The sky is so low here you can almost touch it. Violet turns orange through pink as darkness fades away. I've not slept a wink but that's okay: it's lovely here. Jamie fell asleep around ten last night; way past his bedtime. We lay on the springy coast turf looking up at the heavens, with me feeling a little dumb because I couldn't name any of the constellations. He ate a mini Mars Bar and asked if he could go in the tent, so I put him in and snuggled him down.
We should get moving soon: Camping's forbidden out here on the bluff. I start packing stuff into the car, my legs stiff from the dawn chill and the seat of my trousers damp. And then I see them up there, ploughing across the massive sky.
'Jamie, Jamie! Quick, wake up son, wake up!' I run to the tent, half trip over the guy-rope, do battle with the zip. My fingers shake with excitement. He looks up at me, dazed, warm from sleep. Tiny fists bunch at his eyes, he stretches and Lord he looks so much like his mother: kinky hair, green eyes, tiny mouth. I haul him from the tent, sleeping bag in tow, and take him in my arms.
'Look son, look,' I shout, laugh, gesture madly at the north-headed skein. 'I told you he'd make it - I told you!'
'What is it Dad?' Poor boy looks shell-shocked.
'Not what, son. Who. Up there at the back, looking down at us. Wave son - wave. It's Marmaduke!'
First time inside the place since our separation, my sense of trepidation quelled only by my anger. This was not convenient.
'I had no choice Pete,' she said. 'Believe me. Mum's not due back from Montreal till Tuesday.'
'He could've stayed with me. Why drag me all the way down here for God's sake? As if I haven't got enough on my plate already.'
'Yes Pete, sorry for disrupting your - life. He needs the stability - needs to keep going to school - sleep in his own bed. Hell - do I have to explain everything?' Her lips were even thinner than the rest of her. I looked down at my feet. Elaine's enfeebled state made her more powerful than ever.
'Don't you have a friend who can stay with him?' Silence. I sighed. 'Can't your mother come back early or something? She spends more time out of the bloody country than in it.'
She clinked coffee cups in the sink and gripped the worktop. With her back to me, she spoke through clenched teeth. 'What - is - wrong with you? We went through all this on the phone. No - I can't get anyone else to help. No - mum cannot come back early. It's only for three days. Three days - Pete - is all I'm asking.'
'Save it Pete. Must I beg for you to look after your own son? This is bad enough for me - but it's a whole lot bloody worse for him. I didn't ask to get sick, and he didn't ask for any of this shit.' Elaine's voice cracked and her slender back buckled under a wave of sobs.
Now I felt bad. I guess the drive wound me up: M25, M5, M4, A303; linked in a chain of headlights right through the South Hams on a carriageway only opening into two lanes once in a blue moon; shit weather, sky bruised black and blue and rain, rain, rain like it was trying to get in the car with me; to top it off I got imprisoned behind some awful hay-wagon for the last ten miles.
'Look - Elaine - don't do that. I'm sorry. This is unnecessary - it's all going to work out fine. Besides, work owe me some time off,' I lied. 'You just concentrate on getting better okay.' I was torn between whether to put my arm around her or not. In the end I deliberated too long and she moved away, patting her face with a tea towel.
She left me with instructions; even wrote them down. Feed Ben (chocolate/white Springer Spaniel, jumped all over me with filthy muddy paws and ruined my shirt and trousers) once every morning, no more; Jamie to be at the school gates by 0845 no need for packed-lunch he gets school dinners pick him up at 1500 sharp; Jamie to look after the geese etc. etc. You get the general idea. God, she left me three pages of the stuff. I wondered where she got the inclination for such a litany.
The hospital couldn't provide transport and she decided on a cab. Not cheap out in the sticks but she refused a lift so, magnanimous with guilt, I offered to ring one on my mobile.
'You ought to know you'll not get a signal here,' she said. 'Or is your memory really that short?'
When she'd finished making the booking, I told her I might need to make some calls.
'That depends on who you're planning to call,' she said coldly. 'I've still got itemised billing you know. If you so much as think about ringing one of those bloody perv lines…'
'Oh for God's sake Elaine, that was years ago.' Wasn't it?
'It may be years ago for you - Pete - but not for me. And don't you dare look at me like that.'
I wanted to wade into her now, but her gaze shifted and I followed it to the glum little figure at the kitchen door, dripping wet in Kagul and Wellingtons.
He wept bitterly as she tried to climb into back of the cab. The driver stared fixedly ahead, the dog barked and rattled his chain, the wind screamed through the branches of the copse beside the cottage. Jamie clung to her like some desperate mollusc and fought me all the way back inside. Eventually the cab sunk into the maze of hedges, abandoning us both.
He refused to eat, still petulant after I shouted at him. I told myself I hadn't lost control. I was totally in control. Elaine could do the coddling: boys needed that from a mother but not from me. I never had it that way, and it did me no harm.
He wasn't like this at my place. Yeah, okay, he was a little quiet but I gave him everything he needed. Kids love all that stuff: cinema, pizza hut, professional baby sitter. I did all the important things too: made sure he showered twice a day, combed his hair, cut his nails (Elaine was negligent in this department). She used to take drugs you know son - drugs.
I thought about it for a while. Maybe he felt threatened because he was the man of the house. I could understand that, so I gave him a little space. Let him calm down some.
I got a weird thrill from being in Elaine's bedroom. She'd made up the sofa-bed downstairs and I wasn't going to sleep in here or anything, but I was curious. The pillows smelled of her perfume and her clean hair. I wondered whether or not she had slept with anyone in this bed, since me of course. Poking around in her nightstand drawer I found a Dutch cap and fished it out. I held it up to the light and sniffed at it.
'What are you doing Dad? Why are you in mummy's room?'
I stuffed the cap back in the drawer, my face flushed hot. 'I'm sorry son - I was just being nosey. Are you hungry now? I could make you something.'
'No - I just want some Coco Pops.'
I levelled the bedding and went to him. 'Come on - let's go downstairs.'
We endured an hour of Saturday night TV and I sent him up to get his pyjamas on. I waited a while and when he still hadn't come back down I climbed the stairs to his room.
'Aren't you coming back down? You can stay up late if you like - I won't tell your mum.'
His silhouette did not turn from the screen. Spiderman ducked, Spiderman dived, Spiderman shot his webs onto towering spires of glass. Jamie sat just like Elaine used to, cross legged and straight with that effortless posture. He had put his pyjamas on. Controller buttons click-click-clicked like some incessant, spastic cicada.
'Jamie,' nothing. 'Jamie,' nothing. 'Jamie!'
'Have you brushed your teeth yet?'
'Night then,' nothing. 'Love you son - goodnight,' nothing. I drew his curtains and walked from the room.
'I just got to the next level.'
I found whiskey in the cupboard. The wind tore at the thatched roof and shook the window panes. The storm got more ferocious and I got most drunk. Everything I looked at in the room took on a meaning; a sombre redolence of memory. I glared at the telephone: fucking thing. Why hadn't she replaced it, smashed it to pieces, burned it? That was Elaine though: probably preserved it as some cautionary effigy.
In an effort to shrug off the maudlin I went to the kitchen for more ice. The freezer door was plastered with Jamie's five year old felt-tip drawings: Ben with his mop ears - no me; Jamie by the pond with the geese (Gonzo, Marmaduke and Jerry) - no me; Mummy with the nurses and doctors - no me; Mummy with Nanny Emma - no me. With a pang of rage I tore this last one from its magnets and crushed it in my fist.
I was pressing the cube tray out on the draining board when the first sheet of lightning came, blinding the kitchen in a flash of ghostly white. Jags of shadow leapt up the walls. I filled a pint glass with cubes and tottered back into the living room. Within moments I was staring at the phone again.
She should have been enough for me. I should have been enough for me. She stopped wanting me, my hands, my mouth, my body. Always tired, spilling out every drop of her energy on the boy and I just wouldn't cope with it. One night through drink started me off and before I knew it I was hooked. How was I to know she was in the claws of a lingering depression? I'd never forget the look on her face when she caught me at it.
I got so drunk my head kept lolling forward until I spilled my drink in my lap. The thunder groaned and the door-latch rattled with each fresh gust. I went upstairs and peed, stopping and swaying outside Jamie's bedroom door on the return. When I was a boy I was terrified by storms. I would climb into bed with my mum, and my father would sigh and huff and curse us both. Invariably she would take me back to my own bed and hold my hand and hush me till we both fell asleep, and the next day my father would be like a stone and would passively hate me till mum went out.
I could hear Jamie now, crying in the darkness. All I had to do was open the door and go to him. He didn't have to be alone. But I was raddled with whiskey and slurring my thoughts. Why hadn't he come for me? I didn't need an answer. I pulled my hand away from the doorknob and went back downstairs, choking.
I woke early, fully clothed and dry mouthed. Dull morning light washed through the room. I went out the front door and vomited on the path. The storm had left a cold, deathly quiet in its wake like the world was holding her breath. As I wiped my mouth and cleared bleared eyes I saw the white and red: snowflake feathers strewn in the mud, a trail leading to Ben's kennel. He'd slipped his chain in the night, driven mad by the storm. He looked at me for a moment before bolting to safety around the back of the cottage. I found one carcass beneath the blanket in his kennel and another twisted bizarrely in the low branches of a bare tree. The third I was unable to locate.
How would I tell Jamie? Fuck, I wasn't cut out for this. Everything had turned to shit and I was way out of my depth. I needed Elaine to be there. As I moped back toward the open door, two things happened: Jamie's little legs appeared at the top of the staircase (complete with novelty bear's feet slippers); and my eyes fell on three pairs of goose feet, placed with aplomb on the doormat. I must have missed them in my vomit haste. Why would he do such a thing? Penitence? Pride? Quick as I could, I stooped and grabbed up one pair of feet and shoved them in my pocket. I hoped to God Jamie hadn't seen me.
'Son,' I said, my voice thick. 'I've got some good news - and some bad news.'
Published on writebuzz®:
> Stories & Scripts