‘Finished with the bloody book, have you?’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Thought you might read all night.’
‘Oh…I’m so sorry. Why d’you even care how long I read for?’
Danny’s father sniffs, a sarcastic little noise that’s been honed to be absolutely unbearable for Danny’s mother. Danny braces himself and, sure enough…
‘What the hell’s that noise supposed to mean?’
Danny rolls over to face the wall, his parents’ peevish whispers slicing through the silence. His face feels hot; they’ve been arguing all evening, he’s in the way just by being here. First his aunt Lucy didn’t have room for all three of them to stay, which meant they ended up booking into a hotel. Although pretty reasonable (to his mum) it’s still a sight more expensive than they should be spending (to his dad).
Things had gotten worse when they’d switched on the six o’clock news. A man with messy straw hair was waving at the screen, camera flashes dancing on the blue wall behind him. BRITAIN LEAVES THE EUROPEAN UNION, the headline blared at the bottom of the screen.
Mum had turned away with a snort. ‘About bloody time.’
Dad glared at her. ‘Don’t say that!’
‘We voted. To leave.’ Mum’s voice was sharp and cold. ‘Why can’t you just accept that?’ She’d stomped into the bathroom and slammed the door. Dad sighed at the ceiling, then continued unpacking his suitcase. ‘Bloody Boris…’
They’d eaten dinner in frosty silence, and Danny didn’t dare ask for dessert even though he’d have given all his piggy bank for an ice-cream sundae like the girl on the next table.
No use. He’s still wide awake and jumping at every sound like a nervy kitten – the rumble of traffic on the street below, a distant wailing siren, a fly buzzing in the corner, the flick-flick of Mum’s book, a series of peevish coughs from Dad. The bedside light clicks off. Danny rolls onto his front and buries his face into his pillow, trying to make sure they can’t hear him crying. He sniffles accidentally a few times, but nobody reacts.
Then Dad speaks. Quieter. Harsher.
‘Do you see why I can’t trust you?’
Danny’s mum sighs. ‘For fuck’s sake.’ Danny doesn’t recognise the word, but Dad’s reaction tells him it’s wrong.
‘Don’t you dare use that language with him in the room.’
‘D’you see why I can’t trust you?’ Dad asks again. ‘I’m just telling you what it feels like.’
‘When are you going to give me a break?’ Mum’s voice hitches. ‘When are you going to stop nagging me and accept what happened?’
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ Dad mutters.
No, Danny agrees. It isn’t. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that his coolest schoolmate isn’t around this week. Raja’s always up for playing Tire Swing or Knights and Dragons in the woods, and his sister makes wicked hand tattoos with her henna ink. Then Raja got surrounded at yesterday lunchbreak by Jake Smith’s gang, their pink sweaty faces jeering ‘Bugger off, Blackie’.
Just as Danny was passing. ‘Blackie’ was a horrible word. Dad said so. You don’t say that to nice people.
So Jake got a fresh row of teethmarks in his arm, Shaun’s glasses were broken, Gary’s sweater needed six stitches, Pete got kicked in the plums and Danny ended up in the headmaster’s office with scraped knuckles and a burning sense of righteousness. Not his fault. They shouldn’t have picked on his friend. But now Raja’s been taken out of school by his parents and Danny had to stay behind writing fifty lines of ‘I will not fight my classmates’…what’s fair about that?
Muffled sobs through the wall. At first Danny thinks it’s in the next room. Then he realised it’s coming from the bathroom. His mum. Whatever Dad was accusing her of, it’s obviously true. Otherwise she wouldn’t be crying. Anyhow, Dad is Danny’s hero. He has a special collection of Liverpool FC cards, and told that hulking ten-year-old Jake Smith he’d be ‘dead meat’ if he ever picked on Danny again. And he does such a good impression of Fred Flintstone. So it has to be his mum’s fault that things are like this: that his parents are fighting and Danny’s pillow is damp with his own secret tears. He likes Mum – he does – but it has to be someone’s fault that he feels this lousy, so it has to be hers.
The girl who got the ice-cream sundae next to Danny’s table is now at home in her bedroom, the name plate Lisa painted in curling rose petals on the door.
She hates it. Hates the argument going on downstairs. Hates that her dad didn’t make it tonight. Again.
Earlier tonight she played second violin in her School Orchestra (under-8 division) as part of a concert by seven- to twelve- year olds and attended by a crowd of parents whose enthusiasm ranged from politely lukewarm to alarmingly fervid. Lisa’s dad was meant to be there. He promised. He swore he would be there – that’s the phrase her mummy is now screaming into the telephone downstairs, words muffled by the plasterwork so Lisa can only hear her fury in the shape of them. Dad’s away a lot because work is important – whatever it is. But the understanding was that he’d see her tonight. He’d be there.
But he wasn’t.
When the lights came up onstage, Lisa was dazzled by them, and it was only when they had finished and the whole audience was lit up that she saw her mother a few rows back, with an empty chair beside her. Disappointment curled its claws into her; Dad wasn’t there. He’d missed it. Like he missed the sports day where she’d won the long jump and the nativity play where her brother Simon played Joseph.
‘Always the same reason,’ Mum muttered between clenched teeth as she swung the Mini out of the car park, not bearing to stay behind for coffee and unwanted sympathetic glances from other parents. Work. Always work.
‘But where is he?’ Lisa persisted.
‘He must’ve been delayed.’
‘But he said —’
‘HE MUST HAVE BEEN DELAYED,’ Mum had snapped. Then she was sorry for shouting, and as a treat she took Lisa and Simon out to a hotel for dinner. Lisa felt very special; they talked about the concert and the other musicians and how beautifully she’d played, about school and her friends, about everything except Dad. The absence of Dad.
Now she rolls out of bed and creeps to the landing in her nightie. She tries to hush even the feathery sound of breath through her nose. She’s very good at this: in ‘musical statues’ at Claire’s and Flora’s parties she was almost unbeatable. Her mother has stretched the telephone wire into the downstairs study, but Lisa can still hear her.
‘Well if you can’t make your own daughter a priority…’
What’s a priority? Lisa wonders. Why can’t she be one?
‘I don’t care, Eric. You stay out with your workmates and get drunk – don’t argue with me, I can tell you’ve had a few. You drone on at me about how your side won fair and square and that I should just get over it, then you go out for a piss-up with your work friends on your daughter’s special night and you let her down.’
Lisa huddles on the staircase, arms clasped around her knees. She feels rotten. Nothing’s fair. Her dad wasn’t here tonight. Her mum’s angry. Everything’s wrong.
‘I -listen, Eric. I don’t care. Either you make that sacrifice for your daughter, or you don’t. Either we can rely on you – this family can rely on you – or we can’t.’
Lisa knows what ‘rely’ means. It means you can trust someone. You know that they love you. She looks down at her nightie, with pale blue ponies on, and hates it for its childishness. She doesn’t feel seven years old; she feels much older, sadly pinned down by the gravity of real worries. Her parents don’t like each other. There was a time, there were lots of happy times (on the beach in Majorca, that holiday weekend in the Lake District, the Easter-egg hunt at Grandma’s) where they liked, loved each other.
But now they don’t.
Lisa creeps back along the landing, afraid of being overheard: her mum never misses anything. She climbs back into a bed that feels cold even as she wraps the blankets around herself. ‘Snug as a bug in a rug’ always used to cheer her up, but now seems useless and childish as everything else around her. The silly doll’s house with its residents of forever-frozen smiles. The Enid Blyton collector’s set in bright cheery colours on her bookshelf. She thinks again of the holiday in the Lake District only a year ago; how grown-up she felt to be drinking hot chocolate with her parents. Perhaps she should go knock on Simon’s door…no. He wouldn’t understand. This is for her to suffer alone, the awful fact that they cannot rely on Dad.
She stares up at the ceiling with its pale glow-in-the-dark stars Dad put up for her. Ten miles south Danny still isn’t asleep, although his own warring parents now are. The two children, who sat at neighbouring tables this evening, now stare up at different canopies of night: Danny’s bathed in the fuzzy orange glow of the street lamps outside, Lisa’s freckled by the pinpricks of white scattered across her ceiling.
When they meet in fifteen summers’ time, what happened tonight will echo down the years. Danny will have an instinctive distrust of women which he will never acknowledge, but which will cloud many of his interactions with them. Lisa will again unconsciously view men as deserters, betrayers, people who don’t show up when you need them. Their romance will be sharp, wild and, predictably, not last long. But it will produce a child called Chloe, whom Lisa loves with that wild abandon she applies to every emotional choice, and whom Danny sacrifices his chance to meet, choosing to flee instead and confirming Lisa’s low opinion of men.
All this is years away. Tonight, both seven-year-olds lie at the mercy of sleep.
© 2020 | Tom Burton