Room 17

Room 458 Strand Palace Hotel

If walls could talk - room 458, Strand Palace

This weekend I’ve been staying in London. Room 458 of the Strand Palace Hotel, to be precise. It wasn’t really palatial but it was shiny with marble floors. As soon as I walked into the bedroom I wondered what the walls had seen. I always do, when I stay in a hotel. Probably like you.

Room 458 became my home for a few days. I was sad to leave, knowing the next person would move in and mess it up as I had. And I got thinking about the attachment I feel to places and why I find it hard to move on or let things go. I’m a hoarder; I keep anything that holds even the weakest link to sentimental value. Old theatre tickets, fairground stubs, letters from boyfriends in junior school – I keep them all. Not to pore over; I rarely look at them. But just knowing they’re there is enough.

Room 17, Mayfair Hotel Shanklin

My bed - Room 17

I’m sure it must be linked to our holidays on the Isle of Wight. Going to the same hotel in the same town on the same island year after year must leave some sort of imprint on you. A sense of place and connection. Not only did we stay in the same hotel but we requested the same rooms too. Ours was Room 17 – mine and Nana’s. It was a medium-sized room, nothing special really. Two modest beds separated by a fake walnut bedside table, a plastic wardrobe with wood effect, and a small bathroom with a little pink bath and Ajax in the corner for cleaning.

view from room 17 window

View from Room 17 window

The window overlooked the pool. Nana would lean out every evening and shout me up to get dressed for dinner. I never got out on the first shout, or the second. Rarely even the third. I squeezed out every last second I could, bombing and doing handstands in the freezing water, my skin tingly and tight from days of sunshine.

I never imagined anyone else in Room 17. In my mind it was preserved for our visit each summer, locked up until we returned with our suitcases and swimsuits. That room saw me grow from a bouncing baby with a penchant for eating sand and ring pulls, to a spotty fifteen-year-old with hang-ups, insecurities and an attitude. I imagine those walls, watching me develop in two-week snapshots each year.

Me and brother Jonathan in room 17 - ready for the fancy dress

Me and brother Jonathan in Room 17 - ready for fancy dress

Those walls watched Nana change too. They saw her losing her mind and gathering frustration as she started to find things more difficult. Small things. Every year she’d make our fancy dress outfits. She’d kneel on the carpet for hours, giving up evenings of her holidays to make us costumes for the hotel competition. She could whip up anything out of bits and bobs from the pound shop. But as the years passed she started to slow down. She’d hold pins in her mouth, about to put together a tunic for a frog or a dress for a princess, and suddenly she’d look up, complete confusion crossing her face, followed by fear, followed by a dawning of what she was doing. And then she’d carry on.

Me, Katie, Nana and Jonathan on Hope Beach

Me, Katie, Nana and Jonathan on Hope Beach

When I look back to our days in Room 17, I see her brown and healthy in handmade suits she’d crafted from fabric bought especially for our Isle of Wight trips. I see her stretched out in the bath in a showercap to protect her perm, or snoring in bed, or reading a paperback by the bedside light as I tried to sleep. We had a few arguments too, as I got older and started to experiment with my own style. She could never quite get over my move from pretty summer outfits to black dresses and Dr Martens – the combination almost killed her, I think.

When I go back to the Isle of Wight in February for my Making Tracks trip, I have requested Room 17. The woman at the hotel didn’t understand. She tried hard to persuade me to take another room – one with a sea view and more space. I explained that it had to be Room 17. With the view of the pool and the little pink bath and the memories pressed into the ceiling and floorboards.

I wonder if the walls will recognise me.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.

The Mayfair Hotel

Isle of Wight beach holiday

Hope beach in Shanklin, 1981 - L-R: Granddad, Katie, Mum, Me, Grandma, Nana, Dad (and Great-Aunt Maisie asleep in the deckchair)

From being born until the age of 15, I went to the Isle of Wight with my whole family for the first two weeks of the summer holidays. My dad was a teacher and on the last day of term he’d come home and fall into the bath, fully clothed. That was the signal that the holidays were on.

I remember clearly the unadulterated excitement I used to feel lying in my bed that night, willing the morning to come. I’d feel sick with butterflies as I watched the clock move from minute to minute, knowing that tomorrow I’d be reunited with my friends on the beach and we’d have fourteen carefree days of sunshine. In my mind, it was always hot on the Isle of Wight.

My brother and sister would travel down with Mum and Dad and I would be bundled into the back of my granddad’s car – packed to the rafters with calor gas stoves, lilos, kettles, long-life milk and suitcases. We weren’t camping; we were staying in a hotel – The Mayfair. The paraphernalia was for our beach hut, where we spent every single day of the holiday.

I thought the Mayfair was magnificent. It had a long flight of concrete steps going up to the big double doors where the managers would be waving when we arrived. There was a pool in the garden – kidney bean shaped with a dolphin in the tiles of the deep end – and a lounge with polished parquet floor where we paraded our fancy dress outfits on a Thursday and danced at the Friday night disco.

The dining room was under the lounge. We had full breakfast every morning and a three course dinner in the evening. Almost every day I would make a sandwich from left-over breakfast items and wrap it up in my napkin for the beach. My nana thought this was particularly resourceful and always praised me for it. Even if I’d have made a breakthrough in regenerative medicine, I don’t think she could have been more proud of me than she was the day I started my sandwich scheme.

Dinnertime at the Mayfair

Dinnertime at the Mayfair (I'm in the highchair at the back)

We knew everyone in the dining room. The same people went for the same two weeks every year. I realise this sounds like a nightmare to some, perhaps even to my adult self. But to us kids it was incredible. We wrote to each other through the seasons, sent Christmas cards, sometimes even spoke on the phone. And then, for those two weeks, we were back together again for crazy golf competitions, beach Olympics and communal Neighbours-watching.

For my Making Tracks trip I am going back to the Isle of Wight. I’m staying at the Mayfair – hopefully. At this point, despite 10 phonecalls and three emails, I have still not heard back from them. The hotel has been sold a few times since we stopped going. Reviews on Trip Advisor suggest our childhood playground has seen better days.

Nana and sister Katie on the beach

Nana and my sister Katie on Hope Beach, Shanklin

People have warned me it will be bleak. Grey skies and an empty hotel, full of ghosts. I don’t mind. I want to be enveloped in the cold sea air and visit the places we went and take the time to imagine my nana, walking with me along the sea edge, encouraging me to swim and paint stones.

Hopefully the Mayfair will be in touch soon. I’ll keep you posted!

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.

The last time I saw Nana

Nana full of life

Nana chasing a kite in Wollaton Park

The day before Nana’s funeral we had a window of time when we were allowed to visit her body in the funeral parlour. Between 2pm and 5pm I think it was. I remember thinking it was weird that this would be the last time I’d see her and I had been given a time slot. As if someone else owned her and I was renting a few moments.

I was busy at work and struggling to get out of the office. I’d already been given time off for the funeral and felt guilty leaving early to see a dead body. The hierarchy of grief occurred to me. If it had been one of my parents that had died, I would have felt justified in my sadness. But I was aware it might seem indulgent to be so upset about a 92-year-old woman who had already been ill for a long time.

When it’s an old person that dies, some people say things like, ‘well, she had a good life’, or, ‘oh that’s a good age, you should be thankful for that’. Someone even said, ‘I didn’t have a grandma. You’re lucky’. It’s nice that people bother to say anything at all, but statements like that made me feel as if grieving was an ungrateful act. I already knew I’d been lucky to
have her. In a way, that made it worse.

Walking into the funeral parlour, the adrenalin numbed me. I was hyper and on edge, but not sad. Not at first. It just felt unreal. She looked tiny, laid out in a coffin. Her face was sunken and strange – wax-like – and I remembered a line from a poem I’d written about my granddad a few years before:  ‘I wonder, if I bite you, will there be blood?’

I dared myself to kiss her frozen forehead. I got close but I was sure I saw her move and snapped my head away. My mum was with me and we both stared at her hands for a few minutes, hardly breathing, certain they’d shifted ever so slightly. Eventually I kissed her. Just for a second at first, then again, for longer this time. I put my hand over her hands, blue on the tips, her gold wedding band still there, where it had always been.

As the adrenalin wore off a little, I started to grasp the fact this was the last time I would be in a room with my Nana. After that day, there would be one less person in the world who was unconditionally on my side. To hide the fact it didn’t look like her, they’d dressed her in her pink Bon Marché cardigan, little cream blouse and tiny Velcro shoes. I felt an
overwhelming wave of sadness and then a moment of panic. I wanted to record the moment. So with Mum’s permission, I went to get my camera and took some photos
of her shell. It felt weird, photographing her when she couldn’t object. It was as if I was stealing something from her.

And now I have those pictures in my camera, somewhere in the middle of the memory card. I’m not sure exactly because I daren’t look at them and I don’t know what to do with them. I can’t delete them. Not yet.

For my project, I’ll be using a lot of photos and asking people to share memories and it’s making me question the idea of ownership. Who owns those photos of my dead Nana? Is it me, as the photographer, or does she own them somehow? I know if she was alive, she’d hate the idea of people seeing her like that. But she’s not alive. She never will be again.

I won’t share those photos of the last time I saw Nana. But it just got me thinking.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana

Grief’s weird isn’t it?

Me and Nana

Me and Nana about six years before she died

Earlier tonight I went and sat outside my Nana’s house. I didn’t knock on the door. I didn’t even get out of the car. I just sat, listening to the stereo and looking at her house. Her front door, her bedroom, the front room where she used to have the TV so loud she wouldn’t hear you knocking. The number of times I stood at that door, banging my fist against the varnished wood, certain she must be lying blue and frozen on the patterned carpet. Actually she was just listening to David Jason at a thousand decibels.

Of course it’s not my Nana’s house anymore. We had to sell it so she could live in a residential home. She didn’t want to leave her home. She’d been single as long as I’d known her and she was fiercely independent. Her house was her castle.

But there were reasons she couldn’t stay. One day she blew up the pressure cooker. She could have died if she’d been in the kitchen. We didn’t know she had dementia then, but looking back it should have been obvious. She’d proudly owned that same pressure cooker for 35 years and she’d never blown it up before.

Another day she let a man into her house who said he was a tree surgeon. She wanted the beautiful tree in her garden pruning a little. He chopped down the whole thing in 30 minutes and then followed her to the bank in his white van where she withdrew £250 and gave it to him.

The tell-tale signs weren’t always so sad. She was always outgoing and hilarious and just the right side of crazy, but one day she put on my white monkey mask that I’d bought for Halloween, slipped a white fluffy dressing gown over her clothes and paraded down the street, much to the neighbours’ bemusement. We were in hysterics. It was typical Nana, but she didn’t seem to remember doing it an hour later and that was not like her.

Last year she died in a bed that wasn’t her own. The day before, I sat with her and held her hand and sung Calamity Jane songs to her. She cried out a lot in those last few days but singing seemed to keep her sane for a few minutes. She even made noises sometimes, as if she was trying to join in. Before the madness, she always sung. All the time.

So tonight I went and sat outside her old house. Then I drove to the house she lived in when I was born and sat outside there for a while too. I do it sometimes. Just to be close to her. Just to think about her. Sometimes I feel jealous that the people inside get to own what she owned. They get to sit on the floor where I sat as she stroked my hair and bathe in the bathroom where I bathed while she read to me.

They’re just houses; cold bricks and mortar. They’re not her. But they’re part of our history. And sitting there, outside, looking in, just for a while, helps me feel closer to her. Grief’s weird, isn’t it?

Find out more about my Finding Nana project.