I wonder for a moment if I’m going to collapse right here on the pavement. My heartbeat fills my ears so loudly that I can feel pain in my temples.
I practice what I’m going to say under my breath again, as if perfecting my rehearsed words will lend my physical body some support.
I hadn’t truly imagined myself here, taking in the brick walls, the rose bush that always drooped to the left of the kitchen window, the broken bench that Dad had never gotten around to fixing. It was all still here, barely changed by the new owner.
Before I lose my nerve, I stride to the front door and use the knocker.
The door starts to open and an elderly woman shuffles into view.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Horton,” I say, rattling through the words I scripted for myself cheerily. I can see she’s immediately put at ease by my tone as I continue, “I’m from AgeAid. My boss, Angela, called you on Monday to say I’d be coming?”
“Oh, Angela, yes,” she says, “She said she was coming on Saturday?”
“It is Saturday today,” I say, a gentle chuckle hiding any guilt I feel about lying to her. The emails hadn’t mentioned a day, I was lucky Angela hadn’t already been. I add with a breezy air, “The weekends come around so quickly don’t they?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Horton says, eyebrows raised, but not seeming to doubt me, “The days blur into one when there’s no activity to mark them. Is Angela ill?”
“No, but I’m new so…” I reply, thinking on my feet.
“Oh,” she says, nodding slowly. She doesn’t ask for ID, or any further proof, and I’m almost disappointed that I don’t have to use the staff card I prepared. “Do come in,” she adds.
“Have you had any visitors today?” I ask, wanting to be sure we’re alone.
“Well, my son used to come around a lot,” she says, and I follow her into the hallway, wiping my shoes on the mat but leaving them on, “But he’s so busy with work and the kids now. He comes by on my birthday and Mother’s Day though, every year!”
I bite my lip. Hold your nerve, I remind myself.
“Oh, that’s good,” I say casually, looking around. The hallway is different — it’s been fitted with a handle for Mrs. Horton, I presume because she is unsteady on her feet, and the iron grey and navy blue floral wallpaper is mostly covered by photo collages of her family. The adult me is glad that she has fittings to help her live more comfortably, but the child in me hates the changes. I notice the subtlest differences, things I hadn’t thought about since I was ten, but now remember so vividly.
As she leads me into the living room my hand sweeps the doorframe. The pencil marks Mum had drawn to measure my height are gone, painted over in a bright white, a blank page for someone else’s kids.
The changes in the living room hit me hard. The carpet is the same although darker with age, but the room somehow looks smaller. Our sofas are gone, Dad’s armchair, my bean bag. I don’t know why that surprises me, but I can feel their absence in the room. Instead is a hospital-style bed, bright white sheets and handsets with large buttons.
“I had to move down here last year after I broke my hip,” Mrs. Horton explains, “I can’t use the stairs anymore.”
“You couldn’t get a stairlift?” I ask quietly.
She smiles gently and says, “AgeAid pushed to get me on the waiting list, but they said not to get my hopes up. There are so many people on the list.”
“I’m sorry about that,” I say.
“Did you not bring any shopping?” She says, gesturing to my empty hands.
“Shopping?” I ask, realising I hadn’t thought this far ahead. I was inside, but how was I going to blag it from here? I could have just explained it all to her, asked her if I could come in. But then I would have had to tell her who I am. Who my dad is.
“Angela usually brings shopping, for the dinner?” She says, frustration moving across the lines of her eyebrows.
“Oh,” I say, realising she must want me to cook for her, “Angela said the ingredients would be waiting for me.”
“I don’t have much in,” Mrs. Horton says, “My Tesco delivery is on Sundays. I’m sure there will be something you can make,” Mrs. Horton says, hobbling towards the kitchen, using the walls to keep her balance.
I have no qualms about cooking for her, but I can’t think how I’m going to get upstairs. When I took her son’s phone and read the email from Angela about ‘house services’ I presumed it had meant cleaning the house, not cooking.
Mrs. Horton goes through the fridge, taking out some packaged bacon, half-used cream, some vegetables and eggs.
“How about a quiche?” I say, thinking that I can sneak upstairs while it’s in the oven.
“I don’t have anything to make pastry from,” she replies. I join her in rummaging through her cupboards and freezer, not finding much besides ready meals, tea bags and bourbon biscuits.
I find a packet of spaghetti buried in the back of a drawer. It has a month left on the expiration date.
“Carbonara?” I suggest. A far quicker option, but maybe I can find an excuse to use the upstairs bathroom.
“Do you know how to make that?” She says, surprised and impressed in equal measure. Judging from the contents of her freezer, she’s a frozen meat and two veg sort of lady most of the time.
“Yes, I do,” I say.
I boil water. Create the sauce. Dig through the cupboards for herbs. I was just a kid when I lived here, so I’d never cooked at this stove, but even so, standing in front of it I feel my mum’s presence, her ghost cooking along with me.
Mrs. Horton lays the kitchen table with cutlery, two plates and coasters. I can tell she doesn’t have many people here, but she takes care over every part of the table.
“We need napkins,” she says quietly, leaning her weight against the table and frowning.
“Kitchen paper?” I say, brandishing the roll.
“No, no, cloth ones,” she says as I drain the pasta and combine it with the sauce, “But they’re in the airing cupboard.”
My ears prick. I know where the airing cupboard is.
“I’ll go and grab them,” I say, slightly too eagerly. Mrs. Horton doesn’t notice.
“If that would be okay, dear,” she says, sitting at one side of the table.
I turn off the burner, “I won’t be a second,” I say with a smile, turning towards the hallway.
“It’s at the top of the stairs, the cupboard to your left,” she calls to me as I approach the bottom of the stairs and I chide myself for not thinking to ask. She doesn’t seem suspicious of me, but I want to make this as smooth as possible.
“Thank you!” I reply.
I place a hand on the banister and the muscle memory comes back to me. How each foot takes my weight, the distance between each step, the grip of the varnished wood under my fingertips. How many times had I climbed these stairs? Grounded for making a mess, going to bed early with toothache, taking them two at a time to outrun my dad.
I swallow a hard ball of emotion and continue. Concentrate, I urge myself.
There’s the airing cupboard, and I grab the napkins first as I’m worried that I’ll forget them otherwise. I know my parents’ old room is right behind me, but I can’t look, skirting past the bathroom door to my old room first.
To call it a junk room would be compassionate — it is a rubbish mound. I can barely make out my yellow walls for the piles of magazines, bulk toilet paper, bin bags full of clothes and dusty pieces of living room furniture stacked precariously on top of each other. It surprises me that the rest of the house doesn’t look like this, but I expect this was where Mrs. Horton’s son shoved everything when they moved the hospital bed into the front room. It’s a sad capsule of her life, unloved objects and forgotten collections jumbled into a cramped space.
I was hoping to feel something looking at this room, but I don’t. I’m struggling to remember what it looked like when I lived here. My bed was against the far wall, I remember that much, but where was my toybox? Bright green with paint handprints on it. I think my dad made it for me.
“Have you got them?” Mrs. Horton says.
“Still looking,” I lie, leaning against the doorway of my old room.
I breath deeply and turn towards my parents’ room. I have a far more complete version of this room held in my head, possibly because of the amount of time I spent in here with mum, painting or drawing. Their bed used to be in the centre of the room, headboard against the window so that the sun peaking under the curtain would wake them.
My mum’s desk had been against the left-hand wall, always cluttered with paper, paints and pencils, scattered and disordered, at least to an outsider. She always knew where everything was.
The room is pretty empty now, I guess because Mrs. Horton was using it as her main bedroom before she moved downstairs, and all that’s left is a frayed armchair where my parents’ bed used to be and a few boxes of books and video tapes.
I walk further into the room and face the right-hand wall. The chip in the paint is still there from my dad’s ring, where it had ricocheted and slammed into the plasterboard. I trace my eyes down from that mark, memories welling in my eyes.
The stain’s not there anymore. Perhaps Mrs. Horton changed the carpet when she moved in, or maybe the police sorted it when they found my mum’s body. A professional cleaning. One of those big machines. I can’t be sure, because the carpet is the same light beige that it had been years ago.
I walk over to the spot and dip down to my knees, running my fingers through the fibres. It’s the same carpet, I’m sure of it. I try to find any trace of her left, but it’s immaculate, like new.
I stifle my sobs as I lean my back against the wall, gripping the napkins hard to stop myself crying out. Mrs. Horton will be wondering what I’m doing. I inhale through the shakes and focus. I switch back to my knees and lift up the corner of the carpet where it comes away from the skirting board.
The wooden floor beneath is the same, thankfully, and I run my fingers along the joins until I find the correct floorboard and prise it up with my thumbnail.
I start sobbing anew — they’re all still here.
I take them out and shove them into my bra, the only place I can think to hide them.
“Mrs. Horton?” I hear another woman’s voice from downstairs and my heart stops.
“Angela?” Mrs. Horton replies, and I hear her slowly shuffling into the living room.
“Hello, Mrs. Horton, I used my key, I hope that’s okay?”
“Of course, dear,” Mrs. Horton replies, “But I thought you sent someone else today — she’s made me dinner.”
I get up, walking as quietly as I can back down the stairs, cloth napkins still in hand. The front door isn’t an option, but I know that the utility room behind the stairs has a door that goes into the back garden.
“No, me again!” The voice says, not really taking note of what Mrs. Horton has said about the dinner. I tiptoe out of the hallway, leaving the napkins on the stairs and trying to edge through the dining room to the utility room.
They’ve both become quiet, but I can hear Angela clattering in the kitchen. She must be looking over the meal I made and trying to put the pieces together.
“Did you make this?” She asks, clearly confused.
“No, your girl did,” Mrs. Horton says, frustration ebbing through.
“The one from AgeAid, she said you sent her. She went upstairs to get some napkins.”
“Right,” Angela says, “I better go and talk to her because I didn’t send anyone.”
This is my only chance to get out. I gently push open the utility room door. I stop — it’s a mess, stuff piled up to the backdoor. I start to step over the bin bags, boxes and clothes.
“Hello?” I hear Angela start to walk up the stairs and I freeze, worried she’s heard me moving around, but her footsteps disappear over my head, walking around the upstairs rooms. I have minutes at most before she heads back down.
I move faster, tripping over a box of dishware and nearly falling, grabbing one of the counters. I stop, worried I’ve made a noise, but neither Angela nor Mrs. Horton indicate that they’ve heard me.
I make it to the door and I can hear Angela walking into the bathroom directly above me. I gently lower the handle. It’s locked.
God, oh god. I can barely think. Maybe I could explain my reasons for being here, but the lie is too deep, they would definitely call the police.
Think. We used to keep the key in the drawer above the washing machine. I jump back over the piles, not thinking about the noise anymore.
Angela is descending the stairs now, going back to the Mrs. Horton.
“There’s no one up there,” she says gently, in the sort of patronising tone that people use with older women, as if she’s a child, “What did she say her name was?”
“She didn’t say,” Mrs. Horton says. I’m glad that I didn’t give her my name, but I feel awful thinking that Angela and others won’t believe her when she tells this story, that she’ll be doubted, made to feel senile.
I open the drawer and rifle through screwdrivers, old batteries and appliance manuals.
There’s a mint tin at the back that rattles as I pick it up and I open it. There’s the key.
“There’s really nobody else here, Mrs. Horton — are you sure you saw someone?” Angela says again and I want to run back in there and slap her for her condescension.
“She made me dinner,” Mrs. Horton says indignantly, “She went upstairs to get napkins.”
I’m back over the piles of junk, key in hand.
“Well, I’ll go and get some napkins and we can enjoy the food, shall we?” Angela says. Mrs. Horton replies with an exasperated sigh.
I’m fiddling with the key in the lock, trying to swallow my fear and guilt.
I hear Angela walk into the hallway, “Hang on,” she says, “Isn’t this door usually shut?”
I hear her walk into the utility room just as I start to scale the garden fence, gripping the trellis to haul myself over the other side. The neighbour’s garden is big and there’s no one here to see me, so I crouch down behind the fence.
Angela opens the back door and looks out into the garden. Not seeing anything, she heads back inside, and I run, climbing the next few fences until I reach the road and sprint back to where I left my car.
* * * * *
Dad hated photos. Not just of him, of any of us. The only photo I have of the three of us is from my fifth birthday party, one that gran took covertly and developed for me. I wonder if she knew that day, when she got us to stand together, what her son was doing behind closed doors.
When gran passed away, she left me her camera, an old SLR, before the days of digital, but perfectly good. It had three rolls of film left in the case and I used them sparingly, knowing even if I saved every penny of my pocket money, I wouldn’t be able to afford any more. I would sneak photos, especially of mum, but I couldn’t afford to get them developed. Then I would put them in floorboard when dad was at work.
I don’t know if mum knew that I hid them in there, but she hid the camera for me in one of her shoeboxes in the back of her wardrobe. As far as I know, dad never knew it was there.
When the police came, called by the neighbours I presume, social services grabbed a few teddies, some clothes, my trainers, the basics. I was told years later that I didn’t speak for a week after it happened, and no doubt I didn’t tell the social worker about these rolls of film. My parents’ room was a crime scene, cordoned off as I was hurried out of the house catching a glimpse of the red permeating into the carpet under my mum’s head.
But all three rolls were still there. There’s no way Mrs. Horton would have known they were there when she bought the house.
I take out one of the rolls and gently pull the tab to unfurl it, looking through the negatives. They’re small and dark but there she is. A face I haven’t seen in seventeen years, smiling up at me from her art desk as she sweeps paint across a piece of paper.
This short story was originally published to Reedsy Prompts as part of Contest #51. The prompt was “Write about someone who returns as an adult to somewhere they last visited as a child”.