It was the only place she could go for her cigarette break. Debbie's shoes made an uneven, stony rhythm on the rough-shod paving and the verdant weeds sprouting through the cracks scratched against the stone. Dustbins lined the back yard, their contents beginning to putrefy in the heat.
As she lit up and leaned against the only expanse of wall that wasn't webbed in grey filth, Deborah Allan thought about her son. She'd known from the start that something was wrong with Andrew – he'd started to see the world with tired eyes that spoke of a sadness he couldn't cope with.
Last night, he'd come home looking even worse – drained, not-quite-there. His shoulders had been hunched like a thousand tonnes were bearing down on him. Debbie hadn't said anything to him; she knew better. And besides, what would she say?
With a tired exhale, she stamped her cigarette out on the floor and turned to go back inside.
Andrew's mere presence in Michael's bed had left a sodden, unfulfilled miasma hanging over the sheets. It wasn't enough to have had him, but Michael supposed it would have to do. It didn't matter much now, anyway.
Michael sighed and switched the kettle on, lifting his heavy arms to open the cupboard above the sink and take out some mugs. Unusually for this time of day, the house was full. His mother had stayed home from work; his sister had brought her kids down from Newcastle; his father and uncle were sitting in the living room.
The family had congregated at 92 Brook Street and were showing no signs of leaving. They were keeping vigil. Waiting.
Michael ran out of space on the worktop and put some of the mugs on the table, knocking a sheaf of thick starchy paper to the floor. He jumped at the noise of it brushing the linoleum, and looked down at the letter. The black ink stared up at him, definite, clear, his final penalty for that night when he couldn't raise his voice to ask for a condom.
A small, sighing voice in the back of his mind whispered to him as he took in a tray of tea for his assembled relatives. Not long now.
Every muscle in his body burned like he was a rag doll tossed on a fire. His throat was raw from inhaling the summer air, from crying. The rhythmic pounding of his boots on the concrete rang in his ears, and his only thought was of going faster. He turned a corner. This was Robert's road, and there was Robert's house. It seemed miles away.
Even when he was at their garden gate, he didn't stop running. Nobody answered the door at first, and a cold flood of dread began to seep in Andrew's skin. He rang the doorbell again, and when that didn't work he started pounding on the door.
Please don't let it be true. Oh, God, Robbie. What have you done? What have we done?
This couldn't possibly be happening. No matter what had happened between them, no matter how badly things might have gone, Robert wouldn't just leave. Andrew realised, with a surge of humiliation, that he'd subconsciously believed – up until now – that they would eventually get back together.
Well. Apparently that wasn't going to happen.
A few hundred yards down the street there was the sound of an engine revving, and for some reason Andrew looked. Robert's mother was talking to the driver of a black taxi, flicking auburn hair out of her face every now and then. Her low-heeled black shoes and starched skirt looked uncomfortable on her – she'd only just got in from work. She started to wave, and the cab pulled out of its spot.
"Fuck!" Andrew all but flew down the road towards the taxi, which was gaining speed as it went. The realisation came crashing down on him like a torrent of summer rain – Robert was leaving. Actually leaving. Before Andrew was even halfway down the street, the black cab had disappeared into the leafy, urban mess of London, its exhaust fumes rising up off of the street.
In its wake, it left only Marie Astor – now doomed to live out her existence alone in that big, empty house – and Andrew.
Their eyes met even as they stood eight feet apart in the glowing hot sunset. Neither of them said anything; both were aware of what the other had just lost. The street was quiet.
Eventually, Marie walked past him and went inside. The door shut with a click that echoed in the deserted street.