David Hayden

We are together, apart, at the top of the street. Mother. Father. Sister. Sister. Brother. And I. The sea is close. We carry suitcases and snow falls out of a grey and violet sky.

I cannot remember how we arrived here. There was a ferry, a long train ride, a stay over night in a dark house, another long train journey. How did we get here? I will never discover exactly.

I look down at my feet. The shoes are blue, with a strap, but also laces. I worry when I look at laces, when I remember them. The balaclava I wear was knitted by my aunt; it is itchy and obscures my vision, left and right. Someone tugs my hand, almost lifting me off the ground – my sister, the elder. A woman comes out of her house, settles her arms across her chest. She shouts a few words in a language I cannot understand. My mother says: ‘The likes of her is no better than she ought to be.’ I don’t understand this either.

We walk on, no closer. Somewhere on this street is a new council house. My father has the keys. Yesterday he was jangling them in his pocket and singing. But not today. The air stiffens with salt, with silence, with snow, with a rotten yellow light. There are rooms waiting, better without us because empty, because unwitnessed, because unwitnessing.

I remember the sea. I remember not having seen the sea. Everything I recall could end in the sea.

When we began, near the chemist’s beyond the roundabout, it was late afternoon, early evening at the latest, and now it is night.

I can see into a garage where a woman is feeding a bed sheet into a mangle, turning the handle, her hands. Her face is red and water pours onto the oil-stained concrete floor. A blue light comes through a narrow door behind her, from a back room, a kitchen. All the houses on this street are the same. Our house will be like this one – like and unalike.

Across the street there are a dozen figures standing behind half-curtained windows. They see what they can. None will speak to us. They will see, or not see, and say nothing. There is an orange light at one window but no person, no face.

My fingers and toes, my nose, my knees are paining me with the cold. My lips are cracked. I can speak but I do not speak. I will not speak. I try to find a face to hold onto, but mother is broken yellow, sister, distant green, sister, sunken blue, father, shifting, pulsing red. Brother, brother, brother – nothing. A street lamp comes on and goes off again. Snow thickens in the air and on the ground, and the sounds of motion from a moment ago I notice by their absence.

We have moved some way and yet made no progress. We are headed in the right direction, towards number 54, towards the sea, into the night, to a place where we will soon belong, and belong for time without end.

The summer past, I left the family and wandered down the strand, unnoticed. The sun was high, the air mild and warm; a breeze shifted the free sand in no especial direction. I climbed on all fours, to reach the tall yellow grass at thecrest of the dunes. I walked along the edge looking out at the bay, as it curved, as it shaped the world, and behind at the silver suburb. There was no before and no after, only an endless joyful present. Three miles later I was caught and returned to forgetfulness, to what I knew.

Father has stopped and put down two suitcases. He looks up and down the road. There is nothing to see. Mother puts down her case and sighs; she rubs her fingers. ‘Pick that up now,’ he says. ‘The insides’ll be getting wet on this filth’. She picks up the case. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a packet of cigarettes, shakes one out, puckers it between his lips, lights up. ‘Not far now, children,’ she says. We say nothing. Father picks up the cases and we walk on.

We have walked indeterminately down this soft pavement. I am forgetting what we have come from: the summer, the green, the other seasons that once were, the places that caught time alive, in stories, told and untold, in wordless pictures, the skin and bone memories, rags of sense that now barely cover the self. I have a true sense of the night into which we still head. My breath is in the wool around my mouth, damp, turning cold.

Sour, nameless chemicals fill the air like panic, but it is only what is released from the factory, nearby. It might be these gases that keep the gulls awake, calling and wheeling in the dark.

We walk more slowly. I release my sister’s hand and turn around. There is a long way that stretches out behind us. I do not know how this joins up with the other roads and places in this town, or any other. I imagine that I am alone but when I turn back I see figures ahead. I see the shadowed shape of my sister’s hand extended towards me.

House lights go off. Television glow hovers in the front rooms of a few homes for a few minutes longer before these too extinguish. The street is now grey and white and black.

The house is upon us, still a way off. There is no arrival.