Runner-Up for the 2023 Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize
Holly Sargent is a fourth year student of English Literature from Bracknell, England. Her literary interests drew her to study in Scotland, where her writing has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She also enjoys rocks, kitsch, and useless things a little bit too much. Author of many an unfinished novel, ‘Collecting Dust’ is her first complete short story.
The house is my domain: it’s my pet, my own design. I planned every inch of my fortress, coaxing austere beauty from white stone like Michelangelo carving his masterpiece. I made my home, and dozens of others like it, to ensure happy, productive clients. My houses are neat, defensive, self-sustaining biospheres – and, like any good guard dog, they don’t permit intruders.
And yet, my walls have been breached. My invader has been sitting on my kitchen countertop for a few days now. A cream envelope, a few infuriating shades from white, sturdy and velvety in the hand. The letter inside is crisp, typewritten, impersonal. It feels like an accusation. It feels like being taken by the shoulders, it feels like the sound of this is for your own good.
I don’t like being told what to do.
The machine spat out my coffee, black, at six. Luke came down from his room a good while after, looking martyred. He still isn’t really into the separate bedrooms business, even though I keep telling him how much it benefits my clients’ productivity. Now he’s making his own coffee, plunging the French press, frothing the milk, while I fold and unfold the letter in my hands. He chats at me, something about some drama at the office and doing something nice at the weekend while I watch the goldfish in its bowl swim round and round. I slip the letter back into its envelope, ready for the recycling again. Its purpose is to inform, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a call to action, necessarily. Sorry to inform you is swimming around in my head. Petra Jewell, we are sorry to inform you of the death of your maternal grandmother, Marjorie Jewell. But the real question is, what are you going to do about her ridiculous house? What are you going to do with all her stuff?
Luke is looking at me like he knows. Of course he read it.
You should go back, he says. In case there’s anything you want from there.
I don’t want a tetanus shot, I tell him.
And then he doesn’t say anything, he just turns away from me. The slump of his shoulders is sad. He looks defeated. And while he’s re-organising the cutlery drawer for me I remember that Luke is a very nice person and a better fiancé than I deserve so I should try to be nice, too, and a very nice person would probably clear out her grandmother’s house before demolishing it. He doesn’t even ask why I haven’t heard from my mother, or why the house didn’t pass to her first. He met her only once, at my graduation just before she left for good, and that was enough to answer any questions he might ever have about us.
Well, he says now. I was going to work late tonight, but I can try to get out early. So I’m here when you get home.
He’s assuming that I’m going. I want to be a nice person, so I will.
Marjorie’s house isn’t far away – just on the other side, actually, of my first big architectural project. Luke calls it Petraville. There was some fuss initially about the idea of handing over the design of a whole town to one architect, but that quietened down eventually. My way is the best for everyone: maximum productivity, no fuss, no frills. Everyone gets a home, and everyone is perfectly happy. The new dual carriageway is very convenient. I doubt anyone actually misses the green space.
The road cuts straight through Petraville and takes me into the old suburbs. I drive down endless winding terraces of red brick, then leafy cul-de-sacs, and, finally, a narrow dirt path. A glade opens up, light oscillates through the trees. The house is one of few left in the mock-Tudor style. I half-expect the great wooden door to groan and burst with all that’s held within it.
I remember my mother’s voice, hissing that Marjorie’s house was untidy, messy, a disgrace. In better days, it was like a jumble sale, a magpie’s nest. I felt like I was being let in on a secret, back then, hearing my mother talk about her own mother like that, and I would laugh. On the worst days, the very worst, she was a hoarder. It sounded like something cursed, the way my mother said it. I imagined her spitting venom, and I didn’t laugh anymore.
I fight through weeds and overgrown bracken to reach the back door, the kitchen door. The wood is bloated and it takes a good yank to get the thing open. The air inside is stale, laced with the sweetness of an overripe fruit bowl. And the kitchen –
It’s a kaleidoscope. Colour shifting everywhere. Every piece of furniture is a different wood, every fabric is either a garish geometric or an insipid floral. There are too many chairs for the table and they’re all mismatched. The floor is tiled in green and white and every surface is covered in mugs, bowls, little vases, pots and pans, tiny containers and bigger containers. Little trinkets. Novelty salt and pepper shakers that look like cats. A clock shaped like a cupcake, with candles ticking round and round.
It looks like mugsbowlsvasespotspanstinycontainersbiggercontainersshakersclockcupcake.
So much stuff for one person.
The living room is worse. A large, sagging leather armchair dominates the room like a throne. The footstool in front of it is worn and dips in the middle, twice. It’s in memoriam for an owner who cannot return. The wallpaper is cream and heavy with roses, the crimson curtains droop. Blankets are draped all over the abandoned sofa, magazines and little china dogs and whathaveyou on the coffee table. I used to like those dogs, as a kid. I roll one over in my hand now; the base is a little chipped, there’s a smudge of what must be permanent marker.
There are watercolour landscapes on the wall, all the same vague grey-green-brown. They might be places I’ve never been or paths I’ve walked all my life. I wish now I had asked where they were. The little dog is still in my hand and my fingers tighten around it. I’m afraid I might throw it against the wall, or grip it until it shatters and embeds itself in my skin. I put it down carefully, gently, like a living thing.
I ordered a skip on the way over, to save time.
The living room isn’t my business. What I should be concerned about is my old room, the old attic. In case there’s anything you want from there.
My mother would visit occasionally and when she left, boxes of tat often disappeared with her. Marjorie would tut, and then there’d be a new box of novelty tea towels or discounted paperbacks the next week. Her generation had nothing, she would tell me. They grew up with nothing, so there was no shame celebrating having something now, if you could afford to. Even when she couldn’t afford to, she couldn’t stop.
I return to the hallway and climb the stairs, cautiously, careful not to disturb the towers of magazines and boxes lining either side.
Once my mother came over for a ‘spring-clean’. With yellow marigolds up to her elbows, she needled Marjorie into admitting she had a ‘problem’. She left flushed with her success and a promise from Marjorie that she would chuck the ridiculous amount of trash they had sorted together. The next time she came over, she moved onto organising the garden shed and the door gave way to an avalanche of glossy bin bags, soft and fluid with fabrics or heavy and split by broken glass. I remember her standing in the long grass, surrounded by bags flopped like dogs in the summer heat. She was red in the face.
Jesus Christ, she said.
She didn’t visit so much after that, and when she did she was less amenable to Marjorie’s whims. I heard the word crazy hissed around corners, and the despair and the eyerolls and the oh-well-what-are-you-gonna-do’s lost their indulgence and began to simmer. She came armed with donation bags and left with them bulging with absolutely useless rubbish, but the stuff kept building, and when she left the door would slam after her. I never asked where she was going, and she never took me with her. I didn’t ask why I couldn’t come home. I liked it at Marjorie’s, and soon hearing my mother’s car crunch its way up the driveway opened up a small, dark pit in my stomach.
When you grow up with nothing, my mother would say, you learn that waste is a sin, that excess is ugly. No matter if it makes you happy for a minute, or a moment, or a year – if you don’t truly need it, you can live without it. You must always be ready to live with nothing at all.
Marjorie found beauty in everything. Her heart was too big to consider mediocrity; everything was special, everything.
I liked things her way. Under my bed I kept the split paddling pool from the summer I turned ten. I kept old friendship bracelets, pink and purple and fraying, from kids I didn’t like anymore. Stuffed animals cuddled in a matted pile on my duvet. I collected stones from parks and seashells from beaches, filled test tubes with sand and grit. I liked geology, the raw materials of my buildings.
You’re filthy, aren’t you, said my mother, when she saw. Collecting dust.
Marjorie thought it was funny. She’d give me a new rock or a gemstone for every birthday. I kept an ashtray on my bedside table with rows of quartz spikes, ridges of purple amethyst, big pink geodes sparkling in half-moons. My very favourite was a winged insect trapped in a drop of amber. It was caught in flight, or mid take-off, with tiny dark bubbles all around it. The rich orange glowed in the sun. Marjorie told me it was made from resin, which came from trees; the insects would be drawn to it, and find themselves stuck. I wondered what that would feel like, drowning in honeyed liquid, feeling it harden and hold me in place forever. The fly had been dead for a few million years by the time I laid eyes on it. I could hardly imagine something so old.
The staircase to the attic still creaks underfoot, the way I remember. The bannister is laced with dust; spiderwebs drift from the sloped ceiling. I can’t imagine what I would want from here. The doorway gapes; stepping through it, I am overwhelmed by the smell of dried roses.
The room – my room – is clean.
The curtains are open, baby-pink and translucent with age, tinging the sunlight as it pours in. They brush the stained velvet of my old window seat, fluttering between the green potted ferns and strange, colourful cacti basking on the windowsill. The rug still bears the lines of a recent vacuuming. There’s a Venus flytrap on the bedside table, the kind I used to poke to watch the mouth snap shut. Marjorie told me not to – it would digest itself, she said.
The ashtray is missing. No stones. But the bed is made, and it smells like fresh cotton. I run my hand over it, then pull back the duvet to reveal a rainbow of fur – bears, mostly; rabbits, an elephant with a wonky trunk. A small blanket, edged with silk and fragile with loose threads.
She kept all of them.
So where is –
I push through the clothes in my wardrobe old school uniform, Sunday best, jeans, tops, cardigans, dresses for parties, dresses for funerals and stumble over shoes sandals trainers boots wellies flipflops my first pair of heels. In the darkness I pick up boxes and put them down, I sort through them all, from old schoolbooks to important documents to scrawled crayon drawings of me mummy and marjorie. The last box is the heaviest. It weighs a tonne. I drag it out of the wardrobe, into the light. On the top, in thick black pen, two words:
Inside there are pebbles, smooth and round, in every natural shade. Tiny glass animals in bubble wrap and huge, colourful geodes cracked like eggs. There’s a tube of sand labelled Bournemouth, and a seagull’s feather. Charm bracelets, friendship bracelets, a tangle of keyrings. I pull these things out, I place them on the floor. I am surrounded by myself. At the very bottom, there’s a small velvet bag, deep purple. I tease out the tiny drawstring and, inside, there is a drop of amber. Inside the drop of amber, there is a tiny winged insect, still after all this time.
When I’m finished, I gather myself up. The lid goes back on the box and it sags in my arms like an exhausted child as I carry it downstairs. The amber in my pocket clicks noisily against my keys as if its prisoner is coming back to life. I wonder where on earth I’m going to hide this box at home. The black mark of Petra’s Stuff makes me want to cry. My face is flushed with it. It will have to be hidden, I will have to find somewhere.
And then it’s too late, because Luke is there.
He’s waiting in the hallway, half-silhouetted against the sun bursting through the fanlight. He makes to pull me into a hug, to offer comfort. I fend him off, and then all at once it’s too heavy and too much and everything needs to stop. I have to put this down. The box sinks heavily into the carpet, exhaling dust. If I try to lift it again, I think it might disintegrate altogether.
He has so many questions and I can’t answer any of them. I can’t explain. I can’t do anything. Finally –
I can’t leave this, I say.
I reach into my pocket and hand him the amber, the petrified insect. I will him to understand. He cradles it in one palm like something fragile, as if the creature trapped inside might still be capable of breaking.
I watch him holding it, the sunlight making gold of the amber. Its glow warps and dissolves and I see my mother holding the prize I had received in my first year of university, a small, heavy gold temple presented for the best work in Minimalism 101. The look on her face as she turned it over in her hands wasn’t so much happy as quietly satisfied. Contented, like all was finally right with the world. My mouth opened before I even knew what I was going to say. I told her I had decided to specialise. Her face didn’t change, and that was okay. I already knew I would be worshipping at the foot of that little temple for the rest of my life.
I can’t leave this.
Luke is confused.
You don’t have to leave any of it, he says. I’ll carry it.
He doesn’t look inside the box. He doesn’t have to. He just picks it up and carries it to the door, pausing to look over his shoulder at me. He asks if I’m ready.
When we finally get home, the box looks so wrong in the kitchen with its soft, stained cardboard and its sagging edges. It looks prehistoric. I take it up to my room instead, Luke following cautiously behind. He waits in the doorway as I lower it heavily onto my bed and run my hands over the lid, tracing my name and disturbing the last of the dust. When I invite him in, he tries not to look frightened.
I unpack the box, taking each little object in my hands one by one. I try to squeeze love back into them. I pass them to Luke and he turns my trinkets over in his hands, touching each tiny ridge of an amethyst, brushing bits of sediment from an old seashell. Sitting on the edge of my single bed we are surrounded by odds and ends. I wait for him to get angry.
He puts everything back in the box, slowly, slowly. I turn my engagement ring round and round on my finger, digging the diamond into my skin.
We’re going to need more shelves, is all he says.
He goes downstairs and I put the lid back on the box. Then I press my fingertips to the wall separating our rooms, imagining his hand on the other side. I think about Marjorie in her grave, and geodes glittering through the splits in their skins. I think about my mother in a far-flung country, sweating in the heat or lips pursed against the cold. I think about her not thinking about me, and wonder if she ever heard about Petraville and her unwitting legacy.
I see Luke holding the amber in his hands like his touch might shatter it.
When I go downstairs I find him in the kitchen, comparing prices on a bigger aquarium. The goldfish gapes at me, distracted from its endless circles. I pass into the garage, lights flicker on overhead and I find my old tool bag squashed in a corner behind the car. The bag is heavy, its once-navy canvas clodded with mud and dust and filth. I plunge my hands into it and dirt wedges into my nails and I try not to panic, I try not to care. I find my favourite hammer and take it back to my room, trailing earth behind me, stamping it into the white carpet. I feel the weight of the tool in my hands. In my room the white walls are pressing down and building a coffin for us both.
I want, badly, to be a nice person.
It only takes one swing, less force than you’d think, and the wall I built between us explodes into dust.
Holly says: This story was inspired by redevelopment fiction, which I came across in my final semester of university. The themes of this sub-genre have stuck with me, possibly because my own home town has been subject to massive regeneration and is almost unrecognisable to me now. I thought about the way architecture mirrors the wants, needs, and aspirations of different generations, and from this the crux of this story was born. I wanted to explore how we are all shaped by what we choose to hold on to, and by the things that just won’t let us go.