This story begins in September 2004. After the death of my mother-in-law, Erica Thomas (pictured left), it fell to her sons – my husband Owen and his brother Daniel – to clear her Edinburgh house. Occupying one half of a Playfair pile on Regent Terrace, Calton Hill, the house might have boasted an A-Grade listing but untouched for 40 years, was in need of refurbishment.
To say we were daunted by what we found is an understatement.
Sorting through any deceased’s belongings gives pause when a lifetime’s worth of stuff can be eliminated in indecently short order. In Erica’s case our task was made all the harder not only in terms of quantity – she was a classic hoarder – but also on realising she had catalogued her entire life. By dint of what she called her ‘professional training in ethology’ it was as if by applying the principles of data-gathering she could rationalise her existence and thus reach a conclusion about herself.
This took the form of notes written in the third person on scraps of paper, often attached by dressmaker’s pins to the object in question. A white pint-sized mug carried the message: ‘Army issue, circa. 1941, belonging to my father who served during WW2’. Faced with thousands of such items it was impossible to know what was precious to her, but with her death the question of what to keep and what to cull was passed to us, the reluctant arbiters of her estate. Disinterested and – I suspect – overwhelmed, Daniel departed for his North Welsh village, leaving me and Owen to do the heavy lifting.
Fortunately many of Erica’s possessions were already in boxes, stacked two high and laid maze-like on a cat flea-infested Chinese rug acquired when she first moved to the house in 1960. These were left unpacked due to her recent return to the house – she had lived at another Edinburgh address since 1972 and relished her return to the Terrace. Adding to the pile were her recently deceased mother, Vera’s effects, transported from her Addington house when dementia forced her to live with her daughter.
With the existing furniture there was now three houses’ worth of stuff crammed into one. Every drawer, every box contained the unknown. What to make of a series of plaster casts of a club foot, sized for a baby and graduating in scale for an older child? Or many teeth, child’s and adult’s, each wrapped in tissue? Or hundreds of paper scrolls, the type associated with polygraph tests. Or myriad bottles of barbiturates, tranquillisers and other, unknown substances? Or multiple drafts of letters – resentful, even abusive – written by her but never sent?
Had it been a crime scene it would have tested the best minds of Lothian Police Forensics. Had it been an art installation it needed a better curator than Erica. Here was an untold story, a mystery about a woman’s life that had passed unremarked. In my search for clues, under a mountain of paper I found a note that stopped me in my tracks – ‘My son is married to a talented Glaswegian’ – impersonal and faintly disparaging, I thought, but typical of her detachment not just from me but from the entire world. Another note, that I wish I had kept, complained tetchily of Erica ‘attracting vermin to the area’ – written by her upstairs neighbour, the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Disposing of the everyday posed no problem: four broken vacuum cleaners, two defunct televisions and white goods more rust than white, found their way to Seafield Recycling Centre where we came close to a ban having previously delivered six Luton vanloads. While some items went to charity, most of the furniture – already second-hand and what dealers call ‘brown’ – went to a local salesroom.
Acting on some vague premise of inheritance we kept a few items; a Victorian kneehole desk and a Georgian chest of drawers, both with parts missing – and a large threadbare carpet belonging to Owen’s grandmother we later found to be Afghan in origin. After several futile attempts to kill the cat fleas – of a strain so vicious I strapped flea collars to my ankles – the Chinese Rug was finally disposed of.
Rattling in these huge empty rooms we reached a conclusion. The property wasn’t fit to sell so we decided to stay for twelve weeks to do the necessary work before putting it on the market the following spring. Back in our Glasgow flat we packed the essentials and decamped to Edinburgh, where during that winter I realised I wasn’t so much inhabiting a house, rather, like the slow creep of a horror movie, both it – and the ghost of Erica – were inhabiting me.
The photograph shows (l-r) Erica Eisner, Vera Eisner and Josef ‘Bob’ Eisner, taken during the early 1950s.