Back home and the house is empty.
For the first time in our 24 year occupation of the place there is no 'our'. It's just me - wandering through a succession of abandoned rooms where only the dust has settled. The back bedroom, recently vacated by first one son, who has gone to live with his girlfriend in Wales, and then the other son, who has left for 8 months at university in Florianopolis in Brazil, has been stripped. The walls are dotted with a constellation of tiny blue warts - blue tac that once held a hundred snapshots of leering teenagers, now taken down and put in a shoe box. The doors of the wardrobe hang knock-kneed, swinging open like Sharon Stone to reveal a line of empty hangers and more shoe boxes, stuffed with papers and old Chelsea Programs that didn't make it the final ascent to the attic. The closet has a few clothes that the eldest hasn't taken to Wales which he has left behind, along with, I notice with a pang, the photograph frame I made him for his 21st birthday of the family. There are no glasses, no stalagmites of loose change, no convention of shoes in a companionable huddle under the bed which is also neat and tidy, the covers as smooth as an airbrushed forehead.
The front bedroom is equally tidy, though fuller. There are a dozen boxes and crates piled in front of the chest of drawers containing skyline of lamps and pot-handles, books and CDs, all refugees from my eldest daughter's last flat in Oxford, stored here while she stays with her boyfriend for a few weeks before he bravely goes forth into the Swiss Army for a year, armed with only a pen-knife with tiny retractable scissors and a nail file. Her books from childhood and a swotty adolescence that turned into an even swottier BA, MA and PhD still line the bookshelves, as do a hundred DVDs that nobody will ever watch, and a similar number of videos which nobody can watch since the only television with a tape player is sitting outside in the front garden at Her Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's convenience.
In the middle bedroom, my younger daughter's clothes have all been collected into a laundry basket, waiting for their sisters to come back with her from holiday in Barcelona, and the carpet, newly hoovered, turns out to be red. Who knew? Her bedcover appears to have had plastic surgery, so tautly have the sheets been drawn over the frame. It doesn't even smell of cigarettes since she has been gone for a week.
There are no hairs in the shower. No upside down bottles of shampoo dripping into the mouths of the open drain. No towels dropped like a starlet's knickers on the floor. Indeed, no knickers. Period.
Downstairs in the kitchen the sink is empty. The dust of the icing sugar I spilt on the chair a few days ago is like pristine snow, untouched and undisturbed. The mail is sorted into piles on the hall table for people who don't live here any more. I've turned my study into a walk in closet and all the shoes have been repatriated to the boxes they arrived home from the shop in - missing two odd sandals (so there is a lopsided, one high-heeled, one flat, sandal thief with two right feet around the streets of North Kensington). Every single dress has its own hanger. I found clothes I didn't even know I had and some I had forgotten so that I'm currently reprising my summer wardrobe from 1998 when I had money and wore labels - and so what if they are the wrong length. High waisted trousers are back.
The garden has been clipped thanks to my neighbour and his chainsaw who took pity on me when the trellis collapsed and I looked at him helplessly.
The whole house is like a theatre set for a show that has been cancelled. The garden table with its eight chairs, the dining table that extends to sixteen, which is 11 more friends than I have, and the mismatched Designer's Guild sofa cushions all wait attentively, like me, for the performance that never starts because the actors have all left.
All I have now are props. Cartons and boxes and plastic crates and shelves and cupboards and trunks and suitcases and bags, all full of stuff that nobody wants any more (I hesitate to include myself in this category, but nevertheless, if the packing case fits...) As I walk through the rooms in which the only sound is next door's washing machine on its spin cycle, I realise that I've gone from having a home to living in a fricking warehouse.
I'm not a mother or a wife but a ruddy caretaker.
Younger daughter is back from Barcelona soon and so, temporarily, it will be back to normal, but only until September when she heads off for Leeds and the final curtain comes down on me as full-time mother. So the hiatus is temporary. But no less terrifying for that.
Ex husband comes round to wave goodbye to the Brazil-bound son who, carrying a rucksack bigger than a motorcycle side car, is driven by a friend to the airport, leaving his malaria pills on the table. Ex and I look at each other. We don't share much of our feelings these days. His face looks as bland as though his son had just gone out for fags, which since he doesn't smoke, would probably elicit more surprise, while I'm struggling not to run down the street after the taxi and scream. I know he is also wretched but he's had more practice at leaving than I have.
Let's go to the cinema, he suggests. Better than sitting here moping.
I agree and we set off for Westfield where he persuades me that Toy Story 3 got great reviews and is just what we need to cheer us up. Against my better judgement and remembering the Great Lake of Tears that was 'Up' which he chose for similar reasons on, I think, Valentine's day, I allowed myself to be persuaded.
Now have you seen Toy Story 3? Do you have any idea what the plot is?
Nor did I.
But picture an adolescent boy, going off to college and his mother telling him that everything not in the attic would be thrown out (no it wouldn't, she just didn't want the corkscrew in the heart every time she looked at the mausoleum of his empty room) and all the toys forlorn and abandoned, not having anyone to play with any more.
That flocking man - why do I listen to him? Two hours and about ten Kleenex later, having watched Woody wave a poignant goodbye to Andy, I came home where, despite one hundred and fifty quid of Homebase storage boxes stuffed into the attic, there on the bedroom shelves still sits a row of teddy bears (Dubbie one, two, three and four, Bernie and Lambo) each with their throats ripped out and badly resewn, undone by decades of over-cuddling, their dejected heads drooping on their fat little bellies, slumped in a wadded line, covered with a thin film of dust.
Reader, words fail me.
Even vodka failed me since I'm currently not drinking.
My one thought was that thank god I'm not living with my husband any more.
There are many consolations for an empty nest even if, at the moment, I am struggling to see merit in them, but the main one is just about to ring the doorbell.
Ding ding, ding...