Black mountain

It is 2016. I am an old man now and have returned, after thirty-one years, to what is left of my grandfather’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Lord Krishna’s birth place.

I am sitting on a moss-covered stone slab that would have formed part of the grand stair before the house was gutted by fire and abandoned. There is much shade, many trees have grown where there were once rooms, but where I sit there is a patch of bright sunlight and it is warm.

Leaning back against a half-pillar, I shut my eyes and find myself thrown back thirty-one years to the mid-seventies when Ravi, my son, almost a year old, was taking his first unsteady steps.

It had been a hectic three days crammed with feasts, old friends and new faces. On the fourth, Sanya and I escaped the socializing and took a lift to Mathura, spent the day wandering through the market, sitting in chi shops, playing with Ravi, reading. Around tea time, wanting to eek out our time together, we decided to walk the few miles back to my parents’ house rather than take a taxi.  Ravi, like many small creatures, loved being high up, and sat on my shoulders like a tiny grinning Buddha. A faint tingle brushes my neck like an echo – even now I can feel his chubby thighs bouncing and rocking cowboy-style in rhythm with my steps.

It was early spring; a green fuzz was forcing its way through the cold soil, but still it would be a few weeks before a tangle of wild flowers cloaked the hillsides. The track curved steeply at first, giving us a long view of the river as it rose gently towards the falls. We must have been walking an hour when Sanya twisted her ankle. Although it wasn’t a bad sprain – indeed, she could hobble reasonably well with the help of a short branch – but it was beginning to swell – it would not be strong enough to take her home. So we sat on the verge in the softening sunshine to wait for a lift. No cars came. The road petered out after my parents’ house – there was still a link to the main Delhi road but it was seldom used.  We knew Ravi would soon be tired and once the sun dipped behind the mountain it would be cold. I decided to return to Mathura – if I met a car, well and good, if I didn’t I would be back with a taxi before dark.

Ravi waved the tiny fingers of one hand at me while he toyed with Sanya’s breast proprietorially, putting her nipple between his teeth like the butt of a cigarette, wagging his face from side to side so it tickled the inside of his lips. I kissed his forehead and ran. It was steep in places and stony – I can still recall the giddy feeling of almost catapulting head over heels, my legs unable to keep up with the building momentum.

 

I found a cab on the outskirts of the village. The driver was lounging across the bonnet, smoking a bide, and waved me away. He was waiting for a friend, he said, as he nodded towards a young blue-turbaned sheikh, carrying a food bag. After they’d eaten, he said, they were heading home to Delhi – couldn’t wait to leave what he described as ‘this hell-hole’. I pulled out my wallet and rifled through a wad of notes, taking out three times the normal fare. It wasn’t far, I said, and they could join the back road to Delhi without doubling back. He agreed and I climbed into the back seat.

Sanya was sitting on a rock. The sun had left this side of the mountain and she was cold, had been straining for engine sounds for the last ten minutes. As I opened the car door and received a wriggling and delighted Ravi into my arms, I noticed how the sheikh eyed up Sanya, saw the way he disapproved of the western bias of her dress.

At first we headed towards the house; then, with no warning, the driver swung a left into an old quarry, forced a gear-crunching three-point turn and roared back the way we’d come accelerating dangerously whilst barking at me to shut the hell up. As we swung down the Delhi road I turned around, hoping to see a car or truck to whom I might signal for help, but all I could see was the glare from the sun reflected in a blizzard of orange sand. After a few miles, he threw a left. I was very scared by now – I knew this track lead to a precipitous dead-end. I could feel Sanya shaking beside me and Ravi was beginning to whimper.

Then the road disappeared into vapour as the headlights beamed off into nothing. The sheikh slammed on the brakes, stopping just metres from the edge. Immediately he climbed from the car and sauntered to the door beside Sanya. I punched down the back locks and he pushed his face against the window to leer at Sanya. Ravi began to cry. Kicking the door in frustration he returned to the driver’s seat, reached bellow it and pulled out a bottle of whisky.

‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you…’ He shouted, gulping back the liquor.

Sanya and I locked eyes – she was near to tears, her hands shaking out of control as she unfastened her blouse for Ravi to suckle. ‘What is it you want from us – money? Here take everything I’ve got.’ I held out my wallet.  I hadn’t noticed before that the driver had small pointed ears and his long greasy hair had begun to unwind from the hard black knot on his head. He took my wallet, pushed his hair from his eyes with feminine affectation and counted the notes, slipping them into his pocket before tossing the empty wallet back over the bench seat. Then he lurched towards Sanya and made a grab for her blouse. I pushed him off, snatched up the stick that Sanya had used, and raised it to threaten him.

‘Steady up’. The man held up his hands as though offended – as though he hadn’t meant anything by it. Then he began to giggle, slapping one hand over his mouth, while the other rammed the bottle up against his friend’s chest. I was grateful that Sanya was bent over Ravi, unable to see the fear in the boy’s eyes, as he drank obediently.

‘Take us back; I’ll kill you if you hurt her – take us back and we’ll not say anything – the baby needs changing – come on, take the money, man – just take us home…’ I pleaded.

But the driver just laughed, snatched the bottle from his friend and drank some more. ‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you.’ He mumbled taking several gulps. ‘Why you so boring? The night is young – you’ve already made us late – we will have the party together – just the five of us. Here!’ He thrust the bottle towards Sanya, but jerked it back, wagging his finger, tut tutting at her, laughing, drunk some more.

The turbaned cracked some lewd jokes – coaxing him to think of the women in Delhi he could buy with the money they had.

But his friend was having none of it. The drink had focused his frustration, he wanted the girl first – once he’d had the girl he’d go back. It was simple, and to make sure everyone understood he got out of the car, dancing and booing at all the windows before lifting the bonnet to remove something from the engine. After he’d settled himself behind the wheel, he grinned toothlessly at us all and turned the ignition. An impotent whirring filled the car.

There are some moments in one’s life, in most people’s lives, when its continuation hangs in the balance – I believe that this was one such moment. The boy who gets his arm caught between two rocks, or the climber who crashes through the ice and into the void – there are times when the odds seem too heavily stacked. I saw in that moment, my wife raped, my son smashed against a rock, and myself thrown into the abyss.

But the instinct to stay alive was strong. Words we didn’t think we knew bubbled up and soothed the madman. Or Ravi would stop crying and do something funny – the driver would throw his hands in the air to show us how crazy he was being, pat his friend on the back, kiss him, shrug his shoulders, beg our forgiveness and climb out of the car. Each time we held our breath as we pictured him replacing whatever he’d removed beneath the bonnet, but time after time he came back grinning, wagging his finger at us as though we’d nearly tricked him, as though he’d almost fallen for it. He would shake the back door, start boxing his friend who would whimper and silently fold into the corner of the passenger seat – god knows what horrors he’d witnessed this man commit before. And there were long moments when he cried and wept, either for himself or for us. Once he stretched out a hand to stroke Batuk… but Sanya recoiled, just a fraction; and he’d reared up and slapped her face, lunged to take Batuk from her until the turbaned one dragged him off. At times everyone was crying; at others some sort of intimacy emerged as if raw emotions swithering around would slip into anyone who’d give them expression for a while.  And then, out of the blue, after a long exhaustive slumbering silence he announced he was taking us back.  We sat up, wiped our filthy tear-stained faces as if preparing to meet someone important and watched, too tired for cynicism, too tired to really take it in, just a stirring of faint hope as we strained to see through the windscreen, building to a ripple of intoxicated expectation and childish eagerness as he got back behind the wheel and fired up. I gathered Ravi to my chest – the change of rhythm had woken him and I didn’t want him to cry.

But instead of backing up he slammed his foot on the accelerator.

In a shattered second I flicked off the lock, flung the door open, pulled Sanya after me and started to run, Ravi’s cries muffled against me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back – we just ran, ran for our lives up the black mountain – ran as though we had wings, ran forever…

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Salt cuts in Winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off soon enough. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan!) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him. She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

I should have gone for help… if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, going… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

Salt cuts in winter

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off within weeks. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.  

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh. 

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money Mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground. 

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice. 

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself preparing to sprint home for help, but my legs wouldn’t work.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

I should have gone for help… if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible….

It was then I stood up, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates and saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back, picking up his bag of snowballs, going… But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything. I swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

Adam and Batuk were sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine. 

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if we went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

Salt Cuts in Winter

 

Back then, there was snow in winter, in the eighties – loads of it and that Christmas holidays the cobbled streets of the colonies were packed hard. Despite the weather many residents rode bikes to get around and the tyres cut dark salt gashes through the glassy pavements.

I lived at number 23 Bell Place with my brother, Adam, and my parents.  I say Adam, because technically he lived with us, but it didn’t feel like it. He’d been away a whole year, been awarded a scholarship to a posh boarding school in the middle of nowhere and we were all dead proud. At least we were meant to be – proper celebrities – no one in our street had been away to school before and for a bit it was exciting.

But that wore off within weeks. Adam kept writing, asking us to let him come home. Mum tried to be brave, tried to believe he’d get a better job in the end, like everyone said – be happier. But my life felt over. Adam was as much a part of me as the house was, or my room – or anything at all. Once he’d gone, I had no-one to play with, no-one to make apple-pie beds for and no-one to share those secret looks, the ones that got us through our tea when Dad was in one of his moods. And then we got a letter to say that he’d made a friend, and asked if he could bring him back for Christmas, and we were all chuffed to pieces.

Batuk had never seen snow before – he came from a desert, he said, where there was only sand. But for me, in the beginning, the snow meant it was like living in my beloved Narnia and I would often pretend that Mr Tumnus was about to hop out from behind a lamp post or imagine I could hear the dreadful queen whooshing towards me in her sleigh.

But then it stopped snowing, froze at night and froze in the day and Edinburgh soon turned into some sort of snowman cemetery, or so Adam said, as he poked around in the dirty heaps. Snow body-parts, we called them – of all shapes and sizes – discarded scarves, mittens and hats snaking through drifts or hanging from branches like funky snow fruit.

On sunny days we’d work the snow into slush and make ice balls, filling polythene bags with them, pelting unsuspecting passers-by from behind parked cars. One time, while Adam and me were replenishing stock in the back garden, Batuk chucked one at Dad just before he turned down our path – he hadn’t seen him get out the van, didn’t know his clumping walk, didn’t recognise the great coat or his woolly hat pulled down hard. The nut of ice caught his cheekbone. Batuk rushed to apologise, but Dad barely looked at him, balled Adam out instead. Now of course it’s easy to imagine what my father must have felt (an Enoch Powell fan) when this dark skinned boy got off the train with his son, how humiliating it must have been  – the whole street would have been mutterin’ – and with the way things were, he most likely thought Adam had done it on purpose.

But whatever unpleasant undercurrents may have been swirling through the house those holidays, I felt none of them – not at the start. All I knew, was that my brother was back from boarding school for a few weeks with his friend, who was unlike anyone I’d met before – a kind funny exotic prince, quite different from all the other hateful boys in the street.

Most days we would go to the park. Although Mum usually came with us, that day we were alone.  The coalman was due and she needed to pay him She gave us money for hot-chocolate and told us to be good. The park was grim: butchered snow families were everywhere making it look like one of them mass murder scenes from off the telly, except funny. For a while we sat on the bench beside the swings, pushing our breath out in long funnels of smoke. The sky was heavy like lead, like a monstrous wave held back by the row of trees running along the top edge. We pictured it bursting through, gathering us up like so many dolls, splattering us against buildings, carrying us cartoon-like through the city and out into the Forth.

We were early. It could be a couple of hours before the local kids trickled in with their mates and probably not till after lunch before mums with pushchairs would swap a bitter hour in the cold for a little peace and a blether.  To pass time, we decided to make a body-part camp. Within the hour we had a solid triangular fortress and a mountain of ammunition.  We would wait for the enemy – any enemy, but none came.

We fooled about on the swings for a while. Then I remembered the money mum had given me, asked if I could be the one to buy hot chocolate from the café on Dundas Street. I felt so made up; as I left the park they whistled at me, cheered and whooped. How my heart nearly burst from the sheer joy of just being me and being part of them.

So much has happened since then.  I shift my weight to my other side and put my feet up on the stool. Been married four years, about to drop my second baby. I’m double the size with this one. If it’s a boy, it’ll be Adam, we’ve settled on that at least. Adam junior. It’s almost five, his lordship will be home in an hour – I’ll need to put the tea on. Ten more minutes, then I’ll get up.

Seriously though, that may have been the last time I ever felt like that.  So a part of everything, so, so complete – even now with a baby on the way it never feels like that – most of the time it’s all just one big hassle.  I don’t do philosophy, leave that sort of thing to Mum, but I can’t help wondering all the same if  that’s when everyone gets their last taste of it, happiness that is, around ten or eleven  – before all the shit starts to really sink in, before you clock stuff about life that drowns all that rubbish once and for all. Like an inevitable part of growing up.

I must have been about ten minutes getting the chocolate. I’d just gone through the gates at the end of the playground fence. I could hear shouting coming from behind the wall high above the side of the park that runs along the lower end of Scotland Street. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, just sprays of snowballs fanning out and crashing onto the grass, but instead of vanishing into the snow like our ones did, small stones rolled and bounced across the frozen ground.

I recognised some of the voices though: lads from school – lads Adam would have known in primary. Then Adam and Batuk streaked across the grass towards the camp, covering their heads with their arms to avoid the loaded snowballs and I sneaked over the path to see better, to reassure myself that this was still fun. It was then I saw Danny, just his profile, caught in the cobweb of bare branches.

Danny was about fourth oldest out of seven, eight maybe – still at school.  I didn’t know that much about him, but I knew enough to be scared, too scared to do anything but edge closer into the fence and duck down behind some sort of evergreen bush. Nine faces I counted then, nine in all. I couldn’t see the camp, not fully, where Adam and Batuk were, but I could see them, thugs, not boys anymore, as they filed out through the gap in the wall. Could see them swagger and hear them laugh, could see the bulging poly bags thumping against their sides like a warning. Then half way down the slope they bunched up. I couldn’t make out what they were doing, but when they turned around, some of them were pinching their noses or bending over, hands on knees like they were steadying themselves against a strong wind, started shouting and pushing each other down the icy cobbled path.

I squatted lower, pulled back deeper into the undergrowth and watched them pelting each other with snow, jamming great glupes of the stuff down their jumpers and shirt fronts, whooping and laughing, swearing like their owned the place.

‘Cooeee Adam?’ That was Danny’s voice.

I saw Adam wave – felt his blush.  One of them began making Red Indian noises, his hand fluttering against his mouth. They tiptoed towards the camp, exaggerated, trying not to giggle.

Heart thumping in my jaw I found myself creeping backwards along the fence making it through the gates and across the road, unconsciously preparing perhaps for a sprint home for help.  One of the bigger lads stopped and kicked out at the fortress. Others joined in. Then Batuk stood up and gave them his wonderful open brave smile. I shut my eyes then, covered my ears, tried to imagine myself invisible, but I couldn’t shut out Adam’s voice, yelling at them to stop – to leave him alone, nor could I shout out the chanting ‘Pa-ki, Pa-ki Pa-ki’ over and over.  Too frightened to look but looking anyway through a crack in my fingers, I saw some of the others turning away, coming straight for me, sniggering.  And all the while behind the sniggering I could hear the choking and sobbing and then someone, probably Danny, issue orders to shut him up, and then a yelp. I wanted to run over but I was too scared. One of them started battering the camp wall again – taking a couple of quick-march steps my way and then turning back, putting the boot in, snow spluttering out, turning and turning again. But then others looked scared, I could tell, looking round like someone might see them…

It was then I stood up. What were Danny and the others doing? I should have gone for help…if I’d gone as soon as I’d seen them coming down the hill, as soon as I saw Danny, I might have been back by now with my mum but I didn’t, and now they were doing something terrible…. Miserable I slumped down the wall, and hugged my knees.

But then suddenly four of them were striding towards her, heads sunk into their chests. I raced round the corner. They hadn’t seen me, and once they were out of sight I flew back into the park, slipping back under the bush, kicking over the bag of cold hot-chocolates as I pushed through. What lads were left were looking around, no chanting now. I saw Danny, laughing, doing up his fly, slapping his mates on the back. But I couldn’t see Adam, couldn’t hear anything.  I knew they were leaving, so I stood up, swung my scarf over my mouth and nose, pulled my hat down, jammed my fists into my pockets and made straight for the camp, right past them.

They were both sitting on the ground with their knees into their chests staring down. I did the same.

‘You okay – did they hurt you?’

As they stood up they said they were okay – that they were fine.

‘So tell me.’ I said going crazy with not knowing, looking for clues, bruises or cuts. But they just shrugged, said not to say anything to Mum, made me promise.

From then on I could tell they didn’t want me around. They’d stay in Adam’s room most days, Batuk teaching Adam the guitar. Mum never minded the racket, but come evenings or weekends, if I was in the front room reading I’d watch Dad’s face with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  At first he’d look up once or twice with a shrug of tolerance, then he’d tut tut a few times shaking his newspaper but it wasn’t long  before he’d leap out of his chair, grab the poker and bang on the ceiling, shouting at them both to get out the house. My heart would quicken, perhaps they would take me with them this time – but they never did; they’d go quiet for a bit, that was all.   Batuk still smiled at mealtimes, bobbed his head politely, but I began to see it as pathetic rather than sweet. So that was it really, something was over. The only time he’d go out was if they went as a family.

In the end their presence was an irritant.  I couldn’t wait for them both to shove off back to school. You could tell they were pleased to be packing, and having them around was like having a cut that won’t scab. When Mum heard me crying the night after they’d left, I told her I’d had a bad dream.

 

 

Black Mountain

 

It is 2016. I am an old man now and have returned, after thirty-one years, to what is left of my grandfather’s house in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Lord Krishna’s birth place.

I am sitting on a moss-covered stone slab that would have formed part of the grand stair before the house was gutted by fire and abandoned. There is much shade, many trees have grown where there were once rooms, but where I sit there is a patch of bright sunlight and it is warm.

Leaning back against a half-pillar, I shut my eyes and find myself thrown back thirty-one years to the mid-seventies when Ravi, my son, almost a year old, was taking his first unsteady steps.

It had been a hectic three days crammed with feasts, old friends and new faces. On the fourth, Sanya and I escaped the socializing and took a lift to Mathura, spent the day wandering through the market, sitting in chi shops, playing with Ravi, reading. Around tea time, wanting to eek out our time together, we decided to walk the few miles back to my parents’ house rather than take a taxi.  Ravi, like many small creatures, loved being high up, and sat on my shoulders like a tiny grinning Buddha. A faint tingle brushes my neck like an echo – even now I can feel his chubby thighs bouncing and rocking cowboy-style in rhythm with my steps.

It was early spring; a green fuzz was forcing its way through the cold soil, but still it would be a few weeks before a tangle of wild flowers cloaked the hillsides. The track curved steeply at first, giving us a long view of the river as it rose gently towards the falls. We must have been walking an hour when Sanya twisted her ankle. Although it wasn’t a bad sprain – indeed, she could hobble reasonably well with the help of a short branch – but it was beginning to swell – it would not be strong enough to take her home. So we sat on the verge in the softening sunshine to wait for a lift. No cars came. The road petered out after my parents’ house – there was still a link to the main Delhi road but it was seldom used.  We knew Ravi would soon be tired and once the sun dipped behind the mountain it would be cold. I decided to return to Mathura – if I met a car, well and good, if I didn’t I would be back with a taxi before dark.

Ravi waved the tiny fingers of one hand at me while he toyed with Sanya’s breast proprietorially, putting her nipple between his teeth like the butt of a cigarette, wagging his face from side to side so it tickled the inside of his lips. I kissed his forehead and ran. It was steep in places and stony – I can still recall the giddy feeling of almost catapulting head over heels, my legs unable to keep up with the building momentum.

 

I found a cab on the outskirts of the village. The driver was lounging across the bonnet, smoking a bide, and waved me away. He was waiting for a friend, he said, as he nodded towards a young blue-turbaned sheikh, carrying a food bag. After they’d eaten, he said, they were heading home to Delhi – couldn’t wait to leave what he described as ‘this hell-hole’. I pulled out my wallet and rifled through a wad of notes, taking out three times the normal fare. It wasn’t far, I said, and they could join the back road to Delhi without doubling back. He agreed and I climbed into the back seat.

Sanya was sitting on a rock. The sun had left this side of the mountain and she was cold, had been straining for engine sounds for the last ten minutes. As I opened the car door and received a wriggling and delighted Ravi into my arms, I noticed how the sheikh eyed up Sanya, saw the way he disapproved of the western bias of her dress.

At first we headed towards the house; then, with no warning, the driver swung a left into an old quarry, forced a gear-crunching three-point turn and roared back the way we’d come accelerating dangerously whilst barking at me to shut the hell up. As we swung down the Delhi road I turned around, hoping to see a car or truck to whom I might signal for help, but all I could see was the glare from the sun reflected in a blizzard of orange sand. After a few miles, he threw a left. I was very scared by now – I knew this track lead to a precipitous dead-end. I could feel Sanya shaking beside me and Ravi was beginning to whimper.

Then the road disappeared into vapour as the headlights beamed off into nothing. The sheikh slammed on the brakes, stopping just metres from the edge. Immediately he climbed from the car and sauntered to the door beside Sanya. I punched down the back locks and he pushed his face against the window to leer at Sanya. Ravi began to cry. Kicking the door in frustration he returned to the driver’s seat, reached bellow it and pulled out a bottle of whisky.

‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you…’ He shouted, gulping back the liquor.

Sanya and I locked eyes – she was near to tears, her hands shaking out of control as she unfastened her blouse for Ravi to suckle. ‘What is it you want from us – money? Here take everything I’ve got.’ I held out my wallet.  I hadn’t noticed before that the driver had small pointed ears and his long greasy hair had begun to unwind from the hard black knot on his head. He took my wallet, pushed his hair from his eyes with feminine affectation and counted the notes, slipping them into his pocket before tossing the empty wallet back over the bench seat. Then he lurched towards Sanya and made a grab for her blouse. I pushed him off, snatched up the stick that Sanya had used, and raised it to threaten him.

‘Steady up’. The man held up his hands as though offended – as though he hadn’t meant anything by it. Then he began to giggle, slapping one hand over his mouth, while the other rammed the bottle up against his friend’s chest. I was grateful that Sanya was bent over Ravi, unable to see the fear in the boy’s eyes, as he drank obediently.

‘Take us back; I’ll kill you if you hurt her – take us back and we’ll not say anything – the baby needs changing – come on, take the money, man – just take us home…’ I pleaded.

But the driver just laughed, snatched the bottle from his friend and drank some more. ‘Shut the brat up, I’m warning you.’ He mumbled taking several gulps. ‘Why you so boring? The night is young – you’ve already made us late – we will have the party together – just the five of us. Here!’ He thrust the bottle towards Sanya, but jerked it back, wagging his finger, tut tutting at her, laughing, drunk some more.

The turbaned cracked some lewd jokes – coaxing him to think of the women in Delhi he could buy with the money they had.

But his friend was having none of it. The drink had focused his frustration, he wanted the girl first – once he’d had the girl he’d go back. It was simple, and to make sure everyone understood he got out of the car, dancing and booing at all the windows before lifting the bonnet to remove something from the engine. After he’d settled himself behind the wheel, he grinned toothlessly at us all and turned the ignition. An impotent whirring filled the car.

There are some moments in one’s life, in most people’s lives, when its continuation hangs in the balance – I believe that this was one such moment. The boy who gets his arm caught between two rocks, or the climber who crashes through the ice and into the void – there are times when the odds seem too heavily stacked. I saw in that moment, my wife raped, my son smashed against a rock, and myself thrown into the abyss.

But the instinct to stay alive was strong. Words we didn’t think we knew bubbled up and soothed the madman. Or Ravi would stop crying and do something funny – the driver would throw his hands in the air to show us how crazy he was being, pat his friend on the back, kiss him, shrug his shoulders, beg our forgiveness and climb out of the car. Each time we held our breath as we pictured him replacing whatever he’d removed beneath the bonnet, but time after time he came back grinning, wagging his finger at us as though we’d nearly tricked him, as though he’d almost fallen for it. He would shake the back door, start boxing his friend who would whimper and silently fold into the corner of the passenger seat – god knows what horrors he’d witnessed this man commit before. And there were long moments when he cried and wept, either for himself or for us. Once he stretched out a hand to stroke Batuk… but Sanya recoiled, just a fraction; and he’d reared up and slapped her face, lunged to take Batuk from her until the turbaned one dragged him off. At times everyone was crying; at others some sort of intimacy emerged as if raw emotions swithering around would slip into anyone who’d give them expression for a while.  And then, out of the blue, after a long exhaustive slumbering silence he announced he was taking us back.  We sat up, wiped our filthy tear-stained faces as if preparing to meet someone important and watched, too tired for cynicism, too tired to really take it in, just a stirring of faint hope as we strained to see through the windscreen, building to a ripple of intoxicated expectation and childish eagerness as he got back behind the wheel and fired up. I gathered Ravi to my chest – the change of rhythm had woken him and I didn’t want him to cry.

But instead of backing up he slammed his foot on the accelerator.

In a shattered second I flicked off the lock, flung the door open, pulled Sanya after me and started to run, Ravi’s cries muffled against me. I didn’t look back, couldn’t look back – we just ran, ran for our lives up the black mountain – ran as though we had wings, ran forever…

Anyone for darts?

‘Tell me, Ross.’ The head teacher said as he deliberately and very slowly squinted down the barrel of a pencil. ‘Is there a reason for this sudden deterioration in your behaviour? I’m afraid I haven’t been able to discuss this, this latest distraction with Mr Hyslop due to him taking a few days leave, so it looks like we’ll have to muddle through – just the two of us.’

 

Aiming the wretched pencil directly at Ross’s head he shut one eye and flexed his forearm delicately and at a decreasing angle until it came to a threatening halt. He remained motionless and meditative for a few seconds and then, as if remembering where he was, put the pencil down. ‘Sorry Ross. I’ve got a darts match tonight – was hoping to get away early for a practise… So let’s do this, shall we?’

 

Giving the pencil one more sly aim before opening a drawer in his desk, he dropped it inside.

 

Ross had made up his mind a long time ago that Mr Leadbetter was mad, the pencil confirmed it, and Ross begun to stand up, but the noise of a gun going off made him rethink. Only it wasn’t a gun; it was the front legs of the head teacher’s chair hitting the floorboards. But there was something in the force behind it, and the way Mr Leadbetter rammed his glasses down onto his nose, that made him sit up and pay attention. Mr Leadbetter didn’t speak, though. Instead he lifted two A4 sheets of paper off his desk and hid his expression behind them for what seemed like an awkwardly long time.

 

‘Sorry about that, Ross. I wanted to read back over the year. A promising and intelligent boy. Well-mannered and conscientious.’ He sat back and resettled his glasses onto his forehead. ‘But sadly this all changed over the last few months. Let me quote. A bright young man heading for trouble. His attitude towards authority is challenging. Unable to focus on work, affecting apathy towards all subjects. Social difficulties. You’ve already been excluded once and have a lot of unexplained absences.’ He lowered the sheets and let them drop. ‘Fair summary?’

 

Ross shrugged.

 

‘Because.’ Mr Leadbetter went on, patting the papers. ‘Because, the thing is, Ross, if you keep this kind of thing up, your prospects of leaving school with some useful grades, and by useful I mean grades that might help you get into college or pick up an apprenticeship of some kind, will be compromised. Have you taken that pencil by the way?’

‘You put it in the drawer, sir.’

 

‘So I did. See? You’re a bright lad and I don’t want you to fail. Any ideas what I should do with you?’

 

‘No, Sir.’

 

‘Anything going on at home I should know about? Any reason you’re late most mornings?’

 

Briefly Ross felt the shame of his father leaving for the last time. It had been very sudden. He’d missed the bus, was hoping for a lift to school, sitting on a stack of blocks beside the garage, muttering under his breath in a range of emphasis and tones. ‘Dad, can I get a lift?’ or ‘Dad, the bus was early and I missed it?’ or even ‘Dad could you drop me at school on your way to work?’ And when his father appeared through the front door, he’d stood up, and prepared to begin. But the withering look on his father’s face erased the small speech and skewed his mouth into a frightened smile as he flattened out against the garage wall. And when his father climbed into the sleek black two-seater and Ross had willed his legs to move, they wouldn’t, so instead of running round the side of the car like any other boy would do, he’d stood like a dummy and watched the wheels bite the gravel and speed away. And that was the last time he’d seen him. Or heard from him or anything.

 

‘Well?’ Mr Leadbetter said.

 

‘Sometimes I miss the bus. Then get a lift. Makes me late sometimes.’

 

‘So that bus might be something you make an effort to catch. Got any idea of what you want to do when you leave school?’

 

‘Nuh.’ Ross shifted uneasily in his seat. The longest term thing he’d ever pictured was moving in with his father, how to get money to score, and, of course, Abi…

 

‘Maybe it’s time you did, because in no time at all you’ll be asked to choose your subjects for Standard Grade; you need to get a picture of what you want to do in life. What does your father do, Ross?’

 

‘He’s the manager at the Soroba Hotel.’

 

‘Hospitality. A very good career. Does that appeal to you at all?’

 

‘Not thought about it, Sir – maybe.’

 

The conversation ran along these lines, with the head teacher vividly describing some of his own less orthodox ambitions when he was a lad, until Ross, despite doing his best to remain numb, found his mind forming a daft picture of himself as Alan Sugar or a vet or a lawyer or the owner of a chain of hotels with a massive salary and a holiday home and at least one fast car…

 

‘But without qualifications, Ross,’ Mr Leadbetter continued after the long pause, ‘without keeping your focus and your emotions under control, you won’t have any of that, in fact…’ He leaned forward in his seat ‘In fact, I’d say that, with the way things are looking right now, you’re treading a very fine line, Ross. Because once you stop caring, once you actively start making the lives of your teachers hell, once that happens, it’s very easy to slip through the net. And some do. We do our best, but a lot of young people are leaving school without a lot going for them. I’m sure your father would feel very disappointed if you became one of those boys.’

Ross stared down between his knees.

 

‘Tell you what. We’re going to arrange a meeting. I’ll invite your parents and Mr Hyslop to it and we’ll talk things over. We’re only human, Ross, no one at this school wants you to fail, but we can’t do this without your co-operation. You are the hinge, so to speak, on which the door to your future depends. As I said, I’m know you’re a good lad at heart, and a bright one. But poor behaviour has consequences. Do we understand each other?’

 

Ross lifted his gaze briefly and found to his surprise that the head teacher’s face was softer than he remembered and a lot friendlier too. A painful lump gathered in his throat and he tried to clear it. ‘Yes, sir.’

 

And along with the lump came the beginnings of a hazy picture in his mind of his parents sitting in this office or another one just like it: his father was shaking the head teacher’s hand and smiling and wagging his head in tearful disbelief and approval…

 

‘Well, good. And because I’m a big softy I’m going to recommend that we don’t exclude you this time. However, I want you to do something for me – I want you,’ he said holding up a pamphlet, ‘I want you to take this booklet on careers and look through it, see if anything takes your fancy. And I want to talk again tomorrow. Okay? How does that sound?’

 

‘Good.’ Ross made eye contact for the first time. ‘Thank you.’

 

‘Good lad. In my opinion, there’s nothing like seeing yourself in the future to find yourself in the present. At least, it helped me when I was your age. Now, Ross, I believe Mr Walters is waiting for you. You’ll be wanting to apologise for your outburst won’t you, and complete the work you’ve missed in class?’ He smiled. ‘You can go now – unless there’s something else you’d like to say.’

Over the course of the last fifteen minutes Ross had forgotten. But now he remembered and stood unsteadily. He picked up the chair he’d been sitting on and threw it hard at the window.

 

‘Nothing else, no,’ he said.

 

 

Review/All the light we cannot see

Where to begin?

I read About Grace by Antony Doerr while I was stumbling through my first novel and the beauty of each sentence so affected me I almost gave up (writing). It was going to be too hard.  Since then, whenever I’m faced with snow – real or imagined – some of his words return.

Obscurely though, since that first fling, I never sought him out. Then recently, I noticed my daughter was reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was like being reminded of an old school friend and doing a Facebook search – I downloaded this on the spot and began it that night.

All The Light We Cannot See is a story about two children caught up in the atrocities of World War 2. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood. Over many months she memorises its every detail and after countless frustrating, furious and tearful attempts, she finally finds herself able to move around the city alone. When the Nazis invade Paris they leave their home for the relative safety of Saint-Malo where an elderly relative, cared for by a kindly matron lives in a six story house by the sea.

The other child, Werner, is an orphan, who along with his sister is raised in a home in a mining town in Germany. His future is down the mines. Obscurity, an early death. By chance he finds a broken radio in a back alley near the orphanage and becomes obsessed by it. He spends all his free time rebuilding it from scraps of rubbish, until word gets around of his special talent and he gains a reputation, which eventually reaches the ears of someone important. He gains a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth – a way out of the mines, Werner says to himself, flattered by the attention, and the cake he was offered when he easily fixes the army man’s radio. Only his sister gets a sense of foreboding and begs him to refuse the offer. But it was too late for that. In no time Werner was in the back of a truck tracking resistance radios, one by one, shutting his eyes to the killings, sweeping through occupied France to Saint-Malo, where we know Marie-Laure lives, alone now with her great uncle in the tall house by the sea, playing their part to save their beloved France…

I don’t remember if I was gripped immediately, all I remember is that those following weeks tore me apart. It’s not just that every sentence is a work of art all on its own, worthy of a second look, but that it’s so scary and inevitable and gripping and important and relevant, that to be honest I could barely bring myself to pick it up, because I knew that I was about to be really really scared and sick and ashamed. Anthony Doerr does that – he draws us in, so that to turn away would make us inhuman – would mean we didn’t care. It may be too late for all those children who were sucked into the killing machine of that war but if I couldn’t even stay with them during the pages of a novel would I turn away in Syria, Iraq, Palestine – all those other places that are to come – would I? Do I? Well of course I do – we all do – every day. So I read on; sometimes, to my shame, galloped on, to get it over with, to find out – I had to find out, though I knew there’d be no comfort  in it – that’s another thing Doerr would never do  – he’d never cheat the truth.

And as I write this, a few weeks later, I’m moved all over again… filled with the horror, the wonder, the unbearable love I felt for the two of them, the genius of Anthony Doerr, not a careless word as he courageously describes the sights and sounds of the very worst and best of what it means to be human, an assault on my senses which I shall never forget.

I will not wait so long to download the next one. And nor should you.

 

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Where to begin?

I read About Grace by Antony Doerr while I was stumbling through my first novel and the beauty of each sentence so affected me I almost gave up (writing). It was going to be too hard.  Since then, whenever I’m faced with snow – real or imagined – some of his words return.

Obscurely though, since that first fling, I never sought him out. Then recently, I noticed my daughter was reading All the Light We Cannot See. It was like being reminded of an old school friend and doing a Facebook search – I downloaded this on the spot and began it that night.

All The Light We Cannot See is a story about two children caught up in the atrocities of World War 2. Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father builds her a perfect miniature of their neighbourhood. Over many months she memorises its every detail and after countless frustrating, furious and tearful attempts, she finally finds herself able to move around the city alone. When the Nazis invade Paris they leave their home for the relative safety of Saint-Malo where an elderly relative, cared for by a kindly matron, lives in a six story house by the sea.

The other child, Werner, is an orphan, who along with his sister is raised in a home in a mining town in Germany. His future is down the mines. Obscurity, an early death. By chance he finds a broken radio in a back alley near the orphanage and becomes obsessed by it. He spends all his free time rebuilding it from scraps of rubbish, until word gets around of his special talent and he gains a reputation, which eventually reaches the ears of someone important. He gains a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth – a way out of the mines, Werner says to himself, flattered by the attention, and the cake he was offered when he easily fixes the army man’s radio. Only his sister gets a sense of foreboding and begs him to refuse the offer. But it was too late for that. In no time Werner was in the back of a truck tracking resistance radios, one by one, shutting his eyes to the killings, sweeping through occupied France to Saint-Malo, where we know Marie-Laure lives, alone now with her great uncle in the tall house by the sea, playing their part to save their beloved France…

I don’t remember if I was gripped immediately, all I remember is that those following weeks tore me apart. It’s not just that every sentence is a work of art all on its own, worthy of a second look, but that it’s so scary and inevitable and gripping and important and relevant, that to be honest I could barely bring myself to pick it up, because I knew that I was about to be really really scared and sick and ashamed. Anthony Doerr does that – he draws us in, so that to turn away would make us inhuman – would mean we didn’t care. It may be too late for all those children who were sucked into the killing machine of that war but if I couldn’t even stay with them during the pages of a novel would I turn away in Syria, Iraq, Palestine – all those other places that are to come – would I? Do I? Well of course I do – we all do – every day. So I read on; sometimes, to my shame, galloped on, to get it over with, to find out – I had to find out, though I knew there’d be no comfort  in it – that’s another thing Doerr would never do  – he’d never cheat the truth.

And as I write this, a few weeks later, I’m moved all over again… filled with the horror, the wonder, the unbearable love I felt for the two of them, the genius of Anthony Doerr, not a careless word as he courageously describes the sights and sounds of the very worst and best of what it means to be human, an assault on my senses which I shall never forget.

I will not wait so long to download the next one. And nor should you.

the proposal

The east wind had washed an early dusting of snow off the trees and there had even been soft winter sunshine a few hours ago, but it had failed to warm the air.

Leah is early, blowing into her gloves, glancing at her watch. I wave and she smiles and hurries towards me and we link arms and go through the park gates and walk briskly, heads down.

It is spotting rain now, but more than anything I’m struck by an odd sharpness to the air – not cold sharp, though it is cold, bitterly cold, but it’s not that – it’s more of an electric tension felt on the scalp as if something is waiting to happen. I remember yesterday, how the pines glowed lime green against a yellowing sky; today they are blue, blue-green and fernlike, a child’s painting on deep mauve brushstrokes.

I listen. I’m all ears. If there is sound, I can’t hear it: no birds, none of the usual kids’ voices. I am reminded of a stage where the curtains have gone up and no actors have appeared, and I’m sure she feels it too. I tug my glove off and hold her hand tight. I am so glad I have hands so I can hold hers and for some time I’m simply glad for everything in my life that has led me to Leah. Countless ‘what-ifs’, incalculable coincidences have tripped me along blindly until I’ve arrived. I am in love – in love! Could it be she doesn’t know? Could it be that she’s in some doubt – doesn’t understand that she’s the pivot upon which my fragile universe depends? She might not… she may not know that unless she’s with me till I die – I’ll die? Well, how would she?

I pull her around. The air is charged with electricity, no mistaking it now, fizzing with it. I take centre stage, remove my other glove, clasp my hands together, bend a knee and wobble ungraciously to the ground.

She looks around – probably for help.

‘Leah, will you marry me, be my wife, my best friend and mentor. Please will you? Will you promise to continue to be my reason for getting up in the morning and my reason for going to bed?’ A low rumble – god’s orchestra probably, shakes the ground beneath our feet.  Several people stop feeding the ducks, check out the sky and turn towards us. Some move away, imagining the rumble is a storm warning. But I don’t care – I have just been moved to ask the most important question in my life and all of a sudden I don’t feel anything but confidence and joy and excitement.

At the margin of my vision a rabble of ducks is heading over. I’ve always found ducks to be a bit threatening and persistent once you start feeding them, especially en-masse; any pause and they switch to automatic, robotically padding towards the food source. Their bodies may be little, but there’s something unmanageable and hard-core and pushy about them. And if pushy moves to attack and you grab them, their feathers, like alien limbs, come away in your hands – gives me the willies. But right now all they do is unnerve me to such an extent that whatever entrenched patterns I ignored thirty seconds ago, slam into my brain and almost knock me over. My knees are aching, early rheumatoid arthritis probably and it occurs to me that I am already married – okay okay, only legally, but still these things matter don’t they when you ask someone to marry you. And even if it didn’t, matter, this is merely the winciest pothole when compared to some of the massive roadblocks that are erupting like mines on the long desolate highway to hell, which for a few pathetic moments I had somehow smudged clean away…

Breathe man, breathe.

Fuck – how could I forget, how could I do anything so dumb. My past races in front of my eyes, along with a lightning flash, I swear, lightening – real as you like – as with horrific clarity I relive my most poignant moments: I place her in impossible positions, make lunatic demands on her time and sympathy, virtually ignore the grief she is going through whilst demanding full attention to my own trail of unhappy dramas. I withhold secrets, misread our relationship almost entirely and without compromise, behave like a selfish prig and blame her for my depression. Pictures and snippets whiz by. Whilst avoiding looking at Leah, I prepare to bolt from the ducks who are barely six feet away and sneak a glance at the faces of our loyal but misguided audience, and it’s blindingly obvious that they are already feeling terribly sorry for me.

I can’t stand now anyway, my knees have frozen solid – how the hell did I get down here? I bet she’s really enjoying this, really rubbing my nose in it big time – and it’s all my fault. From now on, the Botanics and winter and gloves and even my knees will forever be associated with humiliation and shame… Oh Christ…

‘I’d love to.’

Little claps from the crowd, and Julia Roberts bends down to pick up the now prostrate Hugh Grant who has fainted, but despite being quite unconscious he is still babbling on like an idiot. ‘I’m sorry, I should never, I mean, I don’t know what came… Oh Christ, I’m a bastard, what an impossible position – please, just forget I ever…’

‘Oh do shut up, Nathan. I will, I’d love to. I’m thrilled you asked me – you left it long enough…’

I’m on my feet now, kicking wildly at the earth, trying to get my head around it. Giant blobs of sleet hide my tears and the ducks flutter about in feigned panic.

‘Come on, you lunatic. It’s about to turn nasty, I’m starving, and you’re due back for Jill in an hour.’ She wraps me in a hug and for a blissful moment we rock and turn circles under an opening sky. Thank you, God.

 

Dream Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and snowing hard. I decide to walk to the office. Guy isn’t due for forty-five minutes and he’ll call me from the airport.  I have time to buy a few extras for tomorrow, maybe grab a coffee.

The snow on the pavement lies like gold dust under the yellow street lamps, like a scene from an old fashioned post card. I tilt my head to the sky, open my eyes and stick my tongue out.

A couple of hundred yards down the road, I regret this childish reversion and pull my hood up, my neck freezing now against my wet shirt collar. As I walk past the garage and into Rodney Street, I realise my feet are wet too. The snow a few inches deep on unused ground is already slushy on the pavements and blackened with exhaust and road dirt. The few cars left on the road are painfully grinding their bellies over the high ridges as they try to keep to the narrow furrows cut by the car in front. Those with less confidence of making it up the steep slope of Broughton Street are beginning to abandon their cars, parking before they start shimmying sideways into trouble. Staring at the pavement, I am drawn to the interesting array of impractical footwear: trainers, stilettos, court shoes tiptoe past me, their occupants no doubt praying that the buses won’t stop running – giving up on ideas of last minute shopping, hoping they’ll get home in one piece and in time to get everything done for the big day.

Then a pair of yellow slip-ons, just like David’s, pass me. I swing back. I don’t believe it! It’s David all right, his hand glued to his ear as usual, talking into his phone.

I see him let himself into the office.

I check my phone is switched on. Maybe David’s planning…  What the hell could the bastard be planning – destroying records? Surely it’s too late for that – vandalism? I wait a couple of minutes before retracing my steps and following him in.

Mentally I crack my knuckles. I want him. I’m gonna pulverise the fucker – knock him out – extract his toenails one by one with my teeth, bludgeon his…

I let myself into the small office off the left of the hall, lean against the desk in the pitch dark and wait for night vision.

The industrial Sellotape dispenser gleams up at me. My god, I can just see the headlines. ‘David Crosby, Robert Redford look alike and spokesman for Eco Ecosse was knocked unconscious by hero Nathan Gillespie, whilst destroying vital evidence of a corruption attempt.’ Well maybe not. I put the dispenser down.

‘David?’ He’s behind Guy’s desk, grinning, with the diary spread out infront of him.

‘Ah Nathan. I was hoping you’d be early.’

‘I saw you come in, David. What on earth are you doing here?’

‘Just tying up some lose ends, before leaving.’

Cocky little shit.

Just as I’m building to an authoritative but restrained response, I am lifted off my feet by two of the largest men I have ever seen in real life. I say seen but I’m struggling to see anything as I float through space to a chair positioned this side of Guy’s desk.

‘I’d rather sta…’ I begin as my feet touch the floor.

‘Shut up, Nathan – no one’s interested.’

One of them takes my mobile, switches it off and pockets it. I confirm they are giants.

‘Guy’s due here in what – forty-five minutes? Gives us plenty of time. Okay lads, tape him up.’

Gaffer tape is so much more effective than rope – quicker, no loose ends to get hold of or work loose. First appearances they might have seemed Neanderthal, but their finger work is impressive – it takes about twenty seconds to mummify and bond me to the uncomfortable office chair. I imagine they’ll wait for Guy, and do the same with him. I’m finding this hard to get my head round – I can’t think where this is going, it doesn’t make sense – why Guy? But I’m scared, really scared and the fact that I obviously don’t have anything they want to hear or have just makes it’s scarier – I mean who are these guys? And who is David? I’m scared and ashamed and trying hard to hold onto the contents of my bladder.

They have not blindfolded me and I’ve never seen David so animated. ‘Da, daaaa!’  He dances a magician’s jig around a duster covering a small package on the desk, and da das again and whips it off. Dynamite Dave. Dynamite fucking Dave – Jesus. Leah was right, he’s a maniac. Okay, I get it now. He’s going to blow me up. Right. I wonder how scared you have to be to pass out – or if some people just don’t. I want to pass out.

He tapes the device to the underside of my chair, millimetres from my balls. Then his two helpers turn the chair to face the door so I can see what he’s doing – he’s running a wire or cable from my nether-regions more or less, across the floor and the small hallway and out the office door. He keeps glancing up at me; despite my imminent vaporisation he really believes I’m going to appreciate this cunning plan.

‘And just in case Guy is stuck in snow,’ he says grinning, ‘we’ll be inviting the lovely Leah and your sweet daughter Jade to our small Christmas party – I guess you’ll have their numbers in here, eh?’ He giggles, points at the door, waggles his finger at me… ‘I’m so glad you chose the mystery prize, Nathan, instead of the money – it’s just so much more, fun, isn’t it?’

My eyes shut, in silent horror initially; giving way finally to prayer, something, if you’d asked me, I would have sworn I would never do. They open again though, as David bends my chin upwards. ‘I want you to watch, Nathan – it’s so much more fun to watch. Do you think Jade will bring Josh?’

I can’t trust my senses, but I could swear David’s levitating – more magic no doubt. But no, one of my Neanderthal buddies is lifting him away from me while Big Ears pushes a second chair up against the back of mine and tapes it fast – and then I hear this screeching of tape as they do the same to David as they did to me. Five minutes later they’re out through the back door leaving us in pitch dark.

David is crying and I wonder why this release never occurred to me.

 

I wake up crying and turn on the light; it’s two, two in the morning. It’s okay.

I try and pull myself back, but it was so real. I’m in shock. I push myself to sit up against the pillows, heart still racing. Jesus. Leah went back to her flat. She is angry, but she’ll be okay. Jade is sleeping in her room for the first time since she left. There are small stockings hanging from their beds bulging with gifts. The tree is glittering with fairy lights and Jade is here –  she’s sleeping in her room.  Sleeping. I say it again, becoming calm in the comfort of it.  Jade is with us for a couple of days, two precious days… We’ll be together: Josh. Jade. Leah. It’s Christmas Eve.

Guy came back from Paris and I dealt with it. It was gruelling, yes, but it’s over. And David? David’s a jerk, a nasty bit of work – forget him, Nathan, forget him…

And then I almost jump out of my skin as the house phone rings beside the bed. I stare at it, my heart pumping and hammering. As I pick it up, I half expect it to be David.

‘Is that Nathan Gillespie?’

‘Yes it is ― how can I help?’

‘My name is Staff Nurse Reeves at The Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. We have your wife…’

 

I leave a note for Jade on the bottom step of the stairs. I don’t know what else to do. Had to go out, call me. Won’t be long. x

All I can think about as I pull away from the kerb is that I won’t have her here. That’s it.  I don’t want to deal with her again – does that mean I wish she’d died, well maybe it does and as I’m driving down Inverleith at two in the morning these thoughts take up rhythm with the wipers, and together they act as an anaesthetic to the bleak rumblings in my soul.

I pull to a stop.

Jade. Jade would want to be here. I should go back. I should have woken her up and told her. Why didn’t I do that? She’s just a child, that’s why. She’s been through enough these last few days, we’re all in a state of recovery; I am that far away from a breakdown. It is Christmas Day and I can’t bear that look on her face: the panic, the despair, the guilt. I can’t face the drama of Jade on top of everything else. Besides, who would  be there for Josh if he wakes? There is no way we could have woken him up, bundled him into the car, taken him to see his mother, unconscious… This way I can explain when I get back, we can both tell Josh.

I ease into the road again. The drumming and hissing and pounding has become a complicated and engrossing symphony without which I may start screaming and pill popping myself. Oh yes, truly.

I pull into the hospital car park.

From time to time sirens scream past me and blue splintered light spits and hisses into the ambulance bay. I don’t want it to stop; I don’t want to swap it for the drone of polishers on the soft disinfected linoleum lakes that await me inside. And especially not with the old croc who is waiting in the shallows to swallow me up whole.

Without deciding to, I find myself sloshing across the car park towards the blue light. I find admissions and after too few questions they walk me down the long gleaming corridor and into a small side room. A stunningly elegant black man with crystal white hair is sitting beside the bed. He stands and holds out his hand to shake mine.

‘Nathan Gillespie? I’m Winston Lawrence, I would invite you to sit down but the circumstances are somewhat strange. I found your wife. I’m afraid I don’t know what to offer – except my deepest sympathy. I’m rather jet lagged I’m afraid. I only flew in from Jamaica a few hours ago…’

His hand has a slight quiver as he withdraws it from mine. I move close to Phoebe. She is linked to monitors and I’m longing to lose myself in the bleeps and flicks and drips – I’m missing the drumming of the rain. I suggest we go and find some tea.

 

The vending machine in the waiting room spits out tea for me and hot chocolate for Winston.

‘So you found her. That must have been rather a shock.’ An understatement of monstrous proportion but it’s the best I can do.

‘It was. I’d just got back from three months away – looking forward to seeing Ryan, my partner ― in fact surprising him. I wasn’t due for another week, but my last bit of business finished early… I managed to get an early flight. You often can on Christmas Eve. I thought I’d surprise him. Yes, well, as you know I found, instead, a young woman making an attempt on her life, in my bed, in my flat.’

‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry; how horrible for you – she and Ryan, well, I believe they were lovers I…’

‘No, go on.’

‘When did you get back ― just a few hours ago did you say?’

‘Around midnight. Why?’

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t fucking know. ‘Ryan. Do you know about Ryan?’

‘About him being bisexual?’

‘No, not that. I’m afraid something awful happened. He died last week, well not even a week ago, a few days ago. You didn’t know? You don’t know?’ I reach across and touch his wrist. He doesn’t move it. He actually smiles at me briefly before standing up and turning his back. This is what you call composure. I stare at his beautiful three quarter length grey cotton coat and wonder if it would suit me and if I could ask him where he bought it – at a better moment maybe, when we’re friends.

‘I’m sorry.’

He turns around and lowers into the only chair, takes a sip of his chocolate.

‘I’ve been flying all over the place the last three days. I hadn’t heard. How? I mean he sounded so cheerful last…’ His voice breaks.

‘I’m so sorry. I don’t really know the details. I think his front door was open and someone found him. You’d be better to talk to the police in the morning. Maybe you should go home. No, I suppose not, well maybe… No, well maybe you should try and get some sleep before you attempt to take in any more, there is only so much… You look dead beat. Listen, you can sleep at my house if you like – I mean maybe that would be the sensible thing to do.’ I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, it’s impossible of course but he looks so kind and so destroyed and so old suddenly. ‘My girlfriend, Leah, would…’

‘You’re kind, really you are; I’ll book into a hotel ― you can’t possibly offer a complete stranger…’

‘No, well I’m just so sorry that’s all. Can I call somewhere for you?’

‘That would be very kind.’

I phone the Balmoral. I give him our number and he promises to call and find out how Phoebe is…

He leaves and I go back to Phoebe’s bedside to wait. An hour later, the nurse tells me to go home.

It’s almost six when I zombie through our front door. I switch the tree lights on and stare at the presents around its base, not seeing them really – not seeing anything, except a blur of reflective wrappings. I long to slope off to bed, collapse for twenty-four hours, let things settle. It’s amazing that Josh’s not woken already. Panic stirs in my stomach. I must wake Jade. I must wake Jade now and tell her. Now. As I wait for the kettle to boil, it’s all I can do not to curl up beside the Aga with Nevis and sleep.

 

‘Jade? Jade it’s me.’ I have my hand gently on her shoulder. If there was any way I could spare her this I would, any way at all. She wakes up all sleepy eyed and stares blankly at me for a moment. Without her make-up she looks like a young child I used to know so well. My heart is breaking up with love. She smiles at me and looks towards her stocking at the end of the bed.

An awful dread steals over me.

 

‘You should have told me first. I should have been there. It’s me who lives with her not you. You had no right! I should never have left her alone!’

‘She’s okay. I knew her life wasn’t in danger, that she wouldn’t even be conscious. I couldn’t bear to wake you.’

‘That’s the problem isn’t it! You couldn’t! You couldn’t! It’s all about Nathan again, it’s always about you! Well, she’s my mother, she chose me! I should have stopped it, stopped her, I should have checked up on her, I should have rung Dawn, made sure she was there. I should have called her – she wasn’t, she’s not strong enough… Oh god, how could she? How could she?’ And then Jade howls.  ‘Why did you do that, Mum?’

‘Listen to me, Jade. What she did is not about you, it’s about her. For God’s sake, you didn’t make her take pills, or try to kill herself. You’ve done everything you could to look after her, you’re exhausted. This isn’t about you, it’s about her!’

She pushes out of bed, drags on her jeans and sweater over her pyjamas and storms across the room kicking out at the soap and chocolate pennies that have spilled from the bulging stocking.

‘Don’t you even think of following me – don’t you dare.’

I think perhaps she’s turning back to hit me and I get down quickly, lean back a little, but she’s just retrieving her boots from under the bed. Along with them, she scoops up a handful of tiny forlorn gifts and throws them at me in disgust. ‘You can stuff your fucking Christmas – I’m spending mine with my mother!’

‘There was nothing you could have done, Jade.’ She must believe me. I get up now and take her arm.

‘Get stuffed, Dad. Just fuck off. You are unbelievable! This is my problem, it was my problem. Let me go, you’ve done enough damage.’

She flies down the stairs, picks up the house phone and asks for a cab. I follow her from room to room.

‘Listen to me, Jade ― I’m going to tell you something.’

‘Something that’ll get you out…’

‘Something that shaped the way your Mum behaves, something that happened to her.’

‘Go on then.’

‘Carl, her Dad…’

‘Yes I do know Carl. I do know he was her Dad actually. Get on with it ― my cab will be here in a minute.’

‘He abused Phoebe, both of them, her and Sheena, when they were little ― that was why she didn’t…’

‘What do you mean abused them? Hit them? What do you mean abused? What the fuck do you mean?’

‘I’d always hoped you’d never have to know, but now, well you’ve got to stop blaming yourself ― Mum was never…’

‘For fuck’s sake, Dad!’

‘He played with them at bath time ― it was his time with his girls and he played with them; he didn’t rape them, but what he did was maybe worse because it left Phoebe utterly confused about, about trust and about what love means ― I can only try and imagine what it must be like and I can’t get close, not really…’

‘Fuck you! Fuck you, Dad. Just stop it, I’ve heard enough. You’d say anything…’

She storms through to the hall dragging a scarf and gloves out of the tall boy.

‘Granddad would never have touched her, not like that, you’re lying, you’re fucking lying. Why are you doing this, Dad ― why are you trying to blame Granddad?’

She’s backing into the loo by the front door.

‘Just get out, fucking let go. Because I loved Granddad and, and why didn’t she tell me and I hated her for hating them and that’s so unfair. And this is so fucked up ― I mean I can’t bear this… Why didn’t she tell me?’ Her voice breaks.

I’m trying not to shout, praying Josh doesn’t wake up. I have my foot wedged in the door.

‘I don’t know. I probably should have told you but I didn’t know where it would lead. I didn’t know what to do. I think you should have known, but Mum, well it was up to her wasn’t it?’

She lets go and the door springs open with my weight. She pushes past, collapses on the bottom stair and rests her head in her hands. ‘And Gran ― I mean did Gran know?’ She half turns towards me.

‘No, well not until four years ago.’ I sit at the far end of the same step.

‘How?’

‘I told her. I shouldn’t have, but Phoebe was so cruel to her. I wanted to explain that it wasn’t her fault. After the barbeque.’

‘So after all those years you told her that Grandad had…  Poor Gran. I mean, how did she take it?’

‘She couldn’t take it on board, so she had a series of tiny strokes, got ill. I haven’t got much right really. I’m sorry Jade, I am so sorry ― I don’t know what to say except that none of this is your fault.’

‘And it isn’t Mum’s fault either, is it?’

‘No, of course not, Jade, but it’s up to her how she deals with it ― it’s not up to you to stop her messing up her life – sorry but it’s not.’

‘So what you saying, Dad? That I should give up on her too ― like you did?’

‘She needs help, Jade, professional help. I can see what it’s doing to you. I mean leaving school ― giving up Jamie, going out with Ash, that’s all about…’

She rounds on me. ‘Just shut the fuck up will you. I made my own choices ― don’t you dare do that. I like living with her, I like my life. It might be convenient for you and Leah ― but I’m not like you, she’s my Mum and I’m not just going to give up – I won’t.’

The phone rings. Jade picks up, grabs her stuff and disappears. I flop sideways on the bottom step in as much of a foetal position as it allows me and sometime later wake to whoops of joy coming from Josh’s room followed swiftly by Santa’s outsize stocking bump bump bumping from stair to stair towards me.