The following story was published by the Cheshire prize for Literature 2009 – Zoo. I awakened some fond memories writing it, but find it a little difficult to read. It’s hard to be reminded of happy experiences and shared memories with loved ones that will never be repeated. But i suppose that’s the point – you always have them and they’re precious.
Dad opens the back door to let out the smoke. The wind slams the door against the back wall, rattling the pane of frosted glass. Putty drops from the frame. Last year’s coat of navy gloss is starting to peel; the wood beneath it breaks away in clumps like tuna. Dad shakes his head. It’s another job on the list. Mum says there’s more putty than wood in that door. It’s only the putty that’s holding it together. Dad rolls his eyes, goes and sits in the shed when she says that. He checks his fishing kit, opening the plastic tubs he keeps high on chipboard shelves and running his fingers through the teeming pearl-white maggots. He’s been in the shed a lot since Granddad died.
Dad takes a butter knife and scrapes the charred black surface of the toast into the sink. He scoops a knob of butter with his knife, spreads it with a sandpaper scrape and dips for more. When he pulls the knife away he leaves a trail of salt and pepper crumbs through the butter like his stubble plastered to the sink enamel. The tide mark of soap scum and stubble is the last thing I see when I clean my teeth, spit, and grab my bag for school. It’s another habit that mum says drives her up the pole. But really she’d miss it. It’s a sign he’s been here and it reassures her.
Granddad was sick with cancer. Mum said it got into his bones. His hand would shake and, for the first time in fifty years, he couldn’t wet shave. Dad bought him an electric razor and granddad held it and frowned as it buzzed in his palm. He stared at it like a South Sea Islander looking through a ship’s glass for the first time. Shaving was a ritual for Granddad: the thick, rich lather of soap, the horsehair brush with its enamel base, the styptic pencil and the sharp tang of Old Spice or cedar-wood. He had a tilting bathroom cabinet that somehow clung to the damp, crumbing plasterwork. It had vinyl wallpaper doubled over to line the shelves and a splintered half-mirror on the inside of the door. There were tins of Cossack hairspray, Imperial Leather talc, bars of Wright’s coal tar soap and razors in wax-paper. Granddad tried, but never mastered that electric razor, saying it puckered his skin, left it feeling like a turkey ready for Christmas.
They didn’t let me see him at the end. Said I shouldn’t remember him like that. So I try and think instead of ice-creams and cheetahs at Chester Zoo, of paddling on the steps at New Brighton, dribbling his cracked leather Casey through his prize rosebushes or waiting for him to run fist-waving as I kick the gravel from his newly-swept path.
Dad said I could help clear Granddad’s house. I had to stack his old police law books into boxes and help sort through his files, leafing through the fusty and brittle papers. There were books about British birds and wildlife, things I never knew he owned. I found his old whistle, his truncheon and his collar numbers. There was a brass Stafford knot, oiled between wax-paper in a neat wooden box with ‘Frank’ scribbled out and ‘Sergeant’ written next to it. The electric razor was folded in newspaper. The paper smelt of tobacco, his preferred Old Presbyterian. As I unwrapped it I dropped it and it clattered on the mahogany tabletop scattering shavings like iron filings across the polished surface. I scooped the shavings up and dropped them back inside the razor. I couldn’t throw a part of Granddad away.
“Love, look what Richie’s done to the butter,” Dad calls, “got crumbs everywhere.”
He makes a show of cupping his hands around his mouth for amplification. Mum doesn’t answer but her feet pause from moving about the landing filling the airing cupboard. Dad winks at me. I push the cereal bowl away. The corn flakes have pulped up into a swollen mush. We’re on red top because Mum’s on another diet, so the milk is thin and watery. I stir it with my spoon. The cereal bowl is part of a range called Harvest Hollow. It has a hedgehog painted on it, a hedgerow and some red berries. The tiles, at regular intervals, are painted with hares, foxes and pheasants. Mum got Dad to save petrol vouchers for a matching bread bin. It has a stoat on it. The toaster shows a dormouse nestling in straw. Our kitchen has more animals than Chester Zoo. Dad says he can never leave a pork pie on the worktop again.
“Want any toast, tin-ribs?”
He holds his fists in a fighter’s pose and goes to clip me with a right hand. I duck under his fist and thump him in the guts. He clutches his stomach, says he can’t go on and calls for my disqualification. He goes to shake my hand and when I offer he loops an arm round my neck and gets me in a headlock. He rubs his knuckles against my scalp till I scream and finds the pit behind my collar bone, tickling, doubling me up.
“Always expect the unexpected,” he says.
Mum walks in, drops a pile of tea towels and washing-up cloths on the worktop with a sigh.
“You’ve got school to go to,” she says, and points at Dad, “and you should be at work.”
Dad lopes off up the stairs. The toilet seat drops with a thud and the floorboards creak, giving as he sits down. He’s reading my Victor annual, flicking through The Tough of the Track or Joe Bones.
“The state of this sink,” Mum says to herself.
I shuffle on the bar stool. It’s too high and the black vinyl seat makes me sweat even more in my scratchy nylon uniform trousers. Mum shakes her head in disgust and drops one of dad’s cheesecloth work shirts into the Ali Baba basket.
“You need to be out of here in five minutes,” she says.
Leaves spotted like over-ripe bananas fall from the trees. Mum’s rockery is a carpet of russets and coppers from falling sycamores and beeches. I reach into my trouser pocket, feeling the contours of the brass plaque beneath my fingers. I take out Granddad’s Stafford knot, clutching it in my palm. I wonder what Granddad is doing now. Nan has some verse her friend Stella from the church gave her. It’s framed and facing a photo of granddad cutting his 60th birthday cake. The window opens onto the street beyond him. I squint and make out his burgundy Triumph Dolomite; his pride and joy. I remember him driving at pheasants in that car, swerving on country roads. Get it in the pot. He was a 1930s child and knew how to eat from the fields and hedgerows.
Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room.
Mum shouts at me to hurry. The sky is heavy, grainy like graphite. I’d better fetch my coat, I think, and then something catches my eye. A white speck drifts down, turning over and over. It blows towards the shed, is caught by another gust and sails up before dropping and spearing the privet. I step out into the garden. I pull the pigeon feather from the hedge, running my fingertip along the quill. It’s a perfect snow white, flawless. I turn it over and see a number, the name “Tucker” stamped in ink. At first it appears to some serial number but I see it begins 061 and I recognize the dialing code. It’s Manchester. I step inside and listen. Mum is putting hairspray on. She shakes the tin and I hear the hiss of Sunsilk.
I pick up the phone in the back room and dial. It rings three or four times and I’m about to hang up when a voice says, “Hello, what can I do you for?” The voice is tight, whiny. I cough and say I found a feather in my garden and ask if it’s Mr. Tucker speaking.
“It’s got this number on,” I say.
“Must be Eric, then,” the man replies.
“He’s one of my racers. Where are you?”
I tell him the name of our town and he reckons it’s about halfway along the pigeons’ route. There’s a brief pause and then he speaks.
“I used to work in your neck of the woods.”
He asks my name and I tell him.
“You’re not a relative of Frank, are you?”
I touch the Stafford Knot in my pocket. I tell him I’m Frank’s grandkid.
“Good bloke, Frank. I was in the Force with him. Remember me to him.”
I’m about to answer when Mum comes in, eyes narrowed.
“Who are you talking to?”
I hand her the feather.
“You won’t believe it,” I say.