My Old Man
by Steve Smith
We're running late for a birthday party.
‘Get me another water, John?'
He slams the glass on the table and watches himself in the mirror as he dabs his face with the blusher.
I take the empty glass and leave the room. There are kids running rings around bad-tempered adults in the corridor. I pick my way around them, fill the glass from a fountain and take it back.
He downs it, nods at me and grunts. He adjusts his hat and talks to his reflection:
‘My throat is as dry as the … gotta stop drinking.' He turns to me. ‘How'd I look?'
I nod at him.
‘Okay, let's go!'
I follow behind as he pats heads, ruffles hair and laughs. My job is to carry the prop bag. He's got cards, juggling oranges and stuff that squirts water.
The large room is full of screaming brats, plastic balls, giant rubber things and parents standing chatting to each other. There's a continual thumping from the yellow bouncy castle as socked or naked feet jump around. People don't hear the sound of the machine that keeps air in it, but it drives me mad; I hear it too much.
They all scream when they see my old man. They leap off the castle, down toys and come running. A couple of them stand frozen and watch. He shouts and bats away the plastic balls thrown at him. He laughs and throws back any that he can catch. One black kid is larger than the others and he chucks one of the big plastic things you can sit on. It hits the old man in the face and he has to duck down to put his nose back on. He laughs at the boy and pokes his tongue out. He hates black people, but he says it's his job to be nice to everyone.
I move along the wall and sit on the edge of a bench. A lady is at the other end reading a book. I watch her but she doesn't notice me or look up at all. It must be a really good book.
I watch the hand on the big clock moving back to the twelve. The old man says clowning is a good earner, but it's really boring for me. I'm thirteen and I think clowns are rubbish. I know he's watching the clock too because as soon as it reaches the top he nods at me to come and get the stuff. The kids want more but I know my old man better than anyone.
‘Do you want a glass of water, Dad?'
He's watching himself in the mirror, removing his face.
‘No, son. No thanks. Fancy something a bit stronger, tell you the truth.'
He bends down to put the hat in the bag. I wonder if I should, before I say it:
‘I thought you said you weren't gonna drink any more?'
He snorts. ‘I'm cutting down, make no mistake, but I'm not gonna stop. I gotta keep some pleasures in life.'
He's been like that since Mum went to heaven.
He pulls a bottle from the bag and puts it on the table. I look at it in the mirror. He takes off the cap and pours the booze into the glass that I used for his water. Someone knocks the door. The old man tells them to come in.
It's a fat woman in a bright dress. She's all smiley, like my mum used to be. Mum was much prettier though.
‘Er … hello, Mister Clown.'
‘Yes, darlin,' he says.
‘I've got your money here.'
‘Pay the boy, please?'
She looks at me.
‘I've got dirty hands,' he tells her, holding them up in the mirror.
She nods and hands me the money. One hundred pounds. It's all there. She watches my father's powdery fingers lift the glass to his lips.
‘Well,' she says, ‘thank you, Mister Clown, that was wonderful. The children loved you.'
‘No problem. John? Give her our card.'
She looks down at the card in my hand before she takes it.
My old man holds up his hand and she leaves. I bank the money in my inside pocket.
There's another knock on the door. The old man shakes his head and rolls his eyes. The door opens. I step back as two men walk in.
‘Peter!' the smaller man says. ‘How's tricks? Although you're a clown, not a magician!' He laughs and walks forward, putting his hand on the old man's shoulder. The other stands by the door. No one looks at me. ‘So,' he says, and I see his gloved hand squeeze my dad's shoulder, ‘how are things?'
The old man is watching in the mirror; only his eyes are moving.
‘I told Mr Jones that I would have the money by Friday.'
‘He knows what you said, but … and don't take this personally … we're not sure we believe you.'
‘My word is my bond. Jones knows that.'
‘Mister Jones also knows of your love for horses and the odd tipple.' He picks up the glass and drinks it all down.
The old man looks at me, but I'm already looking at my feet.
‘Mr Jones thinks … and I tend to agree … that we should take the money as you earn it. Pay as you earn – that's what the tax people call it.'
‘No, that's not part of the deal.'
‘The deal changed, Peter, my friend. The deal changed.'
The man puts his hand on my shoulder. ‘John, isn't it?'
‘It must be real nice, having a clown dad? Behaving like a clown. Being all … silly.' He's looking at Dad in the mirror. He turns back to me. ‘Is it?'
I nod. I feel stupid.
‘Have you got any money for me now, Pete?'
‘But you've just been paid for jumping around … like a prat.'
‘We just saw the lady come in to pay you.'
‘The gig was free.'
‘For free? Now why would a desperado like you, do something like that, for free?'
My old man turns his head. ‘I'm kind hearted.'
The man looks around the room. He walks two steps to the bag and peers down, moving the hat with his boot. He looks around the walls again; maybe he thinks we pinned the money up.
‘I have a kind-hearted nature too, don't I, Bill?'
The large man nods.
‘I will go and make a call, then I'll be back. I hope this gives you some time to think.'
The old man nods. They leave. I watch my old man sitting and thinking.
He throws his red nose in the bag. ‘Come on, John. We're going.'
‘But what about …'
He's furiously packing everything away and whispering “come on,” over and over. He jumps up, grabs my shoulder and opens the door. ‘Come on, let's go,' he says.
We move into the corridor. My stomach feels funny and my mouth is dry. There are loads of people walking, talking and laughing.
‘My glass!' he says. ‘Wait here.'
He hands me the bag and goes back in the room. I watch the corridor for the two men and look at the half-open door. He comes back, grabs the bag and gives me the glass. ‘Hold that. Come on!'
He pulls me along the corridor, through the crowds of people; some look at us, some don't. I've only got the guts to look forward. We get to the fire escape at the end of the corridor. The old man yanks it open; the air is cool and damp, but it's not raining yet. Something holds him back as he looks at the car park. He puts his head outside first, then steps onto the pavement.
‘This way,' he says, and we hurry towards the van.
I see the two men standing by a black car.
‘Run!' shouts my old man. He grabs my shoulder and we run. My breath is short and my legs are burning. I close my eyes and wish we were in our flat. He's pulling me harder, but my legs can't go any faster. They're shouting after us and I can hear them running. The hand lets go and he starts pulling away, the bag is banging against his side. I can hear the men breathing. I want to hold on to the old man, but he's too far away. An iron-grip takes my shoulder and we almost fall in a tangle of legs. The other man runs for a while and slows to a stop. I hear the sound of my old man's shoes hitting the road and we watch his legs pumping up and down, taking him away from us.
‘Hey! Pete! We got your son! Stop!'
The man holds me tight and we watch the old man drop the bag, run between two cars, jump the small fence and disappear in the trees.
‘Pete!' shouts the man holding my shoulder. I watch the shadows.
‘He's gone,' says the other, turning to us. I look up at the man holding me: he's still watching for my dad. Eventually he blinks and looks at the larger man. He nods and follows the man's gaze down to me. I look at the empty glass in my hand: it's smeared.
‘Looks like your dad has run off and left you, John.'
He moves me forward until we reach the bag. The old man dropped it in a puddle and the material is wet. The large man lowers himself and balances carefully before he opens it. He examines everything and puts it all on the ground. The hat is last. The bells ring as he tosses it away, stands and shakes his head
‘What we gonna do wiv the kid?' he says.
The man lets go and turns his head slowly to look at me. ‘Dunno. I never thought he'd just … leave him.' He turns back to the trees.
‘We just leave him here, yeah?'
He shakes his shoulders and looks at me. ‘Where you think your dad would go?'
I shrug and look down. Something catches my eye. I can see my old man watching from behind a tree.
‘I think we'll just have to leave him,' says the big one.
The other one steps forward and ruffles my hair. I hate that. ‘You'll be alright, son. Go back in there and ask for a policeman.'
My old man is coming out of the trees.
‘Dad,' I whisper. He always seems to do the opposite of what's right.
They turn and look at him.
‘Well, look at that. He's coming back,' says the smaller man.
‘Thought he would,' says the other.
He walks up to us. No one moves or says anything until we're all standing together. My old man looks down at me and smiles. He ruffles my hair.
‘That was a bit stupid, Pete,' says the smaller man.
He shrugs. ‘Look, I'll get the money, okay? You gotta give me some time.'
‘You just wasted your time trying to run away.'
‘No buts.' He puts his hand on my shoulder and looks down at me. ‘Look, John, me and your dad are just going around the back over there for a quick chat. We'll be back in a minute. Okay?'
I look up at the old man. He swallows hard, smiles and winks at me.
‘Just wait here for me, John. Can you do that?'
‘Don't go anywhere and don't talk to anyone. Okay?'
They walk around the corner, past the big bins. I watch them disappear and then I look around. All my old man's stuff is scattered everywhere. I put it back in the bag and pick up the hat. It needs a wash: the yellow bits are filthy and wet. The bells ring as I shake it, then I put it away. I move over to an empty parking bay and sit on the kerb. I pull out the dirty glass and turn it over in my hand. The old man will definitely want a drink when he comes back. I don't think he will mind the glass having my fingerprints all over it. I pull out the bottle and set the glass beside it on the floor, ready for him. I can save time this way.
©2003 Steve Smith
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