The taxi rounded the corner onto the street in which I had spent my youth and it felt instantly both familiar and foreign. As a child I had been fascinated by the way that, after sleeping through a long car journey, I would always wake as we took the turn leading onto the road rather than when we stopped at the house. It was as if my body, or perhaps my subconscious, recognised innately the combination and timing of the final few turns and knew to stir me. I wondered if that would still have worked today, some two decades on.
Passing the manicured lawns and white pillars of the houses lining the mouth of street, they gave way to smaller houses with larger trees as we began to ascend the steeper incline winding round to our destination. Pulling up at the end of the road, the old house gazed impassively at me. At least from the outside it had not changed at all.
The electric door whirred slowly open. I handed the cab driver a crumpled note and waved away the change. He coughed uncomfortably at the tip – meagre in London but too generous here. Stepping out I waited, motionless, as he executed a tight three-point turn and vanished, knowing that I was not yet ready to go inside.
Most of the house was just as I remembered it, although I recalled the garage door in its old green rather than the white my parents had repainted it. I suspected the door release cable on the right side had never been fixed. The tiles and bricks were the nondescript reds and browns I had pictured, and the large hydrangeas below the living room window were still there, the same vibrant pink, though losing their lustre as they dried out. The lawn was too tall when compared to the neighbours’ but that had never been unusual. For some reason my mind conjured a red Austin Metro on the empty driveway, though I am almost certain we had sold it before moving here.
Although I recognised the bricks, the plants, the dirt, I found it hard to connect with the place that had once been my home. So many stories from my life had begun within these walls: shared secrets and holding hands with a girl while watching a film, a first kiss with another while listening to music in my room, a drunken party with friends sneaking out to smoke illicit cigarettes, nervous fingers unbuttoning a blouse. At thirty-five, I have forgotten more tales from my teenage years than I remember. Yet what defines my life now is not how these stories began but how they ended. Messily, for the most part, but in other places, never here. This was a place of beginnings but, without their subsequent endings, they were meaningless.
I withdrew the keys from my bag and, holding my palm up, inspected them. A large brass key and a small silver one for the Yale lock. Their weight felt wrong somehow, and it took a moment to realise that they were now connected by a simple coil of metal without the colourful keyring from a holiday in Florida (I knew this with certainty though I could recall nothing of the trip) that would have accompanied them when they were last in daily use. A few days earlier I had been surprised to find I even remembered where the keys were, hidden away on a bookshelf in their wooden box which I located easily now that the need arose.
The key slid smoothly into the lock. The first droplets of rain fell lazily from the sky as I drew a deep breath, steeling myself in preparation for the unenviable task ahead, and exhaled. I wondered for a moment why I had turned down the offers to be accompanied, but it was always going to be like this. I turned the key.