by Jo Gatford
“Were you born in a fucking barn?”
Maybe I was. I close the door, slowly, not all the way.
Joe’s leather armchair hisses as he readjusts his pissed-off arse into it, throws a chip into his mouth and smashes it between his jaws as if to show me what will become of my repeated inconsideration.
“Stupid boy,” gets masticated along with the potato.
I stand in the dark kitchen, flick the kettle switch down, pre-empting the shout:
“You making tea?”
I nod through the wall at him, taking down the oversized novelty Christmas Starbucks mug and swill it in the dishwater for ten seconds or so, let the fatty scum stick to the insides, then rinse the outside in the dog’s water bowl. When the kettle pops I pour most of the water into the sink, leaving Joe with the final cup’s worth, along with the flakes of limescale that sink to the bottom.
Four sugars. Enough milk to erase all colour. Phlegm.
“You turn the light off in there?”
I never turned it on.
“They proved how you kids just don’t care. It was in the paper. How you all are notorious for leaving on lights and not turning off appliances.”
Did they now? I am notorious. I am renowned. I am the elephant in the room. Joe is not my father. ‘They’ proved that, at least. She claimed she didn’t know who was, but her face spewed out sweat and tears when she talked about not knowing him. She had an orgasm giving birth. The midwife said it wasn’t uncommon.
I was uncommon, such a good baby, if babies can be good or bad or indifferent. I slept a lot – nothing woke me, not even the braying and the lowing of Joe’s overexerted lungs as he battered my mother with disappointment and open fisted hands and lust.
I stayed quiet, though she watched me out the sides of her eyes and he watched me from under his eyebrows and they muttered in agreement about their discomfort. Something not right. Something odd. They couldn’t put a name to it because it wasn’t anything they had taught me. I was good. I was polite. I picked up litter and tidied toys. I held open doors and relinquished my place in queues. I ate with my mouth closed and spoke with my mouth empty. It was bizarre to them, and it unnerved them.
When Joe told me she’d got ‘The Cancer’ I didn’t cry. I took up the cooking and the washing and the dusting and gently lifted the mutterings of ‘poofter’ so I could hoover underneath them. I sat with her in the hospice and asked if she wanted my help. I could help, I knew – there was something about my hands that fixed things. She shirked the words off her and opened her eyes too wide and dribbled and stabbed the button for the nurse, asking for water, for sleep, for it to be time for me to go. I went, smiling, dropping my spare change into the collection box at reception.
I substituted at the primary school, and the kids didn’t question my niceness. I told them that the world was theirs, like Joe told me, but different from: “They say you kids will inherit this world and still you leave the lights on”. They told me the things they were sorry for – calling names, disinviting from birthday parties, killing a worm on purpose. I told them that they were forgiven. The school board and the PTA didn’t like that. There are rules about hugging and kind words now and they let me go.
The tax men sent summons that Joe ignored. Credit card companies wanted me to open so many free accounts so I did them and paid the bills. It made the tax men happy and Joe happy and the credit company happy. It made me seethe. Inside my head a light was dimming, a pulse faded with every stamp of muddy boots on my clean hall carpet, every cackle of drunken hen parties as they stumbled over a tramp, every breaking news story that ended with pleading parents, every act of God.
So I asked him – Our Father – what to do. But all he said was … … … like pips on the talking clock line.
I dripped higher concentrations of bleach into Joe’s dinner until his guts bled. I filled in more credit card forms to pay off the other credit cards. I pissed through the letterboxes of the parents who had been cruel to the children I’d taught. The inside of my skull turned red – at least, that’s what I see now when I close my eyes.
“Tea!” Joe screams.
“It’s coming.” No rest for me.
Jo Gatford wants to live on your bookshelf. In the meantime she resides in Brighton and writes for her supper.