A council house without a door can be found on every high street in the city. They’re all semis—old looking, with decaying bricks and bay windows blocked out sketchily with a few layers of white paint.
My parents had their own individual stories. Both skated over the injurious details I needed, and each hated the others, which was a testament to their opposing characters. My dad told my sister and I that those who went into the homes disappeared because they wanted to, because they were fragile.
“He meant suicide,” Eliza told me later on with a glint in her eye, “don’t tell me you didn’t know what ‘disappear’ meant.”
That story had the effect of detracting from our cushioned lives, while everything my mum did and said had the intent of encasing us over and over. When probed for hers, she said people only go into the homes when they‘ve lost something. My mum’s vagueness was two thirds of her personality, and the remainder an immobilizing warmth.
“A lot of people probably don’t find it, whatever it is. But I’m sure some do,” She added the delicate smile that was sprinkled atop whenever she’d wound me up, because I was less like her, and more like my dad.
I spent a lot of my childhood conjuring up things in place of emptiness. A lot in the city is left to the imagination, and my parents goaded this on with their ways—they’re running in the opposite directions, their extremes. But I lent on them anyway. This was because I hated the ministerial explanations, the issued statements—patchy, colourless stories more than my mum and dad’s intolerance toward one another. I was too privileged to be able to hate much else.
There were only the things my parents told me, and then the things others said when they weren’t around to push their fingers in my ears. At school and things. Kids were fascinated, morbid enough to offer me some exciting theories, yet ignorant of my need to feed on such things.
I’d hang on to their every word—those who were less coddled than me. There would be talk of lab monsters in the homes, and poisonous gas pumping from the corners of ceilings. Wolves that stood on their hind legs to hunt house dwellers, robots that crushed people by the throat.
There was a girl I’d been allowed to be close to—with glasses that made her eyes look as small as those of crabs. She’d had a drunkard uncle who would sing stories about the homes at family gatherings. He’d make a habit of saying that a walk through one was long and endless, that it led to eternity, a different space in time. Her mum would make her go upstairs when he got himself in such states.
I’d wanted her to find out what he meant by any of it, but she’d refused.
“My mum would kill me.”
The blurriness of her uncle’s ideas reminded me of my mum. And when I felt inspired to express my obsessions with the homes, I included the uncle’s ideas in my drawings. I proclaimed myself free of suspicion. In this instance, I didn’t care for the truth. I drew 6ft wolves towering over grey helpless looking figures, and then inches away I’d use all my pencils to create an abundance of technicoloured spirals and zig zags in a wall of glowing light at the back of the home. In another, I drew people hunched over with magnifying glasses and torches looking for things in the darkness, with a door hidden metres from them. Behind the door was a garden that looked like my own.
My dad’s story had been emptied of the magic I’d needed to fuel my fascination, so I’d trusted my mum without intention. He was not sadistic, rather a man who loved us too much, so needed to ‘make us conscious of the things we couldn’t see’. And my mum loved us just the same, so did not want us to see the world, to tend to it, to know it fully. That was because my dad had to go outside—into the world, and my mum stayed put, building a home, free to remain light and detached and impossibly hopeful.
She was a beautiful woman, but hardly anyone would see her but us, because she did not go outside of our sphere. But that was okay. She was blessed in this way, she’d say. She would pin up her hair so that no part of the face was hidden, spray on perfume for the cooking and the gardening. All her clothes were soft—unstarched, pretty—patterned with many elements, many layers. It fulfilled her, to live her life like this, to bask in the privilege of being able to ignore the things she didn’t like. But she too would choke on her own fluff, her own excessive plushiness. She too was restricted by it like we were. When she got angry with my dad for his draconian realism, it showed itself only as silence, and a hardness of face—never words, never cathartic expression. I didn’t think she was real sometimes.
“You girls were intended for so much more than this world can give you,” she had told us once while we were out in the garden, Eliza, her and I.
“When you leave your father and me, and this home, you’ll need to find something else to remind you.”
I remember thinking of the doorless places when she’d said that. I was older then, and I could convincingly walk past one without becoming shrouded by thoughts of its mystery or its potential. But I knew easily that they would be all that was left to remind me of the higher things my mum considered me deserving of, for long after she had gone.
When she did leave—dying too abruptly for anyone to understand, I moved back home to be with my dad. He retired off the back of it. I cooked and cleaned and gardened to maintain my mum’s flowers and herbs. I’d been out there in that world, and my mum had hated it, but hadn’t—couldn’t stop me. Still, while out there, I’d managed to maintain a distance between myself and all that felt brazenly dark. I knew after she had gone that it had been my mum’s presence in the world that had allowed me to. In my loss, I now had more in common with the house dwellers, but I distracted myself. I did nothing but tend to my dad in those years. He would stand in the garden and talk to Mum’s flowers. He morphed into something unrecognisable, a less stoic, more lenient man levelled out by despair. And then he too died.
I stayed, and Eliza moved back in. She’d been thriving, working for a segment of government that caused her to shuck and jive and ‘debunk’ a lot of what we’d heard about the city growing up.
“They’re fair you know,” she’d come back to tell me after a day of sitting in a white office where each desk held the weight of a MacBook, “people have lost the ability to make use of what they have these days, that’s all it is.”
We planted a rose bush for my parents in the garden. We watched films—the mind-numbing kind into the night. When Eliza went to work, I would use our inheritance to shop for the things my mum would’ve, like I did for my dad. Tomatoes and pork chops and star anise and potatoes, and then beans and lentils and rice and nuts and oat cakes when the budget grew tighter. We were all each other had. My parents had been only children—meaning they’d left nothing behind. Our sheltered lives had made us no friendships that had lasted. And one day, Eliza didn’t come home from work.
There’d been an ambush. It was one like those we’d seen on the news for only seconds before my mum would change the channel. When people stormed the prolific city buildings, there was always needless death. Eliza had been collateral. She’d been discarded, thrown on the trash heap along with some others. That’s not what was said in the story they’d told me, but I’d been trained to fill in the gaps.
It didn’t take long to decide. I tried continuing for a while. I’d go shopping with what little was left, arriving home with bags of things I had no use for. I’d leave the disposable shavers, the lifestyle magazines, facemasks, shower caps in the hallway. I’d by flowers and leave them to die on the kitchen table. I planted dahlias for Eliza. I’d mostly sleep, and wake up in a haze—at 4am, at 2pm with a momentary disconnection from where I was and what I’d lost.
The doorless homes had become emboldened again, like they’d been every time I’d walked past one as a child. I admitted to myself first, that everything that had stopped me before was dead and gone. Then it was that I deserved it, finally.