As far as his housemates were concerned he had gone home to see his family. No one knew that at home they were not expecting him, that he hadn’t called ahead, that he hadn’t taken the early train in order to visit his mother and his brother, but to bear witness, or at least to mollify himself with reality rather than live with exaggerated ideas of how awful everything had been where he had grown up. Or maybe it was nostalgia that had brought him to this place, that strange, masochistic nostalgia people sometimes feel even for unpleasant things.
At the bottom of the hill he hesitated, pulling off his jacket and taking out his cigarettes, as though he was stalling for time. It was Autumn, and the soft cool air crept over him like a lengthening shadow. At the top of the hill he picked out the estate where he had grown up, and then the two-bedroom flat where he and his mother and his brother had lived until the previous year. They (his mother, his brother) had moved to another flat in another part of the city almost as soon as he had left for University, as though he had been the only reason to remain there all those years, as though his once seemingly futile desire to get away had been the sole reason to hold on.
He walked forward ten or fifteen paces, then remembered the cigarettes. He stopped again, took one out of the packet and lit it. He leaned against the fence before what was once Martin Flanaghan’s house. One day after school he had watched Martin Flanaghan fight Danny James on this spot. He had tried to avoid it, but had run into Danny and his new friends on his way home. He had been friends with Danny once; they had been at primary school together; they would sing popular songs to each other during breaks and lunchtime, which, when he thought about it, seemed crazy but they were little kids then, and they had not yet learned to hate and mistrust everything.
At the comp they had immediately gone their separate ways, almost ashamed of each other, but when Danny saw him on his way home that day he wouldn’t let him miss the fight, he insisted that he come along. He was sure that Martin wasn’t going to answer the door when Danny called on him, but he did. He and his mother came out on the pavement and his mother watched while Danny and Martin went at it. Only Martin was losing badly, so the mother grabbed Danny by the hair and pushed him to the ground. Martin then kicked him repeatedly in the face.
He noticed a young girl had been watching him smoke, the kind of girl that, he thought, as she skated up to him, had always seemed to be kicking around here when he was growing up, regardless of the time of day or weather, the kind that appear out of nowhere, wearing grimy beige shorts and once-white vests on their slight but durable bodies.
– Do you live round here? she said.
– No, I’m visiting
– Who you visiting?
– No one
The girl climbed up on the fence. He turned around to face her.
– Get down, you’ll fall
– I won’t. I’ve never fall.
– Fallen. And you might one time and then you’d wish you’d listened.
– You’re not my dad.
– Are you good at climbing?
– Yeah, course. I’m good at everything.
– Don’t be silly. You ever fall?
– All the time.
– I thought you were good at climbing?
– I’m good at falling too.
– Don’t be silly. What you here for?
– I told you, I’m visiting
– Who though?
– No one. I’m looking around. I used to live here.
The girl jumped down off the fence and poked him.
– You shouldn’t do that.
– It’s not nice.
She stuck out her tongue.
– Shouldn’t you be at school or at home? he said.
– You’re not my dad.
– Where’s your dad?
– Do you know my brother? she said.
– Yeah, I know him.
– What’s his name?
– His name’s not Arnold.
– It is. You don’t know him like I know him.
– It’s Steven.
– Not when I knew him it wasn’t.
– You don’t know him.
– I know him. Name’s Arnold. Has a little sister who likes climbing and asking questions.
– Did you live in this house? she said, meaning Martin Flanaghan’s.
– No. I lived at the top of the hill.
– Up there?
– Why aren’t you still there now?
– I moved. I’m at University.
– Who lives there now?
– I don’t know.
– Is it Jessica Evans?
– Probably. Who’s Jessica Evans?
– Dunno. She’s in my class.
– At school?
– Jessica’s got a rabbit.
– Good for her.
– Have you got a rabbit?
– No. My mum has two cats though.
– Do you like your mum?
– Everyone likes their mum.
– I don’t.
– Understandable. Why not?
– She’s shouts. She goes yah yah yah yah yah
– Ok, I get it.
He tried to picture the mother. But he saw his own mother instead.
– If I had a rabbit I’d call her Daisy.
– Call her Arnold.
– Don’t be silly. Is that your name?
– I gotta go now.
– Me too. It’s late.
– It’s not. But bye.
The girl walked away, up the hill as though it was the easiest thing in the world. As he watched her climb the sandy-coloured pavement the blunt sun dropped behind a bank of clouds, and the air grew damp and lost its softness. He stayed behind, telling himself that he wanted to give the girl a head start, so that she wouldn’t think he was following her. He thought about his mother, about how he would feel if she were still at the top of that hill, if she was living still in the same block of flats, which, from where he stood, appeared to hang over him like a red-brown spider.