Hide and Seek
Kit has the day off school. He says his teacher’s on a horse. We’re at Fat Vicky’s Café. Though we shouldn’t call it that. Full English Breakfast and a cup of strong sweet tea. We eat in solemn silence. Purposeful. Voracious. Clean our plates. Lick them dry. Literally in Kit’s case. Metaphorically in mine.
We stroll towards the pier. Lured by the soundtrack of the sea front. Indeterminate Europop. The incessant clink of coins. Lights and bells and buzzers. The stale warm fug of cigarette smoke and despair. Killing time. He’s with me for the morning; with Daddy in the afternoon. We head home for lunch as planned. Handover lunch. Daddy, Mummy, Kit. Without his brother. The undivided attention of both parents. An unimaginable treat.
Except that nobody’s at home.
Kit says ‘I hate Daddy. He should be here.’
He said he would be. Absolutely. I envy Kit his anger. His four-year-old’s clarity as to parental obligations; to right and wrong. I’m worried that Daddy is here; cowering in the corner, curled up like a foetus, crouching in the dark. Hiding from his reality; his family; his life.
His therapist has told him he’s reverting to his childhood. A text book reaction to stressful situations. To run from responsibilities. Revert to childish ways. I am powerless to prevent it. His retreat to childhood’s darkest places. In his dark mind; in our damp house.
Perhaps he’s dead. Slumped in the bath; lying on the bed. Tablets taken. Wrists slit. The ultimate escape. He’s probably just hiding. From us. From me.
I settle Kit in front of Star Wars and search the house from top to bottom. Check the attic and the garden and the basement and the bit below the archway that sits underneath the pavement. He isn’t here. He’s out.
Kit’s right. I hate him too.
She’s wondering if everybody knows. Knows he’s left; knows where he’s gone. If he confided in his friends. She can’t quite think who they are. Ellie-on-reception? Graham-in-the-pub? Her mother-in-law? His brother? There’ll be an innocent explanation. A holiday. A work trip. Something he forgot to mention. Something she forgot to hear. She’s talking nonsense and she knows it. Chasing rainbows. Clutching straws. He hasn’t taken any luggage. Not his suitcase, not his passport. They’re expecting him at work. They’re not unsympathetic, but it’s a busy time of year. They don’t want to press her, but they could really do with knowing when they might expect him back.
She’s not sure how long she can keep going, keep it up. Buying an extra chop for dinner and putting it in the freezer. Describing imaginary symptoms with Ellie-on-reception. Discussing every detail of an illness which is ill-defined and never quite gets better. Being garrulous but vague.
She’s being daft. It’s only been a couple of days. In any case, he’s earned it. He never takes time off sick.
Lester Mancini is shouting down the phone. Yelling. Properly yelling.
‘Where the fuck are you?’
‘At home.’ I say. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Then get your fucking coat on. Get out there talking to the residents. Before the fucking rumour mill gets completely out of hand.’
I say ‘You told me not to talk to residents.’ I’m wincing as I say it. I know how weak it sounds.
‘I told you not to go making promises. That’s a completely different thing.’
I say. ‘I can’t. I’m sorry. Kit’s at home off school.’
‘There are protesters on the field. They’ve had a fucking photo shoot. It’s all over the internet. They’ve had a special T shirt printed’.
‘T Shirt?’ I say weakly.
‘Don’t Pave Our Paradise’
‘Sorry?’ I say
‘It’s on the fucking T shirts. Don’t Pave Our Sodding Paradise. In big red capital letters.’
‘Oh.’ I say. They must be freezing. We don’t usually get T shirts. We’re used to banners, placards, letters, threats. This lot have got their act together. Slogans, T shirts, on-line profile. The project’s barely even started. I’m impressed.
I say ‘We could just leave them to it and let them die of hypothermia.’
‘We can’t start looking like we’ve gone to ground. I need you there tomorrow morning.’
‘There’s a design meeting first thing.’ I say. Relieved to have the upper hand.
‘Fuck.’ Says Lester. ‘I forgot.’
He’s not invincible. We’re quits.
It takes three days for him to call. She tends to ignore the land line: the sales pitches, the crank calls. She leaves those calls to Billy. Leaves him to find out that he might be a lucky winner. That he may well be entitled to a refund. On a financial product that he never knew he had.
She is upstairs doing the ironing. The ironing! As if anybody cares about the creases on her clothes. Still it’s important to keep up standards. Maintain routine. It’s not like Billy to let it ring so long. She’ll never make it down the stairs in time. She shouts ‘Get that will you Billy. Tell them Mummy’s not at home’. Billy chats away. Bloody Cold Callers.
Linda shouts ‘Who is it?’
Billy says ‘It’s Daddy.’
It occurs to her he may have called before. Christ, she thinks. What kind of wife am I? My husband’s disappeared and I don’t pick up the phone. She makes a mental note to answer it in future.
She is oddly calm. She shouts ‘I’d like to have a word.’ Cool as you like. As though she knows exactly where he is; where he’s been; when he’s coming back. She switches off the iron. Places it on end. It wouldn’t do to start a fire. She can hear Billy saying ‘Mum’s just coming’. And so she is. Slowly. Step by step. This could be an important conversation. She is buying herself time.
My mother arrives at tea time, with mildly surprising gifts. Gherkins for me; batteries for Sonny and soap-on-a-rope for Kit. Their Dad gets a tapestry cushion, with an elephant’s head on the front. She says ‘I know how much you like elephants.’ She is solemn and conspiratorial. He doesn’t know what to say. It’s not that he doesn’t like elephants. He just hasn’t given it much thought.
It’s hard to believe that she’s made it herself. The detail is quite extraordinary. The expression on the elephant’s face. The light and shade on the tusks.
She says ‘Is Daniel OK?’
I say ‘He’s fine. He’s just feeling the pressure. He’s having a difficult time at work.’
I know exactly what she’s thinking. He’s a photographer. How hard can it be? All you have to do is point in the right direction before you press the button. You couldn’t call it stressful. You couldn’t really call it work.
I try out the truth in my head. ‘I’m not sure he’s working at all. He goes off in the morning and comes back at night. Christ knows what he does in between.’
She says ‘And what about you? How’s it going?’
I say ‘It’s a hell of a job when you’re tired. Everyone knows we need houses. But nobody wants them next door’.
She can’t think of an excuse to dispatch Billy. She’s never been a great one for thinking on her feet. He is hovering in the background. Doing that thing he does. Where he pretends he’s looking at the telly but you can tell he’s catching every word. She will be civilized and adult. Ask him when he’s coming home and what he’d like for dinner. She will forget the whole thing happened. Life will carry on.
Billy has left the receiver on the armchair. Upside down. ‘Hello’, she says, ‘How are you?’ She can’t make out the answer. A crackle, a click, the sound of disembodied voices. She is determined to be dignified. Calm in front of Billy. She says ‘How was your day?’ No-one answers. Resolve gives way to panic ‘Where in God’s name have you been?’ She shrieks. Now there’s no one there at all.
She stares at the receiver. And then she turns on Billy. ‘Where the hell is Daddy? What’s he doing? Where’s he calling from?’ Billy looks quizzical. Mildly surprised at his mother’s sudden change of temper. He considers for a moment. He’ll tell her everything he knows. ‘It isn’t me he’s left. It’s you. He says he’ll come and get me any time I want.’