The moonlight guides us silently along the cul-de-sac. Hanging branches wrap the road in a nightly shroud. The headlights are dark, as we creep along in first gear, steady and silent like thieves in the night.
The Victorian house is the darkest on the road, most of the bulbs had burned out and never been replaced. One could be forgiven for thinking it was abandoned; the abundant flora of the overgrown garden dances with the wind in dark silhouettes.
Some of the windows are boarded over with plywood and rusted nails; a temporary fix which had become a long-term feature, and a testament to one of many fights to which this house had borne witness.
We pull up to the house, gingerly lifting the handbrake and stepping out of the car. I hold the door handle up and gently push the door closed, so as to avoid that unmistakable cracking sound of a car door closing.
Tentative footsteps lead us up the garden path, through the broken wooden gate and to the back door. With a gloved hand, my brother reaches through the plywood board which covers the space where a window had once been, and opens the door from the inside.
The stale damp and dust of the house assault the olfactory senses immediately, stifling us with a pungent redolence from which long-dead memories burst from their graves, as real now as they had been then. In the darkness, we exchange glances. He is thinking the same thing as I am; how did we live here for so long?
We make our way through the house; the kitchen, with its dripping ceiling, the hall with its exposed wires and chipped glass door, the stairway, with its creaking wooden steps, scuffed and torn carpet, and rattling bannister. At the top of the stairs, a splintered wooden door hangs ajar; her bedroom.
In the darkness, we exchange one final look; a mutual reassurance, a mutual assertion that what we were about to do was necessary.
The door creaks as we ease it open and enter. She lies in a dishevelled heap on the bed, atop the crumpled blanket. Her body twisted and her face pushing out to the side. A stream of drool leaks from the corner of her mouth, soaking into the sheetless mattress below. Her face is contorted, wrinkled and dry, as the agonies of her struggle manifest themselves in a story upon her skin. Her eyes seem to be crushed shut, her jaw clenched in a vice grip. Deeply entrenched frown lines cross her forehead, etched through years of pain and fear.
She is younger than she looks, but she has aged horribly. Track marks run down her arms, and on her right arm, a smattering of congealed blood. Needles lie in disarray about the room; she doesn’t even try to conceal her illness anymore.
The room is thick with the smell of stale piss and the putrid smell of rotten meat; the smell is overwhelming, and I must breathe into my sleeve if I am to breathe at all.
My brother steps forwards, seemingly unfazed by the smell. He sits on the edge of the bed and rests his hand on her arm, gently stroking her arm.
“Wake up, mum.” He says in a soothing voice.
His voice –possibly the first she’s heard in days- seems to make her face twitch slightly.
“It’s me, George.” He says, “Benny is here too.”
I kneel beside the bed to face her, listening to her wheezing breath, thick with the smell of cheap vodka.
“Mum,” I reach out, stroking her face, “It’s me, Ben.”
She rouses slightly, opening her reddened eyes.
“Boys…” She slurs, “My boys…”
“Come on mum, we’re going to take you somewhere you’ll be comfortable. Let’s get you up, okay?”
“Where…?” She slurs, “Where is she?”
We exchanged glances once more.
Hold it together. Just hold it together.
George strokes her arm softly, guiding his hand into a soft grip, “She’s in the other room. Just in the other room.” George’s voice wavers but doesn’t break. “We’re going to take you to her now.”
A smile slowly forms on her face, as her eyes fall shut once more.
George and I take her by the arms and lift her from the bed. She stumbles forward as we guide her towards the splintered wooden door and up the stairs towards the attic.
My eyes are drawn to the dull brass hook-and-eye lock on the outside of the door; as children, this had been our bedroom.
George twists the handle, pushing the door open softly. With the flick of a switch, soft lights come on to reveal a room that seems to exist in a different time and space to the rest of the house. The air is sweetly scented, warm and clean, free from the stale dust that plagues the house. The room, though small, contains a large bed, with fresh white bedding and soft feather pillows.
Soft music begins to play; a mellifluous lullaby of tranquillity. Fresh silken clothes have been prepared for her, which are neatly folded at the end of the bed, and on a wooden stand beside the bed sits a vase of white flowers.
Her slumberous eyes creep open.
“This is your new room mum,” George says, “Benny and I got it ready for you yesterday.”
As her eyes settle on the room, a smile breaks across her face, and for a moment, the entrenched wrinkles on her forehead seem to melt away, harkening back to a time before the trials and tribulations; a time when she had been free.
The pain returns to her face as quickly as it left, “Where is she?” She asks frantically, “Where is Lily?”
Hearing her name aloud feels like a cold gut punch.
Hold it together, Benny. Hold it together.
“She’s here mum,” I say, my voice holding steady as I stroke her back, “We’ll bring her upstairs soon. Get changed, and we’ll bring her up, okay? I promise.”
My outward aloofness is both gratifying and horrifying, as my voice remains steady throughout. A lump begins to form in my throat, as the cold gut-punch rises into my oesophagus as though it might burst forth from my mouth, and I am forced to physically swallow sadness.
We depart the room, allowing her some privacy to change her clothes and clean herself up. As we stand at the bottom of the stairs, we look across to the cot which sits in dusty disrepair on the landing, the wooden bottom still stained with foul fluids.
When we return to the room, she is lying on the bed, her eyes half-closed. Her hair is clean and free from tangles; her face is calm and serene, as the mesmeric lullaby sings her to sleep. George and I tuck her into the sheets and give her a kiss on the forehead before rising to our feet.
“Goodnight mum,” I say, withdrawing a syringe from a glasses case, prepped with Fentanyl, “sleep now. Lily will be with you soon.”
I place the syringe on the bedside table, beside the vase of white flowers.
George looks across at me, nodding, and together we depart the room, softly closing the door behind us.
George reaches for the hook-and-eye lock of dull brass and silently slips it shut.
The streetlights roll over our heads in silence as we drive into the night. Where were we going? It was hard to say. To the bridge? To a dingy bar where we could drink ourselves into a sweet oblivion, until it all felt like a distant dream? Maybe we could keep driving until the scenery changed like the seasons, and everything would feel different, for a time.
If Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of children, then we are the forsaken. How many days had she cried for mother as she lay in that cot? Cries of hunger, cries of pain, cries of loneliness, all unanswered. God never heard Lily’s cries, God left her in the dark and the dust to decay.
Maybe she’ll throw the needle away, maybe she’ll break down that brass lock and free herself; maybe she’ll water those white flowers.
Or maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll shoot a lethal dose of Fentanyl into her arm, and when we return in three days’ time, we’ll find a vase of wilted flowers beside her putrescent body as it liquefies into the blankets around her.
They say that everything happens for a reason. I’d hate to think that was true.
(c) JC Axe 2019.