Living Between the Lines

Serendipity and Going Places…

It has been some time since my last post. (‘Confession’ might fit nicely there). The reason for my lengthy absence from blogging, is our recent, all encompassing, preoccupation with moving arrangements for our nephew.

James is moving into his new home.

The process of moving his possessions from A to B, whilst leaving much of what my late sister and brother-in-law have gathered during thirty three years of living at one address, is not without a few ups and downs but, on the whole, it goes well. Over a period of two days, we manage to exhume most of James’s things from their dust ridden hiding places and relocate them to their sparkling, clean, new home.

By lucky happenstance, James’s new neighbours each have an understanding of his condition. On the one side is a lady whose sister cares for a boy with Asperger’s and on the other, a family with two children who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Both neighbours have met James and assure us they understand his obsessions and his forthright way of speaking. Neither will be nonplussed should they look out of their windows and see James, dressed as Darth Vader, marching around the garden late at night. They would of course worry should they see him waving his light sabres around. The house is practically on the flight path of the Airport. (We have warned him that this activity is not allowed.)

We feel their presence is fortuitous to say the least.  Has there been a guiding hand involved in placing him in this haven of safety? If it truly is simply a case of serendipity then we are thankful all the same.

All our doubts and worries are blown away for a moment by the news that James has such understanding neighbours either side of him. The effort of getting to this stage has been all consuming but here we are.

Phase one: The move itself is exhausting –

Disturbing years of cobwebs, we unearth broken plastic bits and bobs that James pounces on with delight. They are long lost items of great importance apparently. Promising to throw away nothing but rubbish (our ideas of what constitutes rubbish, are quite different to his), we are allowed to dig through the study. Left to himself for the past seven months or so, housework has not been on James’s list of priorities and a lot of dust can gather during that time. Add to that a four-year period since his father’s death in which he has taken over the study and made it his own and you get the picture.

The removal men cope admirably with the blunt comments and stream of instructions that pour forth from James’ lips as he supervises the removal of some of his most treasured possessions. My sister, Lesley, our good friend, Lisa and I, emerge from the study, gasping for air and take refuge in the garden.

Grass three feet high, has been scythed back to reveal a path to the shed and today, the intrepid odd-job gardeners are back, removing the jungle that first meets the eye, struggling to reveal our sister’s garden in all its former glory.

The garden was Beverly’s delight. She worked on it tirelessly and it is sad to see the roses cascade onto the patio, having grown wild in her absence. All around, nature has encroached on pathways and benches, curling green tendrils round iron and covering the pond with a dense, green weed. It is not hard to imagine what this garden would look like if left untouched for a further seven months. As the odd-job gardeners work their rough magic, it slowly reveals itself and begins to breathe.

Our own breath restored, we go back into the house to answer the plethora of questions that are thrown our way. Despite the typed lists of what is to go and what is to stay, the removal men are understandably confused.

“What’s to go, from in here?” asks one from the depths of the study. I look. I go back to the list we have so carefully prepared.

-Is it – everything except the red chair and the picture of the dog? Or is it – leave everything and take the picture of the dog and the red chair?

“Everything is to go except the red chair and maybe the picture of the dog,” I say without conviction.

The bookshelves bulge with books, bibles and DVDs. (Our late sister and her husband were practicing, born again Christians). The men begin packing the books. There are several boxes filled with bibles, another with prayer books, another with yet more bibles from other denominations. All had to be studied it seems. I don’t think James wants all these in his new home so I divert them at the last minute. I miss a box. James will doubtless find that when he begins to unpack and is sure to ask why it is there.

Some time later, another member of the crew asks me what is to be packed in the study. Dog picture, red chair? I have to study the list again. Such a simple question but it throws me completely each time.

In the end, far more goes to James’s new house than he needs and his instructions to leave the Denby ware, are ignored at the last minute when the removal crew make a final sweep of the house.

There is to be a seven-day gap between James moving out and the remainder of the house being cleared. Time to reconvene, to go home and gather out thoughts.

Despite James’s departure, the house seems as full as ever. The gardeners leave, the locksmith, arriving mid afternoon to change the locks, hands us his invoice and we watch the removal vans drive off down the road. For two days we have watched as the house has been rudely awoken from the slumber that followed Beverly’s death. Shaken, we blink and brush dust from our clothes, as we lock the doors and windows.

The picture of the dog has gone from the study. The red chair remains.

Tomorrow is another day.

The new house quickly fills with James’s things. Sky TV, miraculously, is working. Broadband will be available in a couple of days. We can go home and prepare for phase two.

“Auntie Debbie, why do I have a box of bibles here?” comes the inevitable question within hours.

Phase two:

“My house is bleeding,” James told me a few weeks ago. Now, it seems an apt phrase to apply as we instruct the second crew of removal men, equally as friendly and obliging as the first.

“So, everything to go?” one asks.

“Yes, everything,” we say.

-“Except the washing machine and the tumble dryer – they can stay.”


-“Oh and that pile of things that James has forgotten, they must stay,”

The ever patient removal man stretches tape around the pile of belongings that are to remain and writes on the tape,

“James’s things – do not touch”

James will appreciate that.

I think they get the gist. There will be more questions as the day goes on and there are now only garden chairs to sit on. Temperatures have risen and it is extremely hot. The Aga, the heart of this house, throws unwanted heat into the air we breathe. Windows are flung wide open, doors wedged back and cold drinks administered. It is only after the event that Lesley remembers how to turn the Aga off and does so, too late for us of course.

We unearth an old school desk that James says used to be his. It sits in the garden. Beverly thought it looked good there and was delighted when some blue tits chose it as a nesting box. They entered through the inkwell hole and used hair from the dog to soften their nest. Alas, next door’s cat soon learnt that the birds would come and go through the inkwell and it was an easy task to sit on the desk and wait. That little family came to a sorry end. Still, the nest remains. James wants to take it to his new garden. It needn’t go on the van.

The house, the loft, the shed, the garage, all must be emptied and this is a three-day job. There are two days of packing before the extra large lorries rumble their way to Hampshire where Dave waits to see the contents safely into storage.

Even after the vans have gone, the house doesn’t seem empty. How do you empty a house after so many years? How do you remove the hand that has made it? There is no way except time.

We suspect that the mice are just waiting for us to leave before they emerge from their hidey-holes and party on the bare boards. There will be few crumbs for them tonight.

We take a last, sad look around the rooms and remember happy days, happy times spent with my sister and brother-in-law when children were small and willingly slept on beds and floors in sleeping bags, telling stories way into the night. We remember unplanned stop-overs where clothes were hurriedly borrowed for long, hot strolls down by the creek. We remember sipping iced drinks in the garden, Beverly with her broad brimmed sun hat, cool, elegant and serene, me more often than not, harassed and attached to one small child or another, sticky fingers grabbing my skirts and using a T-shirt as a sunhat for the youngest child because I was not quite prepared. We remember trying to persuade Lesley to stay a little longer but she always wanted to get home before dark. We remember Christmases with fireplaces decked with greenery and holly adorning the walls, the gorgeous aroma of yet another culinary masterpiece wafting in from the kitchen, to set our digestive juices flowing.

There is now an empty space where the coffee table sat, overflowing with enticing books and crammed with the torn out pages from magazines that Beverly loved to collect. A quiet, dignity pervades the house.

There is no time to stand and look back. We have a train to catch. Avoiding the M25 and the tiring two and a half hour drive, we have opted for British Rail. “Let the train take the strain”.

We bid Lesley goodbye and Lisa and I board the overland train for London Waterloo – the first stage of our journey back to Hampshire.

The story does not finish here of course. There is James’s care to sort for the better, meetings to attend, gates to be fixed (another story involving a rogue trader) and a house to be cleaned and sold. For now though, we can gather our thoughts and relax.

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Teresa

    It all sounds so difficult, all this sorting out – emotionally more than anything. I loved that the removal man wrote what he did on the tape. But how reassuring it must be to have met James’ neighbours. I think after everything you were right to let the train take the strain x

    • Deborah Barker

      A sense of humour at all times seems to be essential Teresa. Yes, it is the emotional toll, not the physical that is the worst but the train journey home was without incident which was good!

  • Andrea

    You know, Deborah, this is material for a novel, should you want to write one: A woman takes on her deceased sister’s son who has Asperger’s.

    Of course, it might not be fair to James, but it’s a very good premise.

    What a lot of work you’re doing. I can barely keep my own things straight, let alone someone else’s. It makes me want to get organized, reading this. (I know myself too well to think that will ever happen.)

    A long road ahead. I’ll be following…

  • screenscribbler

    Your account of a house empty of goods but alive with memories was deeply poignant Deborah. I’m so pleased that James has neighbours who have some understanding of the world he lives in. I agree with Andrea, you have a good story to tell, and you would tell it so well. Any story like this has more impact on raising Autism Awareness amongst the general population than any text book can. Have you read ‘Nobody Nowhere’ by Donna Williams? She has Asperger’s Syndrome, and has written her own story of the difficulties she had during childhood and how she developed coping strategies.

    • Deborah Barker

      I haven’t read ‘Nobody Nowhere’ John, though I have read several other books including, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon and “The Speed of the Dark” by Alex Shearer, I have a few more on my reading list too so will add the one you mention. Thank you 🙂

  • Nari

    So beautifully told, Deborah. It sounds like a long journey emotionally, but the support of the new neighbours must be very refreshing. I agree with Screenscribbler, getting a story like this out there would be great for raising awareness – no text book or training can provide the kind of insights into the condition as well as a personal story like this.
    Good luck with the rest of the journey.
    Nari X

  • Deb

    Wow. That’s a lot to deal with in a short amount of time. I love where your nephew ended up – that’s no accident for sure. Like with all your stories, I hardly breathed from start to finish.

  • Hilary

    Hi Deborah … you sure have your work cut out – but seem to be doing it as pragmatically as possible and with some able assistance from the family – James seems to be ‘in some form of control’ of what he wants and doesn’t .. and I’m glad he seems happy to move and settle into a new home.

    Desperate times – yet a relief that things are being sorted … so tough on all of you … with many thoughts in the days ahead … hugs Hilary

  • Deborah Barker

    Hi Hilary, thanks for the kind words. Yes, it is hard work, rewarding at times and frustrating at others but on the whole we are making progress and the odd essay about it all helps 😉

    • Hilary

      Hi Debbie .. the odd essay will bring the happy times back – as I’m finding re my mother .. we laughed at the most odd things – and I’m sure with James you’ll be doing the same .. thinking of you … cheers Hilary

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