Adrian knew it was time to leave once the furniture started insulting him. For months, the whole house had been groaning under the weight of unspoken complaints. It began the day after the funeral – a few creaking floorboards, a squeaky stair. In the early hours of the morning, he would hear the pipes tut. Soon he stopped using the toaster and the microwave, its stainless-steel face marked with the ghosts of her fingerprints. In the living room, the sofa knitted its brows at him, souring with the smell of her dried sweat. It had been possible to bear the worst of it, as long as he stayed out of her bedroom. But the medical team had called to say they wanted the oxygen concentrator back, and he’d be damned if they thought he was spooked.
Mum’s door was hollow, though it looked heavy. It was made from dark, marled wood. It had a large jagged rupture in the middle, where Adrian had punched it one night to get her to shut up. Now he ran his finger along its thorny edge, daring it to splinter him. The silence hung over him as he nudged the door open. Her polka dot nightgown was crumpled on the bed as if she had simply folded into it like an egg mixed into batter. The crust of her last hot cross bun was still on the bedside table, hard and prickled. He wasn’t going to touch it now. Of course, her room was the loudest of all. As he carried the machine out, the wardrobe barked at him to stop being an ingrate.
Eventually, almost every item in the house was scolding him. The radiators sucked their teeth as he downed his morning pills. The floral curtains sneered when he tried to close them. Even the carpet began to get bristly. His room was the only quiet place left. He took refuge there, lying on his bed like a castaway on a raft, spending hours on his phone scrolling through Facebook. He watched the endless ebb and flow of people he used to know – pictures of them getting married to strangers, buying houses, having children.
One day a package got stuck in the front door, lolling out from the slot like a cartoon tongue. When he pulled at it, the door screamed at him, “Don’t touch my subscription box, you little shit!”
It was at this moment he knew it was time to leave.
At night, as the house slept, Adrian fished out his old school backpack from under his bed, stuffing it with a hoodie, three boxing shorts and his phone charger. He lay on his bed for the last time, staring out the small square window of his room at the stars winking sheepishly above him. The whole house had gone quiet as if it were holding its breath.
He knew he needed to leave, but the thought of seeing anyone outside made his guts bubble. The last time had been Christmas Day. His old welfare officer Gina had invited him round for dinner. She’d served him over the table, the frayed ends of her reindeer sweater dangling dangerously close to the cranberry sauce while Cliff at Christmas played on an endless loop. “You’re such a strapping young lad,” she’d said, spooning an extra dollop of red cabbage onto his plate. “Your mum would have been pleased knowing you were getting all the trimmings, and a good dose of festive cheer to boot!” As he was preparing to leave, Gina gave him a takeaway box filled with curled soggy parsnips, lumps of gravy and turkey sinews. She touched his arm as he pulled the handle to close the front door, “Adrian, you’re a lovely lad. I know she could be a tough nut at times, but you have to remember she really loved you.”
Slowly drifting into sleep, he knew he wouldn’t be going back to her. He didn’t know where to go, but it wouldn’t be to that.
When he woke, a thin slither of the moon still hung over the house. Shadows crept across his room in the dim light. The house was slowly waking up. The bed frame belched like a sewer grate in a puddle. Adrian gathered his things, leaving as quietly as he could, taking extra care not to wake the letterbox.
Outside the clouds were thick and creamy, and the tulips strained up to the sky like soft red claws. There were no people about in the hush of early morning. Adrian checked his phone. No surprises – no messages or missed calls. He opened Google Maps and zoomed out until he was just a small blue dot, pulsing in a web of grey and white patches. For as long as he stood there on the doormat, the world beyond would stay blank and quiet.
Eventually, he had to move. The morning sun had risen high enough to blush the row of houses opposite. Clumps of bluebells were sprouting out from the front lawn, their curled tips bobbing in the breeze. As he walked past them, they snarled at him: “You’re never going to amount to anything.” Adrian considered ripping them from the ground but decided against it. He’d already left too many things for dead.
At the end of the street, the pavement expanded out to a wide and wild common. A runner huffed by as an old couple squabbled over some shopping bags on a bench, and the ducks quacked and waddled into the long grass. In the distance Adrian could see the woods where he had often gone to skip classes and snap twigs, whiling away the hours. It spread out like a dark tumour from his old school. A few of the trees hung low and deathly still over the squat science block, their ghostly arms frilled with white.
A gravelly voice called out to him, “Can you give me a hand with this, son?”
A man stood not far behind him by the road, a jumble of fishing rods, cooler boxes and nets piled up in the boot of his car. He wore a moss green T-shirt with a picture of a Heinz baked beans can printed across it and a salmon pink bucket hat. It was impossible for Adrian to pretend he hadn’t seen him.
“I need to get these over to the allotment, give me a hand, will you?”
Adrian gathered an armful of things and balanced some rods over his shoulder. He hoped the man wouldn’t speak to him, but as they trudged their way over the path through the common that led to the allotments, he talked non-stop.
“My wife’s been complaining that they’re taking too much space in the garage, but you never hear me whining about all the pots and pans she’s got in there, do you?” Adrian didn’t know how to reply. He wondered what his voice would sound like if he tried to say something, having not used it for a while. They headed towards a fenced off area. It was much smaller and deader than he remembered it being. He’d spent many hours there as a child tending to mum’s allotment and planting potato seeds in sacks. Large parts of it were now covered in weeds as knotted as the hair of a bedridden patient.
“Okay, let’s put it in front of the greenhouse,” the man said. Adrian laid his things down. The man, arms akimbo, looked him up and down. “That Wynchwood rod looked pretty good over your shoulder, lad,” he patted him on the back and picked up a battered black fishing rod.
“Why not have a go with it out by the pond in the trees? I can guarantee you’ll take to it. Fishing was made for the silent types, like you and me,” he chuckled, then strode out through the tangle of overgrown plants and back towards his car.
Adrian stooped down to pull a weed from its roots. He flung it against the greenhouse, where it landed with a satisfying thump. A dog in the distance barked. He checked his phone. Still, no messages or missed calls. On Google Maps, he panned over a small patch of blue in the woods. It wouldn’t take more than twenty minutes to get to the pond, even with the rod slung over his back.
As he got closer to the trees, the sky grew heavy, smeared grey and pregnant with rain. The air felt oppressive like it had during the last week of mum’s life.
“You’re as useless as your deadbeat dad.”
Her wheezing had become relentless by then and his arms ached badly from pressing the oxygen mask to her face. The whole house seemed to sink into a shadow with her at the centre of it, her hair spreading over the pillow like a mud nest. In those final days, he stopped opening the curtains or washing and lived off hot cross buns.
“You ought to be careful in there.”
A walker and her dog were coming out of the trees as he was entering them. “I let Pip off the leash once and do you know what she came back with? A shoulder blade!” Adrian looked down, trying to avoid the walker’s wide eyes. “Only animals with two legs have shoulder blades,” she added as he continued past her.
At first, birdsong bubbled up through the branches. The woods felt alive with animals shuffling in the undergrowth and the trees above him jostling in the breeze. As he walked on, a dead weight began to descend over it all. The ivy smothered the trunks like a bristling, waxy blanket and the birds receded into distant chirps.
By the time he reached the pond, the only sound he could hear was the blood scraping around in his ears. He put the rod down and stood at the water’s edge. A few small fish flipped around the algae that clung to the bank. He stooped down and cupped his hands to let one swim in, then slowly drew it up, letting the water drain away. Its silver scales flashed as it writhed in his palm.
“Any last words?” its mouth gaped open and its gills flapped like the sail of a boat trapped in the tail-end of a storm.
“I would have been better off without you.”
It had been enough to drop the mask, to bolt down the stairs and run from the house as far as he could. He spent hours wandering the streets in the rain, her watery voice repeating in his head. When he returned that night, she was gone. He was soddened through, but in the end, she was the one who had drowned. After taking a long hot shower, he closed her eyes and wiped the rims of her nostrils, which were crusted and scaly from oxygen.
The fish stared blankly ahead as its body convulsed and suffocated in the air. Adrian clenched his fist, feeling its cool flesh and tiny spine crack in the heat of his hand.
It was probably time to move on.