This is an edited extract from a (currently untitled) novel about three estranged siblings returning home in light of their mother’s mysterious death.
They took the lift to the fourth floor of the multi-storey car park, the one just by the Olympia exhibition centre, over the tracks from their mother’s house. Experience had taught Lucille that the fourth floor was the only place you could be sure of finding a parking spot. For some reason the first three floors were always full, and she had long given up scouring the streets: most of the mansions in Olympia were empty investment eggs, and the same cars sat outside them day and night, never moving.
The fourth floor was a bittersweet place. Although it was damp and dark and the air was chock-full of exhaust, she used to love parking here – somehow it had become a symbol of her mid-twenties, the exciting days when she had just rented her first flat, started work at the practice, met Tyler: a time of energy, capacity, freedom. In those days, she felt thrilled she could just drive away afterwards, away from home and into her own life. The trouble started when she began wanting to escape her own life, the one she’d made, and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
She told Joseph to wait by the entrance to the lift while she found the car. The darkness of the car park was comforting; no one could see her here. She passed rows and rows of cars, reached the end of a column and turned back. She had parked next to that purple Land Rover, hadn’t she? No, must be a different purple Land Rover.
After ten minutes of searching she still couldn’t find the car. She kept crisscrossing Joseph, who stood there like a pillar of jelly as she ran back and forth, her hands hurting from where her nails were pushing into her palms, until she stopped and checked the ticket in her purse. The ticket had the number five in the top right hand corner, and she remembered she’d left the car on the fifth floor this time, because the fourth floor had been full.
They went up another level. She quickly located her car (next to another purple Land Rover) and buckled Joseph into the passenger’s seat. She decided she would have to do something about his beard. It made him look like a wild man, a crank you might pass reciting the Book of Revelation outside a supermarket. She wondered if the razor she used for her legs would be enough to hack it off. Probably not. She should probably buy a new razor, trim the beard with scissors beforehand.
She wrinkled her nose and leant back; Joseph’s sour smell was beginning to fill the car. He needed a bath and some clean clothes. She might still have some of Tyler’s clothes somewhere at the back of the wardrobe; three years on and she kept finding odd things of his.
She gently touched Joseph’s arm.
‘Hey Joseph, hey. I’m sorry I couldn’t come and get you earlier … I’m taking you back to my house, okay? Just for a while.’
He did not react. The emotional trauma had obviously produced some kind of shock, which was protecting him from realising what had happened. She would call Dr Herbert in the morning and make an appointment, ask for his recommendation.
She wound down the window to let in some stale car fumes.
‘Okay, right. Off we go, then. Home time.’
She turned the key in the ignition and they corkscrewed down the levels until they emerged onto the bright street. She turned left onto Hammersmith Road and headed east, cresting the bridge over the railway tracks. The traffic light was red; she stopped and felt disorientated, until she noticed the new glass-fronted apartment blocks on her right. The old Council offices must have been recently torn down.
The next turning on the left was Holland Road. A turn to the left and a turn to the right and she would be there. Her mother’s house. The house that had belonged to her mother.
A car behind leant on its horn and Joseph started. The lights had turned green. Don’t go, she told herself. You’ll only upset yourself more. Go home, sort Joseph out, work out what you are going to do.
She lurched the car into gear and drove on, holding her breath until Hammersmith Road had merged into High Street Kensington and she was out into the long stretch of camping shops and perennially-closing suit outlets. The tall Art Deco monolith, once Barker’s department store and now a Whole Foods, loomed at the end of the road, hinting at the point when she would be able to see the open green spaces of Hyde Park.
She exhaled. She had made the right decision. She didn’t need any more drama. She was already weak with exhaustion and shock, and she was starving. Listen to yourself: you haven’t eaten a thing all day. Be sensible. Get you and Joseph something to eat. Call William. Call Iona later, tonight, when the time difference is better; she’s not a morning person, or at least, she wasn’t. Run Joseph a bath. Run yourself a bath. When everything is taken care of, you can feel what you like.
She had tried to speak with her mother on the phone once a fortnight when visits to the fourth floor became scarcer and scarcer, after William, after the divorce, after her twenties car-crashed into her thirties, but it hadn’t just been a lack of time that made visiting difficult. With all the junk and uncleanliness, the house had not been a go-to destination for an exhausted mother with a young child. There were always rusty nails on the floor, knives lying on tables, boxes of rubbish that might collapse on you at any moment – once she’d nearly been buried by a loose crate of empty picture frames.
The mess didn’t seem to bother Joseph. He would often get agitated when she tried to clean the place up, like the mess was natural and not a sign of how the family had degraded over the past few years. This is not how it’s supposed to be, she told him once. Don’t you remember? It used to be clean, beautiful …
Her mother’s birthday last September: Hestia had turned sixty-three. Lucille remembered that visit, parking on the fourth floor and insisting they all went out to breakfast at a local cafe before going for a walk around the Japanese garden in Holland Park. Hestia had insisted on wearing her large floral dressing gown, and Joseph had worn a crown made of tinfoil, which Hestia said he’d taken to wearing all the time recently, even in bed.
It had been an odd day. Joseph had been solemnly respectful to William, gravely offering him a slice of bacon at the cafe (which William duly received). She had no idea what was going on; they shared a secret language to which she was deaf. In the Japanese garden, Joseph had kept trying to spear the koi carp in the pond while Hestia covertly snipped the best roses off the bushes and hid them under her dressing gown. William, encouraged, jumped into the zen sand garden and started digging a hole. They had been confronted by the park police and made to leave; Lucille had never felt so embarrassed.
Seven months ago.
That must have been the last time she went home.
She turned around.
Lucille left the radio on for Joseph and stepped out of the car, which she had left parked in a side street so he wouldn’t be able to see the house. She shivered as she looked down the street: it was quiet and still. The house was the next-to-last one before the street met Holland Road; the last was a converted two-storey garage, the home of various businesses (none of which ever lasted longer than a year). A huge chestnut tree dominated the one end of the road, its branches still bare, balanced in the other direction by the vision of the arcing glass wall of the exhibition centre across the tracks, facing down the street like a setting moon.
All the houses on the street were the same style: three stories, narrow, with black railings in front. Small rooms, intimate spaces. Lucille didn’t know any of the neighbours; like the businesses, most of them moved in and out fairly rapidly, or left their houses vacant. It was an expensive neighbourhood, absorbed into the growing ghost town that was spreading out from Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Kensington; soon it would reach Hammersmith.
From the outside she noticed that the house had deteriorated quite badly since her last visit. Always the ugly sister on the street, it was now positively deformed. Paint flaked off the facade and large sections of rough masonry were visible around the darkened windows. A buddleia was growing out of the roof, just above her old bedroom window.
Lucille stopped before the door, then reached out and touched it. She remembered the door being bright green, with a brass knocker in the shape of a dolphin.
It had been smashed in. The central panel was splintered and pale, reinforced with steel plates driven into the wood with heavy bolts. The letterbox had been sealed up. She took Joseph’s keys from her pocket, dropped them, but as she bent to pick them up she already knew that they wouldn’t work. The lock was shiny, silver, evidently changed.
But the top of the door had remained relatively undamaged, and Lucille saw that someone had painted something in red paint. The paint was rough and thick – it must have been painted quickly. She was too close to read the words.
She stepped back: Do not trust the police
She recognised the gesture behind them, the ‘t’ and ‘e’ both executed with slashing horizontals, so characteristic of her mother’s handwriting.