‘That it then?’
I nodded, and Derek the removal man turned back to the van, gave a wave to his driver and went to the back to lift the ramp, close the hatch and seal up the contents of my previous life.
You don’t really want removal men to be efficient and clean, you want them to be burly and surly, beer-bellied, with pie-breath and a greasy flat-cap. You want them to pause, rub their aching back and take a sharp intake of breath and say, ‘dunno about that guvna. Isn’t on the manifest.’ You want chipped cups, splintered furniture, mashed boxes, lost boxes. Delays. Traffic jams. Running over time. Running out of time. You want stuff stored in the wrong rooms, too-heavy-to-move tea-chests dumped in the passage, stuff left behind to be collected, or not, three shame-faced weeks later, after seven increasingly irate phone calls from the new homeowner. You want inefficiency, damage and loss.
In fact, if you were in my position, you would want the removal men to simply forget to arrive; you’d want the estate agent to lose the contracts shortly before the exchange takes place; you’d want the utility companies to forget to switch.
And you’d want your wife not to have left you.
Derek snapped shut the padlock on the back of the van, nodded in my direction and walked round to climb into the passenger seat. With a cough of blue smoke the diesel engine fired up and the driver wasted no time in crunching it into gear and thrusting it out amongst the blaring horns of midday London traffic.
Some of what was in the back of the van was coming with us to our new home, but a lot more was to be dropped off at the auction house later. The way I felt at that moment, it could have all been taken direct to a landfill.
This is not what I asked for, I told myself, as I slipped the door keys into an envelope, sealed it and pinned the envelope to the wall just inside the front door.
Then, after folding my copy of Derek the removal man’s manifest and slipping it into my pocket, I took one last look along the hall, past the front room door, past the dining room door, to the kitchen, where we’d breakfasted every morning for years, first as man and wife, and then man and wife and child, and lately, as father and son.
On impulse I stepped back inside, walked along the hall to the kitchen door and took one last look inside, imagining us some seven years ago, seeing again the chaos of a young, happily married couple and their baby boy, eating breakfast, getting ready for work, talking, being a family. I saw this picture in my head, felt the anguish of what I’d never have again, and then, having faced my grief, it faded.
Quietly, almost reverentially, I closed the door and, taking a purposeful deep breath, I walked back along and out through the front door, turned and slammed it shut on my old life.
Feeling lighter, I walked down the steps from what had been my front door and across the road to the car, to where Danny was sitting absorbed in his book. I opened the driver’s door and got in.
‘Ready for an adventure?’ I asked him, fastening my seat belt, adjusting the wonky rear-view mirror until it seemed prepared to stay in one position long enough for me to be able to ascertain that we weren’t going to be crushed by a speeding juggernaut or a fire-engine while driving along the Queen’s Highway, and turned the ignition key.
He nodded, still looking at his book, ‘Sure,’ and reached over and patted my hand.
‘What’s that for?’ I asked.
He looked up at me, ‘I’m on your side, dad. That’s all.’
‘You’re eight. You don’t get to be on someone’s side at eight.’
He smiled knowingly, and went back to his book.
On the third attempt, the engine of our brand-new, seven-year-old Fiat managed to fire up; I adjusted the mirror again, signaled and pushed out into the traffic. We drove out of the street where we’d lived for nine years without looking back. Though that could have been because the rear-view mirror had slipped down and sideways once more, giving me a clear view of the passenger side dashboard air-vent.
‘I like adventures,’ Danny said, after about ten minutes.
I rubbed his hair, ‘So do we all.’
‘Don’t muss up my hair,’ he told me. ‘It’s got gel on.’
‘When did you start wearing hair gel?’
We drove south, across the river, and the traffic was lighter than usual, this still being the school holidays. Danny looked up and asked, ‘Where are we?’
‘Adventure country,’ I told him.
A few minutes later he said, ‘The sign says Peckham.’
Fifteen minutes later we turned into a cul-de-sac that contained a row of large but fairly dilapidated Victorian houses surrounded on three sides by large equally dilapidated blocks of 1960’s neo-brutalist social housing. Our apartment was in the basement of the house with the removal van parked outside. I pulled between the removal van and a skip, jerked on the handbrake, and turned off the engine. ‘Come on,’ I said.
Danny climbed out and went for a look round while I went to unlock the door for Derek and his assistant. Then I went and sat on the wall watching Danny running around. From this vantage point, I could look up at the back doors and broken windows of the council flats opposite; I could count the satellite dishes and scan the walkways and stairwells where, no doubt, the feral underclass would prowl of an evening, dealing drugs, stealing phones from pregnant fifteen year-olds, and stabbing each other.
Danny was running off some energy, exploring nooks and crannies around the cul-de-sac, and I was letting the removal men do their job, and the sun was setting behind a tower block.
‘Don’t go too far,’ I shouted.
He ran over to me, ‘What?’
‘I said, don’t go too far.’
I went to muss his hair but remembered his warning about the hair gel, so instead asked, ‘Well, what you think?’
He looked around as the glooming evening spread from shadow to shadow; streetlights were flickering on at random, doorways and corners beginning to look threatening. He looked back at me and whispered, ‘Bandit Country,’ his eyes glittering, and then he ran off to explore some more.