In the photo I am standing in front of the climbing frame holding my sister’s hand.
We are both glistening, the sun dancing on beads of water on our naked torsos, the
drops resting there after the frantic fun of running through the icy sprinkler. We are
smiling, pulling wide our mouths in the way we are told and saying ‘cheese’ with
multiple e’s. But the sun is in our eyes so we are squinting, crinkling up our faces
almost to scowls. Though the colour of the photo has faded and there are two white
crease lines at odd angles through it, the climbing frame shines. When Dad bought it
that year it had bright yellow and green poles. That was until the paint flecked off and
the slide got a bend in it because six people tried to go down it at once and Mum said
that’s what you get for mucking around.
In the background of the photo, at the end of the garden, you can see a big
mound overgrown with scrub. Mum told me that in the war it was a bomb shelter and
the family that lived there before us would go out if planes came to drop bombs on the
house. Dad said you wouldn’t get the planning permission for it these days. I always
imagined digging down and finding a door and going in to the dark, musty warmth
where nobody would ever find me in hide and seek. I thought of closing the door and
all the seekers looking for me for hours, but mum said it had been filled in with stones
and one time I went under the bush and dug up a bit of the earth but then it was dinner
time. It was always sunny in the old garden.
I shoved the photo in my pocket.
“Tom. Where are you?” Mum came into the room. “Tom answer me when I
“I didn't hear you!” The first raindrop hit the small conservatory and we both
looked up at the sky.
“Its starting to rain” I said.
“Oh God! My washing!” Mum ran out of the room and I watched her in our
new concrete yard as she frantically pulled all the clothes off the line, the plastic pegs
pinging off in different directions. When the washing basket was full she scurried
back to the house with it under one arm, head bent down against the rain. She dropped
one of the blouses.
She pushed the door open hard. Her hair was wet and messy, one lock stuck to
her forehead in a greasy ringlet.
“You dropped a blouse” I said. She strode over to the window and cursed
under her breath.
“For goodness sake Tom!”
“What? I haven’t done anything?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. I’ve unpacked the whole house and all you’ve
taken out of the boxes are your blooming transformers. Go and unpack now!” She
pointed to the door, arm locked straight at the elbow and the other hand firmly on her
“I’ve got homework!” I said, gesturing halfheartedly to my maths book on the
My new room has white walls and a blue carpet. It is long and thin, or maybe wide
and short, but it is a rectangle and there are no good hiding places. My old room had
four steps down from the door and you could jump from the top one straight onto the
bed and the bed was so bouncy you would almost touch the ceiling! Me and Sophie
could both squeeze in the cupboard underneath the steps when Mum was looking for
us. Sophie would put one hand round my back and the other she would press into her
lips, telling me to ‘shush’ . I would clasp my mouth with both hands and we would
stare at each other in breathless silence till Mum had gone.
I hadn’t only unpacked my toys, I had taken out books and shoes and my
rocks and my bedside lamp but all of the stuff from my old room looked strange on
the new shelves. They looked like they were underdressed, not suited to the formality
of the new white environment.
“Mum!” She didn't answer but I didn't call again, instead slumping down on
the bed, burying myself in the duvet to muffle the sound of the drumming rain. I
pulled the photograph out of my pocket flattening the folded corners between my
finger and thumb. We used to have three bedrooms but mum says this place is better
because it has got a conservatory and is ‘open plan.’ Its’ definitely worse for hide and
seek and if Sophie was here she would have said the house stunk. She said
I opened my eyes.
“Tom sweetie, come down you’ve got to meet someone.” The daylight had
disappeared and was replaced with the orange glow of the streetlights. The window
was still streaming with rainwater, crying
through a crack onto the windowsill. Music hummed from downstairs, Mum must
have unpacked the radio.
“There you are hun,” she said as I opened the kitchen door. “Did you fall
I closed the door carefully behind me. “I was unpacking.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “Do it in the morning. How about that?
Tom this is Lucas.”
The sitting man had been staring at me, grinning, ever since I walked in the
door Now he put his thumbs up and nodded at me.
“How's it going little fella?” he said, lengthening the words as though singing
them. I nodded and sat down on the far side of the table behind a vase of flowers.
Little fella I thought?
“I love this song!” said Mum with her back to us. They both laughed and she
turned it up, dancing whilst stirring the pan. The sitting man tapped his hand to the
beat and watched her. I had never heard it before.
“Mum! Turn it down. It’s hurting my ears.” They both laughed again but she
did turn it down.
“What music do you like kid?” he asked me but I said I don’t like any music
and that Sophie had been the one who liked music. Mum stopped stirring her pan but
didn't turn around and he didn't ask me any questions after that.
For dinner we didn't have pasta we had shepherd’s pie and vegetables. Mum laughed
a lot and he told her how good at cooking she was and said how he only ever ate pasta
when he cooked at home. When I finished Mum said sweetie you look tired and said I
should go to bed.
“Say goodnight to Lucas darling,” she said as I got up, nodding her head
towards him. He was still grinning but his teeth had gone black by the gums like he
had been drinking blood.
“Goodnight Lucas” I said and he gave me another thumbs up. He had rolled
his sleeves to his elbows and had a little glob of shepherds pie just below his
unbuttoned collar. Dad never wore a proper shirt at dinner, except when Nana came
around. He always changed when he got home from work.
I hid behind the kitchen door when I left, sitting on the bottom stair, the new oily
paint cold on my ear as I listened for my name. It was pitch black and empty and I
could hear a police car or a firetruck in the distance. I had never been scared of the
dark. Sophie and I used to always sneak out of bed after Mum and Dad had tucked us
in and listen outside the kitchen.
In the gloom with just the muffled sounds we would pretend that we were
under the sea in a submarine on a secret mission. We would listen to them laugh as
they played cards and one time Dad had caught us when he went to use the bathroom
and told us that it wasn’t nice to listen to people’s conversations. Then Mum and Dad
had chased us back to bed pretending to be monsters and said if children left their
beds after they were all tucked up then the monsters would get them. I don’t believe
in monsters anymore.
“He’s a cute little fella” I heard through the door and I imagined the sitting
man leaning back on his chair, arms stretched out on either side of him. “Does he see
much of his dad?”
I had seen my Dad just last week and he had bought me another transformer
for my collection but Mum must have forgotten as she said no. “He only really comes
by to pick up more stuff he remembers is his. Petty stuff really, he came all the way
here after work last week to get his old Nina Simone album.”
“It must be tough for the little fella” said the sitting man and I imagined him
touching my Mum’s arm and I thought, tough for me? It’s tough for Dad, having to
drive here after work.
“I don’t think he really understands what’s happened between me and his dad,
he’s just a kid?”
When we used to know they were talking about us we used to giggle and
sometimes they knew we were outside and would say things like “Tom has a really
big nose,” to try and make us come out. I don’t think she was trying to make me come
out this time.
It had been silent for a bit and then I heard a quiet sound that I did recognize. It was
always the only sound that came so clearly through the door, it could have been in the
room, unlike the talking that hummed with a distorted fuzz. I suddenly remembered
why I had stopped listening to the kitchen door in the old house. Mum was crying
again and I couldn’t go in to stop her or she would know that I had been listening and
it wasn’t nice to listen to other people’s conversations.
A lump came up in my throat and I gripped the step I was sitting on. I pulled
my head away from the door but the sound was still engulfing me in the darkness,
each sob drowning me. I wanted to call out to her, “Mum!” but I couldn’t.
The mans muffled voice came through to my underwater darkness, the last
words to the drowning man before I ran up to my room, “This is a new beginning for
you Mandy. A new house, a fresh start. You have to let go.
I don’t think I fell asleep but it was some time before the voices got suddenly louder
as they opened the kitchen door and came into the hall. The man said thank you for
dinner and Mum thanked him for coming round and they probably hugged because
that’s what adults do when they say goodbye. Then the front door closed and the
kitchen door opened and I could briefly hear the radio before Mum switched it off.
Her footsteps slowly thudded up the stairs and the landing light went on with a click,
flooding light through the cracks of my bedroom door before it opened. I closed my
She stood in silence for a long time in the doorway looking at what I had done.
I could hear her breathing, long sad breaths. Maybe from the light of the landing it
was too dark to see inside.
“Tom?” she whispered before trying again a little louder, “Tom?”
I kept my eyes tight shut but I heard her step into the room and pick up the
photograph. Then the door closed and it was dark again and she left me, curled up in
my duvet in my bomb shelter of boxes.