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The Last House


Antonio Albert

Christmas Eve, 2018. Sunday.


I delivered a large bin today.

Catching up after no stock for a while.

It was for the end house, the last in the pairs of council houses, one of the numbered ones, which line a stretch of one side of the lane which elsewhere features detached, set-back, down-the-drive properties with names. It’s number eight, I remember, which needed the bin.

A quiet lane in a stretched-out hamlet.

A December day without shadows.

The front gate of number eight was made of slowly rotting wood.

The house next door looked like it was bought at some time: new drives, clean, tidy and well-kept but different from the one next to it across the adjoining alley, also an ex-council house, which also looked like a buyer was found for a while before.

Rain dropped over time had slowly and gently split open the insides of each slat and post of the gate and of what was left of the fence. The bolts holding the structure together were exposed in varying degrees according to the amount of wood remaining in their rusting embrace.

Bits of old paint remained here and there on the wet wood.

The delivery sheet mentioned medical needs. I wondered if the resident had tried to paint the gate and they just couldn’t do a neat job, or if it was that the person living at number eight did a good job at the time but that the time in question was many, illness-filled years before.

All the curtains were drawn at the front, I remember noticing, as I walked up the path wondering if the person in the house was asleep. The car on the driveway sat in a self-made parking patch of bricks embedded in the ground here and there, with wet earth flat between them. The curtains at the back of the house were drawn, too, and I couldn’t see any obvious light on. It was getting rather grey cloudy and the shift end at 4 o’clock was drawing close. Would the person who lived here remain in darkness as the day departed, I wondered.

The curtains themselves reminded me of my childhood, when many mums made curtains out of thin cloth but didn’t have the money for the liner. Privacy but not warmth, unfortunately. I wondered if the resident here had also made the curtains themselves, they looked modest.

We are supposed to collect the old bin when delivering a new one, but bins sometimes fall into the wagon when being emptied and that’s the reason a replacement is needed. The delivery sheet doesn’t always give the reason for replacement and anyway, even if a bin has disappeared it occasionally returns before I turn up with in the van. I nowadays go and check to see if their old bin is at the property and a walk around to the back yard of number eight revealed an older, smaller grey wheelie bin. I trundled it back to the van and got the new one, placing the cavernous 360litre bin in the same spot, facing toward the kitchen window as was the original one. You never know, the resident may be sight-impaired, the sheet doesn’t usually say, so I always put the bin in the same location with the handle facing the same way as the bin I take away.

Big bins are delivered for a reason. I think this property was an ‘assisted collection’, meaning that the crew collect the bin on collection day from wherever it is located and return it there when empty as the resident is unable to put the thing out themselves.

Number eight is last house in the row. Is it the last house this person will occupy, I remember thinking?

Earlier the same week I had delivered a large bin to a different property, an elderly person’s bungalow, the delivery sheet again referring to medical needs, and that the existing bin wasn’t big enough. While I was assembling the bin on the tail-lift (the wheels and axle are separate, and you fix them together on site) a neighbour approached me and asked if ‘we’re all getting new bins. A common question from neighbours when delivering.

I said that no, this was for the resident who had requested a replacement, to which he mentioned that it seemed as though the old people get the big bins and he wondered out loud why. It seemed to me that he was a bit resentful of this possibility. I explained that large bins meet certain criteria, people qualify for them in other words. It made me think that this small cul-de-sac probably had the same people living there for many years, a desirable corner of town, and that the neighbour hadn’t noticed the elderly people who were having the large bin well enough to know that they were unwell and that the collection crews would have gone at got their bin from the drive as this, woo, was an assisted collection address. I cannot be sure, of course, but it was yet another of many examples I come across while doing this job of neighbours of likely long-standing having nothing to do with each other.

I left the hamlet and the last house in the row, number eight.

These deliveries are made in the middle of the country, the heart of the country.

The last house in the row is still there now, a year later almost, and it is no longer a collection where the person doing the walking and pulling and pushing work goes into the garden to get the bin. Is it because the resident has moved or died? I always see a change of resident at these properties with a little sadness. Something sad for the previous, in-need-of-help resident, has happened.

Collection the rubbish from people’s houses is a people activity, done by people for people. Especially when we do it for people who cannot do it for themselves. A privilege to do. A very human and intimate thing in surprising ways. As it should be. In the course of the week, we people who collect the rubbish may be the only person who visits the home of this helpless person, other than a nurse or meals on wheels. We walk along paths once swept and gates once kept in good order, we look at windows long ago cleaned last. Curtains which haven’t been twitched or cleaned week after week are common.

It was the last house in the row and the last house lived in by the poor soul inside, most likely.

Collecting rubbish is a human and very intimate thing, seeing into people’s lives and their passing, too. A privilege.

Which house will be my last house?

The last house of the about to be holy. What will we be before we return to the sea of becoming, which we thought we had left behind in the waves before its tide returns to reclaim us?

The exuberance of our youth washes us ashore, spraying all before us, splashing and soaking the dry land of life before us. Spent, we end our journey wherever it is, in our last house of our dwelling.

A wheelie bin delivered to the last house in the row. Of sorts. The last house when you come into the village from the main road. But if you come into the village along the path from the fields it’s the first house you see. The last house from one direction, the first from another. I don’t know which direction we travel in or if we travel in any direction at all.

Maybe none.

Maybe direction is an illusion and travel . . . a trick of the eye.

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