[ fiction - november 12 ]
Mum and I live in an old woodcutter’s cottage at the end of a long muddy lane. It’s the kind of place where men arrive in the trees in the middle of the night to dig out a badger sett. Last week they gassed and spaded a whole family. In the moonlight I saw their bleeding, bloated corpses laid out in our garden before they were loaded in a van and taken away.
It’s 2am and freezing cold. Five minutes since I heard the phone ring in my Mum’s room. It can only mean one thing, and sure enough here she is tapping on my bedroom door.
‘Roy, your father will be here in two hours. Quick, come down and help me light the fire.’
Her voice, pleading as usual but also full of excitement, unsettles me, makes me want to disappear through the walls of my room and out into the night. I light a cigarette to let the red glinting tobacco warm my fingers, then open the curtains by my bed and lie back to look at the star-filled sky, the branches of the frozen trees stiffening and scraping against the window pane.
When I come down the stairs the fire has been lit and Mum has put on their dating record – Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ – and is dancing around in her flimsy jade satin dressing gown, mouthing the words like a drag-act mime-artiste.
The record scratches and jumps: ‘It’ s late in the evening. She puts on her make up, and brushes her long blonde hair.’
Mum wears too much make up and has short brown hair, but I know what’s expected when she looks at me and sings ‘and if she asks me, do I look all right?’
‘Yes, Mum, you look wonderful tonight. ’
‘Roy, you look pretty wonderful, too,’ she replies.
She’s getting in practice for his arrival and so I leave her to her dance and make us both a cup of tea.
When we sit at the table later, I notice her hand is shaking as she lifts the cup to her mouth.
‘Roy, my nerves are shot,’ she says.
Mum’s nerves often get the better of her. Sometimes I stay off school to look after her. She’ll make pizza for lunch and we’ll eat it in front of daytime television, Jeremy Kyle is her favourite. Sometimes Mum will get upset when she hears an echo of her own problems in other peoples’ stories and she’ll go up to her bedroom for the rest of the day. After I’ve washed the dishes, I’ll have the sofa to myself and settle down to practice my guitar.
When my father last visited a year ago he gave me ten Rothmans, a Les Paul copy and a small, hissing Marshall amp; he forgot to bring a lead though. He tried to show me how to play the E chord but when my fingers couldn’t hold down the strings properly he took the guitar over and played it himself. He had to hit the strings really hard to get any sound.
Mum stared wide-eyed at his finger picking, and then looked wildly towards me: ‘Listen to that, son; Dad still has what it takes.’
My father is a 50-a-day-fag-man and has a thinning, moulting old man ponytail. He’s lead guitarist in a part-time Glam Metal band who had a number 37 hit with a song called ‘My Proper Chopper Girl’ in 1975. The tape of their one appearance on Top of the Pops was scrubbed by a BBC sound engineer, but Mum swears it was ‘life-changing’.
She was thirteen then and has had a crush on him ever since. She wrote him a fan letter but they didn’t actually meet for another fifteen years, which is where I came in: Roy junior. Rocket were big in the clubs in South Wales and are ‘big’ now in parts of the Far East and Estonia; there are other little Roys scattered around Britain and Eastern Europe, and one in Taiwan.
I’m laying the table whilst Mum cooks: roast beef, potatoes and parsnips in goose fat (his favourite), and a slow cook onion and port gravy.
‘Roy (she means him) loves his gravy so that’s what I’m doing,’ she explains.
When Mum speaks like this she’s not really looking for any reaction; she’s sorting out some sense of order in her head. She looks at me manically and offers a spoon for me to try the gravy.
‘More salt,’ I suggest.
‘Yes, Roy, very clever: he loves his salt, doesn’t he? ’
‘Oh yes he does, I reply.
She sprinkles in half a teaspoon, but restrains herself from adding the rest:
‘But we don’t want him getting a heart attack, do we?’
‘Oh, no,’ I reply.
No, a heart attack would be too good for him. I can’t remember Mum being different – less on the brink of hysteria or exhaustion – but Gran says she wasn’t like that before she met him and so I hate the stupid bastard, but he’s rarely around to vent my anger on and I’m left to needle her instead.
‘Tell me how you became a groupie again, Mum.’
She stops her stirring. ‘I wasn’t a groupie, Roy’: the strain of repeating the G word squeezing her voice tight.
‘A crazed fan then? ’
‘I helped run the fan club as well you know, and one day he. . . ’
‘Came in and lit your fire? ’
‘Well, yes, he did as it happens. He came in and thanked me …’
‘For being a crazed fan? ’
‘For being a nice person. ’
‘So, when did he shag you? ’
She screams and chucks the stirring spoon at my head. It misses. I get my coat and walk out into the back garden. It’s bone-tingling cold like the time he visited on Guy Fawkes night and the three of us built a bonfire in the garden to keep warm. He had brought along a big box of fireworks – the expensive kind you normally only get at displays – and he and I spent hours lighting rockets and banshees to scatter a series of new short-lived stars into the night sky. He hugged me close with smoky nicotine kisses and called me his ‘pocket rocket’. Mum and I held hands and ran rings round him as he wheezed and coughed, shouting that he was an ‘old banger’.
There’s a clear sky bursting with stars and icicles are drooping from the ferns at the wood at the end of the garden. I light a cigarette and look in through the kitchen window. She’s stirring the gravy again and is crying. She’s in bits already so God knows what she’ll be like by the time he arrives. He’ll have to do one of his expert consoling moves like the time he told her about Taiwan Roy. After tears and a burnt pork dinner, he smooched her onto the kitchen floor where they shuffled up close to ‘ My Proper Chopper Girl’ followed by ‘ Wonderful Tonight’. She told me afterwards that it was the happiest she’d been since the night I was born and he visited us in hospital. I stub out my cigarette on the wall of the house and walk back into the kitchen.
‘Sorry, Mum. ’
She turns round from the oven and kisses me on both cheeks; hers’ damp and streaked with mascara.
‘You know I didn’t mean what I said.’
‘I know, Roy: you’re a good boy.’ She rubs off the charred tears from her face and smiles at me: ‘Now, how do I look?’ she asks.
‘Mum, you look...’
And we say it together: ‘Wonderful tonight,’ the perfect timing making us laugh.
I tell her I’m going for a walk and promise that I’ll be back when he arrives.
I walk down the lane, and see a lone badger ahead – bigger and more dangerous than you’d ever think – asthmatically plodding across my path. As he sees me he scuttles into a comic, low-bellied run into the trees. At the end of our lane I light up a cigarette and wait. High in the distance, arriving over the hill, soft splayed out lights from a car clear two paths into the black sky. As the car turns a bend its lights change direction and new circles of sky are illuminated. But I’m not sure the car is Dad’s because it doesn’t seem to be moving fast enough. If he really does turn up this time I’ll know soon from the revving sound of the engine as the car gets near, followed by the screeching of the brakes as he belatedly remembers the turn off to our lane.
I suck in the smoke from my cigarette. Out here it tastes delicious and tarry like I’m warming close to a bonfire, and for now the night is peaceful and quiet except for the rumbling old-man breathing of the badger in the trees behind me.