The week that followed was my idea of idyllic. Sadness was tempered by the fondest of memories, and my sister and I grew closer than ever. She admitted that it was only recently that she had begun to be able to think of Denis without bursting into tears. I owned up to feeling perpetually waterlogged. She fed me massive quantities of expertly prepared organic food and never complained when I disappeared to dispose of a sausage or two amid the sawdust.
On the Monday on which I departed, we sat down in her cement-floored backyard to a lunch that we had put together as a fairly authoritative re-creation of the teas we had eaten as children on summer Sundays. My sister avoided the meat, of course, but appreciated the historical accuracy of the pile of cold baked ham and the hatbox of a pork pie (with a hard-boiled egg imprisoned at its core) that I had purchased at the supermarket that morning. The fruits of the sty were accompanied by good crisp lettuce, quartered tomatoes, spring onions, cold new potatoes, and dollops of an organic mayonnaise that bore a striking resemblance, both in taste and in texture, to the “salad cream” without which no basic British salad was complete four decades ago. In between bites, I gazed at my sister’s beautiful container garden and conjured the time and the place in which we had first enjoyed meals like this one.
It’s late on a summer Sunday afternoon in rural Essex, circa 1961. I’m looking at a small garden, plus vegetable patch, situated behind a modest semidetached house. There’s a rabbit dozing in its hutch. Butterflies bask on a ramshackle rockery. A hedgehog is tottering through the daffodils. The family cat seems frightfully proud of the sparrow between its teeth. The local crow population is making its habitually raucous return to a stand of enormous elms. The bells of the Anglican churches are sounding for Evensong. (I’m not making any of this up.) In the neighboring gardens, similar sights, similar sounds. Cutlery clinking on cheap china. Teaspoons clonking in mugs full of sweet, milky tea. My sister and I are sitting on our back-door steps next to a tank full of tadpoles. My father is eating his tea in a rush before leaving for a night shift, hunched over his salad in shirt and tie. My mother asks us if we want any more before she starts putting leftovers in the fridge. My sister, daydreaming, says nothing. And I hear myself saying, in a hopeful tone, “Bit more ham, please, Mum.”
And now Joy is asking me, almost inaudibly it seems, if I’d like a bit more to eat before the taxi to the airport arrives. What I’m hearing very clearly is ghosts, ghosts whose vanished voices have momentarily obscured the sounds emanating from what is, supposedly, the real world. Suddenly, the scent of cigar smoke and kippers overwhelms the fragrance of my sister’s lavender. Maybe the healing has begun. I cut myself one last wedge of pork pie.