Days are spent passing time. I’m sitting in the chair, staring, staring at some show where the channel have tried too hard to be ethnically friendly and cast a brown-grey boy as the lead who walks around with self-conscious animals. My daughter watches, glued, eyes wide, nothing is around her. I suggest changing the channel, “something we’ll both like,” I say but she screams “no” and snatches the remote back. I hate it when she snatches but I have no energy to fight. Mundane questions come at the audience. “What’s this animal?” “What’s this season?” Mundane and idiotic.
My daughter turns to me. “I want butter biscuits,” she says.
“Doesn’t your tummy hurt?”
“OK,” I say. “I’ll get some now.”
Moments pass, I haven’t moved. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to get her butter biscuits. When did it become the parent’s job to also be maid? Parent job description: Carer, Maid, Cook, Cleaner, Bitch. Apply Within.
“Dad! Butter biscuits, pleeeeeeeease!”
“How many do you want?”
Nothing. She’s staring at the screen now, glued to it, mouth open, drooling. This is teaching.
“I think you should have four.”
“I want seven.”
“Isobel, your stomach has been hurting all day. You should have four. They’re no good for you anyway.”
“How about six?” she says.
It goes on. Before I know it we’re two children screaming at each other. The six year old and the thirty-one year old. Scream scream scream. I scrape butter onto the biscuits and bring her the four as discussed, which she rolls her eyes at. Somehow, I’m a slave, an unwanted, unattended, unloved bitch slave. I sit down and the colours flicker. I need to do some work. I have three articles due but no desire to do them. I think about the briefs that were sent over, changed, sent over, changed again and the story I’ve been working on along the side. Stories have begun slipping between my fingers, lost between being Isobel’s bitch, Ian’s househusband and writing articles about stuff I don’t care about.
The biscuit plate lands on the coffee table with a clatter, nothing but crumbs as evidence, a crime scene. The show continues and she snatches the remote to play another, saying no words. I ask her questions, she ignores me, I scream her name, I am silent. I decide to go and do some work. Sitting in this seat is doing nothing for me, my mind is mush, splattered, whacked into a beating tray. I get up.
“Dad,” she says.
“I feel sick.”
I smell like vomit. Worse, child vomit. I go into my sad excuse for a study, spray air freshener and go onto the computer. It’s 3pm, Ian will be home in three hours. God, I hate the summer holidays. People always laugh at teacher’s getting six weeks off, “doing nothing”, they say yet I stupidly take on writing jobs in some sad attempt at believing I am making it as a writer even though I have published three stories in tiny magazines that typing my name on Google would be a waste of time. I do it anyway. My computer is slow, I’ve had it for seven years, it’s riddled with viruses and pop ups. GLEN CROW takes long to loud and then it’s a number of pages about crows, some on famous Glens, a Professor Glen Crow who used to teach in Minnesota. Finally me and my little articles, a random mention on a page I’ve read a dozen times about my story, a fragmented review where it was called “exhilarating” by, I assume, a wannabe reviewer and then back to the professor who died two years ago, my name hovering over his records, my name, my existence, me. I read my own obituary.
My latest short story is shit. It’s about a child name Izzy who terrorises her parents – three guesses who that’s about. It’s shit, badly written but I keep going, thinking that the bad will disappear and the good will eventually come forward. I remember one of my tutors at University describing my project as “simply good writing” and think how ashamed he would be now. This, I write, is simply bad writing.
My little study is surrounded by the people I try to be. Don’t they say that when you start out as a writer you mimic your favourite authors? What happens if you just become a mimic? The writing career as a clown? The shadow writer. I think of those teachers that become wonderful writers, teachers that use their minimal time, the pain and frustration to write something of value, something that matters. I think of fathers. Fathers that write epic fantasy odes to their children. Roald Dahl and J.R.R. Tolkein, the greats who wanted nothing but to write these tales.
I dream of Isobel loving books, of my daughter being me, of people looking at us, at my family, and thinking of us as quirky, booky people. She, however, prefers staring at the television and Ian prefers French films. When I first met him I made him read Raymond Carver, he found him too “continuous”. Back then, we spent the night arguing, getting drunk and having sex against broken spine books. But he read him. I think the last book he read was some encyclopaedia on the history of film.
It’s nearly dark. I’ve been writing for hours. “Writing,” as I say, meaning staring for fifty per cent of the time and actually banging against the keys for the rest. When I notice the lamps come on in the street, piercing through the blue haze, I’ve written four pages of bad storytelling and the lights flickering from the television come down the corridor, Isobel still unmoved. I find her in the same spot, cradling her stomach, complaining that it hurts and I have no idea what to do.
“Dad will be home soon,” I say.
“Will he know what to do?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
She is a stranger in my home, he has left me with a stranger. She is his sperm, I know it, can see it in her hair and nose, she’s exactly him. She knows it and I know it. I think she’s manipulating me. Some days she treats me like I’m the better Dad, I’m the one she would come to when boys eventually become a problem, I’m the one she wants to paint with, wants to talk to, watch films with but then it’s someone else, then it’s Ian or Ian’s mother, Grandma! Grandma! and I’m the afterthought.
She’s staring at me, hooked over the chair, arm slanting down, glaring.
“Yes?” I say.
“I want some smiley faces.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough to eat?”
“I haven’t had much,” she says.
“That’s a lie, Isobel.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Now you’re lying about lying. You know that you’ve had three pieces of toast, cereal, two sandwiches, crisps, biscuits…I don’t even know how many biscuits. Why don’t you wait until dinner?”
“Well what time is dinner?” She says it and waves her head and I hate it.
“And what time is it now?”
I look at my watch. “Six,” I say.
She smiles and her eyes open. You’re a fucking idiot, the eyes say.
“I’ll put some smiley faces in the oven,” I say.
“And chicken sticks!” she screams.
“And chicken sticks.”
Bitch slave, now chef housewife.
I hear Ian come home and realise there’s nothing for us to eat. Did the job description say anything about cooking? I used to watch Nigella Lawson on repeat and envy her complete happiness about cooking for her family. Her words, her way with food, the sheer pleasure of mixing oil and meat and wala! food.
I stand in the kitchen where the smell of precooked food rises, where the smiley faces and chicken sticks golden and crisp in the oven, the door swings open.
“Hello, my love!” Ian comes and kisses me. He smells the way he always smells. I hug him and it’s the smell that takes me through our whole life together and into this kitchen. “You had a good day?” he says as he flicks through the mail.
“Tepid,” Ian replies, “never good for you.” He kisses me again, properly, slipping his tongue into my mouth and I feel his erection against my leg.
“Long day at the office?” I say.
“Very,” he replies, smirking, kisses me again, rubs it against my jeans.
“Not now,” I say.
“When’s bedtime again?” he says.
“Dad!” Isobel screams from the other room.
I know she means me. “Yes!” I say.
“Where’s my food?”
“Isobel!” Ian shouts. “Watch the attitude!”
He turns back to me, rolling his eyes.
“Attitude,” I say.
I check the oven.
“What’s for us?” he says.
“I forgot to cook anything.”
Ian shrugs. “S’alright. We’ll order something. What are you in the mood for?”
“Pizza?” I say.
“Pizza, it is.”
“You didn’t tell me you were having pizza,” Isobel says when it arrives.
“You told Dad you wanted smiley faces and chicken strips,” Ian says.
“Yeah but Dad didn’t tell me you were having pizza.”
They’re snuggled up on the sofa as I place the box on the coffee table. It’s 7.30, she’s still here.
“Well, do you want a piece?” Ian asks.
She looks up at me and I look back at her.
“No,” she says. “No, thank you,” and she cuddles back into him.
And we sit down watching a cartoon film, like one big happy family.
Ian puts my hand on his erection, I feel it press through his boxers, he takes them off straight away. It’s nearly midnight, we’re in bed and his kisses come quickly, thoroughly. I hold onto the back of his head and kiss him. I feel his hard chest press against my own, his hand on my ass as he pulls me towards him then his mouth is on my neck and I let out a moan.
“Not too loud,” he mumbles, giggling.
My eyes are shut, I feel his hand run down my back, over my nipples, down to my boxers, he massages my own erection. The covers are falling off us, he’s on top of me, running his tongue over my body, down to my dick.
The door opens.
We do what parents do when this happens – we flee. We jump back to where we should. We avoid any knowledge. Daddy was looking for his bookmark. Daddy was changing, that’s why you saw his ass. Within seconds we’re upright, sitting, my wet nipples glistening under the light. Isobel stands in the doorway, holding her bear.
“Dad,” she says.
Nine times out of ten it’s obvious which of us she means and in this moment she means Ian.
“What is it, Izzy?” he says.
“I can’t sleep,” she says.
“Come here then,” he says, I notice he’s sliding his boxers back on.
I don’t move, I want my erection to disappear.
She climbs onto the bed. “Can I sleep in here tonight?” she says.
“Of course,” Ian replies.
I roll my eyes. Not only a day being her bitch, now a night with no sex because she “can’t sleep.”
Ian kisses me on the cheek, mumbling that he loves us and the lights are out. Isobel kisses me and says, “love you, Daddy,” before turning, her back facing me, cuddling into Ian and as the three of us fall asleep I feel her hand touch mine through the night and I’m not sure whether I should hold it or not.
When I wake, Ian has gone and it’s just the two of us. Isobel’s head is planted into the pillows and I open my eyes like you do when you wake in a bed that is not yours. A one night stand awakening, the cracking of eyes, the where am I?, the slid out of bed to avoid any awkward conversations and when I do get up, throwing on some pyjama bottoms, Isobel raises her head.
“Dad?” she says.
“What are we doing today?”
“I have to go to the doctors,” I say.
“Do I have to go?”
“Yes,” I say.
She rolls her eyes. “Can we go to the shop after?”
“Maybe. If we have time. You better wash, we have to go soon.”
“Why are you going to the doctors?” she asks.
“My back hurts.”
I go into the bathroom, run the shower and edge forward like some old man. My back does hurt, it’s hurt for weeks now and when I stand in the shower it only gets worse, like a pair of tiny feet is kicking me over and over.
We sit side by side, saying nothing, just looking around together. Her feet dangle off the chair, not able to touch the ground. She wears her purple dress, I wear my black trousers and a green jumper. We’re dark, dark and deformed staring at sick people. Inches from us is a child – perhaps a year old – wobbling around as the parents and grandparents giggle.
“Dad,” Isobel says.
“Why are they laughing at that baby?”
“It appears she’s their entertainment.”
“Did you and Dad laugh at me at all?”
“Never,” I say.
It is in these moments that I know I love her. Here, she is questioning, she is wondering why, she is mine. Here, she is sitting beside me and seeing things through my eyes and thinking what I am thinking. Here, she is not the bitch child, she is not the devil’s spawn, she is my daughter who dislikes the parents and grandparents as much as I do.
The staggering baby, year old, child-thing wobbles over and stares right at me. I stare back, Isobel stares with me. We look at this alien with the big eyes and balding head. I hear the laughter of the parents and grandparents and think why is it OK for a child to get away with this? This is rudeness and allowance is more so. Eventually, the mother scoops the baby away and takes it out of my sight. Even as a child I never understood this. I didn’t get when a baby came into the family, did it’s show, bumped around, fell over, caused a few laughs and then, when it was time to leave, we all had to kiss the baby. Rape it with our lips. When I refused the baby would rape me with its lips, wet ones, big, fat, wet, pink lemons that ran over my face, broke past what I wanted, what I deemed acceptable.
Over at the nurse’s station a drunk elderly man is yelling. “No, you see I get my neighbour’s medication. It is here. I haven’t got it for her this week.”
“OK, Mr. Satchel,” the receptionist is saying, “I’ll look.”
“God, I wish you all had brains,” he’s saying, slouched on the counter, mumbling. “You work in a doctor’s surgery, you think they’d hire people with brains.”
“OK, there’s no need to be rude, Mr. Satchel.”
“I’m not being rude, I’m saying I wish you had some brains. I’m being honest.”
The receptionist is fumbling with papers. “No, Mr. Satchel, it’s rude. If you continue I may have to ask you to leave.”
“You’d turn a sick man away.”
“I thought you were here for your neighbour.”
“A sick woman then!”
It goes on and everybody in the surgery does what good British people do – they watch. Some, obviously, a full on glare, watching the show. Others, from the corners of books, peering around newspapers. Others, pretend they’re not looking, pretend to be above it but instead listen. Isobel and I are directly opposite, we look, we observe.
“Why is that man angry, Dad?” Isobel asks.
“He wants his prescription.”
“We’ve waited a while for the doctor – should we get mad?”
“No,” I say.
“Because being angry doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Isobel isn’t satisfied.
“Has that man got his prescription?” I say.
“No,” she says.
Nearby, an old woman is smiling at us. “How old is your daughter?” she asks.
“I’m six,” Isobel replies.
“How inquisitive you are,” the old woman says.
“It means questioning,” I say. “When you question things.”
“I ask questions,” Isobel says.
“Indeed you do.”
“They’re just so wonderful when they’re young,” the old woman says.
I force a smile. “Right.”
Then, overhead, “Glen Crow to Room 4 to see Doctor Smith. Glen Crow to Room 4 to see Doctor Smith.”
“That’s us,” I say and we get up.
“Why did that old lady ask how old I was?”
“I don’t know. I guess she was interested.”
“I don’t know why she would be interested. I’m not a puppet.”
We walk home and her hand feels tiny in my own. Her fingers slip and clap onto my sweaty palm before dangling by her side as she kicks leaves and scurries away from the road, Ian has taught her well. I don’t know what to do with her. I think about taking her to the park but have no idea what I would do there. Would I be required to go on the slides? Or worse, stand and watch her? Where are the terms and conditions? The contract I signed?
“What do you want to do?” I say.
“I thought we were going to the shop,” she says.
“Well, we don’t have the car,” I say.
“Let’s go home,” she says.
“You sure? We can go to the park?”
“No, let’s go home, I can watch Netflix.”
“Or read a book?” I say.
“Or watch Netflix.”
She’s evil again. She’s paused the same show with talking animals and walks around the kitchen, whistling. She knows I hate whistling. Whistling is the fountain of annoyance, whistling is the sharp, blast of noise that nobody wants in their ears. She’s left me staring at a frozen screen, forced to hear her little steps as she walks in circles, whistling. There is no point in her being in that kitchen.
Clunk clunk, whistle whistle.
Clunk clunk, whistle whistle.
It’s repetitive. It’s affirmative. It’s passive aggressive.
She knows it. I know it. This is punishment.
This is her getting me back for making her sit in the doctor’s waiting room on a day when she could have been sitting in front of the TV. Punishment for making her sit in the doctor’s room as he looked at my back behind the curtain. There, she had been silent, perfect, the doctor had mentioned what a wonderful child she was. The old lady had beamed in the waiting room. And now, in Isobel’s eyes, justice.
I watch her sleep. That’s what I do. I stand in the doorway and watch as she is silent sleeping, as her chest rises up and down, as her eyes are tightly shut, as her fingertips wrap around her teedybear and I feel the overwhelming emptiness. The gap. The missing link. I wish that I wished I wanted to be the teddybear. I wish that I wished I was the one she was holding onto in the night, the one she turned towards, wrapped those tiny fingers around. I wish that I wished I could be more definitive.
She tosses in her sleep and the teddybear falls from her grip, collapsing down onto the wooden floor of her bedroom. I immediately move, scoop him up, save him from the boogeymen under the bed. I stand. I stand and look at her back, at her fuzzy hair. In the gloom, I hold her bear, in the gloom I think about giving it back to her. I turn and walk away. I cradle Mr. Bear. I hold him in my arms, a baby, like I once held Isobel, but as I walk down the corridor, as my footsteps clunk and echo, I hold him by the neck, so he dangles from my grip.
I stand at the top of the staircase. I bring the teddybear up to my vision, my hands on each side of his body. The brown fur between my fingers, in between my bones. He stares at me. The wide, black, emotionless eyes. The eyes of disloyalty. The teddybear has no loyalty to Isobel, he will go to another family. One day he’s playing with her, sleeping next to her, chubby fingers, round eyes, the next he’s somebody else’s. Disloyalty, I think, or ownership? Owned by Isobel. Owned by another little girl. Bashed against staircases, knocked on the head, dragged around and forced to do things he doesn’t want to do.
Do they touch you, Mr. Bear? I want to say.
Do they hurt you?
Do they get you up earlier than you wanted?
Are you always tired, Mr. Bear?
I dangle his body and throw him down the stairs. I make sure the teddybear hits as many steps as I can. I make sure he tumbles, his head cracks. I make sure he hits the banister and his leg gets caught but his body drags him down so he’s winded and knocked out and lands at the bottom of the staircase without a sound. It’s a perfect crime. So perfect that all I can do is stand at the top and see his body at the end, silent, unmoving.
Is it possible to kill a teddybear?
I admire my work for a moment and turn to my right and see Isobel standing at the end of the corridor.
“He’s bones are all broken!” She’s wailing in the kitchen, sitting on the stool, screaming as I make eggs, cradling the crippled teddybear. “I think he’s going to die!”
“He’s not going to die,” I say. “His bones probably aren’t broken. His leg maybe.”
“He fell?” she says.
“He must have,” I say. “I told you, he was at the top of the staircase, maybe a window was open and it sort of, you know, whipped him down.”
She’s not satisfied. I can see it in her face, in the way she’s touching him, the way he’s sprawled out on the kitchen counter like she’s about to operate.
“Daddy?” she says.
“Yes?” I say.
“Did you do it?”
“Push him,” she says.
“No,” I reply. “No, Izzy, absolutely not. No.”
I’m a terrible liar. I would be terrible in a real murder, on the stand, screaming “I didn’t do it!” I’m a terrible liar.
“OK,” she says but we both know what the real answer is, we both know it’s a big lie, whipped like the eggs, splattered into a boiling pan and served up looking like something else.
It’s like I have a needle in my arm. There’s a poisonous amount ready to be shot into my system. It’s steady and alert and all it takes is for me to screw it up once and it will go in and that will be it.
Isobel spends the day complaining and getting everything she wants. Am I working on guilt? Guilt for what? Pushing her teddybear down the stairs? We go shopping and we buy the cookies she likes, the ones she knows I hate. She gets sweets when Ian insists she shouldn’t have any. We buy popcorn and coke for her sleepover tonight which the host’s mother, Juliet, will hate me for. We go to McDonalds for lunch and she orders a real person meal – “not a Happy meal!” – and she doesn’t finish it when she knows I hate waste. We go into the bookshop and she gets three books, she will not read any of them. We drive the long way home and stop off at the park, get home and bundle her shit into the car before I drop her off and Juliet scowls at me from the doorstep when she sees popcorn edging out of Isobel’s bag.
Isobel smiles at me, a wide smile.
“Have fun,” I say.
“Thanks,” she says.
“Make sure to share all your treats,” I say.
“I will, Daddy.” She hugs me. It’s random. She never hugs me. I hug her. She doesn’t hug me. But it’s a long embrace, her little arms wrapped around me, a squeeze and then a kiss on the cheek before she runs into the house and disappears.
I’m smoking a cigarette out of the window as I drive home. I never smoke and as I take thick drags I feel like a kid again. Smoking and not knowing how to smoke. Smoking and blowing the crap out of the window without even inhaling. Doing no damage to my lungs because I have no clue. The sun is sinking behind the buildings. The sky becoming an orange and pink paste. There is nothing and everything in my mind. I think of Juliet and her kids, I think of all the mums and dads and their kids, perfect little imperfections. Kids, by definition, meant to be horrible and spoilt and childish but well-rounded in their own right. Mine? Isobel? Different.
I think of the hug. That squeeze, her tiny arms and fingers trying to come together, her face bashed against my stomach, flattened. She smells like soap and oranges, the scent lingers on my shirt but is destroyed with the tobacco, the acrid burning. I throw it out of the window. I think of all the mums and dads, kissing their kids on the cheek, hugging them, wishing them a good day, knowing what their kids need and want. They will be confused soon, when they hit puberty and hate them for no reason, hate them and even the kids won’t understand why they hate them but they will.
These parents. These parents hiding behind doors and windows, houses and bricks, happy. I envy. I am full of envy and as I pull into the driveway all I think about is how easy they make it look. Even if they’re lying, they’re convincing me. Wonderful liars showing off their happiness like a new car at drop off and pick up. Lying and doing it much better than myself. I am happy, to a point. As I walk around the house and reach the front door I know that it is happiness I feel to Ian. Him, I love. Him, I know loves me. Him and I, a team. When I open the door and shout his name, there is silence. Is he away? Fucking some young executive? I don’t think about it. I’m happy with him, maybe because I’m blind to him. But Isobel, the smell that lingers on my shirt now mixed with smoke, Isobel banging her feet on the floor of the kitchen, asking me point blank if I threw her teddybear down the stairs, she is something I cannot ignore.
I stand in the doorway, looking into her pink room. It’s just becoming dark and the room seems somewhat purple, like a demonic version of Izzy has painted over what she asked me to paint originally. “Wrong, wrong, wrong,” she would chant. I step inside and when I do, I feel like an intruder, like I don’t belong here and should never have stepped forward. But I keep moving, running my fingers over her toys and belongings, trying to understand.
I go to her wardrobe, pull out random clothes. The blue dress we bought her for her cousin’s Christening, the jumper we got for her last Christmas. I try and put them on. I try and use the dress as a hat, the jumper as a shawl. Nothing fits. I go over to her drawers and take out a pair of her socks, thinking maybe I could use them as small gloves, finger holders, perhaps. It doesn’t work. I cannot put anything on, it does not belong on me.
I go over to her bed. It’s unmade, she didn’t do as I asked her. I start to fix it. I brush the sheets with the back of my hand, feeling sugar wrap around my knuckles. I bang against the pillows, organising them. I grab the duvet and fluff it, getting out all the wrinkles. Her teddybear falls, tumbles out and onto the bed. Wrapped around its arms is a torn piece of sheet. Its head and both legs the same. Bandaged. Bandaged and taken care of. I hold the teddybear in my hand. Mr. Bear all tidied up, my mess taken care of. I stare at him. She must have done this before she left, cleaned and hidden him away – from me. I sit down on the bed, staring at those big, wide eyes.
“You pushed me,” they are saying. “And lied about it.”
I drop my head and close my eyes and tears hack their way to the surface, dropping down onto my cheeks. Big, round, unwanted tears, falling and I cry. I cry loud, hard, hugging the teddybear, squashing it against my chest. I am smothering it. I am finishing off my work. I pull it away from me, saving it, sparing. I lay down on the bed. My head is against her pillow, my tears making a dry collection where her hair sprawls. I cry and keep crying, holding onto the teddybear, hugging into him, falling asleep.
Thomas Stewart has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. He has had his prose, poetry and personal essays published in The Cadaverine, The Metric, Agenda Broadsheet, Ink, Sweat and Tears, among others. His poetry pamphlet ‘Creation’ is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. As well as fiction, he is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Mens Fashion Magazine. He enjoys folk music, horror films and AM Homes. He can be found on Twitter at @thomasstewart08.