He nudged the front door open, resisted only by unopened bank statements and takeaway menus – the last stand in a siege he had no interest in breaking. Even the afternoon light seemed reluctant to creep into the hallway, with its impassive silence and smell of stale laundry. Dropping the keys back into the envelope, and pushing the debris aside with a tentative toe, he looked once again at the words scrawled on the front: ‘Mr Taylor, 39 Pear Tree Walk’. Probably best to start upstairs.
The landing was more or less as he had expected. A computer keyboard, with some of the letters missing, resting on some half-dismantled bookshelves (no books). A faded china plate on which he could just about read the the slogan ‘Ble s this h use’. A few empty bottles, naturally. Through a half-open door, the bathroom: on the sink, a mound of disposable razors waiting to be disposed of. He was moving towards the bedroom when a shout came from below.
“Hey! Is someone in there?”
Stepping halfway back down the stairs, he saw an old woman silhouetted in the front door frame.
“Can I help you?”
“Oh,” she exhaled, resting a papery hand against the woodchip. “I’m sorry, love, I saw the front door open and thought something might be up. Kids round here, see, never know what they’ll get up to now the place is empty. Was all ready to call the police!”
He looked down at her, in her sheepskin slippers and cheap cardigan. He feared she was eager to chat.
“You must be from the solicitor’s, then?” she suggested. “I don’t think I saw you at the funeral?”
“I wasn’t at the funeral.”
“That’s what I thought. I would have seen you. Not that many people there, no, not many at all. Did you know Mr Taylor well?”
A pause. “No, I didn’t know him.”
Indifferent to his remoteness, she seemed to spot an opportunity. “Dear me – a rum one, Mr Taylor. Lived fast, you might say, in his youth. See, he had a wife and a son, but on top of that too many girlfriends to count. Don’t know how many kids running round these parts ended up with that devilish smile of his, no. They didn’t hang around, though. In the end, the drink did for him.”
“I heard as much.”
“I’ve been next door for years. Once tried to talk to him, as you do, get him to sort himself out. Sad, though. It was like he didn’t have the words.”
Another pause. Suddenly, an idea seemed to dawn on her.
“I think I’ve got some of his post, put through my door by mistake – letters all mixed up, from recently. I suppose you’ll be wanting those? You will, I’m sure, hold on…”
Before he could stop her, she was shuffling down the path to her own doorway. Thankful for the renewed solitude, he made his way back up the stairs.
As he walked, a tune rose up somewhere in his brain:
“I remember when I was a lad
Times were hard and things were bad…”
What was the next part? Every silver lining had a cloud… Something about dirt. He suspected he was remembering it wrong. But he remembered this door well enough, and the grooves beneath the handle where he had scratched his own name. Yes, there it was, the letter ‘T’, just about legible. Kneeling and running his finger over the wood, he remembered the nights he spent alone here. And the nights his father locked the door against women’s voices, some indignant, some pleading.
Standing straight again, he moved towards the master bedroom. Not quite as he remembered it. Behind the door, trunks stood in teetering piles, lids dappled with greasy fingerprints. Yellowing newspapers with the print bleached to nothing lay on the cobwebbed windowsill. Nothing had been thrown away in years. Taking off his jacket, at a loss as to where to hang it, he sighed. Surely none of it was worth keeping. But he had promised to look – so, he began.
After grappling with binbags for what felt like hours, something caught his eye in the half-light. A cardboard box, close to the bed, with a tattered piece of paper taped to the front. Written on the piece of paper was a single word.
He kneeled and opened the lid. Touching the edges, he wondered if this was the only thing in the house not covered in grime. To his amazement, inside was a meticulously ordered collection of photographs, newspaper articles and other papers – swimming certificates, school reports, drawings, Christmas cards, and half-completed puzzle books. This was obviously recently used; seemingly much-loved. Frowning, he took one of the photographs by the corner, between thumb and forefinger, and eased it from the box. A boy sat at a white plastic garden chair, smiling broadly at the camera, a bottle of ketchup in one hand and a blackened beefburger in the other.
He dropped the picture onto the floor. It wasn’t one of his half-brothers, Luke, Thomas or Simon. He didn’t know this boy at all. Pulling another photograph from the box, he saw the same face, this time riding on the shoulders of a man. They had the same smile, the same eyes, the same strawberry blonde hair. In photograph after photograph he saw the same faces, together, ageing, beaming. His father, and a boy he didn’t recognise, happy, fixed together in a picture-perfect world. And there, gathered together at one end of the box, a collection of books – gentle creases in the spine, but otherwise well kept. He glanced at the title, the name still gleaming on the cover.
He suddenly felt claustrophobic. Must be the dust, in this airless hovel. Without knowing why, he lifted the box and carried it quickly out of the room. His head felt foggy as he retraced his steps, down towards the front door. To distract himself, he forced the lyrics from his memory: There’s a silver lining behind every cloud, just poor people, that’s all we were…
As he strode through the door frame, the old woman appeared again, this time with a bundle of mail that was clearly nothing but junk. She jumped backwards as he strode blindly past her.
“I found these for you,” she called, hand outstretched. “Do you want them? If anything else comes, I can send it on for you, if you only give me the address…”
“I don’t want them,” he interrupted. “I’m not from the solicitor.”
“Oh – I thought… You’re not…”
“I’m here to get everything in order for my mother.”
There was a moment of stillness before the recognition dawned. “Oh! You… Bless me, it must be more than ten years… I, I wouldn’t have recognised…”
Resting the box on a gatepost with one hand, he fumbled in his pocket for a card, and thrust it towards her.
“If there are any problems with the house, call my mobile number. Or if you want to call a landline instead, my publisher’s number is on there too. Ask for Robert Taylor.”
She watched as he lifted the box and walked away.
He carried the box to the end of the road, to a familiar fenced-off area where a stray cat scratched idly at a black rubbish bag. He dropped the box onto the ground and the creature darted behind a bin. He told himself that he wasn’t the one who threw everything away. If he’d looked back, he would have seen the wind lift the piece of paper bearing his name, lift it clean from the box and carry it off down the pavement – Robert, a boy disappearing again. But he didn’t look. He strolled on and sang: “Daddy sang bass, something something something…”
by Kate Baxter