Anne and Joe Healey stood in the porch of their new home and watched as the removals van pulled away from the kerb. Anne gazed admiring, not for the first time, at the decorative Victorian floor tiles, the colours an intricate mosaic of tin white, honey and turquoise. The setting sun cast a myriad of shadows across the expansive lawn. They both agreed they could do with some fresh air. It had been a long day. They walked to the far end of the large, rambling garden. When they had put in their offer on the ground floor apartment, the real pull for them had been that it came with a front and side garden.
Anne loved the high sandstone wall, which ran around the perimeter, its crevices covered in stonecrop, white valerian and campanula. She looked up at the turrets that stood proud of the steep, gable roof and still could not quite believe that this was their new home. Joe glanced at his wife and was concerned to see a look of fatigue etched on her face.
“I think I’ll make us a brew. If you fancy one?”
“You certainly know how to spoil a girl,” she joked.
They sat drinking their tea, sprawled on the sofa, that Joe had dragged across the living room, so they could gaze out through the large bay windows. The fading light conjured an air of intimacy in the walled garden beyond, above squawking gulls owned the sky.
“I told you, in time, we’d have a home of our own,” Joe said.
“You did,” she said, “and in the end it was well worth the wait.”
It had been a real whirlwind for them. Everyone one who knew them said the same. They had met through the Soulmates column, in a weekend broadsheet and uncharacteristically, Joe had proposed after three weeks but it was Anne, the impetuous one who had said, hadn’t they better wait, so their families didn’t think them mad. They had both been married before, (Anne twice) many years ago. And they did marry, a day, short of a year later and five years on, they both considered themselves, exceptionally lucky. Not that it had all been plain sailing. Both friends and family had been surprised when Anne, had upped sticks from Liverpool, and moved into Joe’s house in north Wales. To Anne, it had made sense. They both loved hillwalking and they had the Carneddau, on their doorstep. It had never occurred to her that she might feel isolated and find it hard to make new friends. Joe had been so supportive when she finally spoke of her disconnect.
“We should have given it more thought, love,” he said.
They put Joe’s house up for sale but nothing quite worked out. Three times they sold the house and each time it fell through. At one point they gave up and withdrew altogether. It was too exhausting and anyway, where would they go? Joe had always lived in villages or small towns and he loved Wales. Anne had lived in many places but it was Liverpool that would forever be home. And yet, Joe’s patience had seen them through and now here they were in a resort town, in northwest Wirral.
Joe sat and watched Anne tugging her short, grey flecked hair.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“I had the strangest feeling earlier on. Déjà vu, is the only way I can describe it. It was when the young lad, Billy, was using the sack barrow to bring in the heavy boxes. I was holding the porch door as he hauled the trolley up the steps and just in that moment, I knew I’d dragged something up those steps before or maybe it wasn’t them but steps just like them and the feeling I had was imbued with such great sadness.”
Joe took hold of Anne’s hand and after a while said, “I remember reading that people tend to experience déjà vu when they are exhausted or stressed. This hasn’t been easy for you. Two moves in five years.”
“Perhaps,” she said, “but on a cheerier note, remind me tomorrow to have a look and see what local groups there are. I fancy joining a walking group and it’s a good way to meet people.”
Later that night, lying in bed, Anne struggled to fall asleep, her brain full of incessant chatter. It was then the children’s home she been in all those years ago, resurfaced, fleetingly, as it often did, before she finally drifted off.
As Anne strode towards the promenade, there was a gentle zephyr coming in off the shore. Her gaze settled on the far side of the estuary. The hills of North Wales stood out in sharp relief. The Point of Ayr seemed so close. She walked at a brisk pace, carrying her poles in one hand. Silently, she recited some of the keys points, Tricia, had taught her on the induction session. Anne had worried that she might not be any good at Nordic walking but from the outset, Tricia had made her feel confident. Ahead she could see a half a dozen women gathered, including Liza, who had been so friendly, on her first walk. There was a noisy exchange of greetings before Tricia restored order.
“We’ll head down to the beach and do our warm-ups.”
A short while later they set off down Marine Parade, Anne and Liza fell into easy conversation. In no time at all, Anne could see that the group was a good way ahead of them. Despite the early sunshine, it was quiet on the seafront but then Anne became aware of a clattering noise behind them. On this stretch of the promenade, cyclists and walkers shared the space. She turned expecting to see a group of cyclists approaching. Instead she was astonished to see two young girls, crossing the road, in dress-up clothes. They wore near identical polka-dot poodle skirts, which took Anne instantly back to the 1960s. The younger girl, who looked to be about six, was teetering along in an over-sized pair of princess shoes. The older child, who was possibly seven, adroitly manoeuvred a vintage doll’s pram onto the kerb. There was not a parent or adult in sight. They could not be going to a party at this time of day and in any case, it was a school day. Where had the girls come from? She was about to speak to them, when the older girl, looked directly at her and as their eyes met, Anne knew she was looking at the childhood face of her sister, Brigid. Consumed by fear, she struggled for breath. Anne reached for Liza’s hand, to stop herself falling but then turned again to the girls. There was not a soul there. Later, as she recounted the incident to Joe, she was not sure if she had screamed then, or if the scream had been inside her head.
Liza reluctantly accepted Anne’s reassurances that she was fine, just overtired. She would ring Joe and make her way home. She remained seated on the bench, in a state of stunned bewilderment, after her friend had finally been persuaded to continue her walk. Eventually, despite the sunshine, it was the bone-chilling cold, that forced her to pick up her poles and make her way back along the front. She stopped at the point where she had seen the girls cross the road. Inexplicably, her eyes locked on the sizeable building opposite and in that moment, she knew it was the home that had remained buried within her for so long.
Joe was waiting in the porch when she arrived home and ushered her into the garden, where he had set up a reclining chair in her favourite spot, the south-facing sandstone wall providing a perfect sun trap. The plugs of stock, they had bought for that part of the border, released a heady perfume as they swayed in the breeze. Anne sat for a while and then tearfully related everything that had happened. Joe insisted she rest for the remainder of the day and later brought her lunch out to the garden. All afternoon Anne dozed, though each time she surfaced she was unsure if she had been asleep or daydreaming. Kaleidoscopic pictures of the home by turn appeared, only to fracture. She considered her fragile memories of the place. Until today, she had not known its location, only that it was is one of two towns on the Wirral, she did not know which. She had always been able to evoke images of the high front steps; they had been ever-present. She could place a back garden, with a play hut. That was where the dress up clothes and pram were kept. She clearly remembered a squabble with her sister, over who should push the pram down the steps and Brigid got her way, as she always did. Anne could not be sure if she remembered the nurses’ uniforms. Certainly, she could not recall any other children or indeed staff.
Anne thought of her mother, who had died over a quarter of a century ago and felt such sadness for her. She slept again but later she thought of her teenage years, when her mum had talked about her illness. It had begun, as unrecognised but severe postnatal depression after James, Anne’s younger brother was born. Eventually, it had resulted in a nervous breakdown. Anne had been four when her mother became ill. She thought about Brigid. For many years now they had had no contact. Anne considered how, although only two years her senior, her sister had had to adopt the role of surrogate mum during their primary school years. Anne wondered where Brigid was now. It was late afternoon when Joe reappeared with a tea tray. “I hope you don’t mind love, but I’ve been doing a bit of detective work,” he announced.
Anne still half asleep, looked at him blankly, before spotting the photograph lying on the tray. She picked it up and stared in disbelief.
“I wanted to help. I’ve been searching on the internet, while you were resting. I hope I haven’t upset you, love?”
“No Joe, you haven’t. It is just a bit of a shock, that’s all.”
Anne stared at the image in front of her. The façade had not changed that much in sixty years, save for new windows and doors. But unbelievably there was Anne and Brigid, sitting on the front lawn, some distance from the building. They were nestled closely together and quite separate from the other people in the photograph. Gathered close to the front door were a group of much older girls, teenagers, about a dozen in all. A number of adults, presumably staff, sat on the wall and steps, one stroking a cat. Over them hung a placard which read, ‘Girls Hostel.’
Anne sat on the bench, where she had sat the day she saw the girls and had come to sit so many times since; each time, experiencing anew, a sense of defeat and despondency. She had hoped that the photograph and more particularly the building, would stir recollections of her time in care. She had even plucked up courage on one occasion to knock and speak to the current owners. They had been most obliging and taken her through to the rear garden: the space sadly, now sanitised with flags and decking. Anne had come to accept that the memories of the home were locked in time. She heard her phone ping and smiled as she read Joe’s message. Anne realised she had been sitting for best part of an hour, lost in thought. The nearby stretch of beach had been deserted when she arrived but now a young mother and her children were enjoying the late sunshine. She watched as the woman shared out after-schools snacks, with the three youngsters. They clutched their treats and ran brandishing sticks, which they used to draw messages on the shore; the youngest squirrelled away a horde of shells under a mound of sand. Anne’s attention was caught by a couple of shelducks, as they landed in amongst the cordgrass. Her thoughts turned to her and Joe and their new home and she felt such gratitude that they had not only chosen well but for Anne there was a sense of having come full circle and this was now her home. As she walked along the promenade, she began to think of the letter she would write to Brigid.