Home is where the heart is
Another of the distinctive blue and white local buses stopped in front of him and briefly obscured Josh’s view of the house opposite. A few people disembarked, and the driver shot Josh a brief, quizzical look. The number 32 was the only bus that ran down Norwood Road, but Josh wasn’t sitting at the stop to wait for it; he shook his head distractedly and the bus slowly moved back into the line of traffic and off down the road.
Anyone on the bus might not have noticed anything unusual in the scene laid out before them. On one side of the street a man sitting solemnly at a bus stop, and all around comfortable looking houses; smart and proud, standing to attention like guards lining the street. To the casual observer they were all very much alike, but to anyone who bothered to look a little closer one stood out from the rest.
The one fenced off from the street.
Next to the giant JCB.
The ash stained water had dried in dark rivers under the broken, charred glass of the windows, and behind them was pure darkness. Instead of being a house full of the sound of children laughing, there was silence, and where once there was a family’s love, now there was nothing.
Josh felt the plastic bench that propped him off the floor tremble slightly as someone sat next to him, but he didn’t take his gaze off the old house.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to come today?” The woman next to him; petite with reddish-brown hair, said quietly.
He replied in a monotone, “I lied”.
“Josh…” She placed her hand lightly on his forearm, and he turned to face her, his eyes showed the blank look of despair, and a million tears he was refusing to let fall.
“I had to come Liz. But I just want to be left alone.” He didn’t wait for her to respond, instead he turned back to the house.
He had sat there for hours, waiting for the inevitable moment when the gathered demolition workers were ready to pull the remains of his house to the ground. Three weeks had passed since the fire had ripped through it and the surveyors had pronounced it unsafe; fencing it off and erecting a large red sign to warn people of its impending fate.
Josh hadn’t been back since that day, but today, against the better judgement of friends, he hadn’t been able to stay away. The fire had taken everything he ever treasured away from him, and even though he would have gladly ripped down the house with his bare hands to save his wife and children, it was his last link with them now, and he knew that yet another piece of his spirit would be destroyed along with it.
“I’m not going to leave you sitting here all day you know, it’s freezing!” As if to prove her point a gust of icy February wind ripped through them. Liz shuddered, Josh didn’t even seem to notice.
“Go then, I‘ll be back when they’ve finished”.
“No”. She crossed her arms across her chest in an effort to keep warm, but with enough of a flourish to show it was also a sign of her determination not to leave him alone at such a time.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, “Thanks”.
“Yeah well, what are friends for”, she smiled and for a second it looked like he reciprocated the motion.
He didn’t know what he would have done without her those last few weeks. She had been there to listen to him when he needed a sounding board, but she’d also been good enough to know when he really did need to be left alone, and had done so even if it meant leaving him in her house for an hour or two.
Of course she wasn’t the only one who had helped him. He’d spent the first night with Charlie and Baz, and recalled with a twinge of embarrassment how he had found himself sobbing in Charlie’s arms. There was no way he could have stayed with them though, even at the time he’d been aware of intruding on their comfortable little family life. And besides, he couldn’t shake the jealousy he felt every time he saw Charlie fawning over his baby son.
“Looks like they’re going to start…” Liz observed, trying to sound casual.
The workmen in garishly coloured hardhats had suddenly sprung into life, dashing back and forth across the small front garden, crushing underfoot the remaining few of Helen’s flowers.
The JCB roared into life like some sort of yellow dinosaur, stretching forward and opening it’s mouth wide to take a bite from the house’s roof. Slates sprinkled onto the ground, their shattering sounding strangely delicate alongside the rumble of the machinery.
Josh’s feverish sniffing fast became ineffectual and as bricks tumbled down from the house, heavy teardrops splashed onto the pavement. Before the paramedic’s eyes the once proud building crumpled to the ground. Three storeys became little more than a mound of rubble.
Next to her, Josh too appeared to have crumpled. She knew from the effort required on her part to help lift stretchers that standing up he must be nearly a foot taller than her, but suddenly he appeared very small indeed. The shell of the man he once was. She snaked her arm protectively around his waist and hugged him close.
“I think I want to go now” he said in a voice barely audible above the commotion coming from across the road.
“Yes. There’s nothing left for me here. Let’s go home”.
His choice of words didn’t go unnoticed by her, and she gave him an extra squeeze as they stood up and walked away from the ruins to where she had parked her car.
They drove in companionable silence for several minutes, Josh as reluctant as ever to share his feelings, and Liz for once completely lost for words. It was only when they passed the building site for the new supermarket that she found her voice again.
“Are they going to rebuild the house?”
Josh sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not mine anymore, the owners can do whatever they like with it.” He paused as he thought about it some more, “Even they if they do build another house there, it won’t be the same as before. Things change, it’s the way life is”.
She pulled up outside her house and parked the car, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah.” He nodded slowly, but with a forcefulness that suggested that he was trying to convince himself as much as her. “Let’s get inside, eh? You’re right, it is a bit chilly”.
They exited the car and made their way to the front door, unlocked it and stepped into the heated hallway, warming themselves through as they took off their coats.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” She asked again, noticing the troubled expression Josh still wore.
“Liz, I’m fine” She raised an eyebrow at him but refrained from speaking. “After all,” he continued resolutely, “it was only a house.”