The Ford Cortina drifts to the kerb, bronze paint and cream vinyl on a cold grey street beyond a dream-like mist of nylon net curtains, beyond neat trimmed privet, beyond the oiled hinges of the fussy iron gate.
Curtains twitch, Mother sighs.
In the room, eyebrows are raised and lowered, mutters muttered, tuts tutted. Father walks to the kitchen, lurking like a cardigan’ed sentinel in the shadows by the back door.
The perched family line the parlour on dining chairs, an aviary of dull dun birds with blue rinsed plumage and liver spotted wattles, wetting their prim beaks in sherry or milky tea, tilting paper crowned heads towards the whispers of others, their song a grey twitter of gossip and disapproval.
Jewels on wrinkled necks and puckered lobes flash reflections across The Green Lady, The Crying Boy, horse brasses and flying ducks, a statue of the Virgin, a crooked shillelagh, a flask of holy water, a sacred heart, totems long taken for granted by the elders but filled with voodoo for the young.
As the owlish elders hoot muted outrage at his arrival, we the seen-and-not-heard’s fidget and wriggle with excitement among the carpet slippers and faux crocodile handbags, exchanging shining glances and whispers of our own.
Phrases we pick from the mutters and tuts above our heads;
Ne’er do well, black sheep, bad lot, disappointment. Rumours of good jobs lost, nice girls left, a brush with the law, fights and drink.
They mean nothing to us, we do not care for their laws.
We care only for him.
A jaunty rap on the back door stirs the sentinel, who opens the door to let him pass with a forced joviality, the now silent elders straining to catch each word from the kitchen, seeking hints of fresh outrage, fuel for further tutting and muttering.
Mother puts on her polite-but-care-worn face, keeping her crumpled scowl of disappointment close to hand, just in case.
And he is suddenly among us, filling the room, pressing the dusty twigs of the family tree against the blown vinyl wallpaper where they shrink from the bright light of his vitality.
The seen-and-not-heard’s are suddenly seen, suddenly heard, a pell mell rush to grab a handful of corduroy jacket or Levi jean, to feel the brush of wild beard, to hear our nicknames spoken by him, as if to prove he never forgets us and that we’re always special; Spider, Goldilocks, BigBadBen, SuperFran, we’re suddenly comic book heroes of his making.
Not a head goes untousled by his strong calloused hand, not a cheek without a beard scoured sting that leaves lop sided blushes on each child’s face.
He brings no presents, no sober gifts in cheap gaudy paper, no pencil case, no dictionary, no excruciating packet of M & S underpants. Instead he comes with empty hands, magic hands that conjure coins from behind unsuspecting ears, beer scented coins, taproom change turned into little miracles that make the seen-and-not-heard’s squeak with delight, and reluctantly crack the dour facades of the parlour birds on their perches.
Father passes him a bottle of stout and he drinks deep, smacking his lips loudly and rolling his eyes for comic effect as quivering droplets of ale cling to his whiskers like black pearls and we giggle and squeak at his feet, delighted, liberated, as drunk as if we’d been at the stout too, the coins that had filled his pockets now filling ours with a jangling promise of spice and comics, bottles of pop and Airfix kits, a gift that can’t be wrapped in glossy paper, the gift of infinite choice.
And dinner is ready, the dinner delayed in the hope of his coming, in the dread of his coming, and mother is both troubled and relieved that he is there. And as they pass each other in the doorway to the dining room I see her speak to him, softly, words I cannot hear but actions that say enough, she kisses his cheek briefly in the same way she kisses mine, she squeezes him hard enough to turn her fingers white as they splay across his broad back and he squeezes her in return and laughs and calls her ‘sis’, and the moment is gone as soon as it has happened, and we are shooed to our seats at the table.
The steaming tureens cut the table in half with a shifting wall of mist, through which I can see him as if in a dream, the emerald paper crown majestic upon his thick thatch, the burst scarlet detritus of a cracker scattered before him, and he tells the joke like only he can, commanding laughter where others would receive groans, slapping the table as tears spring to his eyes, and he tears a crescent moon from the plump drumstick with bright crooked teeth, washed down with a draught of cold German wine.
And now each drink is balanced against each bite, a seesaw of sobriety, one canceling out the other. A fat waxy potato pierced by his fork allows a stout, a gaggle of buttery sprouts conquers the tawny port, minted peas defeat the Riesling, cold ham beats chilled Hock. He avoids the trifle like the plague, for he says it is food that is laced with booze, neither fish nor fowl, and should be avoided at all costs for it is impossible to reach a balance with such a deceiving dessert. Instead he accepts a whiskey from father with grave respect and thanks, sips it most carefully and compliments him as though my father had distilled it himself, and my father flushes with strange pride, as if he had indeed distilled it himself. To balance the whiskey a slice of stilton is taken, and nibbled with a connoisseurs care, before being declared the finest cheese there had ever been. I, too, decline the trifle, and surreptitiously nibbles a crumb of stilton, but the bitter tang is like tin on my tongue, and I quietly request a bowl of the pudding.
As I spoon cream and custard, crack chill brittle chocolate buttons between my teeth, I watch him still, red faced and gleaming, both sober and drunk, a neolithic king rocking on the back two legs of his peasant throne, and as the grey birds clack their spoons after the last stray threads of cream, and sip the sweet dregs from mother’s best glasses, he slowly closes his eyes and tips back his head, and stillness floods the room for they know what is to come.
I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year
I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer
But now I’m returning with gold in great store
And I never will play the wild rover no more
And it’s No, Nay, never,
No, nay never no more
Will I play the wild rover,
No never no more
And this bawdy bar room song is sung slow, and with such sadness, that all the drab birds tilt their beaks downwards, and remember the time when their plumage had colour, and their song was a bright one, and the laughter bubbled like brook water and running came as natural as walking, and life that had now passed was still to be lived but they knew that the time had been squandered, the fruit left to rot and the branch left to wither, and tears dripped from the tips of beaks into glass and bowl as they contemplated that loss, and we the seen-and-not-heard’s keep still and confused, for life had barely been pulled from it’s wrappings for us and loss was merely a mislaid toy.
He has to leave.
Warm embraces come from every quarter, wrinkled hands shake his again and again, his cheek is kissed so often that his shirt smells of lavender water and the old men press pound notes into his hand.
but he saves his affection for us, the little ones, and each of us he so holds tight to his great chest and with such love that we cry at his going, and each of us will later find a miracle pound note crumpled in our pocket.
Mother sobs in the kitchen as the back door quietly closes, and she stays in there for a while with father.
All too soon the birds begin their bitter twitter along the walls, but I watch from the window, through the spider web trap of net curtains, watch his slow progress along the path. The winter breeze gently plucks the emerald crown from his head and sends it to flutter on the pruned barbs of a dormant rose, while his unruly lighter refuses to flame beneath the canopy of his jacket.
He seems smaller out there, in the cold, in the dusk, little more than a boy himself, and his shoulders seemed slumped beneath a weight I cannot fathom. He looks back, once, as if to contemplate a return, to allow himself to be drawn back to the withered bosom of his family, the safe suffocation of home, and I press my hot hands to the glass as if to force him on, to will him to climb into that beautiful car and drive away at speed, the tyres spinning and smoking like American cars, and my hands breathe a halo of mist onto the cold glass and my tears blur my vision as I urge to him to go, wishing I could go with him but knowing my time will come, and through the layers of tears and mist and lace I see the flame take, a billow of smoke, and his unsteady footsteps continue to click across the neat crazy paving and the gate is snicked shut without a squeak.
I nuzzle my head beneath the nets, smear the mist and sleeve my tears, and I see him, staring straight at me, one hand on the gate, the other raised in farewell. I raise mine in response, and we smile, and he is gone.
I return to the throng unnoticed, gripping a silver coin in my pocket, pirate treasure, treasure never spent, kept forever.