I never liked the small room that backed onto the kitchen in our old house. I say room – we referred to it as such ‘the utility room’. In reality it was more of a functional hallway, leading out from the kitchen to the backdoor which led into the garden. Late at night the little frosted glass window set into the door would flicker with streetlights and the hi-beams of passing cars. The nocturnal noises of the neighbourhood could be heard faintly from the other side. Amplified in my childhood mind the sound of the wind and local strays would be transformed into monstrosities – held back only by the beaten plastic of the old door frame.
The hallway itself contained too much of nothing to navigate easily. Alongside a bulky washing machine (itself responsible for more night-time dread rumbling) It was lined with domestic debris, used tires, toys, and acrid smelling car batteries. Christmas lights, baubles and Easter bunnies lay in boxes, arranged between Halloween masks and fake bloody paraphernalia we would string up over the course of a year. There was also an all but antique chest freezer, which had at some point in the heady days of the early eighties assuredly seemed like the height of Americana inspired modernity. Now it appeared closer to what it was, a rusting awkward coffin. Amongst the rest of the dust laden bric-a-brac were a set of heavy rattling metal drawers. The kind often seen in car repair garages. All but one of the case’s five or six sliding caddies were filled with the coin and currency of maintenance. Bolts, washers, screws, hex keys and a mix of other Frankenstein parts all oily, encrusted and iron scented. The bottom drawer however contained a heavy stained black canvas bag with a zipper. The content of which remained – for me, my elder brother and sister a mystery throughout the years of our childhood and most of our adult lives.
We were never explicitly instructed to avoid it, but the idea was asserted – in one way or another – that the greasy canvas and it’s contents were not an area for exploration. Too heavy, too potentially messy and too likely to be the cause of some unnecessary inconvenience.
On occasion, when I was requested to retrieve something from the chest of drawers by my father, a screwdriver, a bolt or nut of a particular size (years of hoarding Lego pieces in plastic buckets had taught me the value and ingenuity of cannibalisation early on) the bag was to be avoided. Having scavenged thoroughly through the other drawers, looking for the requested piece, I would holler in a reedy voice asking, “what about the bag in the bottom drawer?” A pause and always a variation of the same reply: “No, not in there.” Conceding an end to my efforts, I would reply defeatedly “…then, I don’t think we have anything”. A moment later my father would inevitable appear, tools in hand grease smeared and smiling faintly. He would tug open a drawer, shuffle rattling metal a moment, then hold up an accusatory piece to the light and inspect it for a half instant. “That’ll do”.
Each time I was certain It had not been there a moment ago.
Though I seldom had other reasons to be in the utility room (a scouting expedition for some long-forgotten toy or piece of equipment for me and my brother, scavenging a surreptitious Mr. freeze ice pop in the summer months) I treated the drawers with the kind of unusual reverence that is reserved by children for the ill understood esoterica of things indelibly marked for the adult world.
On certain nights when he arrived home late, I would hear my father enter the utility room. The tell-tail sounds of his too-heavy boots scuffing the rubberised flooring. The opening and rattling of drawers. I would wonder what his reasons for being there were. It was in the end not purely my curiosity that would catch me out, but the foil of every curious child. The explicit instruction issued by my mother upon noting my curiousity was that under no circumstances was I to “go digging in your father’s things”.
So, late in the summer, one night assured both parents were long in bed (the sound of my father’s snoring strengthened my resolve, and likelihood of staying awake) I slipped downstairs. I could not comprehend my Mother’s attitude considering how often I had dug through those other drawers, all but categorised and creating an inventory of their contents. Pulling open the bottom drawer as quietly as I could, I unzipped the canvas bag and delved a hand in. Finding nothing on first inspection I dug deeper, the further I did the oilier and more incriminated by hands and wrists became. The small metal washers, saturated with grime clung to my skin, I peeled them off, flinging them back into the bag as I continued to dig amongst it’s content. The scent of the bag itself clung to my hands for days after, staining beneath my fingernails for weeks, and lingering in my mind longer still.
In the end, though my search was cut short, I found nothing of interest at all really.
Nothing in there to incriminate either of my parents as some wilder part of my imagination had perhaps hoped. What had I hoped for? A bloodied knife? A gun? A treasure map? perhaps letters or a mysterious looking leather-bound book? Some unexplained rotting remains? Fragmented bones or the skull of some unnamed unfortunate? Regardless, It was not what I had hoped to find (and did not) in the end that I remember. It was the result of my actions.
I heard the cup shatter behind me before realising my mother had come shuffling downstairs. She found me elbow deep amongst the grime and gears of the bag. On hearing the noise, I turned in fright. Hallow faced and empty handed I stared at her, as she stood in her slippers, amongst the broken shards of the teacup she had been holding. Initially I had suspected she had dropped it in surprise at seeing me there in the dark, but I quickly understood this was not what had shocked her.
She stood a long time, looking at me silently.
I gathered myself to speak, as I did she kicked at the broken fragments on the floor. Her motion seemed reactionary, like a poorly aimed reflex. The small shards scattered in all directions and instinctively also I shielded my face. I stayed quiet as she continued to stand there in silence. As I looked on longer, I could see tears on her face highlighted by the dim-light coming from the kitchen.
I began to piece together an explanation. “… there’s nothing…I mean I didn’t find anything just more old bolt and nuts.”
“I don’t want to hear it.” She cut me off. Her tone was as acrid as dead batteries.
“Mum, I’m sorry… I just”
She cut across me again. “Clear this mess up and get back to bed, I don’t want to ever catch you down here again.”
She turned leaving me stunned and uncertain, I was not in truth entirely sure what had just happened, but that’s It thought – it’s over.
Clearing the floor felt as though it took infinitely longer than I expected it to. My feet and hands were cold (I had not bothered with socks or shoes, thinking only to aid my aspirational stealthy movements on descending the stairs). The floor gradually became cold, painfully so and I began to shiver. I stumbled about looking for a brush, the dustpan thinking only of returning to the warmth of my bed. As I clumsily picked the shards of cup from the floor my fingers bled a little – creating more mess. I blotted ineptly at the stains and blood with kitchen roll and washing up liquid. Succeeding only in smearing and slurring my pyjama sleeves, shorts and knees more as I worked feebly. What seemed like hours later, when at last I did crawl silently beneath my duvet – still afraid to make any noise – my hands and face were stained and smudged.
My mother did not speak to me for days. In the morning her and my father exchanged looks but said nothing. If the topic was brought it up by either of my siblings it was brought to a blunt end. Both of them had heard the noise of the night’s events and much to my parent’s visible annoyance – feeling alternatively brave or churlish – they would take it in turns to inquire about it. If I was to so much as hint at it, I was sent to another room, reprimanded often before even being able to speak. For the longest time when my parents did look at me, it was as though I had just pissed my bed. Worse, I had befouled or demeaned some seemingly invaluable item. In time, the topic was of course forgotten, or more accurately perhaps, not allowed to be remembered. Tucked away neatly – the memory lingering like the persistent scent of oil.
Years later, both my parents passed away, my siblings decided to sell the house. I’m not sure why I had wanted to see it before they did. Nostalgia hangs like a strange key around our necks, only remembered when a lock presents itself.
I had made trips back over the years, at Christmas, or Halloween. My relationship with my parents and siblings was good. Outside of those things which unavoidably erode the course of years we all got along. We looked out for one another when we could, even if we did not speak as much as I sometimes felt we should. But then who does?
My sister gave me a copy of the keys and said to check if there was anything left in the house, before the remaining contents were cleared by the removals company we had all split payment for. She mentioned a strange smell in the back room by the kitchen but seemed to think little else of it.
Having passed through the rest of the near empty rooms. I rounded the corner from the kitchen into the rear room. It smelt strangely of old spice and rot. Decay, festering and rancid. As I rummaged amongst the few remaining items, wondering at what the source of the smell could be my eyes landed on the set of metal drawers.
Pausing a moment, I looked around the room, glancing over my shoulder before approaching it. Slowly, cautiously I pulled open each drawer. Each rattled open lightly in turn, the content having been dispersed by time or necessity. Eventually I reached the final drawer. As I pulled it open, it came heavier and more stubbornly than the others. The smell shot up into my nostrils, I coughed and gagged a little and spat to one side. Without waiting to think I pulled the zipper open glaring down into the canvas bag. It seemed filled to the brim, but only with more of the same mechanical odds and ends that had, years ago filled the other drawers of the cabinet. Unwilling to plunge my hands in for fear of what I would find. I poked tentatively. Hesitantly I dug down further and to my relief still found nothing, yet the sour smell lingered, was certainly stronger as I sat crossed legged on the floor in front of the open drawers. I hauled out the bag itself, with some effort – It seemed to weigh more than it ought to have.
I peered into the back of the drawer and still saw nothing but a few small pieces of rubbish, an old whisky bottle the label dried out, a scattering of coins, cigarette packets. I extracted each carefully, plucking them from the stained metal bottom of the drawer which was lined with a red gooey filament and matted rust. As I did so there was a rustling noise from somewhere behind the other boxes.
I turned following the noise, just in time to see a small red tail flash toward the garden door. I approached the door and with the toe of one shoe, pushed aside part of the filthy plastic frame to reveal a small hole that had been warn away.
Understanding better now, I returned to look at the drawers. I tugged at their weight pivoting them toward me so I could examine the back of them. I squatted down, drawing the neck of my t-shirt over my nose to cushion the smell. In the bottom corner of the unit I saw another small hole which had been rusted or gnawed open over time. Picking up a screwdriver which lay idly on a nearby box, I prodded it into the gap. It returned coated with a wet brown filament, traces of matted decay and spider web. The remnants of what the fox had dragged in, buried here in the back of the drawers. The tiny hole was stuffed and stored with what had become a festering nest of tiny pelts and broken bones.
After I had explained the mystery of the strange smell (my sister insisted it had not been so overwhelming when she had last locked up the house) we took it upon ourselves to dispose of the mess, too ashamed to leave it to a team of strangers already burdened with carting off the last forgotten remnants of our past.
To be sure, we cleared the hallway entirely, for the first time in what was likely decades. Grateful to find nothing else. When we had finished there remained a pooled rust red stain on the peeling Formica floor where the metal drawers had sat. Curious, I squatted down and tugged at the torn corners of the flooring around it, revealing the bare concrete beneath. As I peered under I saw it too was stained by the same dark substance. Given nothing but time and opportunity the oil and rot had managing to seep down and make itself part of the house’s foundations. “Well I guess that’s it, nothing else we can do about that now”. “I guess not” replied my sister, rolling her eyes at me as I wiped my hands along the front of my jeans, and stood up.
We closed the door, turned the key and went on with our lives.