The rain lashes down around me as I trudge towards the house, squinting through the tiny pellets of water that attempt to obscure my vision. Puddles reflect the monochromatic stretch of sky, dancing under the attack from above.
The house is just ahead, towering before me now. I stare at it, this modern, characterless building with huge windows and white walls, a flat roof and tall, black door with one silver bar for a handle. I realize suddenly that it is everything our last house was not – and I know that’s deliberate.
The only flash of colour comes from beside me – the red car groaning as it comes to a shuddering halt. The rain, unrelenting, pounds the windscreen and clouds my view of them, despite my efforts to peer through the glass. They’re late, as always.
With a jolt, the drivers’ door swings open and she clambers out, handbag swung above her head in a pathetic attempt to shield her from the torrential downpour, her red leather jacket doing little to protect her. She scurries past me without so much as a word, blonde hair streaming out behind her like a golden flag of defiance amidst a colourless world. Behind her follows James, complete in his yellow raincoat and tiny wellington boots that he insists on wearing everywhere, despite the new house being located alongside a main road in the city centre. He patters after her, giggling in the way toddlers do, his arms outstretched as he soaks up the rain. I smile.
Michael doesn’t get out of the car just yet. I still can’t see his face due to the clouded windscreen, but I catch a glimpse of his red hoodie and his still, rebellious figure slumped against the seat. To anyone else, he’d look like any other recalcitrant teenager refusing to get out of the car – but I know how hard this must be for him, and my heart breaks.
“Michael!” Sarah calls from the porch, swinging the door open and beckoning him inside despite not being about to see him properly. The red hoodie remains still, stuck in place. I decide to leave him there until he’s ready, padding through the open door with Sarah and James. The foyer is a long corridor, with one side cabinet (white, to correspond to the rest of the house, of course). Through the corridor is a large door, which, when excitedly opened by James, leads into a large open plan kitchen with modern cabinets and a set of French double doors gazing out into the garden. Light is everywhere – bouncing off the walls and reflecting on every surface in sight. It’s radiant, but somehow superficial.
“Wow, look at this!” Sarah exclaims, scooping James into her arms and swinging him around the kitchen, laughing. “Look at all this space to play!” She carries him around the corner, into the large living room with the sofas from the old house already set up in position, their brown seats seemingly out of place in this cage of light. The TV is there on top of another cabinet from the old house, a collection of boxes crouched awkwardly next to it. A mantelpiece is in the centre of the room, boasting an impressive fireplace. She shivers, looking at it.
“Our very own fire,” she says, putting James down with a grunt. “Should we light it?”
“Yes! Can I? Can I?” James chirps excitedly.
“Maybe another time.” She replies, ruffling his hair affectionately. She looks back for Michael, sighing when she realizes he’s still in the car. “Why don’t you go and have a look at your bedroom? Wanna get first dibs on a room, right?”James runs off, shrugging off his raincoat and throwing it on the sofa in excitement.
Alone, she takes a deep breath and allows the mask that she wears for James to crack slightly, revealing the pain hidden behind it.
I want to take her hand in mine, but I don’t.
She gets up, presumably to collect Michael, so I decide to sit myself on the sofa and absorb the house from a new perspective. It’s big, which is a plus – they’ll have a lot of space, especially for James to play. It’s definitely larger, and more expensive than the old house. The garden is nicer, well-kept - although knowing Sarah, that won’t last long. I chuckle to myself, because I’m right. She never was one for the outdoors.
The ceilings are high, with a modern row of lights attached to a silver bar snaking across half the room. Everything about this place is impressive; in a cold, detached way.
“Michael, please stop taking this out on me,” I hear Sarah plead, and with the sudden approach of strained conversation and footsteps I anticipate their arrival back. The door slams.
He storms into the kitchen, then swings around the corner to view the new living room. Wrinkling his nose in distaste, I can see him seething with disapproval, his expression broken only by a cruel laugh escaping his lips. “You know dad would have hated this, right?”
She doesn’t respond. She stands frozen for a moment, then turns away from him, bent over the kitchen counter with her hand over her eyes. The whole room holds its breath. I want to go to her, take her in her arms and comfort her. But I don’t. Minutes go by before he breaks the silence:
“I didn’t mean it.”
They stay like that for a while, her back to him while she composes herself and him, trapped in the icy grasp of grief and self-hatred. I can almost hear the thoughts racing through his mind as he tries to stop himself from crying.
“I’m going to light the fire.”
“Okay,” he manages shakily, turning finally to come and take a seat next to me on the sofa. He doesn’t acknowledge me.
Whilst she kneels next to the fireplace, the sound of her dragging the matchstick against the side of the box of matches echoing around the room, I check my watch. 1 hour left.
Outside, the winter evening has crept in. The night sky has descended, the streetlamps ignited in protest. The headlights of cars drumming past send flashes of yellow against the darkening white walls, and I wonder why they haven’t gotten up to turn any lights on yet. The fire cackles in agreement.
When James comes in, I take my time to observe them all there, together. Sarah, pulling her youngest son close to her for comfort and Michael, brave in his efforts to disguise his pain from his grieving mother. The three of them there, broken yet healing, the most precious people in the world. They’re chatting quietly amongst themselves, their voices accompanied by the soft clicking of the fire, which is a comfort to the ear. James starts laughing at something his mother says, and Michael eventually joins in, his laugh infectious.
“We’ll make this house special.” Sarah is saying. “We’ll paint the walls, we’ll buy new rugs and put up some of our old paintings. Maybe we could even make some new paintings, how does that sound Jamie? We could all do one. You too, Michael, we all know how good you are at art.”
“Yeahhhh”, James agrees, and even Michael nods his head. I think it’s a wonderful idea; I can picture them now, each in some old clothes that they don’t mind dirtying. Sarah will have spread some of her old bed sheets across the floor to stop any spillages onto the wooden tiles, like she used to do when she’d paint at the old house. She’ll tie her hair back into a messy ponytail, roll up her sleeves and wipe her hands on her old jeans when she’s finished. Then she’ll sigh and ask “what do you think?” To which I’d always reply “it looks wonderful”. Because it always does.
“I want to paint a picture of a bear.” James decides after careful deliberation. “Or a tiger. Or a bear and a tiger.”
They laugh. “That’s a wonderful idea darling”, Sarah says, kissing his forehead.
“I want to draw one of us as well.” James continues, smiling. “One of me, you, Michael and Daddy.”
I feel Michael wince next to me, but Sarah just pulls him closer and tells him: “I think that’d be lovely.”
They’ve been living without a father for some time now, almost a year, which is why I can understand why she wanted to move. The old house, isolated in the countryside with a lot of land, was difficult to maintain and extremely lonely. At least now they’re surrounded by other people, and the modern aesthetic of the house signifies everything they need; a fresh start. One without the constant reminder of the death of their father.
My watch buzzes, and I look down in dismay. The others, unable to hear me, are unfazed by this sudden outburst, but for me it is catastrophic. It is time to leave.
I kiss each of them on the forehead, despite me knowing that there’s no way they could possibly feel it. I promise them that I’ll always be there for them. That they’re always going to be my family, no matter where they go and no matter how far away I am from them.
Time to go, the wind sighs outside, and I nod. It is time.
“I love you all,” I say.
I open the door softly and shut it again with an inaudible click, exposing myself to the now darkened streets blurred against the rain.
Somewhere, a little boy in his car thinks he sees a man disappearing into the wind – but his mother assures him that he imagined it, which is what he’ll always believe.
Katie Phillips is 18 and lives in Cardiff where she is currently studying French, Welsh and English literature at Sixth Form. She loves to write, but last entered a story competition when she was 12, and won the Wales Online Christmas Short Story competition.
She says, “I’m absolutely elated to win one so many years later!”