He stared at the façade of a broken family home and he remembered.
He wished, on some level, that they had never existed. That he had never known who they were, that he had never been a father to three children and never been a husband to his wife. He wished that his heart had not been ripped from his chest five years ago, as he carried their lifeless, charred bodies out of the back door and rested them all in a row on the wet lawn. He wished he didn’t hear their screaming voices in his dreams, calling out for him, desperately needing his help to survive and knowing he was helpless. So he came here at least once a week, to try to silence their voices, to mark a silent vigil with his own thoughts, and stare at a house that was disintegrating under the volume of memories it contained.
There was only the gaping eyes and a toothless mouth masquerading as windows and a door. He knew that part of the roof had fallen into the attic, covering the old Christmas decorations and unused toys with tiles and rainwater. The walls were crumbling, uncovering the autumn leaves turning to fiery reds and oranges through the walk through lounge and dining room. The back wall had collapsed soon after the flames had died, leaving it all open to the elements.
Ray leant his shoulder against the lamppost he was stood next to and exhaled slowly, physically emptying his lungs to make his chest as empty as his soul. He wished he didn’t remember this house as it was before. He wished he didn’t remember it so intimately. He wished he didn’t remember family meals, birthdays, Christmases, watching films together, random arguments about the bathroom rota. It was as if every member of his family had left their imprint on every brick, each brick now falling back into the earth as there was no cement to hold it together anymore. It was a shell of what it once was. He was a shell of what he once was. He found his fingers had started to roll a cigarette without his brain registering what he was doing. It was a comforting movement, something that was familiar. The unrolling of the packet of tobacco, the sharp rip of the paper out of the tiny cardboard packet, the finger full of tobacco evenly distributed in the dent of the paper, the rolling into a tube, the licking of the gum, the rolling it again through his fingers to stick it all down. It seemed as if his fingers were dancing, uncontrolled by his somatic nervous system. It was a dance they could perform with his eyes shut and his brain dead. As automatically as breathing.
He lit the end and sucked the fumes deep into his lungs, relishing the warmth it brought him from the chilly breeze whipping around him. He glanced up and noticed a scruffy looking teenager approach him, gingerly holding a pint pot of steaming liquid. He presumed it was tea.
“My mum wanted you to have this.”
Ray stared at the steam, twirling into the autumn air. He noticed the holes in his tracksuit bottoms and the dirt under his fingernails. He vaguely recognised the face but not now, not in this time. He recognised a boy, years younger, chubbier, smaller, playing with toy cars in his own back garden with his own son. He didn’t recognise this almost man with fluff on his chin standing in front of him.
“Tell her thanks.”
He put the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and wrapped his cold fingers around the mug, glancing up at the house that contained the boy and his mother. The body that belonged to the face was slowly moving away from the window now she knew that the boy had done what he had been asked to do. She didn’t want to embarrass herself by staring at him and his still evidently raw grief. But Ray knew she had done it before. Before, he had put it down to the general paranoia he often felt when he stepped out, but now he knew he had been watched. Literally, not metaphorically. Which made a pleasant change, if he was honest.
“Can I have one of those?”
Ray dug into his pocket and handed him the tobacco, papers and a lighter. The boy took them gratefully, a worried look quickly passing over his face.
“Shes not watching, is she?”
Ray glanced up again. The window was still empty. He shook his head slowly and watched as the boy knelt on one knee on the pavement, using his other thigh as a table. Ray knew the resulting cigarette wouldn’t be perfect, but it would still be smokeable. Most of them were. He inhaled his own and took a sip of the tea, letting it burn all the way to his stomach. He was grateful for the mild pain it caused, it reminded him to exhale. He watched the boy’s clumsy fingers go through the same ritual he had gone through moments before, watched him stare at the flame for a second before touching it to the end of his cigarette and watched him blow the smoke out through his nostrils. The boy handed the tobacco back with a cheeky smile.
“Cheers Mr Taylor, enjoy your tea.”
Ray nodded and watched him stroll away, with the swaggering gait of a teenager partaking in something illicit. He smirked as he realised that the pure pleasure of doing something your mother wouldn’t approve of was as timeless as Shakespeare or Dickens. Some things never change. Even now everything had changed. Now there were a lot worse things teenagers could be doing than talking a wander around the block to smoke. Now, perhaps his mum wouldn’t care that much.
He sipped the tea again, and sat on the small wall behind him, placing the mug on the floor and resting his chin on the ball of one hand, causing his elbow to dig into his thigh uncomfortably. He had never understood why this had happened. There were so many unanswered questions that flew around his brain constantly, sometimes they made him feel nauseous. He was never involved in anything untoward. He used to be a plumber, he used to do jobs for anyone with the ability to pay or barter, he didn’t care what their political affiliations were, what their jobs were, where they lived. It was never part of his job to care, so he didn’t. He had friends and relatives who were actively involved, but other than a chance meeting in the pub, he never saw them. Never made an effort to speak to them. As far as he was aware, it wasn’t common knowledge who his brother was. They had lost touch years before, they didn’t look alike and didn’t share a surname. Who would even make that connection?
Ray was absolutely positive someone had.
His whole family burned alive and buried in the woods to send a message to a stranger.
DISSENT WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
He muttered the words under his breath, rolling them around on his tongue, spitting them out on to the back of his teeth.
DISSENT WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
Zoe Elizabeth Taylor 1971 – 2007
Mark Raymond Taylor 1999 – 2007
Rebecca Zoe Taylor 2001 – 2007
Logan Eric Taylor 2006 – 2007
He had buried all the important parts of himself with them on that July day.
DISSENT WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
He took a long drag of the cigarette and flicked it towards the road. He watched it as it smouldered in a pile of sodden leaves, finally going out. He poured the rest of the tea into a watery, beige puddle over the wall. They weren’t here anymore. They weren’t anywhere anymore. All he was left with was pain and emptiness and memories and the smell of charred flesh that never left his nose. He didn’t even know why he came here anymore. Nothing registered, nothing good, nothing bad. He didn’t think he had any emotions left.
He stood, pulled his collar against the wind and marched purposefully away from the shell of his old life. He needed to get back to where he subsisted now. He needed something to make himself feel alive again. He knew where that would be and what he needed to do.