We get home at after eight o’clock and I am so hungry I could eat my arm off. Luckily Dad has a lasagne in the oven – Tesco’s Finest – and that cheered Alfie and me up no end.
Usually though when we get in from school Dad sits and chats to us and we have a cup of tea and home-made flapjacks and Dad makes jokes about all our friends. But when we get in this evening, Dad is silent. He puts the lasagne on the kitchen table, and says, “help yourself to knives and forks from the drawer.” He doesn’t mention napkins and jugs of water, the usual ritual of dinners in our house. He goes upstairs to the bedroom, closes the door and that’s the last we see of him.
If Alfie were a normal kid he might take full advantage of no Dad; like I intended to. But he isn’t so I can’t get him to come and watch Skins with me because he says he isn’t allowed and I have to watch it on my own. I take some chocolate ice-cream out of the freezer and sit on the sofa eating it out of the carton with a spoon – unheard of. I put my feet up on the coffee table, then sprawl all over the sofa then help myself to a can of coke and drink it from the can. I turn the volume up on the telly but Dad doesn’t come down or shout or make any move at all. I wonder if he’s asleep and then I wonder if he’s dead.
I go upstairs to find out. Knocking on the door, he doesn’t reply, so I put my head round and see him lying on the bed with his hands folded behind his head staring up at the ceiling; just staring up at the ceiling, at nothing at all.
“Dad,” I say, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“No thanks love,” he says, but he doesn’t look at me, he just keeps staring up at the ceiling.
“I ate the chocolate ice-cream,” I say, in an attempt to get him to do something. Any attention, even negative attention is better than no attention.
“Oh.” He says.
“And I watched Skins, the episode where they are all on holiday in Morocco.
“Really?” he says.
I walk into the room and sit on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry about the writer’s dinner tonight,” I say, “But maybe if Mum gets back earlier than expected you’ll make it for desert?”
I look quizzically at him and smile.
“I doubt it,” he says, “And besides, when did Mum ever get back earlier than expected?”
He’s got a point, so I get up and say, “Sure you don’t want a cup of tea? There’s no lasagne left but I put the rest of Alfie’s sandwich that he didn’t eat for lunch in the fridge if you want it?”
“No thanks love,” Dad says again so I leave and go down to watch another episode of Skins before I have to do my homework.
Much later Mum comes in when I’m just getting out of the shower. I hear her come up the stairs and go straight into her bedroom where Dad is. Of course I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I can’ help myself. Wrapped in a towel, with just my bra and pants on, I creep along to their room and put my ear to the door. There’s a lot of murmuring and then Dad says really loudly; “Well it isn’t all right! Not this time Julie! This time I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!”
I hear the lamp on the table rattle as he’s obviously hit it jumping up off the bed. I presume he’s jumped up off the bed because it’s pretty hard to have a full blown row lying down – I know this owing to the time I fell out with my once so called friend Alice.
Mum shouts; “Calm down Robert!” and then there’s a smash and she cries; “That’s all I blooming need! More ruddy accidents!”
And before I know it, the door is yanked open and Dad slams into me, sending me backwards and making me drop my towel. We both stumble and I scream, a piercing scream horrified at being see in my undies and I run along to my room while Dad stomps down the stairs.
“Robert!” Mum screams after him, “Robert, come back!” She follows and I hear her rush down the stairs. “Come back here!” she yells, but the word ‘here’ comes out strangled as she’s missed the bottom step for a second time today and she’s fallen head first and almost, missing by a matter of centimetres, hit the front door with her forehead.
“Smollocks!” she cries. I hurry to the top of the stairs and look down at them.
“Robert what are you doing? You can’t leave like this? You can’t just pack your stuff and go!”
I wish then that I wasn’t standing at the top of the stairs because I can see that Dad has lugged down a huge suitcase and has left it by the door with his overnight bag and the three copies of the half-finished manuscript. I feel my face begin to crumple up like an old tissue.
“I told you Julie,” Dad says, calmer now, “I’ve had enough of waiting around for you to come home and be a family. I’m running this whole show and you just turn up for meals occasionally, when there’s nothing on at the hospital!”
“That’s not true!” Mum cries, but we all know that it is true. She tries to wrestle the suitcase out of his hand. “You can’t go, you can’t leave!” But Dad holds on to it firmly and she looks round as if she’s looking for something to help her prize it out of his hands, like a spanner. She sees me at the top if the stairs.
“Gabby go to bed!” she shouts, but I can’t because I’m frozen to the spot and I’ve started to cry and I don’t know that I have. Dad looks up at me.
“Sweetheart, go to bed, OK? I’m going to the writer’s convention and then I’m going to find somewhere to stay while I finish my novel. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I nod but my nose is running now and I can taste snot in my mouth. He comes up the stairs, still lugging the huge suitcase, drops it by my feet and gives me a bear hug.
“I love you Gabby,” he whispers in my ear, “And I love Alfie and Mum too, but I can’t keep waiting for Mum to wake up and notice that I’m here. I’ll text you when I get to Dorset,” he says. He releases me and picks up the suitcase lugging it back down the stairs.
Mum is standing perfectly still now; it’s as if all the fight has gone out of her because she knows that Dad is going. He opens the front door, picks up his case and his overnight bag, balances the half-finished manuscript on top and reaches for the car keys. Without looking back at me he leaves the house and slams the door after him. Mum comes and sits on the bottom step, the one that always trips her up, and puts her head in her hands.
She starts and looks up at me then beckons me down. I sit on the bottom step next to her and she puts her arm round me, cuddling me in close.
“How were the people in the accident?” I ask.
“No fatalities,” she says and I know that’s probably because she’s so good at her job. “What on earth are we going to do?” She asks, “Without Dad?” She stares at her hands. “I don’t think I even know how to work the washing machine.”
“It can’t be that hard,” I say, but I’m not so sure because it’s got loads of buttons on it and all sorts of programs; the Porsche of washing machines Dad called it and Mum is famous for her bad driving.
“Takeaways and ready meals and fruit.” I reply.
Someone here after school?”
“Me! Duh?! I’m almost fourteen.”
“Nanny Bloomer?” Mum looks at me and I look at her and suddenly we start laughing. Nanny Bloomer, Dad’s Aunt, is the last person in the world we would ever call on in a crisis; she’s too much of a crisis herself.
“That’s settled then,” Mum says, “Nanny Bloomer is who we want.”
I laugh again, nervously this time and huddle in closer to Mum. Nanny Bloomer, who sat on Alfie’s hamster and broke its neck; Nanny Bloomer who put my peacock feather pen in the oven to dry when it got wet in my bag and burnt it to a frazzled black stump; Nanny Bloomer whose enormous knickers got wrapped round one of Alfie’s friend’s heads when they were on the washing line and he was playing tag with Alfie in the garden and he wandered blind and trapped in three meters of nylon into the fence and broke his nose. Nanny Bloomer.
“Just joking,” Mum says.
“Come on, let’s get you up to bed. Shall I make you a hot chocolate and bring it up to you?”
I look at her and frown.
“I’ll microwave it,” she says. She always burns the milk when she puts it on the gas ring.
“Yes please then.” I get up and begin up the stairs while Mum goes into the kitchen to make me a drink. On the landing, before I go to my own room, I peep into Alfie’s and just check he’s ok. He isn’t, he’s sitting on the window ledge, all squashed up, staring out of the window with a tea towel in his lap that he’s been using as a giant handkerchief.
He turns towards me and his face is all blotchy and stained where the tears have washed away the dirt. “You didn’t wash your hands and face tonight, did you?” I say.
He shakes his head.
“Want to sleep in mine on the floor? We can pull your mattress in?”
He nods and I reach up and grab the mattress off the top bunk where he sleeps. It’s quite heavy and it plops onto my head and I then do this weird, wobbly out of control dance around the room trying to get my balance.
“Wheeeyheeey!” I wobble out of the room and almost overbalance down the stairs, but I finally make it and shove it into my room, dumping it on the floor. I turn and Alfie is right behind me.
“Nice one. Nearly took myself and the mattress for a little dance then.”
He doesn’t smile. I go back and fetch his duvet and pillows and he climbs onto the mattress while I cover him up.
“Mum’s making hot chocolate,” I say, “D’youwant some?”
“It’s in the microwave.”
I leave him for a while and go down and see how Mum is doing. She’s got the microwave glass plate out and is rinsing it under the tap.
“I over cooked the milk a bit,” she says, “It spilled over.”
There’s a horrid smell of burnt dairy. I go to the fridge, get the milk and two new cups from the cupboard. I mix the hot chocolate by the time Mum has got the plate dry and back in the microwave and I nuke both cups for two minutes.
“Is Alfie all right?” Mum asks.
“He’s upset so he’s sleeping in my room,” I say. Mum knows what a big sacrifice this is as he snores and mutters in his sleep and once he got up in the night when he was in my room and pulled my hair. Weird.
“That’s nice of you,” Mum says. “You can tell him he can sleep with me,” she offers.
“Nah, it’s OK.” I say. I take the hot chocolates and begin towards the stairs.
“Gabby?” Mum calls after me. I turn and look at her. “It is going to be all right. Dad’s not gone forever, he’s just taking a break, and he just needs some time to…” She stops.
“I know,” I say. I feel a hundred years old and I’m only thirteen. “Night Mum,” I say.
She blows me a kiss. I blow one back, which requires me to swap both cups into one hand and I slop a bit of milk on the floor. “I’m glad no-one died today,” I say, because I am. I’m glad, even though it’s meant that my Dad has left and my Mum is sad. I take the drinks upstairs and tonight I put my mattress on the floor and sleep next to Alfie.