Nik yearns to know more about his father, who died before he was born. But with his mother refusing to speak about what happened, Nik discovers that his recently-deceased grandfather may have left him a way to uncover the truth for himself.
‘Nikhil. I need the car please, beta. Can you come home?’
Nik swings his legs off the side of the sofa and stands up. He can feel Layla’s eyes following him as he opens the sliding door and walks out into the garden. It’s drizzling and the rain that covers the patio presses through his socks, dampening the soles of his feet.
‘I’m at Ken’s, Ma. What’s up?’
‘Nothing to worry about, beta. Just at Bapu’s place packing and I’ve found a letter-’
‘Mate, y’alright? Ref’s given us a free kick.’
Nik looks up to see Ken leaning out of the patio door. Layla tiptoes to peer over his shoulder. Nik makes a vague gesture to tell them everything’s fine and tries not to look worried. It’s the last night his friends are all in the same place before they head across the country for university, where a different iteration of life awaits.
‘It’s an eviction notice,’ his mother says, trying to sound nonchalant, but Nik can hear nerves fizzing quietly under her words.
The boys erupt into a cheer and Nik turns back to the house to see who scored. Ken has moved inside but Layla is still standing by the door, watching him.
‘A garage in Kingsbury.’
‘What? Are you sure they’ve got the right address?’
‘That’s what I thought. But I just called the gentleman who owns it and apparently Bapu’s been renting it for years.’
‘Yeah. He’s been storing something.’
Nik feels a pair of warm arms wind around his torso and looks down to see Layla standing barefoot beside him, her large brown eyes looking up at him. ‘Weird,’ Nik says, putting an arm over her shoulder. She nestles her head into his neck. There is something – a memory – playing around the fringes of his mind, propelling itself forward. Something he has half-forgotten but is still aware of. He tries to focus on it; he knows it is important but pinning it down is like trying to scratch an itch that’s just out of reach.
‘We need to clear it out today or they’re going to charge us the whole of next month’s rent on top of all the late payment fees,’ his mother says, slightly out of breath. It sounds as though she is climbing a flight of stairs. Nik imagines her walking across the exposed wooden floorboards at his grandfather’s house and thinks of how they stretch across the landing, into the bedrooms and the study.
‘Do you mind coming with me? Apparently, I need to get hold of a locksmith too because I can’t find a bloody key anywhere and they don’t keep a spare-’
Nik zones out of his mother’s voice, out of the feeling of Layla’s hair tickling his chin, the drizzle speckling their clothes, the hollering inside as his friends watch the football. Then, slowly, gently, it comes into view. He recalls a voice – once beautiful and rich, now strained and tired – telling him about a single key hanging off a nail at the back of a desk.
‘You know what, Mum?’ Nik says, his breath catching in his throat, ‘I think I know where it is.’
Nik pulls into the driveway outside his grandfather’s old house and spots his mother sitting on the front step in an oversized pink jumper. An open umbrella rests over her shoulder. She hasn’t got a coat. She watches him through the windscreen for a moment, then slips into the passenger seat, bringing the scent of rose petals and cardamon with her. A small keyring has been placed over her ring-finger and a chunky silver key hangs off it. When Nik turns it over in his hand he thinks of how, to an onlooker, it may look as though she is showing him an engagement ring.
‘How did you know?’ she asks, her voice tight.
Nik looks up at her and she turns away from him. He feels a chill.
‘Bapu mentioned it when he was in hospital, the day before he died.’
‘So you knew about the garage?’
‘Nah, not at all. He started telling me about some key and then got distracted.’
His mother purses her lips and Nik wonders what has caused this spikiness. She pulls a letter from her handbag and points to the address in the corner.
‘Towards Kingsbury, please,’ she says.
They drive in silence for a few minutes before his mother says, ‘I can drop you back to Ken’s, you know. I’ll go and clear this thing out on my own and pick you up on the way back. It’s just the car I need, really.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Nik says quietly. ‘D’you even know what’s in the garage?’
‘Not a clue. Do you?’
‘Course not. Doesn’t it say in the letter?’
‘I don’t think so. Let me have another read.’ But after just a moment of scanning, she looks up and says: ‘There were tan lines.’
‘Tan lines on the back of the desk, where this key was hanging. The rest of the wood was really faded from the sun, apart from the bit just behind this key.’
‘Which obviously means he hasn’t used it in years.’
‘So maybe it’s the wrong key.’
‘Maybe.’ Nik pulls up at a set of traffic lights and looks at her. ‘Why’re you being weird?’
‘I’m not,’ his mother says, scowling slightly. Then, she murmurs, ‘I just have a bad feeling. Oh, I think this is it here.’ She points to a road sign. It reads ‘Pitafield Close’ but somebody has graffitied a thick black line through the ‘field’.
Nik swings in and drives to the end of the cul-de-sac until they reach a steel gate.
Dusk is settling across North West London and the sky is darker now than when they left his grandfather’s house fifteen minutes ago. Clouds hang above them like puffs of smoke, just visible against the dark sky, heavy with rain. The drizzle that misted over Nik as he stood in Ken’s garden has turned into dollops the size of grapes which land unevenly across the windscreen.
‘Do we just wander in?’ he asks his mother, as they get out of the car.
She looks through the gaps in the fence. ‘Guess so. I can’t see anyone and the gentleman on the phone said all we need is the garage key.’
Nik pushes the steel gate and walks through. His mother follows. They venture deeper into the cul-de-sac, past a garage door that’s no more than three metres wide. There are seven of these garages to the left and seven to the right. Rust creeps up the metal doors from the lower and outer corners like a disease, turning green to murky brown. Nik’s mother checks the letter as they walk and points to a garage in the far left corner.
Nik notices the door is the most rusted of the lot. He can only just make out the peeling and faded numbers stuck onto the metal. The corner they stand in is totally enveloped by the shadow of a large eucalyptus tree which towers over them from an adjacent street.
Nik takes the key from his mother and slots it into the lock. It doesn’t turn.
‘Fuck,’ he says, getting to his knees.
‘Here, let me try.’ His mother kneels beside him and attempts to turn the key but it won’t budge. ‘It’s the wrong one.’
‘No, look,’ Nik says. ‘It’s turning. It’s just jammed. It needs some-’ he stops, noticing movement over his mother’s shoulder. There is a man standing several meters behind her, in the middle of the cul-de-sac, watching them. ‘Mum,’ Nik whispers, standing up.
‘What are you doing?’ the man calls. He is dressed in a trench coat and wellington boots and holds a Tesco’s carrier bag in each hand. Nik’s mother flinches at the sound of his voice.
‘S’alright. No need to be alarmed m’love,’ the man says, his eyes on Nik’s mother.
Nik takes a step closer to her and calls, ‘We’re just here to clear this garage.’
‘That one?’ The man points to the garage they’re clearly standing in front of, the carrier bag swinging by his waist.
‘Never seen anyone in that one.’
‘Beg your pardon?’ Nik’s mother asks.
‘I’m here every day tinkering with my minis, see. So I know the folk of all these garages. Not seen anyone at number 14 for years.’
Nik wonders what ‘tinkering with a mini’ is code for, and if they’re better off just leaving the garage and whatever the hell is inside it. It’s dark now, and there are no streetlights lining this quiet cul-de-sac. Nik’s hoodie is soaked through from the rain, and strands of his mother’s hair stick to her face. He moves, trying to act casual, so that he is standing between his mother and the man with the bags.
‘Right. Well, it was my father’s but we only just found out about it,’ his mother says, hugging herself.
‘Hmm,’ the man says, walking across to the garage directly opposite them. He pulls the door open to reveal a fully kitted out garage complete with an old vintage Mini Cooper.
Nik scans the shelves lining the walls and asks: ‘You don’t have any WD-40 by any chance, mate?’
The man puts his carrier bags down, raises a finger and stoops over a unit of shelves. He pulls out a dark blue bottle and hands it to Nik.
‘Cheers,’ Nik says, giving the bottle a shake.
‘Come in, love. Out of the rain.’ The man motions for Nik’s mother to step into the shelter of his garage. Nik turns to watch. She ducks in and pulls the letter out of her handbag.
‘Do you know what might be in there?’ Nik hears her ask, as he sprays oily liquid into the lock.
‘Hmm. I want to say a three-one-eight. But I could be wrong. D’you know, I think I actually remember the chap moving it in,’ the man says, rubbing a hand over his stubble.
‘Moving what in? What chap?’
‘Was an old Indian chap,’ the man says, pulling a bag of Haribo from one of the carrier bags. He rips the top open and offers one to Nik’s mother. She shakes her head.
‘I’m a diabetic,’ he tells her. ‘Missus doesn’t let me enjoy these at home but they’re my guilty pleasure.’
Nik holds back a grin and tries to focus on the lock. The key moves a few more degrees but then jams again, so he sprays some more WD-40.
‘Sorry, what did you say about my father? What was he moving in here?’
‘The three-one-eight,’ the man says again. ‘At least, I think it was a three-one-eight. This was years ago, though. Remember him really struggling to squeeze it in. You know, I’m talking probably two decades. Like I say, haven’t seen anyone back at number fourteen since.’
‘Squeeze what in?’
Nik can hear his mother’s voice growing more anxious.
‘The three-one-eight,’ the man repeats, patiently, between fresh mouthfuls of Haribo.
‘What the fuck is a three-one-eight, though?’ Nik murmurs to himself as he struggles with the key.
‘Sorry, how long ago was this?’ his mother asks.
‘Here, look, it’ll be on your paperwork m’dear. See. Right there. May 1998.’
Nik hears his mother take a sharp breath in. Before he can ask what’s going on, he feels the key give way in the lock.
‘Ma,’ he says, twisting the rusted t-handle to one side, ‘I’ve done it!’ The door screeches loudly as he pulls it towards him. The sound rips into Nik, and he grits his teeth together as he pushes the door up as far as it will go.
A dark green BMW sits inside the garage, a thin layer of dust lining the entire surface of it. It’s parked terribly at an angle so, by gross misfortune, both the passenger door and driver-side rear door are almost touching the walls. The floor around it is crunchy with dried leaves and cobwebs.
‘Woah, that’s so cool,’ Nik says, staring at the car. ‘So retro.’
The man from the other garage is right behind him now and lets out a low whistle. ‘Christ. It’ll be a job getting that out.’
Nik looks over to his mother. She’s staring at the car, her eyes glazed over, her mouth slightly open.
‘Mum, you alright?’
‘I can’t – I didn’t know he kept it,’ she says. She speaks so quietly that it takes Nik a moment to decipher her words through a mixture of lip reading and guesswork.
‘Looks like a ’96 plate,’ the man says, inspecting the numberplate. He wipes the dust from it with his hand. ‘Yep, a 318, like I remembered. Might be worth something, you know.’
Nik turns to him, distracted, ‘What’s your name, mate?’
‘Christopher,’ he says, holding out a calloused hand.
Christopher pulls a packet of cigarettes from his coat and offers one to Nik.
‘Better not,’ he says, nodding to his mother. She’s facing away from them now, staring up at the eucalyptus tree, rubbing her forehead like she does when she’s stressed out.
‘Fair enough. You may need a hand getting this out, chap.’
‘Yeah, I think I might.’ Nik goes further into the garage to inspect the car. The key sits on the only shelf in the garage.
‘Let me have a little dig,’ Christopher says. ‘I may have some bits you can borrow to tow it.’
Nik manages to squeeze into the driver’s seat. The car is spotless. He’s surprised to find that, beneath the smell of damp and dust, there’s an undertone of lemon. He notices that an old photograph has been pushed into the corner of the dashboard so that it sits up against the glass. Nik pulls it out and stares at it. It shows a young woman, probably around his age, with messy curls, sitting on a park bench, a large smile on her face. Her lips look as though they’re about to part, as though she is just a small moment away from succumbing to laughter. She looks up at whoever stands behind the camera – the person who has caught her at this most transient of moments. She is so full of joy. She is his mother.
‘Will it start?’ He hears her call. He glances up at the rearview mirror to see her leaning against the garage wall. She looks pale and cold. Her oversized jumper seems even larger on her now, sagging slightly from the rain it has collected. There is something about the way her shoulders are held, tighter, closer together, which makes Nik feel uneasy.
He pockets the photograph, then tries the ignition with no luck. Then, he winds down the window and calls over his shoulder: ‘No, but the steering wheel is unlocked.’
‘Just let the handbrake down and climb back out. You’ll have to push it out.’
Nik does as he’s told, then puts an arm over the front passenger seat and moves the steering wheel on full lock to the left. He climbs over the top of the car to the bonnet, leaving large footprints in the dust. When he pushes, he finds, to his surprise, that the heavy car moves easily under his hands.
‘Whereabouts are you heading, Nik? I don’t think it’s going to make it very far with those tyres,’ Christopher says, reappearing.
Nik ducks to look at the wheels. The back tyres are completely flat.
His mother rubs her forehead again. ‘Look, let’s just push it out of this gated bit and call a recovery service to move it later,’ she says.
‘Do you want to get in to steer? I’ll push,’ Nik offers.
‘Definitely bloody not.’
‘But Mum, you can’t push.’
‘I’m not getting in it,’ she snaps. Something in her voice stops Nik from pressing. The barrels complain loudly under the flat tyres and Nik winces as he hears them. Christopher hurries over to help.
‘I can steer, chap,’ he says, opening the driver door.
Once the car is released out into the lane, filling the space between Nik and his mother, they both stand and stare at it. When their eyes meet over the top of it for a moment, Nik can see that there is something more than just apprehension in her gaze; something inside of her has been disturbed, forced out from its safe space. The sound of raindrops landing on the car punctuates their silence. Christopher lights another cigarette and looks between them.
‘Well, thanks for your help,’ his mother says, turning to Christopher.
‘Hey, no problem. You’ll be fine leaving it out there for the night.’
She nods and walks back to their Volvo.
‘I’ll be here until the wee hours anyway, so will keep an eye,’ Christopher tells Nik.
‘Thanks, man. Really appreciate your help. I’ve left the key for the garage in the door. Are you alright to pass it on to the owner or whatever?’
‘Sure, no trouble,’ he says. He walks back towards his garage, humming quietly.
Nik circles the car. The paintwork is spotless, as though it’s barely ever been driven. Ken and Will would love it. He bends down and places his fingers against the flat tyres, noticing how the rubber almost feels like tough, weathered skin. He touches his hand to his forehead, then pulls himself away from it with a final glance and sprints across to the Volvo, where his mother is waiting.
They drive in silence, Nik sneaking glimpses of his mother as often as he can. She’s slumped towards the window, eyes closed, completely still, but Nik knows she is not asleep. The key to the BMW sits awkwardly in the pocket of his jeans and the metal pokes into his thigh. It feels cold and heavy. He turns the heating on and selects the chilled Afrobeats playlist his mother would never admit she likes but frequently listens to whilst cooking.
When he approaches their home, Nik stops in the road for a red fox to lead her cubs into a neighbour’s hedge. One of the smallest shoots ahead to overtake its siblings, staring right at Nik as it scuttles across the road.
‘Thank you for driving, beta,’ his mother says, as he pulls into their driveway.
‘That’s okay. I’ll give our breakdown a ring in a bit…see if they can bring it back here.’
‘Sounds good,’ she murmurs, reaching for the door handle. ‘I’m going to draw a hot bath.’
‘Was it Bapu’s? I thought he didn’t drive.’ The words rush out of him in a single breath. He knows the answer – he has known it since they arrived at the garage – but he needs to hear her speak the words.
‘No,’ she says quietly, pushing the door wide open. ‘It was your father’s.’