‘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
‘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
‘Mr Gilchrist?’ A young
woman approaches. ‘I’m Luke’s art teacher.’
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
‘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.’
cheeks inflate. ‘He’s only eight!’
‘A child protégé has to
‘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
‘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
Amazingly, I find
‘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
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
‘Fine, Ms Beck.’
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
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
‘Oh yes I can.’
‘We can’t go to school,
‘Why ever not? If
you’re becoming lazy like...’
He pulls a funny face.
Annoyed, I growl, ‘Keep
out of sight, son, until you explain what’s going on inside your head.
‘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
‘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
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.’
Stepping onto my feet,
he hugs me. I waddle into the kitchen, whirring, ‘How-about-a-picnic?’
I quicken my pace.
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
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
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
‘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
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
She kneels and touches
my shoulder. ‘Everyone needs to cleanse their soul once in a while.’
‘That’s why I paint and
‘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
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...
thrash. Panic-filled eyes bulge.
I stagger forward.
Whiteness froths then vanishes.
‘This can’t be
happening again. I’m as fit as a fiddle.’
The voice makes my body
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
‘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.
ring. ‘I have no friends.’
‘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
‘Why?’ The voice is barely
Greyness turns to
wetness. An eerie silence ensues.
‘Because, it was my
‘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?’
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
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
‘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
‘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
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