It wasn't till I was in my thirties, had been married, divorced, and had two children, that I moved into Granma's house. We opened the heavy wooden door, and I watched the dust rise around my children's feet as they scampered into the big hall and ran circles through the downstairs rooms. I supervised the removal men as the children made a racket upstairs. When they came down for drinks and biscuits, panting and flushed, they were covered in cobwebs and had dust balls clinging to their clothes. "Children! You look like you've found the messiest part of the house to play in!" Their replies were indignant. "We weren't playing!"
"Yeah, we weren't playing!"
"We were exploring!"
"I'm an explorer, Mummy!"
"We found such coooool stuff!" Liam leant forward over the table towards me, while Mel stuck her grubby hand into her glass of orange juice to fish out a broken section of biscuit. "Mum, I found a sword in one of the rooms! A sword! And there's a wardrobe that's still full of clothes - I found a coat that looks like Captain Jack's from Dr Who, can I have it pleeease, and I found a hat with roses on it that Mel was wearing, but then she sat on it, but I think it's okay, and there's a lion's head on the wall in the hallway, or maybe it's a tiger's - Mum, why is there a lion's head on the wall? - and I found my room!" Liam paused to take a breath, and I took Mel's drink off her and fished the soggy biscuit out with a spoon, which she took off me and sucked contentedly. Outside, the removal men were manhandling a running machine out of the van, and Liam stood up on his chair in his excitement. "Muuum! Did you hear me? I found my room!"
"Sit down, Liam. Which room was it?" I tipped Mel's drink down the plughole, watching as it made an orange track through the layer of dust on the surface of the china sink, leaving behind islands of biscuit, then poured her a fresh cup. Liam had sat down, but was now swinging back and forth on his chair, the legs making rattling noises against the uneven grey tiles. "It's the one next to the bathroom. Can I have that one? It has a huuuge window in it and a secret passage to the loft!"
I remembered that room. It used to be Granpa's study. I only went in there twice as a child. The window was the same in Granma's bedroom, reaching from floor to ceiling, looking out over the now overgrown garden. "Yes, you may have that room, Liam. Go tell the removal men that's where you want your bed and your boxes to go." He leapt off his chair and disappeared out of the door, and I sat to watch Mel gulping down her juice. "What did you find on your exploring, darling? Did you find your room?" Mel swiped her mouth with the back of her hand, leaving a smudge of grey dust across her chin. "Liam founded a hat! With flowers on it, but it was all dirty so I didn't like it so I left it... somewhere. Um. And I found aaa..." She rolled her eyes up and opened her mouth wide in an effort to remember. "I founded a thing. It was quite big and had things on the side..." She gestured vaguely with her hands. "And it was all metally, kind of. And it was really heavy!" A bright smile. "So I left it. Errrm. And I found aaa... bed! It was huuuge! It was a biiig bed, Mummy, can I have a biiig bed?"
"Maybe when you're older."
"Aaaw, okays. And I founded a room that Liam said was mine and it had a pink carpet." I picked up the dishes from the table and started to rinse them at the sink. "And there's a lion in the hallway, and the bathroom door has flowers on it, and I founded a broken cup in the sink in your room, and the door to the downstairs toilet creaks alooot! And I founded a mouse nests in the wardrobe, and I counted the stairs and there was fourteen! And then I also founded a dead butterfly, which was sad. I put it in the hat. I'm going to tell the removal mans where Liam's room is."
I smiled as she scrambled down from the chair. I'd have to go and find the mouse nest and relocate them before Mel got too attatched. It was cute the way she counted the stairs, considering the amount of times I used to do it. Stomp stomp stomp, up and down. And then to Granma to collect my sweetie. "There's still fifteen stairs, Granma!" And how she'd go on about the odd number of stairs.
My smile faded. Fifteen? But... My feet clacked across the hallway floor as they carried me to the door. "Mel? Mel, where are you, honey?" Liam was outside with the removal men, getting in their way as they threw boxes at each other, and swung around our furniture. He hadn't seen her, and I issued an automatic safety warning, which the removal men batted aside with a goodnatured "We're keeping an eye on him, Mrs D", before going back into the house. She wasn't in any of the downstairs rooms. I clattered up the stairs. My mouth automatically formed the numbers as my feet hit the steps. Stamp: one, stamp: two, stamp: three. My heart beat faster the nearer I got to the top. Stamp: nine, stamp: ten, stamp: eleven. I tripped on the thirteenth step. There were fifteen steps. Of course there were. Childish error, that's all.
She wasn't in any of the top rooms either. My voice bounced off the old panelled walls. She wasn't locked in any of the wardrobes mistake. She hadn't fallen through the broken slats of the old king-sized bed. She hadn't tripped over an uneven floorboard and knocked herself unconcious. I went back downstairs. Fifteen steps - once fifteen steps, always fifteen steps.
As I reached the front door, her voice caught my attention. "Mummy?" She was standing halfway up the stairs, one hand clutching the banister, peering through the wooden poles. "Mel! Where've you been?" I ran up the stairs and sat her on my lap. She poked my cheek with a finger. "I been exploring!" Her body was warm and soft against my chest.