Our eldest (born Lewisham, lives York) is trying to buy a house. Recently he stayed with my mother (Essex, Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Knutsford) and showed her the house in Bristol where she grew up. As it had been sold relatively recently, there were photographs online.
A house is just a house, yet memory is mortar to those bricks. From the front this terraced house looks much as it did. And out the back the garden is still walled and beyond you can see the roof of the school. Further away and not visible is the prison against whose outside walls children sometimes kicked balls; perhaps they still do.
Inside only the front room, where my grandfather would hover at the net curtains while giving a running commentary on what the neighbours were up to, coincides with memory. Most other rooms have been changed and the attic seems to have been colonised.
The kitchen is unrecognisable from memory, smart and modern behind the remembered version; the old kitchen haunts it like a negative ghosting a new photograph.
My grandfather, an East End boy, did office work in the London docks. During the war he was sent to Bristol (I think it was a reserved occupation) and liked the place so much, he moved his family there afterwards.
We lived nearby in a house where, aged three, I fell from a bedroom window and fractured my skull. My grandmother kept a diary which my mother found years after she died, and the potentially tragic incident loomed large.
My grandfather had an allotment around the corner, to which sometimes he would retreat. His wife was known to the grandchildren as Nagging Nana, although she rarely nagged me (eldest grandson, victim of a childhood mishap).
We moved from Bristol to Cheadle Hulme shortly before one Christmas in the mid 1960s, two parents and three boys, with Christmas packed into the removal lorry. That house in the cul-de-sac pops up in a search but without any photos. About three years ago, visiting the area for a mini-reunion, I drove into the road that goes nowhere, parked outside, had a look, then left.
One of my brothers (Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Cardiff, Paris, Lyons, and now Hong Kong) once told me he’d never liked that house or the road. I did but perhaps I am more sentimental. My other brother (Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Barnsley) has never said much about the house that I can recall.
I try the same trick for where my father (Southampton, Bristol, Cheadle Hulme, Prestwich) grew up, but discover no details. In a street-view photograph the house in Southampton shares a glancing similarity to the 1920s semi in York where we moved so that my wife (Macclesfield, Cheadle Hulme, Nelson, Wetherby, London, York) could have the garden she complained she’d never have.
Our daughter (born in York, lives in York, loves York) is back home while training to be a teacher. The other day dad and daughter walked past the old council offices in St Leonard’s Place. This Georgian terrace was turned back into houses and flats (sorry, apartments) some years ago.
Those prices are astonishing, we say to each other, while heading to meet her brother for a drink, the York brother and not the Salford brother. Two out of our three stayed around, the other lives where he was a student. I did that too and that’s how we met: happenstance and rented rooms in a shared house in Lewisham.
Eventually we bought a flat converted from a large house with a monkey puzzle tree outside; a flat that, according to Zoopla, is now worth a dizzying amount.
The day after dad and daughter were discussing the old council offices in York, an estate agent’s advert popped up on Facebook: £1.1m for an apartment. That seems bonkers and a social wrong. As does the apparent worth now of that flat halfway up the hill in an ordinary corner of south-east London.
Takes deep breath, gnashes teeth and reminds himself there are different kinds of worth…