Paul Ducray walked down the side of the street, leather shoes sweeping on the stone pavement splattered in sticky white pigeon guano and cat pee. The heavy trench flowed behind him as the wind whistled against him, as if to stop him from going any further. Rarely did the weather agree with him – usually it rained when he planned to eat outside and the sun revealed its brilliant rays when he felt too tired to get out of bed. At present, the tempestuous sky, grey and heavy with cumulo nimbus clouds, hung over him like an ill omen declaring doom in the near future.
He turned right and hopped up the steps that lead to the doorway. A black door with an iron knob rose straight and proud to greet him. On the other side, silence reigned, soon to be defeated by the noise his shoes would make upon swinging open the squeaky door and stepping on the creaking floorboards. Monsieur Paul Ducray took a key out of his trouser pocket and unlocked the door with it. Just as he’d expected, the wooden boards groaned under the weight of his long legs and the door's rusty hinges squeaked loudly. Silence had been dethroned.
Pictures on the wall were framed in white. Wallpapers had peeled off the walls and were now crinkled and humid. The whole place, once whole, was falling apart. Dust had collected onto the corners of the hall and on every possible surface so that Paul Ducray feared touching anything lest his clothes should get dirty. Passing through the hallway, he reached the living room, where every piece of furniture had been draped in a white (now yellow) sheet to protect them from dust and mites. A musty smell of old and damp textile wafted around the room; his mother's perfume bottle smell had stuck to the curtains and lamps. Two faint bars of light infiltrated the room from the window where the curtains had almost been completely drawn. With all that darkness outside he couldn’t hope for much natural illumination. He would have to rely on his pocket torch to find his way through moth-eaten armchairs and rickety bits of wood.
Paul lifted the white sheet on one side. There it was, the classical blue armchair, painted in silver over its carvings. Soft beds of textile on the seat, arms and spine of it, a little dusty and scratched in certain parts (but otherwise whole), lit up like gas-fed flames under the white light of his torch. It had been his favourite piece of furniture in his parents' living room. He had jumped on it barefoot as a tiny child, sat to read a complicated book while his legs dangled, never reaching the floor, curled up in a ball to sleep like a cat, and even pretended it was a fortress, proclaiming war on the living room lands he had had yet to conquer. He hadn’t seen that armchair in years – not in seven years, since he had last visited his parents in their house. They had been to see him, but until then he had failed to find the opportunity to pass by his childhood house. He had forgotten the cream-and-gold wallpaper, the flower vase that his mother used to renew with a freshly cut bouquet every so often, the scent of musty pine wood flowing from the kitchen cabinets, the flickering lights and crumpled curtains in every room. The place now reeked of humidity and damp wood – some pipe must have been leaking, or a tap dripping and overflowing. Perhaps a window pane had broken, letting a draft and raindrops in. He would investigate. Until then, he only wished for all the smells and colours to invade his senses with recollections of the past, when he still depended on his parents. Paul also wished for their deaths to be a lie. They could have been lost, or simply gone on a holiday, perhaps even moving out of this decaying dump and into a newer house by the sea. The reality of the situation pained him far too much. Where was the mother who fed him apple compote and yoghurt as a baby, where the father who walked him to school on his first and last days of the year? At seven every evening his mother would play with her tools in the kitchen, creating marvellous roast ducks or creamy potatoes, fresh salads and cheese plates in the summer. While she made dinner, his father would be dusting the house and cleaning the house thoroughly, so that it sparkled by the t his mother called them to eat. At nine they sat in the living room with heavy books on their lap, his mother sometimes fumbling with a knitting needle or sipping a glass of wine while she delved into her novel, and his father rereading some old tome he hadn’t completely understood the first time he’d read it. He had an elegant teacup brimming with coffee beside him, as well as a stress ball and an untouched pack of cigarettes – he kept them there more as a talisman against worry than to actually smoke. It was the same pack throughout the whole year, never moving from that little table, not even when his father polished it with varnish. At ten his mother washed the dishes and his father drew the curtains and blinds. After that it was bedtime, and either one or both of his parents would shoo him into bed and pick a book or conjure up a story to make him sleep. They invented the strangest characters and got them involved in crazy adventures. The lady with iron legs running to an abandoned castle to claim it as her own, a mad magician making himself small so he could ride a white rabbit into a warren under his cottage where the brown rabbits had been storing all the magical items that they stole from famous witches in all the land, a dancing cat who only ate grilled fish and tomatoes for every meal, his mistress the tabby queen who ruled over the cat kingdom, oh the list went on inexhaustibly! These bittersweet memories of a time when life was easy brought tears to his eyes, and Paul had to cry uncontrollably in the darkness. Although he was independent and had a good life going for himself, he missed his parents terribly. Without them, he felt so lost and small. Even if he didn’t use to call them that often while they were still alive, the certainty that they would always be there made him feel safe and sure of his decisions, no matter the risk he took. Grief struck him here for the first time since their demise had been announced to him. Pictures of him dressing up for school and brushing his teeth flashed before him, sounds of feet echoing in the hallway, those of which belonged to his father returning from work, struck his eardrums, a three-layer birthday cake rose magnificently from the dinner table. His mother sang joyeux anniversaire and lit the skinny candles, his father pressed a wrapped-up surprise into his arms. An encyclopaedia for his eighth birthday, a pair of new running shoes for his eleventh, a leather jacket for his fifteenth... Always a simple yet meaningful gift which he took care of lovingly. The best part of his birthdays were always the night walks in the forest with a lamp strapped to their foreheads, hunting down treasures and waiting for a bat or an owl to swoop by.
Now it had all vanished forever. They had slipped away from his fingers like water, and he had to fend for himself. How would he manage, without a story or a lullaby to trick him into sleep? Paul howled in the empty room, crouching on the floor, arms wrapped around his knees as he buried his face. His lungs hurt so much. They kept expanding and contracting abruptly as he sobbed, like a rickety old pump being squeezed and decompressed in violent motions. He just couldn’t stop crying. He felt overwhelmed, as he had felt as a little boy when he’d gotten lost or caught in a mess. His cold hands were covered in salty tears. Suddenly, he shuddered and bawled loudly, almost screaming as the water shot out of his eyes at a higher rate than before. Identical to a fountain, only living and suffering.
Once his eyes had run dry and his lungs had tired out, Paul drew himself up, stumbling as he stood, and wiped the sleeve of his trench cost over his face so that he could see where he was going. Somewhere, that’s where his life would lead him. Now he just had to tread the path alone, keeping his parents close in his heart – what a cliché thought to have! He chuckled.