A day after the anniversary of his wife’s death, Les Ford read an email from another member of Highgate Wood PTA relaying talk that an older boy with Fragile X Syndrome was ‘aggressively obsessed’ with his son, Max Ford.
Genetic condition, autism, whatever—it was Max’s first year of secondaryschool and Les took this to mean bullying.
Before Max came home from school that day, Les rehearsed ways to approach this ‘particularly sensitive’ issue and searched through the parenting books his in-laws had bought him. The books told Les to help his son think through the fix himself: it was Max’s battle to fight.
But Les couldn’t concentrate. He finger-traced each index, skimmed over the sentences, threw book after book on the floor, and hung his hands on the top of his head. He listened to his breathing and counted each breath to stop the swell in his throat from overflowing.
When he heard the front door unlocking he left his office and stood in the hallway. Photos of Alice looked on along the wall, and Les remembered the special bond, a kind of alliance he’d not earned or been granted, between Max and his mother. Before the door closed, Les saw the winter rain-sheets sweeping through the street outside; saw the boy’s ash-blond hair, his mother’s hair, rain-darkened to bronze and clinging to his head.
Max didn’t look up, dropped his rucksack on the floor.
‘Max,’ Les said. ‘How was school?’
‘Fine,’ Max said and stomped upstairs.
That night, after a microwaved meal around the kitchen table, Les couldn’t sleep. Even with the Nytol. Eyes closed, he saw scenes from his own youth, four decades and three hundred miles away, in Amble, where he was not like the other pitmen’s sons. For one thing, he’d been an unusually small child—fully-grown, he ginger-curled out at 5’2”. And with a name like Lesley, not only was he a girl in their eyes, but he was a lesbian girl. Some boys sang, Lesley’s a girl, a girly girl! and others chanted, Lesley kisses girls, girly girls!
Les knew he was boy, but when the latter accusation didn’t come about like it had for others, he wasn’t so sure he was doing boy right.
In his sleepless, sharp-edged mind, Les saw the first and only time he played for his school football team. He scored two goals—a tap-in for his side, and a botched clearance for the opposition—costing his team the match. He was towel-whipped in the changing room and chased home, and now that the boys knew where he lived, Knocky-Run Ginger became a nightly event.
His mother found him sobbing in bed.
‘Why are you cryin for?’ she said.
‘Philip Briggs says I’m a lesbian and kicks me shins,’ Les cried.
‘Philip Briggs? No, he wouldn’t do that. His mother’s a good catholic.’
‘Can’t have. He’s a good boy. Lovely singin voice y’know.’
Max Ford wasn’t like his father. He didn’t play sports either—most nights, Max came home from school and sat on the sofa and listened to his mother’s CDs through noise-cancelling headphones—but he was pretty in the way a Nordic boy can be and he had a small group of close friends who played the same video games and liked their parents’ music, and he didn’t feel the need to join the noisy, kneegrazed boys. Les admired that. To him, this was the point of parenthood: to make sure your child isn’t hobbled by what hobbled you.
At times, though, it didn’t sit so well with Les. When Max said he’d been invited to the Gifted and Talented camping trip and he didn’t want to go, or when he’d been invited to another kid’s football party and he didn’t want to go, Les said, ‘All right, son,’ but he realised his admiration for Max was scratched by resentment. How was it that Max hadn’t a problem with letting expectations rule him? In this way, Les would later figure, his son was the boy he should have wanted to be.
Next morning, Les said he’d drive Max to school. He sold it with the incentive that Max could have a fifteen more minutes in bed.
He’d not been up and about at this time since Alice died, not properly. When the new year came round, a month after the burial, he opted to work a three-day week from home, and when Max trudged off in the morning, he’d often go back to bed till lunchtime. The misery exhausted him. His throat was thick from yawning. And he couldn’t bear to be in darkness unless he was going to sleep. He knew light is something, a substance, but he could see through it and move through it, like it’s nothing, and he knew darkness is nothing, a lack, but to him it seemed full, close, solid, like it’s closing in, upping the air pressure, making it harder to breath, like the air would become toxic as it ran out. In darkness, awake, he could only look back, to Alice, and he didn’t want to think about Alice. The more he thought about her, the stranger his memory of her became. She changed in his mind. Images of her reading, drinking, eating, sleeping, laughing— all began to blur into images of his own making until they cancelled out to reveal a picture of someone else, a picture, more than anything, of himself. He would rather see her in his dreams. In his dreams, she came to him as if by surprise, of her own accord. So he tried to sleep through darkness; sleep as much as his body would let him. Max and he had the same bedtime.
As the boy stayed in bed, Les lingered in the kitchen, muttering: ‘You can tell me anything’ … ‘I’m here for you’ … ‘How does that make you feel?’
When he realised he was hunched by the French doors, his face buried in his hands, he got bacon sputtering in a pan, added an egg, put a bowl of beans in the halogen oven, and slotted bread in the toaster. He bound around the kitchen, setting the table. The toast popped up soft so he lowered it for a second round.
Soon enough the halogen oven pinged, the egg was done before the bacon, and Les smelled smoke. The toast had popped up black. Alarm blared.
He turned off the induction hob and stood on a chair and wafted his hand under the alarm.
When the ringing stopped, he noticed the air was thickened with heat and Max stood beneath him.
‘We’re gunna be late,’ Max said.
With the radio murmuring and the heating dialled up, Les wound past the Hornsey townhouses where the first pink glow of morning was growing between the leafless tree branches. Max stared out the window, unaware of his father’s side-glances. Les turned up the radio, but Max turned it off.
‘Sorry,’ Les said. ‘Did you want another station?’
‘We could put the classical one on and play guess the composer.’
‘It’s good revision,’ Les said. ‘For the Music tests.’
‘We already do that in class.’
Les heard his son’s southern accent, the long a—Alice’s accent.
‘Oh. Well, how is it, anyway?’ he said, patting Max’s thigh. ‘How are you finding it—being one of the big boys?’
‘Fine? Don’t you like the separate lessons?’
‘Yeah.’ He sounded uncertain.
‘Is Music still your favourite, then? Or is another closing in? Did you know mine was History?’
‘Nothing else you want to tell me?’
‘I don’t know. Anything, really.’
‘I don’t know either.’
‘Well,’ Les said, before Max clamped his headphones around his ears.
Les gripped the steering wheel, switched the radio on. He felt his mouth hanging ajar.
Turning back onto their street, Les saw his in-laws’ new Audi parked outside the house. He walked past it, looking down at his feet. At the door, he heard, ‘Les?’
He turned. ‘Oh, hi, Julie. Hello, Chris,’ he said.
‘Did you not see us?’ said Julie.
‘You walked straight past us,’ said Chris.
‘Yeah, sorry.’ He hoped they were dropping something off. ‘Do you want to come in?’
‘I could have a tea,’ Julie said.
‘Have you got any biscuits?’ Chris said, grabbing the porch banister.
Julie half-said her husband’s name, half-huffed, and jabbed his arm.
‘You’ve just eaten,’ she said. ‘Oh, Les, he’s put on twenty-two pounds!’
In the living room, Les sat in the armchair by the crammed bookcase and his inlaws were on the sofa facing the TV. The TV was on, low, the odd word or clang of music coming out clear. Chris sat silent, flicking through channels, and Julie pushed herself up and took a framed postcard from the mantelpiece. ‘At least she got to see some splendid places,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said Les. He watched his father-in-law staring at the TV—some antiques show rerun. He waited for Chris to make a joke, but he said nothing. With Alice gone, that screen between Les and his in-laws had dissolved, and he could see them clearer—how Chris can speak in wisecracks or not at all, how Julie will treat stewed tea as a calamity.
Julie said, ‘And Max likes the new school?’
‘Think so, yes.’
‘Oh, well that’s good. You get what you pay for there.’
Les nodded. ‘Thanks again for helping.’
‘Oh, don’t, Les. There’s nothing else worth spending on. It’s all for Max.’ ‘Yes.’
‘You see, when my mother died—’
But the rest of her sentence didn’t reach Les’ mind. He’d stood up, walked across the room to open the window shutters. He leant against the window frame and stared out at the bright grey street. Sometimes, there was no way to not remember her, to see them together. Last night’s dream returned to his memory… Back when he was a broadsheet sales rep and Alice was studying for the Bar, they’d go up to the ice rink at Alexandra Palace. She was better, straight, balanced, and he hunched and wide-legged behind her, smacking over the ice, still trying to walk, not skate. He tumbled now and then and she’d arc around him. You’ll get better. And she laughed but it wasn’t a cruel laugh, he didn’t think, so he laughed with her, itchy with embarrassment, feeling ice-burn on his palms, and she skated on, but the ice was melting—wasn’t it?—and he couldn’t get up, he couldn’t move, and there were foxes shrieking and prowling somewhere, weren’t there?… He blinked, and in the living room window, Les saw his skull-pale face: a cheek-fuzz for the first time since university, an open mouth, ginger curls loosened and thinner and dimmer, and a scar down the side of the nose, about as long as a paper clip—the cost of fiddling with his father’s Stanley as a child unsupervised.
‘Max needs a mother, Les. Someone to fill that gap.’
‘Yes.’ He went back to his chair by the bookcase.
‘That’s what I needed, anyway.’
Les looked at the clock on the mantelpiece and saw that Julie had put the postcard back. He counted the hours before Max came home. If only he could take some Nytol and sleep till then.
‘When your mother died, Les, I’m sure your dad had to make changes. You know… adjusted. Didn’t he?’
‘He worked more, I guess. He buried his head in it. The work. Didn’t follow too long after, actually.’
‘You see—and don’t take this—well—’ Julie lifted her eyebrows, jutted her head forward when Chris said, ‘Are you finding that less work is working for Max? And you, of course.’
Les stood up and went back to the window. He imagined skating down the street, between the parked cars.
‘I guess so,’ he said. ‘I have more time for Max.’
Julie raised her voice, just louder than Les and Chris: ‘Well, it’s really more a question of… stability.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to take off again,’ Les said. ‘If that’s what you mean.’
‘No, no it’—her voice lowered—‘we didn’t mean that.’
‘Of course we didn’t, Les. No.’ Chris looked up at Les and horseshoed his mouth. His eyes were watery and grey.
Les let the air out his lungs and walked to the mantelpiece. He stopped himself looking in the mirror and picked up the framed postcard. As Julie sipped her tea and took out her phone, Les unclasped the pins holding the metal sheet at the back of the frame and lifted a corner of the postcard. He saw writing and knew right away: left-handed, Alice had the letters on a decline, leaning back. The metal sheet came off with a sickening squeak. Dear Max… But Les closed his eyes, lay it on the mantelpiece and sat down. The therapist said Alice shouldn’t leave anything for Max. It made parting easier. There would be no illusions. The wound could scar. But Les knew that wasn’t Alice’s way of doing, and he wondered what else she left around the house.
‘Are you still coming to us for Christmas, then?’ Chris said. He’d turned the TV off, put on his coat. Julie came back in from the kitchen, dabbing her eyes with scrunched-up kitchen roll.
‘Yes,’ said Les. ‘We are.’
Once they’d gone, Les took the postcard and put it under the pillow on her side of their bed, unread, beside a bottle of her perfume, her earrings, her slippers, the dreamcatcher she made, and her copy of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, water-warped from damp-handed reading in the bath—special things he couldn’t keep seeing but couldn’t throw away. He was tired. He lay on the bed with the curtains open, the room full of light, and the radio on. He watched rain streak down the windowpanes. It looked like the glass was melting.
Something woke him. It was dark. He went onto the landing.
‘Max?’ he called.
There was no reply. He rushed downstairs and found Max on the sofa in the living room.
But Max couldn’t hear him: the headphones.
‘Max?’ he called louder.
He felt the need to kiss his head, but went into the kitchen to see if Max had eaten instead. A loaf of bread lay on the countertop beside a packet of butter, its lid pulled off.
After he cleared up the food, Les looked into the living room again, watched the back of his son’s head, and remembered when he told Max his mother was going to die. It was late. They’d been at the hospital and Les didn’t have the strength to cook so he broke Alice’s rule and took Max to McDonald’s. On the way home, Max cradled his head in the seatbelt. He was drowsy and Les watched the yellow slabs of streetlight shift over his son’s face.
‘Your mother is going to go away, Max.’
‘She’s gunna die?’
Max said nothing, closed his eyes.
‘Are you okay, Max?’
‘But she—Mum never dies.’
‘I know she doesn’t.’ Les clenched his jaw. ‘But this time she will.’
From the living room door, Les could hear the music blasting into his son’s ears. He went upstairs, swallowed a Nytol tablet and got back in bed.
Foxes shrieked in the night outside.
In the morning, Les drove Max to school.
‘Looking forward to school today?’
‘Yeah.’ He said it like a question—an ascending interval.
‘Yeah as in no?’
‘I said yeah.’
‘So you are?’
‘Yes!’ Max shook his head.
‘Sorry, I didn’t—I hate it when that happens, too.’
Max said nothing.
‘Look,’ Les said, ‘you’d tell me if you weren’t looking forward to school, wouldn’t you?’
There was a silence. Then Max said, ‘Yeah.’
Parked across from the school, Les watched Max walk through the school gates. He wasn’t sure who he was looking for, or what to look for, but Max seemed untroubled, his head held straight. Just till he’s inside, Les thought, then I’ll go.
But there was a boy by the gates looking at Max, skulking toward him. He was an Indian kid, Bangladeshi maybe, who knows—Les didn’t know him. He gripped the door handle as the boy, proving Les right, rushed Max and clinched onto him. The boys scuffled, Max’s rucksack slipping off his shoulders, and Les got out the car when the boys parted, Max hitched up his rucksack, and they pressed their fists together and walked inside. That must have been Mohammed, Les thought: Max has mentioned a Mohammed.
Turning to get in the car, he heard someone say, ‘Mr Ford? Les Ford?’
It was another member of the PTA, twirling car keys around his finger. ‘Yes?’ said Les, knowing they’d met before, that the man didn’t remember him.
The man zipped up his sleeveless gilet and stuck out his hand. Les shook it.
‘My wife pointed you out and—well, I’ve got to tell you something about your lad.’
‘Oh?’ Les said, thinking, People who say they’ve got to say something must like to ruin peoples’ lives.
‘Yeah,’ the man said. ‘I don’t know if you know already, but there’s this kid in year 11 and he’—the man’s mouth stretched at the sides and he sucked air through his teeth—‘well, my wife told me not to even describe him—political correctness gone mad, if you ask me—but this kid’s giving your lad a bloody hard time of it. I don’t know what the others have told you, but I tell it how it is. And it’s a bad one, mate.’
‘Yeah. I mean, of course this kid doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, or maybe he knows exactly what’s going on, I don’t know, but—well, do you want my advice?’
The man took a breath, and handed each word over: ‘Stamp it out.’
‘Stamp it out, mate. I promise you. Next thing you’ll know, your lad’ll be a cowering wreck, never leaving the house, and he’ll be reaching for the razor blades. I hate to be the one to say it, mate, but that’s what kids do these days. You’ve got to stamp it out.’
Down the street, a car honked. The man looked over his shoulder.
‘That’s mine,’ he said. ‘Honestly, mate. Lads respond to that kind of thing.’
At home, Les made a coffee with the complicated machine a friend—Alice’s university flatmate—had donated not too long after the burial. He’d not seen that friend since. He’d not seen many friends since those first days of visits, consolation gifts, and dropped-off meals for which he had no appetite. And they were Alice’s friends, really: he’d left most of his few friends up north, and lost others shifting from rep to management. At the best of times, keeping in touch with people was a chore for Les, but now it was excruciating.
Stamp it out
He took his coffee upstairs and went into Max’s bedroom. He’d not been in here for some time—a few weeks maybe. It was dark with the curtains closed, the air a little musty. When he turned the light on, Les saw the room was tidier than he expected, but CDs lay scattered on the desk by the computer, and the bed was unmade. He looked over the huge, dark prints of bands he didn’t recognise and who looked to him as young as Max. Then he saw the guitar he bought for Max before the diagnosis, leaning against the radiator. Max said he was learning to play online but Les had barely heard a note.
He began to tidy the CDs, then realised he’d be rumbled as a snooper so he spread them again and sat down at the desk in front of the computer. Without really thinking, he moved the mouse and the screen lit up. There was a program Les hadn’t seen before, some kind of online chat room. A long list of Max’s friends, the letters of their names replaced by numbers and symbols, ran down the side. Along the bottom, there were three flashing boxes:
M4RCU$ αmΦ$ (l)°o.O(l) ..κατε.. (l)O.o° (l)
He didn’t dare open the third box. But he knew Marcus, and Amos, and—well, he had to look, and if Max never found out, what’s the harm? He clicked on M4RCU$ and saw the end of a conversation:
M4RCU$: the black ones r gay
mack$: you think? i reckon they look better. cost loads like.
He scrolled up the conversation, but there was nothing about Max’s trouble with the bully.
And the conversation with Amos was equally unrevealing. Les gathered that Amos was fuming about Marcus having a thing with his ex even though they only went out for a week. If they weren’t best mates, Amos said, he’d think about smacking him.
Relieved somehow, immersed now in the snoop, Les typed Fragile X in the search bar, and he wasn’t surprised when nothing came up. Then he began to type retard, but he stopped himself at re. Then he typed hurt, but it led him to song lyrics. Then: pain, and he found out that someone called Andrew was the lord of all gays and he cut his thighs with a compass. Finally, Les typed bully, and read that Mr Garibaldi was in the head’s office getting a warning for hurling a basketball at little Archie Gorwitz’s head.
He didn’t know what he had expected to find, but he’d imagined something more scandalous.
He clicked on (l)°o.O(l) ..κατε.. (l)O.o° (l):
(l)°o.O(l) ..κατε.. (l)O.o° (l): I can lend u my notes if you want?
mack$: nah it’s ok
mack$: ergh. what am i even good at if i’m not good at music. it’s supposed to be what i’m good at
(l)°o.O(l) ..κατε.. (l)O.o° (l): u are good!
mack$: thanks. might just fake a sicky tho. then people will still think i’m good. ha!
mack$: only jokin
Les’ coffee had gone cold. He waited for the screen to darken, then he stood up,
left the room, and went to his room.
When Max came home, Les was sat on the stairs.
Max looked at him, his eyebrows slanted. ‘What?’
‘Listen.’ Les couldn’t look in his eyes. ‘Will you tell me what’s going on at school?’
Max thought. Then he said, ‘Nothing.’
‘So you’re going to make me ask?’
Max’s eyes widened. ‘I don’t…’
‘Is there a boy at school giving you a hard time?’
Max shook his head.
‘I need you to tell me the truth, okay? Because nothing will get better unless you tell me the truth.’
‘I am telling the truth.’
‘An older boy? With Fragile X Syndrome?’
‘What’s… Fragile X thingy?’
‘It’s like a learning disability,’ Les said. ‘Mentally handicapped, or something like that.’
‘Older than me?’
‘In year 11.’
‘So there is someone?’
‘Yeah but he’s just this funny spacker,’ Max said, smiling. ‘He follows me around a bit and tries to kick me but it’s not bad or anything.’
There was a pause, then Les said, ‘What did you call him?’
Max’s mouth straightened. He looked away, picked at the flaking paint on the radiator.
‘Oi!’ Les yelled.
Les stood up on the stairs. ‘Max, you cannot say that word,’ he said.
‘But everybody else calls him a spacker.’
Max scowled, his head bowed.
‘I can’t believe what I’ve heard,’ Les said. ‘Who are you these days?’
‘Are you lying to me?’ Les heard his voice echo down the hall. Stood on the stairs he could see through the stained-blue fanlight to the doors across the street. ‘Is this lad bullying you or not?’
Max shrugged again, shook his head.
‘I don’t know who I’m bloody looking at. Are you a liar as well as cruel?’
Max said something Les didn’t hear.
Max pressed his lips together.
‘What did you say to me?’
‘Nothing!’ Max pushed past Les on his way up the stairs.
Les turned and grabbed Max’s shirt, pulled him back. He twisted the shirt in his fists. ‘What are you, you little shit?’
Max squirmed. ‘Get off!’
‘What happened to you? I don’t even know who you are.’
Max slapped Les’ chest, his face, but Les held on, surprised by his weakness—or Max’s strength.
‘Why are you doing this?’ Max yelled.
‘You’re turning into a right twat, Max. I was never like this.’
‘And I don’t think I like who you are and I know your mam wouldn’t like who you’ve turned out to be. You’re a bad boy.’
Max yelled, ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’ve done everything for you and this is who you’ve become!’
Max smacked himself free and scrambled up the stairs. ‘I hate you!’ he cried.
‘Well, I fucking hate you, too!’ Les pounded the wall. A door slammed upstairs. He felt his breath at the top of his throat, shallow, like a dog barked-out. His face was full of blood. He sat down, and wondered whether that, what he said to Max, was the worse thing he’d ever said.
Night sunk in, sharpened by sleet, and Les opened a bottle of wine. Three glasses down, he looked in Max’s room. He was asleep. Les listened to him breathing, hoping he’d wake up but not knowing what to say if he did. He thought about crawling into bed behind Max and feeling the boy fit against his body, but he closed the door softly and went into his own room. He found the postcard under the pillow and took it downstairs. On the sofa in the living room, he read. And here she was—Alice, alive again, in a way. He read the postcard a second time. The note was not long. It could’ve fit on a Post-it. He read it for a third time then laid it beside him. A moment later, he began to cry. He sobbed into his hands, grabbed his shaking forehead. He wouldn’t show Max, not for many years. He knew Max would cry as well—once, from the shock, the scar unsealing, and he’d cry again, later, because he’d expected something more, something revelatory. She would return to him, but she would fall short in his expectation.
She would seem farther and stranger than before.
A week later, Les and Max had not spoken to each other and it was the last day of term. Les was in the kitchen trying to time his cooking with Max coming home.
When he came through the front door Max went straight up to his room.
Les followed, and from the landing, he heard Max snivelling.
‘Max?’ Les knocked on his door. ‘Can I come in?’
‘Go away.’ His voice was muffled—buried in a pillow?
Les opened the door. Max twisted away and faced the wall. Les kneeled by the bed, rested his hand on the bed near Max’s back. He didn’t dare touch him.
‘Max,’ he said. ‘Look at me, Max. What’s making you cry?’
Max said nothing, sniffed. Les reached over the bed and placed his hand on Max’s shoulder. Gently, he turned. His crumpled face made Les’ throat thicken. He swallowed, looked away. ‘What’s happened, Max?’ he said.
‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘I know. But what’s happened?’
‘Stuart Rowntree. He was following me round, trying to kick me, and I didn’t want him to do that so I told him to stop and he wouldn’t stop, he kept following me, all lunch, and then, just before, outside school, a year 11 got me in a headlock and said I was picking on Stuart because he’s different… in front of everyone.’
Tears burst down the boy’s cheeks.
Les felt faint. He stood up.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’re going into school. We’re going to sort this out.’
Les strode through the empty corridors, wishing his strides were longer, and Max scurried beside him.
‘Dad? What are you going to say?’
Les didn’t say anything, didn’t know. He heard his shoes clack over the laminated floor.
When they turned onto another corridor, Les saw a boy and a girl coming the other way. The closer they got, Les knew the boy looked different. He didn’t want it to be true, what he was thinking, but Max pulled on his suit jacket, and said: ‘That’s him.’
Les stopped in front of them, a little out of breath. The boy, taller than Les, looked away, and the girl took his hand. ‘Come on,’ she said.
‘Hang on,’ Les said, his voice echoing down the corridor. Quieter, he said, ‘Stuart? Stuart Rowntree?’
The boy looked away, blinking.
‘Are you Stuart Rowntree?’ Les said.
The boy said nothing.
‘Yeah, he is,’ the girl said. ‘Why?’
‘Listen,’ said Les, looking up and down the corridor. ‘Do you know my boy here? You know Max?’
Stuart glanced at Max. ‘Yes,’ he said and moved closer to the girl. ‘Right. Well, I know what you’ve been doing.’ Les saw himself pointing at the boy. ‘You’ve been trying to hurt my son. You’ve been bullying him.’
The boy fidgeted.
‘I don’t want you doing that. You hear me? You’re a bully.’
Then the boy put his hand in his mouth, and bit down. The girl, no older than Max, Les realised, said, ‘Stop it, Stuart. Let’s go.’
‘No,’ said Les, stepping in front of them. ‘You need to understand you can’t trouble my boy anymore.’
Stuart chomped on his hand. Les saw the red teeth marks, the strings of spittle. His beard began to itch. He looked down the corridor again and asked if Stuart had heard him, but the boy chewed on his hand, harder, and frowned and groaned like he might throw up. Then a voice called from back down the corridor. The man running toward them was big, bearded—he’d shaved his neck to fabricate a jawline. The man stopped, almost surprised by Les’ size, his own size, and Stuart and the girl rushed to stand behind him. ‘What’re you saying to him?’ he said.
Les stepped back. He saw the man’s tight jeans, his flannel shirt. The old pinstripe Les was wearing made him look stunted, as Alice once said, like a boy in his father’s suit, and so he’d not worn it since. He didn’t have the time to think of why he’d put it on today. He pointed at Stuart. ‘He’s been bullying my boy.’
The man frowned. ‘Bullying? No, he—’
‘Yes, he has,’ Les said. ‘He fucking has.’
‘I don’t really care,’ said the man. ‘I saw you just now, mate. You can’t talk to him like that.’
‘I couldn’t give a fuck about what’s wrong with him, he just needs to stop—’
That’s when the man pushed his fist against Les’ mouth. It was a half-hearted blow, but Les stumbled and his lips swelled straight away.
‘You’ll regret this, mate,’ the man said. ‘You’re sick.’
Holding his mouth, feeling blood seep onto his palm, Les watched the man lead the boy and girl away with an arm around each shoulder.
Max looked at anything but his father.
The next morning, when daybreak had first paled the dark blue sky, Les stood by the French doors in the kitchen. His lip was bruised enough to bloat into his eyeline, and he couldn’t sip his coffee, only spill it in his mouth.
And he needed it. He’d run out of Nytol, barely slept, and foxes had shrieked through the night. For the past half-hour, he’d been watching the orange flash of the foxes scampering along the far garden wall. They were going back and forth from their oak tree lair in the adjoining garden. When he first moved down here, Les bored Londoners by gushing about foxes. He thought them beautiful— it was something about their rural descent—and he admired their moxie. But they’re getting out of hand these days, friends had said. They’re too fearless. He soon stopped gushing but—like now, as one slinked off the wall and nosed the dewclogged leaves in the garden—he’d hold his breath as if watching something he wasn’t supposed to see; a secret unearthed. The fox’s eyes flashed and Les pressed up against the glass. The fox was old, faded, brown almost, and scrawny. It sniffed the cold ground, the cold air, and Les felt invisible behind the glass before a neighbour opened their back door and the fox dashed off, its white-tipped tail dropping behind the wall. With the fox gone, listening in its lair, Les breathed out, and the warmth of his breath clouded up and shrouded his ghost in the glass.
The dishwasher bleeped behind him. As he unloaded it, he heard his son’s bare feet tup… tup… over the kitchen floor. Max walked to the table, rubbing his eyes.
‘Morning, mate,’ Les said, holding a hand over his busted lip, smelling the dank dishwasher steam.
‘Morning. Can I turn the light on?’
‘Oh, yeah. Course.’
Max went back to the switch, then sat down at the table.
‘Do you want any breakfast?’ Les said.
‘Nah. I’m not hungry. It’s too early.’
Les got one for himself, too, and sat with Max at the table. Together, they ate the yogurt pots, and each spoonful stretched Les’ lip scabs apart. He grimaced and Max looked up at him, one eyebrow lifted. Les looked back, laughed, and shook his head. Then Max smiled, a sideways smile, and nodded.
‘Yeah,’ Les said. ‘You’re right.’
Les touched his lip with the back of his hand. He saw a blood-scrap, an imprint of the split.
Watching Max eat the yogurt, Les hoped his son would never find out that, in summer, he’d hightailed it north in the car with no intention of returning, and his father-in-law had chased him all the way. He went as far as York and when an Aston Martin undertook him, honking and growling, he pulled into a layby, realising he knew no one in the north and what he’d expected to feel, something like nostalgia slaked, was lacking. Chris came to the car door window and led Les, as if by hand, back down the A1.
He wasn’t sure if Max knew already, and the way his insides turned cold when he remembered, told him that one day, somehow, he would find out. ‘I was thinking,’ he said, ‘how’d you feel about going up to the ice rink today?’
Max stared at him. ‘Yeah,’ he said, as if the question was obvious.
Not long later, Les and Max were skating in the rink. The crowd screamed and laughed. The stumbling beginners. Young couples holding hands. Flamingo-legging show-offs. Little girls on their father’s shoulders.
They’d had been skating for what seemed like hours. Through the huge windows along the hall walls, they’d seen the day fill with light, but now the windows had turned purple with cloud cover. They’d barely spoken, only smiled at each other, and Les would pretend to teeter to make Max laugh.
Earlier, in the drive to rink, Les worried about Max going back to school in January, about the possible complaint against him, and about the new upcoming calendar, emptied of events, of things to await. But now he’d forgotten all that. He thought about this—skating with Max.
Sweat soaked the back of his knees. His thighs shook with every thrust.
He called, ‘I’m just going to get some water, Max. But I’m coming back!’
Max stuck up a thumb.
From behind the glass barrier, Les watched his son circle the rink. He began to wonder again at the things hobbling Max, things one day, in a different world, he’d fight off—or try to. And he skated on, Max Ford, and he saw Les Ford smile. Stride after stride, his happiness muffling the crowd’s clatter, Max saw two smiles: he saw the split lips emerge and define as he drew closer, then blur as he passed—widening the cold gap between them—to slide along the opposite border, and come back around. Max saw Les—his mother’s husband: his father. And he wondered whether, when they got home, he should disclose the letter his mother had left them slotted in the bookcase—the letter he’d found in summer.
Nathaniel Ogle was born in 1991 and grew up in Darlington, Co. Durham. He has a MA in Creative Writing: Prose from the University of Manchester, where he plans to return for the PhD course come September. His work has appeared in The Cadaverine, Black & BLUE and Now Then Manchester. He works part-time as a bookseller in London. The other part of time he spends working on a novel.