Family Home, Essex [2005-2006]
A short walk from my home, perched on an elevated corner of a small field, there stands a derelict house. Remarkably, it remains full of its tenants' possessions - everything from a young girl's christening plate to her mother's tax returns. Jackets and keys still hang in the hallway and there is even a saucepan on one of the hobs. I have been familiar with the location of the house since childhood, though hadn't passed for many years until I stumbled across it over Christmas - and was shocked by its state of decay.
It appears that the house was vacated last winter. Calendars still lie open at November, and the last entry in one of the planners was from the eighth of that month. In amongst some toys, I also found a clue concerning their departure: a tattered list of phone numbers. All related to planning committees and government departments - while beneath one contact, someone had even written "green belt". Situated between a small barn and the rear of the farmhouse garden, the house is little more than an outbuilding - a single-storey, prefabricated chalet; and appears to have been deemed illegal or unsafe by the authorities.
I already felt uneasy about the intrusion, though upon discovery of the list started to feel nauseous - the sense of enforced displacement overwhelming. At times it seemed as if they had taken nothing with them. Certainly there was none of the careful appraisal of what to keep and what to jettison that normally occurs before any move. Many of the items, such as bikes, a small car or kitchenware, would be extremely expensive to replace, while others were of clear sentimental value and appear to have been lovingly-preserved up to the point of abandonment. Documents such as driving licences and exam certificates would also be vital for the resumption of life elsewhere, and are certainly not the kind of thing you'd want blowing across a field or nearby footpath.
Casting my eyes across the debris, it was impossible not to succumb to conjecture. The first narrative that suggested itself was one of frenzied departure - perhaps at the behest of the landlord or council, or after some terrible event or trauma - though none of these would preclude returning later to collect some items.
Another scenario was of concussed, defeated withdrawal: the endless lobbying and phonecalls, the weeks and months of trying everything to be allowed to stay, eventually grinding the family down to the point where they lacked the energy (and the money) to do anything but leave with a handful of possessions. Or perhaps, less dramatically, they moved in with a kindly relative, or to a much smaller home, and lacked the income or connections to keep their items in storage elsewhere.
The family, at least, seemed to have been happy there (as much as can be gleaned from photos and other debris) - and had lived in the house for at least a decade. Such was the wealth of personal artefacts, it was impossible not to feel some kind of connection. From the fragments left behind, I was able to piece together something about each of their lives. Parcels from an absent father, examination papers from school, and in one room a series of trophies from local and national sports competitions. It appears that two of the girls were gifted gymnasts, the oldest sister even training as a dance teacher at the time of their unexplained flight.
As the mobile home borders an old but underused public footpath, I'd walked past several times - on one occasion, many years ago, at the same time as one of the children arrived home from school. I can't quite recall her face, but remember she was about the same age as me and seemed surprised at someone wandering past. My memory of that encounter is now distilled into a single image: that of a child, bag in hand, standing completely still outside their front door. I remember looking over my shoulder as I was about to disappear out of sight, and she was still standing there, unmoved.
At the time, I attributed it to the quietness of the path - but I wonder to what extent the children were aware of the precariousness of their situation; the sense that a single call or letter to the council could leave them uprooted. I assume, in the end, that this is what happened. This particular path has always been hopelessly overgrown - its entrance at both ends extremely well concealed - though it had recently been cleared and perhaps someone from the council noticed the house and reported them.
After leaving the home, I felt increasingly uncomfortable - unable to justify the intrusion, particularly as the upheaval was so recent and so great. Upon spotting the house, with its smashed windows and open door, I'd treated it like any other building, but the sheer weight of material inside was distressing. With hospitals, at least, there is the case for recording a disappearing landmark. The diversity of voices within the ward reports, plus the decades that have passed since closure (combined with an acceptance of a starting point of pain and trauma), also make exploring such places easier to defend. But here, the trauma was recent and intimate; and the reasons for so much of their life being on view were clearly been beyond the family's capacity or control.
Again, it was not so much the items themselves that were so affecting, rather their totality : the car still parked outside (hand cream on the dashboard, an atlas on one of the seats), the schoolbags full of exercise books and stationery, the vacant fish tank with cresting pebbles and an embossed seahorse on its lid. Already existing at the margins, it is hard to believe that they could leave so much behind without good cause.
In the months and years that followed, I tried to find out what happened to the family, but with such a common surname had little luck. I continued to walk past the house often, and on one occasion, almost a year after that first visit, noticed someone standing outside as I approached. At first I was convinced that the family had returned, but upon arrival was confronted by workmen and a small pyre. The house had been stripped, with anything small enough to burn stacked up outside, awaiting incineration. (Furniture, bikes and clothes had been removed to a nearby barn and had disappeared completely when I returned a few days later).