by Kelvin M. Knight



‘My Nathan’s excused PE on account of his asthma.’

            ‘That’s nothing. My Megan suffers so badly from eczema they won’t allow her near the swimming pool.’

            ‘Child’s play. If my Joseph so much as sniffs a peanut, his face swells like a baboon’s...’

            ‘Arse.’ Why should I hide my sarcasm? Caroline wouldn’t.

            The playground bullies glare. ‘Is it my imagination, ladies, or did that scarecrow just speak?’

            Laughter flutters like their manicured fingers, but it is I who laugh longest, for I do not wear my offspring’s allergies like badges of honour, with no thought of the consequences such psychosis will cause later in life.


            ‘Oomph.’ Bear-hugged, I ruffle Luke’s curls. ‘Have a good day at school, son?’

            His head fizzes. A crumpled piece of paper is thrust at me then he zooms after a dog-eared sponge football, chased by that rarest of sights: children who are not wrapped in cotton wool.

            ‘Mr Gilchrist?’ A young woman approaches. ‘I’m Luke’s art teacher.’

            ‘Really?’ Multicoloured bangles. A spangly attire. Why did I not guess?

            ‘Can we talk inside?’ She strides away, clicking bejewelled fingers.

Upon entering her empire, she commands, ‘Take a seat.’

            Before parking my derrière, I spy the playground bullies filling a line of monstrous people carriers. My pulse races. How do they sleep at night, stamping their Yeti-like carbon footprints across the village?

            ‘What do you make of this?’ Ms Nameless pats a sheet of paper.

            ‘Hmm.’ Concentrating, I spy a mass of crypts forming a higgledy-piggledy funeral pyre. Behind tongue-like flames, an angelic skull chuckles, makes me chuckle.

            ‘This is no laughing matter, Mr Gilchrist.’

            ‘Death is part of life.’ Again Caroline’s bluntness comes to the fore.

‘In an uncertain world, it is the only dead certainty.’ I chuckle.

            Bangles rattle. ‘Luke needs help.’

            ‘Really? He has not mentioned this to me.’

            ‘That is not the point, Mr Gilchrist, and you know it.’

            ‘The point is, Ms Nameless, he’s expressing himself through art.’

            ‘You call the personification of death expression?’

            ‘You would rather he sketched cute bunny-wunnies?’ When she does not respond, I add, ‘He’s discovering himself through art as we encouraged.’

            ‘Encouraged?’ Her cheeks inflate. ‘He’s only eight!’

            ‘A child protégé has to start somewhere.’

            ‘Dad!’ Luke barges into the classroom. ‘I’m bored!’

            ‘My sentiments exactly, son.’ I adopt a sprinter’s pose. ‘Last one home makes diner.’


Evenings are tolerable. Mornings are a nightmare. Still, I muddle through them by concentrating on Luke’s needs: breakfasting and having fun. Things like shaving have no place in the roller-coaster ride of life after Caroline. Opening the front door, I challenge, ‘Last one to school...’

            ‘Smells like a rotten egg?’ In tight skirts and high heels, the playground bullies clamber into their black-hearted Animals. Coughing and spluttering, tribes of fatty-puffs follow.

            ‘If they got some fresh air and exercise they might...’

            ‘Cultivate the garden troll image? I don’t think so!’

            ‘When are you going to learn you need a bigger trowel for your makeup?’

            Luke nods. ‘Dad has plenty of shovels in the shed!’

            Their faces are a picture. If my oils were to hand, I would capture the moment on canvas. I hi-five Luke then yell over my shoulder, ‘Catch me if you can!’

            At the school gate, a rainbow-coloured Ms Nameless signals me. ‘Now we’re in trouble, mate, looks like they squealed like piggy-wiggys.’

            Giggling, Luke lines up for assembly.

            ‘Mr Gilchrist, a moment of your time.’

            I wave good-bye and prepare to run home.

            ‘Please, sir, I’m afraid we set off on the wrong foot yesterday.’

            Touched by her servility, I turn and grimace.

            ‘You’re quite a picture but you don’t frighten me.’

            ‘Yet my son does?’

            She contorts her face. ‘Only his pictures.’ Appearing before me, Ms Nameless whispers, ‘Rather than talk about his works of art here, how about we discuss them in the Mare tonight?’

            Amazingly, I find myself nodding.

            ‘Great.’ She skips across the playground. ‘See you about six.’


‘Listen, mate, I want your best behaviour.’ Standing before the chipped hall mirror, I straighten Luke’s tie and tuck his creased shirt into his jeans.


            ‘Because we’re going to the White Mare.’


            ‘To talk with one of your teachers.’

            Luke groans. ‘Can’t I stay here and paint?’

            My haggard reflection sighs. ‘You know I can’t leave you alone. Thanks to them, nobody will baby-sit even if I could afford to pay.’

            ‘What about our friends?’ He peers under his mattress. ‘I’m sure we left them somewhere.’

            Grinning, I croak, ‘Promise to mind your Ps and Qs.’

            He gives me one of Caroline’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth’

looks. Sniffing, I grab his hand and hurry to Beckermet’s largest pub.

            ‘Come on, Dad.’

            Luke leads me inside. Praise be, the place is empty, save for several retired farmers relaxing with half pints of ale. Avoiding their dark looks, I head for a lonely corner.

            ‘Glad you could come, Mr Gilchrist.’ The shrill voice is accompanied by a woman sporting a pair of pint glasses. Surely this is not the same female who ambushed me yesterday? Wide-eyed, I regard my son.

            ‘Hi, Luke, how are you?’

            ‘Fine, Ms Beck.’

            The figure-hugging turquoise blouse and tight jeans cause my chin to droop. ‘Ms Beck?’

            Handing me a pint, she grins sheepishly. ‘I’m off duty. Please, call me Theano.’ She drowns half her pint. ‘My parents, bless their souls, loved mythology.’

            I sip my beer. ‘So, priestess of Athene, how fares your marriage to Antenor?’

            She takes another hearty swig of her beer. ‘So, you know the Greek legends, but do you know what’s troubling your son?’


            She leans forward. I smell Caroline’s perfume. ‘Why else would he draw such morbid scenes?’ She beams at Luke. ‘When he’s such an adorable boy.’

            Tingling from head to toe, I nod.

            She downs the remainder of her pint. ‘Another?’

            Resting my palm on my glass, I feel like a schoolboy on a date. But I am neither. So what am I doing here? A giggling gang of bullies enter with an answer. ‘Teaching your son to follow in his mother’s footsteps?’

            I stomp forward to defend my wife’s honour, only to be intercepted by Ms Beck. ‘Calm down, sir.’ She steers me away. ‘This is meant to be happy hour.’

            ‘My foot! Having to endure those witches’ taunts, day in and day out, what do I have to be happy about?’

            ‘Me?’ Smiling nervously, Theano drowns another pint then rests a pointed chin on cupped hands and slurs, ‘I want to get to know you. Find out what makes you tick.’


            She smiles lopsidedly. ‘So I can help you.’

            ‘We don’t need any help,’ snarls Luke, dragging me away.


After supper, I kiss Luke goodnight and retire to my studio. Holding a candelabra to avenues of canvases, I observe a myriad colourful faces, each smiling crazily. In the corner of my paintings rest Luke’s masterpieces, each hulking shape more menacing than the last.


The sun’s burning touch awakens me. Quickly I stumble into Luke’s bedroom.

            ‘Rise and shine, sleepyhead, you’re late for school.’

            I shake him and spot a new sketch on his jotting pad. A black river cleaves a snow-white bosom to reveal a turquoise beast with monstrous claws.

            ‘Morning, Dad.’ Seeing me studying his sketch, he snatches it.

            ‘That’s your best one yet. What’s it meant to be?’

            ‘Crap!’ He rips the paper in half.

            Flabbergasted, I prise the torn paper from his fingers and snap, ‘Get dressed. We’re taking this to Ms Beck.’

            ‘You can’t!’

            ‘Oh yes I can.’

            ‘We can’t go to school, Dad.’

            ‘Why ever not? If you’re becoming lazy like...’

            He pulls a funny face. ‘It’s Saturday!’

            Annoyed, I growl, ‘Keep out of sight, son, until you explain what’s going on inside your head. Understood?’

            ‘Yes, Dad.’ He buries himself in his duvet.

            Hating being a disciplinarian, I bury my head in work. Midday comes and bathed in glorious sunlight is an atrocious painting noire. After shredding it, I pad into Luke’s bedroom. With his ripped curtains drawn, greyness pools around his bed. Rolling onto his back, he presents a picture full of sunshine faces.

            ‘See, Dad, identical.’

            Tears brim my eyes. Gulping, I pace around his bedroom. ‘Listen, mate, it’s been a year now, I think we...’


            ‘If you won’t talk to me, how about talking to Ms...’

            ‘I don’t want to talk about her!’ He scribbles on his pad so hard that he gouges the card back.

            I lower to my haunches. ‘But I might?’ The intensity of my emotions surprises me more than his outburst.

            He folds arms across his stomach. ‘No, no, a hundred times no!’

            ‘Okay, okay, a hundred times okay.’ I hold up my hands. ‘Truce?’

            Tears swell his eyes. ‘I’m sorry, Dad.’

            ‘Me, too.’

            Stepping onto my feet, he hugs me. I waddle into the kitchen, whirring, ‘How-about-a-picnic?’


            I quicken my pace. ‘Picnic-picnic-does-compute.’

            He repeats mechanically, ‘Does-not-compute,’ until I fall down and explode. When our mirth subsides, he pants, ‘Brilliant idea, Dad. I’ll get my bicycle.’


            ‘Surely you’ll want to run across the countryside first.’


The fresh air, exercise and majestic backdrop of the Lake District work their usual magic. As we near our favourite picnic spot, a lithe woman dressed in emerald shorts and a pink leotard, with rainbow-coloured hair tied in a ponytail, jogs beside us.

            ‘Afternoon, boys. May I join you?’

            Red-faced, Luke honks along the path. I sprint after him. ‘Only if you can catch us.’ Once beside him, I grasp his saddle and use his bicycle to increase my gait, whereupon I pant, ‘That should sort her.’

            Overtaking us, Ms Beck trills, ‘Slowcoaches!’

            We redouble our efforts, but when we are a whisker from her she pulls away. We repeat this cat and mouse game until my lungs fill with fire and we reach our destination.

            Ms Beck gallops back to us. ‘Thanks, boys, can I use you as training partners again?’

            I collapse beside Luke. ‘Training... for anything... special?’

            Drawing deep breaths, she replies, ‘The Ravenglass run.’

            ‘The fell run?’

            She nods and her eyes twinkle like stars.

            ‘That’s harder than an Iron-man triathlon.’ Schoolboy adulation fills my voice.

            She winks at me. ‘More fun, too.’

            ‘There’s more to you than meets the eye, Ms Beck.’ Realising I am staring at the sweat stains highlighting her petite bosom, I stutter, ‘That is... what I meant was...’

            ‘Flattery will get you everywhere.’ She dwells on the last word then looks over her shoulder. ‘Where’s Luke?’

            Our favourite picnic area is quiet, yet also complete; even though he is gone, she is here. Netting the butterflies in my stomach, I mutter, ‘Probably sulking.’

            ‘Probably?’ She grins.

            I surreptitiously study her. Hands on her hips, she taps her foot and studies me with a glint in those lovely eyes. Reminded of Caroline, I knuckle my eyes. ‘No, crying is for wimps.’

            She kneels and touches my shoulder. ‘Everyone needs to cleanse their soul once in a while.’

            ‘That’s why I paint and run.’

            ‘And Luke?’ She looks knowingly at me then springs to her feet as someone screams. ‘Oh no, Luke!’

            She races away. I hurry after her and am mesmerised by a multitude of colours dancing like a masterpiece.



            I approach the section of the River Beck where an exposed coal seam spirits the water into night. No. I vowed never to return here. Made Luke promise, too. My heart hammers as I spot his bicycle near the churning water.


            Splash! The blackness resembles quicksand, just like when Caroline...


            Lily-white limbs thrash. Panic-filled eyes bulge.

            I stagger forward. ‘Please...’

            Blackness yawns. Whiteness froths then vanishes.

            ‘This can’t be happening again. I’m as fit as a fiddle.’


            The voice makes my body jerk. ‘Caroline?’

            Her beautiful face beams, makes me whole.

            ‘But you’re dead,’ I croak as cold hard reason replaces the soft warmth of her touch.

            ‘I certainly hope not.’

            ‘What?’ I sit and find Ms Beck beside me. Before her is a bicycle dripping blackness.

            ‘Luke!’ I leap up and my knees buckle.

            ‘Steady,’ she placates.

            ‘B-but... Luke...’ I fend off her black hands.

            ‘Everything is under control. Just relax.’

            ‘Relax?’ I force myself to stand. ‘I can’t lose him too.’ My world spins. My vision fills with emerald and pink, which speckle the blackness rushing to greet me like an old friend.


Friend? Greyness drizzles around me. Haunted by the Blackbeck, I groan.

Church bells ring. ‘I have no friends.’

            ‘Unlike Caroline?’

            ‘She had so many friends.’ Guilt squeezes my soul. ‘It was unfair she should be snatched from them whilst I was left to...’

            ‘Pick up the pieces?’

            I shake a forefinger in each ear. The ringing fades but greyness continues to assail my soul.

            ‘Life’s like that.’

            ‘But it should have been me!’

            ‘Why?’ The voice is barely a whisper.

            Greyness turns to wetness. An eerie silence ensues.

            ‘Because, it was my fault.’

            ‘Dad, I’m sorry.’ Small arms hug me.

            ‘Luke?’ Aghast, I return his hug. ‘Are you okay?’

            ‘I am now.’

            ‘Now?’ I look around my bedroom. ‘Why’s it so dark in here, mate?’

            ‘Because it’s nighttime, Dad.’

            My belly flops. ‘How long have I been asleep?’

            ‘Since Ms Beck left.’

            ‘She’s gone?’ I try to sound casual, but it feels like my world has ended.

            ‘Only to the kitchen, Dad, to make coffee.’

            On top of the world, I do my best to say solemnly, ‘And you don’t mind?’

            The silhouette of his head shakes. Images from his drawings haunt me.

‘Are you sure?’

            ‘Yes, Dad, I was wrong.’


            He sniffs. ‘How difficult it has been for you since...’ His voice quivers. I squeeze his ghostly-white shoulders. ‘Since... Mum... had her...’

            ‘Accident?’ I sob. Luke does, too. Together we mourn the woman who was the light of our lives. After an indefinite time, I rasp, ‘We should have done this a long time ago, mate.’

            Bleary-eyed, he nods. In the doorway, wreathed by a fiery dawn, Ms Beck sniffs. Seeing she is still dressed in her shorts and leotard, I take the tray of mugs and biscuits from her cold hands and drape a sweatshirt over her.

            ‘Thank you,’ chatter her teeth.

            ‘No, thank you, Theano.’ Seeing she is still shivering, I hug her.

            She blushes. ‘My friends call me Thea.’

            Luke rushes forward to hug her. ‘Thanks.’

            ‘It was nothing,’ she says self-consciously.

            ‘No,’ I squeeze her hands. ‘It was everything.’

            Her eyebrows rise.

            ‘No one has lifted a finger to help us, to condole with us, but you, dear Thea.’


©2009 Kelvin M Knight

Kelvin would love to hear what you think of his writing - email him now