Out Of Exile

Entry by: Seaside Scribbler

28th April 2017
The dust sits thick everywhere Keith looks. Skeletal remains of a Christmas tree stand in a corner with two faded, forgotten presents underneath, presents he'd never been able to give.

Eleven years.

He wishes he'd not come. But it had felt like something he ought to do; exorcise the place of any ghosts before the estate agents came around. Use a cleaning company, Mary had said, but it's something he wanted to do himself. Now he's not so sure: it looks like a task beyond him. The place seems smaller but fuller of stuff, of memories.

He begins with the skeleton tree and the presents, and a bonfire.

He hates the term 'closure' - so American, so therapy-driven - but he feels something, when all the windows have been opened and all the dust driven out. He feels cleaner inside, as if the crime he didn't commit had stained his soul regardless, and now he's rubbed it away.

He lights his one cigarette of the day and takes a beer from the back of his car and sits on the deck, overlooking the river. Whilst cleaning, he'd been able to forget; concentrate instead on the mechanics of dusting, wiping, hoovering, sweeping... but now, now he's stopped, thoughts come crashing down on him, heavy, unwanted, out of exile themselves, the exile of the back of his mind where he's pushed and pushed them all these years.

He looks at the river, and watches it slide past. He remembers how he'd nearly gone with it, until he realised that anything like that would confirm his guilt. Instead he'd slunk away in the night, insults and threats ringing in his ears, only Harry's pleas sparing him an arrest.

Harry. He sighs the name aloud, and shakes his head. He tilts back his head and finishes the beer easily, too easily.

He's surprised to wake because he'd not thought he could sleep but the cleaning must have worn him out. He stretches out a stiff leg, then the other and rolls his neck, grimacing at the clicking and crunching in his upper spine. Where do years go, so fast? When did he get old? He can answer that, but he doesn't want to, lonely as those years have been, as empty and cold as this house he's come back to.

He stiffens, as he hears a car engine, close by. This house is at the end of a track and the only other place, Harry's parents' old cottage, is unoccupied. He knows, because he checked on Booking.com. He can't meet anyone here. It'll be holiday makers, lost, looking for a picnic place. It'll be the estate agent, come early.

It's neither. The car is small, a sporty blue thing with an open roof. A young man is in the driving seat, a young man he'd have known anywhere, even if it hadn't been for the mass of thick, blond hair.

Keith stands, ready to disappear into the shadows of the deck but it's no good, the young man has seen him and he's getting out of the car. He's imagined this conversation a thousand times but now it's here he's forgotten the part he should play.

Harry shuts the door and raises a hand, then stands uncertain, hovering. He's as scared as me, thinks Keith, and it's this that gives him the courage to walk forwards and meet him on the overgrown drive. He opens his mouth and the words that come aren't the ones he's expecting. A lack of experience with people over the last few years has made him direct, completely lacking a filter, Mary tells him.

'Thank you for telling the truth,' Keith says.

Harry looks downwards. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'For all of it. For ruining everything.'

'You didn't ruin anything,' Keith says, his voice more gentle. 'The villagers managed to do that.'

'I'm sorry it took me so long,' says Harry.

Keith doesn't trust himself to speak.

'I ruined your life,' Harry says.

'I wouldn't go that far,' Keith says. 'I've lots left, I hope, and I'd already had some good years. I'm trying to look on this as a break. I've done some writing, read some books. Worked a little.' But not as a teacher, he doesn't add. I'm too afraid, he doesn't say.

'I'm sorry,' Harry says again. 'I was having a bad time and my parents, they... you know how they could be. I was unhappy and they were arguing and then they said they were going to split up and I thought... I thought I could stop it.'

By sacrificing me, thinks Keith.

'It didn't work.' Harry says.

'No,' says Keith. 'Why now? And how did you know I'd be here?'

'Mum said this is where you'd come, as soon as she told you.'


'Are you going to come back?'

'For holidays? No. I'm selling the place. It felt like the right time to wipe the slate clean, so to speak.'

'I wish...' Harry begins but Keith shakes his head. 'What's done is done. I appreciate you coming here and I appreciate what you've done. There's nothing more to say. I have to finish up here.'

'OK,' Harry says. 'Are you... is there anyone in your life?'

Keith shakes his head. 'Not at the moment. I tried the on line thing once but it was full of muscly young men looking for something that I didn't want.' He looks at his feet. Anything he says is wrong, here. He doesn't add: And anyone younger than me makes me feel I'm doing something wrong. Even though I never did anything in the first place. 'What about you?'

'I'm engaged. To a woman far too good for me called Helena.'

'Helena and Harry. That's sweet,' Keith tries a smile. 'You mum must be happy.'

'She is. She said you must go and see her, sometime. She wants to... you know... talk.'

'I don't think that's a very good idea.' The thought of the woman makes him feel sick. All the things she called him. All the things he said about him, in public. She never understood that things like that, they never go away. Words become scars on the outside that everyone can see.

'I'd better be getting back,' says Harry. 'Thank you... for listening to me, all those years ago. I felt you were the only person on my side. And if I could take all of it back, every last word, everything, I would.'

'I believe you,' says Keith.

He steps closer and holds out his hand to the boy he once knew. Harry hesitates for a second then clasps it, his man's hands strong and sure. He nods, looks down, steps backwards, lets go.

Keith watches the dust rise behind the car as it disappears down the drive. He should feel better. A door has closed, he's been exonerated, the future stretches before him and he'll be free.

But as he walks back inside all he can feel is the hollowness of the house pressing in on him from all sides, the rooms shrinking with frozen memories and the ghosts of all the laughter that should have burst out from house guests, come to see him for holidays. There are only echoes of a present that is forever out of his reach. Echoes and dust.