I was nine-years-old the night my father died. Or ten.
I don’t remember.
‘Peter?’ My mother’s voice. ‘Peter?’
‘What?’ I was half-awake, half-asleep. ‘What is it?’
Like the moon: half sunlight, half midnight. All moon.
‘What is it?’
I was in my bed, eyes closed, my mother’s breath on my face. And I could see her tears like stars, for although my eyes were closed I believed them open.
She took me in her arms; pulled me to my feet.
‘What?’ My heart thumping in the darkness. ‘What is it? Where’s Daddy?’
I was led by the hand into the brightly lit corridor. ‘Peter, you know Daddy’s been poorly a long time—’
‘No!’ Struggling in her arms. ‘No!’ Louder: ‘No!’ Screaming: ‘No, no, no!’ Twisting, turning, pounding with my fists. ‘No, no, no!’
‘Peter. Come and see him, Peter.’ I wrestled free. ‘Please don’t do this.’
I ran to my room, the door slamming behind me and I hid, cold and breathless, beneath sheets and blankets.
From the landing, silence. And then a terrible howl rising from the silence, filling the night. And then long, trembling sobs fading away. A door closed. My mother cried alone.
So, how do I begin?
It was 1975 when he died. Or 1976. I don’t know. It was definitely a year in which I was ten.
As they lowered his coffin into the warm ground my mother’s face crumpled up like old tissues, her tears drying in the spring sun, her make-up all blotchy.
A tall man with sharp, little teeth and shiny, black eyes took my mother’s hand. ‘This is a terrible, terrible tragedy,’ he said. ‘If there’s anything I can do.’
‘Peter,’ said my mother, ‘this is Doctor Todd. Say “hello”.’
‘Peter,’ he beamed. ‘Your mother’s told me so much about you.’
I didn’t get the chance to really know your father, of course, but I believe he was a wonderful man.’ A fat cigar burned bright between his knuckles. ‘A wonderful man. And so devoted to you. And to your mother, of course…’
Stooping, he pinched a clump of soil between forefinger and thumb, tugged it from the upturned pile and tossed it into my father’s grave. He plucked a red handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe his fingers clean.
‘I’m so alone,’ said my mother. ‘So completely alone.’
I missed my father very much but sometimes it was nice having my mother to myself. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d hugged and kissed me and told me she loved me. And she told me stories about my father. He’d been in the war fighting the Germans before she’d even been born. ‘He always told me,’ she said, ‘that he waited to marry someone who hadn’t been alive then: someone, I don’t know, clean.’
She was only young and very beautiful but she had this sore leg that hurt when she was tired or sad and I would fetch a stool so she could rest it. I would look at her smooth, copper hair curling at the shoulder, her autumn eyes shining and think of bonfires and fireworks, of blackberry picking and everlasting misty mornings.
But sometimes she would look at me like a mad man and shout: ‘Peter, tidy your bloody room!’ She would grab fistfuls of paper. ‘Throw away all this rubbish!’
‘Just keep what’s important and throw away the rest!’
‘But I don’t know—’
‘And I don’t know how I’m supposed to cope with you running around under my feet all day long!’
Or I’d stare at her and she’d shout, ‘For God’s sake, Peter, say “boo” to a goose!’ or, ‘Don’t just stand there crying like a baby!’ And her face would move so close to mine that I could smell her breath and see my own startled reflection in her eyes.
A few weeks after the funeral I returned home from school to a kitchen full of pots and pans, and a table laid with the best mats and the nice plates with the gold edge. And beside each mat not just one knife and fork but several. And there were three places laid. There were three of everything.
There were three knocks on the front door.
‘Hello, Peter,’ said Doctor Todd.
‘Peter!’ My mother, stepping into the hallway, wiped her hands on her apron and struggled to unpick the strings tied across her tummy. Beneath the apron she wore the green dress my father’d bought her, a golden necklace and the butterfly earrings that sparkled if she laughed. ‘Doctor Todd,’ she said, ‘Clive, you’re,’ glancing at the hall clock, ‘right on time.’
‘It pays to be punctual,’ said Doctor Todd. ‘I abhor lateness. Ha!’ And as he laughed the house filled with the smell of cigar smoke stinking it up like a dead cat.
My mother laughed too: ‘Ha-ha-ha,’ her hand waving politely in front of her face.
‘These are for you,’ he said, pink roses appearing from behind his back. ‘A token of my – ahem – esteem.’
‘Oh,’ she murmured, ‘they’re lovely!’
‘Yes,’ said Doctor Todd. ‘Red, I thought, perhaps too demonstrative; white too cold; and yellow too ambiguous.’ He touched her shoulder and kissed her cheek. She blushed when she caught me looking. ‘Goodness,’ said Doctor Todd, touching her earrings. ‘These are very pretty.’
‘I’ve got a bit of a thing about butterflies,’ she said smiling nervously. Doctor Todd chuckled. ‘Well, anyway,’ she scooped a strand of red hair behind her ear, ‘the flowers are lovely, Clive. Thank you but you really shouldn’t… I’ll put them in some water.’
‘And, Peter, how have you been? Behaving yourself I hope.’ He showed his teeth. ‘Ah, of course, the enigmatic Peter I’ve heard so much about. A gift,’ he announced, presenting me with a small box, ‘to help you,’ and he tapped me on the head with each word, ‘or-ga-nise yourself.’ It was a watch with a thick strap and little hands ticking.
‘What do you say, Peter?’ called my mother from the kitchen.
‘You’ll think of me every time you look at it,’ he said, ‘eh, Peter?’ and he nudged my shoulder. ‘Ha!’
‘That’s so kind, Clive.’ My mother was stood in the doorway watching us. The evening sun played like music in her hair.
Doctor Todd cleared his throat, his face suddenly pink. ‘I couldn’t help but notice a Lipton’s on the corner. If it’s not too… Why don’t I go and buy us a nice bottle of wine?’
‘If you’re sure,’ said my mother. And then she smiled. ‘Yes. That would be lovely.’
‘Perhaps Peter wouldn’t mind keeping me company, eh, Peter?’
‘Yes,’ said my mother. ‘That would be lovely.’
‘I know, Peter,’ said Doctor Todd as we walked along, the setting sun stretching our shadows, ‘you like games, don’t you? Why don’t we play a game? Let’s see. I know, why don’t you tell me the very first thing you remember. I mean your very earliest memory.’
Well, I couldn’t have answered that even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t really have any memories of when I was very little. It was just like a big, black hole. Sometimes I would try to remember things. I’d poke my head into the hole but all I could hear were echoes and I would feel all giddy standing there on the very edge. The only really earliest thing I could remember was this one day after we moved when it started snowing and my father took me into the garden. I ran round and round trying to catch it. The snow, I mean. It was nearly over the top of my boots. And I could remember Daddy grabbing me and lifting me into the air. It seemed so high and I was laughing and screaming, and he was laughing. And then he hugged me really tight. And then I could even remember looking across to where my mother was staring at us through the kitchen window, tears on her face.
There was this photo on the TV of my father from when he was in the army. I could barely remember him being well, sat all day in front of the television, the curve of his ribs through the top of his pyjamas, thin hair turning to snow. He’d lift his unshaven face and smile his skeleton smile: ‘How was school today?’
And I’d go out and ride my bike up and down the rain-soaked street until teatime.
And I could remember how I would lie in bed and hear my mother pleading with him to stay. And later I would listen to her pacing back and forth, muttering to herself; and to my father’s breath hissing like steam.
But I didn’t say any of that to Doctor Todd.
He bought a bottle of wine and gave me ten new pence for Blackjacks and Fruit Salads. ‘Could I have a receipt?’ he asked the lady.
On the way back, Doctor Todd said, ‘And how are things at home?’
I chewed hard, my teeth all sticky and my tongue turning to liquorice-grey.
‘Ah,’ said Doctor Todd. ‘I see.’
It was a proper dinner with three courses, four if you counted the cheese. I had to turn off the television.
Doctor Todd sat with a straight back and forked cubes of meat into his puckery mouth. Between chews he asked me about school (‘So, do you have many friends or one particular close friend?’) and my hobbies (‘Your mother tells me you keep a scrapbook. I’d love to take a look’) and some things I didn’t even understand (‘Tell me, Peter, do you ever find you’re awake when you thought you were dreaming?’). And as he talked his eyes gleamed and he caressed his sideburns like a pantomime villain.
I turned my arctic roll to mush with my spoon.
‘Peter!’ said my mother tapping my arm. ‘When Doctor Todd asks you a question, you must answer. And make sure you’re telling the truth.’
‘Ha!’ exclaimed our guest lighting a cigar and sucking until his cheeks went all hollow. ‘Not to worry. Peter will talk when Peter’s good and ready to talk, isn’t that right, eh, Peter?’ The smell of smoke was making me sick. ‘Do you know, my mother would never – never – have allowed me to even sit with my elders, let alone speak at the table.’
‘I am so sorry, Clive,’ said my mother. ‘It’s just sometimes he has a very vivid—’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Doctor Todd. ‘With regards to that, Peter, do you think you ever find it hard to distinguish between—’
And I tipped my pudding to the floor with a crash. Ice cream bloomed on the kitchen tiles from beneath the shattered bowl.
And so I was sent to bed.
And so, how do I begin?