into the room. He couldn’t be sure that the inaccessible rooms weren’t rearranging themselves, shifting, shrivelling, changing into a shiny, new shape. He sometimes woke frightened that his jungle was a living thing with powers beyond his own.
“I don’t want to do anything about it,” said George.
Janet eyed him with disbelief.
“It’s a health and safety hazard, I’m afraid,” said Miss Blitt. “Fire risks, rats. Environmental health will come down hard on you if you don’t clean this up.”
“We’ll have to get rid of it all,” Janet said.
“But, these are my things,” said George.
“It’s just junk, George,” said Janet.
George rooted around in the nearest pile and picked out a cushion cover that had been sheltering from the dust. “Look, this isn’t. Plenty of life in it. In fact, it’s rather smart.” Janet agreed, but it was a hollow triumph. “We’ll send anything that’s useful to the charity shop if that’ll make you feel better. Is there still one on the high street? The one that raises money for the local school? What’s it called?”
George didn’t answer. There was something sad about her not remembering. As children, they’d both loved the charity shop. On rainy afternoons, he and Janet had browsed the stale aisles, turning their noses up at the chintzy crockery and laughing at the ludicrous pottery animals painted with twee expressions. They’d hunted for books with all their pages and games which hadn’t lost too many playing pieces. Every now and then, they’d found a gem in the dust. Other people seemed to let go of things too easily. They forgot rituals, relationships, scenes, and conversations that forever clung to George’s mind.
“Oh, you mean St. Anne’s?” said Miss Blitt. “Yes, it’s still there. What a good idea. Now, what are we going to do about your leg, Mr. Weylock?”
Janet sat with George in the A&E department. She crushed the rim of her Styrofoam coffee cup, breaking its curve into snowy bits that littered the floor, while George listlessly watched the figures in starched white coats popping in and out of doorways.
“Why haven’t they called you yet?” asked Janet. “It’s been an hour or something. Do you think they’ve forgotten you?”
George was worried that they had, but he didn’t want to say so. “Maybe there’s been a serious emergency. A heart attack or something. I don’t know why we’re here. It’s probably just a sprain.”
Janet sniffed. She fidgeted in her chair, checking her phone every few minutes. Its alerts were lost in the numerous beeps and buzzes of the waiting room.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Janet said.
“It was just an accident.”
“George Weylock,” a tired voice called from a doorway.
Janet rose from her chair.
“Don’t come in,” George said. “You don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t have to.”
“Then don’t come in.”
“George Weylock,” the voice called again, making his first name into a loud, impatient
drone, the second a heavy admonition.
“Yes, we’re coming,” said Janet, pulling her brother’s arm around her neck.
It was only a minor injury after all. The doctor, amused by the cricket bat splint, replaced it with a tight, tubular sock. “Keep your weight off it for a few days,” he said, “and keep an eye on that cough. Do you smoke?”
George said he didn’t.
“Cigarettes are very bad for the chest,” the doctor said anyway, handing George a prescription for painkillers.
“Thank you, doctor,” said Janet. “We’re very grateful for your time.”
As Janet headed out of the room, George leaned in the doorway, his eyes glued to the hem of the doctor’s white coat.
“Yes, Mr. Weylock?”
“Can I have my cricket bat back, please?”
Early the next morning, Miss Blitt arrived at George’s door. “Ready to start the great dismantling?” Her laugh was squeaky, like over-polished glass.
George hadn’t slept well. He nodded with polite sullenness, then retreated behind a pile of paint pots, clenching his teeth.
Miss Blitt tugged at a ceiling-high stack of shoe-boxes near the door. The tower buckled, sending a landslide of mouldy cardboard tumbling down. Flecks of fungus fell in Miss Blitt’s hair. Frowning, she flicked the green speckles away with her gloved hands. “We’ll have to start at the edges,” she called cheerily to George through a vacant slit of air. “Don’t worry, we’ll soon get this licked into shape.”
“You’re going to do all this yourself?”
“Cutbacks,” she called back, her voice clipping the word into two neat pieces. George blinked at her briefly. “I’ll get you some tea,” he muttered, starting to reverse through the thin passages of his palace of junk. He had no intention of trying to find the teapot. She couldn’t just throw things away without asking. And she couldn’t ask if she couldn’t find him.
By the time Janet joined the operation at the weekend, Miss Blitt had only managed to create one small, clean square of space. A few of the less stubborn stacks had been reduced to low-lying rubble, but turrets of refuse still soared forbiddingly in the rest of the room. “He keeps running off and getting lost,” Miss Blitt told Janet. “It’s like a rat-run in here. And he keeps finding excuses to keep things. I’ve told him, it’s not healthy, clinging onto keepsakes and knick-knacks.” George was only half-hidden behind a pillar of video tapes. She didn’t seem to care if he heard.
Janet had brought a pair of ski poles with her. She tramped through the junk, poking the sharp points into George’s possessions. “Vermin” was her explanation. George was sure he hadn’t any. The house was always deadly quiet, and the kitchen counters had long been clogged with rolls of carpet, dolls, and dust.
Although George had evaded Miss Blitt for hours at a time, he couldn’t hide from Janet. He knew she wouldn’t stop just because she couldn’t see him. He looked on helplessly as his sister pointed to the piles that made up his mazy corridors shouting “Get rid” and “Out!”
Miss Blitt rushed back and forth with bin bags, executing Janet’s orders with the haste of a browbeaten servant. George flinched as she flung away the buttons that lived in the brown pill bottle on the window ledge. He cringed as she chucked away keys and coins, along with the cracked china cup he kept them in. Janet batted away his reasons for hanging onto things with no argument at all, just a “No, George.”
Bit by bit, the contents of the living room were shipped outside in black plastic bags. Janet had brought her station wagon for trips to the charity shop. George sat by the window, watching his sister drag sacks to the car. It was strange having her there, digging through his life and discarding it. The car was choked with bin bags. As Janet drove off, the back of her head was obscured by a big, black mass.
On her return, Janet smiled triumphantly at George, who had turned paler as he heard the hum of the station wagon.
“They were delighted,” she said. “You’ve filled the shelves three times over, and we’re only halfway through clearing the lounge. Think of all the good you’re doing.”
But George wasn’t thinking about that. “It can’t have been rubbish, then,” was all he said.
Janet didn’t reply. She was staring at a long, black smudge leading over the threshold. As she knelt over the stale carpet, scrubbing at the stain, George noticed how strong her arms were; much stronger than his. From behind, his sister’s busy shoulders and rounded back reminded him of a much younger Janet, digging for worms in the garden.
“George,” she snapped as she caught him staring. “Can’t you at least try to help for once?”
As Janet excavated the heart of the room, she unearthed things that should have been familiar to her. Sitting among the fruit crates was a foot-bath she’d sent George for Christmas. Bobbing between the waves of assumed detritus were photo albums and toys that they’d shared. But Janet dismissed it all as junk. A neat stack of Janet’s magazines stood in the corner. She didn’t give them a second glance before ordering Miss Blitt to take them away.
Janet had subscribed George to her magazine when she started working in publishing. A glossy, cellophane package splashed with a shiny, celluloid face was shoved through his letterbox each month. It wasn’t his sort of thing ‒ celebrities, clothes, and television ‒ but he was glad to support his sister’s career. One year, the December issue of M. didn’t arrive. George had waited anxiously for a few weeks, hoping it had just got caught up with the Christmas post. But when it still didn’t arrive, he called his sister to tell her.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. That’s old news,” she’d said. “The next issue will be on its way any day now.”
Bur George noticed the hole between November and January. The stack of magazines looked lopsided because of the missing content.
George always noticed holes. He was sensitive to absences and empty spaces. When Janet’s first milk tooth fell out, he’d been horrified by the gummy gap. He tried to convince her to glue the tiny incisor back in, but she insisted on putting it under her pillow for the Tooth Fairy. George had retrieved it from under his sister’s sleeping head and hid it in his bottom drawer, a secret home for things he wanted to hang onto. He placed it carefully next to his commemorative coin, a ball of purple wool, and his lucky sock.
The stripping away of the house intensified, the women working with efficient abandon. When they tunnelled through to his bedroom, George’s sulky face turned fearful and he tried to bar the door. His sister tutted at him and pushed his protesting arms aside.
Peeling away a wall of cassette tapes and cotton wool wads, Janet unburied a cupboard. She pulled it open with a grunt. A heap of syringes spilled out, narrowly missing her shoulder. Miss Blitt stopped picking at the edge of the room and turned around.
“Christ, George,” said Janet. “Drugs?”
“They were mum’s,” George said quietly.
Janet rifled through the rest of the cupboard, pulling out the empty vials of medication
that George had stowed away, the hospital tags, the stained nighties, and the hairpins that had become a little too bent to slide into her hair.
George’s eyes pleaded with Janet, imploring a sort of faithfulness she didn’t understand.
“But you can’t keep these,” Janet said, horrified.
“You’ve got to let me hold onto something.”
“Her watch,” Janet said. “You can keep her watch. Do you still have it?”
Of course, he had. It was next to Janet’s tiny tooth.
“Well, well, there’s a bed under here,” called Miss Blitt from the other side of the room. She pulled at the dirty duvet and it sprang back in her hand. The backlash of its crusty corner knocked over a hillock of teetering teapots. Splatters of tarry, time-aged tea splashed against George’s beloved noticeboard.
“No,” moaned George, hobbling over. He clutched his noticeboard to his heart, determined that the women would not get that. But, after scraping off most of the yellow papers, Janet let him hold onto it ‒ “It’ll keep stuff off the floor.” ‒ along with his mother’s watch and brooch, two albums of photos, and a small cache of theatre programs that Janet reckoned might be worth money. The rest of the bedroom’s contents were condemned, bar the bed itself, a desk, and a chair.
After a good deal of the house had been pillaged, Janet travelled back to London, leaving Miss Blitt in charge. She brought a small team of volunteers with her every morning. George winced at all the fresh fingers touching his belongings. The team was keen and ruthless, sped up and spurred on by phone calls with Janet. Miss Blitt whittled the furniture down to what she called “the necessaries,” then proceeded to wipe, polish and sterilise everything that remained.
It took the team another week to remove all of George’s fake walls, corridors, doorways, and rooms. Finally, the entire house was back to its original shell. When it was over, George looked at the bare rooms full of nothing. Everything left was functional and charmless. Nothing had any character. His bedroom resembled a prison cell, the scant space of
a death row victim. He felt that even his soul had been swept clean out of the house. Now there was nothing left to cling to. George had always clung to something. His mother’s coat, that boy at primary school with the serious face and sensible shoes, that girl at secondary with the eyes that said not you.
George’s fingers were the kind that always wanted to grab on. He couldn’t let anything slip away. He’d even latched onto the seasons. Each year, they seemed shorter, and George tried desperately to hang onto their departing threads. He drew the summers out with chilled Pimms and barbecues in the September drizzle. He extended Autumn nights with mulled wine in the misty garden. The winter his mother died, George kept the electric blanket on well into April.
No, there was nothing left to cling to; no trail of crumbs, no handles, no trace of the foregone George, no evidence of his mother.
He propped his noticeboard against the living room wall. There was not even a spare nail to hang it with. It was stark naked, stripped of its ghosts. Only emptiness haunted it now. Even the frame had been wiped of memories. George was left with only the clean streaks of someone else’s judgement.
The next weekend, Janet drove down to see the results of the clean-up. She looked softer without her work face. They drank tea on the sofa that George hadn’t sat on for over two years and that Janet hadn’t sat on for more than six. Putting down her spotless cup, Janet hugged her brother for the first time in a long time. “Cheer up, Georgie,” she said. “Doesn’t it feel better to be able to breathe?”
George inhaled as Janet held him. Her clothes reeked of detergent and her hair wore a heavy kind of perfume. He pulled back and looked at her face, his eyes lingering on her skin, which glistened like a fresh coat of paint.
A week after the great destroying, a little girl arrived on George’s doorstep. Her prim pink pinafore bore the eagle crest of St Anne’s School. She was accompanied by a teacher and a small sack stuffed with envelopes.
“These are from my school,” the little girl whispered, after receiving a sly nudge from the teacher. She shuffled the bulging bag from her small fingers into George’s hands.
When they’d gone, George sat on the floor and opened one of the envelopes. It contained a bright picture, crayon on card, of a stick figure standing next to a long, low rectangle. A message was scrawled on the back, punctuated with a grubby thumbprint: Thank you for the money. Miss Mooney says it mite help us build a new swimming pool.
The second envelope was chewed in one corner. Inside was a piece of paper, folded roughly in two, with a scruffily-pencilled picture of a pig on it. Our teacher told us to write you a thank you card. I didn’t know what to draw, so I drew you a cat, a scribble said inside. George looked at the front again and noted the whiskers.
The third envelope contained a card illustrated with five children holding hands in a wonky circle. The colouring-in crossed over the lines. Thanks for giving your things to help our school. You are nice, it said inside in Biro. The ink had smudged, leaving a blue streak across the page.
Who had told the school about the things he’d donated? It must have been Janet.
George spent the whole afternoon opening the envelopes and reading the childish messages of gratitude. He considered visiting the school; perhaps they’d like to meet their benefactor. But Janet would say it was inappropriate. Anyway, he didn’t much like children. They grew far too quickly. Janet’s children were unrecognisable to him. Each year that she
sent a new photo, he was bewildered by the rapid bloom of their faces and bodies.
As night darkened the living room, George yawned, turned on the only light left in the hallway, and started climbing the stairs. Then he paused, pivoted, smiled, and walked back into the living room.
In the dim glow, George collected up the cards and put them next to his noticeboard. He laid them carefully, one on top the other, so they formed a little stack. He did the same with the envelopes, piling them into a small, papery heap.
As George walked to the foot of the stairs, he looked back at the motley cache of cards and envelopes covered with squiggles, splodges and inky-fingered signatures.
He turned out the light, climbing the stairs in darkness, smiling at the strange, square shapes that played in his eyes.