He’s not in the best shape of his life. He’s not pulling punches like he used to. The loads he’s carrying are significantly heavier, and he tends to stumble those last couple of steps to bed. He’s a Horlicks man. The last time I came over he made us both a steak supper, and asked if my mother minded me drinking. I told him she didn’t have to know. He seemed pleased. We sat in front of our empty plates for a while before he spoke again.
You’re going to school?
It wasn’t a question. His voice held the strength his muscles no longer could. He was telling me.
I am. I said.
He seemed even more pleased than seeing me finish my can of Carling.
Good. He said after a minute of staring at me. I’ll fetch another beer.
The last few years had been tough. He’d lost a wife, his hearing for the most part, countless remotes down the back of the sofa. He’s more tired than he used to be. He took a nap just before we sat down for dinner. I sat on the wall at the back of the house, watching the sun go down; listening to the wood pigeons. I’ve hated their craws ever since I was a child. I’d stand beside the rock mountain – a makeshift grave for Bowson, my grandparents 4th of countless Cocker Spaniels- talking to a dead dog, making friends with a pet I barely remembered alive, and I’d hear the wood pigeons overhead. They called restlessly to each other as the sun began to fall, and I knew it was only a matter of hours until I’d be back in school. The dread you feel as a child is perhaps the strongest you ever experience: The anxiety of returning back to school. Fear of the ordinary. And it never really leaves you: Sunday evenings are still the very worst of the week.
When he came down from upstairs, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands – his fingers forever dirty with grease, and wood glue, and the red tint of rust- he patted me on the back, a squeeze of the shoulder, and told me he’d fix us up something to eat.
I didn’t watch him in the kitchen, I knew it was better not to see how the meal was prepared, only do my best to enjoy whatever flavour was left after he massacred it on the stove. Burnt flesh, boiled limp vegetables, a glass of Vimto. And now a can of Carling. We set our plates down, and he turned on the small television that hung over the kitchen table – on one of those hinged television stands he had bought surplus amounts of several years before. Everyone in the family had one. In each bedroom an old television perched at a precarious angle on a small white support. The television hadn’t been there in the years previous, when my grandmother was around.
The meat hadn’t been so tough either.
You’ll do well in school. Again this was less encouragement; more threat. Your mother will be chuffed.
What about Dad? I asked.
Oh him. He’ll be too. Although I expect he’ll be happier when you’re done.
Why’s that then?
Well. And he took another sip of warming beer. Once you’re done you won’t need his money anymore. Or you will, but he won’t feel so obliged to give it to you.
I nodded in a halfhearted agreement.
Should have learnt a trade… I heard him mutter beneath his breath. I knew he was proud though; he wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise.
Earlier in the day, as he slept the last of the afternoon warmth away, I’d been walking at the bottom of the garden; down past the greenhouse, where the apple trees lurched over the side of the stone wall he’d mortared himself in kinder years. A pencil most likely behind his ear. Plans for the new shed he was going to build on the opposite side of the path to the greenhouse strewn across the kitchen table. My grandmother, fed up from moving them each mealtime, resigning to eat her dinner in the living room, from a tray she hated using for anything other than carrying cups of tea to and from the kitchen. Besides the abandoned compost heap, and the stacks of empty planters and rusting spades I saw his slippers. Incased in mud. Stuck to the ground. The wet earth he had left them in, presumably to wonder back to the house barefoot, had hardened in the subsequent week’s sun, and held them steadfast – like concrete- in the exact same spot he had left them. A snail curling itself around a sodden heel. I felt like crying as I stood over them, but it took my years to realize why.
He placed his can down and raised his head to the ceiling.
We’ll be alright boy. You and me. The pair of us will be just fine.
This time it sounded more like a question; the first time I had ever really wanted him to reassure me, to hold his posture and voice unwavering, but there was a question mark there at the end of the sentence.
Sure we will. How could we not be? I finished the last swig of the second can. It was the best that either of us could do given the circumstances. I think I’ll head in early. He said, taking his plate in hand, picking mine up on route to the kitchen. He’d been up only an hour, an hour and a half maybe.
That’s okay. I said. I’ve got a shit-ton of work to do for tomorrow anyway.
He spun on his heel, startled by my language, ready to reprimand me. But stopping suddenly he smiled, an acknowledgement of my ageing, and shook his head in quiet laughter as he padded off towards the worlds oldest Zanussi dishwasher.