The morning light is far too bright but I am far too hung over to move, to find shade, so I lie there like a lizard and just take it.
Eyes squeezed shut, silent red explosions behind my eyelids.
Pushing my dry, leathery tongue around my mouth, smearing what little saliva I have left onto my gums, my lips.
Outside I can hear birds. Garden birds, not seagulls or pigeons.
Seagulls, seaside. Pigeons, city.
Sparrows. So I’m in a house.
Not my house.
The sheets feel different on my skin. I’m on the wrong side of the bed.
I can hear breathing beside me.
I slide a hand beneath the sheet and touch warm, naked skin.
I don’t know if it is a man or a woman, but I presume it’s a woman.
A floorboard creaks.
A shadow moves between me and the window.
Then another shadow.
I try to open my eyes but the light is just awful, genuinely painful. I push myself up on an elbow, my vertebrae softly popping. I rub a hand over my face, rub my eyes.
The shadow is back.
I open my eyes.
A child. A boy.
Blonde hair, blue eyes, crumpled pajamas.
Six, maybe seven.
Next to him another child, a girl. A little younger. Same hair, same eyes.
The light from a window without curtains throws a halo around them both, illuminating their golden hair where it sticks up, scruffy from their pillows. They stare at me with blank expressions which I find slightly unnerving, until I remember that’s what children do – they watch.
I clear my throat, unsure if my voice will work or not.
I say, “Hello.”
I sound cracked, an octave too low, rough with the previous night’s booze.
The children don’t reply.
I smile at them but they don’t smile back.
I whisper, “Who are you two then?”
The little girl says, “We’re hungry.”
I look over at the mound beside me.
Dark blonde hair falling across the sheets. I can’t see her face.
I take a discreet look under the covers.
My clothes are crumpled in the corner.
Quietly I say, “I need to get dressed. Wait for me on the landing.”
The children walk silently out.
I get out of bed, the morning sun warm on my skin. I look out of the window. It’s a cul-de-sac, the house overlooking a horseshoe of other houses. The houses are new, probably about a year or two old but the gardens are already neglected, rubbish strewn across overgrown lawns. There is no carpet on the bedroom floor, just bare boards.
I pull on my clothes. They smell of aftershave, perfume, cigarette smoke, beer.
I try to remember the evening before but it’s vague.
I remember talking to someone, kissing someone. I remember a taxi.
I don’t remember the children, don’t remember a babysitter.
Where did they come from?
I pick up my boots and leave the room. The woman in bed hasn’t moved.
The two children are standing on the landing, They’re holding hands.
I whisper, “Which door is the bathroom?”
The boy points.
The floor is cold under my bare feet. I see the children have bare feet too.
I say, “Have you got slippers?”
They shake their heads.
I say, “Can you turn on the telly?”
They nod their heads.
“Go downstairs and watch cartoons. Keep the sound down. I’ll be down in a bit.”
The children walk downstairs. The boy looks back up at me. I smile at him. He doesn’t smile back.
I go into the bathroom and lock the door. I take a piss, looking at myself in the mirror. I look a mess, feel older and look older than my twenty two years. I run the hot tap but only cold water comes out. I wash my face in the cold water, drink some from my cupped hands and it makes my teeth ache, then I rinse it around my mouth. I squirt some toothpaste onto my finger and clean my teeth as best I can. I dampen my hair, run my fingers through it, trying to loosen the tangles.
I unlock the bathroom door, go into the children’s room and find a pair of socks each for them.
Downstairs, the kids are in the front room, sitting on the sofa, watching the telly. Tom chases Jerry and Jerry hurts Tom, again and again.
The floor is concrete. There is no carpet, no rugs. The walls are bare, painted magnolia. All the walls are magnolia. In the room there is the sofa and a small table with the television on it.
While the children stare at the screen I put socks on their freezing cold feet.
I say, “Budge up.”
The children shuffle along the sofa and I sit next to them, putting my own socks on. I look at the hard floor, then I put my boots on too.
I say, “What do you kids have for breakfast?”
They both look at me.
I say, “I’ll take a look.”
The kitchen looks new and bare. There are no jars on the side, no boxes.
I look through the cupboards and find cereal. Corn flakes. In another cupboard there are plastic bowls.
I find milk in the fridge, but that’s about the only thing in there.
The fridge looks new. Empty and new.
In another cupboard there’s a half empty bottle of vodka and an unopened carton of orange juice.
I take the juice, shake it. Cut off the corner. I find plastic cups, fill two with the juice.
I get the breakfast things ready at the small table and call the children into the kitchen.
They paddle through, looking confused.
I say, “Take a seat.”
The children giggle nervously and sit down.
I say, “Warm or cold milk?”
They both grin and say, “Warm!”
I fill a cup with milk, microwave it. Pour it on the cornflakes. Sprinkle on sugar. Slide the bowls in front of them.
They shovel the cereal into their mouths, warm milk dripping down their chins. I sit and watch them for a bit, then I put the kettle on. I find a jar of Nescafe. I don’t usually drink coffee but I can’t find tea bags so it’ll have to do.
The little girl says, “What’s this?”
I look around. “Orange juice. Don’t you like it?”
“I love it!”
I say, “Have you not tried it before?”
They both shake their heads and gulp the juice. I refill their glasses.
I say, “Go steady with that.”
The children gulp juice.
I sip my coffee.
We grin at each other.
I hear movement in the front room. The television channel is turned over onto some daytime show.
She walks into the kitchen and looks at the three of us.
She is a older than me, maybe thirty. Small, about five foot. She’s pretty but her face is hard, as though life has been hard.
The children stop smiling and stiffen up. They watch her, tense. She looks slightly bewildered at us all sat at the table.
She smiles and says, “Morning.”
I say, “Morning. Want a coffee?”
She nods, says, “You’ve made yourself at home!”
The children loosen up, but they don’t finish their juice. She looks at the carton, then looks at me.
“Where d’you find that?”
I say, “Back of the cupboard. The kids were hungry and thirsty, so I…”
“That’s ok. Drink up you two.”
The children wolf down the juice while I fix her a cup of coffee.
There is a playing field at the back of the house and I watch cloud shadows shift over the grass as I rinse a cup and spoon coffee into it.
I ask her, “How do you like it?”
She gives me a secretive smile. “You seem to know how I like it.”
I look at the children. They dart glances at both our faces, working things out, trying to read between the lines. The boy is openly staring at me. His face isn’t blank anymore. He seems cheekier, smiling slightly.
I guess at milk and sugar and pass her the cup.
I say to her, “Nice house.”
I say, “Just moved in?”
She says, “Been here two years.”
I say, “Oh. I noticed the hot water isn’t working.”
She rolls her eyes. “Council are supposed to come out but they haven’t. Same old story. Set of bastards.”
I don’t like swearing in front of children but I don’t say anything.
She sits down at the kitchen table, fishes a half empty pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her dressing gown and lights one. She breathed out across the table.
I say, “No thanks.”
She says, “You got kids?”
I say, “Nope.”
“No-one else on the scene, then?”
I hesitate. She’s not someone to lie to. I say, “No one special.”
“But there’s someone.”
“I know a few girls, friends.”
“Not exactly.” I change tack. “How about you?” I glance at the children.
She shakes her head. Not anymore.”
The kids are still watching us, eyes huge.
She notices, frowns. It’s like a dark cloud across the playing field. The mood changes.
“Upstairs! School uniforms, now!”
The children jump down from their seats and run for the stairs. I hear their feet thump upwards and into their room.
She smokes her cigarette slowly and places a hand on my thigh, stroking it.
“She says, “You didn’t have to get up so quickly this morning, you know.”
I say, “Aye, well. The kids…”
“You could have told them to piss off.”
“I didn’t like to.”
She keeps stroking my leg.
“They’re off to school in a bit. Are you going to stick around?”
I don’t know what she means when she says, ‘stick around’. It could mean for a bit of mid-morning slap and tickle, it could mean forever.
Before I can say anything the children start to argue. She ignores them, stares at me as she smokes her cigarette.
I say, “Wait a minute.” I walk to he bottom of the stairs.
The little girl is stood at the top in her underwear.
I say, “Where is your uniform?”
I go upstairs and look through her drawers and there is no uniform. The one she’d worn the day before is screwed up under the bed. I get it out and flatten it out on the bed. It isn’t too bad. The girl is watching me, fascinated.
I say, “Don’t worry. My school clothes get like this too.”
I pull her polo shirt over her head and then her jumper. I get her to put her own skirt on because that feels a bit weird. I help the boy with his things, then tell them both to brush their teeth. They giggle and nudge each other, spitting in the sink and getting toothpaste on their jumpers.
I go downstairs.
She is sat at the table, smoking another cigarette. A haze of fine blue smoke hangs over the kitchen and the morning light makes it glow. Her dressing gown has fallen open where she’s crossed her legs. I can see her thighs. She has good legs. I can feel a stirring in my jeans.
She says, “You’re good with kids. A natural dad.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say. I sit across the table from her.
With a slight twitch of her eyebrow, she says, “What have you got planned for today?”
“Work,” I say. “I’m on a late shift, so yeah, got to get to work.”
She looks interested. “What do you do?”
“It’s on computers. At a printers, a factory. I… well… it’s pretty dull actually.”
“Doesn’t sound dull. Sounds clever. Printers? They say the pay is good for printers.”
I shrug. “It’s not bad. What do you do?”
She looks me in the eye and says, “Nothing.”
I say, “Oh.”
She flicks hair from her face. “I’ve got enough on here, cooking and cleaning for these two. That’s a full time job.”
There’s no food, there’s nothing to clean, the house is bare.
She takes another long pull at her cigarette, watching me. She says, “After work, where are you going then?”
“You live with your mam and dad, or…”
“I’ve got my own place.”
That eyebrow again. She says, “Renting?”
“No, I’ve bought my own. Mortgage, obviously but…”
It trails off as she continues to watch me. Her dressing gown has fallen open some more, revealing cleavage. I’m not sure that she is wearing anything underneath.
I hear the television change channel in the other room, back to cartoons. She checks her watch.
I say, “What time do they have to set off for school?”
She says, “Five minutes or so.”
I smile, nod at her dressing gown. “You going like that?”
She says, “They take themselves to school. It’s only over the field. I can watch them from here.”
I nod, but I don’t say anything.
She stands up and goes to refill the kettle. She has her back to me. She says, “You could come back here tonight if you like. I’ll cook you something. The kids would be pleased to see you. They like you. I can tell.”
I say, “Where’s their dad?”
She says, “I’ve not got a bloody clue. Don’t worry about him.”
She stays quiet for a minute, then says, “These other lasses you know, your… friends. if you were with me, I’d bloody kill them, if they even looked at you. I would. I’d be having none of that.”
She sits down again opposite me, staring at me, defiant. I don’t know what to say, I’m a bit shocked and confused, but then I realise that she’s trying to say she’s loyal, that she demands loyalty.
I nod my head. “I understand.”
Looking out the window now, she says, “I’m not a great mum, I know, but I’m not a bad one either. Round here, there’s plenty of bad ones. I’m not one of them. Thing is, kids need a dad. Someone decent, y’know? It’s not easy, being alone. It’s hard. Things haven’t been easy for a long time, for the three of us, what with all the moving and that, but we try, y’know? I try. I do.”
She’s still looking out of the window. She says, “You seem decent.”
I say, “I don’t know about that.”
I’ve a feeling we were talking a lot last night, among other things. She probably told me stuff but I don’t remember anything.
She goes to a drawer and finds a pen and paper. She writes her number on it, pushes it across the table. Next to her number she has drawn a heart.
The children start laughing uncontrollably at something that’s happened on the television.
I stand up and go through to the other room. They are on the couch, side by side, giggling.
I turn back to her and say, “Have you got a hairbrush?”
She says, “What for?”
I say, “The kids hair. They look a bit wild.”
She rolls her eyes and goes upstairs. She comes back, passes me a brush matted with her own hair.
I brush the children’s hair and make them look half decent. We find their school bags and take them to the back door of the house.
I say, “I’m going to walk them, if that’s ok.”
She shrugs. “If you want. Hurry back.” she strokes my arm.
I open the door and the kids tumble out, unkissed by their mother.
We walk across the lawn to the back gate. In the kitchen, she is lighting another cigarette.
I hold a small hand in each of my hands, swinging the little arms gently backwards and forwards. They are talking, chattering away, telling me everything, nothing. Precious things of no importance that are so important. Our shoes kick the morning dew off the grass and I tell them to wave at their mum and we do but she doesn’t wave back. We walk across the field in the morning sunshine and we can see our breath, we blow clean smoke, and I tell them a joke that is rubbish but they laugh anyway. We hear the school bell and I tell them to run, and they ask why, and I tell it’s not good to be late so we run, tripping and laughing.
We make it on time. They wave back at me as they join the scrum of little people jostling to get into the school, and the door closes and they are gone.
I walk back across the field and I stop.
I can see her in the kitchen window, small and alone. I think she has her arm crossed. I know she can see me.
I turn and walk in the other direction, not looking back.
I walk down an alleyway that leads to a road and I keep walking until I find somewhere familiar and as I pass a waste bin I drop the crumpled piece of paper into it, the piece of paper with a love heart, and I make all sorts of excuses up in my head, reasons why, reasons why not, but everything is just an excuse and it doesn’t make me feel like a decent person.
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