Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Lessons For A Sunday Father’ by Claire Calman.
LESSONS FOR A SUNDAY FATHER
Last night, I had precisely nil hours’, nil minutes’ and nil seconds’ sleep. Take a tip from me – if you ever have a major ding-dong with your wife, girlfriend, cohabiting-type person, don’t do it after midnight. If you’re in the wrong, and believe me, you’re bound to be – when was it ever her fault? – skip the excuses, skip the justifications and cut straight to the grovelling. Least that way you might get to kip on the settee. After a night like I just had, you’d be grateful for it. It’s always like that on the telly, isn’t it? There’s a row and then the man, always the man, is dossing down in the front room – notice the woman never ends up on the bloody couch – and if he’s lucky she’ll chuck a pillow and a blanket at him. Cheers, I love you too.
Obviously, Gail’s never paid enough attention or she’d have known that’s how it goes. I should have filled her in: ‘No, Gail, this is where you banish me to the front room and you stomp upstairs and slam the bedroom door.’ Then it’d be cut to corny close-up of our wedding photo falling off the mantelpiece. But by that time I’m already on the wrong side of the front door, wishing I’d got my jacket and my mobile rather than a sodding tea-towel which doesn’t look like it’s going to be much use in saving me from freezing to death.
Thoughts whirled round my head like water going down a plughole, desperate thoughts and crazy thoughts and weird thoughts one after the other. I would have called my mate Colin, but it was after half-twelve by then and I could just picture his wife Yvonne standing there in her pink dressing-gown, nightie done up to the top button, saying it’s no trouble, none at all, she just has to get out the step-ladder and fetch down another quilt from the loft, and offering me a coffee, not to worry she can unload everything from the dishwasher for a clean mug and they usually like to open the fresh pint first thing in the morning but she may as well open it now seeing as it’s – goodness – already morning. I always feel I should give myself a good shake like a wet dog before I go in their house; she has this way of looking at you like she wants to put down a bit of plastic sheeting before you get too near her furniture.
I considered checking in at the Holiday Inn, but they know me there after we had that do just before Christmas. Especially after the unfortunate mishap that occurred with the sort-of accidental hurling of mince pies across the Churchill Banqueting Suite. Toyed with the idea of breaking into the MFI showroom on the ring road so’s I could kip in one of their room sets. I even thought about ringing up a monastery to tell them I’d had the call from God and would be right round: ‘I’ve spoken to Him Upstairs and He said you’re to let me stay, but that I can skip all that praying, silence and head-shaving stuff, OK?’
No way could I stay at my parents’. I’d sooner have slept on a park bench. I’d sooner have slept on a park bench with a bag lady, come to that. Make that two bag ladies and a wino. And a dog with an itch. This is the point where Gail normally says, ‘Oh, come on, Scott, stop exaggerating. They’re not that bad.’ Not that bad? I’d rather suck my way through a bumper size pack of frozen fish fingers than have a meal with those two. I’d rather eat school dinners for the rest of my life, soggy greens and all. I’d rather – oh, forget it. All I’m saying is, if Competitive Moaning was included in the Olympics and they signed up the parents, then Great Britain’s gold medal count could be in for a stratospheric rise. My dad’s specialist areas are, in no particular order: other drivers, foreigners – which of course includes people whose grandparents came here fifty years ago and, in fact, anyone who lives further away than Folkestone – appliances of all kinds because nothing’s made properly any more nowadays – ‘they do it deliberate so’s you ’ave to keep buying new ones ev’ry free weeks’ – the government, the neighbours – oh, yes, and me. Mum’s faves are the weather, the Russians (current affairs have kind of passed her by really), Gail’s family, people with body piercings – ‘I don’t know what they can be thinking of a metal stud right through her tongue it’s not hygienic is it they must all be perverts they want a good smacking’, the ever decreasing size of Mr Kiplid’s exceediddly small cakes, the neighbours and – surprise, surprise – me again. In fact, as far as I can see, the only thing that’s kept her and him together all these years – that’s together as in not actually divorced and as in living under the same roof, not together as in this is the person they love and want to spend time with – is their shared paranoia about the neighbours and their disappointment in me.
Not exactly top of my list when it comes to looking for a cosy bed and a warm welcome on the spur of the moment then. I’d have been better off getting myself arrested so the police would lock me up for the night. I’d have had some sort of bed and maybe got Gail to feel guilty into the bargain, might be worth it. Then I told myself it’d all blow over and I’d only be embarrassing myself and I’d have looked like a total pillock for nothing.
So I went to work. I’m usually first in anyway, but it was very different arriving at night. Weird. Majorly bizarre. Bizarre with a capital ‘B’, as Nat would say. I let myself in, fumbling for the light switches, hearing the familiar beep-beep, rushing to the alarm to tap in the code. There’s a small reception area – just the counter where we take the orders and a couple of crap square chairs covered in scratchy dark brown cloth and, on the other side, a coffee table which is a pathetic apology for a piece of furniture and only has the right to call itself a coffee table because over the years it’s become marked with overlapping coffee rings, so many of them now, they almost look like they’re meant to be there and are having a go at being a pattern. Plus there’s three plastic seats, the moulded ones you can stack. We have them ’cause most of our customers turn up covered in paint and plaster dust and we don’t want them buggering up the so-called good seats for the occasional non-trade person who comes in for a special order or something. I know, I’m sounding like Yvonne, but it’s not up to me.
I poke my head round the door of the workroom, checking everything’s OK, then go into the office and sit at my desk, thinking maybe I should phone Gail to see if she’s cooled down yet and knowing she’d hang up on me. I phone anyway.
She hangs up.
I make myself a coffee, over-filling the kettle so’s it would take longer to boil. At least it gives me something to do, standing there in the squashed corner by the sink, trying to think and trying not to think. Then I lay down on the brown seats. They’re pushed together but I still can’t scrunch all of my body on and it’s bloody cold too. I switch on the fan heater, but it gives out more noise than heat, so I have a hunt round for something to cover myself with. Take a dekko in the workroom. There’s a few old blankets and dustsheets dumped in one corner, as there always are, but they’ll all have fragments of flaming glass embedded in them and I’d rather be freezing than slashed to ribbons, thank you. It makes me think of them Indian blokes who lay on a bed of nails. Gail would love that, thinking about me alone and shivering, every bit of me pricked and pierced by millions of tiny pieces of glass.
On the back of the office door, there’s my mac that I left there about two months ago and keep meaning to take home. I curl up on the seats again, shivering under the mac, thinking about what I said and what she said and what I could do to make it all right and worrying in case I do drop off and the lads find me in the morning and what the hell I would say and how was I going to get a shave between now and then and I should have gone to the bloody Holiday Inn and so what if they did recognize me, bollocks to the lot of them. Then I get up again, put the mac on and go and sit in my chair and rest my head on my desk. Bugger, bugger, bugger. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. You are a grade A stupid twat, I tell myself. Now what are you going to do?
I open the desk drawer and have a poke round as if the answer might be written on a yellow stickie, but it’s just the usual collection of loose paperclips and stray staples, the spare scissors that don’t cut properly, a grimy rubber that leaves smudges and a couple of highlighter pens that are running out of juice. Anyway, after one hour and twenty minutes spent pretending to tidy my desk – I know because I take a look at my watch about every three minutes to see if the time can possibly be passing as slowly as I think it is – I get up and wander round the office, sliding the filing drawers in and out and poking about in the stationery cubbyhole just in case someone’s happened to leave a thick quilt and a fresh doughnut in there.
Back in reception, I go behind the counter and flick through the special orders book for something to do. You can see the days when Denise has been in because she does these circles above her ‘i’s, like little bubbles. And Maureen’s writing, ever so neat the way Rosie does for homework, only with the letters all leaning at exactly the same angle like those dancers we saw at that show in the West End. Under the counter, there’s a packet of chocolate Hob-nobs with a rubber band round them holding them closed. Denise’s. I take it off and flick it across the room onto one of the brown chairs. Dead-eye Dick. Then I eat my way through the packet, telling myself I’d get some more tomorrow, or was it today, and knowing Denise will be right pissed off with me and I’ll have to get her some more otherwise she’ll ‘forget’ to give me my messages.
Trailing crumbs, I return to the workroom, looking for something to moan about. Well, a blind man with his hands tied behind his back wouldn’t take more than ten seconds to find a problem in that place, ’cause they’re ruddy clueless most of them. Safety goggles on the floor instead of hanging up where they should be. A pile of broken glass just swept into the corner with the broom still on top. Dirty coffee mugs on the workbenches. Sometimes it’s like running a ruddy nursery school. Half of them would forget to wipe their arses if someone didn’t tell them.
OK, OK, I know. It’s just, you see, I needed something, anything, to fix on, something I was allowed to be annoyed about, something that wasn’t my fault.
Please tell me last night was only a dream. If I shut my eyes tight and pinch myself, I’ll wake up properly. Tell me it was no more than a nightmare – to be kissed away, forgotten by morning. When he was a little boy, only about four or five, Nat used to have nightmares. He’d call out in the night and one of us – usually me, Scott could sleep through a brass band marching round the bed – would go through to him. I’d cradle him in my arms and whisper into the sweet softness of his hair, kiss his flushed cheek,
‘There, there, it’s just a bad dream, Natty, just a bad dream. All gone now. All gone.’
I know last night wasn’t a dream, of course, now standing here at the sink, concentrating all my attention on wringing out a cloth, wiping the already clean worktop. I know it wasn’t a dream because afterwards I didn’t sleep. How could I? After he’d gone, I heard him start the car and drive away. I ran upstairs and tiptoed into Nat’s room at the front of the house to watch from the window, peeking through the crack in the curtains as if I was watching a scary film through my fingers.
The red of the car brakelights glowed bright as he slowed at the corner, then he turned left onto the main road … and he was gone. I stayed there a little while, thinking any second now he’ll do a U-turn and come back. Or he’ll go up to the roundabout and turn there. Any second now and I’ll see the beam of his headlights swing round as he turns into our road. I’ll run downstairs to let him in. He’ll say it was all a mistake, a silly joke that backfired. He’ll explain and everything will be all right again. I crossed my fingers and laid them on the windowsill. Touch wood. It was all just a mistake.
But the road stayed dark and still.
I turned round and looked at Nat, his limbs – so long now, he’s grown so much – sprawled across the bed, the duvet all bunched over on one side. I pulled it up around him and bent to touch his hair. It’s as much as I can do to get near him these days; you know what they’re like at that age. He’s just thirteen. Last week. Scott took him bowling with a bunch of his friends and they had a whale of a time, though Nat tried to be cool about it – it’s not done to show you’re excited at his age. What a great start to his adolescence. Nice timing, Scott. I dug my nails into my palms. Better – better to feel angry. Better to feel something at least, not this strange numbness, this nothing feeling like I’ve died and no one’s bothered to tell me. In the bathroom I looked in the mirror, telling myself in my head: See? This is you, Gail, still here. This is you looking just the way you always do. I stared at my image, thinking maybe the real me was in there, trapped behind the glass, and out here was just my reflection and that’s why I couldn’t feel anything.
‘I suppose I better go to bed.’ I said it out loud. I wanted to hear my voice, check I was still there I suppose, that I was still real. Silly, I know.
I got into ‘my’ side of the bed and lay there, stiff and straight as an Egyptian mummy, replaying what had happened, turning it over and over in my mind, inspecting it from all angles as if it were an unfamiliar object I’d come across by accident, wondering if I might suddenly spot something new, some vital clue that would make everything clear, something I could hold onto and understand. Maybe I’d just got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe I’d hallucinated the whole thing. It was a caffeine-induced vision or something. I thought again of Scott’s voice, the things he’d said, his eyes avoiding mine. The quiet click of the front door, his face distorted and unfamiliar through the frosted glass, the face of a stranger.
Why aren’t I crying? I thought to myself. You should be crying, Gail, I said back to me, trying to sound firm and positive like Cassie. For goodness’ sake, woman, don’t bottle it all up. Have a good cry if you want to.
I lay there, waiting for the tears to come, telling myself I’d feel better if I could just let go. But there were no tears. There was nothing. Surely I
should be feeling more – something – more hurt, more upset, just more. Then I thought, ‘This is stupid. I can’t be wasting time lying here all night if I’m not going to sleep. There’s plenty to do.’ So I got up and went downstairs again and got out the bucket and mop and started washing the kitchen floor.
Surely this wasn’t my life? I thought, plunging the mop into the sudsy water. My life was simple, busy but uncomplicated, a predictable juggling of kids, work, shopping, cooking and cleaning, with not enough treats such as meals out, drinks in the pub with Scott or my best friend Cassie, or girlie nights in with my sisters, Mari and Lynn. But this thing – this wasn’t my life. This was TV drama-land – people arguing in kitchens and lying and cheating and driving off at midnight. And I’m right in the middle of it, only I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I shoved the mop back and forth over the floor, the colour of it brightening at my feet. It’s supposed to look like real quarry tiles, sort of terracotta-ish, but it’s just vinyl of course, no more than a sham. A practical sham.
Back in the bedroom, the red figures of the clock said 2:13. Twenty-four hours ago, I was asleep in this very same bed, and Scott was right here next to me. Twenty-four hours ago, we were a normal family. Not perfect, not rich, just normal. But we were like children playing in a field where there’s a hidden landmine. Twenty-four hours ago, I was content, secure, my biggest worry no more than what to cook for supper, where Rosie’s gym kit had got to, and whether Nat might ever respond with anything other than ‘Mn?’ I was still in one piece, twenty-four hours ago, the children were asleep in their beds, the house was still standing. But now nothing was the same. The landmine was already there, waiting to explode. I just didn’t know it.
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