I had prepared myself for changes in the way things looked, but not for the possibility that my mother and father would actually not be there, waiting. My mother had become a mental snapshot, pinned to the last time I saw her: a harassed woman in a tiled kitchen, frying something, and stirring something in a saucepan with the other hand.
She always seemed to have a headache. Aspirins every four hours. She never seemed happy. After a while she curled up on the sofa a lot in the middle of the day with her eyes closed. Nan came to do the dusting and the ironing. My mother didn’t want to play tennis in the road any more. Once upon a time she could do better cartwheels than me. She just stopped.
They argued behind the bedroom door, their voices rising and falling – a deep voice and a high voice, his angry, hers tearful. It was because of me. The sound of them flooded through wood and brick and paper; it came at me from all directions. I kept hearing my name. Because of me she cried. Because she cried he hit me. It was my fault for pulling my sister’s hair. For making a noise. My fault the headaches and the housework left undone. I bled my mother dry.
I knocked on the door of what used to be Mrs Jacobs’ house. A man came round the side, eventually, with no shirt on; looked like he’d been bricklaying. Somewhere in the background a radio was playing Stairway to Heaven. Everything in sharp focus, sights and sounds. The music was circling in my stomach, shooting out along my arms, seeping from my finger-ends. Any moment now I was going to explode – all music, all light, all pain.
No-shirt didn’t seem to have noticed anything odd about me. He told me the house had been on the market for a couple of weeks. The woman had died. Some people said… Husband had buggered off long since, and one daughter went to Australia. There were rumours about another daughter but he didn’t know the details. He obviously thought I might be interested in buying, and people like to tell what they know. He was looking me up and down like meat, the way men do. I could hear his thoughts as well as if he’d spoken them out loud.
I asked him if the lady’s name was Mrs Johnson. He didn’t know, but the first name was definitely Rosa. His answer killed me.
I retraced the path I took all those years ago when I was running away; under the railway bridge, along by the railings. Maybe the Rec was different too; I didn’t notice. I found myself sitting on the same old bench under the horse chestnut trees, in the deep green shade, watching English children playing English games, but all I could think about was the day I ran away.
I was seven years old. It was raining, and the trees were in full leaf. A whole row of horse chestnut trees dripping, dripping, and me sat on the bench underneath. I looked out over that vast green space, where usually there were other children playing. My sight was childhood sharp and I could make out the black ripples in the bark on the silver birches opposite. They brought us out here on a nature walk once, from Absalom Infants over the back, beyond the railway line; a ragged line in toggle-fastened coats, dead mittens dangling from elastic threaded through the sleeves, the girls’ hair scraped back in ribbon bows, the boys with scabs and grey concertina socks.
Here we played on the swings. Some kids swung so high they went over the bar and the chain wrapped round the top. In those days there were no wood chippings, only concrete to fall on. Here, the night before bonfire night, Michael Stelmazuk from my class chucked a firework at me, that landed against my heel and burnt.
Here, under this tree, I picked up the conker that I took home to Mum, still in its spiked green shell. We prised it out and planted it in a flowerpot, to grow for my gardener’s badge, measuring it against a knitting needle. Here, before the sofa days began, Mum chased a cat with a mouse in its mouth, brandishing her bicycle pump, and I tried to curl up into myself and disappear. She hated to be stared at too, but she still chased.
I was sitting on this bench with the rain dripping down my neck. I had on my school raincoat (I never took it off, even in summer). The water should have sizzled when it touched me, I was so angry. So angry, I kept repeating to myself. I hate them. I hate her. I’m never going back. Although I meant it, at the same time I didn’t. Even as I muttered, at the back of my mind I could see myself walking back down the road, under the bridge, turning the corner into Gallipoli Street, sulky and silent turning the back door handle. Fried bread and dripping for tea.
The first Mrs Sanchez came and sat on the bench – this bench – next to me. For a while we pretended not to notice one another.