Authors: Tony Parsons
For my son.
And for my daughter, too.
‘I remember everything!’ cried Pinocchio. ‘Tell me quickly, dear snail, where did you leave my good fairy? What is she doing? Has she pardoned me? Does she still remember me? Does she love me still?’
September. The first day of school. New blue blazers everywhere, leaves and conkers underfoot, but an untouched sky and summer clinging on. And now I thought I understood why my son had been so quiet and preoccupied all through the long holiday. I should have guessed, shouldn’t I? Sooner or later, there was going to be a girl.
I had wanted to believe it was just because he was almost fifteen.
I watched my son watching the girl. His face got red just looking at her.
‘You could talk to her,’ I said. ‘You could just walk right up to her and – you know. Talk to her.’
Pat laughed. He watched the girl dawdling by the school gates. Black haired, brown eyed. Laughing, swinging a rucksack stuffed with books. Tall for her age. Radiant in the blue blazer of Ramsay MacDonald Comprehensive School. Surrounded by admirers.
‘Talk to her?’ he muttered, all polite disbelief, as though I had said,
Levitate, why don’t you? The ladies love a bit of levitation. The chicks go crazy when they see a lad who can levitate.
‘Probably not,’ he said.
‘Is she in your year?’ I said.
He shook his head, and a matted veil of blond hair fell over his eyes. He pushed it away with a sigh, the love-sick Hamlet of the local comp.
‘No, she’s in the year above me.’
So she was fifteen. Or maybe already sixteen. An older woman. I should have guessed he would fall for an older woman.
I watched him fumbling nervously with the Predator football boots that were resting on his lap.
‘Do you know her name?’ I asked. He took a breath. He swallowed. He brushed some flakes of dried mud from his Ramsay Mac blazer. He did not look at me. He kept looking at her. He was afraid he might miss something.
‘Elizabeth Montgomery,’ he said.
The eight syllables tripped off his tongue. The way he said them, it was infinitely more than a name. It was a sigh, a prayer, a kiss, a love song. He slumped back in the passenger seat, weak with exhaustion. It had taken a lot out of him, saying Elizabeth Montgomery’s name.
‘Just talk to her,’ I said, and his face burned again at the very thought of it.
He looked at me. ‘But what would I say?’
‘What do you want to say?’
‘I want to tell her…’ He shook his head, struck dumb, but then it came in a barely audible torrent. ‘I want to tell her that she is the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. That her eyes – they shine. They just shine, that’s all. Like…black fire or something.’
I shifted uneasily in my seat.
‘Well, Pat, some of that stuff you might want to save for the second date.’
He was that age where he still believed in the secret language of girls.
The age where you believe that girls speak in an Esperanto that is alien to you – a mere boy, consumed with longing and unworthiness, tongue-tied by youth and yearning.
And I wanted to help him. I really did. I wanted to be the Yoda of love he could turn to. And even if it did not work out with him and Elizabeth Montgomery – if they never fell in love, if he was not the millionaire who shared her wedding day, if she never became the one the angels asked him to recall – then at least I thought I might be able to
help him have a conversation with the girl. That did not seem too much to ask.
A distant bell began to ring. Elizabeth Montgomery moved off, the centre of attention in a blue-blazered crowd of boys and girls. It was not just Pat. Everybody loved Elizabeth Montgomery.
I drove him to school every morning. Although by the time they are pushing fifteen you no longer really drive them to school. You drive them close to school and let them walk the rest of the way before you have a chance to embarrass them with kisses, hugs or words of sage advice on the mysteries of attraction. He opened the passenger door.
‘You around tonight?’ I said.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes. It had grown long over the summer. ‘I’ve got my Lateral Thinking Club after school and then I’m around,’ he said. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m around,’ I said. ‘But late – there’s some black-tie thing. The show’s up for an award. Lateral Thinking?’
‘You know. Thinking outside the box. Creative thinking. Edward de Bono.’
‘Oh right – Edward de Bono. Used to be married to Cher. No, that was Sonny Bono. Before your time.’
‘Everybody was before my time,’ he laughed, getting out of the car. ‘I haven’t had my time yet.’
He slammed the door shut and looked at me through the window.
‘Enjoy your Lateral Thinking,’ I said. ‘And talk to her, kiddo. Talk to Elizabeth Montgomery.’
He waved and went. That was my son. Some kids his age were out mugging old ladies for their iPods. But he had his Lateral Thinking Club and his one-way love for Elizabeth Montgomery. I watched him go as the bell faded away.
Parents were still milling around, so I did not look twice at the woman parked directly across from the school gates. In fact, I didn’t really look at her once. But then she got out of her car and I saw that she was watching Pat too.
And now I looked.
She was tall, blonde, and a little too thin. Dressed for serious exercise – a dark tracksuit, proper trainers – and a raincoat thrown over the top of her running clothes. Looking a touch unkempt and exhausted, but who doesn’t in the aftermath of the school run? Despite the blue September sky, the morning was cold enough for me to see her breath.
I stared straight at her, and straight through her and then we both watched Pat go through the gates, the tail of his white shirt already coming out of his trousers, unfurling like a flag of surrender.
And then I looked at her again and something deep inside me fell away.
Because I always think that it is bizarre – no, I always think that it is unbelievable – that you can love someone, really and truly love someone, and then one day you do not recognise their face.
If you have loved someone, you would think that you would know that face always and forever – wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t every line of that face be stamped on your heart?
But it is not. Your heart forgets.
Especially after – what? Seven years? Could it really be seven years since I had seen her? Where did seven years go?
She got into her car and as she pulled away she looked at me with a kind of wary interest.
So she felt it too. Who is this stranger?
And by then it was all coming back to me. All of it. Oh yes. She had changed – older, thinner and many miles travelled in worlds that had nothing to do with me – but I remembered Gina.
I remembered loving her more than I had ever loved anyone, and I remembered our marriage and the birth of our son, and I remembered how it felt to sleep by her side. And I remembered how all that was good had gone bad, and how it had hurt so much that I truly believed nothing could ever be good again.
So, yes, now that I came to think of it, she did look vaguely familiar.
We envied families who had had a good divorce.
Families where the love was still intact, despite everything. Families where they remembered every birthday – on the actual day. Families that did not let entire years slip by, entire years just wasted. Families where the absent parent turned up at the weekend on time, stone-cold sober and eager to prove the wise old saying, ‘You don’t divorce your children.’
But some people do.
So we – my son and I – looked longingly on the families that had had a good divorce.
To us, they were like the family in a commercial for breakfast cereal, an impossible ideal that we could never truly aspire to, a wonderful dream that we could only gawp at with our noses pressed up against the windowpane.
Families that had had a good divorce – they were the Waltons to us. They were the Jacksons. They were the Little Broken Home on the Prairie. They were what we would have loved to have been and what we would never be.
Families that had had a good divorce – we could hardly stand to look at them. Because it was nothing like that for us. Me and my boy.
It never felt like much to ask. A life like other lives. A divorce that could hold its head up high. Some love to remain after the love had flown.
Dream on, kiddo.
Home at midnight. And in a bit of a state.
I had not really touched dinner – rubber chicken for five hundred – so now my stomach was growling and my head was reeling and I was a shade drunker than I had planned to be. My bow tie was coming undone. There was a smear of crème brûlée on the black satin collar of my dinner jacket. Now how the hell did that happen?
It was a school night and Pat should have been tucked up in bed like the rest of the family. But he was sitting at the dining-room table, Japanese homework scattered around him,
pushing a fistful of hair out of his eyes as I came into the room with the exaggerated care of the accidental drunk.
He was always mad at me if he thought I had drunk more than I could take.
‘Celebrating, are you?’ he said, tapping an impatient biro.
I suddenly realised that I was carrying a bag containing a magnum of champagne and – something else. I looked inside. The something else was a shiny gold ear set on a base of glass and chrome. My award. The show’s award. I placed both the bottle and the award on the table, careful to avoid Pat’s homework.
‘Congratulations,’ he said, softening a little. ‘The show won. You won.’ But then he scowled again when he saw me fumbling with the foil on the bottle. Just a nightcap, I thought.
‘No show tomorrow?’ he said. ‘I thought you had a show tomorrow.’
‘I’ll be all right.’
‘And I thought recovering from hangovers became harder as you got older.’
I had removed the foil and now I was easing off the wire. ‘So they say.’
‘They must be getting really hard for you then,’ he said. ‘Now you’re forty.’
I stopped and looked at him. He had this infuriating smirk on his face. ‘But I’m not forty, am I?’ I said. ‘I’m only thirtynine and three-quarters.’
He got up from the table. ‘You’re almost forty,’ he said, and exhaled the endlessly exasperated sigh that only a teenager can make. He went off to the kitchen and I put the champagne unopened on the table. It was true. We were on air tomorrow. Opening a bottle at midnight was possibly not the best idea I ever had.
Pat came back with a pint glass of water and gave it to me.
‘Dehydration,’ I said, trying to worm my way back into his good books. ‘My body’s dehydrated.’
‘And your brain,’ he said dryly, and he began collecting
his books. I saw that he had been waiting up for me. Then he thought of something. ‘Someone called. He wanted you. An old man. He didn’t leave a message.’
‘That’s strange,’ I said. ‘We don’t know any old people, do we?’
‘Apart from you, you mean?’
I chugged down some water and followed him as he went around turning off lights, and checking locked doors.
I watched him making sure we were safe, and with my wife and our daughters sound asleep upstairs, for a few moments it felt as though the family had once again boiled down to just the two of us. The last light went out.
I did not mention his mother.
The next day, when he was back from school, we walked to the large expanse of grass at the end of our street.
The recreation ground, it was called with no apparent irony. There was a patch of concrete where some lost civilisation had once built an adventure playground, brimming with swings and slides and seesaws and all manner of wonders. But that was all long gone, destroyed by vandals and health and safety officers, and now the recreation ground was just a place to boot your ball, or take your dog for a dump, or get your head kicked in after dark.
‘Three and in?’ I said, balancing the football on my forehead, feeling some flakes of dried mud fall away.
Pat was sitting on the grass, lacing his Predator boots. ‘Just take shots at me,’ he said.
We took off our tracksuit tops, threw them down for goalposts and I smiled as Pat went through some stretching exercises. He was tall for his age, all long-limbed awkwardness, and he always seemed surprised at how far and how fast he had grown. But he looked like what he wanted to be. He looked like a goalkeeper. And I really thought he would make the school team this year but I knew better than to mention it.
Some things are too big to talk about.
I curled a shot at him and he leapt up and snatched it from the air. There was a round of mocking applause and we turned and saw a group of teenagers who had annexed the two benches that were the highlight of the recreation ground. They were maybe a bit older than Pat. Or perhaps just wilder. A couple of girls among a group of boys. One of them was a lot bigger than the rest, built more like a man than a boy, and the shadow of his beard looked all wrong above his Ramsay Mac blazer. They leered at us, roosting on the back of the benches with their feet where their baggy-arsed trousers were meant to go.
Pat rolled the ball out to me and I drove it back at him, low and hard. He got down quickly, his body behind the ball. More applause, and I turned to look at them again. In the fading light, their cigarettes glowed like fireflies.
‘That’s William Fly,’ he said. ‘The big one.’
‘Just ignore them,’ I said. ‘Come on.’
Pat threw the ball out to me and I trapped it, took another touch, and banged it back. Pat skipped across his goalmouth and hugged the ball to his midriff. No applause this time, and I looked up to see the little group had wandered off to the knackered strip of shops that lay beyond the recreation ground.
‘William Fly,’ Pat said. ‘He nearly got expelled for putting something down the toilet.’
‘What did he put down the toilet?’
‘The physics teacher,’ he said, bouncing the ball at his feet. ‘William Fly is famous.’
He kicked the ball back to me.
‘No,’ I said, watching it coming. ‘Winston Churchill is famous. Dickens. Beckham. David Frost. Justin Timberlake is famous. This guy is not famous. He’s just a hard nut.’
‘Same thing,’ Pat said. ‘Same thing when you’re at school.’
He was on the balls of his feet, springing around the goalmouth because he saw me flicking up the ball, getting ready to unload my legendary volley. I laughed, happy to be here, and happy to be alone with my son.