Happy Wednesday, all!
(And yes, I’m behind on my schedule. But I get the sneaking feeling you don’t mind at all, do you …?)
Here is Part V of Coals of Fire: Ash. In which we get some much-needed character development and backstory. Now, I’m not sure if I’ve broken one of my own rules here, so I’m relying on you to let me know if I have.
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
A week goes by. Every day I get up early and leave the house before mum is awake. I arrive at school as the gates open, sit in the canteen and watch the rest of the students trickle in, then when the bell rings I get up and leave, take the first bus to London, and wander through the city all day, finding places I’ve never been before. When the offices empty I go with them, losing myself in the rush-hour crowds on the way home.
I count down the days with growing urgency. I feel like I’m coming up to an exam: tense, nervous, my stomach a hard knot. The only time I feel less tense is when I’m walking in the crowds. I like being anonymous. I like knowing that no-one knows me. It makes me feel free.
Mum continues with her work. She spends hours on her laptop in the living-room, surrounded by swathes of paper and barely-touched takeaway containers. Sometimes I catch her leaving the spare room when I get home, locking the door behind her. She asks about my day and how school’s been, and I make up lies that are just mediocre enough to be believable, wondering as I do so what it is she’s trying to distract me from. Her bodyguards (or whoever they are) don’t seem about to leave. They’re hard men, cold men, men of iron and leather and sharp-smelling aftershave. I never see another gun, but I know they’re there, inside jackets, under coats, strapped to thighs and chests. I avoid the men, and they let me be. But I don’t like it.
On Friday I go to dad’s, as usual. It’s a relief to be out of the house, away from mum and her papers and the suspicious eyes staring from the kitchen. Dad’s out when I arrive, so I let myself into the flat with the spare key. On the kitchen table I find a note nestled amongst the ready-meal containers and old shopping bags: Gone out, back soon. Love. Dad.
I crumple the note and throw it in the bin. I look around at the sink full of unwashed plates, the pile of laundry in the corner, the crumbs and grease on the countertops, and I sigh and set to work.
By the time I’m finished it’s six o’clock. I order Chinese and call dad.
“Jason, hi.” I can hear traffic in the background. Dad’s half-shouting over it.
“Where are you?”
“I’ve been at work. Got a new job last week. I’ll tell you about it when I get back.”
“Are you on your way home?”
“Yeah.” I can hear the lie, but I say nothing. “Trains are running behind, so I might be a bit late. Get yourself Chinese, okay?”
“I already did.”
“Oh. Okay. You’ll find some money in the—”
“Already found it.”
“Okay. Okay. Sure. All right then.” Dad sounds almost disappointed. “I … I guess I’ll see you, then.”
“Don’t be too long.”
“I won’t. I love you.”
I hang up.
It’s one in the morning when I hear the key turn in the lock. The door opens and closes, and from the corridor come the unmistakeable sounds of dad doing his best to creep silently to his room. Something falls, and dad swears softly, then fumbles with whatever it is and knocks something else over. After a few minutes he gives up and stumbles through his door to collapse on his bed. The mattress creaks a couple of times as he gets comfortable, and a minute later he begins to snore.
I ignore him. I’m sitting up in bed with my laptop open. On the screen is the website of the airline I’m booking my flight with. I’ve been on the same page for an hour: the one that summarises my booking and all the payment details. The cursor hovers over the red CONFIRM button at the bottom of the page.
I can’t put into words why I want to leave. It’s an emotional decision, not a rational one. It’s partly to do with mum and dad getting divorced — no, separated — partly to do with the way mum is these days — so cold, so distant, not caring how I’m doing at school, or even if I’m going to school at all — and partly to do with the feeling in my stomach every time I walk up Forest Hill and see the clouds massing low over the North Downs miles outside of London, and the dull ache that swallows me when I walk through mum’s front door.
I don’t know exactly when this feeling started, though it would have been about four years ago, sometime after I got back from Nigeria. Dad sent me there when I was nine, after mum left us. I can still remember the day — the shouting, the screaming, mum sobbing as she grabbed her coat and ran out of the door, leaving it banging in the wind behind her. I sat at the top of the stairs and watched dad watching her, standing dumbly at the doorway, his shoulders heaving and his arms hanging limply by his sides, powerless, emasculated.
The argument had been about money, I remember. At least, I remember mum and dad talking about money a lot in the weeks leading up to it. She wanted more money, he wanted more money, there was a job coming up that could give her more money but he didn’t want her to take it. She said he couldn’t control her, that she wouldn’t stand there and take it. She was a real woman, she said. She was going to do whatever she liked.
So she left.
A week later I went on holiday to visit my aunt and uncle in Lagos, and I didn’t come back.
When I first realised what was happening I shouted and screamed, and kicked my uncle’s leg so hard it bled. They locked me in my room, and when I didn’t calm down they dragged me to the church where the pastor slapped me in the face in front of eight hundred people and told the devil to come out of me. The pastor’s words were wind — it was the slap that healed me. It cowed me, and taught me that I would not get my way by force, not with adults. I decided that I would stay silent from then on, and behave how I was expected to behave, and wait.
I waited for four years.
As it turns out, four years is just long enough for someone to settle down and forget about everything that happened before; I know this because when the call came from mum saying that her and dad had worked things out and that they were ready for me to come home, I had just come around to accepting my new life and was ready to forget the one I had back in London. I had made friends, I had settled into school, I had even started to learn Yoruba and could speak in sentences rather than words — and now everything was changing again.
Coming back to London was somehow worse than leaving. It was winter, and a couple of degrees below when we touched down at Heathrow. Looking out of the window all I saw were grey tarmac, grey clouds, grey trees, and grey rain. Something inside me shrivelled and died then, and not even the sight of mum and dad smiling and standing arm-in-arm to greet me could bring it back to life. I remember thinking that I’d been shuttled across continents for these people, cast off when I was inconvenient and dragged back when they needed me. Their kisses had tasted false, and their hugs were cold. I returned them, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Then they broke the news that they weren’t living together any more. Not divorce, mum was quick to add — but definitely separated, and living in different places. She explained that I would spend weekdays with her and weekends with dad, and I accepted it with a nod. The silence I had learned in Nigeria came back to me, and stayed with me as I drove with them back to London, to live with people who had become strangers to me.
So began the endless back-and-forth of life with mum and dad. Weekdays at her, weekends at his. A new school, new friends to make, new places to get used to. Everything was as different as it could be — cold instead of hot, dull instead of bright, wet instead of dry. Mum and dad acted as if nothing had changed, when in reality everything had changed.
Mum had gotten the new job she wanted, and so she could afford to buy me anything I wanted; but she worked ridiculously long hours and often stayed overnight at the office or in a hotel, working on whatever it was she was working on. Once she went away for four months, and I had to stay with dad and travel for an hour by bus and train every day to get to school. When dad found out mum was going away they had another row, only this time mum was most definitely the one in control and dad hardly protested, only saying that it wasn’t fair on me for her to be away for so long. Mum called me into the living room and asked me straight if I minded, and when I just shrugged and looked at the floor she folded her arms and glared at dad until he relented and agreed to have me.
Dad doesn’t argue much about anything these days. He seems resigned to his life, drifting in and out of jobs, barely staying on top of the housework in his tiny flat in Bermondsey, awkward on the phone and awkward when I’m there. It’s as if he’s embarrassed to have me around, embarrassed for me to see what he’s become. And yet he doesn’t do anything about it. He struggles with money, but he still buys me things, trying to keep up with mum’s careless generosity. Once I refused to take whatever it was dad had bought for me — a new game or a DVD — because I knew he couldn’t afford it. That was the only time I ever saw him get really angry, although I knew it wasn’t directed at me, but rather a formless, aimless rage against the world in general. It was also the only time I ever saw him cry, through the half-open door of his bedroom that evening, though dad didn’t know I saw him, and I’ve never mentioned it.
There have been a couple of girlfriends. Dad sometimes phones to say he’ll be working late or out with friends, but he always comes back home on Sunday smelling of perfume and alcohol. It embarrassed me at first, but I soon got used to it. Mum doesn’t have boyfriends. Dad says she’s in love with her work, and there are times when it seems he’s right. She’s constantly distracted by it, living half her life in a world of spreadsheets and consultation papers, coming out only to eat and sleep. Sometimes she’ll come downstairs in the morning and jump when she sees me, as if she hadn’t expected me to be there. At other times she’ll look right through me, or ignore me completely when I talk to her, especially when she has reports to read or deadlines to meet.
So I flit between them, ignored on the one hand and tolerated on the other, wondering why they bothered bringing me back in the first place.
I stare at the computer screen, bright in the darkness of my bedroom. The word Sydney stands out in bold letters above an icon of a plane touching down. My finger rests on the trackpad, the cursor hovering over the CONFIRM button.
I have to go. It’s as simple as that. I have to get away from what my life has become. There’s no reason behind it. My life’s good in a lot of ways — two parents, a roof over my head, food and clothes and more. But even with all that I can’t stand it, and I can’t bring myself to be happy.
I sit for another ten minutes staring at the screen, then I move the cursor across to the button that says SAVE MY ORDER, click it, and close the laptop and lie down to sleep.
I dream of the girl in the hospital gown. This time she’s in my room, sitting on the edge of my bed and stroking my hair. I can’t see her face, but the light of the moon behind her casts her black hair in a silver halo. The touch of her fingers on my skin comforts me, though I can’t say why. When I wake I find tears running down my face.
Dad gets up late, the way he always does when he’s been ‘working late’ or ‘delayed by the trains’. I’m sitting in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal when he staggers in, still dressed in his clothes from yesterday, some sort of security guard’s uniform.
“Morning,” he says, yawning and slumping into a chair. I don’t look up from the TV. “What are you watching?”
I shrug. It’s a Saturday morning cookery programme. I’m not really watching it. It’s something to distract me from thinking about the flight.
Dad yawns again, then pushes himself out of the chair and goes to get breakfast.
“So, do you want to hear about the new job?” he shouts from the kitchen. “It’s in the city. Some fancy office. All I do is sit and stare at a screen all day. Good pay, though.” There’s the rustle of a cereal packet, the splash of milk and the clink of a spoon on a bowl. Dad comes back in, chewing a mouthful of cereal, a line of milk running down his chin. He chews for a while longer, each chew longer than the last. Then he swallows and puts the bowl down. I can see him out of the corner of my eye, fidgeting with his fingers.
“It’s …” Dad pauses. “Your mum got me the job.”
I turn my head to look at him. I must have heard him wrong. “What?”
“Yeah, I know.” Dad laughs nervously, looking down at his feet. “Weird, isn’t it?”
“No,” I say. My disbelief is turning to anger. “Aliens are weird. Ghosts are weird. Snakes with two heads are weird. This — this is wrong.”
“Hey!” Dad’s head comes up. He looks hurt. “That’s too far, Jason. You don’t talk to me like that. I’m still your dad.”
I shrug and look away. He may be my dad, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an idiot for taking a job from mum.
“Look,” says dad. “It’s a good job, and good pay, and I had an interview and everything. So it’s not like it was much of a favour.”
“Whatever. You know mum won’t see it like that.”
“We’ve been getting on all right, actually. These past few weeks. Things are getting better. She’s happier now.”
“She’s busy. She’s always happy when she’s busy.”
Dad looks away again. He knows it’s true. We both know. Mum’s never happier than when she’s working, and she’s been busier than usual for nearly a month — probably something to do with the experiment in the spare room. For a moment I wonder if I should mention it, but I decide not to. Mum’s probably told dad about it anyway.
Dad finishes his cereal in silence. When the cookery programme ends another one comes on, and I flick through the channels looking for something else to watch. Dad sits and stares at the TV for a while, but I can tell he’s not really watching it, and eventually he gets up and leaves the living room. I hear the shower running, then dad’s footsteps in the bedroom, then the jangle of keys and the creak of the front door. It slams behind him, and the flat is silent save for the endless babbling of the TV.
We avoid each other for the rest of the weekend, and when I leave on Sunday night dad is slumped in front of the TV with a beer in his hand and five more on the floor beside him. We don’t say goodbye.
I don’t go straight back to mum’s house. I walk down to the river instead, following the footpath along the bank past apartment blocks and grubby parks. The tide is in, and the water laps gently in the darkness below me. A dog barks, and another one answers it. Someone’s music blares from an open window in the distance. I walk until I reach an undeveloped area of run-down warehouses and boarded-up wasteland. A sign announces the development of a new complex of luxury apartments starting next year. Someone has scrawled obscene additions to the pictures of smiling couples walking hand-in-hand past the artist’s impression of the development.
I stop and listen. The echo of my footsteps fades, leaving behind an empty silence. I am alone.
I look up at the shattered windows surrounding me. The reflection of streetlights gleams in the remaining glass, giving the impression of a hundred eyes staring back at me. Yet I am not afraid. No-one is here. No-one can hurt me. No-one knows where I am. It’s a good feeling.
I turn to walk back the way I came, but before I’ve gone ten paces I stop again. Someone is standing in the shadows beside one of the warehouses, watching me. I peer into the darkness, and my chest tightens. It’s her, the girl in the hospital gown. She’s standing in her bare feet amongst the weeds and rubbish, her dark eyes fixed on me.
Fear bubbles up inside me, though I don’t know why. I don’t know whether to approach her or back away. Who is she, and why is she following me? How did she know where to find me? She’s only a girl, but something about her makes me deeply, desperately afraid.
“Hey.” I try to keep my voice steady, without much success. “What do you want?”
The girl doesn’t reply. She doesn’t move, and her eyes stay fixed on me.
“What’s your name?”
No reply. Not a sound.
I manage to take a step towards her. “Don’t you have a home?”
The girl turns wordlessly and walks away into the darkness between the buildings. I hear glass crunch beneath her feet, but no cry of pain. I hesitate. I want to follow her, but I feel like I’m chained to the ground, chained by my fear. I will myself to move. I have to follow. I have to find out who she is and what she wants. It takes an effort, but eventually I force first one foot, then the other, to move, and suddenly I’m free and stumbling after her.
“Hey!” I plunge into the darkness, leaving the orange glow of the street lights behind me. I can’t hear her footsteps any more, but still I blunder ahead, fumbling blindly. “Hey! Come back!”
I slam into a brick wall. Blood burst in my mouth, and pain in my forehead. I stagger back, panting, holding a hand to the cut above my eye. I feel along the wall, but there was no way ahead, to the left or right. I turn and looked back along the alley towards the street. It is empty.
I am alone.
The smell of cooking wafts over me as I open mum’s front door. I stop and sniff, wondering what’s going on. Mum never cooks. It’s always takeaways or ready-meals with her — the upmarket kind, Marks and Spencer rather than the oily bolognese dad gets from from Lidl.
I sniff again. It’s proper food, as well — pepper soup, yam, egusi and plantain; and so much spice it makes my eyes water.
“Jason?” Mum’s voice calls from the living room. “Jason, come in here! I’ve got something to tell you!”
I peer around the living room door and see mum sitting on the sofa with someone beside her. Mum’s face is flushed and excited, the happiest I’ve seen her in years. But it’s not mum I’m staring at; it’s not her face that makes my heart pound and my throat tighten. It’s the girl sitting next to her on the sofa, looking up at me with fear and uncertainty in her dark brown eyes. She’s about seven years old, white, with black hair that falls straight down either side of her thin, pinched face. She’s dressed in jeans and a t-shirt instead of a hospital gown, but still I recognise her immediately. There’s no mistaking her.
“Jason,” mum says, standing and beckoning me over. “I was going to tell you earlier, but I thought it might be a nice surprise.”
I don’t go to her. I stand staring at the little white girl who’s been following me all week, and the girl stares back. Mum doesn’t notice. She’s looking down at the girl with a love in her eyes that’s impossible to ignore.
“This is Rachel,” mum says. “She’s going to be staying with us for a few weeks.”
* * *
And there she is. Little Rachel. Keep your eye on her. She’ll be appearing quite a lot more as things progress. And yes, she is important.
Kudos to those of you who can guess where Jason’s dad has cropped up before.