© Simon Totten
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The Green Man
Something’s in the air today, something mysterious I can’t quite put my finger on but I know it’s there, I can sense it, almost smell it.
I meander into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I always make Grandad his favourite when I get home from school. Strong tea with a trickle of milk and a nip of whisky in his special mug. The one with ‘I,’ then a red heart, ‘Grandad’ on it, I bought from the cheap shop for his seventieth birthday with the last of my saved-up pocket money.
Grandad, you see, is the only person in the whole wide world who really listens to me. I’ve grown used to his kind, smiling eyes and his laugh that could shake the foundations of a house. He’s the calm voice of reason in my topsy-turvy world, my guiding light.
A few weeks ago he got poorly though. Something about chest pains and wheezy breathing. When the doctor came he gave him some pills and ever since he’s practically lived upstairs. Mum says it’s because he’s in the winter of his days but I have a different theory. He likes watching the horse racing in bed.
I lay everything out on a tray, plonk half a packet of digestives because he likes to dunk them and taking one careful step at a time, I begin my ascent of the stairs. I nudge the door open with my knee and step into the room. The usual waft of tobacco and faint whiff of urine hits me.
‘Grandad? Grandad?’ I said, expecting to see a frail old man in bed, snoring and dribbling into his pillow, his blue striped pyjamas covered in yellow egg stains, the telly on full blast.
I stop dead in my tracks, eyes like saucers. The tray slips from my fingers and crashes to the ground, spilling tea and scattering broken china everywhere. There’s a silence. An empty space, stripped and bare. Creepers Jeepers.
‘Grandad? Where are you? I ask. My first thought is maybe he’s fallen out of bed or something, so I check down the sides.
Nothing. Surely, he’ll pop up from nowhere and shout ‘Surprise!’ but he doesn’t.
I stoop down, falling to my knees to check under the bed. I race downstairs, pacing up and down the hallway. In the living room I twitch at the net curtains every few seconds to check if mum’s home yet.
For the next twenty minutes I twiddle my thumbs, make shadow shapes on the ceiling with my hands, eat half a packet of custard creams. I stare at the hands on the kitchen clock, willing them to go faster. A thousand times I ask myself ‘What on earth’s going on? Where is he?’
Finally, the front door creaks open and Mum appears breathless, flustered and windswept. Jaimie is moaning, clinging to her leg and Lexy’s sitting in her arms with a dummy hanging out of her mouth. She has her ‘end of the world’ face on, her eyes misty like she’s been crying. It doesn’t look good.
‘Where is he? Where’s Grandad?’ I ask, before she’s even made it through the door.‘Is he gone forever… ?’
Desperate to see her smile or say he’s ok, I approach her. The empty ache of fear slows my breathing.
‘Calm down, will you?’ said Mum. ‘Your Grandad’s not dead…’
The tension in my chest deflates, like someone’s stuck a pin in it.
‘B…but…’ she stammers, ‘he is very poorly. He’s been rushed to hospital.’
‘He’s had a mild heart attack. The paramedics took him away in the ambulance.’
‘A heart attack?’
‘Yes. They have to run some tests.’
‘Well is he going to be ok?’ I ask.
‘Look, I told you…they don’t know yet. Stop asking questions alright?’ said Mum, her face the colour of talcum powder.
‘That’s all I know.’ I’m sure he’ll need a friendly face. We’ll go and see him shall we? If ever there was a time he needs us… it’s now.’
I nod, wiping tears from my eyes.
‘Grandad Grandad! Are you ok?’ I ask, rushing over to his hospital bed. ‘Tell me you’re going to be alright? ‘It’s my birthday party tomorrow, will you be alright in time for that? ’
Grandad sits up in bed startled. ‘Jeesus, Mary and Joseph. You nearly gave me a heart attack. No need to shout, I’m not deaf you know,’ he exclaims.
‘Sorry Grandad, I came as soon as I could, Mum said…’ I breathed, gasping like an uphill steam train, partly with relief at seeing him alive and partly because I’d just run up five flights of stairs.
‘She said you’ve had a heart attack, you’re not going to die are you?’ I ask.
‘No… silly,’ he replied. ‘Don’t worry... it’ll take more than a dodgy ticker to get rid of me. Tough as old boots, proper coffin dodger me.’
‘What happened?’ I ask.
‘Oh, I dunno,’ shrugs Grandad. ‘Just one o’ those things, I s’pose. Mind you, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The Bowman family have a long history of heart disease.’
The hint of a smile stretches over his grey bristles. ‘It’s what they call hereditary.’
‘Hereditary. It means things can be passed on in families from generation to generation.’
‘Does that mean I’m going to have a dodgy ticker as well?’
Grandad starts one of his big hearty belly laughs that rumble like a volcano deep inside him then erupt into the room. This time it turns into a mega coughing fit that makes him double up like he’s having a seizure.
‘Grandad… you ok?’
‘Yes... don’t worry. You crack me up that’s all. Tickle me pink you do.’
‘Phew… that’s alright then. Being tickled is fun and being pink well… I mean it’s a bit girlie but it’s better than being grey and yellow like you.’
‘Oh…’ laughs Grandad again, ‘Stop it,… please stop,’ he wheezes, ‘I can’t take anymore…’
‘Sorry.. I didn’t mean to …’
‘Where’s your Mum?’
‘Coming. We had to come up the stairs. The lift was out of order. She’s got Jaimie and Lexy so…’
‘Listen… before she comes, I need to ask you a couple of favours. A bit hush hush…they are, very important. ‘First,’ he mutters, stretching to reach behind his bed, ‘Take this.’
‘What? Not that again. Can’t you get Mum to empty that? It stinks,’ I said.
He passes me what looks like a full colostomy bag but it has a black Glenfiddich whisky label on it and the golden liquid inside it is his favourite tipple - malt whisky.
‘Ahh, this is the good stuff I’ll be sad to see it go but you best take it back home with you,’ he whispers.
‘Keep it for a rainy day,’ he said, winking. ‘Won’t be allowed it in here. If they catch me with it, they’ll take it away and I’ll never see it again.’
‘Oh, wait a second,’ said Grandad, ‘No harm in a quick taste is there?’ he said, screwing the top off putting it to his lips and gulping it down like he’s swallowed half a dozen golf balls.
‘Ahh that’s better, now quick hide it before anyone sees,’ he said, looking around nervously. Quickly, I stuff it in my bag.
‘Thank you young fella me lad, you’re a good ‘un,’ he said. ‘That’s just what the doctor ordered…’
‘Did he? Is that stuff good for ‘dodgy tickers’ then?’
‘Oh… where would I be without you, eh?’ he grins, as a kind watery light returns to his pale blue eyes. ‘Listen…’ he said, leaning closer, as if he’s about to deliver a secret. An extremely important top, top secret.
‘Yeah? What is it?’ I ask, spellbound.
‘Shh… your Mum’s coming I’ll tell you in a minute.’
Mum arrives, her hair all straggly, like it needs a good brush. The patches under her eyes, so much darker than before and her quiet, strong voice, so much softer than it used to be.
With two part time jobs - one cleaning at the school and one at Barry’s Bargains. Her other job is unpaid and full time - looking after me, Jaimie and Lexy. I really don’t know how she does it.
‘Bleedin’ stairs,’ she huffs. ‘You’d think they’d fix the lift wouldn’t you? she asks, unpacking a Barry’s Bargains’ carrier bag.
‘I thought these might cheer you up,’ she said, handing him a bag of grapes and a copy of the ‘Racing Post.’ Alex chose the paper in the newsagent on the way. For some reason he has the impression you enjoy a flutter on the gee gees. Whatever gave him that idea eh?’
‘Dunno,’ he grins.
‘So how are you today Dad? Feeling any better?’
‘Oh you know, mustn’t grumble. All the better for seeing all those pretty nurses. They do a nice ham sandwich in here as well and of course for seeing my little treasures here,’ he said, nodding gently at me, Jaimie and Lexy.
‘Especially Alex here, makes my heart skip a beat or maybe I shouldn’t say that after what’s happened. Such a little treasure aren’t you lad?’
I grin from ear to ear.
‘Mmm,’ huffs Mum. ‘That’s not what I’d call him at the moment. More like the 200 questions a day cheeky monkey man aren’t you?’
I smile innocently.
‘Anyway… where was I? Oh yes, so where do I go to change Lexy’s nappy?’ she asks.
‘End of the ward and it’s the door on your right,’ said Grandad, waiting until she was out of earshot. ‘Right come here, young fella me lad,’ he said, beckoning me closer. ‘I need you to keep an eye on my allotment, can you do that?’
‘Yes,’ I nod enthusiastically. ‘I’ll keep both on it.’
‘And the thing is… young fella me lad, I got to come first,’ he said.
‘Well… Mum said didn’t she…? We’ll do everything we can to look after you… I promise.’
‘No…you doughnut, I meant… first prize at the Grand Petersfield Community Vegetable Show.’
‘Oh…that,’ I said, pretending to know what he was on about.
‘I’ve got this monster marrow see. It’s just so delicious, juicy and downright humongous you wouldn’t believe. It’d be a shame to stop now, too much blood, sweat and tears have gone into it. To cut a long story short. While I’m stuck here, can you make sure it wins first prize at the show?’
‘Mmm, I’m not sure,’ I said, suddenly daunted by the enormous responsibility of such a task.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘You can do it, easy. All you have to do is water it with the special miracle grow stuff and give it plenty of TLC. Know what that is?’
I shake my head.
‘Tender Loving Care. Plenty of chat and stroking. It’s had more than your Grandma ever had when she was alive, bless her cotton socks. Oh and feed me pigeons as well, there’s a sack of food in the shed. There’s a good lad.’
‘The prize is 100 nicker. Keep me in beer for a year that will,’ he said, excitedly.
‘Never mind,’ he said.
‘There’ll be a few bob in it for you…’
‘A few bob? How many Bobs do you know?’
‘Oh never mind….what I need to know is … can I count on you? Will you do it? You’re me only hope.’
‘Yes.. I promise,’ I said, nodding like one of those toy dogs you see in the back of cars. ‘Long as you promise to be a proper coffin dodger.’
‘Course I will, young fella me lad, course I will. And remember keep schtum, it’s just between you and me,’ he said, putting his fingers to his lips. ‘Not a word to anyone you hear?’
A Sign of the Times
At breakfast next morning, World War III has broken out. Lexy has decided to smother most of her breakfast slop all over her face and throw the rest across the table at Jaimie.
The more Jaimie screams at her, the more Lexy hiccupps and giggles with great delight as she bangs her spoon off the side of her bowl. When Mum puts an end to it by taking her bowl away, Lexy and Jaimie bawl the place down.
Enough is enough. I ram half a skinny slice of toast with a layer of lightly spread margarine into my mouth, wolf it down, grab my bag and hurry to the bottom of the stairs.
Through the crack in the kitchen door, I can see mum at the sink, wearing a manky pair of rubber gloves and the ‘Strongest Man in the World’ apron. She’s elbow deep in murky dishwater.
‘Mum, I’m off now… see you?’
Mum is staring out of the window, lost in her thoughts, almost as if someone has hypnotised her.
‘Mum?’ I ask again, but she doesn’t answer.
Oh no, it’s official I have turned into the invisible man overnight.
She’s staring out into the garden at a lone rusty bike and a ragged lawn that hasn’t been cut for over a month.
‘Oh sorry…’ she said. ‘I was miles away, Lexy kept me up half the night. Wouldn’t settle,’ she said, her eyes looking sore and red.
‘Right,’ she said, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Will you be alright today? Don’t worry about anything ok? I’m sure your Grandad will be fine. Things will work out ok in the end, you’ll see,’ she said, ruffling my hair. ‘Goodness me is that the time already? You better get going.’
Stepping out onto Poplar Street, a row of Edwardian terraced houses that stretch up a steep hill, overlooking the industrial northern town of Petersfield I can smell home. This place is all I’ve ever known.
Mum thinks I’m going to school but the sooner I get started at the allotment the better. A glowing pride that he’s entrusted me with this important task burns in my chest. I won’t let him down. I won’t let him down. I won’t let him down.
I peer into the distance, across rows of terraced houses, smoking chimneys and high rise flats. Towering in leaden skies, the old steel works rises on the horizon, standing silent and haunted.
To my left is a small parade of shops, including Sadie the Bra Lady’s Emporium and Barry’s Bargains. To me they’re just grotty, old boring shops, full of cheap tatt that nobody in their right minds would give a second glance to but Grandad is always so pleased to see them. To him they’re ‘green shoots of recovery’ and ‘symbols of hope. ‘There’s life in the old town yet,’ he’d say.
Beyond them on the corner is ‘The Hope and Anchor.’ A tatty, rundown pub that Grandad reckons ‘holds the community together.’ On pilgrimages there for his ‘medicinal’ pint of John Smiths, Grandad always affectionately refers to it as ‘the gateway to civilization and the western world.’
On one of his many trips down memory lane he often recalled his time as an RAF pilot in the Second World War. How they didn’t let him fly planes because his medical hadn’t stood up to what he called ‘over strenuous and unnecessary scrutiny.’ Whatever that meant. And he always insisted he’d been an big part of the war effort because he'd ‘peeled enough spuds to feed three armies.’
In the park, a scattering of crisp bronze, lime and golden leaves has already fallen. Autumn is my favourite time of year.
I cut through it. After an endlessly sweltering summer, the grass is the colour of the Sahara desert. I take a sharp right into Pavilion Street, next to the old cricket ground, where some of the houses stand empty and boarded up. ‘A crying shame. A scandal. They’re going to rack and ruin while people are sleeping on the streets,’ Grandad would say.
Fridays are obviously the day when the green fingered residents of Petersfield come out in force at the allotment.
I shout for Mr Wolsten to come and unlock the gate. In the time it takes him to limp over, a grey mist has sneaked down from the sky.
I pat my feet on the ground impatiently. Hurry up. Hurry up, you old goat, I haven’t got all day. The thought almost translates into words but thankfully, at the very last second, they hang on my lips and remain stuck to the roof of my mouth.
‘Well this is an honour,’ said Mr Wolsten swinging open the gate. ‘Don’t often see you here. Where’s your Grandad?’
‘Hospital. He’s poorly.’
‘Oh dear… sorry to hear that… nothing serious I hope?’
‘I err …’ I pause, not wanting to talk or think about it. ‘Won’t be long Mr, honest. Just got to see to summat for me Grandad.’
‘Alright, suit yourself,’ he grins as I bluster quickly inside.
I pass quickly through the allotment gate. Smoke from a fire hangs low over the allotment, omitting the earthy stench of burning leaves, wood and just the tiniest hint of winter.
On the side of the pavement three, men are busy erecting some sort of sign.
‘Over here looks as good as anywhere,’ said the small scruffy looking one.
‘No…how about here right near the entrance so people can see it,’ said the taller one.
‘Yes, I think you’re right Malcolm, good idea well done,’ said the smart one in a suit.
‘Ok, let’s do it.’
They heave the signpost up to a vertical position so it stands tall on the ridge of grass near the path to the entrance.
‘Hello Son,’ said the middle aged man in an expensive grey suit and flashy tie. ‘Nigel, pleased to meet you,’ he said, offering his hand to shake, his stubby fingers decked out with gold bling.
‘Hello,’ I said, my hand not so much squeezed but strangled by his grip.
‘You a regular here?’
‘Yes, I err suppose, I am.’
‘Don’t wish to be rude or anything but aren’t you a bit young to be coming to a place like this? Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your Playstation?’
Mum can’t afford Playstation and anyway she said she’d never get me off it.
‘Well, I’m just looking after it for my Grandad.’
‘Oh I see, well good on you, it’s a wonderful place, isn’t it?’ A valuable, thriving community space.’
‘Yes it is,’ I said. ‘Nice to meet you Mr err…’
‘Likewise son and the name’s Orpington. Nigel Orpington, Leader of Petersfield County Council.’
‘Wow,’ I thought. ‘Not every day you meet someone as important as the leader of the council. Wait till I tell mum she’ll be so proud of me.’
That’s what I want to be one day. Respected, wealthy, successful, important. I want to make Mum, Dad and Grandad proud.
‘And these two clowns believe it or not are my colleagues from the council Mr Alec Dudley and Mr Malcolm Moran.’
‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Right, let’s get on with it otherwise we’ll be here all day.’
Dudley is holding on to the sign for dear life, his face turning purple with the effort of holding it up.
‘Come on moron, hurry up! This thing is bleedin heavy.’
‘Its Moran, not moron you idiot.’
‘Yes, I know, ’ grins Dudley, ‘but I much prefer moron.’
‘Haha very funny. You think you’re so clever don’t you?’
‘Now, now boys, enough of the squabbling,’ said Orpington we’ve got a job to do here so let’s concentrate shall we?’
‘Yes boss, sorry boss.’
Moran, because he was the tallest, starts banging it with a large hammer. When it’s secured firmly in the soil Orpington checks it from lots of different angles to see if it’s straight.
‘That’s it!’ he said, giving it the thumbs up. ‘Perfect, gentlemen. A job well done. Looking good that should do the trick.’
‘Yesss,’ said Dudley to Moran as they high five each other like naughty schoolboys.
Watching them had been so entertaining I didn’t actually read the sign until they’d finished.
In big bold red letters it read:
And in smaller writing below it said:
Allotment land for sale by order of Nigel Orpington Leader of Petersfield Council. All allotment tenants hereby receive one month notice to vacate premises.
A thick fog rolls into my head. A darkness floods my veins. My heart threatens to thump out of my chest. My stomach churns over and over. Waves of heat boil up inside me, reddening my cheeks. How dare he put Grandad’s pride and joy up for sale? I’m going to kill Nigel Orpington. Slice him to pieces with my Luke Skywalker lightsabre.
I’m speechless. I stand rooted to the spot. Questions speed through my head like high speed runaway trains.
‘How am I going to explain to Grandad the thing he treasured most in the whole world, was about to be sold, gone forever?’
I start compiling a list.
Top Ten Most HATED things on the planet ever
(for not slicing Orpington to pieces with my lightsabre)
2. Nigel Orpington
3. Malcolm Moran
4. Alec Dudley
5. The Council
6. Heart attacks
8. Grandad’s Colostomy bag
On the way to Grandad’s plot, the shock at seeing the ‘For Sale’ sign gradually lifts with the gloom.
A lump the size of a tennis ball settles in my throat as the good times I’d shared with Grandad at the allotment come flooding back.
We’d walk there slowly, hand in hand. Him in his cloth cap, white string vest. We didn’t do much but I loved it. Most days, Grandad would have what he’d call a ‘siesta.’ This involved pretending to read his newspaper while having a sly snooze. He’d snore so loudly it scared birds away while I smashed snail’s shells with rocks.
Or we’d just sit and watch the day go by, while Grandad took quick snifters from his flask, smoked his stinky pipe or had private, deep and meaningful chats with his vegetables. ‘Did you know… vegetables are the best listeners in the world,’ he’d say.
Of course, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about our time together there. ‘Shhh…’ he’d say, with a wink and putting his fingers to his lips. ‘Keep schtum, or someone will put the kaibosh on it.’
Suddenly a bright blue sky is smiling at me. Summer appears to have made a comeback. Birds are chirping happily in the trees. Its like the place is talking to me. ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be alright,’ it says.
I’ve already been greeted by three spritely ‘hellos,’ from shed neighbours. Being treated like a respected allotment regular warms my heart and lightens my mood.
The plot is just as I remembered. The marrow sits proudly in the greenhouse glittering in the sun like a crown jewel on a pedestal. The pigeons are cooing happily behind the wire mesh of their coup.
The shed where I can find the food for the pigeons and the miracle grow stuff to take care of the marrow is suddenly right in front of me. And everything else is neat and tidy, in its right place. Just as it’s meant to be.
Except that is, for one thing. An old man I’ve never set eyes on before is labouring slowly up the path towards the shed.
Struggling with the weight of the junk, stacked high inside his shopping trolley he pushes it slowly, pausing for breath and taking a swig from his bottle. His filthy trench coat is a size too big for him. He stops, undoing the red braces and the piece of string around his waist that’s just about holding up his baggy black trousers. Fumbling at his fly to unzip it, he looks to the heavens, lets out a sigh of relief and pees on the ground.
‘Owerrr, disgusting!’ I shout. ‘You can’t wee there. That’s me Grandad’s cabbages.’
When he sees me, he zips up and hurries into the potting shed and slams the door behind him. I run up to the shed, try the handle, bang on the door and kick it hard.
‘Oi… let me in, who’d you think you are? You’re not supposed to be in there. It’s me Grandad’s place… I got to get in, I have to feed his pigeons.’
When there’s still no answer, I go round the side of the shed, stand on tip toes to see in but it’s no use. I grab a crate, wedge it up against it, climb on top and crane my neck.
Through the swathes of grime on the glass, I can just about make out the gloomy interior.
Flakes of skin are peeling off his strawberry nose. Wrinkles as deep as canyons furrow his dirty leather face. Bits of straw and twig poke out from under his trilby hat. What a fright.
The shadow of the old man’s slight frame stretches across the floor as he unrolls his sleeping bag. Shafts of sunlight expose the wiry silver coils of his bushy eyebrows and his long tangled beard, striking a devilish glint in his eyes.
For a while the old man lurches around awkwardly, as if he’s lost something. The soft hazy light illuminates tiny snowflakes of dust, exposing the nose, whiskers and beady eyes of a mouse. It sniffs the air and tries to wriggle free.
Before it can escape he traps its tail between finger and thumb, holds it above his head, leans back and lowers it carefully into his mouth. He hasn’t has he?
As he chomps, bones crunch and juicy flesh squelches. The tramp swallows hard and when he’s finished, he lets out a huge belch.
‘Owerrr! Yuk, disgusting!’ I exclaim, wobbling on the crate. I jump down just before I fall, turn on my heels and run as fast as I can.
The sound of him munching that mouse will haunt me forever. The last time I’d seen anything like that was when I was hiding in the cupboard at home watching Marmalade, the neighbour’s cat licking a mouse’s brains out. At least I didn’t have to go through that again.
I run and run and run. While my legs eat up the ground my mind wanders. There’s no way I’m going to be able to take care of Grandad’s allotment now. Not with that disgusting filthy, smelly, mouse munching tramp, sleeping in his shed. I won’t be back there again, ever.’
It took me half an hour to get home. It’s normal school finishing time, so Mum won’t suspect I’ve not been there. I sneak inside, closing the door behind me quietly, hoping she won’t hear me.
Floating down the hall into the kitchen, the sight of the tramp crunching the mouse’s bones is still superglued to my brain.
At the kitchen sink I turn the tap on, fill a glass to the brim with bubbling cold water, then gulp it down without stopping to draw breath. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, set it on the drainer and turn around.
Blocking my way is Mum in her shabby white dressing gown, tied loosely at the waist, her face twisted like she’s chewing a wasp. Uoh. She’s wearing her ‘I’m mad at you and I’m going to get to the bottom of this no matter what and nobody is going to stop me’ face. I take a deep breath, preparing for the worst.
‘I thought you were going to school today but when I rang to make an appointment to see Mr Kenton they said you weren’t there. So where did you go? I’ve been worried sick.’
‘Well I err..’
‘This had better be good young man or you’re in serious trouble,’ she said, edging her heel at an angle on the kitchen floor and folding her arms even tighter.
‘I err... I’ meant to go but something came up. Something very important.’
‘Important? What could possibly be more important than going to school?’
I could think of quite a few but on this occasion I thought it best to keep them to myself.
‘Well? I’m waiting…’ said Mum.
‘Nowhere…’ I said finally, finding it extremely hard to look her in the eye.
‘Just…. around… you know…the usual…’
‘Come on… spit it out …or I’ll box your ears,’ she hisses, grabbing my left ear between her finger and thumb and pulling hard.
‘Ow…. alright… alright… down the allotment. Grandad asked me to look after things while he’s you know…’
‘Did he now… well… I’ll be having words with him…’
‘Oh no…don’t do that,… it’s not his fault… he’s not very well.’
‘So you admit it then…? It’s all your fault?.’
I nod, close to tears.
‘Alex,’ she said in a softer, more sympathetic tone. ‘Look, you need to be concentrating on your school work not running after Grandad sorting his allotment out.’
‘Yes Mum….…’ I said.
‘I’ve a good mind to cancel your birthday party tomorrow.’
‘Oh… no you can’t do that. You wouldn’t, would you?’
‘Mmmm,’ she said, tapping her feet. ‘Believe me I’m tempted…. but I think it’s too late now isn’t it, all the invites are out and people have made arrangements. Besides with the worry about your Grandad you could probably do with a distraction. Saying that I’m going to have to ground you for the next two weeks.
‘Ground me? Two weeks? Ah Mum, that’s not fair. I was only trying to help Grandad.’
‘Now straight to bed with you… and no supper for you tonight. You hear me? Get up those stairs now!’
The day of my tenth birthday party should have been one I’d spend the rest of my life remembering, not trying to forget.
‘I know it’ll be hard but try not to think too much about Grandad,’ said Mum. He’d want you to have a great time. Promise me you’ll just enjoy it?’
I sort of half nod. I’d been looking forward to it for months before Grandad got ill.
When all my guests arrive on time, dressed in their Sunday best, I start to get excited. Kevin McKenzie’s even wearing a dickie bow.
They all bring ginormous presents, all wrapped up in jazzy, shiny paper which are stacked high on the kitchen table in a pile of big surprises.
Multicoloured balloons are scattered all over the floor, one or two have risen to the ceiling.
We decide it might be best to leave all the presents till later and as everyone is starving and can’t wait to get stuck in to the yummy stuff.
At the table for birthday tea everyone takes their places. I had sent everyone in my class an invite but only six people replied. Two of those sent their apologies: ‘something had come up.’ Obviously something a lot more exciting than my 10th birthday party.
Sally Wetherall, Elizabeth Jenkins, Kevin McKenzie and last but by no means least Ged Parkinson or the ‘ginger ninja’ as he’s better known at school.
Despite smelling like the inside of an old training shoe and a fondness for picking his nose and eating it, Ged had been my best friend since he came round for tea once and gave me a whole packet of football card stickers.
Mum has done us all proud with the tea. Sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, three kinds of fizzy pop, crisps, nuts and a plate of those chocolate whirly things I would give my right arm for. Mmmm. Yummy.
The ten candles on the cake, one for each year I’d been on the planet are all lit. All I have to do is blow them out and make a wish. I stare into the flames thinking there’s only one thing missing. The thing I want most. Dad.
As I blow out all the candles, I know its a bit greedy but instead of making one wish, I make three. For Dad to turn up ASAP (As soon as possible). For Grandad to get well ASAP and for the scary old tramp to disappear from the allotment ASAP. I know its a lot to have three ASAPs as wishes but I really couldn't decide between them.
Everyone's clapping and cheering. Then comes the embarrassing bit. Mum starts them off.
‘Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday dear Alex! Happy Birthday to you!’ they all sing.
‘Well done Alex.’ ‘Congratulations!’ Many happy returns,’ come the salutations, one after the other.
‘Where’s Dad? I ask.
‘I really don’t know Alex,’ said Mum. ‘Can’t think where he could have got to, sorry.’
I stare at Mum trying to detect if she’s telling the truth or not but there isn’t even the faintest hint of a clue. I thought maybe Dad might have gone on some last minute errand to find me the biggest birthday surprise ever but then I remembered, he’d promised me new trainers.
‘You know what he’s like, Alex? Probably slipped his mind, he’s such a scatterbrain. Maybe he got held up at work or something you know what they’re like there.’ Any excuse to spoil a young boy’s birthday party.
‘Huh… well it’snot fair is it? It’s just not the same without him and Grandad is it?’
‘Hey, we’ll have none of that young man. Not today. There’s still lots to enjoy,’ she said, desperately trying to make light of the situation.
‘We’ve got pass the parcel, musical bumps, pin the tail, slicing the cake, your birthday tea. So lots still to enjoy.’
‘I’m 10 Mum, not five and anyway he’s going to bring the new trainers, he promised.’
‘Well I’m sure he’ll be here any minute. Just hang in there.’
I really wanted to disappear under the floorboards when I discovered Mum hadn’t been joking about the party games. In fact, she’s so enthusiastic it’s embarrassing. I start to wonder if they’re for her benefit not mine.
Nevertheless and to my surprise there’s plenty of laughing and joking and everyone seems to enjoy them. Elizabeth Wetherall seemed to win them all. She’s good at party games.
After tea everyone goes bananas and I mean proper crazy. I think it’s all those E numbers and sugar. Mum’s always saying how bad they are for you. Me personally, I can’t get enough of them.
Mum plays all dad’s music afterwards. The playlist we always have in the car. There’s lots of soul, reggae, pop and indie on it. Thankfully the acid jazz he’s so fond of, appears to have been deleted. People get up dancing. Even me, though everyone knows I dance like an electrocuted chicken.
There’s a short interlude when Mum has to stop the music to answer the door. Kevin McKenzie’s dad has arrived to pick him up. He has to go home early as his Mum’s giving birth. How inconsiderate can you get? Giving birth on my birthday!
Every five minutes or so I wander over to the window to hold back the curtains and see if there’s any sign of Dad.
After about an hour, I give up and go into the kitchen for a drink. Eating cake and dancing can be thirsty work.
Mum’s sitting at the kitchen table, with a piece of paper in her trembling right hand. When I get closer to her I see tears, streaming down her face.
‘What is it Mum? What’s happened?’
‘It’s…. it’s your Dad, he’s… he’s left this note.’
‘What’s it say?’’
‘It says,’ she said, clearing her throat, ‘I’m very sorry but I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to go away for a bit and I don’t know when I’ll be back.’
For a minute or so, I try to digest the information and the full extent of its meaning. Questions linger on the tip of my tongue. ‘Has he gone forever? Will you be getting a divorce? Does that mean I won’t be getting any trainers?’ but stay there.
Mum bursts out crying. I give her a hug, hold back my tears, trying to be a ten-year-old man. I don’t know what to make of this. There’s an empty ache of disappointment followed by a hefty mule kick of devastation in my gut.
‘You sure? Did you check?’ I ask.
‘Of course,’ she said. He’s cleared everything out of his wardrobe, all his things are gone.’
‘What’s the matter? What’s happened?’ asks Ged Parkinson, who’d wandered into the kitchen for a nose about.
‘It’s Dad, ‘ I sigh, ‘He’s not coming to my party.. he’ll not be bringing my trainers in fact he’s not coming back at all… he’s left.’
‘Does that mean I can take his piece of cake home?’
I run out of the kitchen, up the stairs, dive onto my bed and burst into tears. Not only is my special day completely ruined. My dad has left us and Ged Parkinson isn’t even a friend anymore, never mind a best one.
That night lying in bed, the shadows on the walls grow darker and scarier than ever, like they’re closing in on me. I lie awake tossing and turning, worrying about Grandad. How could dad do that to me? I hate him. I’ll never speak to him again.
People are disappearing out of my life faster than Mum’s washing up water down a plughole and there’s nothing I can do about it. What was supposed to be one of the best days of my life had turned into the worst.