THE PENULTIMATE CUP by Rosalind Ambler

The estate agent was due in two hours. He had been given the key by his sister, at the funeral. She had not exactly said it was his turn now, but even if she had he could not have argued. He’d paid for the parents to visit him in New Zealand, twice, but had not exactly been hands on when they started to fade.

His mother went first. He had asked his father to come out for a long stay with him and Madeleine, but the old man had not wanted to.  He had his garden to mind. That was a relief, really – what would they have done with him every day?  Madeleine had not been keen, but he had to ask. He’d helped them a bit financially, done the phone calls, what more was he supposed to do from such a distance?

It was only fair to let Stella hand over the sorting out the house. He had the time now he was retired. And now that he had split with Madeleine.

He had told Stella to take anything she wanted. Goodness, he wasn’t going to ship furniture across the globe. Well, certainly not his parents early Habitat and Gplan. People don’t buy new things when they live somewhere for such a long time, do they?   He lived here when he was a schoolboy. He remembered moving in, and his parents decorating. That orange wall in the sitting room. The cork floor. The exposed stonework chimney with a brass edged fireplace. The parents definitely were not purist when it came to authentic style for a 1930s semi, but then the previous fireplace was probably one of those horrible pearly beige tiled ones, with a built in gas fire.

There were some gaps, where Stella had taken bits and pieces. She had also gone through any important papers, but there were still drawers full of stuff.

Upstairs was just depressing. The old man’s bedroom smelt musty, or possible even worse. He had considered staying in the house, but decided against it. Even his childhood bedroom, which was so much smaller than he remembered, was dusty and faded, with cardboard boxes piled on the bed. No, a couple of weeks sorting and chucking, get the place on the market, and get on a plane home. But stay in the Travellodge, where the bedrooms were at least clean.

He opened one of the boxes. Invitations to weddings, rather a lot of orders of service for funerals, and underneath an enormous pile of school reports belonging to both himself, and Stella. ‘When Charles pays attention, he learns well’ was the rather backhanded compliment from a history teacher. ‘Stella’s backhand is much improved’. No, mustn’t get into this. Must make plans about charity shops, and getting a skip, and getting the place  cleaned.

A cup of tea would be good.  He found some teabags of indeterminate age, and boiled the ancient kettle. Just as it came to the boil there was a noise, and a strong smell of hot rubber. He filled the one last Denby mug that remained from the set they had when he was a kid, looked at the blackened cable and realised he would not be having any more tea in this house.

There was some powdered milk. Best before 2012, but probably no nastier than when it was within its sell by date.

A bright young estate agent appeared. He agreed the place should be emptied, and cleaned. Hoiking up the carpet, he said it looked as if there might be original parquet underneath. A definite selling point. Perhaps Charles could have a better look, and decide whether to dispose of the Axminster?   He then suggested the property was worth a sum that surprised Charles considerably, but then his idea of house prices in England was stuck in the late 90s.  They haggled pleasantly about Commission, and shook hands on a sole agency deal.

Charles’s tea, left in the kitchen, was cold and featured islands of powdered milk in the beige scum

‘Some last cuppa you are’ he said, emptying it.

At that point, there was a tap on the back door.

‘Hello, I live next door. Horrid task you have on your hands, so I thought you might like this’

The pleasant looking woman handed him a steaming mug of proper English tea.

‘Just what I needed’ said Charles.