The key slips into its opening, twisting with ease and releases a click of relief against the beating silence. I can’t help but smile a little at the sound, having expected the locks to be changed by now, and yet here they are, so painfully unchanged that I find myself wishing that they weren’t. The cool metal of the doorknob stings against my skin as I stand there holding it, waiting, hesitating and recalculating. The door seems larger than usual, looking down at me with a disappointing glare, and for a moment, I am a young adult again, arriving home at a late hour.
I suppose the situation is not all too different. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same, since I am late. Only, I’m late by seven years. Maybe too late.
A breath, one that I wasn’t aware that I was holding, escapes my lips and I twist the knob and push open the wooden door of doom. I am blinded by familiarity and in a passing moment, the dread is somehow replaced by the comfort of returning home. I have become accustomed with the pit of emptiness, which just seems to have grown with each door pushed open to reveal cheap motel rooms to fancy hotel suites to strangers’ living rooms but none of them have been home. And for that passing moment of comfort I just revel in it, breathing in the air carrying the smell that became acquainted with my senses a long time ago.
I hear the door click shut behind me before the room is consumed in silence again, suggesting that it is void of all other company than mine. The grandfather clock placed in the corner of the lobby deems time to be eleven fifty one in the morning, which explains the absence of mother.
She’d left home not a moment after eleven for her late morning walk and returned not a moment before noon in all the years that I had lived here and it’s obvious that she’s followed the same routine in all the years that I haven’t. It isn’t in the least bit surprising, though. Mother has been married to her routine ever since dad died, and she remains loyal to it to this day. It’s what made sense for her then, and it makes sense for it to make sense for her now.
My eyes skim around the house, smiling a little at how everything looks just as it did on the day I left. Well, almost. There is a row of shelves hung along the steps of the staircase, upon each of which rest multiple number of photo frames. My legs carry me without me realising it until I reach the shelf right at the bottom, and I feel a breath catch in my throat when I see the photo frames up close. Each one of them holding a magazine article or newspaper article and even blog posts, which were written about my work or me. She’s read all of them, kept them, shown them off to the world, all the while I had presumed that she wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with me or any reminder of me, she has been my biggest fan.
I stand there for a second, letting that sink in. There is a spectrum of emotions that passes along my chest: Relief, happiness, sadness and then guilt. All those years in which I didn’t once pick up the phone to call her, under the conjecture that she would not want to hear my voice, she was waiting for my call. A sigh escapes me when I realise that my mother has always been a completely different woman than the one I thought I knew.
Stepping away from the shelf, I feel tears prick my eyes and I wipe them away before they have a chance to fall. I look around some more, averting my eyes towards anything but the shelf. I walk into the living room, where the sunlight spills inside through the cracks in the curtains. My hand brushes over the furniture as my body manoeuvres its way around without much guidance, as it would seem that my muscles remember this place more than I was consciously aware. Still, I take my time, drinking in the familiarity with a little smile upon the corner of my lips as I walk.
I pause when I reach the old armchair that faces the window, at the end of the room, and feel myself smile a little wider when I run my hand along the cool leather. The chair faces the window through which sunlight enters the room and embraces my exposed skin. This used to be dad’s chair. It’s where he would sit and read his day away, not realising the changing colour of the sky, or even the fall in temperature as the day merged into the night. Mother often found him asleep on this chair, a different novel open on his lap every time. Sometimes she’d just let him sleep because he’d look so at peace, away from the pain.
I remember sitting by his feet, when I was a child. We’d never say a word to each other, he’d carry on his reading and I would go about doing what toddlers did, and yet there was always this warmth, a comfort, like a secure blanket was wrapped tight around me. It took me some time to understand that it was him, his presence that was the source of this sense of wellbeing because I never did feel it again, after he was gone. At least not in the same way.
There is a bookshelf within arm’s reach of the chair. It wasn’t always placed like that. Mother pushed it closer when she saw that the slightest movement made him wince in pain. He never uttered a word of complaint, or even let out a simple groan for that matter, but somehow she knew, and with awful amount of effort and heaving grunts, she moved it closer so he could read without being in pain.
She used smile wider when dad was around, my mother. She would laugh more freely, stand a bit taller, and she’d be carefree. She was the strongest person I ever knew, the happiest one, too. And when she lost him, she lost that part of herself. Her smiles were less frequent and more strained, her laughs were mostly series of quick outward breaths, her shoulders would sag, and it was clear that she was crumbling.
Only she would never let me see her cry. It is an indescribable pain, to watch one’s mother hold her tears back when it is so obvious that the tears simply want to flow. The child that I was did not realise how her loss had cut her much deeper than mine could have ever cut me. To me she was the strongest woman I had known, she couldn’t be hurt, couldn’t be touched.
But I saw that happy glint disappear and the paranoia take its place. I saw the panic in her eyes, heard the fear in her voice. Her own secure blanket was ripped away and she was left bare and exposed to the harsh wind of reality. And the strongest woman crumbled into a helpless one, lost and scared.
The armchair squeaks in surprise when I take a seat on it, as though being awoken after a long nap. I lean my head back and feel the sunshine lay tiny kisses upon my bare skin, and just watch the world move quietly. Life seemed so much easier from this chair, looking out from this window when I would sit here as adolescent. The world had more colour, more appeal for it was a world without complications, or responsibilities, or things like rents and budgets, or day jobs and night shifts. It was a world seen through a child’s eyes, behind the thick veil of innocence.
I have dreamt many of my dreams, sitting on this chair, pictured myself in various scenarios allowed my imagination to conquer the wildest of ideas. This is my safe place, away from the peering eyes of the world. This is where I decided to take my first step towards adulthood.
I remember the cold.
The night resembled the gates of oblivion, pitch black in a pool of silence and I stood right at the entrance. The rest of the world was lost amongst the creases of slumber, as I slipped into the cool breath of winter. It was eerily still, that night, as though time itself had stopped to see what I would do. My heart had thudded so loud against the silence that I had feared it would wake the entire neighbourhood.
It was a snap decision, the running away. I was sitting on this armchair, peering out the window and wondering what the world would look like if I were to stand alone in it. I thought of mother, thought of what she’d told me about her dream to go out and see the world, to get lost in cities and one day have crazy stories to tell us about her backpacking days but then she met dad, and she had me, and then dad got sick.
“Life got in the way,” She’d said, “I couldn’t do any of that alone, anyway.”
I remember feeling this wave of panic wash through me, the dread when I thought that one day that could be me, looking back and regretting not doing what I had been longing to do since dad had left. I could see how mother had lost a piece of herself in letting that piece rest in the hands of her husband, who took that piece with him when he left. I understood why she’d put her dreams aside, but I couldn’t stand the idea of doing it, myself.
So, I went upstairs, packed a rucksack with pairs of undergarments, a single pair of jeans and two shirts to last me the week. Shoved in the camera that had once belonged to my father along with a wallet that contained maybe enough money to buy me a few sandwiches, here and there, for the next two weeks or so, and my passport.
At the time, all I can recall is thinking that I could not let my happiness depend on anyone other than myself, and if I stayed any longer, I would lose my chance. I tried explaining that to mother in the note that I left on the mantelpiece on my window before slipping out of it. I told her that I couldn’t wait for my dreams to fall in my lap, and that I would have to move forward to prevent life from getting in my way. I asked for her forgiveness, though I knew that forgiveness wouldn’t be so easily given. In the end I requested her to not look for me, simply because I did not want to be found. And even if I did, I would have to get lost, first.
I look out of the window and I can see that not much has changed. Rooftops still remain clustered about as though hiding a secret; the trees sway in laziness, and everything just appears to be so simple. Only, now it doesn’t. It looks like a magic trick, if anything else, an illusion that may seem like something beautiful only to be hiding something so hideous underneath.
Experience, I have found, rips that veil of innocence into smaller and smaller shreds as one gains more and more of it. It only takes several nights of sleeping on park benches, or if you’re lucky enough, someone’s couch; working what seems to be endless hours at low paying day jobs; going hungry on many other nights because your wallet has worn too thin, to comprehend that life seen through a child’s eyes is nothing but a lie.
I hopped onto a train that night, which took me out of the city into a different one. Dawn had just begun to crack along the surface of the sky when I found a park bench and used my rucksack as my pillow to sleep on it.
The following months were a new kind of hell. Work, it seemed, wasn’t too keen on being found and I would spend the days going to stores, teashops, carwashes, diners and any other institution where I could earn an honest income. The nights were spent on finding a suitable bench, or any flat surface that wasn’t the ground, to sleep on. The mornings would follow and I would start again.
My wallet would grow thinner by the day and soon enough I was savouring a single bite of a sandwich, convincing my growling stomach that it was enough to satisfy my raging hunger. By the end of the third week, my back had become accustomed to the discomfort of lying on hard surfaces, when I finally managed to be hired as a barista at a hole in the wall café in a downtrodden area. I don’t remember being more relieved than I was when the man told me that the job was mine.
It wasn’t living the dream, of course; running around during rush hours, the lousy tips, the rude customers and the uncomfortable uniform but it made me appreciate the little things. Things like the cup of coffee that my manager was nice enough to let me have during my break, the occasional smile that I would receive from a customer, and most of all Janet, the cahier with the warm caramel skin, short pink hair touching the nape of her long neck and a childlike smile, eager and mischievous. She offered me her sofa when she found that I didn’t have a place to stay.
“It isn’t a five star hotel,” She said in her cockney accent, “But at least you wouldn’t risk developing hypothermia in your sleep, or you know, having your throat slit open.”
We laughed and I hugged her because never had I thought that the idea of sleeping on lumpy cushions with an actual pillow and a fleece blanket would present itself as luxurious to me, and if nothing else, the use of a proper shower almost had me weeping with gratitude.
Janet helped in many more ways than just by offering up her sofa. Her kindness and companionship helped me restore little of the faith that was lost in the world and I thank her everyday for it.
Those first few months away from home were what I believe to my “curtain rising”. I received my first glimpse of the sheer contrast between what I believed the world to be like and what it really is. They were the very first scenes of the first act of the entire play that I was directing. It didn’t take long for me to surmise that the world was a very different place than I thought it to be.
I believe that it was a way for me to learn the importance of home, of companionship, and if nothing else, then personal hygiene. Because not a single night had gone by when I did not think of quitting and returning home. My way of learning to appreciate the small things like the ease of entering Janet’s tiny flat, or the comfort of taking photographs from dad’s old camera and seeing time being captured through a lens. It was soothing because everything did seem so much happier in a photograph and it would feel like I was sitting on his armchair again, peering through the window.
And in those fleeting moments, I felt home.
I had been sleeping on Janet’s sofa for about six months, though only for a few hours at a time after returning home from the second job that I’d taken up as a night-waitress at a twenty-four-hour diner. By then, I had moulded into the life that I had built for myself, and I would’ve said that things were well. But, alas, time is fluid and one must learn to flow along with it and as it turned out, so did I.
I found Janet’s story quite similar to mine, which explains why I felt so at ease around her. Where I had lost one parent to sickness, she had lost both to an accident. She’d been put into foster care and the family had apparently been a “good fit”, according to her, as though they’d been a pair of jeans but she’d left them, anyway.
She gave me a knowing smile with the cigarette still between her lips, when she saw my puzzled expression.
“I had a drug problem, “ She admitted as nonchalantly as describing her interest in stamp collection, “I’m clean now, but back then I would’ve done anything for a fix. Oh, don’t look so disappointed, darling, I’m only human. I made a mistake.”
But it wasn’t disappointment on my face, then. It was wonder. Wonder about whether it was a mistake of my own to leave home. It was the first time in years that I had allowed myself to ponder about what would’ve happened if I had stayed home. Janet understood why I had to leave, but she disapproved of my way of doing it.
“I’m not one to talk,” She said, “But you should’ve talked to your mom. You should’ve given her a chance.”
Only it was too late, then. I had left, already and I couldn’t imagine that my mother would want to see me again. Not after leaving her the way I did.
It wasn’t just exaggeration when I said that Janet had helped me in many more ways than just extending hospitality towards me. She’d been the reason for my life to change, completely and I often wonder where I would be, today if I hadn’t met her and then wonder whether I had met her for a reason. As though she was meant to come into my life and turn it around.
I had clicked a photograph of an old man bending down to tie his granddaughter’s shoelaces. The picture had caught Janet’s eye, hanging from its wire, drying after being developed, and she’d liked it enough to pin it up on the bulletin board in the coffee shop. I’d thought nothing of it and had gone back to bustling around behind the counter to get people’s orders done.
The following week, a white haired man, with an inquisitive look in his eyes came along and I noticed him eyeing something on the bulletin board with intrigue. When he finished his coffee and got up to pay, he inquired after the photograph pinned on the board, and more specifically, after the person who was responsible for taking it.
Janet giggled at my confused expression when she pointed me out to the man. I remember his eyes widening when he saw me, and not being able to fathom what was going through his head, as he looked me up and down, nodding to himself ever so slightly. He handed me his card and asked me to come around his office and show him some more of my work.
“You catch the happiness, just right.” He told me before leaving.
And I was left wondering whether any of that had actually happened. I never imagined myself becoming a photographer but somehow in that moment, I just knew that it was something that I had to do. I remember wanting nothing more than to call my mother and share this newly discovered piece of myself with her. And I remember the pain of struggling with everything in me to refrain.
It feels like it never actually happened, the events following that day. It feels almost as if I dreamt it all, as if I never actually moved from my seat that night and that I just imagined everything in my head. But when I look out of the window, again, I am convinced of otherwise. Because I don’t see the world as what I had seen it before, I can’t. And only real experience has the power of shifting entire perspectives, the beauty of it is that it cannot be denied, no matter how much one tries.
Morgan, the white-haired man’s name that I had learned, was the editor of a start-up magazine called ‘Cityscape’ and he offered me a paid internship as a photographer.
It wasn’t much, but it was certainly better than the tips I had to scrounge for.
And from there, everything just went up. A year of internship and I was offered a job as assistant photographer. Three years of doing that and a promotion to head photographer came along. I moved into an apartment of my own and asked Janet to stay with me. Only, she refused.
“Just promise me you’ll find your way home.” She’d said with a smile. She had this proud expression on her face, almost motherly, had it not been for the cigarette in her mouth.
I knew then that I was meant to meet this woman, one way or another. She was my lantern in the darkness, whose glow could light up oblivion. It’s a shame that a glow that bright is not meant to last.
Tears spring to my eyes, once more. I lean forward, clenching my eyes shut and gripping the arms of the chair, my nails digging into the leather. It’s been a week, and the moment is as fresh as it was when it cut into my life. Though I remember very little, the pain is something my mind refuses to let go of.
There was a nagging feeling, clawing at insides of my stomach the entire day. Everything felt off and out of place. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t shake it off. I messed up my lines, my mind was everywhere but the rehearsal and I couldn’t understand what it was. Eventually, Peter had enough and called it quits for the day.
Evan showed his concern, of course, because he knew something was wrong. He always knew. Like Janet, he had unknowingly changed my life. We’d met by accident, a few years ago when I had been in France to click a few shots for an issue of the ‘Cityscape’. I had taken some pictures of the theatre group of which Evan had been a part, at the time, and he had offered me a warm smile.
I’d told Janet about him, over the phone, that night. She had predicted that he would be someone important to me, and like always, she had been right. After a few dinners, a couple of lunches, some breakfasts, a lot of coffee dates and just a single night in bed with him, he had somehow convinced me to take an apprenticeship in the theatre company in New Zealand, which had recently hired Evan as a lead actor for a production. I had built sets, worked on costumes and whatnot for a year or so, but they couldn’t keep me off the stage for too long.
He was always there for me. He was there for me on that day, as well. He was there when I received the call, he was there when I broke down, howling like a madwoman, and he was there when I stopped.
“An overdose,” The man said on the phone, “Nasty business, that.”
Apparently I had screamed, and thrashed about. I don’t remember much of it; it’s all blurry when I think about it. But Evan told me that I had yelled, “I should’ve known! I shouldn’t have left her on her own!”
Eventually he fell asleep. I, on the other hand, was denied that indulgence. My mind wouldn’t shut up, my tears wouldn’t stop flowing and it felt like my body was not my own. I climbed out of bed and took my phone with me. Out in the arms of the cold, I dialled the numbers over which my fingers had ghostly loomed over for the past few years. When it rung, my heart seemed to thud in the same way as it had on the night that I had left. And just when I was about to give up, I heard her voice. It was heavy with sleep, but the sound had me weeping again. It was the only sound that could have brought me comfort in that moment, and it did. Oh God, it did.
I sobbed and she just listened without saying a word. I took her silence as her anger and I understood, of course.
“I don’t know what to do, mom.” I cried on the phone, “I don’t know where to go. I’m lost. I always have been.”
And there were just three simple words in response, “Come to me.”
The grandfather clock booms, and my heart thumps wildly, again. I am scared, again. For a moment there is only silence. Then I hear the door click open.