My socks hadn’t been damp this morning but my dad had put them in the dryer for me, nonetheless. Pulling them up my calf, it felt like warm kisses before I stepped out into the Christmas snow. O.K., so it wasn’t technically Christmas yet, but it was close; and too an eight-and-three-quarters year old like me, any day with snow was Christmas. I went to the kitchen and finished the small piece of toast and marmalade that I ate every morning before wiping the crumbs from my new winter coat. It was blue like Paddington Bear’s and had toggle buttons that tucked in small threaded hoops. Pushing the toggles through the holes made me think of basketball and the tall, jump-men that dad liked to watch on T.V.. For the eighty-billionth time that morning I made sure that the picture was stored safely in my rucksack. It was an old and yellowed picture printed on a strange and hard paper. The corners curled in on themselves and pulled at the frayed edges that ringed the photo’s side. I didn’t care about that though, or how everyone in class would laugh at it when they saw it; it was my favourite picture in the whole wide world. Why? Because it was of my Grandma and I.
My Grandma had passed away into the forever-playground in the sky (or heaven as I heard the grown-ups call it) only a few months ago. She had promised me that she would be with me on Christmas, but I guess she had lied – as grown-ups so often do. I wasn’t angry with her, though I felt I should be. I had just resigned myself to a world that I didn’t understand. The picture was of us both on an old rocking chair. My Grandpa has painted the long wooden curves of the chair long before I was born and died soon after, but the paint hadn’t chipped, it was as lush and shiny as if it had been painted the day before. I didn’t know where this rocking chair was anymore – I hadn’t been allowed to keep it – and I hadn’t even visited Grandma’s house since she went away. So, with the picture tucked safely in my rucksack, I trotted off in the crunchy snow down the alley that took me from my house to the Busy Road and looked forward to seeing if Ali – my best friend in the entire country! – would be able to guess that it was me. I hoped I would guess his picture. If I didn’t I would feel mighty silly!
But when I came home to an empty house, full of empty bottles on the floor and my Mum’s side of the wardrobe empty, I knew then that feeling silly was a state of euphoria compared to coming home, and finding out that your Mum and Dad have succumbed to the awful disease that was sweeping happy homes everywhere: Divorce.
Pulling the socks from my new dryer, in my new apartment, in this new city, I felt a faint childhood memory ring bells somewhere in my memories. Just before my inner child could place his soft and carefree fingers on the happy feeling that was washing over me my phone rang and shook me back to life. “What now?” I asked the cold air and the morning T.V.. “Son?” my fathers voice slurred down the phone. I cast my eyes towards the digital alarm clock on my bedside table and saw the segregated red lines without a doubt read 08:03.
“Pap, have you been to bed yet?” I asked.
“Been to bed, whatcha asking been to bed for? It’s the mooorrrnniinnngggg,” he laughed for a second before coughing violently and hucking up phlegm.
“How can you be drunk already?” I sighed, already knowing the answer full well. He was an alcoholic. Had been since my Grandma died. My Mum was loving, God bless her soul, but cold. She couldn’t deal with how devastated my Dad was at losing his mum and obviously, neither could he.
“Look lad, if yous gonna keep asking me all these, these, quest-i-onie’s, then I’m not gonna phone up no’ mo’.” He coughed and hucked again.
Please don’t, I thought without thinking, before cursing myself for being so harsh. My Dad too seemed to read my mind as he paused for a minute. The silence sat between us as uncomfortable as a fart in an elevator before he coughed again.
“Still on twenty a day, I hear,” I said light-heartedly.
“Always watching,” he whispered, a sinister brutality lacing his words, “always watching, and waiting, and peeking and judging.” I didn’t know if he was talking to himself or to me but I could hear in his voice that it wasn’t the first time he had ever said it. In fact, I would bet my career as an architect that he had said it ever since my Mum had up and left him – leaving me behind.
I had become an architect almost by accident. I was in college studying engineering and out of nowhere, while I sat with my ham and cheese sandwhich on the grass by the campus library a voice had spoke to me, clear as day, and said ‘You could build Happy Homes’. And so that’s what I decided to do. To build homes that families could create wonderful memories in.
“Look, Pap, I’ve got a meeting with the City Council in half an hour,” I half-lied. I had a meeting, that part was true, but it was at ten. They wanted a new estate, built on the foundation of the old one. A shining example of the city’s modernity. Without a thought being given to the ‘junkies’ and ‘Alco-mum’s’- their words, not mine – that were trying to raise a family in the ruins.
“Oh yes, yes,” his voice lightened. “I found your old school bag. It was in the loft with her… with her… with your Mum’s …” he began to sob quietly, almost as if he didn’t want me to hear. As if he could protect me, now, that I didn’t need it.
Too late for that you old coot, the harsh voice came back, you should have thought of that before you drank yourself blind and passed out drunk every day before I had even got home from school.
“Look, Pap, come on now,” I soothed. “I’ll come pick it up at Two, you’ll be up at two, yeah?” His sobbing was too far-gone now. I could almost see his drunken and shriveled shoulders hunched over in his stained wife-beater amongst the ruins of our once happy family home.“I’ll bring in some milk and bread and I’ll leave some money on the side for you if you’re not,” and I hung up the phone.
I drove up outside my tiny old house just before two. It was only a forty-five minute drive and besides, any excuse to drive my new car had me feeling the closest thing to excitement I had in years. Ever since I had knocked the cocaine on the head.
There was the alley that twisted and turned around the stained and broken homes that littered the estate I had grown up on. Younger generations had moved in and forced the older ones to either run to care homes or die amongst the chaos that their lifestyle and upbringings had brought. Dogs barked aggressively in fences they could jump easily if they felt the notion too, and kids roamed about the streets even though it was a school day and well past lunch-time. I opened the creaky wired metal gate and tread along the cracked cement of the paving stones woven with weeds. Some of the weeds looked so thick I wondered if they had cracked the stones themselves.
The metaphor was not lost on me.
Placing the carrier bag full of biscuits and chocolate on the filthy counter-top I began searching for my Dad. I wished he had listened to me when I had got my first job as an architect over ten years ago, and moved out of this hovel. I could have got him, and still could though he was long gone from the tentacles of help, a nice flat of his own with carers who lived nearby to look after him. At the very least, his house would always be clean.
After searching the living room and the bathroom, I found him passed out and wet from his own urine, lying on the stained and torn up carpet. Stripping him and heaving him onto the bed, I quickly got to work scrubbing the floor clean – for all the good it would do him. I wanted to smack him with a newspaper and rub his nose in the mess as you would a dog but the fight for my Dad’s sanity had been lost long ago. So crushing was the defeat, that I couldn’t even bring myself to wash him before I pulled the blanket over his body and closed the door behind me.
And there it was.
My old blue door that sat tightly shut, as it had done for many years. Behind it lay my lost childhood and the few happy memories I had salvaged. I stepped towards it and reached out tentatively towards the doorknob. I hadn’t even thought to go in this room in over fifteen years but here I was, clasping the cold metal and pulling to the left. Maybe it was because he had mentioned my old school rucksack on the phone earlier, or maybe it was just time, but for whatever reason, I stepped through the doorframe and forced myself to remember. The air smelled musty and ancient and a layer of dust lined everything. A plate I had forgotten to clean away sat mouldy and vile with its fifteen years worth of growth. Toys, books, games and clothes all sat moodily in the space I had abandoned and feared to ever return too. There was no great homecoming and I was saddened to realize that I had expected there to be. Once again, the childhood I had never had had let me down. The rucksack was discarded on the floor, the zipper half-opened it yawned lazily at me as I picked it up. I pulled out a homework assignment covered in multiplications and a pencil case that was marked with the blood of a burst pen. As my finger-tips searched ever deeper into the vast hole of the bags interior they grazed upon a forgotten memory. A happy reminder of days I had forgotten. A photograph with its edges curled at the corners. As I stared at it, the bag falling to my feet, the strength was blown out from under me and I ,too, fell, onto a chair nearby. As I sat and the seat began to rock, tears welled before spilling down my stubbly cheeks. There I was, young and innocent, being hugged by a long expired protector, on a missing chair that had been painted with love. I was crying not only because I was sad, although I had plenty reasons to be sad. A lost childhood, a stolen innocence and the all too familiar feeling of vulnerability were reason enough to make me sad. But I also wept because I was happy. However fleeting that happiness had been back then, it was no excuse now to remain frozen in time with my misery.
Why did no one protect you? the harsh voice whispered perversely, its own voice cracking with the raw hurt of abandonment.
“Why am I not protecting myself now?” I answered to the empty room.
I hadn’t noticed I was rocking on the chair from the picture – the paint still in perfect condition – nor did I notice the curtain rustle and the breeze whistle out through the open window, into the first dancing frost flakes of winter. Most of all, as I rocked and sobbed, rocked and sobbed, rocked and sobbed, I didn’t notice the intangible kiss that was planted on my cheek as my Grandma vanished from my side, where she had always been, and up to the forever-playground in the sky.
She knew I was safe now.
Finally she could be at peace.