By Stuart Evers.
To him, opening the door of his stepdaughter’s house, the woman looks old; much too old to be going out with Stevie. But it is certainly her; he has seen the photos. He says hello too loudly and she hurries through the door followed by her three kids, all four of them dripping wet from the rain. The children – two girls, one boy – rush off into the living room and she removes her jacket. A strip of puddingy flesh is visible; a pierced naval. He takes her damp jacket and hangs it on the banister, commiserating with her about the weather. She is attractive, but Stevie should be going with girls his own age, not this Louise woman with her kids and her tired eyes. How old is she anyway? Twenty-eight? Thirty? Too old for Stevie, anyway. Much too old.
He tries to introduce himself but before he can, Louise plants a surprising kiss on his cheek.
“I’ve been dying to meet you, Harry,” she says. “Steve talks about you all the time.”
“Really?” Harry says. “Well don’t believe it, love. It’s all lies.”
The two of them laugh. When he was on the doors, he went for women like her: shapely, thick lipped, mouthy. He tries hard not to look at the swell of her breasts and the St Christopher that nestles there; the tongue stud that bobs in her mouth.
From the top of the stairs, Rhonda looks down.
“Is that Steven?” She says.
“Hi Ron,” Louise says. “No, Steve’s on his way. He’s running late.”
“Oh,” Rhonda says. “Probably just as well, really. We’re still wrapping his presents up here.”
Behind her, Harry’s wife, Eva, waves.
To him, pushing past the spray of balloons as they enter the sitting room, it’s clear that Stevie’s in the pub. No question about it. Louise says hello to Rhonda’s husband Bill, who’s got the kids jumping all over him already, then sits down on the sofa. There is no smile on Bill’s face. His nickname has been Michelin since school because of his weight. Bill nods a hello in Louise’s direction and goes back to defending himself from the kids. No one’s quite sure why they love him so much.
While Rhonda is upstairs with Eva, Harry is expected to be in charge. Bill won’t leave his chair except to piss, so it’s down to Harry to offer Louise a drink. She asks for a lager. As he’s about to get to the kitchen, she tells him again that it’s great to meet him and that Steve talks about him all the time.
“What’ll the kids have,” Harry says.
“Coke!” The kids scream.
To him, taking two cans and a bottle of Coke from the fridge, Louise’s voice sounds gentler than he expected; soft, he thinks, like the hairs on her arms look. He opens one of the cans and one of the kids falls off Bill’s bulk and starts to cry. Louise pleads with them all to behave. They’re bored already and the rain’s still pouring so they won’t be let out any time soon. Outside, the bouncy castle that Rhonda paid all that money for, scrimped all those months for is slowly deflating, rain-bounced and drab under the grey afternoon sky.
To him, looking at it shivering in the rain, it’s a fucking waste of money, but still looks like fun. He thinks that after a few beers he’d probably have had a bounce on it. A bounce on it with the kids, like he used to bounce on that space hopper he bought for Stevie. Stevie used to watch Harry bouncing around on it like some fat kangaroo, laughing and snorting like it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He was always laughing, was Stevie.
To him, taking the drinks through and passing them one by one, it’s obvious that the kids are staring at his arms. There are illustrations there; poorly rendered prison tattoos. Usually he tries to cover them, but because it’s hot and stuffy his shirtsleeves are rolled up. The kids can see a skull, a naked woman, his name, the cockerel crest of his football team. He only thinks about them when people notice, and normally they don’t. The children take their drinks and suck their Cokes through the straws. He passes Bill a can and Louise a glass.
“You not having one, Harry?” Louise says. He claps his palm to his widow’s peak.
“I’d forget me own head,” he says, walking back into the kitchen.
“Could you bring us through some crisps, too, please, Slam?” Bill says. Harry nods.
“Thanks, Slam,” he says.
To him, taking a can from the fridge and picking up a bowl of crisps, being called Slam reminds him that he’s home. Everyone around here knows him as Slam from his time on the doors – Harry the Slam. There used to be stories about Harry, stories he’d let settle without straightening out the truth. People thought he was hard but fair and he liked that. The women did too.
He passes the crisps to Bill who starts eating them by the fistful, though the kids are trying to pinch some too. Harry opens his beer and sits next to Louise.
“So, love, where is he then?” Harry asks Louise. “In the pub I expect.”
“No, not in the pub,” she says tightly. “He promised me that. He’ll be here by three, is what he said.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing the lad. It’s been too long.”
“He is too,” she says. “He’s just been busy, that’s all.”
To him, taking out his rolling tobacco, it sounds like an excuse. If he knows Stevie he’ll be in the Antelope, wishing he didn’t have to spend his twenty-first birthday at his mum’s. There are so many sandwiches, things on sticks and shop-bought cakes covering the kitchen that Harry can’t even begin to reckon the cost. He licks the adhesive strip on his cigarette and hears Eva and Rhonda clatter down the stairs. They say hello to everyone and kiss the kids. They are red-cheeked and giggly from the Pomagne. Eva introduces herself to Louise and sits down next to Harry.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Louise,” she says. “I feel like I know you already!”
“Me too,” Louise says, though Harry suspects she’s lying. “When did you make it down?” She says.
“Last night. We got the train. It only took us an hour and a half, didn’t it, Harry? We do try to come back as much as we can, but my mother, you know?”
“Yeah. Steve did say she’s been in the hospital,” Louise says. Eva paws the air. Don’t even mention it.
“She’s been out for a month or so now, but the woman never stops complaining, does she, Harry? From morning to night, there’s aches and pains and god knows what else. She can’t see some days and others she says she can’t eat, or there’s things wrong with her waterworks . . .” She paws the air again.
“How old is she?” Louise asks, wafting away the smoke from Harry’s cigarette.
“Ninety-one in September,” Eva says.
To him, smoking his roll-up, there’s a lot to be said about coming home. He hates living with his mother-in-law, not because he doesn’t like her – they actually have a bit of a laugh when Eva isn’t around – but because he hates the drab estate, the people he doesn’t know, the anonymity of it all.
“So do you miss it?” Louise says, like she’s reading his thoughts.
He rubs his chin.
“I miss the people, I suppose. And I miss Stevie. So yeah, I suppose I do.”
“I’d leave here tomorrow,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the kids and for Steve, and . . . well, given half of one I’d leave just like that.”
To him, drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair, the waiting has become excruciating. The kids are moaning, already acting up. Eva is quietly panicked. Louise just drinks her lager and occasionally looks at her outsized watch. No one else has arrived. Rhonda is flitting about the place as the rain lashes the window panes.
“We’ve got loads of people coming, you know?” Rhonda says to no one in particular. “I do hope there’ll be enough food.”
“There’ll be enough food, love,” Eva says. “There’s more food in there than up at the Asda.”
They both laugh and Louise excuses herself to got to the bathroom. For a moment, Harry feels lost, then he looks down at the floor. Sat by his leg is Louise’s eldest child, Sam. He is alone reading a comic.
“What’s that you’re reading there?” Harry asks.
“Hulk,” the kid says.
“Don’t make me angry,” Harry says. “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”
The kid looks alarmed and retreats still further behind the comic. He finishes his cigarette and stubs it out. Louise returns and smiles sweetly. Harry smiles back. If he were twenty years younger.
To him, leaning across to get Louise’s attention, it doesn’t matter that Stevie’s not here. Let the lad have his fun, he thinks. Then the doorbell goes. Everyone pauses, even the kids. Rhonda is in the kitchen. Harry gets up and pats Eva on the leg.
“I’ll go,” he says loudly and gets the door. It is another bunch of kids and a couple he doesn’t recognise.
“Hi there,” the man says. “Ste said for us to pop round.” He is chisel haired and dressed in faded jeans and a football jersey.
“You must be Harry, right?” He says holding out his hand. “I’m Glen. And this is Donna. Ste talks about you all the time, you know that?”
“It’s all lies,” Harry says with a thin smile and shows them in. Donna is hard faced; her mascara has run: she looks like she’s been punched. She looks familiar. Harry, half ashamedly, wonders whether he fucked her mum once.
To him, wedged in the kitchen eating a sausage roll, the place is already too full. And there isn’t enough food, and Stevie still hasn’t turned up. In the lounge, there are people dancing and outside the rain has finally stopped. Eva and Rhonda are standing by the cooker, talking about the father of Louise’s kids. Harry wonders how that man feels about Stevie looking after these kids. It must rip him up inside to see Stevie about with them. Buying them sweets, taking them places. He used to take Stevie up to the park to watch the kites. He used to buy him sweets too. Bill was in and out of the hospital back then, and Harry liked the little adventures he and Stevie used to have: the afternoons sat outside the Antelope. People asked if it was his son and he didn’t correct them.
To him, brushing crumbs from the front of his shirt, those days seem a lifetime ago. He looks around and feels like he needs some air. He pushes past a group of people he doesn’t recognise and taps Rhonda on the shoulder.
“You think I should get the bouncy castle up and running? Rain’s stopped.”
She nods. “Good idea,” she says, but doesn’t move.
“I’ll get it started then,” he says.
To him, standing looking at the puddles settled in the plastic tubing, it would probably be better if Stevie didn’t come at all. He wonders whether it would be the right thing to do to warn the boy off. It would be their secret. He imagines what would happen if he did. He wonders what Louise would look like all fierce and spiteful. And then naked. He takes the phone from the pocket and then puts it back. He starts to wrestle with the castle, its sagging weight is surprising.
The water sluices down the castle’s plastic sections, emptying out onto the muddy grass. It smells like feet and rubber shoes. When he presses against the inflated plastic, little spits of rainwater dampen his arms. He turns on the generator and it inflates a little more, the battlements and turrets standing erect. Behind him there is a noise and he expects it to be the kids ready to start bouncing, but instead it’s Bill pushing Stevie through the back door.
“What the fuck?” Bill says. “What the fuck did you go and do that for? Your mum’s beside herself. You’re a father, for Christ sake.”
“What is your problem?” Stevie says.
“You. You’re the bloody problem. You’ve always been the bloody problem. You just don’t think. You never think. Never!”
“Least I can look out for my family, you fat fuck. Least I can stand up for ’em.”
For a moment there is absolute still.
“What’s up, Bill?” Harry says. “What’s he done this time?”
“You talk to him,” Bill says. “You fucking talk to him.” And Bill goes inside, slamming the door so hard the whole house shudders.
To him, stood by the bouncy castle, it looks like Stevie’s got cling film or clear plastic on his hands; both are glistening in the late afternoon light.
“What’s going on, son?” Harry says. “What’ve you done this time?”
Stevie smiles. He’s had his haircut recently and it’s perfect, like the pelt of a tennis ball. Stevie holds up his hands. On the fleshy part of each one, in-between the thumb and forefinger, there’s the expert tattoo of a swallow.
“Oh Stevie,” Harry says.
To him, getting closer and holding Stevie’s hands as though looking for a wound, they are probably the best tattoos of their kind he’s ever seen. The colours are brilliant and the detail impressive. Care has been taken on them, though they still look painful.
“Oh, Stevie,” he says again. “Why d’you go and do a thing like that? You’re marked for life now, son. You realise that, yeah?”
“That is the idea,” he says.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Harry says.
To him, looking down at his own arms, the pain of the tattoos is a distant memory. He remembers the guy who did them. His hands stained with pen ink, a heated needle in his hand. What he really wanted was the swallows, like the man on the doors at the Royal had. Harry had trained under him and respected him, though never quite liked him.
Harry told the inker to do them for him, but he refused. Said Harry hadn’t earned them, said he wasn’t hard enough. After getting out he saw what happened to those that’d had them done. Those tattoos were like taunts: they said that you were a fighter. That your fists flew. He was always glad he’d never had them done.
“You should’ve called me, Stevie.”
“Why?” Stevie says. “What would you have said, eh? It’s only a couple of tats. You’ve got loads.”
“Yeah and look at me.” He opens out his arms. “Look at where they got me.”
“You didn’t have to go,” he says. “You could have stayed.”
“I see you like this and I wish I had bloody stayed,” Harry says.
“It’s too late now, Harry. Much too fucking late for that.”
To him, looking at the boy, there’s something wrong with Stevie. Maybe it’s drugs, Harry thinks, maybe just having that Louise’s kids, but it’s the look on his face that gets Harry. That smirk. He’s grown into arrogance as others would a school blazer. Looking at him is hard. He recognises in so much in him, and yet he knows so little about him these days. Stevie looks at him differently now; as though in challenge. Stevie is a father now, and Harry wishes he had been here to see him become one.
“I’m thinking of coming back,” he says. “Moving back. Permanently, yeah?”
Stevie laughs bitterly. “You talked to Eva about that?”
They say nothing for a moment, then Harry makes a cigarette. Stevie takes one from his pack and passes it to Harry.
“Have a proper one,” he says.
“These are proper,” Harry says. Stevie shrugs and lights his cigarette. He sits on the edge of the castle and Harry sits down next to him.
“You remember Barry Adams? My mate from the doors. He had those tattoos and he got the shit—”
“Lou’s three months gone,” he says. Just like that, as though that’s what they’d been talking about the whole time.
“What’s that, boy?” he says
“Lou. She’s three months gone. Found out yesterday. It was supposed to be a surprise.”
“Three months gone? Three months gone and you go and do this?”
“I had the appointment booked. I mean what was I going to do, eh?”
Harry looks down at the fresh tattoos on Stevie’s hands; the muddy ink on his arms.
“Three months?” Harry says.
“Yeah, we’d been trying for a while. I’m good with ’em you know. If it’s a boy I’m going to call him Harry. How you like that?”
“If I’d known,” Harry says. “I’d have bought cigars.”
He tells Stevie to go in and get the whisky. The bottle and two glasses. He wants to get drunk.
To him, sitting with Louise and Stevie watching the boys and girls jump up and down, it’s surprising that no one’s bothered by the tattoos any more. He’s tried to tell everyone what they mean, but no one’s really listening. All everyone wants to do is tell him just how happy they are for the two of them, and how Stevie’s the proper little family man now. And how Harry’s going to be great granddad, even though he’s not. Not really anyway.
Harry doesn’t know what to say for the best; he just keeps thinking about having four mouths to feed, four little lives depending upon you. Everyone’s too busy toasting the new baby to be worrying about the birds on Stevie’s hands. He looks at Louise’s stomach, Stevie’s tattooed hands resting upon it. He has that smirk on again. Momentarily he wants to punch Stevie. To give him a hiding. He has no idea where the urge comes from.
To him, watching the kids swan dive and scream, it’s all gone sour, the whole thing. There are people everywhere and they’re all looking at Stevie and Louise and raising their plastic glasses and cans. Harry looks at the fullness of Louise’s chest, and she clocks him. He looks away. Stevie looks at his watch, and his tattoos glisten under their protective film.
Harry takes his rolling tobacco and papers from his pocket and rolls a cigarette.
“You remember when you was little,” Harry says to Stevie. “And you’d only met me a couple of times? You remember asking me what I was doing?”
“No,” he says.
“Come on, course you do.”
Stevie shakes his head, slowly and deliberately.
“Yeah, well,” he turns directly to Louise. “What he did was this, yeah? He asked if he could lick the cigarette. I mean the sticky bit,” he says and holds out an unfastened cigarette.
“I didn’t know what to think, but I let him anyway,” Harry says so close to Louise that she can smell the whisky. “And from then on, he always licked my cigarettes for me, didn’t you?”
“Harry,” he says, “shut up, will you. You drunk or something?”
“It was like a team effort, Lou. I’d roll ’em and he’d lick ’em. We’d get through thirty of ’em just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Like a fucking machine we were.”
Louise shot a look to Stevie and he a look back at her. Harry was still holding out his unfastened cigarette.
“Come on boy, it’ll be like old times.”
To him, looking hard at Stevie, there’s nothing so wrong in asking him, and he can’t quite understand what the issue is. Louise nudges Stevie and Stevie looks puzzled. What the fuck? It’s only licking fast a roll up. The kid did it all the time when he was a boy. Stevie has a fiery look and someone turns the music up, almost in embarrassment. Stevie goes back to watching his stepchildren bounce. Harry raps him on the leg. Stevie keeps looking at the kids.
“Stop it, Harry. I ain’t licking your fag for you, okay?”
But Harry holds the cigarette out even closer to his face. Harry’s thinking about the times they spent sitting outside the Antelope, the two of them so close you couldn’t tell they weren’t blood. He no longer wants to punch him, he wanted to hug him. Hug him close as the bouncers keep bouncing. Eva and Rhonda are clapping in time with the music, the kids springing up and down in the air. He wants to hug Stevie, but even more he wants him to take the cigarette and lick it shut like he used to. But Stevie’s looking like he might explode at him. Like he might just go off. Harry looks over to the kids. The kids Stevie’s bringing up as his own.
Harry punches him on the leg. It is a proper punch.
Stevie looks at him with narrowed eyes.
“Just leave it, okay?” Stevie says. “What the fuck has got into you?”
But Harry wants it so bad, to be back there outside the Antelope, the boy’s tongue licking the cigarette and smiling once it’s done. He should never have left, Harry realises, should never have left him behind to fall into the clutches of this woman and her kids. Harry should never have had the tattoos, never let Stevie get his own. He has let him down. He has let him down so badly.
“What’s your problem, Stevie,” Harry says. “Just lick my fucking cigarette, will you?”
To him, watching Stevie lick the cigarette with his eyes closed, it’s a dead cert that Louise is burning up for him. That she’s no longer pregnant, but waiting to seduce him. All the kids on the castle are looking over at Harry and are laughing with joy. They’re like all the kids he could have ever had. Stevie is looking up at him with steely awe as he wets the adhesive. Harry is his hero. He has always been his hero. Rhonda is watching him with gratitude for single-handedly bringing up such a good son, and Bill is looking on with scarcely hidden envy. Eva is watching him too, the way she used to, the way everyone used to.
People he doesn’t know are looking at him and whispering. They’re saying that he’s back. That Harry the Slam is back. Stevie looks at him again, as does Louise. They both shake their heads. He is smiling and smiling and is so glad to be home, so glad to be with his Stevie; little Stevie who licks his cigarettes and looks up at him with all that love and all that admiration.
To him, taking the fastened cigarette from Stevie’s tattooed hands, it’s the closest thing to happiness he could ever imagine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stuart Evers writes about books for a variety of publications in the UK, including the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman and Time Out. His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Book Club Boutique Magazine and Everyday Genius. He is currently completing his new collection, Ten Short Stories About Smoking.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 8th, 2010.