He shakes his head.
“But I don’t want to go,” he howls, rattling his alligator lunchbox for effect, his face wobbly with emotion, on the teary cusp of a tantrum. It makes me angry. I’ve explained that I have to leave him here, at the infant school, while I go to work. He knows that. Of course he doesn’t understand, but what else can I say, how simple can I make the language? It’s only my second week with him, with my five-year-old son, and I’m short of an entire vocabulary: the lexicon of smiles, gestures, encouragements, veiled threats and downright emotional blackmail that the other parents have mastered. So I breathe in deeply, force a smile and squat on my haunches. We’re eye to eye.
“I’ll see you this evening. That’s the best I can do, okay?” My hand looks impossibly large and rough on his shoulder. I squeeze a little harder than I meant to. “Go on, off you go.” I turn him around and push gently. He twists back, drops his lunchbox and stands there, arms akimbo, avoiding my gaze. I catch the eye of one of the staff, muster a choked “Daddy loves you,” stand and stride away, grateful that there are no wails of protest before I reach the door.
When you have failed on a profound level, it can take a long time to realise. It took me a long time anyway. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel and pray that the traffic will clear. I’m the yard manager, and I hate being late. The split with Trudy, that I don’t blame myself for. That was six of one, that was. Maybe half a dozen of the other, okay, but we’re both adults. It was the way we sleepwalked into having Jack, as though a child would paper over the cracks and draw us together, take Trudy away from the job she didn’t like, and give her a focus. I’m approaching the roundabout now, the traffic bottlenecking into one lane, everything crawling forward. On the left there’s a big advertising hoarding, a bank advert with a client and a member of staff shaking hands. I twitch in my seat; that face is so familiar to me, and yet strange. The happy client with a trusting face – hardly a dramatic figure – but I know that guy from somewhere. I drive past reluctantly, ransacking my memory. I’ve got plenty else to think about, so why the mug of some unknown bloke should be so captivating is beyond me. I am not an anxious man.
That afternoon, I’m sitting in my office signing for a delivery, at the builders’ merchants where I work, when it happens. I glance up at the driver, and a flash of recognition runs through me like a vodka shot. I date the form 2011 and have to correct it. It’s an echo this time, not the same as it was in the car this morning. I don’t know how memory works, but mostly I remember what I want to remember, and I forget what I want to forget. This is different. Something half-formed is lurking behind the veil of years. A mocking resemblance that I can’t place, something too slippery to put my finger on.
As the delivery man leaves the room, I rub the stubble on my chin and look around. About this time of day Jack should be transferred from the school to the after hours nursery, where he’s supposed to rest, play and be mollycoddled. I kid myself they will do a good job. I guess I’m scared that it’s warehousing for children, that as long as they don’t get injured or wet themselves, the staff consider it job done. That I could walk over there, and give all the inmates an aisle number and barcode. God knows, when Jack was born I didn’t grasp the size of a new human life. You can’t measure it in feet and inches, your brain doesn’t clock it. Huge, that’s what it is. It’s like the age of the dinosaurs, or the size of the universe. You’re walking to the moon and back, and then some. I thought I was cool with it. I didn’t take any photos into work, made no fuss, just got on with life like I knew what I was doing. And for a while, things were good. Though I never engaged much with Jack. My own dad upped sticks when I was small, so perhaps I didn’t know how. And – I have to say it – I resented the pressure that he put on Trudy. Six months after he was born we were arguing again, and she started to slide into the depression that she’d had before. So I walked out.
Alphabet spaghetti shapes: you can read them, or you can eat them. Or you can mash them up with your fork, and leave an incoherent jumble in the corner of the plate. Jack has his own ways of communicating. He’s in bed now, and I’m washing up. I wish I knew how I was doing with him, but I don’t have any bearings. When I see people with kids out and about I watch, trying to tell if I should copy or ignore them. Right now I need a drink, but I make tea instead. The living room is sparsely furnished, with an orange space hopper glowing under the standard lamp. I brush the Wii controls and remotes aside, and flop onto the sofa. I’m aware that I know who the face on the advert could be. Silently the memory has crept in, like a silver drop of mercury rolling into a bowl of water. I’m thinking of Matty Davis. The square jaw, freckles, the curly brown hair, an innocent, open face, that could be him grown up. I say grown up because I haven’t seen him since, well, since we were twelve years old. I recall our last fight with a pang of remorse. And I know now why I’ve been fretting. This is something I’ve chosen not to think about for a long time.
Me and Matty grew up in the same tower block in Southwark, just one floor apart. If Matty banged on the kitchen wall in his place, it would echo down the lift shaft and I’d hear it lying on my bed. We knew every landing and every staircase in that building, where to hang out and who to avoid. And we had fights. The fun began when we started to watch the American wrestling on Sky. We’d grapple on the floor and imitate the moves while screaming their names. Clothesline! Elbow drop! Body Slam! Cobra Bulldog! Sometimes the lift doors would open and an old lady would come out with her shopping. It was hardly the ideal space. Then one summer some maintenance guy went up onto the roof, and didn’t padlock the gate properly. For a twelve-year-old, it was practically nirvana. We took chairs, cushions and cider, girls that we wanted to snog and fags that we wanted to smoke. We gave up on the fags. Just as well, they were Mum’s Superkings, god knows what state I’d be in by now. For the fights we’d have a red cushion in one corner and a blue cushion in the other. There would be imaginary trainers to advise us and ridiculous, bloodcurdling threats that we’d hurl like a boomerang across the concrete space, startling the dishevelled pigeons whose droppings streaked the sides of the water tank.
Not that it lasted. Soon older lads were coming up there, smoking pot and taking the piss. Sciz put me in an armlock, scrunched me up against the wall, and stubbed his fag out on the back of my neck. Ashley told us that without blood, it wasn’t a real fight. We became wary, careful, meeting downstairs and asking whether there would be a show. Thing was, it had got to be routine. One evening, I was grappling with Matty, egged on by a small crowd, when I kneed him hard in the groin, a tactic solidly forbidden. There were girls in the crowd too by now, and some of the lads would bet fags or cans on the outcome. As Matty lay whimpering on the floor, there were shouts of “Finish him!”, “Do it!”, and “Stand on his head!”. So I did, putting as much weight on the foot as I dared. “Piss on him!” came the command. I hesitated. “What’s the matter, scared of showing us your cock?” There was silence. Then the smell of urine spraying over stone and skin, and the sound of Matty sobbing. But that’s not the memory that’s troubling me.
It was a few days later, when no one else was around. We were on the roof, going through the motions, being gentle and barely making contact. The whole thing was a pathetic charade, now. I was sheepish, not exactly sorry but upset, conscious that we had found the limits of something, and couldn’t go back. Then out of the blue, Matty got me in a proper headlock and hit me, hard, several times. While I lay dazed on the floor, he ran to the edge of the roof and climbed the gapped concrete panels. This wasn’t new, we’d go halfway up like we were climbing the ropes of the ring, ready to jump on our opponent, but Matty kept going. Soon he was standing on top of an inch thick piece of concrete, the ground fifteen floors below him. I looked away, and when I looked back he was gone. And that’s all I can remember.
You hear stories about people repressing things. Maybe I buried this, and then seeing that face on the hoarding, that similarity… it was like a relic coming to the surface, amongst a pile of muddy bones. Did Matty grow up into that man? Did he even grow up? I drink my tea. It’s gone cold.
“Daddy, I can’t sleep!” Jack is standing in the doorway, in blue pyjamas, clutching the worn soft-toy rat that Trudy bought him. “I expect there was a siren,” I say casually.
“No, there wasn’t.” He speaks with unexpected vehemence, his straight brown hair swaying back and forth.
“Well go back to – oh just come and sit here for a bit.” I extend an arm and wait. It takes him a while before he patters over.
“She’s gone to Australia, remember?”
“Then why can’t I see her?”
“Because it’s a very long way away, and you have to get into a big aeroplane for a long time –”
“My friend Annie says you can see Australia from the London Eye, because she’s been on the London Eye, so it can’t be that far away!”
“I’m sorry, Jack.” I squeeze him to my body, but he pulls away and stomps out. And he’s only five.
On the way into work I note that it’s a JC Decaux advert. They might be able to give me the contact details of the bank’s marketing department. I spend my lunch hour making enquiries. Which agency made your advert? No, I just thought it was really good… I’ve never felt so lame in my life. No one will get back to me. I tell them I’m trying to trace someone, go for the sympathy, but that’s not my strong suit. Two days later I get through to the creative – that’s what they call themselves – and she gives me a name. Yes? Joshua Simons. Not Matty Davis? No.
And I was so sure. When you see photos of your parents as children, you just know. This was the same. It’s odd that I can remember his face so clearly, but not what happened. The harder I push to recall further, the greyer and blanker is the emptiness I find.
Jack had a scrap at school. Something about biscuits in a lunchbox. Not serious, I’m told, but they thought I should know. Like father, like son, I nearly said. I’m going to have to do better with him, so much better. I’ll buy some reading books and some maths books, I can do that. We can learn from each other.
It doesn’t take me much longer to realise that I have to go back to Moores End House. Visit Mum, see if she remembers anything. I sack off early on a quiet day, and drive down to the estate. She won’t come to the door, and I have to shout through the letterbox. It’s Peter! Pet-er! Eventually there’s a rattle of chain and there she is, crabbed back, silver hair in a bun and needling eyes.
“You didn’t say you were coming.” Her voice is husky from a lifetime of fags.
“I just wanted to say hello. Work finished early, you know.” Her momentary suspicion subsides. The flat is covered in dust and dog hair. It stinks.
“Haven’t seen you in a while. Where’s Trudy?” she says as she makes the tea. Her hands are shaky.
“She went to Australia, Mum. Remember?”
“What did she want to go and do that for?”
“Mum, do you remember the Davis family? Used to live here, you know me and Matty were really thick when we were kids. Matty Davis, curly brown hair?”
“I suppose little Jack’s gone with her.” She looks over the rim of her teacup, thin-lipped.
“No, he’s with me, I told you. But the Davis family…”
“Hmm, maybe I remember. Well you look after Jack, then, if you’ve got him. You don’t want to be like Regis.” My father has long ceased to have a first name. “You haven’t got something to tide me over, have you?” she says slyly, her free hand creeping pathetically across the table, stroking my fingers. “You’re an important man now, running that yard of yours. I always tell Mrs Noakes, when I see her.”
Well, that was bang on cue. So she hasn’t gone completely dotty. I slip a crisp twenty across the table, and she secures it under her saucer. That will keep the off-licence going for a while.
“The Davis family, Mum. Matty Davis, do you remember?”
“Yes… He was a little scamp. Nice family, though. Had that sister with all those rings and bits in her, the redhead. Mind you, all three kids had red hair. That’s Scots blood for you.”
“No Mum, Matty had brown hair, curly like. None of the Davis lot were ginger.” I trail off.
“Well what you asking me for, anyway? How should I know?”
“Did anything bad happen?”
She pauses. “Are you all right, love?” That infinite tiredness in her voice, stretched over decades. Her hand shakes again as she picks up a biscuit. I’m sorry, Mum, but I’ve got Jack. Whatever happens to you, happens.
Outside on the landing I will myself to remember. It has been repainted but the concrete floor is the same as always. There was a reason why Matty dropped out of my life, I know it. Fault and blame are wrecking balls I’ve tried to avoid, but it’s the notion of responsibility… I cast my eyes around hopelessly, as though the steel and concrete will yield what it knows, let the collective memory of all who have lived here seep out, into floating pictures to be blown away on the draught. I wonder about going to the top floor, to see if I can get onto the roof. But that would be ridiculous. Behind the wire netting the pigeons coo. The wind funnels down vertical canyons. It’s time for me to get Jack.
I rush into the day nursery, trying not to push past families leaving. The walls are plastered with daubed paintings in primary colours, a mass-produced jollity that puts me on edge. Somehow I preferred the tower block.
“Here’s Daddy, Jack, yes Daddy’s come to get you, here he is now,” babbles the assistant, pointing enthusiastically. I get the feeling Jack’s been a bit morose. He walks towards me slowly, face inscrutable, then runs in to straddle my calf, his hands around my knee. I grip his fingers and we walk to the car.
“Did you have a good day?” I say with false hopefulness.
“It was alright. I swapped my Maltesers for Space Dust.”
“You don’t like Maltesers?”
“Space Dust is cool. I saved it for you.”
“Oh, well, shall we share it? Let’s have some now.”
“Yeah!” He flicks open his lunchbox dramatically and pulls out a plastic sachet. He takes great care in opening it. I hold my hand out, and receive a little mound of purple spheres. A present! I wait until he’s ready.
“Three-two-one!” I shout and we knock it back together. Instantly I can feel the fizzing, the popping, the sensation of recovered space. I haven’t felt the taste in years, not since… And there I am, sharing some with Matty, on the concrete balcony by the waste chute, the wind in our faces. I’m messed up, apologetic, holding myself in. He was leaving, his family was moving out, the lift was rammed with furniture, and we were snatching whatever time was left. Just a week or two after our final fight, and this was goodbye. That was where it ended.
I sniff, blink away the tears and swallow.
“You’re a good lad, Jack. We’ll be all right.” I tousle his hair.
“Yes dad,” he says.