A Story by JAMES ROSS
The only thing I ever got off my old man was a birthday card when I was ten. He’d gone off when I was three and left me and mam and my sister to fend for ourselves. Mam never talks about him but my sister remembers him.
‘What was dad like?’ I ask.
She looks at me through dark, sleepy eyes, pushes her hair back from her eyes. Her arms are scabbed like she’s been shinning up a rusty drainpipe and accidentally slid back down and scraped herself. ‘Whu?’
‘I said, what was dad like?’
She smiles at me, and I suss that she’s still trippin’ and I should ask her later when she’s straight.
Anyhow, the only thing I ever got from him was a birthday card when I was ten. It said Happy Birthday Mickey! And then there was a verse inside the card that went:
Now you’re ten, and how you’ve grown
It really won’t be long
‘Til you’re a man, and fully grown
With arms both big and strong.
And on the front of the card was a picture, a cartoon, of a little boy wearing a hardhat and driving a tractor. But I mean, how would he know I’d grown? To be honest, I was surprised he knew where I was, we moved so often.
But the killer was, at the bottom of the card, below the rhyme, he’d added:
Remember, no one’s got your back
I’d studied this card on more than one occasion, trying to work out some depth to what he was telling me. ‘Laura, what was dad like?’
Three hours later and she’s washing up. The dutiful daughter. She looked up a little, thought about my question for a second or two. Then she said, ‘I love him. Still.’
‘Well I hate him. What was he like, though?’
And she said, ‘Stern.’
‘I don’t mean strict; more like serious. Like you, a bit, but smarter, taller and better looking.’ Then she laughed and slapped me across the arm, ‘Dry the dishes,’ she said.
It’s funny, I learn a lot from my sister, mainly don’t do drugs, which I should have written in capital letters instead of italics, but never mind, the thing is, when she’s not high or shaking ‘cos she needs some stuff, she’s really smart and, truth be told, she’s the core of our family, the strength, believe it or not. Honest, she keeps us together. There’s me, fifteen, bright, got a future, they tell me, though I haven’t and I’ll tell you about that later, and then there’s my mam, as honest as, and working, and sensible (though not in her choice of boyfriends or anything) and all that stuff. And then there’s Laura. Nineteen, and a junkie, but she holds the family together. Cos mam’s a flake and useless, and I, basically, am at a loose end; financially, educationally, socially, morally… I won’t go on.
Laura has one thing going for her; she’s honest. And because she is honest she sees more than most, so she knows more than most, and she holds me and mam together.
Hold on, I was told by my English teacher, Miss Wright, that I should show, not tell; ‘too much exposition,’ she’ll say to me (look it up). So maybe I should stop describing my life, start showing what happens instead, but I’ll get to that bit in a bit, so to speak.
Ok, so mam. My mother. She is thirty seven years old and she is a flake. A total dribble. Weak as. They should do a reality TV show on my mam – “How Not To …”
“How Not To bring up your children.”
“How Not To save for the future.”
“How Not To get a good job.”
“How Not To attract a nice boyfriend.”
She did once. Attract a nice boyfriend, that is. And I’ve read all the women’s magazines she buys and I knew from the off it wasn’t going to last. From the moment she said to me, ‘He’s kind, thoughtful, good looking. He’s got a good job, Pete, and a lovely car’ (a bloody good car, since you ask. You didn’t? But you would have. A Kompressor. Which means Supercharger. Which also means money. Cool. German. Cool. And much more). But anyway, as she’s telling me all this I’m thinking, Yeah, but mam, you’re going to fall for a skinheaded nightclub doorman or a carpet salesman called Wayne and you’re going to jack Pete in and tell me ‘there was no spark’ which translates as, you think that love equals pain, and affection means distress and you think that being nice is the equivalent of being invisible. Which it kind of is. So just be honest. Please. So, as predicted, Pete went the journey. Kompressor and all. And in moved Marc. Fifteen years younger than mam. What a tosspot.
What a racket.
It was embarrassing. It was the crime that no parent should inflict upon their children! Making those noises. I was twelve, which made Laura sixteen; she’d just failed her exams and was working in Safeway. Very content. Regular money, dreaming about her own flat. Boyfriend. And the last thing that Laura wanted was mam and Marc doing that upstairs halfway through a Sunday afternoon. Go on mam; be a mam, not a flake. Don’t be desperate, please. But no. And when Marc made a play for Laura one afternoon, just a suggestion you understand, she screamed the place down and mam came dashing downstairs half-dressed and slapped Laura to shut her up and then slapped her again when she heard what she was accusing Marc of doing.
I’m not tough, really, I’m not. And I’m not pretending to be not tough so you’ll think that really I secretly am tough either. I’m just not. So when mam took his side against Laura I couldn’t drop Marc with a right hook to the jaw or a knee in the family jewels, though I really, really wanted to, so I just went and sat on the front step and listened to them row.
It was one of those afternoons with dark and light grey clouds flying across the sky on the wind (scudding, as they say in really old novels). I sat on the step of our front door watching the seagulls wheel and fly and sail on the wind. I wished I could do that.
I have this theory that, to us the world is a flat thing we stand on, but to birds it is a cliff they cling to, a huge ball and they cling to the side and then fall off and fly and glide. I’m digressing here, but I can’t remember what else happened, except I know how it ended. The next morning I waited until Marc went out and then I used mam’s phone to call the police and grass Marc for the twenty grams of cocaine he had stashed in a haversack under the stairs.
Like I say, I’m not tough. But I don’t need to be when there’s five polis and a German Shepherd dog breaking down the door and dragging Marc screaming down the path and into a van.
Anyhow, this card I got from my dad. It said, remember, no one’s got your back, like this was some piece of information I’d known but had forgotten, or like I already had asked someone to get my back and then discovered they hadn’t got it, or something. I mean, come on dad, I don’t know who you are, or where you are or what you do or anything, but come on, be a dad for a minute. For as long as it takes not to write that sentence.
I was ten years old for Chrissake.
Write I miss you or We’ll meet up when you’re older or Stick in at school. In fact, here’s an idea. Don’t send me a card.
But the funny thing is, daft, one-off card with a stupid picture and a deranged verse it might have been.
But he was right.
No one’s got your back.
Forbidden Forest – A Horror Story
“Mom! Johnny’s not helping me get ready for dinner!” exclaimed my sister at the top of her puny but blatant lungs.
“Yes, I am.” I called upstairs to the room where my mother lay in a soundless slumber. “Would you shut-up! She’s resting, you know. She is exhausted!” I tried to whisper to my sister, Emily.
My mother worked two jobs to keep us alive. Six years had passed since the day my father died. Nobody really know how he died, but from what my mom told me, Emily the curious little girl that she was, and still is, walked into the terrifying, damp forest across the condensed street. Nobody had ever gone in there before. She walked inside and fell down a precipitous hill, luckily my dad saved her and they came out perfectly fine. However, after a week or so, he started acting weird, from what I remember. Then, a month later he just left us. I don’t know if he is deceased or still alive. Really, I prefer him dead.
As I helped Emily with dinner, she was telling me about her childish day. I love her, I really do, but I just wasn’t in a qualified mood.
“Would you shut-up! I don’t want to hear about you stupid day!” I shrieked and startled her tiny mind. That shut her up, I thought.
“What’s all that noise?” My overworked mother murmured as she came down from her slothful bed.
“Uh, nothing”, Emily pronounced. I have to admit she is a cute ten-year-old. She has blonde hair, pale skin and dark ocean blue eyes.
The phone sang a customary tune. Emily and I raced for it. Of course, I got there first and knocked her over. She started crying yet stopped because she knew I would get in trouble. I didn’t look down at her nor did I care. It was my friend on the line. Without saying a word, I left her to finish the work in the kitchen.
The next day we had this extensive argument, like we usually do. However, somehow this discussion seemed divergent. Generally, she doesn’t talk much, but now it was like she was revealing to me all of her life’s problems, and connecting them with dad. It was so uncanny. I shrugged it off and went out.
That night my mother had to go to a funeral and left Emily and I alone. An inquisitive child, Emily came up to me and questioned, “What happened to daddy, John?”
“Daddy left, he’s dead. I don’t ever wanna see him again! He is gone! ” I managed to wail out.
“Why?” she ventured to ask me.
“Because he hated us!”
“Your friend told me he went away in a forest or something. What?” Emily dared to ask me.
“You talk to my friends? Daddy ran after you, he saved you and I don’t know why he left. Now he is dead!” I screeched with my last breath.
“Daddy’s dead? How do you know?” She inquired.
“He just is.” I said, but I really didn’t know. I just wanted him to be dead.
It was the first time I ever saw her face so aghast and full of knowledgeable questions. She then ran out of the house into the mid-fall chill.
“Where are you going?” I shouted out to the relentless winds, but she just kept running. “Fine go look for him, then.” I said. I didn’t care. I just slammed the door and turned on the television and watched a movie.
When the movie was done I looked at the clock; my mother was due back in an hour. I looked outside the window and saw no one. So I walked out the front door to find Emily strolling out of the forbidden forest.
She looked fine, her face was still pale like it always has been, ever since she was born. Nevertheless, she did not have that ‘I know you’re lying to me’ face on. She just appeared with no abnormal bodily conditions.
Emily walked inside the door, out of the crispness, without a single word. I was just going to start screaming at her like a mother at her teenager who stayed out too late, when she spoke first.
“You’re right daddy is dead. Well, partially. He gave me a hug and a kiss. Daddy’s name is Diabolus,” she finished . My brain was lost, I had too much anger to get out.
“Daddy is still-” I commenced, but she interrupted me.
“I got to go to bed now. goodnight.” Then she went upstairs, so swiftly and unostentatiously. I was so dazed that I did not elucidate, I just went to watch another movie, until my mother came home. When she did come home I did not tell her what had occurred earlier that unprecedented night.
About two weeks later, Emily and I both forgot about our sibling contention and Emily’s walk out. Everything was back to normal, well sort of, her eating inclinations reverted. Her daily visits for dinner were cut short. Emily would stay in her room for long periods of time. Her innocent girlish talks promptly ended. Basically things had commutated. Emily’s skin tone was becoming cadaverous and bloodless. Her eyes were becoming nebulous. Her overall attitude on life, friends and family began to transubstantiate. Everything seemed so negative to Emily. I noticed these alterations but frankly I did not care. I was watching Emily one morning, she ordinarily woke up bright and early to the gleaming sun and unlocked her blinds that covered a resplendent morning sky. In contrast, that daybreak and ever since, she seemed vulnerable to the burning rays of the sunlight.
Nearly two months following, I was in my room doing my wearisome homework when somebody walked into my sterile room and tapped on my shoulder. I rotated my body to see Emily with eyes black as a stormy night above, and gruesome bloodsucking teeth. She hissed and her vampire teeth elongated.
“Ahhhh,” I screamed fearfully.
“Shh, Johnny. Come with me to see daddy”, she said, as she breathed in my face. Her breath filled my nostrils. It left a stench of crimson blood and raw meat in my mouth.
“Daddy’s dead! I told you that!” I said trying to disregard her appearance.
“No, he is not dead. Dad come in.” Emily commanded, as a man that appeared familiar but he had Emily’s fangs and complexion as she looked at him when he came into the room.
“Hi, John. It’s me, Diabolus daddy,” the man said to me.
I was so startled that I nearly fainted. I did well at least I think I did. I woke up lying on damp, musky grass. I was in a condensed environment surrounded by trees and greenery. I was tired oh so ver tired. I felt like all the nutrients were all drained out from my body. I attempted to open my eyes but only saw a pitch-black blur.
“John, Johnny, wake up you’ve got to wake up.” I heard a faint voice that seemed to be Emily. I missed her so much. Why did I argue with her? I thought.
Why was I such a mean big brother to her? That is why she left, that is why she went to daddy. I reflected to myself. I finally woke out of my dormancy to see a clan of people that looked like vampires.
“No, John, I didn’t leave because you were mean to me. I left because I heard daddy call me.” Emily responded to my thoughts. I know for sure that I did not say that out loud. She must of read my aura, I thought.
“You humans are so weak, so woundable, so helpless.” Diabolus said with a grin on his anemic face.
“I am staying with daddy, John. Please tell mom I love her and that I am safe with daddy. We have to move. We are not safe around humans and you’re not safe around us.” Emily said.
“What? Why?” I started.
“Your old man is an one hundred year old vampire. At birth Emily got my genetics and you didn’t. For a few days you may have cravings to either cut yourself and/or to drink blood. Try your best to stop. Your mother knows what I am that’s why I left because I didn’t want to hurt you guys. I never knew that Emily had a part of me until now. We’ve got to go.” Diabolus informed me. The group turned and left with my little sister, Emily.
I walked out of the vexed forest to my home and up to my room. As I entered my room, I found a note on my bed. I opened it and it read:
My dear Big Brother,
Don’t be afraid to not be cool. Tell mommy that I love her
and that I went with dad. I’m one of him. Help mom for me, please. I have to go. Always remember to love kids, because you are one too.
P.S. don’t tell anyone but mom is having a baby! Shh
I truly lover my sister. I should have showed her that and I regret that I didn’t. The fact that she was a vampire terrified me, I had been living with a vampire for ten years and did not know anything about it.
Latest Fashion trend in Pakistan “Shisha”
Hokkah or shisha smoking has become very popular in Pakistan. Many resturants and cafes are offering shisha in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and other cities of the country. This flavoured pipe smoking is gaining popularity especially among the younger generation. Students can be seen smoking shisha in the famous resturants or in the small roadside cafes.
As girls stood side by side with the boys, they also enjoy shisha smoking in gatherings. Here we can see girls smoking shisha and having fun.
A hookah or shisha (Arabic: ?????) is a single or multi-stemmed (often glass-based) water pipe for smoking. Originally from India, hookah has gained immense popularity, especially in the Middle East and is gaining popularity in the USA, UK, Canada, and elsewhere. Today, some of the highest quality and most extravagant hookah pipes come from Egypt, Iran and Turkey. The hookah operates by water filtration and indirect heat. It is used for smoking herbal fruits and tobacco, and is often considered to be healthier than smoking cigarettes, although recent studies have shown that it is just as detrimental to a person’s health.
The Nicht Afore Christmas – Jamie Cameron
The Christmas party had been sillier than usual, and I felt some satisfaction that it would be my last. In September Joe and I’d come to the parting of the ways, at least temporarily, as he strode off with all the confidence in the world to the school on the hill.
You could see Ancrum Road Primary School if you stood on the wall outside St Mary’s Catholic Church where the High Street became the Lochee Road. I had no idea what Alcatraz was then, but if I had, I would certainly have named that institution of junior learning ‘Alcatraz on the Hill’.
Party hats, home-made, crackers, home-made, and lumpy jelly, home-made, whistles, clackers, rattles, xylophones, tin drums, and abortive attempts at carol singing accompanied by the up-right, out-of-tune piano produced scenes of frenzied, frantic mayhem across the main hall of the nursery. Snowballs sneaked in under pinafores had reduced the wooden floor to a soggy, slippery mess, unimproved by the urine of several little girls taken short by the excitement of it all. The tree tipped over at an unlikely angle, bulbs exploding at the rate of one every five minutes, chocolate novelties long since ripped off, and the fairy looking as bedraggled as the nurses who fought half-heartedly for control of their pinafored charges.
All other doors were locked against us, including, outrageously, the door to the Quiet Room where I could have found solace in a Wizard or Hotspur, or even in these desperate circumstances a Dandy or Beano though my contempt for Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan were legendary. Little surprise then that my participation in the Hokey Cokey ended after I’d three times put the boot, or at least the sandal into three toddlers who had the temerity to shake their limbs at me. Thrown across the room, I slid arse-first into the Christmas tree and was rewarded by the sound of three bulbs exploding simultaneously and the fairy falling into my lap. I would have left there and then, but the presents were still to come.
“Ho ho ho!”
If the voice hadn’t given it away, the streaky moustache and the gin-tainted breath did. Santa was Matron. Santa was always Matron, I hadn’t needed Joe to tell me that. But was I the only one who recognised her? The others, even my fellow five-year-olds screeched in delight and were only hindered from mauling Santa by the serried ranks of nurses who secured her path to the Christmas tree where Santa, as God is my witness, kicked me out of her way.
Santa’s armchair was hauled into place. She dropped her Christmas sack with a thud and dropped herself into the chair which sagged beneath her not inconsiderable bulk, none of which was made up of pillows.
“Line up. Sparrows first. Then seagulls. Now you blackbirds, and then the tits.” Nurses smiled, screamed and herded us into some semblance of order. I was four years old and therefore a tit. At the time I did not understood why mum laughed when I told her.
In the prescribed order infants, toddlers and juniors mounted Matron, were breathed upon, exchanged whispers, and given their Christmas present. They scrambled down and were led away by nurses who then man-handled the presents from them and piled them on a table near the door. As usual we were not to be allowed to open our presents until going-home time; previous experiments at letting the children open their presents had led to jealousy, bickering, arguments, fighting and worse. All of the infants, most of the toddlers and several of the juniors burst into inconsolable tears, not that anyone tried to console them, the piano just got louder.
My turn came. I looked up into Matron’s eyes. Little black raisins embedded in a purple pudding. I wanted to put a match to her. Did gin burn like brandy? Never mind. That ratty beard would do.
“Get up here, Paul.”
“My mother says you have to call me Jean-Paul.”
“Get up here, Jean-Paul.” I could feel the hostility, the gin must be wearing off.
“I don’t answer to Jean-Paul.”
“Get up here, you.”
Immovable object met irresistible force.
“Here, take it.” She thrust a small parcel into my chest.
“What about my Christmas wish?”
She snorted like the walrus in the nature film we’d watched the day before and stuck her ear into my face. I whispered my Christmas wish.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean ‘no’. Now go and play.”
I stood my ground until I was hauled away by a nurse. I hardly felt my present slip out of my arms. I was in a state of shock and did not come to until I found myself in a conga that twisted, turned and staggered its away around the hall, children slipping, sliding and falling on the treacherous linoleum. I disengaged myself from this travesty and returned to the tree. Santa had gone. I scrambled onto the armchair, slung my legs over the side and looked up into the tattered branches. I had some thinking to do. Above my head another bulb exploded.
At five o’clock I stood at the entrance to the nursery waiting for my grandmother to take my home. Light snow was falling. It spun and swirled through the lamplight. Although I was not cold, I shivered and pulled the canvas bag that held the history of my three nursery years closer to me.
Gran came zigzagging down Flight’s Lane in that curiously distracted way that suggested her mind was not entirely at one with her body. She began several possible conversations before hitting upon one that continued long enough to make some sense. I thrust one rope handle of the bag towards her, kept a tight grip on the other and dragged her up the lane.
“Dae you no want tae say cheerio tae the nurses?”
“No, come on.”
“Did you ha’e a guid perty?”
Disappointment flitted across her ruddy cheeks, but Gran could never be unhappy for more than a moment. A lady of the old school, she was born to serve and please others, especially menfolk. Her misery melted like an ice cream cone at the Ferry in August.
“We’d better get hame quick. It’s Christmas eve, ye ken, an’ yer ma’s probably goin’ oot fur some last minute shoppin’. We’d better no be late.” My mother was not of the old school, and my grandmother was terrified of her. She pulled on the canvas bag and almost dragged me under a tramcar. I doubt she even saw it. We passed one of my grandfather’s public houses. The stink was intoxicating. Gran shuddered and pulled me past its seductive double swing doors.
Joe’d been home for an hour. The room was snug and cosy. Gran attempted fitful conversation. She’d no takers and left with a promise to visit on Christmas Day. We made no move and she did not kiss us good-bye. There were conventions in the family we did not understand, but which we respected. I got on with my reading and Joe continued to build his version of a better mousetrap. We’d already got mum’s present, wrapped it and hidden it in the bedpan. Our Christmas preparations were done.
Just after six mum came home and collapsed into the armchair hacking like a tubercular cat. My mother suffered from pleurisy. Neither Joe nor I had any idea what pleurisy was, but we recognised its painful symphony and hated it. Mum sat in the chair, bent double, fighting for breath. Joe sat on an arm of the chair, leaning over, her massaging her back, digging deep with his thumbs. When his thumbs were aching, I took over, not nearly so effectively, but I was learning.
Sometimes I would hold her shoulders and rub my face into her back. It probably didn’t help her, but it helped me. Later mother would make a kaolin poultice of hot china clay smeared on a thick bandage. We would tenderly apply the hot sludge to her bare back and freckled shoulders, swapping stories about our day.
Many of my stories were embroidered, exaggerated or wholly invented. I loved to make mum laugh though laughter had its price in further fits of coughing and pain. A dig in the ribs from my puritanical brother told me when I was going too far. That night the laugh was on me.
A sharp series of knocks rattled the door in its frame. Joe answered the call, his high but even voice counter-pointing a deep rumble like thunder over Balgay Hill. He came back and spoke to mum, a quizzical look running across his thin frenchified features.
“The polis is at the door. I think he’s looking for Paul.”
I started like a guilty thing. My mother pinned me to the wall with a look. Was my hair standing on end? I resisted the urge to turn and look in the wardrobe mirror. Lucky arched her back and hissed in sympathy.
“You, wait there,” she said, adding superfluously, “don’t move.”
Thunder rumbled behind the door again. The words made no sense. My mother had pronounced a sentence of immobility upon my brain as well as my body. Her words came to me in fragments.
“Good idea not to come in… terrified of men… scream his head off… always been like that… the doctor says…”
I risked a glance at Joe. He was still working on his mousetrap. He was smiling, but it was a smile I did not like, it was the smile he wore when he caught a mouse in one his traps. I’d seen one before, its wee heid snapped clean from its body, its incisors embedded in the cheddar that had lured it to its doom. I’d like to see his head… No, mustn’t think like that. God’s listening, God’s watching, God sees all. Doesn’t He ever take time off or is He too busy keeping an eye on the mousetraps He has built for all of us?
I was startled to hear my name pronounced in full. My mother might as well have worn a piece of black cloth on the top of her Christmas perm.
“Jean-Paul Bosquet. Hand them over.”
For an instant I was tempted to play dumb, tempted to commit instant suicide. I resisted the temptation and lived.
Scrambling under the bed, I hauled out the bulging canvas bag and dragged it to my mother’s feet. I knelt down and pulled out one wrapped gift at a time handing them up to my mother who placed each one ceremoniously on the table. “four… five… six…” Would these poisonous parcels never end? “eight… nine… ten…” The final parcel tugged at my heartstrings. I gave my mother a look that would melt an iceberg. She must have known it was mine. She was implacable, taking my parcel between finger and thumb – green holly paper, red berries, laughing snowmen – she dropped it like a dog turd onto the pile.
A policeman stepped into the room. My heart or some other organ leapt into my mouth. I could not make a sound. I froze. I could feel my tiny scrotum tighten. I tried to fix my gaze on the floor. My eyes betrayed me. I looked up. It was a man, a very big man, with big yellow teeth, a moustache thicker even than matron’s, and a flat policeman’s cap supported by big ears on either side of his big head. My eyes widened. My chest began to heave. A strangled sob forced its way past my constricted throat muscles. A cold chill blew in through the open door annihilating Christmas.
The man swept all the parcels up into his big arms, nodded a cheery “Merry Christmas” to my mother and disappeared into the night. I could see him striding across the wasteland to the Lochee Road towards the railway bridge at Muirton Road. My imagination pulled down the shutters. I knew the Lochee Road led to Dundee, the big city. As far as I knew, I’d never been there. But it was obvious. The big city was where the big men lived, and I wanted nothing to do with that or them.
“Take three big breaths. Remember how Dr Heinreich showed you.”
I took the breaths, the biggest and deepest I could manage. They almost blew my head off.
I came there. Mum sitting in the armchair. Me standing in front of her. Joe sitting on the rug in front of the fire. Lucky stretched out on the bed.
“Why did you take the presents?”
Another deep breath.
“It was Matron’s fault.”
“Why did you take the presents?”
“She widnae give me one for Joe.”
“You said me and Joe had to be the same.”
I was annoyed now. I could feel my neck redden. It was not my fault.
“I asked her… for a present… for Joe. I asked nicely, honest, mum. She said no, not nicely. So I put them in the bag when everybody was changing. And Gran helped me carry them up the road. They were really heavy, and a tram nearly…”
“That was wrong. The presents didn’t belong to you, so you had no right to take them. What you did was wrong.”
The room went silent. Joe sat still. The fire ceased to spit shale. Lucky stopped purring. I was drowning in the silence, thick heavy fluid clogging my nose and my brain, running down my back, pouring down my legs into my grey nursery socks. Mum had said the word we never wanted to hear: wrong. It rang like a huge gong banging relentlessly into the silence. Anything but that word. That word put distance between us and this woman, that word sliced into the umbilical cord that nourished us, that word made her turn her face away from us, that word cost us her love, and without that love we could not survive.
“You did the wrong thing for the right reason. Now what are you going to do about it?”
Never ask a four year old that question. It isn’t fair. It’s too harsh. Because a four year old will always come up with the right answer, and the answer will hurt.
I racked by brains for a way out. I looked at Joe. He shrugged at me with his lips. He knew the answer, too. And he knew there was no way out.
“Good night, son.”
My mind chased a little tail in circles. There had to be something. There was. But play it carefully. I looked mum full in the face.
“Eh hivnae had meh tea.”
“Eh hivnae had meh tea. Eh’m sterving.”
Even Lucky held her breath. Fire danced in my mother’s eyes.
“It’s Christmas Eve, and eh hivnae had eny tea.”
Something like contempt flickered in my mother’s smile.
“Right, boys, what’ll we have for tea tonight?”
“Macaroni on toast.”
“No, we had that last night.”
“Scrambled eggs on toast.”
“No, that’s for breakfast.”
“What day is it, mum?”
“Bread and chips. Right?”
Paul recognises the note of despondency in Joe’s voice. He cannot understand why his brother fails to appreciate the joys of bread and chips, teeth sinking into the fleshy fried potato, greasy margarine sliding down the throat, lips worth licking again and again, and hot sweet tea washing down the whole sloppy mess.
On good nights you can have as much bread as you want, including the ends of the sliced white loaf, the ‘heelies’, which are always reserved for Paul since nobody else wants them. You can curl up on the big double bed that dominates the single room, chew on the crusts and get lost in the Rover, the Hotspur, the Wizard for hour after hour.
How can Joe sound so despondent every Thursday night about such prospects as these? Even Kathleen, the new baby, lies gurgling happily, but then Kathleen lies gurgling happily most of the time, kicking her feet against the sides of the tin bath that serves as her crib.
“Who wants to put the kettle on?”
“Eh’ll dae it.”
“Joseph, speak properly when you’re in this house. Put the kettle on. Jean-Paul will go for the chips. Get your coat on and your wellies. You’re not going out in sandshoes on a night like this. And come straight back. No wandering.”
Paul clambers into a heavy bottle-green overcoat and ties the belt around his middle, the buckle is long gone. Reluctantly he pulls on the heavy Wellington boots. He stands beside mum’s armchair. She is absorbed in the Evening Telegraph, smoke curls up from her cigarette. Paul stands and waits. She turns her head to him, blue-grey eyes meet. She has that far away look. Paul knows she hasn’t been reading the newspaper, only looking at the words.
“Money, mum. For the chippie. I’m ready.”
She reaches for her purse. She takes out a sixpenny piece and presses it into his warm little palm closing her fingers over the money, her fingers over his. He swells with pride. He is a knight-errant setting out on a perilous mission. He knows he may meet dragons, monsters, wizards and bogeymen out there, but he will overcome them all, he will wade knee-deep through blood, guts and slaughter, but he will get there, and he will return with the holy grail, the sixpence worth of hot steaming chips to lay at her feet or at least on the stove until the bread is margarined.
Outside it is dark, cold and bitter, and the boy is not so sure. There is neither wind nor cloud. Winter stars sparkle overhead. Frost and rime sparkle below his feet. The gas lamps hiss and sputter. Shadows are blackly frozen. Paul remembers he is only four, nearly five, but by the calendar still only four.
He will gallop and sing his way to Delanzo’s. It is not far, only half a mile. The boy hasn’t the faintest idea what half a mile is, but it doesn’t sound too far. Across the ‘Greenie’, singing and galloping he will go. What to sing? That new one they learned in school at Christmas. He has only the vaguest idea what the words might mean. Something about the last time good King Wences looked out, looking for Stephen or someone like that, and Stephen arrived but he was only a kid, but the king decided to take him anyway. Get on with it.
His high treble rises into the frozen night air. “Good King Wences last looked out, he was looking for Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.” He likes the sound of that, deep and crisp and even, as he slides and slithers across the freezing mush, slush and mud of the ‘green’. He’s got quite a good gallop going now. He can make out the Cally fence. Can’t be too far now.
The boy is gripped by the windpipe. His voice cut off in mid note. There is a searing pain across his throat. He is thrown backwards, his arms fly up, hands extended like a child crucified. He lands on his back with a thud even the slush cannot muffle. He lies there, arms and legs akimbo, too stunned to move, to think, to cry. He waits for another blow. It does not come. He feels the pain now, the hot searing pain across his windpipe.
He feels the pain and he is glad he can feel the pain. It allows him to move, to think, to cry. But he won’t cry yet. He rolls onto his front. If another blow is to come, he does not want it in the face or in the stomach. He knows that would really hurt. He can take it across the back or across the backside, but not across his front. So get on with it. If there’s to be more pain, get on with it.
Nothing. Only the hot slash across his windpipe. He staggers to his feet, slipping and sliding in the slush, he is breathing heavily, fighting for breath at times. The six times table helps a lot. He might even try the seven but he has trouble with seven times six. He turns to face his assailant.
Nothing. There is nothing there. Except a washing line. Hanging low. Swinging gently. If the seven times table presents problems, the answer to two and two is immediate. He has galloped into the washing line. It has caught him round the neck and thrown him into the sludge. Paul’s cheeks blaze and burn, and not only from the bitter chill. He is embarrassed, and the embarrassment sears him worse then the rope burn across his neck. Tears spring to his eyes at last. Never mind. Get on with it. He’s late enough.
He brushes the muddy slush from his hands. They have been grazed by the gravel beneath the snow. His overcoat has saved his knees. His fingers tingle but he cannot tell if they are burning or freezing. He opens his left palm, then his right. He jams his right hand into his coat pocket, then his left into the left. He fumbles in the pockets of his corduroy shorts. He is fighting for breath again, his chest heaving in great gulps. He drops to his knees, the slush splashes around him. He scrabbles wildly in the snow, in the mud, careless of his corduroys. His fingers are frozen, he cannot feel his knees, slush turns to icy water in his wellies.
“Our Father which art in heaven where’s mum’s money?” What can he promise this God who remains so stubbornly silent? I’ll never steal presents again, just let me find the money. It’s Christmas tomorrow, you’d think He’d be listening.
The tears are running down his face, the snot down his nose, water into his wellies. His scrabbling has grown more frantic. He has covered a wide circle. How far can a silver sixpence roll in snow? Should he scrabble backwards towards the house? What did the wise men bring to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and mirth? What is mirth anyway? Must remember to ask mum. Please God, I’ll do anything, anything.
“What are you doin’ doon there, you wee shite?”
Paul looks up. Tears and snot run into his mouth. He gathers them in with his tongue. He blinks to clear his eyes. It’s Joe. God couldn’t make it, so He sent His representative on earth. Lochee’s answer to Herod.
“Ah drapped the sixpence, Joe. Ah didnae mean it. Honest. Ah ran intae the washing line. Sumbody’s left it hinging afae low. Help is, Joe, go on, help is find it.”
“Stop bubblin’. Gie’s yer hand. We’re no gonna find it the nicht.”
Joe reaches for Paul’s hand and pulls him to his feet. Using the back of his hand, he wipes the teary snot away from his little brother’s face as best he can, then wipes his hand in the snow. He pulls the overcoat tight around the smaller boy and still holding his hand leads him back to the house. On the stairs leading to the attic, he gently eases off the overcoat and hangs it up on a wooden peg. Then he helps Paul off with his Wellington boots and wet socks. He dumps them on the stairs.
Joe slips into the attic room. Paul stand and waits, cheeks ablaze, teeth chattering, wet corduroys clinging, the dirty tears stain his face. The door opens.
Paul steps into the room. His mother is standing by the open fire. He can hardly raise his head to look at her. When he does, the familiar blue-grey eyes meet. His mother is smiling. Then she is laughing. “C’mere, son.”
He runs to her and throws himself into those strong familiar arms. He is crying again, sobbing and heaving against her stomach, drowning himself in that familiar warmth, that familiar smell.
“You know what this means,” he hears her say. “It’s toast and dripping tonight. We haven’t had that for ages. Now come on, get these things off, you’re soaked through. It looks like the Steamie on Saturday.”
“Tea’s nearly ready, mum. Will I start on the toast?”
“Let me get this boy’s backside warmed up first. Then we’ll all make the toast together. Save the heelies for Jean-Paul.”
In the grate the fire hisses and spits out tiny pieces of shale. The kettle whistles, the gas lamp flickers, the woman hums and towels the boy vigorously.
In her tin basin the baby lies gurgling happily as she watches the shadows dance on the ceiling.
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