My hand lingers on the gate as I stare at the house shrouded in silence. Freshly baked bread, cake, and beef stew tease my nose. I shake my head and the aroma fades. There’s no one cooking inside. Not now they are gone. Grandad Joe died three years ago, and we buried Nana Jean, at the beginning of the month.
When the solicitor’s letter arrived, I read it twice. Surprised but secretly pleased they left the house to me. I could do with the extra cash as I have my eye on a nice little flat outside Oxford. With a deep inhale I force the air out of my mouth and push the gate catch down. There was no point putting off the inevitable. It was time to go into the empty house.
The front door shuts with a quiet click and as my gaze sweeps the hallway, a shudder runs through me and I stay where I am. My head cocks to the left as I listen. A door bangs and I drop the keys on the old telephone table with the padded seat. My body still as the steady beat of my heart increases in pace. Caught by a flash of movement I glance towards the stairs. A young boy, no more than four or five wearing brown corduroy trousers stands at the top. His gaze passes over me and he giggles as a young girl of about eight with tatty brown hair chases him. They don’t notice me as they skim past and run into the dining room. My steps are slow as I follow them. The wallpaper is the same as it was ten years ago. Green leaves with birds sketched in blue. The dining table I remember so well. I run my fingers over the waxed mahogany top. It’s older than my parents, but younger than the grandparents. Given to them as a wedding present. In the empty room, I hear their laughter and follow the sound. The children stand in the large walk-in larder. They’re taking a biscuit out of the old shortbread tin. The one with the tartan pattern and Merry Christmas 1965 embossed across the lid. My fingers itch to reach out and touch it. To take the shortbread and bite into the buttery sugary substance. The boy lost in his own world runs pass, followed by the girl. The woman holding the biscuit tin looks at me and smiles. Then she fades. With a shake of my head, I clear the images away and return to the dining room. There’s no sign of the children. Why should there be? I recognise them for what they are. Memories of when Tom, and I spent Christmas here twenty years ago.
I shudder as I blink. The house isn’t as bright as it was a moment ago. The blue birds on the walls have faded and the plant on the table needs water. I return to the stairs, all is silent. I turn to the living room and stand in the doorway. Like the rest of the house, this room hasn’t changed in several decades. Nets, a thing of the past hang at the window. An old newspaper pokes out from beneath one of the cushions on the cream and floral chair. Beside the chair sits the ever-present knitting bag.
My gaze flickers back to the door and my heart, which is beating steadily, picks up its pace once more. There is something I must do. I’ve delayed long enough. For years there was somewhere I needed to go. My steps are slow as I mount the stairs. At the top, my gaze sweeps the landing all the doors bar one, are open. I blink. Mum stands at the door her arms folded as she scowls down at the twelve-year-old girl. According to her, this door is never unlocked. My thumb rubs the small scar on my index finger. The one time I’d found the key, Grandad Joe had come upon me. His smile fading as he snatched the key out of my trembling hand, cutting the flesh of my finger. As much as I want to go into the room I’m held back as my feet refuse to move. I clutch the keys and stare at the door. My breathing is shallow. I count and with each step I take: I hear the click of a clock ticking. The air is thick. A mist descends hindering my progress to the door. Something or someone is holding me back, preventing me from reaching my destination.
There’s nothing special about this door. It’s the same style and colour as the others. I remember when the doors were painted a fresh white gloss, now it’s a dirty yellow. I fumble with the keys and drop them onto the faded pattern carpet. My nail catches on a loose thread as I grapple the keys. When I manage to slip the key in the lock, it turns with simple ease and with a gentle push, the door swings open. All my life they forbid us from entering this room. The only person who ever came in here was Nana Jean and that was only to clean it. Someone must still clean it, for there is no dust on any surface and the small window above the larger window is open a fraction. Not by much. Just enough to give the room a slight breeze.
My gaze glances around the room. It’s a child’s room. A single divan bed with its padded pale grey headboard in the middle of the room is pushed against the Thunderbird wallpaper. An old bookshelf, homemade, pushed up against another wall. Books clutter several shelves. In the centre shelf sitting proudly is a Thunderbird green cast iron no 2. At the end of the bed is a blue wooden box and when I lift the lid, it’s full of old cars and building bricks. The room belongs to a boy. Who is he and why was a shrine made of the room? I move further into the room and make my way to the Chest of drawers. The top drawer opens easily. Stripy tee-shirts lie folded in three piles. Three tee-shirts in each pile. The next drawer is full of underwear.
‘He was seven when he disappeared.’
Lost in my exploration of the room, I failed to hear the front door opening or footsteps on the stairs. I turn, and expecting mum, I barely keep my balance as I drop the pyjama top I’m fiddling with. Nana Jean stands in the doorway. Her watery eyes stare at the piece of rumpled clothing on the floor. A chill fills the air. The memory from downstairs was nothing more than a fragment of my imagination. As I watch Nana Jean walk towards the bookshelf. Her fingers stroke the model no 2. I know she is real. As real as an apparition can be. As I breathe in deep, a smile flitters at the corner of my lips. Lily of the Valley lingers under my nostrils. Another memory from my childhood.
‘Who was he?’
My hands are clammy and my fingers curl into my palms as Nana Jean walks further into the room. I’m standing in a room they forbid me entry to all my life, talking to the ghost of a woman who died three weeks ago. Whose funeral, I arranged and attended.
‘He was your mother’s older brother. Michael.’
I shake my head, but she’s still there. Her green eyes watch me and there is a slight curve of her lips.
‘Brother. She never said anything about having a brother.’ My gaze searches the room, and when I come up empty for what I’m looking for, I turn to Nana Jean. ‘Where are his photographs?’
I lick my dry lips.
‘What happened to him?’
‘We were so relaxed about life. We let our children walk to school on their own.’ She turns her gaze to me and the hairs on my arms prickle. ‘They were safe. Nothing could happen to them.’
Nana Jean moves closer and I step back. My legs brush against the wooden box. I stumble and my hand lands on the lid jarring my wrist. As I straighten I step around it.
‘We were wrong.’ Nana Jean isn’t looking at me. Her gaze is fixated on the toy box. ‘One day he just never came home.’
My heart beats erratically. As a family, we’ve never talked about the past. Mum and Dad live in the present. According to them, the past belongs to the past. I lick my dry lips as my mind scrambles.
‘Was it a car accident? Did he die? Was he killed?’
Nana Jean shakes her head
‘We don’t know. They never found his body. They never found his body.’
Mist and blood swirl in my head and I hear the faint beating of a drum. I want to hit something. To shout at the family. For so many years my brother and I were lied to.
‘And the room. – Why keep it like this.’
Nana Jean looks at me. There is a wry twist to her lips.
‘In the hope he’ll find his way home.’
She is beside me. Her cold hands linger over mine and her fingers stroke my flesh. Her breath flutters over my cheek and my stomach quivers as a shiver slithers down my spine.
‘It’s why we left you the house.’ Her gaze bores into mine. ‘You have to keep the room as it is. Promise. One day Michael will return, and he’ll need something familiar. To know we never forgot him.’