She arrives early for the leaving party. She pays the driver, takes her travelling case from him, and turns to face her destination – a tall, dilapidated villa engulfed in little green flames of ivy. Behind the ivy, she can just about see that all of the shutters are closed. She thinks – there is still no number on the door. She smirks, places her case on the threshold, and glances back down the road. Her eyes fix on the brake lamps of the taxi as it turns a bend.
She bunches up the hem of her coat in her fist as she looks for the other houses – where the other houses had been. The rest of the road – the other villas – are flattened now; their plots cordoned off by metal fences. A wasteland, she thinks. He said as much. Almost the entirety of Jarrond Grove gone. Almost, save for no. 47. She smiles. If it hadn’t been for the inside lavatory.
No. 47 is an island; a beacon among the detritus of its demolished neighbours. She casts her eyes and tries to remember how it all looked before she left. Before I was made to leave. The house with the ivy. The ivy and the inside lavatory. Poor Anna. She could have moved to the countryside with the rest of them. She could have moved across the entirety of the world with me, if only–. She shakes her head. She realises that she has been half-whispering her thoughts.
A young boy of about thirteen passes by with an inquisitive black Labrador. The boy crooks his neck toward the ground as if trying to ignore her, but the dog is fixated – his eyes point at hers even as the boy tugs at his leash. What a chubby little thing. She laughs. The boy starts, quickens his pace; drags his dog away beyond no. 47. To the park? Does that still exist? She walks toward the park at a slow pace and comes to rest on a bench. She scans the scene – the park now framed by a curtain of modern houses. Slabs of painted polystyrene. She recalls what stood before these flimsy-looking buildings. The girls’ school. Catholic. We walked ourselves. She taps her nose with her finger and scans the landscape. Row after row, and what funny roofs. Pitched on one side, cut in at an angle on the other. She breathes in sharply. Like a man shot in the head.
She closes her eyes, pats down her coat, remembers the case. She darts back to the house. Anna, Hector, the boy and the Labrador are assembled on the threshold, peering down at her travelling case and bickering about its provenance. She hesitates. Then she lets a solitary word cut through the chatter. ‘Anna.’
Anna looks up; her small eyes sunk beneath a sea of freckles. Her expression flickers, as if her eyes are adjusting to sunlight. Anna takes a step back. She clutches at Hector. The boy looks only at the ground, while the dog continues to stare at her, panting.
‘Merle – as I live and breathe.’ Hector gambols over the case and takes both her hands in his. ‘We didn’t dare to dream you might be coming. My, you haven’t changed a jot!’
In a fluid movement she slides her hands from his. She resists the urge to wipe them on her coat. ‘You were never good with history, Hector.’ She laughs. He laughs. The boy flinches a little. Anna does not react. Merle glances at her and attempts what she believes to be a warm smile.
Anna takes another step back. ‘Oh.’ She tilts her head down, blinks, says – ‘I didn’t even know you were in the country.’
‘I suppose that’s why you sent the invite to my last known address. Knowing I wouldn’t come.’
Anna presses her hand to her chest and says without feeling – ‘Don’t be silly.’
‘Come, come, Anna. You must’ve considered I have all my post forwarded.’
‘You should have said you were coming,’ Hector says. ‘We might have made more of an event of it.’ Anna gives him a look. He splutters. ‘Now, now, Anna, not that isn’t enough of an event in itself, but–. Homecoming, and all that.’
‘You’re far too early.’ Anna turns to the front door and unlocks it. ‘You’ll have to excuse me. I must go and change.’
The boy and his dog trail in after her. Hector hesitates, a faraway look in his eye. ‘Oh, Merle.’
‘I haven’t come for you, Hector.’ She bends to pick up her case.
‘No, no, I’ll get it.’
‘I’m quite capable of–.’ Their hands touch on the handle. She lets go, and he drops it.
‘Crikey, you travel light.’
‘I brought presents with me and little else. I’m sure there must be some of my old clothes somewhere in this godforgotten house.’
Hector gathers himself, and the bag, and they go in.
‘You finally made a proper woman of her, then.’
He sets the bag down in the hallway. ‘I did that when I married her, my dear.’
‘Didn’t you just.’ Their eyes match. He flounders for a moment, and she says – ‘I meant my nephew. The boy?’
Hector goes into the library, where he coughs steadily for a few moments. She stands and listens to the creak of the shutters being opened, and the dim hallway is illuminated, just slightly, with what little light can creep through the ivy. The air is seasoned with dust.
‘We have some punch ready.’ He clears his throat. ‘If you’d like?’
Dust settles amongst the ice in her cup as soon as Hector hands it to her. Anna is still upstairs. Merle hears the sound of the boy calling out a name – presumably the dog’s. She doesn’t quite catch it. Somehow, it sounds like an obscenity.
Hector falls into his armchair and sighs. ‘How is–,’ he pauses to take a breath, ‘Mr Greene?’
‘Mr Greene is dead. I live with Mr Bryntham, now.’
‘Ah.’ He nods slowly, ten his face changes. ‘Oh. Bryntham, you say?’
She ignores him, and glances up and down the piles of books that surround them. The bookshelves themselves are bare. There’s a stack of unconstructed cardboard boxes in one corner, with a roll of thick Scotch tape sat atop them. ‘Gosh. Didn’t you just about keep everything?’
Hector splutters, sips his punch for salvation, splutters further, and resigns the cup to the edge of the overburdened table – in between yet more piles of books. He pulls out a handkerchief from his stained cardigan sleeve, and coughs heavily into it.
‘The house,’ she continues. She rattles the ice in her glass. ‘The girl.’ Clink. ‘The books. Goodness me, the books.’ Clink. She pauses to reconsider the magnitude of the collection – none of them his. She spots a battered red leather-bound novel with gold lettering. She can neither see nor remember the title, but she knows it is her mother’s. ‘A son, it seems, as well.’
‘Oh, the boy isn’t ours,’ he said, with almost indecent haste. ‘No. 52 was bombed out and we–. Well, we took him in when it was all over.’
‘I see.’ She denies herself the moment to feel sad. She has too much to say and too little time. Instead, she sets aside her glass on one of the piles of books on the table.
Hector jerks up from his seat. ‘No, not on that!’ He pulls the book out from under her cup, which clatters to the floor. It cracks neatly in half.
Before she can say or do anything, she hears Anna’s footsteps descend the first flight of stairs. A step, a person’s gait, is unforgotten. She is hit by a wave of regret.
Hector wipes the cover of the book with his sleeve. ‘How could you be so careless? This is a first edition.’
The second flight. She remembers an engine starting on the road. The engine stalls, the driver cranks the lever and the scrape of the metal wrecks her nerves. ‘So was I.’ She looks down, and nudges the broken-off handle of the cup with the toe of her shoe.
‘Oh, my dear,’ he says, over-tender.
She hears Anna falter at the door. ‘Come in,’ she says.
Beren Reid | July 2017