The silence lay heavy, almost oppressive in its weight - but not quite.
The last clubbers, the late night owls and those who propped up the bars of the evening gone, long since retired to the release of their beds.
No sound, no bodies stir, even the cats of Cambridge avenue have settled behind flaps or squeezed into safe corners behind weathered boards of garden sheds.
Only a few lights remain, those stalwart and silent yellow guardians of the hours no man or woman sees, the pavements and street corners cast stark in black shadow.
And now, the faintest hint, the promise of colour creeps into the air. Distant Spanish city and the rooftops of Oxford street thrown into sharp relief against the whisper of an indigo sky.
I walk down North Parade, feet following the scratched white lines on the middle of the road, the thrill of this most minor of trespassing coursing through my veins.
I am the king of the night, none can challenge my passage.
I stand by the railings, overlooking the silver flashes of the north sea. My hands grasp the cold metal, feeling it slowly warm beneath my fingers. Somewhere, not far away, the air must carry the scent of salt and brine. But here it’s still, holding the last vestiges of warm earth, grass and summer from the night before.
Slowly, silently, the blue is building, adding layer upon layer to that dark canvas above. It steadily trails from its pinnacle eastwards, towards the point where the ocean meets the sky.
A single thin line of yellow has appeared hovering above its edge, stretching from north to south. It is cut from the air, sharply drawn as if rent from the blue. The fresh horizon birthing a new thought.
Just below it, distinct from the yellow stands a bar of the richest and most vibrant red my eyes have ever seen. One can barely believe the world can hold the capacity to imagine such a depth of colour inside it. It burns with brilliance, captivating in its intensity.
They hold together, caught between the glistening sea and the still air. They grow in intensity, a silent crescendo, increasing, stretching, bursting with the colour they can no longer hold. It seems something must surely give, the colours spilling out across the water and dying the sand scarlet and gold if they hold but one moment more.
And then; the sun.
And all the wondering possibilities that the day may yet bring.
“Neil, the bins aren’t out yet, I told you to get that done last night. Get your fat arse out of bed and sort it out!”
A muffled shout in reply, then a slammed door and a few seconds later, the grumble of an unknown car engine starting nearby.
There is still a little time before I see Lucy and the kids. Two hours and fifty-one minutes to be exact. One hundred and seventy-one possible moments waiting to be experienced, should I care to look.
I let out a slow breath, then turn from the railing.
“Barnabas! Put that back and go play in the kitchen with your sister! Mummy is busy right now!”
My nephew picks another book up from the battered cardboard box by the door. I still can’t tell whether he chooses to ignore Lucy as part of some sadistic little game he has conceived. Balancing the risks of pushing her past her breaking point against the extra moments of attention he can gain over Sophie. Or perhaps he really is that oblivious of the world. I would envy him that, if it were the truth.
“But Mummy, I want you to read me a story,” he whines. He stresses each word as if by doing so he can change Lucy’s previous ruling by emphasising the emotional importance of his case. He picks out another book and drops it dismissively to the floor.
“Barnabas!” Lucy strides over, bending down and talking in a low voice as if I wouldn’t overhear. “I need you to behave for Mummy today. We don’t have time for this. We need everything packed up before we all go to the airport this afternoon with Daddy.”
I look around the bare room, finding myself trying to remember what picture hung over that slightly lighter patch on the far wall. It’s strange that something can be in front of you for so long, yet it’s only when it’s gone that you appreciate its details.
Sophie stands by the kitchen door, watching her mother and brother with eyes that see more than they reveal. Lucy will need to be careful about that one. Barnabas is giving her grief now, but I think it’s Sophie that will give her the sleepless nights.
Barnabas is appealing to me now, still refusing to confront his mothers eyes. She still has that power, and he knows it. Once she makes eye contact, the game is up and he has to get back in line. I meet his wide blue eyes, humouring him for a moment. His parting gift, if you will.
“Will you read me a story?”
He holds up another hefty tome. I stay leant against the doorframe, my arms folded.
“Particle Astrophysics Second Edition? I don’t remember finding Biff, Chip and Kipper in that one”
Lucy’s phone rings, the shrill ringtone echoing off the naked walls. She holds it to her ear with one shoulder, repacking the cardboard box as she does.
A muffled male voice speaks, the words not quite intelligible.
“Yes love, we’re nearly done, I -“
“Yes, they’re in the back, all packed… printed off this morning… I’ve got his inhaler with me yes…”
Barnabas gives a loud, retching series of coughs for effect.
“Alright love I’ll see you -“
The phone issues a soft tone and she removes it from her ear, replacing it in her handbag with just a little more rustling than is necessary.
"Come on, let’s go. “ I say, jerking my head slightly towards the stairs. “Dave will be waiting.”
"I just need a moment to say goodbye to the house.”
I roll my eyes, trying a grin. I fail somewhere in the middle and it falls flat, but Lucy doesn’t seem to notice.
“Don't tease. I may never see this place again”
“Oh come off it Luce, you’ll be back.”
“Yes, well, it won’t be the same”
I suddenly find I don’t want to meet her gaze, my eyes instinctively searching elsewhere. Barnabas is turning all the radiators on. I reluctantly look back. Lucy is staring at the blank space on the wall, the place where that portrait used to be, the one I can’t recall the details of. Clearly she sees what I have forgotten.
"Can you take the kids out to the car?” she says, her back to me. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Dave swings the car into a staff parking bay by the petrol station, the radio blaring an auto-tuned summer anthem.
“Could you not drop us off in short stay?” asked Lucy, looking through the tinted windows towards the airport.
Dave snorted. “For the sake of an extra minute’s walk? Besides, I haven’t got a pound coin on me.”
Barnabas pipes up. “Daddy, I have a pound coin in my piggy bank under the bed. I found it when we were in Scotland at Easter.”
Lucy, steps out the car. “Come on kids, out you get”
Dave turns in his seat, giving me a quick glance before studying his glinting Rolex.
“Don’t be too long saying goodbye, I’ve got a meeting with a client in an hour and I need to prepare.”
I nod, squeezing out of the back seat to join Lucy and the twins outside.
“Do you want a hand with that?” I ask, watching as Lucy struggles to haul the suitcases out of the boot.
“No, it’s fine, I’ve got them.”
“Come on. Let me help for once.”
Reluctantly she hands me the smaller of the two, and we set off for the airport doors. We cross the busy road to Long stay and car rentals, navigating the constant current of vehicles moving through drop-off. Sophie has enough sense not to get herself killed in this environment, but Barnabas I’m not so sure about, so I’m glad he’s holding Lucy’s other hand.
At check-in, Lucy places the suitcase on the scale, beckoning for me to pass her the other.
“Have you got your travel documents?” asks the girl behind the desk, her glance towards the clock behind me betraying her boredom.
“Oh no, it’s not for me” Lucy turns to me. “Daniel, you have your passport don’t you?”
I pass it across the desk whilst Lucy fishes some papers from her handbag and slaps them on the counter. I’ll allow her this one last opportunity to help.
The check-in girl takes the documents and taps on her computer for a few moments before sliding them back. “Thank you, gate twelve”
We retreat a careful distance. I feel bare in just my shoulder bag. I could be going into town.
Lucy makes to say something, but her phone rings again, the tone trilling happily away in her bag, oblivious of the world outside. She fumbles around for it, pulling it out and checking the number before swiping a button and replacing it again.
“Who was that?” I ask.
“Probably the man coming to pick up the chest of drawers” she said, voice tense, a violin string pulled too tight. “He offered twenty quid for it and I told him where he could go, obviously. But then no one else responded to the eighty I was asking for so I had to go crawling back. Would you believe he had the cheek to lower his offer to fifteen?”
"Why don’t you just give it away if it’s so much hassle?"
“That's a complete waste. Besides it seems wrong somehow. Some of this belonged to Mum and Dad. It should at least get a fair price"
“Let me make up the difference.” I start to pull out my wallet, but she bats my hands away.
Nearby, Sophie approaches, leaving Barnabas to continue undoing the retractable belt barriers by the Flybe desk.
"Why is mummy crying? Is it because Uncle is going away?”
Barnabas perks up at this, running over. “Where is Uncle Dan going?”
"Ive told you before,” she says, crouching and gathering the twins close. “Uncle Dan is going to have an exciting adventure up in outer-space. He’s going to Mars in a rocket ship”
“How long?” asks Barnabas, his eyes wide.
I crouch down too. “We’re still working on a plan to come back. Maybe the clever men here will find a way in a few decades. You’ll be really big by then.”
Barnabas nods slowly, his eyes still round, uncomprehending.
“I wish you’d never volunteered for this stupid expedition.” says Lucy, her voice vehement behind her tears. She is shaken briefly by a half-laugh, half-sob. “Now that’s the last thing I’ve said to you”
I say nothing, but we pull each other into a tight embrace. I can smell the lingering essence of the detergent on her clothes, feel the wet patch on my shoulder where she is resting her head.
There is something oddly peaceful, I find, about departure lounges.
In and amongst the ebbs and flows of a thousand other travellers, each embarking on their own journey, there exists a unique stillness.
Everything behind you, held now for a brief interlude behind a wall of metal detectors, X-ray machines and uniformed officials.
Before you, a world of possibility borne on metal wings.
And in the middle, everything takes a deep breath.
I have sometimes wondered whether I could change my mind at the last second and slide onto a flight going somewhere else whilst the gate attendant turns their back for a careless second.
For now, I have a brief slip of eternity, the razor edge of a page turning.