I wait in the passenger seat for Dad to start the engine. The window is cool against my forehead as I lean into the glass, watching Mum on the doorstep, stifling tears. Dad wouldn’t stop groaning about his back as he loaded my stuff into the boot, but I know it’s just his way of telling me he’s sad to see me go. I slip my hand into my pocket and run my fingertips over my ammonite.
As we pull away, I whisper ‘Goodbye, house,’ like I did as a child, imagining it calling a farewell back to me.
Dad laughs. ‘You’ll be home by Christmas.’
My parents moved into their half of 8 Fortune Road on the first of January 2002. Dad says he was so hungover from New Year’s Eve he threw up as soon as they opened the door, bright blue sick on the whitewashed walls.
‘Like nothing you’ve seen before – aquamarine! We were wild back then.’
‘Stop exaggerating, Gaz,’ Mum says every time he gets overexcited.
I crashed into their lives two weeks later. They say it was the worst decision of their marriage – not me, the house, I mean – ’cause it was a building site with no running water. There’s a photo of me in my crib balanced on paint pots, bug-eyed and terrified at the plumber’s moony face. I was cute – everyone says so when we get the albums out – but I could bawl so loudly the sound thundered down the street.
‘Screaming bloody murder, you were,’ Mum likes to remind me, as if I could have done anything about it. Only Lola could shut me up.
Lola: the lady next door. Her husband, Patrick, sold my parents our side of the house. Apparently they didn’t need the whole building to themselves, so they split it in two, right down the middle. Our front door opens straight into our living room, which I never thought was weird until I saw my friends’ homes. The main hallway is shared between the two sides, as is the original green door, so our post always used to get jumbled. Noises passed through the connecting walls like nerves sparking across the two sides of your brain. I learnt about that in Biology GCSE: left side equals logic, mathematical function; right side is for creativity and imagination. It’s pretty obvious to me which side was which, at number 8.
Lola was Spanish, but I never heard her speak it. She sounded more like American to me, which she said is because she learnt English from shows like Friends, which my parents always quote from even though I’ve told them it’s completely outdated. When I was a kid Lola taught me to roll my tongue to make the sound of a motorbike, or a purring cat, and she pronounced ‘cupboard’ like ‘cup board’ despite everyone correcting her. Sometimes she’d lift me up to the green front door so I could run the tip of my finger over the smooth golden 8, making sure not to lose contact, imagining I could go on for infinity. She wore a purple pashmina that I always thought made her look like royalty. It had sparkling crystals hanging amongst the tasseled ends. I liked to stroke the fabric, then shake it and listen to them tinkling. It felt like the most precious thing in the world.
We used to have a photo of the five of us in the garden on a summery day. It’s the only vivid memory I have before the age of seven. Lola made paella, saffron-stained, the colour of sunshine. Patrick had me in stitches putting the prawns’ heads on his fingers and giving them squeaky voices as they danced across the table. They’d brought cake for pudding, but it had sunk in the middle.
‘I don’t have your magic touch!’ Lola exclaimed to Mum.
Mum shrugged and smiled. ‘Well, they say baking is a science, cookery is an art.’
‘That explains it,’ Lola said, tossing her hot-chocolate hair over her shoulder.
No one realised I kept stealing the big, beefy strawberries from the Pimm’s jug until I said I felt dizzy, and they made me go and lie down. Under the whirring fan beside my bed, I heard them sing, laugh, and whisper into the early hours.
Years later, after The Incident, Mum took that photo down, but it had been hanging on the kitchen wall so long it left a yellow square that had to be painted over.
Patrick and Lola were antique dealers. Patrick especially would use amazing words like ‘baroque’ or ‘rococo’ or ‘filigree’ in his passionate cockney accent. He was chubby, ginger, and had inherited his trade from his dad’s dad’s dad. When I was a kid, he’d often sit in the back garden too long; his skin turned orange and blended into his scalp so all of a sudden he was a big jolly satsuma. He told me stories about his frequent travels to Scandinavia to collect antiques. Once, he backpacked across South America, but he said I was too young to hear the finer details. ‘I’ll tell you on your eighteenth birthday,’ he said, winking.
They had a shop in Old Street selling art and furniture but had to let it go ’cause developers bought the whole street, knocked it down and turned it into flats. On the day of The Incident, a moving van grumbled noisily outside the house, and the front path was so full of stuff I couldn’t see down it. I was reminded of that game where the floor is lava and you have to jump from chair to chair. At ten years old, I was up for it. Dad was not.
‘What’s all this?’ he demanded of Patrick when he saw the boxes and furniture piled up in the hallway.
‘It’s temporary. Whilst we look for new premises.’ Patrick was sweating, his arms wrapped around a huge glass vase.
‘And how long will that take?’
Patrick shrugged. ‘Weeks. Months, maybe.’
Dad was turning red. ‘And you expect us to be okay with all this? Blocking the way, so we can barely get in and out of the house?’
I heard the vase smash before I saw it in pieces at Patrick’s feet.
‘If we hadn’t sold half our fucking house to you, this wouldn’t be an issue, would it Gaz? WOULD IT?’
That was one of the few times in my life I’ve seen Dad speechless.
By the following morning, the stuff was gone. Dad went over to knock on their door, to ‘patch things up,’ but no one answered. Later, we heard Patrick’s raised voice through the walls. I caught only one line before Mum turned the radio up, drowning it out. ‘It’s snakes like Gaz who are cashing in and ruining us.’
After that, I was instructed to speak no more than a hurried hello to the pair of them. The last proper conversation I had with Lola, she was sitting in the back garden. It was a freezing day, and she had no coat on; I only went out there to do Mum a favour and knock mud off my trainers. At once, I noticed her brown curls were streaked with white. I asked her why she’d even think of dyeing it to look like that, and she said, ‘It goes like this when you’re sad, hon. Wanna know what my name means?’
I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure.
She put her hands on my shoulders and pulled me in close, whispering, ‘Lola’s short for Dolores.’ Then she sighed and looked over my shoulder. ‘Dolores means our lady of sorrows. How ’bout that?’
I leant away because her teeth looked furry and her breath was sour. Then I made an excuse and went inside. I felt bad, though, and asked Mum if I could take her some leftover crumble.
‘No,’ she said.
Later, I saw her scraping it into the bin.
Last time I saw Patrick, he was putting the bins out. It was raining. I almost didn’t notice him from under my brolly as I splashed through the gate, and he ignored me when I called hello even though I saw him see me. As he shuffled ahead up the garden path, I noticed the ends of his jogging bottoms were ripped and frayed, the long ribbons of material dragging like tendrils through the puddles.
Two weeks later he stuck a sign on the lamppost outside the house.
‘Whoever’s fucking dog is SHITTING on this street, get that creature put down before I do it myself. NOT ON MY TURF.’ He’d typed it out in bold lettering, laminated the paper and attached it with cable ties.
Mum fetched the scissors and cut it down, her hand over her mouth. She shooed me away because of the bad language, thrusting it under her armpit as she marched inside. ‘I’m eighteen, Mum,’ I told her. ‘I know swear words for fuck’s sake.’ She pretended she didn’t hear me and started chewing her lip, which she does when she’s trying to stop herself from laughing or crying.
Dad came home in his usual mood that night. He works in property, and even though we did ‘take your daughter to work day’ I still don’t really know what his job entails. But I do know that they build flats in run down places, digging up old ground to try and make it new.
He always gets back all red in the face, probably from standing in someone’s armpit on the tube. Mum once tried to teach him relaxing breathing techniques she learnt in yoga, but when he held his breath, he puffed up like a cushion and the vein above his left eyebrow throbbed horribly like something was stuck under there, wanting to get out.
Now, when he gets home, he marches around the house and moves anything that’s not in the right place. ‘Where do these live?’ he’ll say, holding up my slippers, or my headphones, or any other inoffensive miscellaneous object. Then, he’ll take a beer from the fridge, and start re-stacking the dishwasher, because, apparently, ‘there’s no point using it if it’s not loaded properly.’
When Mum showed him Patrick’s offensive dog sign, Dad rolled his eyes, shook his head and said, ‘Jesus. They’re mad. Let’s order a curry.’
I ate my saag paneer in front of David Attenborough, his voice smooth and runny as the melting ice caps, not quite loud enough to drown out my parents bickering on the sofa.
Later, Dad brought up the subject of university again. He kept ordering prospectuses; they were stacking up on my desk, a horrible waste of paper for me to look at every day. My science grades were decent, so I’d considered studying medicine, thinking it would be nice to help people, but I fainted when we had to dissect a sheep’s heart. Dad thought engineering was the best option, for the career trajectory. ‘You could be a pharmacist!’ had become Mum’s favourite saying. The issue was, I was distinctly average at pretty much everything. My teachers even said so at parents’ evenings. When I was younger, I tried getting into chess, painting, astronomy, and ballet, but I wasn’t bothered by any of them. I often wondered what would happen if I couldn’t decide what to do with my life. It scared me.
In primary school we went on a trip to Dorset to find fossils. I didn’t enjoy the whole excursion much; my best friend Claudia had ditched me for Lottie, the new kid, so I spent most of it plotting when to put gum in her hair, which I didn’t, in the end, because someone stole that from me, too. It was blustery and cold, the rain coming at us sideways. Everyone was whining.
We were each given a little magnifying glass that hung around your neck and were sent off to the beach in Lyme Regis with the hope of discovering something someone would one day display in the Natural History Museum. My hands turned blue because I’d forgotten my gloves.
There was such an abundance of fossils on the beach that pretty much everyone managed to find something, however small and chipped and worn away. On the coach home the popular kids on the back seats started lobbing their collections at the back of everyone’s heads, so Miss Scott made the driver pull over so she could unclip her seatbelt and get up to yell at them. She didn’t see me reach down under my seat to collect the fossils, abandoned in the forest of the other kids’ legs.
When I got home, I showed my parents my treasure. I laid the pieces out on my desk in my room so I could look at them every day. I polished them religiously, imagining I was restoring their proper value, their worth others failed to see. But the routine dwindled, and over time they were swept away, disappearing gradually as I grew up. Only one, somehow, survived: a tiny ammonite that perched on a stack of books I’d never read, powdered with dust.
I woke up on a Saturday morning at 11:54am, and trotted downstairs in my bed socks and dressing gown which is too short on the arms and has a burn mark on the collar from when I left it drying on the radiator too long. It smelt like biscuits and home. I made coffee and crumpets thick with Gran’s crab apple jelly. Dad was out back with a rake, levelling the soil of the uneven grass. ‘I’ve got the Bristol brochure for you on the kitchen table,’ he called. ‘Please just have a flick through.’
I sat on the patio and stuck my legs out so they reached the edge of the upturned lawn, feeling the bits of grit and sediment between my toes. The prospectus was stiff with plasticky paper, so I cracked the spine open at a random page. On one side, BSc Zoology, complete with an image of a baby panda. On the other, BSc Palaeontology. I squinted at the photo of an excavation site in Argentina. Then I saw the fees and felt a bit sick.
It was only when the front of the house was suddenly flashing blue, and a siren was screeching like a banshee that I realised something was wrong. Dad looked up at me, then into the house. He was through the back door before I could even move, his shoes smearing mud across the spotless beige carpet. I scrambled to my feet, dropping the prospectus to the ground.
He threw open the door to the hallway to find people buzzing around in high-vis, spilling out the green door and into the street. I saw a stretcher loaded into the back of an ambulance like an Ocado delivery. A woman hunched over, her face covered in hands so twisted and gnarled they could have been all knuckles. Her silver hair glowing in the midday sun. Then a slam of the ambulance doors, and they were away. Dad rushed out, grabbed a paramedic by the elbow, leant in to question him. They exchanged a few words. As the guy gesticulated I saw Dad grow pale.
‘What’s happened?’ I mumbled as he retreated up the path.
‘It’s Patrick. He’ll be okay. He was having chest pains, but he’ll be fine.’ He didn’t quite look me in the eye. He just crossed his arms and stood there in the doorway. Then he rubbed his face with his hands. I heard the scratch of stubble against his palms, wondered what to say, and settled for silence.
On Sunday morning my parents woke me up to say that Patrick had passed away.
‘He wasn’t in pain,’ Mum whispered, stroking my hair the way she used to when I’d stub my toe or feel sick from too many sweets.
I didn’t feel anything until I got in the shower to wash my hair and I thought of Lola and how old she looked, all crumpled up like a houseplant whose owner had forgotten to water it.
The day carried on like any other, though I was immediately conscious of the resounding silence coming from next door. Finally, the sun set, staining the clouds pink and orange, like a two-year-old had got hold of highlighters and drawn all over the sky. At dinner, the landline rang and made me jump, like an echo from the past. Even Mum looked startled, lost for a second as to where we’d put it; no one had used it in years. Then she hurried out of the room.
She returned moments later. ‘That was the hospital.’
‘How did they get this number?’ Dad said.
She shrugged. ‘Lola’s malnourished but they’ve put her on a drip. They’ve asked if we can go next door, get her some clothes and things she might need. I said I’ll drop them round tomorrow morning.’ Her chin began to tremble. She pulled out her chair at the table and lowered herself down, cautiously, feeling behind her for the seat. ‘I didn’t realise they were in such a state,’ she said, her voice cracking.
We ate the rest of our spag bol not looking at each other.
In the morning, Dad found the spare key in an envelope in a drawer in the desk in the spare room.
‘This must be it,’ he said.
We stepped out into the hallway. For five minutes Dad wrestled with the key in the lock. ‘It’s all rusted,’ he said. Then he gave up and tried the handle. The door clicked open.
‘I suppose Lola trusted us enough to leave it open,’ Mum murmured.
Dad tried to push the door wide, but something was blocking it from behind, so we had to slide in sideways, one after the other.
The smell that hit me was so formidable it was like someone bellowing, deafeningly, directly into my face, with no way for me to escape. Mum instantly began to retch. It stank simultaneously of rotting food and unwashed clothes. Dad had his nose pinched between his fingers; his voice was squeaky and nasal as he spluttered, ‘God almighty.’ He flicked a switch, the light stuttered on.
Everywhere: boxes. Boxes of rubbish, boxes of papers, boxes damp on the bottom, boxes ripped open, boxes sealed shut. Then, beneath, above, and beyond the boxes: furniture. A sofa with all its stuffing spilling out. Stacks of chairs leaning dangerously like the tower of Pisa. I counted five coffee tables, end to end, and seven armchairs, one of them covered in layers of bedsheets.
A narrow gangway had been carved out to form a way across. Mum struggled through, opened the door into the kitchen. She took one look, then clamped her eyes shut.
The work surfaces were barely visible beneath the mountains of cans, pots, pans, packets, bottles, plates, cartons. An open plastic box of moulding meringues sat on top of an upturned colander like black ice at the summit of the Alps. I stepped forward and felt a crunch under my sole; praying I’d not just killed something, I held my breath and lifted my foot. It was an egg. One of many smashed across the tiled floor.
‘I’m going back!’ Mum cried theatrically. She reminded me of a contestant in one of those desert island endurance shows. ‘I can’t do this!’ She turned and wrestled her way back into the living room, disappearing into the jungle of stuff.
‘Let’s get Lola’s things,’ Dad mumbled at me, as though not wanting to wake the creatures lurking in the shadows.
Dust puffed up with every step on the staircase. At the top, a wooden cabinet lay on its side, like a felled tree. It blocked one of two doors. Dad steered towards the available one next to it, nudged it open with the tip of his toe.
‘Wait here,’ he said, gruffly.
‘I’m not five.’
He softened. ‘I just don’t want you to hurt yourself on all this…’ He flapped a hand at the mess.
I chewed my lip and nodded in assent. A moth flapped lazily across my eye-line.
Once out of sight, I could hear him crashing around, grunting in aggravation. It was only a couple of minutes before I started to feel the blocked door staring at me. A thin strip of light was just visible along the edge of the frame. I reached over the cabinet and felt around for the door-handle. I didn’t have to push hard; it swung open like the cover of a heavy book.
Daylight flooded out, illuminating the hallway. I gripped the sides of the door frame, held on, and leant in.
Inside, rows and rows of glass sat on long transparent shelving: glass vases, glass cups, glass jugs gleaming in the daylight rushing in from the open window. Slow as I’d ever moved, I placed one foot, then the other, over the cabinet and entered the room.
It was like stepping inside a chandelier.
Some vases were so tall, so delicate, it seemed a miracle they could stay upright. Others were clear as a contact lens; I could just make out where they began and ended from the minute magnifying effect of their curved rims. A series of glasses on the top shelf were intricately patterned with swirling, floral grooves. There was not a single speck of dust in the air; I noticed, in the corner, a black box labelled ‘Polish & Clean’.
I felt Dad appear behind me. He stood there, still, with me. Dead quiet, as though one breath would be enough to send the glass smashing to the floor. Eventually, he nudged me softly at the elbow, and we retreated. He closed the door with complete care. In the last of the light, I looked up at his face, and saw his eyes swimming with tears. Then the door fell into place, and it was dark once again.
‘What did you get for her?’ I asked as we padded downstairs.
He said nothing, just opened a plastic bag to show some rolled up t-shirts and a stained pair of plimsolls.
In the kitchen, the smell wasn’t so bad; I thought I must be getting used to it. I noticed things I didn’t before: an open page of the Radio Times with TV shows circled; a recipe for lamb stew on the fridge door, with ‘parsley’ and ‘pinch of cumin’ scrawled under the ingredients list. And, in the living room, beneath all the rubbish and junk and antiques, the skeleton of what once was: a sofa, coffee table, and armchair, happily waiting for someone to occupy them.
As we passed through, I spotted a piece of purple material peeking out from one of the boxes. I reached over and gave it a tug. It fell freely into my hand, the colour dulled by a layer of dust that erupted as I shook it loose. Along the edge, the crystals were like teardrops in the tassels, tinkling ever so slightly.
I folded it neatly, took Dad’s elbow, and slipped it into the plastic bag in his hand.
Back in my room, I felt hot and cold all at the same time. I sat down at my desk. I laid my head on its smooth wooden surface. I stayed there for minutes, my heart in my throat.
When I looked up, I saw the ammonite in its place, on top of the stack of books. I reached out, picked it up, rested it in my palm. I wiped it clean with the edge of my t-shirt, clearing the grooves of its years of accumulated dirt. Softly, I blew over it, then let my finger follow its spiralling shape, not losing contact, going round and round. Then, gently, I closed it inside my fist.
Alice Ivor lives in London. After graduating from the University of Birmingham, she went on to train and work as an actress across theatre and television. She is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, alongside writing her first novel.