By: Caroline Healy
he sat at the bar and drank. Intermittently, he glanced at the headlines of the newspaper on the table in front of him, scanning the tragic and the comic, hoping that something would jostle him, evoke an emotion. Sometimes there would be a story about falling; a fall in the stock market, the fall out from a court case, the downfall of a leading political figure, a rich man’s horse falling at the last post.
he thought about the word ‘fall’.
And he hated it.
Fall on hard times.
Fall out of love.
he ordered a double vodka. The pints of beer no longer had an effect.
he looked at the palm of his hand. It was trembling.
The headline in front of him read ‘Man Survives Fall From Window’.
he had survived, hadn’t he?
he sat at the bar and drank.
The house was old. One hundred and eighty six years old. The Daddy had wanted it as soon as he saw the brochure. It was Georgian in date, red brick, two storeys, with timber casement windows. Sharp black railings with lethal fleur-de-lis points cordoned the front of the building, separating public footpath from prime property. An impressive oculus dominated the façade, like a third eye, over looking the street. Three limestone steps led up to a blue timber door, complete with brass knocker and authentic boot scraper. The ‘For Sale’ sign, nailed to the side wall, bright and insistent, sullied the picturesque aspect of the building. But the Daddy bought it regardless.
He turned the heavy key in the lock and pushed, but the door would not open. The timber must be swollen from the rain, the Daddy thought. Leaning his shoulder against the door, he pushed, the Mommy tutting impatiently behind him. The little, unconscious sounds she made were beginning to annoy him. He wondered if in time he would become immune to them. He hoped so.
His son began to whinge, a habit the Daddy detested. He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the noise. The child’s chubby hand gripped the sharp, black railings that encircled the house.
With a final heave, the Daddy managed to open the door. Together they entered the house, the little boy’s legs moving furiously to keep up. He was unsteady still, familiarising himself daily with the logistics of one foot in front of the other, the practicalities of gravity. To stabilise his son’s progress, the Daddy put out his hand and gripped the hood of the fleecy, boy-blue jacket. It was soft to the touch.
The child looked around him in amazement and began to lurch down the hallway, anxious to be free from his restrainer so he could explore. The Daddy smiled and released his son.
The hallway was a mix of black and cream tiles, with two rooms leading off it. The Daddy moved into the first room, the sitting room. A large crystal chandelier, yellow with age, hung solemnly from the middle of the ceiling. The Mommy was there in front of him. She walked across the naked floor boards, her footsteps causing the dust to quake beneath her. He watched her as she moved away from him, the fall of her mousy-brown hair over her shoulders, the once slim waist and lean legs. She never wore high heels anymore, he thought. She ran her finger casually across the window ledge and turned to look at him, her eyebrow arched, questioningly. She hated dirt.
The Daddy wanted to say something, something to make her happy but his lips were frozen shut, his mind gerbil-wheeling. Recently, the ring on the finger of his left hand had begun to itch. He excused the sensation with several plausible explanations. Perhaps he was getting fat as he spiralled towards his forties. Perhaps it was the tight grip on the squash racquet, a game he played once a fortnight that was causing a welt to form. The Mommy was still looking at his, waiting, her blue eyes challenging him to say something. They were the same blue as his son’s.
The day his son was born was an ordinary day, like any other. The Daddy got up, made breakfast, kissed his heavily pregnant wife good bye, commuted in the cesspit of public transport and eventually slid into the seat at his desk. Relief washing over him, panic momentarily averted. He was in his place of work. He was in control. He knew every digit of his clients’ accounts, every debit and credit column, every nought, every ten carried over, every red mark. Here it was safe.
Every time he thought about the impending birth, a prong of panic inserted itself into his intestines and he felt his bowels loosen. The prenatal class had done nothing to lessen his fear, if anything it made him realise how much he did not want this child. He habitually placed his mobile phone on top of his in-tray, assured that he would hear it if it rung. He had not slept in two days.
When the call finally came, a frost of calm formed in him. His heart rate slowed, his palms became chalky dry and his face was a death mask of composure. The Mommy needed him and it was his duty to be there for her. When his boy slide to life from in between the Mommy’s thighs, the Daddy felt pure joy for the first time in his life. His son, with a crown of beautiful dark, blood-sullied hair, eyes of deep blue and lungs filling with air.
The Daddy blinked. The Mommy was looking out the window again, her shoulders weighed down by a tomb of disappointment. He should say something to her, place a reassuring hand on her back, give her a kiss perhaps. Instead he turned and went down the hop-scotched hallway to the kitchen. He could not bring himself to touch her.
The kitchen was one of his favourite rooms. Bright light filtered through two large sash windows, illuminating the growth of dust across every exposed surface. There was a large island of heavy oak in the middle of the room. Mass produced laminated units lined the walls, sucking the illusion of grandeur from the kitchen. They would need to be changed. He knew it would be the first thing that the Mommy would notice. An odour of dried frying fat or charred toast assaulted his sense of smell. That would be the second thing the Mommy would notice.
White veranda doors led the eye to the large back garden. It was over grown with tall grass, brambles and a patch of nettles; a lone cherry tree stood abandoned in the centre of what once was a lawn. Cherry blossoms were his favourite.
The Daddy closed his eyes and remembered the girl he had fallen in love with. She had been lovely, russet waves of soft hair framing a freckled face, slanted green-grey eyes. She had a caustic wit and a cyclonic temper that would whip up between them every time they argued. She left him because he did not know how to be serious, how to be grown up. She had mocked his fear of commitment before finding someone else. At thirty-three, the same age as Jesus, the Daddy had learned a valuable lesson. Two years later he had married the Mommy, her fragile lace veil shielding her face as she walked up the aisle to claim him as her very own. His misgivings he had mistaken for wedding day jitters. Perhaps if he could have seen her face, he would have had the courage to say I do not.
As he looked out the window to the lonely cherry tree, his ring finger itched. He lifted his hand and examined it. The gold band sat at the intersection, where his finger joined the palm. Around the ring his skin was red. He thought fleetingly about sawing off the band. Since his wedding, four years ago, he was no longer able to pull the twist of gold over his knuckle. He was growing old.
The Daddy heard the toddler at the bottom of the stairs, the Mommy saying something, her voice muffled by the solid brick walls. The Daddy liked the thought of living in a solid house. He needed something of substance in his life. The noise of footsteps going upstairs distracted him and he turned from the window. The house needed almost total renovation. He hoped it would be worth it.
After the wedding, on the honeymoon, the Daddy had gotten blind drunk. In the hotel bar he made friends with two Scottish salesmen, ignoring his new bride. In the space of several hours the men proceeded to drink every whiskey on the drinks menu. The Daddy was hung over for almost two days afterwards.
Consigned to a prison of silence by his new bride, the Daddy had blissful peace to recover from his shock. He sat by the pool and watched the other holiday makers from behind a pair of rip-off designer sunglasses. The girls parading by the pool in tiny triangles of material, placed strategically on their lithe young bodies seemed to mock him. He would have fucked any one of them in an instant.
Upstairs, in his newly acquired house, the Daddy heard his son laughing. The sound spurred him to take the creaking timber steps two at a time. At the top, the stairs opened onto a large landing, bare and simple. An impressive oculus window filtered light into the space. The round window was set deep into the double brick work. It was made from leaded stain glass, the image of a ship on the waves of the sea, sailing to the edge of the world. For a moment the Daddy wished he could be on that ship.
The top of the window had an old fashioned clip-catch. It was made from a small iron rod with a circle at the end, through which you hooked your finger and pulled downwards. At the same time as you were pulling the lock down you were pushing the leaded window out and the blue glass horizon would shift, the ship would disappear and the window would open on its large singular hinge to reveal a blue sky.
His son was standing at the window, his chubby legs attempting to mount the curve of the oculus eye. The child struggled to find a foothold in the circle of the window. The Daddy scooped him up and held him as they both looked out through the glass sea, the day at the other side of the window tainted by the image of the ship on the waves. The little boy clapped his hands in delight as he pushed his fat fists towards the fragile glass.
His son turned and pointed at him, an infantile smile illuminating his face.
‘Dada,’ he said.
The Daddy turned and carried him towards the master bedroom, the dull thud of his foot steps on the naked timbers predicting their direction. The bedroom was huge and barren, except for the Mommy who stood looking out the window, down on to the lonely cherry tree. His son kicked out his chubby legs, squealing that he wanted to get down, that he wanted to go and play. The Mommy did not turn, did not acknowledge their presence. She was an island of silence.
The Daddy remembered the day he had come home from work to find her standing at the door of their apartment, bathed in the soft pink of the fading daylight; the same way she was now. She turned towards him then, something clutched in her hand. He thought for an awful moment that she had found his photographs, the ones in the attic, of him and Rachel. Yet this photo was different. It looked like an old fashioned Polaroid, grey and black, completely uninspiring, completely dull. Until you took a second look, until someone pointed out the lighter grey areas, the blob to the middle of the picture. And then, all of a sudden, you imagine you can see an arm, a leg, a heart beating off the page. The Daddy realised back then, it was his heart hammering, beating in this chest. A wave of panic sluiced over him.
He hadn’t really wanted a child, but instead he forced the selfish truth down into the pit of his stomach and hugged the Mommy, lying about how delighted he was. They had celebrated with a trip to the Indian restaurant where they ordered a platter for three, an acknowledgment of the newest member of their family. Sometimes the Daddy felt like he was drowning in the sea of his life, doggy paddling, doomed to expend all his energy before he could reach dry land.
That summer, as his son grew in the Mommy’s belly, the Daddy had an affair, a wild, consuming liaison with a woman from the office. It seemed so predictable now, when he thought back on it all. The sex had been liberating, free of any feeling, carnal and lust driven. He felt no guilt, no remorse, nothing, until his wife’s tummy grew big and round. Sometimes at night when she was asleep next to him he could feel the soft kick, kicking of the new person inside. It was only then that he left himself slump beneath the weight of guilt. He ended the affair shortly after.
The Daddy cleared his throat, letting the Mommy know he was there. She turned to look at him, her brow puckered. She was unhappy about something, the pitch of the ceiling, the colour of the timber, the direction the house was facing. The Daddy stood still and waited.
‘Mama, Dada, lookie.’
Neither of them moved to see what their son was calling them about. Instead they stood regarding each other, the disappointment ping-ponging between them. The Daddy wondered if she still loved him. He remembered their first meeting, in a bar down town. He was out with some friends with the intent to get totally stinking drunk, so he could forget, so he could plaster over the little cracks in his life.
When it was his turn to order drinks, he fumbled his way to the bar and stood behind a girl in tight, faded blue jeans. Peachy, that was the word that had sprung to mind when he gazed at her ass. In a moment of drunken want, he put his hand on his, patting the fascinating roundness. She turned instantly and slapped him full force, whiplashing his drink addled brain out of inaction.
He never understood why she stayed, squeezed next to him at the bar, smiling shyly as he struggled with his words. She was intelligent, well travelled, kind, not unpretty and as the weeks went by he found himself spending more and more time in her company till somehow, one day, he woke up and realised that they were living together. She was so dependable, so reliable, so dull. They fought with silence, each of them trying to outdo the other with the loudness of it.
‘Mama, Dada. Lookie me doin’.’ The sound of the childish voice from the landing reached towards them but they ignored it. It was obvious the Mommy had something to say, had been saving the words up for a long time.
‘The house; it needs a lot of work.’ Her voice was dry as tinder.
‘It has great potential. Look at all the space.’ He spread his hands and gestured to the emptiness of the master bedroom.
‘The floor boards are rotten.’
‘We only have to replace some of them. The rest we can sand and varnish. It will be great.’ The Daddy took a step towards her, the palm of his hand outstretched. It was trembling.
‘I think I can smell damp.’
‘I will damp course it. You said you were happy for me to sign the papers.’
‘I know what I said.’
The Daddy considered if either of them knew what was unsaid.
The origin of the voice of his son seemed elevated, as if he had magically grown tall. The Daddy frowned. The Mommy glanced over his shoulder, craning her neck so she could see down the landing. The colour drained from her face.
The Daddy heard the nib of the lock on the oculus window coming undone, heard the creak of the metal hinges, the sound of small fists banging against leaded glass. He felt a light breeze on the back of his neck.
The Mommy moved towards him, her mouth open, round and ridiculous looking, as if she were a fish out of water, struggling for liquid air. Somewhere outside, somebody was screaming. The Daddy turned and looked at a circle of blue, the sky, cut in half by a sliver of glass.
The Mommy gripped his arm and together they moved as one to the open window, straining against each other to look and not to look.
[Caroline Healy is a writer and community arts facilitator. She has recently completed her M.A. in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Belfast.
She published her first award winning collection of short stories, entitled A Stitch in Time in August 2012.
Her work has been featured in publications such as Wordlegs, The Bohemyth, Prole and the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice.
She writes literary fiction and young adult fiction, with her book Blood Entwines long listed at the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and Cornerstones Literary Consultancy WowFactor 2013.
Caroline is completing her second short story collection, The House of Water and is mired in the edits of her second book, The Wolf Mirror.]