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.