A Certain Quality

A Certain Quality

David pushed the worn white shoebox onto the wooden shelf, catching his middle finger on a splinter. He snatched his hand back as blood slid along the crescent of his fingernail.

The shed was a mess. All sorts of things cluttered it up. His parents used to have plenty of space, and David never worried about having some of his possessions stored at their house. But everything changed after his father passed away, early last summer.

His mother swiftly rearranged her home during an out of sight, out of mind grief process. She made several upgrades to the place, including a loft conversion. The garden shed was disordered as a result of this domestic flux, as everything that once lived in the loft came to reside alongside the shed’s usual contents: tubs of old toys, boxes full of books, stacked suitcases and a worn crimson armchair now neighboured half-empty tins of paint, a rusty bike, a lawn-mower and a washing line. These items and more surrounded an assortment of mismatched gardening tools, leaning claustrophobic next to the door.

David’s stuff was stashed out here too, hidden amongst his late father’s boxed-up belongings, all labelled in hurried handwriting having been removed from the house with the rest of the jumble. Here everything had waited all winter, still and silent, undisturbed but by daylight, darkness and dust.


David spent Christmas at his mother’s, along with his older brother’s family. His nephew and niece were young, and his mother cooked lunch early to provide extra playtime for the children in the afternoon. The family focussed on the kids, and the ripping through wrapping paper by their small excited hands diverted David from the dramatic changes around the house. But in the evening, once the children were asleep in a freshly decorated spare bedroom, his mother brought up the topic of the shed whilst David and his brother took a glass of port in the kitchen. She told them that all of their possessions had been displaced there during the recent development work, and she asked them to gather anything they wanted to keep in the New Year, as she planned to clear the shed in order to use it for gardening come springtime. Of course they had agreed.

David stayed up after everyone had gone to bed. He topped up his port and sat opposite his brother’s empty glass and empty chair, drinking his ruby drink alone in the quiescent kitchen.

David felt the absence of his father keenly, particularly now while his family gathered together. Yet he knew he had to put his feelings aside, especially because he suspected his mother wasn’t coping with her loss as well as she was acting. He knew the best thing he could do to keep her happy was to make an effort to remove his belongings as she asked. It was, after all, her house.

David eventually finished his rich ruby wine with a sigh, placing the empty glass on the table and switching off the lights on his way to bed.


January glided icily past. David set about organising things around his small flat. He made a mental note of the books he’d not read, and the ones he’d been meaning to. He looked through his wardrobe and moved his shirts about on their hangers, earmarking a few for the local charity shop. He ran his finger over his CD and DVD cases, pulling a few out to be watched, a few to be added to the charity pile. He played music and opened the windows wide, letting in cold, fresh air.

He took the opportunity to clean too, and after a couple of weeks his flat was looking as good as ever, with space created to store the things he thought he’d take from what waited dormant in his mother’s shed.


In February, David organised some annual leave from work. He started his time off stretching in his bed. He got up and dressed, breakfasted, packed a bag and went through his place switching off plugs and half-drawing curtains. It was a clear morning, and he noticed patches of frost on the roadside as he headed towards his hometown. He listened to the news, queued through a little traffic, and arrived at his mother’s around lunchtime. He found the house was empty.

In the kitchen was a note with instructions for him to make himself at home, so David made tea and a sandwich, left his luggage in the hallway, and then stepped out into the cold towards the shed.


David’s family home, a bricked four-bedroom detached, was like many others in the area. Its sweeping gravel driveway and spacious back garden were linked by a cream concrete yard along one side, and the shed stood at the end of this yard next to the lawn. The afternoon was steeped in the cold brittle brightness of the winter sunlight, and David could hear a songbird calling nearby.

Looking around, he saw that even the house’s exterior was changing. His mother had always been an eager horticulturalist, and under the influence of the current greener trends, she’d set about investing to make her home a more environmentally sound place. This had involved installing glinting solar panels over the new attic room, adding a glasshouse and part-buried composting system to the garden, and a stout black plastic water butt to the yard to collect rainwater from the gutter. David’s dad’s cocktail patio would become a walled garden for summer tomatoes, and although spring was still weeks away, David saw soil growbags piled up there, waiting for the warmer rays of the sun to arrive.

David approached the shed. Though it was older than the house’s recent upgrades, it was nevertheless well maintained and large, having been a replacement for an old garage. Its wooden panels were stained the colour of wet sand, and its triangular roof was protected from the rain by tacked-down teal tarpaulin.

Inside, there was more evidence of the increase in gardening activity. Lengths of bamboo cane leant beside a spade and shovel propped up close to the door. A trowel and fork rested by some secateurs, a kneeling mat and a thick pair of gloves, and a ball of green twine, packets of seeds and a bag of bulbs sat amid flakes of mud on the wooden floor.

There was little room for this outdoor kit, however, because of everything else now in storage here. Standing alone amongst the boxes, David could understand why his mum wanted to clear the shed. For a moment he was daunted by the task facing him, and he wished his brother was there to help. David knew his mother would expect results, though, so he started seeking his share of the clutter, hoping to at least dent the disorder and generate some space for her.

As he worked, he could hear the songbird twittering away in the garden, but apart from its melody and the occasional whisper of a passing car, there was no other sound in the shed. He concentrated on the bird’s song; its trills and chirps were upbeat, almost optimistic. He reflected that food for the bird must be scarce at this time of year, yet there it was, singing gaily away despite its probable hunger.

David wondered if the bird was gifted the ability to sing in compensation against having to face such desperate winter months. With this thought in mind, the tone of the bird’s music took on a bitter quality, subduing David as he unpacked and stacked boxes. He kept listening to the bird, which seemed intent on staying nearby all afternoon.


There was no sign of David’s mother coming home. With only the bird and its song to distract him, David made some good progress. He went through most of his boxes finding nothing of much interest; mainly old clothes, books and records: more items for the charity shop. But then he came across a box containing his old school reports and exercise books. Already subdued, he sat for a moment and read a few pages here and there, nostalgic. He remembered his old teachers and school friends, people he had not thought about for years. He remembered how he felt when these school reports were being given to his mum and dad at parents’ evening, and recalled the anxiety he experienced whilst waiting for them to come home.

After a moment he put the papers back down. So much had changed since then. That worry seemed meaningless, now. He concentrated instead on the task at hand, and as the bird sang on, David came across another old box of his; a worn white shoebox he’d forgotten about entirely.

As a boy, he’d collected mementoes and kept them in this shoebox. He opened it up and looked at its contents. It held many keepsakes – all worthless – from birthday cards and toy soldiers missing limbs, to a few greening pennies and fading stamps. There were train tickets and admission tickets to the cinema and leisure centre, some notes which had been passed around in class and a sepia photograph of David with the old family dog.

Shuffling through these items, David smiled, but his smile slipped when he found a Valentine’s Day card buried at the bottom of the box. It was from his girlfriend at secondary school. They’d been in love, and the card said in faithful teenaged ink that someday they’d get married. But before college began, she’d moved away with her family to live in another country, and her and David had lost touch. He hadn’t thought about her for a long time. Hearing the bird singing, he was reminded again of the month, and he glanced at his watch to check the date. It was the 11th, and despite the adverts in the shops and restaurants, he’d completely forgotten about Valentine’s Day.

He thought again of the bird, and its song with its bitter quality. He wondered whether his forgetfulness was a similar evolutionary gift. The aches of failings faded, longings were lost and pacified by time as his mind censored his memory by staying focused on the present.

David, sitting there in the shed with his old shoebox open on his lap, was now reminded of his uneventful romantic life. His brother had a family, and David always felt this made up for his not being married. He had never been the sort to feel loneliness too greatly. He pondered whether this was another of life’s bitter gifts.

He looked up at his father’s boxes, and pictured him lying on his deathbed. He had been calm as his illness drew to a close around him. He said to David he’d accepted his mortality; that that was what happened when you got old. Death becomes a part of life, and in the end, you find the fear you felt for it through all your years has unwittingly prepared you to take that last long slow step in confidence. He said that this acceptance brought with it peace.

His father had gone to sleep and died, leaving his family behind to continue on without the certain quality he’d possessed.

The chirping of the songbird once again caught David’s imagination, and he returned to the thought of evolution. Maybe his father’s acceptance of death was accounted for in the grand scheme of things, just like all of the world’s creatures, locked in a daily struggle for survival, had their own methods to endure; a song to sing, sharp eyes to see by in bleak moonlight, thick fur and fat reserves, instinctual memories of migratory paths; all were equipped to survive, yet all pushed onwards towards the same and certain end.

Sitting in the cluttered shed, dust winking in the weakening sunlight about him, David blew out a breath. Acceptance of life and death was beyond him today, but like everything else in the world, he also had no choice but to carry on. He placed the card back into the worn white shoebox, which he pushed onto a wooden shelf, catching his middle finger on a splinter.

Blood gathered on David’s fingertip, crimson sliding along the curve of his fingernail. He held his hand steady, trying to keep his finger upright, but the small injury throbbed and more blood moved forward, pulsing free from the little wound. Droplets fell from his hand down onto his jeans, scarlet stars splashing against the light denim and landing on the dusty wooden floor.

David stood and sucked the cut for a second, then held his finger tightly with his other hand and made his way back to the kitchen to find a plaster. The songbird stopped calling as he passed, and when he left the yard, a blackbird swooped down onto the lawn and silently pecked about for food. Inside the shed, the splattering of David’s blood seeped indiscernibly into the floorboards.

Originally published by Soul Lotus, 2013

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©James Bruce May 2013

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