Stepping from the bus onto the estate, I smell bacon frying. It’s years since I left, but nothing’s changed: the houses, clean and neat, overlook characterless gardens, and the street itself is airless; stagnant with marriage, kids, invisibility. The bus drives away, and I’m abandoned with my rucksack, heavy on my back.
I look at the house. Karen’s car is parked in the shared driveway. She offered to pick me up from the station, but I said no.
I see a bike, flung carelessly, to the right of Karen’s car, and I laugh, a small, indiscernible sound.
‘Seems to me, Charlie, you think the world owes you a favour.’
‘Your bike. On the drive.’
‘Dad – I wasn’t…’
‘Money Charlie. Hard-earned cash. Bikes aren’t free, you know?’
‘You can’t look after anything – ’
‘Dad – I only -‘
‘Don’t talk back to me.’
I rub my mouth, remembering the sting.
Stepping around the bike, I’m surprised to see the birdhouse in next door’s garden. I remember helping Lucy build it, on a day as sultry as this. Lucy’s dad played his ukelele on a deckchair, and at midday, he brought glasses of cold juice. I see the twine, wrapped tightly, still bonding the wooden walls together, and I recall her hands, golden from the sun, as she tied the ends.
‘You’ve built it too low.’ I warned. The estate was full of cats. Her answer was to arrange a string of bells around the bottom.
‘Need a hand with that?’ I asked, as she struggled to bend the wire.
She blocked me with her back. ’I’m okay. I can do it’
After that, the bells tinkled in the slightest breeze.
‘I thought I heard the bus.’
Karen’s waiting in the porch.
‘Tea,’ I say, and follow her through the house into the kitchen, flinging my bag on the floor.
‘Who’s living next door?’
She checks the kettle and switches it on, placing cups on the counter.
‘Thought her dad got married years back?’
‘Yeah. He moved out. Gave her the house.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Generous.’
Lucy moved onto the street the summer Mum died. We were both thirteen. Turns out she didn’t know her mum, hadn’t seen her since she was a toddler. We never talked about it, but we were the only two kids on the street with one parent: separate, loners.
After a while I ask, ’Is she on her own?’
Karen hands over my tea, then lifts her coffee to her lips. She always drowns everything in milk to drink straight away – Karen doesn’t mess around.
The kitchen’s full of family photographs. Dad didn’t change anything after Mum died – all her things, exactly where they’d always been. Even now. In one picture, Mum’s on the beach, Brighton Pier behind her. She’s holding her hair down from the wind and laughing.
‘I always wanted to travel,’ she told me once, ‘but I only got as far as Brighton. Met your dad and fell in love.’
What she meant was she got pregnant with Karen. Sometimes, I found her alone, browsing endlessly through travel brochures.
Dad laughed at her. ‘Nothing but pipe dreams,’ he said.
I catch Karen staring at me.
‘You look well,’ she says. ‘Tanned.’
‘Tired. I’m still jet-lagged.’
‘You settled in Indonesia?’
Her lips tighten.
Karen never really understood why I couldn’t make it up with Dad, but she’d only just married when Mum died. She didn’t know what it was like. Marriage and kids was her Disney fantasy, though I couldn’t think of anything worse. Being stuck with Dad in suburbia – a living hell.
‘He’s not coping, Charlie,’ she said, after Mum’s death.
‘He’s an uptight arse-hole.’
I spent most of my time at Lucy’s. We put pins in the giant map on her wall; all the places we planned to visit.
‘What if you get a girlfriend? There’ll be a ring on her finger in no time,’ Lucy teased.
I’m not sure when things changed. I remember looking at her mouth one day, and it was no longer just Lucy’s mouth, but a living entity in its own right: red and full. When those lips parted, I heard no words, but only saw the gap where her teeth and tongue glinted invitingly. I wanted to touch the softness, see if it gave like the cotton pillow on her bed.
Something in Lucy changed too, and one day, with her dad downstairs, we clumsily fumbled, doing what we’d seen on television and read in magazines. I was drugged by her warm touch, and drowsy in the cocoon of her silken skin – until a few weeks later.
‘Charlie – I can’t do this.’
‘Me too!’ I laughed.
‘It’s not funny. You’re not listening.’
‘I’m listening.’ I stroked her face, but she moved away.
‘Charlie – don’t.’
‘What is it?’
‘Look, it’s not working.’ She had tears in her eyes.
‘I want to see other guys.’
And then I understood.
‘He never got over Mum, you know? Or you leaving,’ Karen says as she empties another box. She looks at me. ’You two were more alike than you care to admit.’
‘Stubborn, hiding your heads in the sand.’
‘I don’t hide my head in the sand.’
‘Yeah – ‘course.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Oh – ignore me. I’m tired. One more box, then time for a break.’
We take the boxes and pile them in Karen’s car.
‘Want me to come with you?’ I ask.
Something catches her attention and she hesitates.
‘Nah, stay here.’
I follow her gaze. It’s Lucy, walking across the lawn. Karen waves, then gets in her car and drives away. Lucy continues towards me, tentative, yet smiling.
‘Hey,’ she says.
I smile back. ‘Hey yourself.’
I notice the bike, leaning now against the wall of her house.
‘I’m sorry about your dad.’
I shrug. ‘You look great.’
‘Thanks. I’m good.’
‘Everything’s good. It’s just… I’m – ’ She touches her collar bone. ‘ y’know… Back then – ‘
I wave my hand, as if erasing the past. ‘Forget it.’
‘It’s not easy,’ she says.
I’m about to ask what she means, when the birdhouse tinkles. Standing there, holding a bird-feeder, is a boy of about ten.
‘Mum, can I hang this now?’
‘Yeah. I’ll be there in a minute, Tom.’
‘I can do it,’ he says.
‘Oh. Karen didn’t tell me you had kids.’
‘Kid,’ Lucy says.
‘He’s a good looking lad.’
‘Looks like his dad.’
I watch the boy, balanced on tiptoes, muscles tense, trying to hook the feeder onto the side of the birdhouse. It’s clear he’ll never manage it.
‘You’ve raised the height,’ I say.
‘Dad did it.’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Didn’t work.’
Tom looks over. Realising he’s beaten, he raises the feeder above his head theatrically, and laughs.
In that moment, something reminds me of the photograph of my mother. Of Brighton. I gaze at Lucy, and unblinkingly, she meets my eyes. In the end, it’s me that turns away.
I call to the boy.
‘Here, let me help you with that.’
Lucy steps back to let me through.
Photo by Tomek Dzido