I’m home late. That’s not unusual nowadays. I tell myself there’s more on my plate now, but even to my own ears it has the ring of falsehood. I push open the flywire, fiddle with the lock. Jenny’s probably already in bed and I thank God for that as I step inside. My bag drops to the floor, and I head for the fridge.
There’s a serving of my favourite dish, now thoroughly cold. And on it, a note: ‘thinking of you’. I smile and close the fridge. Then I see it and stand frozen for a moment. It’s blue-tacked to the fridge door, where it’s always been. The people in the photo stare at me reproachfully. I’m at the back, but it’s a younger, freer version of me. Jenny stands slightly in front of me, looking the happiest I’ve ever seen her. And in front of us is… you. You’re so little in this picture, rugged up against the cold, your little cheeks blue, yet creased with the intensity of your smile. You always used to smile with your whole face. I know the caption on the back; I’ve read it a thousand times. But I still turn the photo over so I can read it again. My family.
“My family,” I say. It sounded strange back then, but in a beautiful, fresh sort of way. Now it just falls flat in the emptiness of the kitchen.
In the unit next door, a baby begins to cry. There’s the sound of banging and muffled curses as somebody gets out of bed to quiet them down. I remember something a minister said to me once: “You don’t know what you have until it’s taken from you.” I stand in the semi-darkness, wanting to scream at my neighbour. At the whole wide world.
I squeeze my eyes shut for a moment, push those thoughts away. Then I remove the photo from the fridge and take it to the gas burner. I turn on the gas, light the burner and watch it crinkle in the fire. Your face is the last thing I see as the flame consumes it. That little grin of yours is even more radiant in the fire. I turn off the burner, but I spend a long time after that gazing at the ashes.
Then I make my way to the little bedroom behind the office. The bed is neatly made, as if one day you’ll abruptly come back and expect everything to be ready. I’ve got the ‘for charity’ box in my hands and I drop it on the floor. There are your little toys, the cars and the Lego. And the model knights, the pride of your collection, still in orderly formation over your wardrobe. I open your drawers and start to take out your clothes – oh, they’re so small! Sometimes I forget how long you were really with us; I forget how young you were when you left. I lay your little jumpers, your shorts and your underpants in the charity box. And I place your shoes on the top. How did you get them so scuffed?
The sound of the door opening makes me jump. “What’re you doing, John?”
“Just cleaning up a bit. Figured we don’t need all of this stuff anymore.”
Jenny is trying to blink the sleep out of her eyes. “At this time of night? Come to bed.”
“It’s just… well, we always talk about doing this, but we never get around to it.”
“It’s late, John. Come and get some sleep.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “I’m okay. I can do this. You go back to bed.”
“Let’s not do this,” she says. “Not now. It’s too soon.”
“It’s been two years.”
“And seems like yesterday.” She manages a smile.
I rub her shoulder and turn back to the room. “I just thought, you know, some other kid could use this stuff. Doesn’t seem right to keep it all here. After all, it’s barely been used.”
“Do you really think we should?” she asks.
“I think so. It’s just going to sit here and gather dust.”
She falls onto the rocking chair, defeated. “But what’ll we do with the bed? What’ll we do with the toys? The costumes?”
“You don’t have to be here. Go to bed, I can handle it.”
“No, I’m fine,” she says. “It just… it just seems… I don’t know.”
I close the drawer. “I can see you’re not ready for this.”
“I’ll be fine. I just guess I always thought this would be his room, you know? What are we going to do with it? Turn it into another office? I could never work in here.”
“It’s okay, Jen. I didn’t mean to upset you. We can work it out another time.”
She’s started sobbing now. I help her off the rocking chair and hold her.
“It’s going to be okay. I’m here for you.” I kiss her on the forehead, feeling the ebbs and flows of her grief against my chest. I’ve prayed to God that the crying would stop, that my troubled soul would get some rest, but He is unresponsive.
“It’s okay. I love you. I’ve got you.”
Eventually, she recovers, and we head to bed. The charity box stays on the floor, half-filled with your clothes. In the morning light it looks even more out-of-place in the tidy little room. I shut the door and get started on breakfast.
I have the day off and we go to Nathan’s birthday party. He’s eight now, and in another world the two of you might have been friends. Nobody asks about you. One of the older guys asks about me.
“How’re you doing?”
I tell him I’m going well.
“You and Jenny coping alright?”
I assure him we’re going just fine.
“You’ll be right, champ.”
The rest of it passes as a blur. Heat and grass and popping balloons and screaming kids and fairy bread. Jenny holds it together admirably and in no time we’re home again. And all I can think about is those screaming kids and Katie, bloody Katie, joking about how life was better before the children. Before the school drop-offs and the school pick-ups and the nagging and the questions and the ‘kiss-me-better’ scraped shins and the bedtime stories and…
“John… John!” Jenny’s right there beside me. “Are you even listening to me?”
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
“I said, would you like tea?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” I pat my pockets to check if I’ve got the keys. “I’m actually just going to go out for a little bit. Will you be alright?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.”
It’s dark now, long past your bedtime. I’m driving aimlessly, watching the streetlights pass like a never-ending stream of blazing suns overhead. There aren’t many cars around the neighbourhood at this time of night. It’s almost like I can hear your voice in the back: “I spy with my little eye…”
Something beginning with M. MacDonald’s. I head for the drive-through.
“What would you like tonight, sir?”
“Could I have two soft-serves?”
“Is that all?”
“Drive on, please.”
I eat them in the parking lot. I know I could have just gone into the restaurant and ordered and eaten there, but it’s better this way. This is what my dad used to do. Ice cream in the car park long after bedtime. Just don’t tell mum.
Afterwards, I drive to the oval. I pull up my collar against the chilly night-time air. I didn’t bring a ball but then there’s nobody to throw it to, anyway. It’s almost like I can see you running out in front of me. Come on, dad! I bet you can’t catch me. Then, in a moment, you’re gone. My phone’s ringing.
“Yes, mum?” I rub my shoulder to circulate a little heat. “Oh, thanks for checking in. Yeah, I think I’m doing much better… Yeah, I mean it, I’m doing well. Last night I made progress. Decided to move on for good. There’s more to life and all that… Thanks, I’m glad to hear that… you too. Love you. Bye.”
I walk back to the car. Don’t want Jenny getting worried. Well, more worried than she already is. The roads on the way home are clear except for one kid’s bicycle lying strewn across the street. It looks like yours did that day. Only, you were still on your bicycle. Wearing your helmet, like a good boy. Not that it did you any good.
I try to drive around the bike but I’m having trouble seeing through my tears. I stop the car for a moment, thankful there’s nobody else around to see me. When I’ve recovered, I steer around the bike and onto our street.
I’m home late. That’s not unusual nowadays.
Illustration Credit: Elim Kwok