I returned home like a fox running to earth, retreating to a place of unexpected safety. It was before dawn and the sky was turning blue at its seams. I took a breath of the night air; it was cool and clean and made me feel intensely awake. When had I last been here, six months or more, last Christmas, before?
I could feel the debris of the city sloughing off me, streaming from my pores to be neutralised by the salt air. The hospital stink losing its grip and seeping away in the pre-dawn light.
The door of the house was unlocked, which wasn’t unusual. I made my way upstairs and laid my bag carefully on the bed. I had brought only one small suitcase, neatly packed and I found the orderliness of it gave me an immense sense of satisfaction.
First I took a shower and then I put the suit I had been wearing into the washing machine, I hesitated and then threw in the carefully folded contents of my suitcase as well, you couldn’t be too careful.
This left me with a towel, so enfolded I sat and watched as the clothes rolled round in the drum. The washing machine whirred and hummed, what a wonderful thing it was, I watched it sleepy and hypnotised. My phone flashed blue, but I let it go to voicemail, too late. It rang again and I switched it off.
The next morning was sunny, I awoke too early because the curtains in the guest room were thin and let in all the light, which was brilliant and very yellow. I scrunched up my eyes against it but it fought its way through. The house was quiet. No one home. I went back down to the kitchen, one unwashed mug by the sink. Had that been there last night? I didn’t know.
There wasn’t a car in the driveway, just my blue ford parked up along the verge. Gone to work then. The blue sky stretched invitingly out over the houses and down towards the sea, not quite in sight but close by. A walk then, over the downs and along the shore. The town was curiously quiet, too early for tourists, but not many dog walkers, anglers, retirees and other hangabouters. When I reached the seafront the tide was far out leaving a long clear stretch of damp sand, reaching passed the arms of the cliffs. I walked along the beach a long way, enjoying the feeling of expanse, the sea stretching out infinite beside me, the widening kind of blue you long to run towards. I felt a pang of loneliness, to be here alone, where we had so often been together. It was then I realised I had left my phone behind, but never mind - probably not much signal out here anyway.
It wasn’t late when I returned, and everything seemed the same. I checked the cupboards and the fridge, enough food, no milk. And wine? David would surely like to come home to a light supper? A contribution to the household? A pleasant surprise?
Had he noticed I was here last night? Unlikely, but he must have seen the car this morning? Seen divined and ignored?
I made my short list and walked over to the supermarket, busy after the isolation of the morning. Some people wore masks which made them look angry or started, mine kept riding further and further up my face, inching up my nose and onto my eyes. Next time David could do the shopping.
It was 7 before I began to wonder where David was, not usually a late worker. Where could he have gone? Was he perhaps avoiding me? I dug out my phone and switched it back on, many missed calls, nothing from David. It took me a long time to pick out a text, the essence of which was, I am here, where are you?
At 8 I washed the cup that was still sitting on the counter from this morning. Then I called David, it rang for a long time and my heart skittered, no answer. I tried again half an hour later and left a message on his voicemail, please call me. I wondered if I should call, Anna, Dad? But it wouldn't go through. I tried David one more time.
I tried to wonder what David had been doing, did he have a new girlfriend? Was he away on some inexplicable work trip? I couldn’t remember what he had said when we had last spoken, when had it been? Two weeks or more ago. He had rang two days ago but I hadn’t answered. Was this silence some kind of petty revenge?
I went outside and checked what I already knew. His car was gone. Returning upstairs, I knocked tentatively on his bedroom door. ‘David’ I called ‘David are you in there?’ I slid the door open, half expecting to see him there, lying on his bed, absorbed in some game.
Empty of course, bed unmade, which meant nothing David wasn’t one for careful bed making. Was anything missing? His laptop? I couldn’t see that, clothes? Well some were here - hard to tell. Phone charger, present and correct. Then he hadn’t meant to be gone long? Would, perhaps, be back soon?
I stared anxiously around the room, willing the objects to transform themselves into the clues that would let me know my brother’s whereabouts. I picked at dinner and called David again, no response.
Calling the police felt like an overreaction, didn’t you have to wait some period of time anyway? 48 hours? Was David missing? Or was he simply not here, had he sensed my presence and decided to go elsewhere? Were they all so angry with me?
I drank the two glasses of wine I had poured which made my head feel heavy, the lack of sleep was catching up with me. Rest, and then in the morning, David.
I awoke suddenly, as if startled by a loud noise. A slamming door? A car? David? I sat up slowly trying to arrange my ideas, I must go find David. So I must get out of bed, had he slammed the door? I stumbled thick headed down the stairs. Everything looked the same, outside, I could hear a car somewhere on the estate. Was that David? Had he come back late last night?
I searched the kitchen for some trace of his presence, two dirty plates, two empty wine glasses, I must have eaten David’s food as well. Or he had eaten it. I stood staring at the dishes as if they were some simple sum I couldn’t make add up.
I had been here, last night and I had eaten, which plate? One? Both? How could I ever know if David was missing when my own memory seemed motheaten through, badly patched and re-pieced together.
What was the time? Almost 9 o’clock now. Surely David would be back tonight, and if not I would call someone the police maybe. Anna, I should call Anna and hear the news. I went for another, longer walk to distract myself, it was colder but still sunny. Gulls wheeled over my head crying to each other, the surf was rougher and my clothes were covered in a fine mist of spray. I wanted to pause to hide inside this moment and emerge only when all was resolved. To appear again at the denouement, or after.
The threads of my story seemed hopelessly lost, the future a frightening blank.
I was late returning home, I wanted to give David every chance to come back. I almost burst into tears when I rounded the corner and saw the still empty driveway. Not back. Not returned.
I searched every room of the house, in case he should have returned on foot and chosen to hide behind the ironing board. I picked up my phone and called David. It didn’t even ring this time, cutting straight to voicemail. Was David lying in a ditch somewhere, his phone now dead and silent beside him?
I shut my eyes tightly and then opened them a little to call Anna. She picked up on the first ring. “Have you seen David?” I said quickly while she was still drawing in breath
“I was trying to get in touch with him”
“He said you’re not taking his calls. Look, are you coming back?”
“If you see him tell him to call me again, I’m not ignoring him. I want to see him. Ok?’
I hung up the phone quickly. Trying to call me? I checked my phone again, just the one call from David 3 days ago now. I paced the room, should I call Anna again? No, I had given her the message. She would surely pass it on if she heard anything. Ought I to have told her David wasn’t here? Surely no need to worry her further.
I spent the evening on Facebook, I contacted all of David’s friends. No one who had seen or spoken to him in the last two days, they all passed on their condolences.
I paced the room again. One more day? Should I call the police now? I looked at my phone again, messages from Anna, messages from an unknown number. Who was that? Should I call them back? Might it be about David? Was it the hospital trying to get in touch with me? Many texts that I couldn't bear to read. Was it over yet?
In the morning. One more night.
I woke again in the blue light before dawn. A dark figure loomed over my bed, a scream caught in my throat. Then streetlight through the window caught the nose, the chin.
‘David. You’re here, where have you been?’
‘Where have I been? What do you mean? Where do you think I was?'
‘You’re not missing’ I said to David, stupid and accusing.
'No, I'm not, you're the one who disappeared.'
‘Why wouldn’t you answer my calls?’
He gazed at me in stupefaction ‘Mike I lost my phone’ he explained gently ‘I got a new one, which you would know if you ever answered your phone. Or read any of your messages.’
‘Why didn’t Anna tell me?’
‘She tried to but you hung up on her. She guessed you were here, so she sent me to bring you back. She's furious with you for taking off in the middle of the night like that.'
'I knew she would be.'
'Why did you do it?'
'I just had to get away. I couldn't bear it anymore.’
You think you're the only one this is hard for? You’re such a child sometimes. Look' he paced the short length of the room 'I don't want to fight but you have to come back now. It's almost over, you need to say goodbye.'
'I can't David' my breath choked in my throat, tears pricking at my eyes 'I can't do it. He looks so blank it's like he's not there.'
'Dad loves you, how can you leave him now?'
I sat helpless on the bed, the sun I knew, was once more creeping up over the horizon.