We spread the flattened cardboard boxes out onto the floor only when the last of the day’s light had almost gone. We lay down, Pete and me first, keen to sleep but also to prove that sleep was possible, and to signal that the day could end. Dave settled down near to us at some point later. And Mum just sat there, on the stairs.
When the light had begun to fail, and the heat from the day had gone with it, we had not really known what to do, not thought how best to prepare for the night; the dark and the increasing cold. That morning, the door to the house that had been ours had been locked by somebody else’s hand. A new key turned to engage the mechanism of a new lock and our home had gone. Our things still inside. Dave had mentioned something about coming back for them soon.
I can’t visually recall a look back; no wistful final glance, but I remember the confusion and anxiety, partnered always by that shame, that shame which had begun snuffing at our naivety many years previous. I can see again the men who came, the locks they brought, a piece of paper with an address printed on it, the first bus and I think a second bus, then the walk to the office. All merely splinters lodged underneath the skin, which time would eventually tweeze out, perhaps even the sorest of them, perhaps even those glances back to Mum, looking back to her as we walked, and that most painful glance as she sat on those stairs.
The bus got us to within a quarter of a mile of the office. It pulled away revealing the pub opposite – The Fox and Goose – a place which would become the first new landmark in our lives in the years to come; the first pin dropped onto a large new map, with folds still clean and sharp. It should have been a ten-minute walk, but it took us at least thirty, slowing often and stopping occasionally for Mum to catch her breath. The sun was right over us as we walked: no cloud nor cover to obstruct, just the sun and our squashed black shadows beneath us. At such a languid pace, the heat oppressed us all, but was by far cruelest upon Mum. Each of us felt a measure of her lassitude like it was our own, and we all saw her torment, her guilt, her regret. Those feelings had long been interwoven, blurred, soaked up: accepted. Yet never spoken about. Just one more blow which we all absorbed the impact of together. Kept hidden, kept inside. She wore that worried half-smile which told us she was as scared and uncertain as we were. I’d seen that smile so often, we all had. Those smiles betrayed each of us in a way that words would not.
At the office, I remember the Polyprop chairs, bolted into rows of four or six; the same chairs we had in our classrooms, blue and brown, rubber feet missing from the legs, cuts and scars across their moulded form. The wait at the office was agonisingly slow. Like the men who had asked us to leave our home that morning, here were more new people to determine the next part of our day and the onward course of our lives. The fear and anxiety returned, but the wait brought Mum something of the respite she needed. It might have been that two or three hours passed before a set of keys were handed to her – the second set of new keys we had seen that day. I didn’t understand how one house could be taken from us, only for another to become ours so quickly. There were directions to the new house, names of roads for us to remember, and then another walk, a walk longer than the one which had brought us to the office.
Mum’s pace had slowed considerably; the day punishing her so fiercely. The half-smiles of apology that came earlier with each pause had now disappeared. The sun was still on us, that orange colour that comes late in the day, sloping to some bottom corner above the rooftops of houses on roads that we had never seen before. Progress was painful; each stop tormenting me and my brothers every bit as much as each restarting step tormented Mum. We took turns at her side. We walked forward, we tracked back, walking twice what we needed to, aspiring to some sort of fluidity. We turned a corner, only for it to reveal the next long road, the arithmetic scarring instantly, as we calculated what it would take for Mum to get to that place on the horizon, that place to which each of us could have run within five minutes. And Highfield Road became another pin on that new map.
A crippling feeling began to sink in, starting to long for what was behind us and now lost, but also enfeebled by the thought of what lay ahead. We had been transplanted into a place that was nothing like an idea of home that we knew. The street and houses unlike what had been ours. The grass verges had disappeared. Heaps of fly-tipped rubbish crowned patches of wasteland. On one such plot: a house with a smoke-blackened ground storey and pine-panel boards covering every single window recess. Further and closer. That which was gone and that which we still must face. We turned right into the darkest and most unwelcoming street yet, and then a final right turn. A street sign on the wall of the corner building confirmed our long journey was all but over. Across the road, a corner shop was the first in a row of about forty mostly new-build houses. Two or three faces looked out as we looked in. It would have been Mum who smiled our first hello, words still failing her; words always failing us. We made our way to the top of the cul-de-sac, past patchworks of concrete and grass, past the hills of soil and rubble opposite, our walk almost over, but no less scared, no less lost. We found the green door. Six and eight. Two numbers; a street sign; an address: a new home.
In that next hour, that last hour of light, came real moments of joy. I remember Pete and I tearing around the house, exploring the magnolia-fresh walls in all the rooms, and the shiny white gloss skin which coated every door and window frame. Unblemished linoleum floor tiles ran from one wall right across to the other. A gas fire had been fitted in both downstairs rooms, so new that the box and polythene sleeves they had arrived in were still there, discarded on the floor next to them. At our old house, there wasn’t a single wall not covered in flaking paint or peeling paper; every floor had been decked in torn vinyl or mismatched, worn carpet; every space revealed dirt and neglect. This was our new home. This was a new start, a canvas so uniquely white. Pete and I chose the big double room at the front. Once we had our things, we would make that room just right. These thoughts made us intensely happy, but they shone like only a few small lights in the dark, blinking on and off at the end of the day.
Our happiness greyed over. The light finally failed. The front rooms were lit by the strong glow of the street lamps outside, but at the back there was very little to see by. The warmth had gone too. We brought the cardboard box from the front room into the back and lay it down next to the other one. They were about three feet square in size. Pete and I got down first. The cardboard brought no comfort, but was not the floor. The polythene sheets we pulled over us offered no warmth, but they were cover. We scrunched a top onto the floor, the same way we would for goalposts, and lay our heads down. We shuffled restlessly, scraping the cardboard each time with a sandpapering noise. We were cold and tired, but the one prevented us from yielding to the other. The cold eventually stopped our shuffling and brought a rigidity to our foetal forms that would lock in for the night. Not able to yet accept sleep, but no longer wanting to have to remain awake. Those minutes, which might have made an hour, were perhaps the longest of the day. We closed our eyes again and again, each time hoping that morning would be there when next they opened.
But sleep could not so quickly bury that day.
The door that led upstairs from that room where we lay remained ajar. Mum had perched herself on the stairs earlier and she was still there now. Our eyes, open again. What light there was had stray-printed across the wall and some of it fell across her face too. I saw her face and I know that Pete and Dave saw it too. I closed my eyes and saw it again and again. Her face.
Sleep came. I woke once and found Dave had settled near to us. At other times, I would wake to tuck the sheet more tightly in around my neck and chin in vain hope of finding warmth. I looked and found Mum each time, and each time she was still there on the stairs.
Awake again. No more and no less tired. I looked to the stairs. Her eyes were closed, her head dipped down, her bottom lip pushed out, her chin sunk back into a fold of skin draping down from her clavicle, her hand clasping the wrist of her other arm and resting against her stomach, her knees and ankles together. The soft light still across her face.