He took the key from his pocket, moving it quietly in its lock, sneaking in so as not to upset what lay beyond. It was empty, the house, and it echoed in a way he couldn’t quite remember. He searched the atmosphere for the choke his father had once held tight. He took off his coat, and awaited a familiar chill, which did not come. It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t warm, just a normal he’d never noticed.
He went to hang his coat over the stair end post, but stopped, his hands mid-air. A strike of panic chimed through his body. Mum wouldn’t like this. It would make his father mad. His breath quickened, and his heart began to thunder in his chest. He waited for a moment that had long ceased to be.
He stood there in silence, the memories battling themselves to be heard. After a moment, he came to, aware of the sweat forming in the hollow of his back. His eyes adjusted to the emptiness of the hallway, the rooms, the house. It was the same, exactly the same. Nothing was missing though there should have been. He gently eased his coat onto the end post, still unsure of himself.
He moved gently, toward the open living room door. He pushed his hands into his pockets, and he grew younger, shorter, as he walked in, eyes cast low, the space opening up around him. It was unchanged, clean, and precise. Just like Mum had left it.
He felt exposed, unmoored, and the once contained memories now fought to be listened to. One stung at his consciousness, and then another. He saw his father’s chair at the corner of his vision. Then the memories came, all at once. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to push them down, fighting against them.
He opened his eyes, trying to replace the thoughts with something real, something now. In front of him was the glass cabinet, and there was the vase Mum had always kept safe. Uncracked, unblemished, spared. In the glare of the afternoon light he saw on the glass a stray fingerprint. He took a step forward, Mum; there from the last time she had placed it in position. Dust had settled around it. The print seemed to glow with significance.
Something pulled at the back of him. He felt the presence of someone standing there. But then he’d always felt that way. Someone watching. He’d never liked being snuck up on. Once, he had wheeled around when Sarah had tried to surprise him. He had smacked her against the head with the back of his hand as he done so. He had cried.
It had been an accident she had said, but he felt sad nonetheless. Sad to have hurt her. She didn’t know anything back then but she had held him close and allowed him to feel what he had kept from her, from himself. He felt his hand in his pocket, and pushed his fingers together to feel the cold of his wedding ring. It reassured him, if he needed her, she could come. He took a deep breath and turned to leave the room. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’
The words ran up his spine, the memory freshening itself after years put away. He dug his hands further into his pockets and he screwed his eyes shut. He was there, he was sure he was. The smell of cigarettes hung thickly; cleaning fluid waking the stale ash in the air. But no. He turned around slowly, to see the vacant chair.
He had always hated that chair, hated its presence, hated what it stood for. He eyed it and considered sitting in it, taking it over. But even the thought chilled him, sickened him. He would get rid of it. He would set it on fire he decided, just to watch it burn.
He walked down the hallway, to the kitchen, the safe space. Mum’s space. He walked around the Formica table, then stopped and opened a cupboard. Filled with plates; too many plates, never used. For best, his Mum would say, for all the visitors who would never come. What would he do with it all?
His eyes cast up to the ceiling. In his mind he looked into his bedroom beyond, and his memory filled with the echoed shouts that would punctuate his waking sleep. He left the kitchen, his stomach involuntarily knotting as he walked past the living room door. He fought against a muscle memory to swing himself tightly around the stair end post, out of view, before his presence was noticed.
Instead he stopped, swallowing deeply and slowly, containing his anxiety. He cast an eye into the living room, still empty. Keeping one eye on it he carefully planted a foot on the stair. He fought the urge to panic, to run. He walked up the stairs, slowly, quietly, lest the noise disturb something unseen.
He exhaled quietly as he reached the top of the stairs. Almost clear. He turned to his bedroom at the back of the house, door shut tight. Inside everything was as it had been. An eighteen year old already out the door. The barest of walls, a bed, drawers, desk. Easier to live simply, avoiding reasons to be admonished.
He closed the door swiftly behind him, reflexively, without making a sound. He walked to the bed and methodically turned on one heel and sat on the bed’s edge. Quiet, no one would know he was here. In his mind’s eye he could see the landing light shining beneath the door, and his breath quickened at the idea of a shadow at the stair top. Footsteps stopping, deliberating, would they go left, or right?
This was silly he told himself, he was allowing his mind to play tricks on him. He looked around the room for any kind of distraction, but there was nothing there. He’d never had many things. When he met Sarah she has said he was minimalist. He went with it, so much easier than the truth. But then even after the truth had spilled out of him, nothing had changed. It was an embedded habit.
He always thought it would be easier once he’d left home, but it wasn’t. Or maybe when he’d talked about it all? But the night he had told Sarah he had only felt sadder, sobbing, a little boy lost. He hoped for the spell to be broken. Then one day it came, a call from the nursing home. Father. Gone. Though, as he sat there, he did not feel it.
He kept looking around the room, for something to hold onto. Though there was nothing here. Though it felt familiar, this feeling of having nothing, being nothing. He was beginning to empty of energy, this was difficult, he should get on. He got up and walked to his parents’ bedroom; a strange, foreign ground. He pushed at the bedroom door, too unlike anything he had done before.
The door swung on its hinges, coming lightly, to a stop. Bed, wardrobe, dressing table. Eighties furniture, dark wood, never replaced, never damaged. No mirror, no picture frames, no lamps. He couldn’t quite remember if it had been easier not to have these things around, which provoked opinion and argument. Or whether they’d all been broken, never to be replaced, not one of them. Maybe they had not been allowed to, or maybe Mum just realised it was easier this way. Fewer things to break, fewer things to clean up, fewer things to hurt them with?
He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, comforting a rising anger. Mum had given up so much. His father had taken so much. He looked around the room, unsure of where to start, or even what he was starting. He walked over to the dressing table, he pulled at a drawer; empty. Then another; empty. He wasn’t expecting anything, but still it felt strange that there shouldn’t be something.
He walked across to the wardrobe, still nothing. The place was empty, clean. It was as though his parents had been removed, expunged from the house, from existence. His mind wandered. He pieced together the past year; Mum in hospital, his Aunt Susan bringing her things. A suitcase? Was that all there had been?
That’s all they had found at the nursing home too, a suitcase, a box, those were all his father’s worldly possessions. He’d binned the lot of it. Including the new clothes the home had bought for him. Arsehole. Living free, living unburdened; meals cooked for him, the unerring attention of female staff and residents. They had loved him, and he had smiled sickeningly at his importance. He hadn’t survived the year without Mum. Served him right.
So this was all that was left? He sat at the edge of the bed. A bare, clinical life his mother had pursued, for ease. And now it was over. A sad, empty life, which her father had given her, and that he had left her to. The thought hung heavy, his stomach turned and fury began to rise in his chest. Angry at himself as well as his father, but more than anything mad at a world that indulged the kind of man his father was.
He felt his eyes water and he put his hands over his face, pressing hard, pushing the emotion back from where it had been hiding. There was something he didn’t want to see, to acknowledge. Something lost. He shook himself strangely, and deliberately, attempting to reset himself. Then suddenly, and seemingly without thought, he stood and allowed himself to be guided to the door. He stopped. There was someone there. Someone standing, watching him. Someone long gone.
A faint tremble ran through this body and a cold breeze blew through his memories. Then there was nothing. He shook his head. It was all in his mind. Of course it was. That’s what Sarah had warned him against, against him going there alone. Bring in the house clearance people she had said. But he had wanted to show he was strong enough, brave enough.
He walked out of the room and went back to his bedroom, shutting the door instinctively behind him without turning around. He looked around the room, and experimentally pulled open a drawer, definitely nothing here; all that he had he had taken with him, or thrown out before he left. He looked around the room. A noise drew his attention. Something beyond the closed door, something like the creak of footsteps.
He stood in front of the closed door and his mind flickered to the night a now strong teenage arm had caught the last punch he would ever have thrown at him. It was a relief, the feeling of power. But his father hadn’t liked that. He had been locked in his room before he had a chance to protest. All night he would hear the screaming and the crying and… Oh God! No!
He sobbed loudly and thickly. He cried for all the broken things, all the things they had lost, the broken home he had been born into and the broken woman he had never been able to protect. Guilt and rage throbbed through him in equal measure. He yelled a deep guttural yell, again, and again. Trying to relieve all the trapped pain. Until suddenly, without warning, a light went off in his mind and he stopped. Then he fell, and everything went black.
When he woke it was almost dark outside. He was groggy and confused. He checked his phone. Missed calls from Sarah. He should go. He sat up to clear his head, and then he heard them, faintly in the distance; voices. From next door? An argument unravelling. Then he heard a thud, and something shook in the centre of him. He got to his feet. Somewhere in the distance a voice was going to have the last word. Then it came; thick, aching, crying.
He moved toward the shared wall and put his head lightly to it, listening, trying to figure out his next step. He should do something, he must do something. The noise grew, and grew. There was something strange about this which he couldn’t quite see. But the truth of it all slid through him and his body began to tremble, acknowledging what his mind refused. Against his body the wall was cold, very cold. The heating hadn’t been on for a long time, in either house. He remembered; the house next door was for sale, it was empty.
A familiarity dawned on him, the voice, the cry. He had heard it all before, it was the rhythm he was raised on. His eyes screwed up with fear and anger, and a great sadness. He walked around the room, attempting to unmake the idea that was forming in his mind. Without knowing where to go he pulled on the bedroom door, but it didn’t open. He pulled and pulled at the handle, but it was locked tight. He began to panic, he pulled harder and harder. From somewhere the crying grew louder, and more painful.
He went back to the wall and leaned against it. His words stopped in his throat, unwilling to recognise what it was about to say. He raised his hand to the wall and stroked gently at it. ‘Mum?’ his voice came slowly, trembling. The cry softened, and then it stopped. And he felt it, something like he remembered from long ago; warm and soft, arms around his shoulders, a kiss on his forehead, and a feeling of something like home. He crumpled to the floor, closing his eyes and clinging on to the feeling for as long as he could.
Long after the moment had passed he opened his eyes. It was quiet, it was dark. The feeling had passed and he could not articulate what it had been. But he was more certain than ever, this wasn’t home, he needed to leave. His mind woke up to his surroundings. He was cold; it was too dark to see. He checked his phone, more missed calls from Sarah. He couldn’t call her back, not now, not while he was still here.
He looked at the door, visualising his path out. The door was locked. Or was it? His eyes watered at the prospect of walking out. Like walking out all over again, away from Mum, into the path of his father. It was all so much, it was too much. A combined mess of memories began to amass. Never lash out; never tell people what to do. Never, ever be violent. Always be kind. That’s what he’d always taught himself. Never be like your dad, he heard himself saying in a voice he remembered from the boy he was.
He wanted so hard to be good. But then he wasn’t dealing with just anyone. His father was a bully, and bullies have their own language. He would have to be brave. He suddenly screamed without knowing why. A garbled rage unfurled past the frozen fear in his throat. He rose to his feet and turned to the door. He blew through it in a rage, running down the stairs, into the living room.
He screamed at the room until he found his voice. He kicked at the chair. “Fuck you! Fuck You! FUCK YOU!” he said over and over again. “You think you can fucking scare me?” Then he felt it there, something unsteadying him. His father was there, somewhere, sniggering. He swung around in all directions, looking for a ghost, of the past, of his father, of memory.
A small electronic tune cut through the cold air. He was shocked back to reality. Sarah was calling, he answered it without thinking. He couldn’t make out what she was saying; the line was broken and confused. The call cut out. But it was enough. The fear left him, and the anger fell from his body like a crashing wave. Relief filled him, and whatever he had felt, whatever he imagined was there, was gone. He was going to go home. He turned to the cabinet; Mum’s vase. He took it carefully from its place and walked into the hallway. He wrapped it carefully in his jacket, cradling it in his arm.
He opened the front door and stepped over the threshold, he turned to look back into the darkness. In the corner of his eye, deep in the living room he thought he saw a shadow. He imagined he heard breathing. He felt there was someone there. From somewhere in there or somewhere in memory the smell of cigarettes met his nose. But, it didn’t matter anymore.
He was going home. He would tell Sarah everything, and of course she would believe him. They would put Mum’s vase in pride of place. And later on he would burn his father’s chair. He breathed a sigh of relief as he closed the door for the last time. Oh! What a beautiful bonfire it would make.