Memories can be deceiving
It’s the end of a long shift and all he wants is to get home and spend the last of the day with his family. But things are not what they seem. The reality of the situation his him hard. He fights against it with a burning passion because accepting it, means losing everything that he loves in the world.
I push open the staff door and step out into the magnificent afternoon. I feel the warm sun and a gentle breeze on my face. Before me the busy car park spreads out and beyond that I can see the tall buildings of the city centre.
At home my wife, Alice, and our baby daughter, Claire, are waiting for me. This morning I let Alice take the car to go shopping and I’m glad I did. It would be a shame to be stuck in rush hour traffic on a day as nice as this.
My name is William and I am twenty-nine years old. I work as a stock picker for Express Couriers Global. It is not a glamorous job but the hours are reasonable and it provides well enough for me, Alice and the little one. I suppose that when we decide to have more children I’ll need to find something better paying. For now though, its more than enough.
Outside of the car park a long straight road seems to stretch into infinity. Cars race up and down heedless of the speed limit. I step aside to let a young woman with a push chair pass. She doesn’t even acknowledge me, let alone thank me for risking my life by stepping into the road for her. I get back on the pavement and continue walking.
Home is a little two-bed on the other side of Wreathing. It’s a bad part of the city, the place you always see on television when they’re talking about drugs and prostitution. We’ve been very fortunate and never had so much as a broken window but I still worry about leaving Alice and Claire alone there all day.
I stop at the corner shop to buy a drink, a packet of cigarettes and some chocolate buttons for baby Claire. We hadn’t planned to give her sweets until she was a little bit older but her grandmother introduced her to chocolate and now she can’t get enough of it. I suppose they are bad for her teeth but I am a man with plenty of vices and there are a lot worse things in the world than a few chocolate buttons on a Friday afternoon.
I pay the shopkeeper, a smiling Asian man with an extensive range of pornography, and leave with smile of my own. I open my can and take a mouthful of cola. There are few things better on a hot day than an ice cold drink and a cigarette. I take one out of the packet, light it and inhale deeply.
I met Alice when we were both in our early twenties and it wasn’t until six-months later that we worked out that we’d gone to the same secondary school. She’d been two years below me and somehow we’d never met. Or, perhaps we did and simply don’t remember, I was pretty forgettable at that age and, from what she tells me, not that I believe it for a second, so was she.
The night it happened I was at a bar with some friends from college. It was a Friday night but back then we didn’t have to wait until the weekend to start drinking. We’d been out practically every night that week, throwing our student loans around to try and get some action. So far it had been a total washout and, by the looks on our miserable faces, none of us expected that night to be any different.
I had my back to the door and kept feeling a cold breeze up my shirt whenever it opened. The first thing I knew of them was when Mark, sitting opposite me, raised his head and smiled, ‘hello ladies.’
I turned around. Three girls stood at the door looking easy in their heels, shorts skirts and low cut tops. They were trying to get three coats onto one hanger for the cloakroom.
A fourth girl walked in behind them and my jaw dropped. She was wearing a purple top that did nothing to disguise her swollen chest. Her dark hair was cut with a fringe and hung loose across her shoulders. I stared into her almond shaped eyes until I realised that she was staring back at me. She smiled and it was the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I turned away, breathless and red with embarrassment.
Sometime later, my confidence boosted by half a dozen beers and several shots of tequila, I plucked up the courage to go and talk to her. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. What really happened was that I went up to the bar to buy drinks and, be it providence of fate or plain dumb luck, I found myself standing next to her.
She smelled like an angel would.
She had her back to me but, sensing someone behind her, she turned and looked up. I smiled but she stared blankly at me. I was not to be put off.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Billy.’
Her forehead creased and she tilted her head, as if she was trying to work out why she recognised me.
‘From the door,’ I said, pointing towards the door as if she wouldn’t know what one was.
She nodded and smiled. Her teeth were perfect. ‘Alice,’ she said.
I wanted to tell her how she was the most beautiful person I had ever met. I wanted to tell her that, now we’d met, I couldn’t imagine spending a single day without her. I wanted to tell her that I was in love with her and already wondering how to propose.
‘Can I buy you a drink Alice?’ I asked instead.
She nodded. ‘That would be good.’
As if some cosmic sign, the bartender appeared in front of me as I turned around. The drinks for my friends were entirely forgotten and I ordered just for the two of us.
‘Do you want to go and sit down?’ I asked, handing her a vodka and lemonade.
Nodding again she said, ‘sure.’
I led her away from the bar and away from the dance floor. We found a comfortable sofa in the back where we could sit together, talk and be heard over the music.
I reach the top of the hill and stop beside a bin. Sweat now trickles down my back and sticks my shirt to my chest. I knock back the last of my drink and drop it, rattling into the can.
By now Claire will have woken up from her nap and Alice will be feeding her. She likes to sit in the chair by the window and watch the strangers pass by while Claire suckles her. On occasion I’ve arrived home in time to find her doing this. When I’ve questioned her she’s claimed to be waiting for me and that she has no interest in the goings on of strangers. This is a lie but I love her for telling it.
When I set off again I’m thinking about which story to read baby Claire tonight. Last night it was Winnie the Pooh. Tonight I might read Henry’s Big Red Tractor or Topsy Mopsy which is her favourite. When I was a boy my father used to make up stories for me and I wish I could do the same for Claire but I am a man who has no imagination for such things.
I get a good run down the hill. The pavements are fairly wide so it’s easy to pass other foot traffic. Also there are only three points where I have to slow to check for traffic so I can build up a reasonable speed without worrying about getting myself killed.
The sun has begun its long descent and the light is warm, golden and blue. At the bottom of the hill I can see the tops of the tallest buildings and the bridge across the motor way. It will take me another twenty-minutes to get home and I’m already imagining the smell of Alice’s hair and the soft touch of her cheek on mine.
A year after meeting we moved into a small flat in Coram. The rent was cheaper than central Wreathing and you could see the river from our living room, a view we could never have afforded for the convenience of living on the other side of the bridge.
When I finished college I took a job at the local supermarket stacking shelves. The basic was poor but there was always overtime available. We weren’t quite on the poverty line but, on more than one occasion, dinner was a dented tin of beans on practically stale bread. We didn’t have a television and couldn’t always afford to feed the electric and gas metres. So, on some winter nights, as soon as it got dark we would go to bed and huddle together for warmth. Not that huddling together in bed was in any way unpleasant.
A year after I’d graduated it was Alice’s turn to don the black gown and mortar board to receive her scroll.
As it was every year, the graduation ball was held on a private boat on the river. We ate a sumptuous three-course meal and the drink flowed freely. Well, not quite freely, when tickets are one-hundred and twenty pounds each I don’t think anything can be described as flowing freely.
The black sky was full of stars and the air was cool. We were on the deck trying to dance to a song that was old when my parents were teenagers. Helped somewhat by the irregular bob and rock of the boat as it made its was up the river, by eleven-o-clock I was drunk. In fact, I was plastered. I must have come over quite ill looking as Alice, who was surely as drunk as I, stopped dancing and looked at me.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked.
I too stopped dancing, intending to tell her that I was perfectly fine, and that’s when I realised that I really wasn’t.
‘Do you want some water?’ she asked.
I shook my head but that just made things worse. ‘I might sit down,’ I said.
‘I’ll come with you,’ she said, and not just to make herself look good or on the assumption that I would say no. She was genuinely concerned about me. Even in my drunken funk I could tell that and it reminded me why I loved her so much.
‘Go and dance with Becky,’ I said. ‘I just need to sit out for a couple of songs.’
She didn’t move. I really needed to sit down and I was tempted just to let her come with me, it’s not as if I wouldn’t have appreciated her company. But I could appreciate her company from a distance. This was her graduation ball, she shouldn’t have to spend it looking after her drunken boyfriend.
‘Honestly,’ I said.
She wasn’t convinced and stayed where she was with her bottom lip stuck out in a pout. I couldn’t stand any more, if I didn’t sit down now I was going to fall down.
‘Dance,’ I said and started to turn away. ‘I’ll be sitting down over there.’
I walked away and didn’t turn back. I found a quiet spot in the now darkened seating area where no body would be able to see my green face and sunken eyes. When I sat down I saw Alice, still stood where I had left her.
I waved that I was okay.
After a moment she waved back and then, finally, turned away to join her friends.
Alice was not a professional dancer and, even with my untrained eye, I could see that she had no particular talent for it. She had an uncoordinated and peculiarly graceless way about her as she moved across the dance floor. Yet she threw herself into the rhythm of the music with such unrestrained enthusiasm that I was intoxicated. Her hair, which she had spent hours washing, brushing, tying up here and teasing out there, flew wildly around her head in some places and stuck to her face in others. She didn’t seem to care.
This, I thought to myself as I sat in the shadows trying not to get sick, was how she would dance at our wedding.
I light another cigarette as I pass through the city centre. It is crowded with people rushing home for the weekend or trying to get a bit of last minute shopping done. I walk up the slight hill, past the Outlook, past the department store and around the corner towards the hotel. Once past the hotel I take the first road to the left and at the top of the hill I can see home. My legs, especially my calves, are starting to throb so I slow down.
At the top of the hill I take a final pull on my cigarette and then drop it through the grate of a drain. Alice insists that I don’t let Claire see me smoke and I wouldn’t want her to. One day I will give up.
At the front door I fumble in my pocket for the key and curse under my breath when I remember where I left it. On the dining room table there is a torn open envelope and the bank statement that it contained. Next to that is my green coffee cup, still with a little of the muddy brown liquid inside, and a flowery plate with toast crumbs and a banana skin on it. My keys are beside them all.
I hope Claire is awake because I need to knock. Soft and short, loud enough for Alice to hear but not so loud as to wake any sleeping babies that might be inside.
There are no lights on which makes me wonder if Alice is asleep herself. The house is quiet and I’m taken by surprise when the door suddenly opens and then again when I see that the person who has opened it is neither my wife nor child.
Two weeks after Alice’s graduation I took her for a meal at our favourite restaurant. As I watched her eating, talking and laughing I became certain that I was making the right decision. We shared cheese cake and ice cream for dessert and while we waited for the coffee I took the ring out of my pocket.
‘What’s that?’ she asked innocently as I slid it across the table towards her. She could barely contain her smile but she tried and I could see the strain of it on her face.
‘I love you Alice,’ I said. ‘It would make me the happiest man in the world if you would take me as your husband.’
She picked up the ring and handed it back to me. For a moment I thought that she was turning me down, a possibility I hadn’t really considered. I took it from her cautiously and then she held out her hand, spreading her fingers.
I wasn’t completely sure which finger it belonged on.
‘I would be honoured William,’ she said.
I slid the ring onto her finger and suddenly the restaurant erupted with applause. I hadn’t even known anyone was watching. The manager brought us champagne and we toasted our happy future together.
He is a big man who appears even bigger as he stands on the step of my house while I stand on the garden path six inches below. He has a round body and a shaved head with a friendly face beneath it. He is somewhat familiar, as if I have passed him in the street occasionally. I am not scared but confused and too flustered to speak.
‘Hello William,’ he says. He has a bemused smile and his eyes suddenly seem tired.
I do not know what he is doing here and all sorts of possibilities flash through my mind. I imagine Alice and Claire tied and gagged somewhere, waiting for me to come home and save them. I feel anger rising like bile in my chest and his friendly face suddenly disgusts me.
He is a giant and I am not so foolish as to attack him at once. Perhaps if I rushed at him I could do some damage but, unless by fortunate accident, it’s unlikely he would stay down for very long. No, for the sake of my family, I have to wait until a better opportunity presents itself.
‘Would you like to come in?’ he asks.
I am appalled by his casual manner but smile reassuringly and nod. He steps back from the door and I go inside.
The first thing I notice is that the carpet is different. Dark brown where this morning it had been green. Perhaps the seven foot behemoth breathing down my neck is only a carpet fitter and really there’s nothing to worry about. But perhaps that’s just how he got through the door and even now Alice and Claire are waiting for my help.
‘Through here,’ he says and leads me into my living room.
The sofas are new and arranged around a giant screen that takes up half the room. It is impossibly new and futuristic. I don’t think I would even know how to switch it on.
‘Take a seat,’ he says.
I am angry and confused but at the same time grateful that I don’t have to think about what to do next. I drop into the shiny white leather chair by the window. I remember the times Alice has sat here with the fire on and Claire in her lap. I feel tears in my eyes and a crack in my heart.
‘Be back in a minute,’ says the big man and turns towards the door.
‘Wait,’ I say, finally recovering my voice. I’m scared for my wife and daughter.
He turns back towards me.
‘Where’s Alice?’ I ask. ‘Where’s Claire?’
His head drops and something like pity appears on his face.
I imagine them both dead, laying in pools of their own blood. It is already too late for me to save them.
‘Wait here,’ he says and before I can say anything more he’s left the room.
I’m shaking. Something has gone wrong, terribly wrong. I feel weak and powerless. Small and inconsequential.
Claire was a surprise but a happy one. We’d been together for eight years but hadn’t spoken about Children. I suspect that, if we had, we would have agreed that we were about five years away from all that.
I knew nothing about it until one day Alice came home with a pregnancy test kit and announced that her period was a week late.
Of course it came out positive.
Eight and a half months later I took Alice into hospital and Claire was born. She was a beautiful baby and healthy. Two days later I brought them both home and our little family was complete.
I do not know how much time passes before the man returns. I hear him enter the room and when I look up he is standing there holding a tray. He puts it on the coffee table in the middle of the room. I see a tea pot, cups, a milk jug and a sugar bowl. It looks as if I am about to have dinner with the queen.
I laugh out loud. It’s a dry, choking sound that signifies not pleasure but pain.
‘Are you alright?’ he says looking at me.
I nod but have no voice to speak.
He doesn’t talk as he pours two cups of tea. Into one he puts two lumps of sugar and a small amount of milk. He stirs and hands it to me. This is exactly how I take my tea and I wonder how he could know.
I take the cup from him and lean back in my seat. This all seems so unreal. If I am asleep then Alice will be laying beside me and Claire will be in her room. If this is a dream then everything is alright and I don’t have to worry.
When the doorbell rings I almost fly out of my seat. The electronic chime reverberates painfully in my ears. This is not the sound I am used to hearing. I have managed to spill tea down myself and, in my shock at feeling the hot liquid soaking into my crotch, I jump up and the cup falls to the floor with a rattling explosion of china.
I look at the man. I am ashamed for having lost control but even more so for the apologetic whimpering look on my face.
‘It’s okay,’ he says as he casually puts his own cup on the table in front of him. ‘I’ll sort it out.’ Then he stands up and leaves the room.
His sympathetic tone causes my shame to explode into anger. How dare he treat me this way in my own house. I leave the cup where it has fallen and determine to confront him when he returns.
I hear the front door open and three sets of muffled voices in the hallway. That I cannot hear exactly what they are saying tells me that they are speaking in purposefully low voices.
The big man walks back into the room and I take a step forwards. ‘Listen here,’ I say, preparing to tell him exactly what’s on my mind. Before I can finish, however, two more men enter behind him.
One is in his thirties, short and weedy looking, he is wearing a dark gray suit and an open necked shirt. Pinned to his breast pocket there is a white identity badge but I cannot read what it says. The other man, I am surprised to find, is my uncle Andrew. He’s bigger than I remember him, and his hair is somewhat shorter and lighter, but there is enough of a family resemblance for me to be convinced.
‘Andrew?’ I say but he does not respond. They all look at me and suddenly I realise what is going on.
The man with the badge, which I still cannot read, he must be a police officer. He’s come to tell me that Alice and Claire have been killed and he’s brought Andrew with him to comfort me.
My heart breaks before any of them says a word.
Andrew steps towards me and as he does the light hits him in such a way as to make me question my earlier identification of him. He’s certainly familiar and he has the family nose and jaw line but there’s enough of a difference to make me unsure.
He stops in front of me and reaches out for my hand. I am too confused to stop him. He opens his mouth to speak and says simply, and devastatingly, ‘Dad?’
The world seems to wobble and I feel as if I might pass out. I look at this man, this old man, standing in front of me and I can no longer guess what is going to happen next. Whatever it is I will no longer be a part of it. I pull my hand away sharply.
‘Who are you?’ I demand angrily.
‘Dad it’s me,’ he says. ‘It’s Peter.’
The name sounds familiar but it’s not an uncommon name.
I take a step back and he follows me.
‘Where are they?’ I say. ‘Where’s Alice and Claire?’
He reaches for my hand again. ‘Dad please,’ he says. ‘Try to remember.’
I feel his giant sweaty paw on my own and push it away. I’ve had enough of this nonsense. If they won’t tell me what’s happening then I’ll have to find out for myself.
I try to push past him but he does not budge. He takes hold of me tightly around the arms. I struggle to get away, shaking my head from side to side and repeating, ‘leave me alone. Leave me alone.’
I had taken the day off work and stood in the living room with Alice listening to our not quite teenage daughter banging around upstairs. At eleven Claire was not a baby any more but to me she always would be. Peter, who really was still a baby, was asleep in the room next door. I worried that Claire’s racket might wake him but all I could hear through the baby monitor was his breathing.
I took Alice’s hand and brought it to my lips with a kiss. She turned towards me and smiled.
A door slammed upstairs and a rumble of footsteps brought Claire down to us. It was her first day at secondary school and she was dressed in her uniform for the first time. She looked so young in her maroon sweater and black skirt that I found it difficult to believe we were actually going to send her to big school.
‘Does it look stupid?’ she asked. ‘It does, doesn’t it?’
Alice let go of my hand and went to our baby bird. ‘You look beautiful Claire,’ she said and I could hear her voice catch in her throat as she struggled to hold back the tears.
It was pride, and I was feeling much the same.
I glanced at the clock on the fireplace. It was gone eight. ‘You should get a move on,’ I said. ‘You don’t want to be late on your first day.’
‘We won’t be late Dad,’ she said with the sullen tone that reminded me of my own teenage years and my hopes that Claire wouldn’t be quite so bad.
‘Okay then,’ I said with a mischievous smile. ‘Let me get my camera and I’ll take some pictures.’ She hated having her picture taken and I expected her to chose school as the lesser of two evils.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Lets get it over with.’
When I returned with my camera she was already putting on her jacket. I only managed to get a few shots before Alice declared, ‘we’re going to be late.’
It was more than I’d expected so I put my camera down with good grace. ‘Drive carefully,’ I said. We’d drawn straws for who got to take Claire on her first day and I’d lost.
‘Love you,’ said Alice.
‘Love you too,’ I replied and kissed her cheek. ‘Love you Claire,’ I said as she opened the door.
‘Dad!’ she complained.
I put my hand on Alice’s waist and walked her to he door. ‘Be careful,’ I said again and tilted my head down for another kiss.
The door closed behind her and I found myself alone. The house suddenly seemed very quiet. I walked through the living room and into the dining room where Peter still slept. I quietly pulled out a dining room chair and sat down to watch him.
In the mirror I see the face of an old man who I do not recognise. His hair is patchy and white, his skin creased and worn. The man claiming to be my son insists that this is me. The world seems to be dissolving into nothingness and I am not sure if I am going to pass out or throw up. None of this make sense.
‘It’s okay Dad,’ he says and in the mirror I see him move towards me. ‘I’m here now.’
I see him moving his arm up to put around my shoulder. I do not want him touching me so I turn away from the mirror and face him.
‘Where’s Alice?’ I ask. I don’t know what it going on but I want her here with me. I won’t believe this is me until I see my reflection in her face.
This man pretending to be my son, his eyes drop for a moment before he answers me. ‘Don’t you remember Dad?’ he asks.
Conversations that start off like this never end well. My insides feel as if they are full of cement. ‘What?’ I ask him, my voice broken and old.
‘Dad,’ he says, pausing for dramatic effect or just to delay the inevitable. ‘Mum’s dead.’
And it’s like hearing it for the first time.
I am broken and alone. I feel the absolute vacancy of knowing that I will never again kiss her lips or touch her skin. I wonder how many times I’ve heard this news for the first time.
I wonder how my heart can stand to be broken again and again.
I wonder how my son, my beautiful son, can bare to tell me this over and over.
There are tears in my eyes and my voice is gone. I don’t think I can stand and I don’t protest when Peter puts him arm around my shoulders.
‘Come on Dad,’ he says but I barely hear him. ‘Lets take you home.’
I wake up and for a moment I can’t remember where I am. I don’t open my eyes in case she isn’t there. Sometimes I have bad dreams and when I wake up I’m not sure what is real.