HER father opened the door and she looked down at his crotch before she stepped inside. He did his little shuffle backwards, battered slippers huff-huffing on the carpet. Stained carpet, she reminded herself. Old and stained and probably stinking. Social services promised new, but when? “We have a lot of houses, Samantha, but we will get round to your dad’s,” to which she replied, “Forget it, we’ll buy our own.”
And of course, they would. They just hadn’t got around to it.
“What did you have for lunch, dad?” she asked as she dumped a bag of shopping on the kitchen table. More huff-huffing as he caught up with her.
“I had…” he started, and then frowned.
She looked at his face. Watery blue eyes, and eyebrows that made her think of fallen trees. Wispy grey hair no longer brushed. She fished a tissue from her coat pocket and dabbed food and saliva from the corner of his mouth. “Maybe I can tell from this.”
“What was it now?” he murmured.
It was social services food, meals on wheels. And what did it matter anyway? He was eating, and that she supposed was a small mercy in itself. He was still deep in thought when she pushed past him and opened the fridge door. The fridge was nearly empty. She took out a carton of milk and opened it to smell it. “Dad, don’t you know when milk’s gone off?”
“Potatoes,” he said.
“It’s always bloody potatoes.” She tipped the sour milk down the sink. “Social services haven’t heard of rice.”
He appeared to consider this. She put a fresh carton of milk in the fridge then retrieved a cream slice that was beginning to turn green. “I thought you said you were going to eat this?” When she’d finished there was a pile of food in the bin and fresh in the fridge. She handed him a newspaper and put the kettle on. All the cups in the cupboard had brown stains on the inside and so she scrubbed two clean before she made them both a cup of tea.
“Lamb,” he said, and something jumped inside her. She turned and searched for something in his eyes, a flicker, a sparkle, something she might have imagined even yet once seemed real enough. She knew she’d made a mistake.
“Lamb with potatoes!” he told her in triumph.
We went to the park today, just you, mum and me. You like the roundabout, which is a shame because it makes me sick. There’s no way I can get on there with you, Samantha. I just push you round and round, and you say “Again! Again!” – only you really say “’Gen! ‘Gen!” – and so I push you some more. Poor Sal, she must get bored! We watch you go round and round and because you’re laughing I can see your first teeth coming through. I love your little red boots, and the way your hair waves in the sunlight. You remind me of autumn when I was a kid. And, I’m really not sure how to put this, but when you laugh it just makes me feel that little bit more…alive.
Yesterday I got a postcard from the lads out in Majorca. Of course it was a dirty one – just as well you’re not old enough to know. Sal doesn’t approve of my mates sometimes, but they’re just a good laugh. Just doing what twenty-somethings do. They think you’re amazing. They say things like, “If I’m going to have one, I want one just like your Samantha.” But they’re too busy drinking and clubbing, I reckon. I still go out with them sometimes but when I do I carry a little picture of you around in my wallet. I reckon they think I’ve gone soft, I’m not “one of the lads” anymore, but what do they know? I tell them all about you and I can see them looking at me. That look, like, has he gone mad or something? Become an old fart overnight? I suppose I was the leader of their little gang once, or one of them anyway. But like I say, what do they know?
There is ONE thing I won’t tell them. In fact I don’t even think Sal knows. You know you got Sleepy Sheep wallpaper in your bedroom? Well, I was looking at it the other night, and I called you “My little lamb.” And that’s just what you are, Samantha. My little lamb. You giggle when I say it. And now I’ve got this feeling the name’s going to stick. But it’ll be our secret for now, eh? Just between you and me.
There was a thick layer of dust on the wooden fireplace. Dead skin cells. The wedding photo still faded in its gaudy brass frame. She lifted it and flicked the duster over it, mum and dad unflinching, smiling in all their finery. And another framed photograph, her as a child on a playground roundabout. She hated the photo because it made her sad. She flapped the duster up and down the fireplace and followed it with sharp bursts of polish. She hesitated as she stepped away, realising she hadn’t put the photo of her back straight. Now you couldn’t see it properly from dad’s armchair. Oh hell, it would do. It wasn’t like dad would notice anyway. She could hear him huff-huffing behind her. That bloody shuffle of his. Why didn’t he just sit down, for Christ’s sake?
“I got this,” he said. She heard the plastic rustle of a window envelope. More tedious officialdom she would have to deal with.
“Just leave it a minute while I give this place a bit of a clean.” She turned round and glared at him when she realised he hadn’t moved. “Dad, just sit down and drink your tea!”
There was the look of childish hurt on his face now, the same look he adopted whenever she raised her voice to him. Did he know he was doing that? She began moving the pointless brass ornaments on the hearth, clattering them around to drown out the sound of his slippers on the carpet as he shuffled over to the sofa. It took him an age to sit down. When she pushed the vacuum cleaner round his feet she noticed both hems of his trouser legs were frayed. She’d promised him new trousers but he never went out anymore, so it didn’t seem important. But then, all this cleaning, all this organising paperwork, all this…this looking after…none of it seemed important. It all went unrecognised, unheard. It was her hidden life, one she did not speak about. “I’m off to dad’s,” she would tell her husband, and her friends knew nothing at all. All this mundane busyness under one tiny roof, in the middle of a town, in the middle of nowhere, for a man who couldn’t remember five minutes ago. Was it important to clean the fireplace, to straighten a photograph? No, and it was no more important for dad to have new trousers.
“There we go,” she said, snipping the loose threads from his trouser hems with a pair of scissors. “Don’t want you falling again.”
She wore gloves to clean the bathroom, and heaved when she tackled the toilet. He often missed when he managed not to wet himself. Wanting to be sick reminded her of long ago, and she pushed the memory away. She pictured her daughter playing for the college hockey team, cheered on by dad, but no mum. Not today. Not most days. Mum had her hands down a dirty toilet.
“I got this.”
He was standing behind her with the envelope, and there was a dark stain spreading down his trouser legs.
This has been the worst day, the worst day of all. You’re still locked in the bathroom. I’d like to think you’re too ashamed to come out. But Sal says she could hear you being sick just an hour ago. For God’s sake, Samantha, when are you going to learn?
You’re determined to ruin this family. Not to mention yourself. We go through this every Saturday now; you come home whenever you feel like, you don’t tell us where you’ve been, or who you’ve been with. You spend hours with your head down the toilet. We’ve seen that look on other people’s faces before, Samantha. That ghost look, and blackened eyes. We know what you’re doing. We might be oldies to you, but we’re not stupid. You refuse to talk about it, and the more you shut us out, the more worried we are. I’m scared. I don’t know what else to do. That’s why I hit you. Hit my own daughter. Just writing it makes me hurt so much!
I think back to last summer, our last holiday together. I know you want to go off with your mates now, and no doubt you will, and do…well, do the kind of things I did when I was your age. It’s right that you should. But you’ve still got your whole life ahead of you, all the time in the world for these things. Last summer you still seemed happy to be with us. Of course you’re growing up, and we knew this would happen one day, we knew you would start to live your own life, one we couldn’t be part of. But it’s all been so sudden, Samantha, and…and, all so much.
What’s caused you to self-destruct like this? I’d like to think we’ve done all we can to give you a good start in life. Well, we’ve fallen short somehow. Sal’s downstairs and she’s supposed to be watching TV – well, she is, but with the sound down, because she’s listening out for you. And I’m in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for you to come out. Are you hurt? Should we call a doctor, even if that means the police getting involved? I don’t care if it does. I love you, Samantha. I just want to look after you. Please come out of the bathroom. I won’t hit you this time, I promise. Please come out and tell me everything is ok.
She dropped the bleach, snatched the envelope from him and stormed out of the bathroom. There were three words running through her head and she wanted to scream them. Can’t do this. In the bedroom she found clean underwear and another pair of trousers. Pressed neatly amongst the clothes was a thin pile of twenty-pound notes. She laid the clothes out on the bed along with a box of tissues and ignored the money. Can’t do this.
“Where’s the envelope?” He was shuffling into the living room.
“Dad, get out of those wet clothes and put these on!”
“Dad, just get in here and do it.”
“Where’s the envelope?”
She sat at the kitchen table and held her head in her hands. Huff-huff-huff the slow shuffle behind her. The envelope screamed at her from the table, white and red, white and red, IMPORTANT, THIS IS NOT A CIRCULAR. Snatched from the table and opened, unfolded, several pages, white and RED, court summons, served this day, this court, outstanding, unpaid, £587, sign, sign, PAY NOW.
Can’t do this.
The chair fell back as she leapt to her feet and went into the bedroom. He was slumped against the bed trying to get his trousers off. “When did you get this?” She stood over him, waving the letter, trying to block out the smell of urine.
“What is it?”
“It’s a court summons, dad. You’ve been getting bills for something we didn’t know about.”
“A man came…”
“I don’t remem…”
“Jesus, dad! Do you know how serious this is?”
Blue eyes with nothing there. He looked up at her, thinking for a moment, and then said, “Where’s the envelope?”
When she looked at him again his head was lolled to one side. She watched as tears welled in his eyes and a small drop of blood formed on his cheek. “Don’t you do that!” he snapped at her. She blinked and looked down at the letter, still pressed in her hand, creased from the pressure in which she held it. The staple in the corner was bent slightly, with one metal pin sticking out and red smeared on the paper beneath it.
“Can’t do this,” she muttered. She waited, as if there might be something more, then turned slowly and left. He watched her go, listening to the huff-huff-huff of shuffling feet on the carpet.
I can barely breathe. I can hardly stand it. You’re leaving home today. You’ve bought a house with your boyfriend and you’re moving in together. I should be happy for you. This should be a happy day. But we finally had our talk. The one we should have had years ago, when you were ill and we were terrified of losing you. I thought you needed to know the truth, and so now I’ve told you.
I hated you, for what you did. The day I hit you, I didn’t do it just because I was terrified. I did it because of what you did to me and Sal. The pain you put us through. The worry. All those days and nights when you never came home. You were our daughter, Samantha, and yet you had become someone else. I hated you. And after, the hours and days of looking after you, the scares, the constant worry that we could lose you at any moment. I resented how it took over our lives.
And now that you’ve battled your way out of the mess, and you’re leading the life we hoped you’d have, there is still bitterness between us. We may never speak about it, but it is there. Maybe it will heal over time. What I do know is that I love you, Samantha, and that will never change. You will always be my baby, my daughter, my little lamb.
She sat in dad’s armchair, staring at the fireplace, and blinked tears away. Staring back at her was the photograph of her as a child, on a roundabout, red boots and wild wavy hair. Laughing. She thought about the photograph for a moment, frowned, then stood up and went back into the bedroom where her dad was sitting on the edge of the bed. He’d managed to get into his fresh clothes.
“Let me see the cut,” she said. “Do you want a plaster?”
He said, “I don’t blame you for being angry.”
She thought about asking him if he had straightened-up the photograph of her, but he wouldn’t remember. Instead she promised to deal with the court summons and then kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll get these clothes washed,” she said. “And don’t forget there’s a cheesecake in the fridge, and cream. I’ll pop round tomorrow to clean the kitchen, and we’ll have some cheesecake together. Okay? How about that?”
All this mundane busyness under one tiny roof, in the middle of a town, in the middle of nowhere, for a man who couldn’t remember five minutes ago. Was it important to clean the fireplace, to straighten a photograph?
Yes. It was the most important thing in the world.
- Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved