Fiction: Due to Be
By Jack Barton
It’s outside. Garden!!! Now. I will show you. I am not hiding.
For years, fourteen to be exact, I have belonged to my parents. I am a thing to look at and raise money for. A growing fungus under observation, hidden away when friends are over for a dinner party: every third month on the first Friday. Fellow men and women, let the wine flow without restraint; when pissing, avoid the room on the left upstairs.
I am poked at and played with on weekends, spoken to if I am lucky. As long as I am growing there is no concern for my safety. I step out of line and I am reminded of who is in charge.
It’s a good childhood. It could be much worse.
An invitation appeared under my door, unsigned, inviting me outside. It’s from my father. He is waiting for me in our garden. A gentle knock to get my attention; stirring out of sleep into the warmth of my duvet; I will not go outside into the dark, my first rule of embarking on a night-sea journey.
Give me a second while I invent the minute. He’s angry with me. Garden is the perfect site for his magnum force. He will punish me: this I am certain of. Nobody will believe me when I tell the tale of my markings.
I am well behaved. Punished to insure I do not commit a crime. In my early years I was taught how to act in advance of stupidity. It didn’t sink in. They both hoped it would sink in, but it didn’t.
A whistle from outside.
Get a move on, I am waiting, the whistle said. Quiet enough so I could hear it. A half-remembered tune.
O, Annalise, my own private Mamu, I will return to you shortly. Shelter your hands while I am gone.
In my head, I sung the correct version of the tune he whistled. That’ll show you. My note-for-note perfection not inherited from my father, clearly.
When I eventually start my journey to the garden, I will move like a corpse. In the sister room and the parent room, light sleepers are arranged like booby traps. The fungus room, where I sleep, is the only safe place at night. Dad got downstairs without waking mum. Must be an expert. I hear him sneaking secret whiskeys in the early hours, sipping mouthwash afterwards. Quiet he thinks. We’ve all heard him. The next morning, we say nothing, eat our sodden cereal, afterwards I’m school bound, toothpaste hardening on my wispy moustache. I know he’s drunk outside. Swaying, it sure is difficult to stay upright at this hour. Building up the courage to punish me in front of an empty forum. He will miss the first lash; it will be my duty not to laugh unless I want a punishment harder than warranted.
He was not a drunk I would find out later. Didn’t drink in secret while we slept. Not a drop since the nineties. We don’t drink, never did, mum attested when I asked where the booze was, I was preparing a pasta sauce, a characteristic activity of my culinary twenties.
I remember him drunk in what I would later call my childhood of sorts.
I need to get a move on. I had no sense of urgency. I have no sense of urgency. I will wait and wait and wait in the stillness. The note is there. So sleepy I thought I dreamt it up for one good moment.
I have committed a crime; I am sure of it. In his eyes, a crime is something, anything I have done that makes him feel ashamed. He should be more ashamed of himself than I, for it was he who instilled in me these behavioural norms. It is his fault I am urged to seduce them and take them for a ride.
I will be punished for what I have done. Fittingly, thank God. Confiscation of my favourite possessions if dad isn’t home from work. I know all the hiding places. If I wanted to, I could check each one until I found what was taken from me. This would only dimmish my mother’s reliance on values that, she believes, are integral to good parenting.
I cannot think of a crime committed in the past 24 hours that has gone unpunished. Perhaps, in the drawers beside his bed, my father keeps an account of my misbehaviour. If I have been well behaved for a stretch of time, and he has gone too long without a wallop, he could check his accounts and find an excuse to excoriate.
I was grounded (couple nights, no big deal) for knocking Gracie’s cup of tea into her lap while she was reading: book and dress ruined. Dress will have to go in the machine now, stained, you’ll replace her book, she can’t read it now, it’s coming out of your pocket money next week. Maybe Mum hasn’t told him yet. She will often misplace details of my crimes. In her eyes, one punishment for one crime is plenty. Mum restricts; I prefer these restrictions over the other. Dad will wallop in response to the week’s accrued damages. What boy wants to be beaten by his father?
Gone are the days of martyrdom.
I am still in bed. I haven’t moved since spotting the letter appear under my bedroom door. I have imagined my movements. As of yet, no concrete plans to use my two legs to stand and walk. I let my imagination run free, I let it do the walking for me. If my father loved me, he would greet the imagined version of his son, he would strike the imagined version of his son. From now on, I will send a copied version of myself to confront my father whenever necessary. He will not be able to tell the difference and I will get off scot-free! Bingo!
Who am I kidding? I have to face up to what I have done – what I have done, I am not entirely certain of. O, take me home, back to Annaliese. I am safe, with her hand in mine, pulling me up from dirt.
Ok, the whistling has stopped. Returning to paradise; I am released from a descending spiral.
Annaliese held out her hand for me to grab. I recognised her from school. What was she doing in here? She rode horses, spoke highly of her horse-riding teacher who had students in the national championships last decade. My hands are muddy, I realise, as I lift my hand towards her.
‘Sorry. My hands are muddy.’ I say.
She is not bothered by mud. She is not afraid of a grubby palm.
Annaliese, face in the mud on her first riding lesson, more concerned about the handsome chartreuse jodhpurs handed down to her by her mother, lifts her palms to her horse-riding teacher, who last year had a student in the national equestrian tournament.
She pulls me up and hands me a damp chartreuse flannel fit for my grubby palms.
‘Thank you.’ I say. ‘I’m sorry my hands are so muddy. You can have it after I’m done.’
‘I don’t need it. I wipe my mud elsewhere.’ She says.
Looking down at her five digits, without an ounce of concern, she examines the messiness of her hands and shrugs, shrugs and wonders off, leading the way.
‘Come along. Work to be done.’ She says.
Again, she offers her hand. My hand clean, hers now dirty. My dirt on her hands. She doesn’t seem to mind.
She takes my hand and doesn’t let go this time. I am no longer prey to horizontality, as my father would say. I am upright and on my way with Annaliese, blonde hair, muddy hands, somewhere I don’t know. I don’t mind that my hands will be muddy again. My mum will tell me off but I am holding Annaliese’s hand, blonde hair, muddy hands, rides horses, and she is taking me somewhere secret. I am not to tell anyone, Annaliese told me. She is taking me somewhere secret.
Off we went into the distance, earlier I couldn’t see what was over here. I see now that it is just more of the same thing. I don’t mind the boring landscape, couldn’t tell you what I am looking at. All that matters is that I’m holding Annaliese’s hand. She is like a big sister to me. A sister with a warm hand that makes my hand feel safe insider hers. It is our dirt now. All that matters is that after the fall came something good, a hand reaching out for mine, a hand that belonged to a girl with blonde hair, she rode horses at the weekend.
‘Are you riding your horse today.’ I say. We are about to enter an empty car park; the bike rack is full of bikes from the cyclists riding through for the big race. They stopped off at the local café for milkshakes and fizzy sweets. I overheard one cyclist say that only on bike rides am I allowed to eat this much sugar, the average male does need not as much energy as one fizzy worm provides. I will remember this fact for a long time. In fact, I think I have heard it before. Long ago. There is no harm in remembering the same thing repeatedly.
‘No. My horse is not riding today.’ She says.
‘Why can’t you ride today? Is your horse poorly?’ I say.
‘No. My horse is not riding today.’ She says again.
I don’t mind that she repeated herself. As long my hand is warm and being held my Annalise’s hand, I don’t mind that she repeated herself.
I need to be reassured that she is not angry at me for getting her hand dirty. No. She reassured me once already. I will just replay her reassurance on repeat until we arrive.
A whistle, round the corner. Surely not. Not here, not with Annalise. It’s Father. We are holding our hands together. I squeeze tight. Mud connecting. What tune was it? Hard to make out. He’s coming. Up the stairs, he’s coming. Hide your money, jewellery and wives. That tune being whistled, something off an old ‘45. Inherited, found in a greening briefcase: it carried in it, before lying in dusty storage, birth certificates of all seven children. To keep safe in case of emergency. A crime to forget a birth date or place. The names will always be inside.
I’m in the garden now, but I’m not with my father. Well, I am with him. I can see him. He doesn’t know I’m here. I’m hiding off in the distance, behind our pride and joy: the half-dead apple tree. I see him crouching down in a squatted position, his elbows resting on his knees. Yoga fiend, apparently. Something I was unaware of until now. Night-time baring more fruit than I can stomach.
We are not an apple eating family. They grow, drop and rot, natural fertiliser, fertilising a tree whose existence remains uncertain. I am careful where I rest the weight of my contents. Clandestine, is a word my father taught me, and is appropriate when appointed to this scene. I heard it in an Outkast song and never bothered to look up its definition.
A wrong move and the jig is up. I came to observe, see what he looked like knowing I would come outside. Every so often, he will begin again the tune meant to lure me outside. I have never stood behind this tree before. I see, behind our shed, a punctured football I thought was lost in the neighbour’s garden: wedged between its splintering roof and the bordering fence panel. Punctured, but not beyond repair. Perhaps the rescue and redeployment of the exiled football would stitch back our relationship. Under the current circumstances, that idea is probably just positive thinking.
His pose shifts in stages. Never at a complete stop. A cartwheel, his leg pointing at the moon for what seemed like a minute. I had never seen him move at such a reliable pace. I saw glimmering the string operating his left knee, where the joint is. I noticed more string guiding his other joints. My father, the human puppet. It would not matter if I approached him and received my fateful punishment, he is not himself tonight. A replacement father. I could get used to this.
The puppeteer is unskilled, Body is not moving like my father moves. I could highjack, but I don’t want to get involved, I run the risk of exposing a personal moment. I was tasked with survival after I dodged the proposed confrontation, an age since it was slid under my door.
I made in my mind several adjustments that could make my father appear more lifelike. Just in case I am ever offered the role, I understand the requirements of the position more than most. A high-jacking is unwise, if history has taught me anything. In Citizenship at school, we are discussing what makes a British citizen attractive to prospective employers. The British part is important to one’s success in the modern job market: this was the third bullet point in the first slide of the plain white background PowerPoint used to deliver the lesson. I refused to write this down by breaking the lead in my pencil and stamping on my pencil sharpener; I almost organised a coup with me and my mate from Algeria, but we quickly decided against this; pizza was being served for lunch in the canteen; and we hadn’t yet had our history lesson on political coups and wouldn’t have a clue how to stage one.
His movements are becoming lifelike. I am scared to interrupt any natural growth my father is going through. The natural deterioration of movement cannot be paused, or made fallible, through force.
Give me a pregnant pause while I invent the bated breath.
I wonder what he would do, given a chance encounter with my puppeteer. Would he spit? Shake me uncontrollably, perhaps? For I am not in charge of where I end up after my legs cease to move. Fall to his knees, in pain that fatherhood is an illusory flight deck. I pray that he will never know what it feels like, that he has never been summoned to the abyss by his father and shown the cogs that make the clock tick, a second at a time.
I think of Annaliese. Trapped up there. I should’ve left a light on for her. Not that it matters. If only she knew where I had to be tonight. She would take control. Offer me her hand. Locate a secret passage out of here; she knows how to make a secretive exit. My back pocket, inside a diary, where I keep track of key dates and events, it’s a fairly new technology, one I wish to invest in when I have saved up my pocket money from now until Christmas. Not long to go. Annaliese, she should’ve known in my diary I had scheduled an event for this evening. Come to think of it, this was not what I had in mind when I wrote ‘playtime with daddy’ in the diary. Perhaps, I had imagined a trip to the course (golf) to play a few holes, chat about mum and when her life departed from our agreed upon understanding of decency. Common ground: we should share it and never debate it. Father and son are born with common ground. The father enters the mother, the son exits the mother, thanks to, and only to, the father and all of his entrances.
In uncoordinated increments, my father’s head turns towards the tree I am standing behind. I hadn’t noticed, indulging in fantasises as I so often do, that I started to pant like a dog chasing after a ball it will never know the colour of. Green, the colour of all tennis balls. Too big for some dog’s mouths. He hadn’t whistled in several minutes.
We look at each other. I am fulfilling his wish. He gets down on one knee and beckons me to him and we embrace; I hold on to his full-size man body, not wanting to let go. He gets down on one knee and beckons me to him and tells me about his childhood, he wonders how his upbringing is affecting my own. He gets down on one knee and beckons me to him and he says he has some regrets, about what I am unsure. He gets down on one knee and beckons me to him and asks what we should do at the weekend, if there is somewhere I am desperate to go.
My breathing has slowed. I can relax now. In my palm are car keys. The keys to our car in the driveway. Got hold of them somehow. I can go anywhere, just like daddy said. The road to Annaliese up in the sky. I’m struggling to remember the colour of her slippers.
Should probably head back to bed. A night awaits me.
My dad will wake up and go about his day. I will wake up and go about my day. We will resume without alteration. Unless… The invitation is still tucked into my pyjama breast pocket.
A quick visit to the Sedan parked in front of our house, a family car.
On the passenger seat I leave my father a note. An invitation inside.
I honk the horn three times just to see what would happen. An upstairs light turns on in a house opposite ours. A young child, in burning blue pyjamas, peeks through the curtains and looks in my direction. It could be anyone of the cars on our road which made the sound. A brave soldier, if ever I saw one.
Jack Barton is a PhD student from Norwich, UK. He writes short fiction in his spare time.