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I never wanted to inherit the house, so I burned it down.
It was filled with crap I didn’t need, wasn’t worth much anyway and all my memories of growing up there were awful. Boring and awful. The best way I could serve the past was to burn it inside, free it and free myself from it. An indulgent act, I’m aware.
The house we had from when I was little. It was our “vacation home,” though it never felt like one. As a kid, I would’ve rather stayed in the city, playing with friends, playing computer games, and later on, chasing girls, instead of there – middle of nowhere – cold even in the summer. I’m not a nature man. Never was. Even now, I prefer the city, the fumes, the greasy food in greasy places. A short life, that’s what I have, stretching forever shorter ahead of me.
So, after all the mourning and the paperwork, I looked at what were the living remains of my parents. Little money. Their old flat. And the house. More of a hassle than an inheritance. Without telling my wife – not that she would’ve cared – I insured the house through a friend who’s a broker. He gave me a good deal on it. I let the place rest and rot until spring and then one day, I went there. I came unprepared. If anything, I was curious about what I’d find there.
The place was stuffed. It could’ve featured in one of those shows about hoarders. Since I’d last seen them, my parents had truly let go, burning through all the money that should’ve gone to me. I checked all the rooms, then went back downstairs.
It took me ages to get the fireplace going. There was a lot of smoke. I choked, then opened the windows and carried on. It occurred to me that I didn’t know how to start a fire. I was never allowed to do it for fear of getting hurt or breaking something or setting the house on fire. The humour of it – here I was, grown up now, struggling and failing to do just that.
Swearing, furious that nothing was in its rightful place, I eventually found some gasoline in the shed and doused the wood with it. I stuffed the fireplace and left my cigarette lit on its edge. If it burns, it’s chance.
I drove down to the village, had a pint, a scotch egg and a crumbly schnitzel in the local tavern. It was a sad little place and I was the only patron there. The host washed dishes and nodded at me every time I looked over. One hour later, I heard the wailing of sirens. I paid and drove back to the house, now a dome of fire. In the car, I waited for a second to think how a person in my standing should react to this.
The insurance scheme didn’t work out. I should’ve known. They figured I started the fire and fortunately, my friend convinced them to phrase it as me having “left it unsupervised.” The open windows seemingly fed wind to the fire. A few threatening letters followed, some accusing me of insurance fraud, but all were quelled by my lawyer. No settlement. I sold the land to cover advisory fees. Now it was as if the house never existed, I’d never owned it, I’d never spent my miserable days of adolescence between those walls. Full circle.
Back home, I delivered the news to my wife.
“The house burned,” I said. “It burned down.”
I set the keys on the hook by the door and looked up. My wife was staring.
“All of it?”
“Not a thing left. Besides ashes, of course. And this bottle of wine.”
She smiled, which I found rather inappropriate. Then we sat down at our table, I opened the bottle and poured two glasses. The wine was an expensive gift we had brought for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. I’d found it in the house, perched on top of the fireplace behind porcelain figurines and a plastic fruit bowl, collecting dust. They’d kept it. For whose sake, no one will ever know.
“To your parents,” she toasted.
“To them,” I added, clinking my glass to hers.
When I was fourteen, a big storm broke through all the seven bridges one must cross from the main road to our house. We were stuck there for ten days. It rained and it rained some more. The water peeled off the mountains and rushed down, pulling trees out of their roots and dragging them into streams. The streams swelled and boiled and forced through everything, the rapids carrying with them cars, stables, even the old mill. It was quite a scene.
Ours, perched atop the hill, was safe and our fireplace worked fine. I sat on the couch, staring at the raging weather outside and reading a Jules Verne novel about adventurers going down the Orinoco River. My mother made hot chocolate. Father watched a game on the TV, clicking his tongue whenever the signal would drop from the storm. I don’t know what time of day it was, but I remember wishing it could’ve all stopped there. That’s my fondest memory of the house, of me as a child and us as a family.
Because the trip had been planned for three days, on the seventh, we ran out of food. We had no way of reaching the village because the stream had cut us off, so we took a path over the mountains to a nearby town, if one could even call it that – the only time I saw my parents hiking. At the shops, the prices were four times what they used to be. We didn’t mind it. Father still had his ophthalmology practice and mother was an anaesthesiologist at a cosmetic surgery clinic. They spent a lot of time at work and made enough not to bother with such things.
Mother baked a cake that evening. It was a spongy one with dried fruit and yoghurt on top. I never even knew she could bake. We ate all of it, just the three of us around the table, then played rummy and they let me have a small glass of beer. It was great. Three days later, the rains stopped. From the nearby village, they organised transport and we went home. Things returned to normal.
There was a lot of spite in our family. Time passing made things worse, changed us all. I was away from home for a long time and grew into a stranger. My parents stayed behind and became more of what they already were. Somehow, in my absence, they hoarded as if wanting to fill the space I had left.
Whenever we met, our connection suffered, like a live organism dying a little more each time it became exposed. We fought, mainly about the decisions I took and in turn, I made claims about how badly and absently they had raised me. They never liked my job, my wife, the home we bought, the city we lived in, not even my curtains. Much venom was spilled. In the end, what bothered them most was that I was free, I didn’t care, I went about life as if they were never there. That was always on their mind, I believe.
One time, soon after I got married, we thought we’d make another attempt to see them and spend a weekend in nature at the house. They showed us around, pointed at the changes that they had brought to the place. They craved enthusiastic praises, I knew it, but the home was awful. Crammed already. Old, decaying furniture sitting right next to IKEA plywood crap. On every surface rested cheap trinkets bought from package holidays abroad. The walls were covered in photos, paintings, even framed puzzles. The place was a bazaar. I did my best to keep my mouth shut until my mother came poking around:
“It’s nice,” I replied, on my best behaviour.
She nodded at me, as if encouraging me to continue. I didn’t.
Then at dinner, she started again.
“If there were one thing you’d change about the house, what would it be?”
I took a deep breath and tried to pick my words. My wife stared down at her plate, picking vegetables off the pork roast my mom made, knowing full well that Philippa is vegetarian.
“Anything,” my mother added.
“There’s too much stuff. Maybe throw away some of the old things.”
“Like what?” asked my dad, frowning between mouthfuls.
I pointed around, though nowhere specific.
“Some of the old decorations, the ceramic polar bear, those wooden knives I brought from camp.” I shrugged. “That painting.”
“My mom made it,” dad said.
“I know. It doesn’t go really.”
“I told him to throw it away,” mom said, crossing her arms.
“Grandma’s gone. This house is full already. Just give some things away.”
“You’ll do that when we’re gone,” dad said, eyes glassy.
He’d had quite a bit to drink that day. He was excited to see us, I presume. He even washed my car with the garden hose to show me some brush he bought, then polished the inside with wax. It looked all greasy now, presumably because he’d used too much. He wasn’t one for reading instructions – a more manly, intuitive force possessed him.
“You like it?” he had asked, arms resting on his hips and nodding towards the car.
“Yeah,” I responded. It was still early in the day.
I just wanted to spend time with them, reconnect maybe, not have my car washed and waxed. Mom was inside preparing the roast, dad was wiping the windshield, so in the end, me and Philippa sat on the swing and I told her about that time when the bridges broke. We only got together at dinner and that’s when things turned sour.
My dad said I was ungrateful and never appreciated what I had. How I’m a disappointment. How I should find a proper job. How he’s even surprised I got a woman to marry me.
“Paul, please,” my mom intervened, but he continued.
He told me awful things that night. He spoke slowly, explained to me how some generations gather, build stock, build riches, while others waste it away. My mother disagreed, but not enough to stop him.
“You know which one you belong to?” he asked, cackling towards the others.
I sat there and ate my roast, which tasted good, patted Philippa on the back while she stared at her plate and when I was done, I looked up at him, smiled and promised myself to burn his fucking house down one day. We left that night without sleeping over.
Philippa and I finished that bottle the night after the fire, ordered food from a nearby Italian place and cracked open another wine. On the balcony, we stared at the broken skyline of our city. My leg brushed hers under the table and soon we went to bed. I felt lighter, as if something loosened inside.
Then, the other day, in the car, I remembered when I was fourteen and we walked back from the village, our bags heavy with food. The three of us grew tired and stretched at one point on the grass, side by side on our backs under a tree. I remember hearing them breathing next to me. I became conscious then that I won’t have them forever. That they’ll wither, like the rapids, once strong. And that lost in all our sourness, there were also moments of love, shining stars on a dark sky. They tried, and I tried, more than I ever gave us credit for. Now, I could let them go.