2nd Prize 2021 - The Homecoming by Richard Hooton

The Homecoming
by Richard Hooton

THE semi-detached looms over David, its bedroom curtains shut as if the house has its eyes closed. His finger loiters over the doorbell. Rooted to the doorstep, he’d already spent fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, just sitting in his car around the corner, staring into the rear view mirror. When he’d finally ventured out, he found the quiet cul-de-sac exactly as he’d left it, somehow preserved in time. The properties are almost identical: same shape, gravel paths, neat square gardens. He doubts any of the occupants have moved. Even the ancient Volvo still dominates their driveway.

The light is waning. Smoke curls from the chimney. David glances at the frost-tainted lawn, winter smothering the garden of life and colour, and huddles into his coat. The door’s rectangle of bevelled glass glows. He takes a deep breath and presses his finger down. The shrill ring makes him grit his teeth and instantly let go. Silence resumes. Then soft footsteps pad the hallway, the approaching figure blurred by the glaze. A key clinks, a chain rattles free. The door creaks open.

His mother is just as David remembers. It might have been only minutes since he’d left. Same concave cheeks and bob of straight hair, perhaps more white than grey now. Those earnest eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. Mary stares at him as if he’s a stranger. Then both hands cover her mouth and her widening eyes mist. David lowers his head, gulps down a bitter taste.

‘My Davey.’ The words seep through the cracks between her fingers. ‘It’s you … it’s really you.’

‘How are you, Ma?’

One hand breaks free to touch David’s arm, seemingly to check he’s really there.

‘My Davey.’

David blows hot air between cupped palms then rubs them together.

‘Aren’t you gonna invite me in, Ma? Awful cold out here.’

‘Oh, silly me, of course … of course.’

Mary grabs David’s arm, pulling him over the threshold, then closes and locks the door. He stands by the brown doormat, ‘welcome’ daubed along its bristles in thick black letters. Hesitates. Then scrapes the bottom of his brogues across it. The hallway’s as he recalls: plain beige carpet, cream wallpaper patterned with floral swirls, the sweet smell of baking that he used to love. Mary edges backwards, as if unwilling to let him out of her sight, her head tilted. She’s always reminded him of a sparrow: drab and dowdy, somehow both stout and slight, a fragility about her petite frame, yet forever hopping from one place to the next. Her woollen cardigan both swamps and strains, her knee-length skirt billowing over stick-thin, stockinged legs.

David steps towards her.

‘Shoes, Davey.’ Mary points at the incriminating items. David gives a wry laugh then crouches to untie the laces, slips them off and places them underneath the small, wooden telephone table by the front door. Mary ushers him along the hallway, almost as cold as outside. David tries hard not to look at the coal cellar door, set into the staircase, but feels compelled to, like a motorist crawling past a sickening car crash.

They stop outside the lounge door.

‘He doesn’t know,’ Mary whispers. She shakes her head. David finds himself copying her. ‘It’ll be a bit of a shock.’

She turns the handle and gently opens the door. 

David takes another deep breath, holding it for as long as he can.

‘Look who it is, dear.’

‘Shut that bloody door, woman. You’re letting all the cold in.’

‘Look who’s here.’

David takes a step inside and feels an instant blast of heat.

Then he sees him, lying back in his reclining chair, side-on to the doorway, the News of the World stretched open between large hands. David swallows fiercely. 

‘See.’ Mary waves her arms like a magician’s assistant.

Geoff turns his head. ‘What are you …’

His slovenly body stiffens, his mouth gapes. He pushes himself upright, his unblinking brown eyes fixed on David.

‘Isn’t it wonderful, dear?’

Geoff’s lips close tight. David sees a very different type of bird: one that feathers itself in someone else’s nest.

Time seems to freeze. David steels himself, then saunters across the room. ‘You alright, Geoff? Look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

As he passes, David avoids eye contact. Cloying air freshener can’t mask the fusty stench of tobacco mixed with stale sweat.

‘Do sit down, Davey.’ Mary flaps around as she guides David to a chair in the corner. He removes his waterproof jacket, drapes it over the armrest, then sits, not quite settling into the seat. The room’s exactly how it was: same fireplace, furniture, floorboards. It feels smaller to him, even more restrictive. David notices the oval mirror above the ornate brass fireplace, where he’d style his hair before school. He stares at the space by his feet where he used to play for hours with his Transformers, fascinated by how they bulked from robots into vehicles of destruction. He’d loved those toys. Until they were taken from him.

David senses their eyes on him. Feels like an exhibition piece in a museum. He’s a teenager again, unsure whether to hide or run.

‘My, how you’ve grown, Davey. So big and strong.’

‘I’m just older, Ma, that’s all.’

‘You were so small and skinny. Wasn’t he, dear?’

‘You’ve not changed a bit, Ma.’ David glances at Mary and she almost trills, clasping her hands together as if in prayer.

‘You work out, lad?’

David grips an armrest. That familiar gruff voice thunders through him.

‘Go to the gym every morning before work.’

David forces himself to look at Geoff, who’s now laid back into the recliner moulded around his bulk, the remote controls balanced on its arm, the newspaper folded and tucked down the side. He’s wearing a checked shirt, the top few buttons undone, exposing a gold chain and wisps of white chest hair. His grey trousers are hitched up to the calves, revealing swollen ankles, his slippered feet propped on the footrests. David scrutinises his fleshy face, the skin yellowed and creased as an old book, and grimaces.

‘I’m a big boy now, Geoff.’ His tone drips with sarcasm.

‘I can see that, lad.’

‘I’ll get us some tea.’ Mary flutters back through the door, heading towards the kitchen.

David focuses on the fire, its yellow and orange flames flickering over chunks of coal. A cast iron poker lies in front of the hearth. On the mantelpiece, the gold carriage clock ticks away every painful second.

Geoff hauls himself up, leans forward. ‘What you doing here?’

David sniffs. ‘Come to see how you are, Geoff.’ 

‘Damn well broke your mother’s heart when you went.’

‘I was fifteen.’

‘Better if you’d stayed away.’

The clock chimes, the long hand pointing heavenward.

Geoff slouches back into his throne. ‘How long’s it been?’

David watches the flames consume the coal.

‘I said how long’s it been, lad?’

David gives a heavy, wintery sigh. ‘Thirteen years.’ He turns his attention to the cathode ray tube television. ‘Jeez, you still got that old thing.’

‘No point wasting money chucking out something of use.’

Mary clatters in with a silver trolley bearing a knitted-cosy covered teapot, a trio of china cups and saucers, a small porcelain jug of milk and a silver teaspoon, stained brown around the edges.

‘We’ll just let it brew,’ she says.

She hovers between them. David gestures towards the empty three-seater sofa next to him. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’

‘I’m alright here, thank you.’

David inspects her, as she arranges the cups around the teapot. ‘You set for Friday, Ma?’

A puzzled expression creeps across Mary’s face, as if realising she’s missed something she should know.

‘As I said in my letter. For your birthday. My treat.’

‘Oh, yes, of course.’ The confusion morphs into a smile.

‘Letter?’ Geoff lurches upright. ‘What letter?’

David’s concentration switches from Mary’s smile to Geoff’s frown.

‘I didn’t want to disturb you, dear.’ Mary’s lips twitch. She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. ‘Davey sent me a lovely letter. I was waiting for the right time to tell you.’

David smirks and sits back. ‘We all have our secrets, Geoff.’

Geoff glares at them both.

‘It’s just a day out, old man. Treatments and afternoon tea at a spa. It’s all booked. I’ve ordered a taxi to pick you up at nine, Ma. You’ll be back before it gets dark. Amanda’s going too, so you’re not alone.’ He pauses. ‘I wouldn’t leave you on your own.’

‘But what about Geoff?’

They study his scowling face.

‘You’ll be alright here by yourself, won’t you, Geoff?’

He grunts.

‘I’ll make you some lunch you can heat up in the microwave, dear.’

Mary picks up the teapot, her arm shaking with the weight as the brown liquid slops into a cup, some spilling down the side.

‘Careful, woman. You’re getting it everywhere.’ Geoff slumps back, folding his arms. David feels his muscles tense.

‘I’m such a clutz.’ Mary tries to steady her hand, but the tea still sploshes.

‘Here, Ma. Let me pour.’ David stands up.

‘I can manage.’

‘Please.’ David reaches out. Wraps his fingers around the handle.

Mary lets go. ‘It’s my arthritis, love. I don’t find it easy lifting things.’

David fills the cups, then sits back down. Mary tips a splash of milk into each one and stirs. She hands a carefully balanced cup and saucer to Geoff.

‘Anything else I don’t know about?’ He snatches them from her, causing more tea to trickle down the side. ‘What else did this letter say?’

Mary places David’s drink on the windowsill next to him. ‘Didn’t you say you work for the police, Davey? What was it about a new role?’

‘That’s right, Ma. I’ve been a copper a few years now. I’ve transferred over to CID and moved back to this neck of the woods.’  

‘Isn’t that marvellous, Geoff?’ Mary claps like a schoolgirl. ‘We’re so proud of you.’

Geoff eyeballs him. ‘The police?’

‘I’m a Detective Constable now.’

Geoff slurps his tea, his gaze stuck on David. ‘What made you join the pigs, lad?’

  ‘Justice. I like seeing justice done, Geoff. It’s satisfying. Makes me feel good. Makes me feel better, y’know?’

Geoff snorts, tea dribbling down his chin. 

‘There’s a lot of good blokes down the station. I’ve already made some good friends. Maybe you’ll get to meet them sometime, Geoff.’

‘And the Dawsons?’ interrupts Mary. ‘How are the Dawsons?’

‘They’re very well. Still see them regularly.’

‘We’re grateful for everything they did for you, Davey, taking you in like that. They were very kind.’

David sips his tea, stinging hot against his tongue. ‘They’ve been brilliant to me.’

‘And their son? Danny, wasn’t it?’

‘He’s been a good friend.’ David blows on his drink before taking another sip. ‘The best. Helped me through a lot of stuff.’

‘Oh, there’s something I’ve forgotten.’ Mary flaps a hand. ‘Back in a jiffy.’

Only the ticking clock and crackling fire disturb the silence. The coal’s almost burnt up. Geoff shuffles forward, places his cup and saucer on the floor. He coughs, hacking phlegm from his throat. Leaning over, he spits into the fireplace, which sizzles in return.

‘What’s your game, eh?’

David faces him. Puts down his own cup.

‘Here we are.’ Mary breezes into the room, a large Victoria sponge quivering on a plate gripped between feeble fingers.

‘Cake?’ Geoff looks bewildered as Mary places it on the trolley. ‘We never have cake.’

‘Especially for my Davey.’

Geoff examines the treat with suspicion. ‘So that’s what you’ve been up to all afternoon.’

Mary tuts. ‘You’ll need some plates.’ She disappears again.   

Geoff shifts to the edge of his chair. Tilting forward, he grabs the poker and shoves it into the fire, sparks cascading.

‘Why don’t you just leave, lad? Save your mother more hurt.’

David rises. Sees his own reflection in the mirror, the remnants of a teenager looking back: soft features hardened, freshness soured; bags forming below the blue eyes, already flecks of grey around the temples. He instinctively runs a hand through his hair to shape it.

‘Still preening yourself.’ Geoff wields the poker.

David automatically touches the scar on his forehead, tracing its groove from hairline to eyebrow. He looks to the window, to darkness.

Tyres rumble. Headlights illuminate the street, then swing towards David, dazzling him. A shiny red Mazda pulls into the shared driveway, parking alongside the rusting Volvo. A young woman gets out and hurries inside the connecting house.

David looks at Geoff with raised eyebrows.

Geoff hesitates. ‘The Hinchcliffes don’t live there anymore,’ he says finally. ‘Ron died, Mavis moved into sheltered.’ Geoff coughs again, phlegm resurfacing. ‘This new couple’s much livelier.’ He puts down the poker.

David breaks into a smile. ‘So things can change,’ he murmurs to himself.

‘Fire’s getting low,’ growls Geoff. ‘Get me more coal, lad.’

David glowers at Geoff. He steps his way, until he towers over him. Geoff recoils. David raises his arm, pauses, springs forward. His hand whistles past Geoff and reaches out to the bookcase next to his chair. David pulls a hardback from a shelf. He waves the copy of Hamlet in Geoff’s face, who flinches.

‘My old schoolbook.’

Geoff gawps at him, as if viewing a madman, as David leafs through the pages, pausing occasionally to take in a passage.

‘Love this play, love it.’ David snaps the book shut. ‘Ever seen it, old man?’ Geoff’s lips move but no sound comes out. ‘You should, you really should. I’ll leave it here for you.’

He tosses the book onto the floor where it lands beneath Geoff’s raised feet with a thud. David stoops over Geoff, who shrinks further and further into his seat, almost pushing it backwards. Up close, David can see the crevasses and the red spider veins criss-crossing Geoff’s face. And his shallow breathing, the rapid rise and fall of his chest. David holds his position. So hot, that close to the fire. The clock so loud. Something catches his interest.

‘What’s that on your face?’

Geoff’s motionless. David stands up straight, takes a pristine, white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and shakes it open. He leans forward, until within inches of the leathery skin, the shuddering breaths cold against his face. He plucks a fallen eyelash from a flabby cheek, pinching it into the centre of the handkerchief, which he carefully folds up before placing back in his pocket.

‘All better.’

David looks into Geoff’s eyes. ‘I wasn’t the only one, was I?’ He watches them swim with realisation and fear.

‘Now where were we?’ Mary reappears with three plates and a breadknife. David returns to his seat. Geoff squirms in his.

Mary carves a neat triangle into the sponge, then uses the knife to gently tease it out and slide it onto a plate. She presents it to David like an offering. He takes a big bite, strawberry jam and buttercream oozing out, icing sugar scattering.

Mary shuts the curtains.

‘It’s delicious, Ma,’ David mumbles between mouthfuls. He wolfs the rest, washing it down with gulps of tea.

Geoff stays silent. Mary pecks at some crumbs she’s eased from the knife. 

‘I best be going, Ma.’ David stands up and puts his jacket back on. ‘Just wanted to see you and make sure you’re OK for Friday.’

He strolls past. Stops in the doorway.

‘Be seeing you then, Geoff. Have some cake, mate. While you can.’

Geoff stares into the blackened fireplace, the coal now ash.

In the cold hallway, David slips his shoes back on, ties them tight, feels relief at their secureness. Unlocking and opening the front door, he steps outside. The sun has long left the soot black sky. The icy chill is bracing after the lounge’s stuffiness. He inhales fresh, clean air.

Mary perches on the doorstep. ‘It gets so dark, so quickly.’

David turns to her. ‘Don’t come out, Ma. It’s freezing.’

‘Where you parked, love?’

‘Just round the corner.’

‘Listen.’ Her voice lowers, becoming so quiet that it would be easy to miss. ‘I know you’ve never seen eye-to-eye but Geoff’s not a bad man. He was very good to me after … you know … your dad.’

David looks away from her, towards the houses where all the curtains are now fully closed, light rippling around the sides as if trying to escape. The garden’s emptiness seeps into him.

‘Just remember about Friday, Ma. Be ready for the taxi at nine. It’ll pick Amanda up on the way.’

‘I’ll be ready.’

David returns his attention to her; those small, watery eyes peering at him from behind the bifocals. He wonders how she’ll react. His well of bitterness evaporating, he kisses her lightly on the cheek.

‘It’s great to have you back, Davey.’ Her voice drops to a whisper. ‘I know you said in your letter it was complicated but, if … one day, you could … tell me, you know … why it all …’

‘I’ll explain everything soon enough, Ma. Trust me. Now get yourself inside. And don’t forget Friday.’

Stepping away, David hears the door close behind him. Gravel crunches beneath his feet as he retraces a frightened teenager’s faltering footsteps. Then he pats his pocket, focusing on what needs to be done, in three days’ time.