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 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 Teo’s, Mum. What’s up?’ His mother has spent the last few days packing up her father’s home, with the help of Nik, his cousin sister Rajvi and her boyfriend Ade.
‘Nothing to worry about, beta. Just at Bapu’s place and I’ve found –’
‘Mate, y’all right? Ref’s given us a free kick.’
Nik looks up to see Teo leaning out of the patio door. Layla tiptoes to peer over his shoulder. Nik makes a vague gesture to tell them everything’s fine. ‘Say that again, Mum.’
‘I’m getting his things together for the probate and, well, it looks as though he was renting out some storage space,’ his mother says, trying to sound nonchalant, but Nik can hear nerves fizzing quietly under her words.
His friends erupt into a cheer and Nik turns back to the house to see who scored. Teo has moved inside but Layla is still watching him.
‘It doesn’t say. I just found all the monthly payments in that binder he left.’
Nik thinks of the file they’d found in his study, ‘IN CASE OF DEATH’ written in his grandfather’s neat blue hand along the spine, page after page of meticulous detail – pension plans, bills, premium bonds, bank statements, all printed out and stored, waiting for them. Nik had flicked through it, a lump in his throat as he leafed past a plastic sleeve with his grandfather’s birth certificate and passport tucked inside. It had devastated him, the thought of his grandfather preparing for his own passing in this way. He’d asked his mother if it was normal for people to plan their affairs so scrupulously. Over his shoulder, her eyes were glassy, her voice low as she told Nik about how she wouldn’t have expected anything less, how he’d always been an immaculate administrator since his civil servant days in Kenya, how he would have approached this final duty with a sense of pragmatism.
‘It’s a garage in Kingsbury. I just called the gentleman who owns it and apparently Bapu’s been renting it for years.’
‘Yeah. He’s been storing something,’ his mother says.
A pair of warm arms wind around Nik’s torso and he looks down to see Layla standing barefoot beside him, her eyes searching for his. He wraps her in a hug. There is a memory playing around the fringes of his mind, propelling itself forward. One he has half forgotten but it rises now, gaining shape, colour. He tries to focus on it; he knows it is important but pinning it down is like trying to catch ink dancing in water.
‘I think we should go and check it out,’ 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 into his study. ‘Do you mind coming with me? I need to get hold of a locksmith too because I can’t find a 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, the hairs on his neck rising, ‘I think I might 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 and matching Converse. An open umbrella rests over her shoulder and her jeans are dotted with dark drops of rain. She watches him through the windscreen for a moment, then slips into the passenger seat, bringing the scent of rose petals and cardamom with her. Nik places the key, with its ring, into her open palm. Her fingers coil around it. He feels like a child who has taken something that doesn’t belong to him.
‘Where did you find this?’ she asks, her voice tight.
Nik’s gaze reaches for hers, but she stares pointedly out of the window. 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.’
She purses her lips. He wonders what has caused this spikiness. She takes a letter out of her handbag and points to the address in the corner.
‘Head towards Kingsbury, please,’ she says. After a while she adds: ‘Where was it?’
‘In his study. Hanging from a nail at the back of his desk.’
They drive in silence for a few minutes before his mother says: ‘So, what, you just took the key and never wondered what it opened?’
‘Of course I did. I spent the whole evening before he died stuffing it into random doors, man. Couldn’t figure it out.’
‘Right.’ Then: ‘And you didn’t think to tell me.’
There is hurt in her voice. Nik turns to her but she’s still looking straight ahead. Her jaw is set.
He recalls how his grandfather had stopped talking when his mother walked into the ward that day, how he’d told Nik that she wouldn’t be happy with him when she found out he’d kept whatever this key led to. Nik thinks of this, then says: ‘There was so much going on.’ The words sound even more feeble out loud than they did in his head.
‘I can drop you back to Teo’s, you know,’ she says. ‘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.’
‘It’s calm,’ Nik says. ‘D’you even know what’s in the garage?’
‘Not a clue. Do you?’
‘Course not. Doesn’t it say in the document you found?’
‘I don’t think so. Let me have another read.’
But after just a moment of scanning, Nik interrupts her with: ‘There were tan lines.’
‘Tan lines on the back of the desk, where this key was hanging. The rest of the wood was proper faded from the sun, apart from the bit just behind this key.’
‘What’s your point?’
‘He obviously hadn’t used it in years.’
‘So maybe it’s not even the right one. Maybe it’s for something else.’
Nik stops at a set of traffic lights and looks at her. Her eyes are on the document and the keyring has been placed over her finger, where a wedding band would sit. Worry laces around his stomach, tying itself into a tight knot. ‘What’s up? Why’re you being weird, man?’
‘I’m not,’ his mother says, scowling slightly.
‘Yeah, you are. You low-key trippin’, fam,’ he says.
He glances across at his mother to see it has worked – she’s smiling now. She folds the paper, crosses her arms and murmurs, ‘I just have a bad feeling, beta. Oh, I think this is it here.’ She points to a road sign.
Nik swings in and drives to the end of the cul-de-sac until they reach a steel gate.
Dusk is settling across 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 Teo’s garden has turned into dollops the size of grapes which land unevenly across the windscreen.
‘Do we just go in, yeah?’ he asks 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 key.’
Nik pushes the steel gate and walks through. His mother follows. They venture deeper into the cul-de-sac, past a garage that’s no more than five metres wide. There are seven to the left and seven to the right. Rust creeps up the metal doors 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.
The door is the most rusted of the lot. Nik 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 sycamore 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 crouches beside him and tries to move the key but it won’t budge. ‘It’s the wrong one.’
‘Nah, look,’ Nik says. ‘It fits. It’s just needs some –’ He stops, noticing movement over his mother’s shoulder. There is a man standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac, watching them. ‘Oi, Mum,’ Nik whispers, standing up.
‘What’re you doing there?’ 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’all right. 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 clearing out this garage.’
‘That one?’ The man points to the door they’re clearly standing in front of, the carrier bag swinging by his waist.
‘Er … yeah.’
‘You’re having me on.’
‘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. No one’s seen anyone at number 14 for years.’
Nik wonders what ‘tinkering with my minis’ 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 street lights lining the quiet cul-de-sac. His mother left her umbrella in the footwell of the car; Nik’s hoodie is soaked through from the rain, and strands of his mother’s hair stick to her face. Nik moves, trying to act casual, so that he is standing between his mother and the man with the bags.
‘Right,’ Nik’s mother calls. ‘Well, it was my father’s but we only just found out about it.’
‘Hmm,’ the man says, walking across to the garage directly opposite them. He pulls the door open to reveal a fully kitted-out workshop complete with an old vintage Mini Cooper. Floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls, brimming with clear plastic boxes. Nik’s eyes battle against the dark as he tries to read the labels pressed into the centre of each box: brake fluid & engine oil, chargers & jumpers, strut compressor parts.
On a whim, Nik 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 rummages for a while, then reappears with a dark blue bottle which he hands to Nik.
‘Nice one,’ Nik says, giving the bottle a shake.
The man motions for Nik’s mother to step into the shelter of his garage. ‘Come in, love. Out of the rain.’ She ducks in, then unfolds the paper and holds it against the light.
Nik’s busy spraying the lock when he hears his mother ask: ‘Do you know what might be in there?’ He shoots glances back at them while he works.
The man laughs. ‘Do I? We’ve placed bets on it for years,’ he says, fishing out a packet of Haribo from one of the carrier bags. He rips the top open and offers one to Nik’s mother. ‘I’m a diabetic,’ he tells her. ‘Missus doesn’t let me enjoy these at home but they’re my guilty pleasure. Anyway, turned into a bit of a myth, that one,’ he says, nodding to the rusty door. ‘Personally, I want to say a three-eighteen. But I could be wrong. My old man, bless him, used to swear he remembers the chap moving it in,’ the man says. In one swift motion he removes his flat cap, runs a hand over his head, then pops the cap back on.
‘Moving what in? What chap?’
‘Was an old Indian chap,’ the man says, ‘which would add up, y’know.’
Nik imagines his mum holding back an eye roll. The key moves a few more degrees but then seizes again, so he sprays some more WD-40.
‘Sorry, what did you say about this three-eighty?’ she asks.
‘The three-eighteen,’ the man says again. ‘At least, I think my old man said it was a three-eighteen. This was yonks ago, though. Dad reckons he was about, watched him do it. Said he really struggled to squeeze it in.’
‘Squeeze what it?’
‘The three-eighteen,’ the man repeats patiently, between fresh mouthfuls of Haribo.
‘What the fuck is a three-eighteen?’ Nik murmurs to himself as he struggles with the key, desperate to see what’s inside now.
‘Sorry, how long ago was this?’ his mother asks. Nik can hear her voice growing more strained and husky, as though she is running out of air.
‘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.
‘Mum,’ 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, a thin layer of dust lining the entire surface of it. It’s parked terribly at an angle, nose first, so 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, which have collected in little piles by the back tyres.
‘Rah, sick.’ Nik says, staring at the car. ‘Proper old school.’
The man from the other garage is right behind him now and lets out a low whistle. ‘Jesus. She’s gorgeous.’
Nik looks over to his mother. She’s staring at the car, her eyes glazed over, her mouth slightly open.
‘Mum, you good?’
She doesn’t respond.
‘Oi, Mum. You okay?’
‘I can’t … I didn’t know he kept it,’ she says.
‘Looks like a ’96 plate,’ the man says, inspecting the number plate. He wipes the dust from it with his hand then looks up at Nik. ‘Might be worth something, you know.’
‘What’s your name, mate?’ Nik asks.
‘Christopher,’ he says, holding out a calloused hand.
Christopher retrieves 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 sycamore 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 moves forward to inspect the car. The key sits on the only shelf. Nik picks it up and, in its place, lays to rest the key he arrived with.
‘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 photo has been tucked into a corner of the dashboard so that it sits up against the glass. It shows a young woman, probably around his age, sitting on a bench, an orange mug between her hands. There’s a sketchbook on her lap, what looks like the outline of a country just visible on the paper. She’s smiling. 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 so full of hope. She is his mother.
‘Will it start?’ she calls. Nik glances up at the rear-view mirror to see his mother leaning against the 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 tensed which makes Nik feel uneasy. For a moment, he can’t respond. He’s holding his breath, the same way he used to as a child when he’d wake up from a nightmare, unable to move. He knows he has stumbled across something important here but doesn’t know what to do with it.
‘Nikhil? Can you hear me? Will it start?’
He slides the photo into the back pocket of his jeans, then tries the ignition with no luck. He opens the door slightly and calls over his shoulder: ‘No, but the steering wheel is unlocked.’
‘Just let the handbrake down. 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 car moves easily under his hands.
‘Whereabouts are you heading, chap? 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 tucks her hair behind her ears, worry creasing her face. ‘Look, let’s just get 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?’ Nik offers.
‘Certainly bloody not. I’m not getting in that thing,’ she snaps. The whip 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’ll steer,’ 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, Nik can see that there is more than just apprehension in his mother’s gaze; something inside 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 very much,’ his mother tells Christopher.
‘Hey, no problem. You’ll be fine leaving it out there for the night.’
She nods and walks back to her Volvo.
‘I’ll be here until the wee hours anyway, so will keep an eye,’ Christopher tells Nik.
‘Thanks, man. Appreciate your help.’
‘Sure, no trouble,’ he says, shaking Nik’s hand. He walks back towards his garage, humming quietly.
Nik circles the car. The paintwork is spotless, as though it’s barely ever been driven. It has what Layla would call ‘an old rustic charm’ to it. Teo 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, a small greeting for the shadow he never knew. Then, he tears himself away from the car 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 every time he checks the wing mirror beside her. She’s slumped towards the window, eyes closed, completely still, but Nik knows she is not asleep. The key to the Beemer 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 nineties neo-soul playlist from Spotify which his mother frequently listens to while cooking.
When he approaches their home, Nik stops in the road for a 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 hurries across the road.
‘Thank you for driving, beta,’ his mother says, as he turns into their driveway.
‘That’s okay. I’ll give our breakdown a ring in a bit … see if they can bring it back here.’
‘Not on the driveway, tell them to put it somewhere further down the road,’ she murmurs, reaching for the door handle. ‘I’m going to have a hot bath.’
‘Was it Bapu’s? I thought he didn’t drive.’ The words rush out of Nik in a single breath. He knows the answer – he has known it since he found the photo – but he needs to hear her speak the words.
‘No,’ she says, pushing the door wide open. ‘It was your father’s.’