LISP 2022 Short Story LISP Finalist, 'BACK HOME' by Lee Stevenson
Liam and Rochelle were sitting in the back of the taxi, looking out of the window.
‘That’s a nice little vase you’ve got there,’ the driver said. ‘Where did you get it? My wife is always buying ornaments for our house.’
Liam cocked his eyebrow and looked at the driver in the rearview mirror. ‘It’s an urn, not a vase. It’s got my mum’s ashes in.’
‘Oh, right,’ the driver said.
‘She liked ornaments too, though.’
‘I think it’s a generation thing,’ the driver replied
The area hadn’t changed much since Liam was last home. The local pub had been demolished and turned into an apartment block, but everything else seemed the same, just a little older and more weather worn. The bus stops were in the same spots and the park he played football in with his friends still existed, albeit a little overgrown.
As they got closer to the road where his mother lived, Liam shifted in his seat and leaned forward. ‘Next left, please,’ he said, ‘and then it’s straight down to the bottom.’
‘Okay, boss,’ replied the driver.
The house came into view and made butterflies flutter in Liam’s stomach. He felt a little lightheaded and took a sip of water. The taxi stopped; Liam paid the taxi driver. ‘Keep the change,’ he said.
Before they started walking towards the house, Rochelle put her arm around Liam and gave a soft smile. There were five rowdy kids playing with a ball on a concrete square in front of the row of terraced houses. A black sign nailed to the wall said ‘NO BALL GAMES ALLOWED’ in big white letters.
‘It looks nice enough from the outside. Did the estate agent say why he was struggling to sell it?’
Liam shrugged, ‘he blamed the housing market and the state of the economy.’ He turned the key in the lock and pushed the door, stepping inside the house. Rochelle followed behind, and they stood in the hallway and looked around.
The living room was to the right and the kitchen to the left. As they walked slowly into the living room, they saw dust motes glistening within a shard of light that was cutting through a gap in the drawn curtains. The place smelled like damp cardboard.
‘Open the curtains,’ Rochelle said, looking around.
A shiver went down Liam's spine as he stepped forward and parted the thick hard fabric.
‘It’s not in bad condition,’ he said. ‘Just needs a lick of paint before we sell it.’
‘What’s the going rate for a terraced house around here?’ Rochelle asked.
‘Between seventy and hundred grand.’
Rochelle raised her eyebrows and nodded before she left the living room to explore the kitchen while Liam sat on the couch and surveyed the room. Coffee-stained rings overlapped like a Venn diagram on a wooden table. There was an empty cup on a coaster and stacks of magazines piled neatly underneath. Memories of past Christmases came flooding back as he looked to the corner where the tree used to stand. He pictured his mother watching him open his presents, the two of them hugging and smiling when a cold breeze brushed the back of his neck and made the hairs stand up on end. He rushed up to his feet and then went off to find Rochelle.
The white tiles on the kitchen floor were scuffed with black streaks, and Liam’s chest felt hollow as he looked out of the kitchen window at the ‘For Sale’ sign in the front garden.
‘Your mum seems to have kept the place quite tidy,’ Rochelle said.
‘I suppose it’s easier to keep on top of it when you live on your own,’ he let out a long exhale.
Rochelle placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘It’s a shame I never got to meet her.’
He gave her a closed-mouthed smile, feeling tears fill his eyes. ‘I should have come home sooner.’
‘There’s nothing you could have done, even if you were here.’
Liam looked to the floor and shook his head. ‘I should have been there for her. Helped her more. Then maybe…’
Rochelle put her hand on his shoulder. ‘It’s not your fault she fell down the stairs. It was a tragic accident.’
‘I should never have moved to Australia while she was getting older and weaker.’
‘Then you’d never have met me.’
He cleared his throat. ‘The garden needs a bit of work,’ he said, pointing out of the window.
‘We might need a professional to sort out that jungle.’
Liam smiled. ‘I’ll get on it this week and sort something out.’
‘Let me know if you need me to do any chasing. It can be a right pain trying to sell a house.’
He put his mother’s urn on the kitchen table, running his hand across the smooth wood. ‘I used to do my homework here,’ he said. ‘In the sixth form, I studied for a GNVQ in Travel and Tourism. I had holiday brochures spread all over the table one Sunday. My assignment was due the next day, and I was getting serious writer’s block. Mum kept coming into the kitchen every five minutes, picking up a brochure and cooing over the hotels and beach resorts. There was a picture of a beach in Mauritius - the sea was so clear; you could see the fish swimming in it. Mum liked it that much, she cut out the picture, put it in a frame and hung it on her bedroom wall. She never got to go abroad. I don’t even think she had a passport.’
‘It must have been difficult for her bringing you up on her own,’ Rochelle rubbed her pregnant belly. ‘We’ll find it hard enough, and there two of us.
Liam kissed her cheek, and then Rochelle opened the fridge and allowed a waft of stale cheese to fill the air.
‘Bloody hell!’ Liam said.
‘Smells like your feet,’ Rochelle laughed.
‘Behave. My trotters smell like the finest Corsican Rosemary after last night's bath.’
Rochelle’s mouth fell open. ‘Have you been using my bubble bath again?’
‘Mine’s ran out.’
‘Please tell me you didn’t use my pumice stone?’
‘I didn’t touch it. The texture freaks me out.’
The stairs creaked and groaned like the deck of an old ship as Liam and Rochelle made their way up. There was a crucifix on the wall at the top, and the landing’s white walls and bare floorboards were in keeping with the rest of the sparsely decorated house.
‘Be careful,’ Liam held out his hand to guide her along the three bedrooms on the right.
‘This is the spare room,’ he said as they entered the first one. ‘My mum used it as her room for a bit when I was younger. That was when she and my dad tried to give it another go.’
‘What happened?’ Rochelle asked.
‘I can’t remember, but they only lasted about two weeks. My dad moved out, and I hardly saw him for a couple of years.’
‘Didn’t your mum ever tell you about it?’
‘No, and I never asked. That's the only time I ever remember us trying to be a proper family. My mum made his lunches for work, and we had a holiday to Tunisia booked for the summer. The next time I saw him was when I was about nine - I came home from school one day and found them both at it on the couch.’
Rochelle gasped. ‘Why have you never told me this before?’
‘It’s not exactly a conversation starter, is it?’ he said before putting on a jolly voice. ‘Have I ever told you about the time I caught my mum and dad shagging on the couch? The same couch I used to watch Blue Peter on every evening. The same couch I saw a priest splash with holy water when we first moved in?’
Rochelle gave him a quizzical look. ‘Holy water?’
Liam scratched his head. ‘It was the done thing back in the day. When you moved into a new house a priest came around to bless the place to get rid of any demons.’
Rochelle put her hand over her mouth and smiled. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.’
‘If I didn’t laugh, I'd cry,’ Liam said. ‘To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think at the time. I hadn’t seen my dad for ages, and then he pops up on the couch, arse going like a fiddler’s elbow.’
‘What did you say to them?’
‘Nothing. I just walked back out and went to my nan’s.’
‘What did your nan say?’
‘I didn’t tell her. I just sat there for a couple of hours. When I went back home my dad was gone. Me and my mum continued as if nothing had happened - we never spoke about it at all. I didn’t see my dad again after that until I was about sixteen.’
The sparkle in Rochelle’s eyes disappeared as she looked at him. She put her hands in her pockets and her features softened.
‘Parents, eh, who’d have them?’ he said, putting his hands around her waist and pulling her towards him.
Rochelle bit her bottom lip as he squeezed her tight, and then she went to see the next room while he looked inside the cupboards.
On his way out of the bedroom, Liam noticed a small hole in the bottom of the door. He had done it in anger while his mother was out at work. He crouched down and ran his finger around the hole.
The middle bedroom was the box room – Liam’s bedroom. He preferred the smaller room to the bigger end bedroom, it made him feel safe, secure.
‘Are they all yours?’ Rochelle asked, indicating the soft toys on a single bed. The sparkle had returned to her eyes.
‘Yes,’ Liam said. ‘That blue monster with the warty nose and yellow fangs was my favorite for a while.’
‘I love that one,’ she pointed.
‘That’s Gizmo from Gremlins.’
‘I know who it is,’ she picked it up and wiped its face. ‘We have to keep these.’
‘All of my toys are in good nick. I looked after my stuff. They were real to me - still are, in a way. They feel more like relatives than inanimate objects.’
‘Some of them might be worth a couple of quid.’
‘I don’t want to sell them. I'll pass them on to Bump when the time comes.’
Rochelle smiled and rubbed her stomach.
He took Gizmo and scratched its head. ‘I used to hug this one to sleep. I’d talk to it - make sure it was comfortable while I was at school.’
‘Did you shampoo its fur?’ She giggled.
He gave he a serious look. ‘You can never get a gremlin wet. It’ll spawn cheeky little Mogwais, and they’ll cause chaos.’
‘Behave,’ she said, scanning the room.
‘You really have loads of toys. I'm surprised your mum hasn’t thrown them out.’
‘She knew how much they meant to me. I was an only child and they provided comfort. Sounds sad but they were a shoulder to cry on.’ He gave a heavy sigh as he scratched at the stubble on his chin. ‘I created my own little world in this bedroom. To us, outside was where the evil lurked, but we couldn’t be touched in here.’
‘I know what you mean. Me and Natalie shared most of our toys, but we were possessive over certain ones. She never let me touch her Polly Pockets and I wouldn’t let her go near my Care Bears.’
‘Understandable,’ he nodded.
Rochelle went off to another room, leaving Liam to sit down on the bed, pull open a drawer in the bedside table and lift out a small black jewellery box covered in dust. He blew on the top and lifted the lid, and inside was a small, circular, sponge, which he removed to reveal a silver pocket watch shinning as if it was happy to see him. He smiled back, as a picture of his mum handing it to him one Christmas Day came to mind. There was an embossed image of a robin sitting in a tree on the front cover, with a button on the side to flip it open. Roman numerals ran along the perimeter of its white face – all of them were black, except for the twelve, which was red – and he noted that the hands had stopped at nine-twenty. He corrected the time, wound it up, and watched as it shuddered to life and began its journey.
‘Your nan and I saved up hard to get you that,’ his mum had said when he’d first opened it.
A swirl of emotion rushed through him, sending tears rolling down his cheeks as his nose began to leak.
‘Are you okay?’ Rochelle asked, coming back into the room.
Liam sniffed up sharply and nodded. ‘I was obsessed with pocket watches when I was younger, so my mum and nan gave me this one Christmas.’ He held it up for her to see.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ she said, examining it closely. ‘What got you into pocket watches though?’
‘I don’t know. I was old before my time. I spent lots of time with my nan while my mum worked all hours. We loved watching Poirot together. I think Hercule had a pocket watch. That’s where my fascination started.’
‘How old were you at the time?’
Liam blew out his lips. ‘Around seven or eight.’
‘I was still watching the Really Wild Show at that age.’
‘I loved staying in my nan’s. She used to let me stay up late to watch Prisoner: Cell Block H and the Equalizer.’
‘Oh, I love Denzel Washington in the Equalizer.’
‘I’m talking about the series with Edward Woodward. Proper gritty crime drama stuff.’
‘Probably not what the average seven-year-old should be watching.’
‘That’s the thing, I didn’t feel like an average seven-year-old. I felt different. Odd.’
‘Those memories are what make life worth living. I can’t wait for us to start making memories when Bump is born. There will be no watching crime or prison dramas, though.’
He slipped the watch into his pocket, clenching his jaw as he looked at Rochelle and took a deep breath. ‘I think I’m going to take that For Sale sign down,’ he said, feeling the tears building in his eyes again making him afraid to blink.
‘Are you sure?’ She asked.
Liam’s eye was drawn to the right angle of a piece of yellowed paper which was sticking out from underneath the drawer he’d just opened. He pulled it out, unfolded it and studied it intently.
‘What is it?’ Rochelle asked.
‘My birth certificate, but…’
Liam handed her the birth certificate. ‘My dad.’
Rochelle read it, ‘Father, William Aspinall. Did you expect it to say Billy Aspinall?’
‘No, expected it to say William Johnson.’ Liam took the paper back and looked at it again, ‘William Aspinall is not my father.’
‘Then who is he?’
Liam looked at Rochelle, open mouthed, and shrugged.