I was in a good mood. I marched down the concrete pavement with a vague smile on my face. The wind blew around me and the air felt fresh and cold. The sun was slowly setting behind me as I walked away from it. My bag was slung over my left shoulder and I clutched my folders using my right arm. The world felt good.
Tendrils of long, tangled hair whipped around my face. My scarf billowed all over the place. I was walking home from school. Other kids ran across the concrete, screeching and laughing. Others walked slowly in clusters, giggling and talking loudly. I overtook them. Often, I walked home alone, considering that all of my friends lived miles away. I didn't mind, the walk home gave me time to re-arrange thoughts. I was still in a good mood.
The road dips and curves crazily, making the whole village seem rather surreal at times. I turn into my cul-de-sac, wondering what would happen if my revolting neighbour (a rather snobby girl around my age) happened to get hit by a car. I played the different scenarios in my head, would I go get help? One of my other neighbours drives an ambulance. Maybe I could go and find them. Alas, it appeared that my ambulance-driving neighbour wasn't in, and Lisa was never hit by a car either. There's that fantasy spoiled.
My house stood ahead of me. It was quite-large and rectangular, partially hidden by a wall of ever-greens. The curtains were drawn wide and Dad's work-van sat outside on the short, sloping drive. I moved my folder to my left arm to fumble around in my coat pocket for my keys. Louise, the woman from across the road was unloading her car. Finally, I jam the key into the lock, and twist it around a bit. The lock clicks and the door swings open, I'm in.
The hallway is dark. Pale light filters through the window. I kick off my shoes and throw my folder and bag to the floor with a satisfying thump. My gloves are ripped from my fingers and my scarf is slung on the settee. I walk down the hallway and enter the lounge. Usually, it is a bright and spacious area. Not today. My father is sat tiredly in front of the television. Bright colours flicker across his face. He is a fairly large man, barrel-bellied, heavy shoulders, round face and greying hair. His hands fiddle with a piece of plastic, making an irritating clicking noise whilst he watches the telly.
"Hi dad," I say. I'm still in that good mood. He looks up at me from the sofa.
"Hello May, your mum's had to go down to London," he says.
"Okay" I reply cheerfully. It didn't really occur to me that she was supposed to leave on Saturday (three days from when this takes place). "I tell you what, it's cold outside," I continue with a bit of a shiver.
I leave the room and head into the kitchen. On Saturday, my mother was supposed to go down to London with my Nan. My Uncle Christopher's had a stroke and so mum was taking Nan to visit him. I pour out some cornflakes. I know they taste like cardboard, but I was hungry and I had forgotten to eat breakfast this morning. I've never actually met Uncle Chris. He's around fifty-two by my guessing, and from what I've been told, a bit of a nasty piece of work. The milk tumbled down into the bowl, swamping the cereal. I head towards the sitting room.
It's a poky little room with a computer, a settee, a large bookcase and a little television. I threw myself down onto the sofa, after carefully placing the bowl on top of the TV. I press the large button and the telly flickers to life. A large woman aged around fifty (plus) is cradling a new-born baby "It's such a special story," she says with teary eyes. Boring. I reach for the remote and change channels. I pick up my bowl of cereal. The spoon scrapes along the bottom as I attempt to pick up some of the soggy cornflakes with it.
I drop the spoon into the bowl. Oh bollocks. The spoon clangs against the pottery. Its parents evening tonight. I chew thoughtfully on my cereal, before rushing out of the room.
"Dad, it's a bit of crap timing for mum to leave now, its parents evening!" I say to him in a rush. We're standing in the hallway.
He shrugs "We'll have to miss it then,"
"Miss it?" I say.
"Your Mum's taken the car, we can't get there," says Dad.
"And it's illegal to go in the work-van;" I finish for him "Shouldn't we tell the school?"
"Nah, we'll just not turn up. I mean, come on, your Uncle is nearly dying, you've got enough of an excuse," Says dad. I raise my eyebrows.
"Nearly dying?" I said. Well it was the first I'd heard about it. It made me feel bad that I had totally forgotten about Uncle Chris. It shouldn't have really. It's not very hard to forget someone when you've never even met the man.
"Look, May, the hospital says that your Uncle's condition has worsened," said dad, his voice dropping slightly lower "that's why your Mum left today instead of Saturday,"
"Oh," So, it had finally dawned on me. "Well who's looking after Grandpa Joe? And that dog of Nan's?" I say finally.
"John's with Joe at the moment," I think that this was the moment that I decided that I wasn't in a good mood anymore. Nothing against John personally or anything, I just felt kind-of sad. "Have you been eating cereal?" Dad said suddenly.
I frowned "yeah?"
"What did you do that for? We haven't got much milk!" dad said. He actually sounded worried. I knew he was just concerned about his morning coffee.
"We'll just go and buy some more when we run out," I said with a shrug "Anyway, it's not as if it was specially rationed for your use only," He grunts and heads back to the lounge. I head back to the sitting room. I pick up my cereal and return to the little hypnotising box also known as the telly.
Eventually, Dad turns up in the sitting room. "What are you doing?" he says.
"Watching TV," I mutter.
"Haven't you got homework to do or something?" he asks, as if he feels it is the sort of thing he should say now that mother isn't at home. I pause for a moment. I know for a fact that I have a lot on my plate at the moment, but if I let him know that, he'll never shut-up hounding me all night.
"A bit," I reply. It's a compromise between an outright lie and telling the truth.
"Are you going to get it done?" he asks.
"Yeah," I mutter in return. Dad paces around the boxy room, examining the book-shelves.
"May, who's is this tenner?" Dad picks up the ten pound note to show me.
"Mine," I say.
"Can I borrow it?" Dad says. I stare at him. He's fifty years old and he's asking to borrow money of his fifteen-year-old daughter? Shouldn't he have grown out of borrowing money off people or something? If Mum was here, she'd never let him borrow it.
"What happened to your money?" I ask.
"Well you see May, I have scrimped and saved every last penny recently and I managed to make nine-hundred quid," he says. Well where's that money now? What's the point of this anecdote? I'm getting slightly impatient.
"Yeah…and…" I say in order to try and speed up the story-pace. He's says every word slowly and deliberately.
"Just let me finish this," he says. Apparently, my plan hadn't worked. "I saved up nine-hundred pounds and you know the mortgage?" I nod. "Well we've been finally able to pay it off, and my nine-hundred pounds got spent on that,"
"Are you sure mum hasn't left some money lying around?" I get up and go and search the lounge.
"Oh for goodness sake, just give me the tenner you mingy Jew!" Dad says. His voice is raised and it seems that he has lost his cool.
I blinked. The first two words that came to the front of my mind were "racist" and "twat" but I knew that they wouldn't help me in the slightest. They'd just start off another one of our arguments. I tried to take another approach. "Mingy Jew?" I said, in a tone of disgust. I knew that what he meant was that I was being a bit of a miser on the cash front. I wasn't so sure if he knew the other definition of 'Minge'. Probably, he did. After all, he is a plumber and has worked on building sites before.
"Yeah, a Jew that is mingy!" he shouted.
"Fine, just take the sodding money," I sighed and left the room.
"You should have just given it to me in the first place!" He shouts after me.
Thus is the beautiful relationship with my father. We can't be left alone together usually for more than an hour without starting an argument. Not sure how, it just happens.
"Dad, you're just stressed out," I say in a reasonable manner. Usually when we argue, Mum's there to calm him down. This means that today I'd better not make him too angry. It seems to be working, he appears to deflate slightly.
"Your Mum's stressed out right now," he says. We're back in the hallway.
"So are you," I say. Everything has calmed down as suddenly as it started.
"What are we having to eat?" Dad says. He looks at me expectantly, as if I'll suddenly procure some form of tasty and edible substance from the middle of no-where.
"I dunno, don't look at me!" I say in a joking sort-of manner. Dad walks into the kitchen and begins to raid the freezer. It's filled to the brim with food, but neither of us know what to do with it. We then turn to the tin cupboard.
"May, do you fancy having some beans on toast?" Dad says, shuffling through the various tins.
"Alright, sounds easy enough," I say with a shrug.
Then Dad gives a gasp. He sounds like he's hit the jackpot. "Hey, look what I've found! Chilli-con-carne! That's a proper meal isn't it?" he says excitedly.
"Don't you need meat and stuff to make Chilli?" I ask concernedly.
"Nah, it's all here in the can! Have a look," Dad says, handing me the tin.
I skim-read the label. "So it is," I say simply. To be honest, I probably should have been far more concerned than I actually was. Chilli-con-carne in a can? It's bad enough when you make it from scratch!
"Alright, we'll make some rice to go with it and we'll be sorted," he says with a laugh. "May, I'm sorry about calling you a mingy Jew, it was a bit…"
"Totally racist against Jews," I fill in for him.
"Er, yeah. I don't really hate Jews, it was just one of things that everyone said when I was a lad," He says. "I don't think you're mingy either,"
"You used to call people mingy Jews when you were a boy?" I said.
"Yeah, we used to say stuff like 'as tight as a Jew's wallet' too," he said. To be honest, I don't think he looked particularly proud of it either.
"You little brat," I said to him. He laughed. He was a good head taller than I was too, so it was kind-of weird to be able to call him a little brat. "So…how are we cooking the Chilli?" I asked.
"In the microwave," he automatically replied.
"And how are we cooking the rice?" I asked.
"In the microwave," he said once more.
I frowned. "They won't both fit into the microwave,"
"We put them in one after the other," I wondered whether he could actually see the word "stupid" flashing behind my eyes.
"We can't do that. By the time we've cooked one, the other will have gone cold," I said.
"No it won't," he replied. I don't think it had quite registered yet.
"We're going to have to cook the Chilli on the hob," I said "It can't be that hard," I grabbed a mug from the kitchen sideboard and a big Pyrex dish. Placing the mug in the centre of the dish, I began to fill the mug with rice, the way I had seen mum do it so many times before. When the mug was filled, I emptied it into the dish. The noise it made was pleasant. The kettle was bubbling merrily in the background.
Now what was I supposed to do? Isn't rice supposed to have salt in it? I grabbed the salt pot and made sure that a great deal of salt was sprinkled over the rice. It was then, that an echo of my mother's voice, came to the forefront of my mind "now add just a pinch of salt," Bugger. Ah well, never mind, it's a bit late now to be worrying about that. The kettle clicked off, and I emptied the boiling water over the tiny grains of rice.
"How long should we shove it in the microwave for?" I asked. My dad glanced at the rice packet.
"Er…put it on for ten minutes," he said.
"You sure," I asked.
"God May, you're driving me mad. You're worse than your mother. Yes, I'm sure," He said. I pressed the buttons and the microwave began to hum pleasantly.
Dad left the room and returned to the lounge. I stared after him. Thanks a bunch for your help, oh father of mine. In case you haven't noticed, my dad is terribly old-fashioned. He still believes that women belong in nurseries and kitchens. I wonder if he's noticed that I'm almost as bad (possibly worse) at cooking as he is.
I pull open the tins of Chilli-con-carne and the contents slides out slowly, landing unceremoniously in the pan with a 'plop'. I begin to wonder whether the stuff that Nan feeds her dog with looks anything like this. It's red-brown coloured, lumpy, complete with 'meaty chunks'. I fiddle around with the knobs at the front of the cooker and manage to get a light under the pan. It hisses loudly, maybe I've turned the gas up too much. I turn the knob labelled 'front left' and the hissing decreases. It wouldn't do to have the Chilli cook before the rice.
I find a large metal spoon and begin to stir the slop. I like our kitchen. The walls are bright yellow and it always looks really cheerful in there. The microwave beeps and Dad enters the room. He thinks that the slop (a.k.a Chilli) smells nice. He opens the microwave, forgets about oven gloves and picks up the boiling dish of rice. To his credit, he didn't drop it. However, he did say "OUCH! It's hot!".
"Well, that's what tends to happen when you put things in the microwave, they get hot," I said.
After examining the rice with a fork, he decided that it needed cooking for an extra six minutes. I decided to turn the Chilli right down as it was bubbling ominously. Finally, the rice was ready. Only, Dad had left it cooking for too long, and it looked rather squishy and sticky. Dad called it "light and fluffy". I'm not sure whether it was me or him he was trying to kid.
We sat down at the dining table, as we always do in our house. "you know, I think you left this rice cooking too long," I said.
Dad said "ugh! I think you over-cooked this Chilli!" in retort. There was a pause as we both looked down to examine our meals fully. It looked like there was a promising chance that the Chilli-con-carne was going to eat us before we ate it.
"You know, I think what we've done is made a really crap meal," I said at last.
"I think you're right there," Dad said with a laugh.
"Are you going to eat yours?" I asked.
"Don't fancy it," Said Dad.
"I didn't think so. I tell you what, you make the sandwiches for tomorrow, and I'll fill the dishwasher," I said at last. Dad got up from the table, and I followed him into the kitchen. "We should have made beans on toast," I said with a laugh.
"Right again," said Dad.
At around ten o'clock, Mum telephoned the house to tell us that she was coming home. Dad was sat in the dark, in front of the television again. When I asked him why he never switched the lights on, he muttered something about saving energy or some other crap. If he really wanted to save energy, he'd switch off the bloody Telly. He told me to go to bed, and I couldn't be bothered to argue.
I walked into the kitchen, grabbed a measuring jug and turned on the tap. The water hammered down on the base of the sink. I held the jug under the heavy stream and allowed it to partially fill.
Mum's bonsai tree needed watering whilst she was gone. I picked off the dying leaves and fed the nice green ones with water. I smiled as the water sunk quickly into the soil. I was a tree god, in a way. I placed the bonsai happily on the window-sill.
Steadily, I climbed the stairs. I flicked on the light-switch and the landing was flooded with light. I may be too old to be afraid of the dark, but I couldn't help but naturally prefer to be in a well-lit room.
I turned right at the top of the stairs, into my bedroom. As per usual, it was impressively untidy, strewn with clothes, books, musical instruments and I think there was even a body-board and a set of paints buried in there somewhere. The walls were a painfully bright shade of orange. They were quite bare too (for a teenager's room) I only had one poster up and that's about it.
I dug through the clothes and pulled out my pyjamas. They were pink and faded. I changed quickly, but I didn't want to go to sleep. I wanted to wait for Mum. I walked out of my room and perched on the top of the stairs. Through, the banister rails, I could see the front door. It stood there, as bold as brass and not budging an inch. I wondered why mum was coming home. Maybe she was going to go back to visit Uncle Chris on Saturday, and she had insanely important things to do on Thursday and Friday.
It was then that the scary fantasy world of 'what if' began to slide into the back of my mind, working its way inside. It opened up all sorts of insane variables that could happen at this very moment. Just this afternoon, it had been, 'what if Lisa was hit by a car?' I don't care about Lisa. I care about my Mum.
'What if Uncle Chris has died?' I could see it now. Mum stepping into the house, wiping her feet on the doormat like she always does. Her eyes are all red and puffy, her hands are trembling. That's just really horrible. I didn't want to think about it.
'What if Mum and Uncle Chris had an argument?' Mum steps into the house with a sigh. Her skin is all flushed, eyes are sore. Mum had refused to speak to Uncle Chris for years. He was a trouble stirrer, pathological liar, total bully. He used to beat her up and lock her into the coal-shed for hours when she was small. It must be hard to come face to face with the same man, wasting away with self-inflicted problems.
'What if Uncle Chris had taken a turn for the better?' Mum wouldn't need to stay at London. Maybe that was why she was returning home, exhausted. Mum was taking a very long time. Where was she now? An image flashed at the front of my mind. A dark Motorway. 'What if the car had crashed?' A screech of brakes, the car spinning out of control. God. Too awful to imagine.
The door rattled as Mum inserted the key. There was a click and Mum stepped onto the doormat. She was a short, plump lady, with rosy cheeks and blond-turning-grey curls of hair. She was wearing mostly wearing cream. She just stood on the doormat. Her usually strong, assertive posture was slumped with exhaustion and weariness. All of a sudden, I was worried. I raced down the stairs. They creaked and groaned beneath me. I had to see if her eyes were red and puffy or not.
"Hi Mum," I said. She looked up. The whites of her eyes were streaked with tiny ribbons of blood vessels.
"Hello sweetheart," Mum said. I didn't want it to be true. Since when do 'what-if's ever come true? Maybe her eyes were just red from having to keep them open from so much driving. London was quite a long way away.
"I watered your bonsai for you," I said in a childish manner.
"What?" she said.
"I watered you bonsai...Oh never mind. You look like you need a drink," I say. My voice sounds reasonably normal. That's a good thing.
"Yes please, I'll have a coffee," she says. Her voice is laced with gratitude.
I walked into the kitchen. Through the doorway, I watched my Dad come into the hallway and give my Mum a hug. She told him she loved him. She then picked up the phone. I think she was calling Nan. She sat alone in the dining room, the lights were off, and spoke in a hushed voice.
I put a spoonful of coffee granules and a sweetener in a mug. Dad came in, asking me if I would make him a hot cocoa. I had to remind him that we barely had enough milk for one cup of coffee. The kettle boiled once more and I added the steaming water to the cup, giving it a stir or two before adding the milk. I may not be able to make Chilli, but I could make one heck of a coffee.
I grasped the mug handle with my right hand, carrying it steadily to the lounge. Inside, Mum had switched the lights on and was talking quietly to Dad "…and there was a young-ish man there (who was obviously a drinker) who was very upset about Christopher's death..." Had I heard that correctly?
I stepped into the lounge, handing Mum the coffee. "You're not going to visit Uncle Chris again, are you?" it was almost accusatory.
Mum looked at me, before pulling me into a hug of my own. "Oh sweetheart, I thought your Dad told you, Christopher's dead," It was like a curtain being pulled from my brain, so that it could finally understand. I shook my head mutely.
Dad turned his head at me. "I did tell you! I told you earlier a bit after you came in!" He yells. I look at him.
"Just shut up okay!" I shout back.
"I told you!" he roars.
Mum sighs. I don't even know why he's yelling this at me. "Ryan, stop it, she obviously didn't register," she says. Dad glares at me.
"I'll just go to bed then," I say at last. Dad had said that Uncle Chris was nearly dying, practically dead. It should have clicked that if someone is practically dead and in critical conditions, they're probably going to be dead in a very short space of time. I had just spent my entire evening in denial.
I'm in my room, lying in bed. Its dark and the streetlights outside make patterns on my walls as they shine through the curtains. I can't sleep again. The house is silent once more. Tonight would have never happened without him, so here's to Uncle Chris. I never met the man, but even when he's dead, he manages to stir discord. I have to thank him for that much.
Author's note: The events which occur in this story are taken from random events that have happened to me in real life that have been all mixed up to create new peoples and places. Believe it or not, someone really did call me a 'mingy Jew' before, and so I figured that it would suit the impatient, mouth-before-thought character of Ryan. Ultimately, because of the elements of truth sewn into this story, I dedicate this to Steven Davidson, who died on the 17th January 2007. Thanks.