featured in the read horse zine.
Neal Sommersby isn’t used to being home during the daylight hours of a working week. His house looks different; it feels different. He’d hesitate to say it out loud, but he swears it even smells different.
The front room is that much cosier in the afternoon glow. The kitchen with its street-facing windows gives a harmless view of the outside world: young mums and pensioners popping out for milk and hurrying back to their daytime soaps and chat shows. And maybe it’s the mood he’s in or maybe it’s something to do with the pollen floating through the sunlight at this time of day but he swears there’s a tender scent wafting through the hallway. It’s faintly floral and runs through the ground floor, massaging the threadbare tread and refreshing the carpet. He goes upstairs to investigate the landing, to see if it’s also been transformed from its usual smell of spilt juice and crushed biscuits.
The door to his daughter’s room is ajar. As he crosses the threshold, drawn towards the sunflower mobile that dangles above the cot, he’s visited by an early memory, maybe even his first. This one goes right back to the most basic fears. Fear of being dropped, fear of loud noises. Burst balloons, and the fear of auntie Maureen’s mouth – complete with cold sore – looming ever closer to his butterball head, powerless to stop the impending kiss.
Young Neal is in a shopping centre, a department store, chasing the backs of people’s knees. He’s searching for the familiar cut of his dad’s summer shorts and finds only coat-hangered substitutes lacking the hairy trunks that should be beneath. Shoes are squeaking past, buggy wheels squealing by on the vinyl floor. Not his buggy, though they all look so similar. He searches desperately through clothes rails, under woollen garments and past Macintosh coats. At one point he even pops out into the window display where he is taunted by both the blank faces of the mannequin family and the full cheeks of the ruddy faces looking in. Finally he recognises the floral print of his mother’s skirt swishing along the aisle and, tottering towards, he tugs at the hem with dewy eyes only to find with immense horror, the wrong woman up top. Large sobs inevitably follow and Neal is promptly taken to the customer services desk where the retail assistant placates him with a pricing gun. He waits, planting discount stickers on his arms and legs until the tannoy comes up good and Dad scoops him up from the counter where he is finding it hard to part with his new toy. Afterward in the car Neal utters the line that will be repeated countless times to relatives at the dinner table: “Daddy when I grow up I want to work in a supermarket.”
Back in his daughter’s room Neal smiles to himself. The smell has gone and in its place is a keen craving for a hot drink. A quick cup of tea. That’s the ticket.
The kettle boils and clicks off. Neal absent-mindedly gazes out the window whilst the spoon tinkles in the mug and watches two kids kick a football between them on the pitiful triangle of green that passes for a public space. They should be in school, he reprimands them mentally, unless, it’s later than he thought. A nervous glance at his watch tells him no it’s not yet 3:30pm, his son’s not due home just yet.
Given this reprieve his ey find a vivid lake in the cortex of his brain and pause on a bench to reflect.
Now Neal is sat on the railing out front his school – big school, his first year – legs dangling, watching the cars pull up and leave, the number of others waiting dwindling to nil. This is the day no one came to collect him. He remembers the feeling in the pit of his stomach. An anxiety similar to not being chosen for the football team, but a prolonged and an accumulating one heightened by the increasingly deserted road ahead and endless possibilities of traffic accidents.
After an eternity of staring at the droopy and dirty dandelions protruding by the roadside, scuffing at the mud with his shoe, he walks to the bus stop, to wait near others and to hide his parent’s neglect. Here were the kids finishing after school sports, older, able to make their own way home, waiting on purpose. Playing with his watch, undoing the clasp, toying with the strap, chewing nervously on the soft plastic. Waiting like left baggage, those last battered brown cases at the airport going round and round on the belt at Luggage Reclaim. Waiting till 6pm, then walking home in the dark. Frightened to knock at the door and find that his parents had moved without telling him. Feeling ridiculous when it was only some mix-up with the child-minder.
Back in the present day Neal sups his tea and shrugs off the feelings of abandonment. He can’t really afford to reminisce. He’d better get a move on. He leaves the tea to get cold by the sink.
Upstairs in his bedroom he rejects the suitcase and chooses a simple holdall. He doesn’t want to take all that much with him and instead flicks through the wardrobe for a handful of practical items. He rejects his suit, even though it’s expensive, and rejects his jeans even though he’s most comfortable in them. He opts for a generic pair of brown trousers and a standard blue jumper. He pulls some clean socks from the drawer and reaches for some boxers but the pair he selects are tangled between the under-wire of his wife’s stretched and bobbled bra. Another image surfaces. He’ll allow himself this last memory, after all he won’t be taking them with.
This time he’s 17, it’s Friday night, and Neal has a double date with Shirley Da Silva, his sixth-form crush. His friend Steve is busy impressing his date by playing nervously with the candle. Neal is making progress in comparison: Shirley’s laughed at least twice to his jokes and has even complimented his aftershave. A very encouraging look passes between the two of them so, he gets up to seal the deal before Steve succeeds in melting the tabletop plastic flowers in their cloudy resin. Neal heads to the bathroom to apply breath freshener and a third layer of Lynx as he has been ill-advised by advertisers. Upon returning from the toilet he finds all three gone along with the wine. All that remains is his coat on the back of his chair, mocked by its bare and untucked counterparts all surrounding a dishevelled table with half eaten food. He would later learn that Shirley’s lustful glance was actually one of annoyance. Steve had left because he was convinced he had better luck “copping a feel” with her friend in his absence.
Neal acutely remembers identifying with every traffic cone ever ditched by a drunk, the inebriated dance having passed and the cheap laughs all spent. To make matters worse, the waiter saunters up, and without a word of consolation to the crestfallen Neal, lands the bill in front of him. “Thanks. Mate.” He says mentally to Steve, the waiter, and god simultaneously; converging his angry sadness onto this unlikely trinity on what was officially the shittest of Fridays in his sixth-form memory.
Older Neal now zips the bag shut. All that’s left to do is walk out. He could leave a note, but he won’t. There just aren’t words for this, only feelings. But his gut is unsettled, he should leave something. Emboldened by the very act of departure he sneaks into next door’s garden and snaps a red tulip from its green stem. He fills a clear vase with water and arranges it artistically in the centre of the kitchen table. This gives the room a homely feel. The effect pleases him and gives him the closure he needs to take those last steps to the front door.
When he thinks about it, this time’s not so different to these other times he’s been mulling over in his mind. What happened to him, compared to what he’s about to do, to them; it’s similar. He got over it and so will they. He shuts the front door firmly and posts his keys back through the letterbox. When they hit the mat any feelings of doubt he might have had are eradicated. There’s just one emotion now: relief. It feels so good he decides to do the same with his wallet; he’s withdrawn everything in cash anyway. The wedding ring is the last to go. This way, he reasons, they’ll know and won’t worry that anything’s happened to him.
Then he’s off. His shoes tap, good-bye, good-bye down the path and out the front gate and Neal feels lighter with every step. He reaches the end of the road and waits to board a bus, any bus, whichever comes, as long as it’s heading out of town.
On the double-decker he sits up top and at the front. Neal looks out the window and smiles. He realises he’s happy for the first time in a long time. Then he gets another waft of it. It’s back, that smell again. He tilts his head back so each of the golden atoms can float upwards to his nasal cavity and hit the back of his brain. Daffodils with a hint of daisy.