Empty Rooms

The prompt on Search Engine stories this week is Empty Room.

My story turned out to be a little more hopeful than I thought –

There were days where Janis wished she had chosen a different line of work. It was the photographs that got to her the most. Every room had one or two sitting on mantels or hanging on walls. People, pets, holiday scenes. Happy moments caught in time that no one would see anymore. Because no one would walk into the room anymore. And those left behind may not keep the photos or leave them on display because they couldn’t remember who the people in them were anyway.

Janis was a furniture removalist with a difference. She emptied rooms for the recently bereaved who could not bear to sort through the possessions of their loved ones. A gruesome task in some ways, but ultimately, rewarding.

Today she was in Mrs. Fitzroy’s house. Edna. She died in her sleep at 92. Her children were so distraught they couldn’t bring themselves to go through her things. Janis was sorting through the house. She had a method for dividing the contents of each room.




One life could be divided into three crates per room if you were tough enough.

Sometimes she was indecisive. She felt pulled towards certain objects that had been well-used and well-loved. Edna’s tablecloths were French linen, yellow and frayed at the edges. Some were speckled with stains on which lingered the faintest aroma of cinnamon or tomato puree. Janis imagined Edna laying the table, shaking her head at that stubborn saffron smudge that resisted the longest soaking, that in fact meant she had to place the crockery at an odd angle so people wouldn’t notice the stain.

Janis knew Edna hadn’t been able to throw the tablecloth away; she would have hummed as she hid the stain, looking out to the garden where bees marched in rows along the pink and purple hyacinth, tall as spears.

Janis couldn’t throw it away either. She folded it and placed it tenderly in the knapsack she always carried. She wasn’t a thief. Oh no. She would never take anything truly valuable like jewels or first edition books, but there were things she felt a connection to that she couldn’t let go of, that bound her forever to those who had dwelled in the rooms she emptied.

Like Mr. McGeary’s postcard of the Eiffel Tower circa 1952. From Cecile. There was the faintest hint of sweet perfume there if you sniffed for long enough. Janis imagined it was Chanel No.5, the perfume as a child she had said she would buy if she ever grew rich.

There was Mrs. Miller’s pack of cards from Spain. With Spanish dancers shaking maracas on every one. How could one play properly with such exotic beauties staring up at you? If Janis looked like that she could rule the world.

Mrs. Gray had a an old toffee tin full of buttons. The loveliest old things. Buttons of ladybirds and ducks and the sweetest little toadstools. Wooden buttons, brass buttons, cloth buttons, leather buttons. Every colour you could think of was there. Janis loved thrusting her hand into the mix. It felt as abundant as it does when you thrust your hand into a bag of almonds, rummaging around until you find the perfect one.

Mr. Edwards had an old street directory from the 1960s. It was completely useless now but Janis had kept it so she could trace the routes of streets that were no longer there and look at all the space that used to exist before the urban sprawl took hold.

In a dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice in Mrs. Newbury’s house, Janis had found a photograph of a handsome young man standing beneath an apple tree. My one true love, it said on the back. Janis compared the man in the photo with one she found of Mr. Newbury, but they looked nothing alike. She imagined Mrs. Newbury reading Pride and Prejudice over and over again, holding the photograph close to her heart, keeping a bowl of apples on the dining room table so she would never forget.

Mrs. Fitzroy’s room was empty now. The sound in the room had diminished to silence. Poets spoke of love, of meaning, but it was the empty room that spoke the truth of one life lived. Janis didn’t feel sad when a room was empty, she felt glad the room could go on to another life, another time, with photographs and ornaments and tables facing the windows. Where the story of a life was told in ordinary things.

24 thoughts on “Empty Rooms

  1. You know what makes a story shimmer? Details. You are an expert at picking details that pull the reader in. No green hat or soft pillow for our Selma. Descriptions without emotions are of no use. You give us a saffron stain that tells us so much about your characters. That is a powerful strength that runs through all of your writing.

    Very nice.


  2. I like Janis even though she seem detach to me because of her job, which I’m not sure if there’s such a job but it sounds like something I would do, going through people’s things gets one thinking and when Janis takes those small objects of little significance, I think it makes her feel connect somehow to these people, there’s so much in even the smallest object


  3. LAURI:
    your comment has made my day. I do try and pay attention to the small details. I really appreciate your feedback.

    thanks so much!

    I don’t know if such a job exists either, but I’m sure there’s some kind of market for it. I agree with you – even the smallest object still has a story to tell.

    I’m glad you see the sentiment as a plus. Cheers, hon!


  4. Hi Selma,
    Well-written. I was drawn in by delicious descriptions, just enough to set the stage, like a play. “lingered with the faintest aroma”,”tall as spears”, “dog- eared” . There’s a host more because you use this technique deftly throughout. Even the characters’ names are real, to me. Delight to read.


  5. Sentimental came to my mind too. I can’t imagine feeling that way about other people’s stuff. I think you’d have to be sensitive to be able to do that sort of thing. Are there really people out there that do this?


  6. I just figured out why this bothered me. I am disturbed by the fact that the children aren’t able to come take care of this themselves. Why? What’s going on that they would be so upset? I can’t imagine inviting a stranger in to touch mother’s things. I was so upset and angry at the kids I couldn’t focus on the beautiful writing, because there is a story behind the story.

    Which is the mark of a good writer (IMO) when you can strike a chord with people that way. This would be one of those books that I would throw across the room and fume about for a day before picking back up and learning more about myself.


  7. Oh Selma – Oh my, so ver resonant. I agree with everyone the choice of details is pure perfection. The buttons brought a tear for me. My paternal grandmother had a huge cookie tin of buttons and I used to do the same thing. And your wonderful writing made me able to feel those buttons cascading through my fingers again. So, so wonderful! What an excellent write – thanks for the joyful read – and I agree we really grabbed onto the same energy filament this week 😉

    And I had the same question as texasblu – are there really people who do this? Because family won’t? What a shame if so…one of my most cherished memories of after my father died was going through his jewelery box with my brother & talking about our memories…


  8. Bravo. Standing ovation.

    This story made me think of the things I have that used to belong to my grandmother. Things someone else would dismiss; like a yellow handled potato masher and a prayer book I can’t even read because it’s in Polish.


  9. Hi Selma,

    I bet you’ve already been awarded this, but I have given you the “Honest Scrap Award.” Details are on my current post “Revelations.” I’m a noncomformist and rarely do memes, so if you’d rather not participate or want to do so in “your own style” or even no post at all, it’s all fine with me. Truly. (I wish there was no meme part, so I altered it to be optional!) This award is based on my opinion of who blogs from her heart. I noticed that from the moment I landed here, no “egrets!” 🙂


  10. I loved this story Sel. There was a quiet melancholy in it that made me feel thoughtful. On the one hand Janis seemed practical but she had her own sense of sentiment that made her want to keep things that once meant something to perfect strangers. It gave the story a different meaning somehow that it wasn’t a family member that wanted to keep those things. It’s hard to explainbut I enjoyed it immensely.


  11. Hi Selma, I don’t have much too add to the praise that you’ve already gotten (and deserve). I wonder what the long term effect of such a job as Janis’ would be -would it become just another job?
    Thanks for a great read


  12. You have written such a unique and endearing story Selma. Beautifully expressed and so touching. Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing talents with all of us.

    Hugs, G

    PS: I will be posting my first Write a Book update soon….look forward to reading what you’ve been up to.


  13. Selma, I am reluctant to comment and trust I am not out of line. Concerning the children being so distraught they could not bring themselves to go through their mother’s possessions…
    In my 89 years, I’ve never known children who loved their mother so much they could not go through her things after she died. The story does not ring true. Children who loved their mother would not want strangers pawing over her life-long, cared for treasures. They would want them kept in the family and handed down to their own children. If a woman’s children hated her and had already scavenged every last thing worth taking, than it should be so stated. I trust I have not offended you, but you have a good story. I want you to write to the best of your ability.


  14. Re: Mary’s comment. When my own (beloved) mom died in 2007, I had a very tough time going through her personal items. It took me a long time to face the clothes, photos, jewelry etc….without breaking down. I did want to do this daunting task myself but it was difficult and so sad for me at the time. I treasure many of my mom’s possessions, in particular her paintings. I do appreciate reading your thoughts on this story but I must say I can see both sides. G


  15. Hi Selma,

    Like Geraldine I can see both sides – I can understand how and why someone might be to distraught to go through a deceased loved one’s possession and I can understand why someone would not want a stranger going through said possessions, and being angry and upset at those who chose to use such a service. I believe that whether or not someone would use Janis’ services would be determined by such factors as their social-cultural background, their individual personality type, their personal history and the dynamics of their relationship with the deceased.

    I think that what may be causing conflict in terms of reader interpretation of the use of Janis’ services is the word ‘recently’ as in “She emptied rooms for the recently bereaved who could not bear to sort through the possessions of their loved ones”. The problem is that the word is ‘recently’ is vague, i.e. not specific enough in its time frame –at what point of time does an event, specifically in this case, bereavement, stop being ‘recent’? A day? A week? A month, A year? If a reader interprets ‘recently bereaved’ as the death happening on the same day as the request for Janis’ services, I can see why they would not be as empathetic to the characters’ plight as they might be if they (the readers) interpreted ‘recently bereaved’ as the death occurring a week to a month ago and the request for Janis’ services being made after the characters tried (perhaps more than once) to sort through their mother’s possessions but find they can not do it, can cope with it emotionally.

    Hmmm. It suddenly occurs to me that a story about a couple of or a group of siblings (maybe anywhere between three to six of them) arguing and debating over using Janis’ services or having used them might have the makings of a great Ray “The Summer of the
    Seventeenth Doll” Lawler type play, filled with much drama, social commentary, philosophical underpinnings and themes of family, death, moral codes, the loss of idealism, and change -the ability (and the inability ) to accept it.




    Sorry for the late response, my internet’s been down for 36 hours. I thought I’d have to learn some morse code or something….

    I really appreciate that. Sometimes I toy with names for ages – maybe too long, in fact. It means a lot to me that you liked it!

    I agree that the children not being able to do it themselves is a contentious point. What gave me the idea in the first place was a friend of mine who lost her mother last year. She was an only child and couldn’t bear to go through her mother’s things. She actually hired someone to do it. It just got me thinking about the emotions that would come to light as a result of that. I can’t say I would be comfortable with it at all, but the thought that someone else would intrigues me.

    We were on the same wavelength, hon. To add to my previous comment – my Dad used to work for a man who was estranged from his siblings. In fact, none of the siblings got on with each other. When their father died they were fighting so much they had to hire someone to clear out their father’s house. Apparently, it got violent. You just never know what people are capable of….that also got me thinking.

    It’s the little things, isn’t it? I have a few little mementoes too that are worthless in a monetary sense, but mean the world to me. So great to hear from you!

    I really appreciate your constant support. Thank you so much!!


  17. GEL:
    How kind you are. Oh, thank you so much. You have made my day!!!

    Quiet melancholy sums up losing people so well. Oh, I really like that. I am really glad you liked it.

    I wonder that too. Surely it would end up being emotionally exhausting? I certainly couldn’t do it. I would be in tears every single day. Maybe I’ll write a second part…..

    Thanks so much. Yeah, little things mean a lot. Just like the song!!

    I can’t wait to see what everyone has been up to. To my surprise, I have been quite motivated. Must be your good influence!!

    You couldn’t possibly offend me. In fact, I agree with you – that is the part of the story that is weak. When I think about it, it doesn’t ring true either. Looks like a rewrite is in order!

    It’s a hard thing to do, but necessary. I can definitely see both sides too. I really appreciate all the feedback because it makes me a better writer.

    How astute you are. This is an example of a bit of backstory being needed. I really didn’t set things up properly at all. And you are right about ‘recently’ being the key word that leads to the misinterpretation. Thanks for keeping me on the right track, David!


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