Thursday, 10 February 2011

small... A Short Story

I broke my nose when I was nine. Well Dad broke my nose, going (literally) over a roundabout somewhere near Hendon. He’d had a couple of pints and a whisky or two “before I take the kids back to the wife officer, you know how it is.” 

The unsmiling policeman obviously didn’t know how it was and arrested my dad who got stroppy and mouthy and banned for a year and I got a bent nose.

It happened on the first weekend that Debra and I spent with dad and Monica together since the separation.  We’d been on odd days out the four of us, but until then no weekends.

The days out would begin with a mostly silent telephone call from Dad to our Mother.  Whatever was said to her she remained almost monosyllabic but by then of course my sister Debra and I had pricked up our ears. We would exchange the most fleeting of looks but we listened intently even if we continued to sit watching the television or looked as though we were concentrating quietly on the homework laid out on the kitchen table before us.

Our mother would slip the telephone receiver back into place and the audible ‘click’ as the line disconnected would break the heavy silence.

“You’re dad is coming for you Sunday” she would say without emotion and by the time we could answer her or ask a question she’d have left the room.

Sure enough on Sunday morning our dad would arrive in the Company Cortina with Monica his new girl and her satisfied smile. She would flick back her hair and wave cheerily at us as we walked behind him up the garden path like we should somehow be pleased to see her.

Off we’d go then.  We did a couple of country houses with vast landscaped gardens and a café with tea in a pot and slices of cake and once we went to a small private zoo somewhere near the south coast. Then of course there was Hastings with its castle and a climb on the cliffs and fish and chips for lunch and cokes with straws fizzing in their frost cold glass bottles.

On the way home Dad would whistle and tap the steering wheel in time to the music from the radio and Monica would unwrap Murray Mints and put them straight into dad’s mouth whilst Debra and I sat watching uncomfortably in the back. I remember being fascinated by such an intimate act between my father and the girl who had replaced my mother in the front passenger seat.

Debra always did her best to provoke.  She would sit silent rhythmically kicking the back of Monica’s seat ‘til she’d say in her chirrupy, syrupy voice, “Don’t kick the seat Debbie love” and Debra (who’d never been called Debbie in her almost twelve years) would stop for a while, then start again. Kick, kick, kick.

A little while later Monica would say quietly “Debbie, sweetie, don’t kick the seat” and on and on it went until Dad’s arm would come swinging over the side of his seat, his palm stinging into Debra’s leg. “She said don’t kick the effing seat.” He always said ‘effing’.

Later back home, Debra and I would lay in our twin beds with their teak headboards and quilted nylon covers: lavender for her, lemon for me. We’d chat quietly and she would mimic the quiet, high voice of Monica as I lay giggling in the dark.

“And I’m not your effing, bloody, sweetie Monica you fanny!” Fanny was just about our favourite word, although I had never said it aloud in the presence of anyone but Debra.

Eventually the days out became overnight stays. Saturday at noon until Sunday at two just Dad and us but no Monica. Then he’d drop us back at the house where inside mum sat silently in front of the Sunday Matinee.

On those weekends we’d spend Saturday afternoon in Kingsbury Wimpy and boy could we make a beef burger in a bun last. Anything to avoid going back to ‘the flat where Monica wasn’t’ as mum called it, adding a “ha, ha, ha” but the last “ha” would disappear as she forced down an odd, tearless sob.

The truth was Monica really wasn’t there on those occasions. I guess she went back to her parents on our ‘overnights’. In my mind’s eye there she is sat before the television on Saturday nights restless and pining for dad. No doubt shovelling Murray bloody Mints in her fat face with her mother giving her looks across the room. 

In the advert breaks her mother looks up from her knitting and she says, “Well, you didn’t bargain on this for a Saturday night out when you took up with a family man did you Monica?”

She wasn’t missing much. Our ‘overnights seemed to drag and the long awkward silences, although punctuated by sudden bouts of fun were painful. It seemed as though none of us had the energy to keep it up.  I guess Dad's weariness of family life was somehow catching and by the end of those weekends Debra and I would slump in the back seat of the car on the way home to mum exhausted by the effort needed just to be with him.

The Kingsbury Wimpy was often empty on those mostly wet Saturday afternoons.  We’d sit at a grubby formica topped table and I'd watch dad look longingly across to the betting shop on the other side of the road, no doubt wondering who’d won the three ten at Newmarket.

Debra and I would suck on the paper straws of our milkshakes until they became soggy tufts of paper that stuck to our lips. Her suggestions (like seeing who could spit them the furthest) saw Dad head quickly for the door.

Then we’d travel silently through the north London suburbs to his miserable flat in a grey block somewhere near Rayners Lane. Actually, it wasn’t his it was hers. It was Monicas, the receptionist whose temporary assignment seemed now to be pretty permanent.

After a five-floor climb the lift doors would ‘shoosh’ open and we’d step onto the dimly lit landing with its slight smell of disinfectant and wait for Dad to fumble for the keys. 

Inside the flat Dad would put the gas fire on and we’d watch Saturday night television, grateful for the comforting familiarity of Dr Who and The Generation Game. Dad would start on the first of many cans of cheap supermarket beer that was no doubt purchased with a view to getting him through a long weekend with just us.

We’d shout out the names of the items on the conveyor belt. ‘A Cuddly Toy!’ ‘A Ladies Hairdryer and Accessories!’ Ladies and Gents Matching Sterling Silver Bracelets!’

We often ‘won’ most of the items because Dad and Debra were really good at it. They would smile at one another, delighted in their latest acquisition. Dad would run round the sofa to the Match of the Day theme tune when he won ‘A handy Teasmade’ or ‘A Set of Gentlemen’s Tools’. All of Debra’s face would smile.

Now, all these years later, when I picture that smile I almost lose my breath. Looking back I think of those as the last vestiges of her childhood happiness. A few final brief moments where she could still be Daddy's girl.  Even if they were snatched from under Monica's nose whilst she sat with the family she did belong to.

In those moments though, with the three of us on the vinyl sofa with its quilted back and the buttons you could twist and twist during the scariest bits of Dr Who everything was all right. Not back to normal, for sure it never would be again but all right. Dad was being nice and he was with us, just us, and Debra was his girl again.

Slowly it would get dark and the gas fire would glow in the flicker of the television and another beer would lose its ring pull and the smoke from his endless cigarettes would hang above our heads.

The curtains would stay open but there was no view from the fifth floor flat other than the block opposite and we knew there would be no offer of supper.

We’d stay silent, hoping he’d fall asleep or forget we were there. Finally the deep breathing that preceded the snores would begin. With luck there would be something with naked bodies on the television and we would sit enthralled before the box while he grunted, turned over on the couch and began to snore again. Then later, having fallen asleep Debra would wake me.  With a fuzzy head from the heat from the gas fire and as the little white dot whined and shrank its way to oblivion she would pull me by the arm.

“Bed now Suz.” We would fumble our way in the dark through the still new to us lounge and into their bedroom, creeping into the bed that smelled of sweat and things as yet unfamiliar.

In the morning we’d watch Thunderbirds and Little House on the Prairie and as the television went on dad would rise from the sofa and stagger into the bed still warm from the heat of us.

Debra would make toast with extra butter on my crusts and two sugared tea. When the focus turned to religion or politics she’d wake Dad who would return to the lounge, cough deeply trying to clear his lungs and turn off the television. He’d start then, complain we did “nothing but stare at the telly “ and “hadn’t we come to see him after all?”

Then off he’d go to spend the next half an hour in the toilet with the just delivered ‘News of the World’ (or “The Whores Gazette” as Grandpa liked to call it) and a packet of Benson and Hedges. I am guessing he sat there ‘on the throne’ marking out his winning ‘gee-gees’ and coughing in the fug of smoke, tipping the ash from his cigarette between his knees and down into the bowl of the toilet.

Meanwhile, Debra would sit silent on the couch, knowing that the good bit was over and the saying goodbye bit had come around again.  With her arms folded and a sneer waiting on her face she'd call through the toilet door. “I'm bored, when can we go home?”

Whilst this scenario was played out I would potter quietly round the flat looking for evidence for mum. Debra and I had, until recently, done this together. We’d go scrabbling through their things looking for anything incriminating.

“Money, bills, jewellery, anything that proves they are better off than us. Especially as he’d walked out on his kids for a slightly older one” as mum in those never ending rants at Nan was wont to repeat over and over. On our previous visit I’d said excitedly.

“He’s locked the lav Debra, shall we look?”

"You look if you want, I’m not doing it for her.” She’d sneered saying 'her' like she might have said a swear word. I still remember my shock as I thought of mum at home all alone and I choked down a sob. I didn’t understand. Hadn’t we liked looking for evidence for mum? I’d thought it was great and nothing got me more attention amongst my friends at school than the latest episode of “Looking for Evidence!”

Debra said “You shouldn’t do her dirty work for her.” I was puzzled. Did we hate mum now?

“Him, Monica and mum, they’re all” (she searched for a word) “bloody cow sons” - and borrowed three from dad.

Anyway, this weekend, the very first weekend with Dad and Monica, the one when my nose got broken, was different. We’d stayed in their new flat with two bedrooms, though ours only had room for a single bed. Debra said I’d kicked her all night in my sleep. I remembered then; I’d had my flying dream again. I never flew very high, though I could have if I’d wanted to. Could have soared I could, but I never did.

Instead, I flew low over the heads of the people chasing me. I’d run and run and just as they were about to catch me off I’d fly, arms flapping, legs doing a weird sort of breast stroke kick. Then I’d float just above them, just beyond their reach, teasing with occasional aerobatics whilst they stood below me, mouths open. That explained the kicking then.

The weekend had gone well, so far. We spent Saturday afternoon at the cinema watching ‘Digby the Biggest Dog in the World’ with popcorn and orange squash in a triangular carton that just never had enough orange taste for my liking.

Emerging from the warmth of the Holloway Odeon the evening was dark and cold and a heavy drizzle seeped from unseen clouds above and soaked us. The shops were shut until Monday now and we walked, too quickly for my legs, to the car.

Dad couldn’t find the keys. He found the flat keys and the office keys and the keys to his mate Mickey’s lock up, but he couldn’t find the keys to the car. Debra waited silently kicking a can in the gutter. Monica searched her handbag. I offered advice. I remembered Grandpa and the lost wallet.

“Dad you have to remember the last place you saw them then you can trace backwards and you’ll find them.”

Preoccupied he says “Mon, did I give them to you to put in your bag?"

“I don’t think so love, I can’t see them.”

“You have to retrace your steps dad” I offered – that’s what Columbo, the small one-eyed American detective would have done.

Monica says “Maybe they dropped out of your pocket love, inside?”  and dad says “Yeah I’ll go and check.”

I am still keen to offer my services. “I’ll come and help you look dad.”

He snaps back. “No you won’t, you’ll stay here.”

We wait in the rain then, Monica chattering, her long hair now damp and flat and not at all the ‘lovely do’ dad said it was earlier.

Then Dad, his shoulders hunched against the cold and wet returns. “Effing manager won’t put the effing lights on will he? Not ‘til the picture’s finished. Check your bag again Mon, I thought I give ‘em to you.”  Monica scrabbles through the bag as Debra watches.

“Perhaps you left them in the car dad” is my next piece of cheery advice.

He shouts then. “For Jesus Christ sake will you wrap up!”

I’m glad its dark and the rain is falling and my anorak hood with the fluffy trim is far too big and hides my face. The corners of my mouth begin to descend toward my trembling chin despite my desperate efforts to keep them where they belong. Smiley Suzie that’s me! Until I’m not.

The first tears well up and spill over onto my red, hot with shame cheeks. Now everyone will see and I’m… small.

Monica’s found the keys! In her pocket! “Sorry love” she says with a smile.

He raises his eyebrows and despite himself returns her smile. I’m standing there in the rain. The tears are rolling down my cheeks now and I’m shrinking. A sugar lump in the rain. Sweet, Smiley, Suzie. Shrinking.

Nowadays, when I remember that little girl who stood in the road with her face red and her hot tears mixing with the cold rain on her face I comfort myself with another scenario. In this one he is still tall and distant and loud when he shouts at me for all to hear but in this one he says “sorry”.  Not “sorry love” to Monica with a smile but a bent down, scooping up, hugging kind of sorry to me, sweet smiling Suzie who also wants to be his girl.

So, anyway, there I sit in the back of the Company Cortina face to the window watching north London go by in the haze of raindrops hoping no passer by will see me crying as I am still stifling sobs.

“Stop the effing grizzling for Jesus Christ sake” says dad. I want to tell him though, tell him why I’m crying. I just don’t think he knows.

I’m crying because I wanted to go with him back into the cinema to be his little helper, like Miss Beech at school. She lets me be her helper. Miss Beech says she wants my help at playtime and I can help her at the Christmas concert if my mum says so.

Miss Beech likes me and she wants my help, but he only likes Monica now and he smiles at her and he shouts at me and I just… I only wanted to help.

I don’t tell him though.  He won’t even hear me, and anyway he and Monica are chatting away now in the front of the car like its all okay.  Now I’m even smaller.

Back at the flat there’s the Generation Game again, but this time we’re silent. Then there’s Sausage chips and beans that Monica cooks and dad says, “isn’t up to much.”

Monica gets the Angel Delight out of the fridge and bangs the bowl of instant strawberry flavour dessert on the table.

She goes into the bathroom and we sit looking at this culinary treat until dad gets up and goes to the bathroom door and tells her not to be so daft.

“Piss off” she says through the door and on it goes until dad gets a beer from the fridge and sits himself down in front of the television.

“Get ready for bed you two” he says and Debra says “I need to clean my teeth and she’s in the bathroom.”

“Who’s she, the cat’s mother?” he says sounding at once like Nanna Rose before she had the stroke that stopped her making any sound except a strange groan, after which Grandpa would carefully and oh so gently wipe the dribble from her chin.

“Well she’s not my mother” says Debra and I laugh. He reaches out and slaps my leg and, shocked, my tears begin to fall again but this time it’s a physical pain. 

On and on he goes. I’m “rude, ungrateful, whining, daft and Jesus H Christ I’d better stop that grizzling or I’ll have something to cry for.”

Monica comes out of the bathroom, red eyed, bottom lip quivering and “Jesus H Christ, not another one, what’s the effing matter with all you women?”

Debra goes to clean her teeth and gratefully I join her. We stand at the basin and she turns on the cold tap and spins the soap in her hands. She passes it to me and while I take my turn to spin the soap over and over she rifles through the bathroom cabinet until she finds his ‘Brut’ after-shave. Opening it, she pours it slowly down the sink.

I’m looking at her wide-eyed but she doesn’t look at me. She puts the empty bottle under the tap and fills it, puts the lid back on and returns the bottle to its place on the shelf.

Later as we lie in the dark, back to back trying to get to sleep in this strange new room, I can hear the television in the lounge and low voices and Monica laughing and I can’t decide whether to tell the kids at school about the after-shave or not.

So now its Sunday morning.  We’re all sat round the table and Monica’s burnt the bacon under the grill and Debra wants to know why we can’t watch telly like we always do “when she’s not here.”

Monica calls her a ‘little cow’ and Debra calls Monica a ‘fanny’ right to her face and that sets me off giggling. Dad shouts at me and tries to slap Debra’s backside. He hits his hand on the corner of the table and the Cornflakes scatter, and he’s shouting and I’m crying and Monica’s crying and Debra, after starting the mayhem is waiting sullen and silent in the hall with her bag packed ready to go home to mum. Only we’re not due back until two-o clock so they take us to the pub.

We stand awkwardly in the Children’s Room of the Sticky Wicket waiting for our cokes and crisps. There’s a half size snooker table but the baize is missing in the middle and there’s only one cue. We sit at a rickety table, the centrepiece a stinking ashtray. We blow bubbles in our cokes through our straws and crunch our Ready Salted crisps.

At a table nearby two little girls watch us, the cheap lemonade fizzing in their bottles. Monica comes to see if we’re alright and gives us ten pence for the table football but its broken so we play ‘I Spy’. Its a version that begins with “I spy with my little eye something beginning with U.L.G” and turns out to be Ugly Little Girls. It degenerates from there until one of the quiet little girls, also left in the shabby back room like an afterthought, smiles at us and we stop, ashamed.

Eventually Monica appears and we’re off home. In the car we sing “We are the Diddy Men, the Diddy Men, the Diddy Men, we are the Diddy Men, who come from Knotty Ash!”

We’re all singing it, and everyone’s smiling and it’s better again until Debra sings “We are the Diddy Men who come from up yer bum!”

That‘s it then. That’s just about the final straw. Dad says she’s “A little cow who just wants to spoil it all” and I’m “No better” and “Why Monica would want to spend any more weekends with us is anyone’s guess, but we’d better buck our ideas up, ‘specially Debra because we weren’t going to dance to her tune. Oh no we weren’t.”

The rest of the journey is silent and we sit in the back of the Company Cortina looking at the backs of their heads, turning to look at each other when Monica and Dad exchange looks in the front seats.

Monica drops her hand casually onto his knee and his hand leaves the gear stick and finds hers and gives it a squeeze. Then in a second dad’s missed the give way sign and overshot the junction and swerving to avoid the traffic we head straight for the roundabout.

We seem to bounce up the kerb and then there’s a pretty loud bang as we hit a sapling and a sign saying ‘Golders Green 4 miles’. The car stops suddenly and we all jerk forwards against our newly fitted seatbelts only I’d been kneeling in my seat at the time and the seatbelt doesn’t quite save me. I fly towards the back of Monica’s seat and hit it with a soft thud. Boy oh boy does my nose bleed.

Later we sit in the waiting room at the casualty department of the local hospital. There’s me all bloody and swollen faced and there’s Debra who has a bruise on her thumb and blood on her tee shirt from my nose which has bled on my hanky, jumper, skirt and socks and even the plastic chair is sticky with it.

Dad’s been arrested and Monica’s gone with him “to make sure he’s alright.”

The ambulance man is dumbfounded by that, seeing how he’s got me sat in the back of the ambulance. With my head back and an ice pack on my nose I’m being ‘a brave little soldier’ for someone who’s not quite ten but dad is thirty-seven or something and Monica is “not quite bloody twenty” so mum says.

There were no blue lights or sirens, just a slow ride through the traffic. The ambulance man made a few jokes and asked us if we liked Donny or David. He wasn’t a fan of pop music himself though, he liked a melody to his songs. Debra sat silent holding my hand.

The nurses were lovely. They asked us who we liked the best Donny or David and they argued about just who was the best looking of the Bay City Rollers. Amongst themselves though they spoke in hushed voices and looked across the room at us with pity in their eyes.

The Doctor who had sent me to x-ray had confirmed the nose had a break but “that was that” to mum who had just arrived. She said nothing, simply nodded.

She didn’t panic. There was no breathless tearful arrival. No crying for her injured youngest. She had just walked calmly into the waiting room and there we were sitting swinging our legs, covered in blood and she’d said, “Did you enjoy yourselves then, with Monica?”

For a second it was as though none of this had happened. I wasn’t nine years old left in casualty with my twelve-year-old sister after a car accident. My dad hadn’t been arrested and his girlfriend hadn’t gone and left us and my nose was still unbroken. Not so my heart.

It seemed as though she’d sat at home all weekend waiting to say those words. To punish the little traitors we had become. I think now that Debra had already noticed what I could not fail to acknowledge from that day on.

The woman who had nurtured us so carefully in our short lives, who had put all our needs before her own was no longer present in the every day.  She who had waited at the school gates every afternoon in a cheerful headscarf and red lipstick. She who had sung “Daydreamer a walkin’in the rain…” with us as we dusted the front room whilst outside Dad had washed the Company Cortina, had begun to disappear.

Whilst there was still tea on the table at six every school night and Sunday tea was still ham salad other things, routine and familiar were no longer the norms.

Our mother had become a stranger.  She would arrive late to the school gates with unwashed hair where we waited with a patient teacher.  She ‘forgot’ to take the dirty clothes we gathered on a Saturday morning to earn our pennies, over to the launderette or else she left them there until the woman who ran it would call after us as we passed in the street.  “Tell your mother to pick up her wash and she owes me for the powder too.”  

Back in the hospital, when she leant closer to inspect my nose she smelled like the pub and her eyes were looking but she didn’t see. So I didn’t cry and say “Oh mummy it hurts so much” and get cuddles and kisses and a promise of sweets on the way home if I was brave. Perhaps I knew whose pain was greater.  

One thing was sure. The safe and comfortable life we had known until then, ordinary and certainly mundane had left along with my father.

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