Diagonal rays of light cut through the room emitting dancing sprites of dust from the window to the wooden floorboards. The air was thick with nostalgia; a mix of smells, each projecting an abundance of memories for me in a house that had been in my family for nearly two hundred years.
I had procrastinated long enough that now there were financial implications to hanging onto my childhood house in the Wiltshire countryside. I admit, whilst the thought of living here filled me with dread, there was also something darkly magical about it; an unshakable folly deeply rooted in my past that I had trouble letting it go from my life. But clarity can be born of time and with recent events it had become wise to close up this chapter, and bury it away forever.
My twelve-year-old daughter Daisy was sweeping the path from the front door leading out towards the long driveway. I am incredibly lucky to have her and despite entering into her teenage years she is of little bother to me. Placid and bright, she shines amongst the clouds of life quite spectacularly, existing in a world full of joy, almost dismissive of any negativity. Considering the stormy relationship between her mother and I, this is quite remarkable.
I was busy searching high and low for the key to my father’s study. I have officially owned this house now for a couple of years but had never opened up this important room. Of late everything led me to believe that there is something important behind this old study door. I confess to wanting it to remain as I remembered and longed not for it to be relevant in my future. The past should remain the past, but I was only beginning to take my first steps into letting it go.
My father was a complex man and therefore it is of no surprise to me that the simple task of unlocking an old door has now become likened to searching for the Holy Grail.
I look again at the handful of papers that hint at clues, and wonder why a simple key-press was not sufficient in this instance like normal folk would have decided upon. I have been here an hour and have succeeded in finding four clues, each with which should lead to the next. I cannot relay my disappointment in the fact that my father, after compiling this elaborate key-finding treasure hunt, would then not be confident in my code-cracking capabilities as to then leave me a ‘hint-sheet’. It may as well have the words: An Idiots Guide To Finding This Easy Treasure For My Stupid Son, on the cover.
It took me ten frustrating minutes before I was thumbing through the aforementioned guide trying to decipher just what the Hell he was going on about. His eccentricities by passed me and whilst appear charming to some, for me they are the root of much frustration. Here’s an idea old man: One key for one lock. And no puzzles.
Just what the heck was he hiding back there?
I was busy tentatively pushing the floorboards of the lounge floor down, whereby according to the manual, one was to pop back up, or release some sort of mechanism. So immersed was I in an amateur Indiana Jones fantasy that I hardly even registered the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside. It was only when I heard voices that I made my way out to see who it was.
As a father, one thing you recognise instantly is that feeling that something just isn’t right. There was something in the way that Daisy was standing there that told me that she was uncomfortable. She is normally fearless, brimming with confidence, but here she stood rigid wringing her hands together in a nervous way that I had only seen a handful of times previously.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” my daughter was saying to a guy in a slightly battered white Ford Transit van. The guy had opened his door and was walking around the side with a cold-hard stare as he replied, “Don’t mess around with us.” He then noticed me.
“Can I help you?” I asked, although just the very nature of the scene in front of me made me want to attack this man. I then saw that another guy with dark glasses on was also in the van. He was watching my every step whilst putting something in his ears.
The stocky driver with his short cropped hair and a flabby jawline then said, “Eddie! I’m a friend of your father’s. He has something of mine that I need back.” This came out as one long rhetorical statement, and all I could think about was how they were both closer to my daughter than I was.
“My father is dead,” I replied. “So unless it’s buried with him, then I don’t see how I can help.”
The driver smiled but there was little or no amusement in it. He pulled on some sunglasses with wraparound elastic instead of arms, and replied, “Okay, let’s not piss about now. We both know that your father’s coffin is empty – in fact there is no coffin under the plot, am I right?”
“What is your point?” I asked and threw a glance to Daisy. She turned to me as the driver also placed something in his ears. Just as I was about to shout to Daisy the driver rolled something small, black and solid along the ground towards me, and my whole world exploded into a brilliant white light.
For approximately five long seconds I was lost in a white world with no sound. I felt a burning sensation on my leg and on my right side and my breathing was heavy with panic. When my vision came back through bleary eyes, from where I was led on the floor I saw the van leaving in a cloud of smoke.
My daughter was nowhere to be seen.
Still deaf, the bottom dropped out of my world.
The day before
The late afternoon sun still shines brightly giving off a heat that is in equal parts impressive and oppressive. The British summer has an awkward tendency of switching between thunderous humidity, utopian blue skies, and sporadic heavy rainfall posing some to wistfully question whether a higher power is rolling a meteorological dice.
A welcome breeze dances playfully over my arms although any goosebumps are well hidden under sleeves of bright tattoos, and whilst their appearance will have tongues tripping over many derogatory words quite unapologetically, I like to think of myself as a one-man crusade knocking down the stereotypical walls, proving that tattoos, crime and thuggery are not synonymous with each other.
It is at this time that the school kids meander home in the contrary fashion of youth, laughing at inconsequential observations, whilst the older teens are either stone-faced and self-absorbed, or happy and carefree; some plotting unspoken acts that will have parents nursing migraines and stomach ulcers until the end of time.
The slightly haunting echo of Tammy Wynette can be heard bouncing over the invisible airwaves as she suggests that we all ‘Stand by your man’, which itself is slightly comical as the owner of the said musical graffiti is my neighbour Miss Chambers, a deaf old spinster that to my knowledge has not stood by a man for any length of time since we had a King in charge of the monarchy. Any man since has understood immediately with sixth sense capabilities that his longevity in life may very well rapidly decrease if he not turn on clicked heels and run for the proverbial hills forthwith. It is possible that at some period of time she was a Hell-Raiser, (there is a playful meanness in her eyes) and I hold this hope dear to my heart, but I have no doubt that she is a woman not to be crossed. My guess is that whilst she is certainly old, the cantankerous old maid would most likely scare the Grim Reaper into leaving her be for a little while longer. Bizarrely she says that I am a Nazi because of my abundance of tattoos, and once told me that if she had known that the future would hold the likes of me in it, than she wouldn’t have bothered to help win the war. These flippant comments would have you believe that she won the war single-handedly, when I believe notions of her more than likely to have barked orders to army sergeants more influentially than Churchill himself.
I am certainly no expert, but I would think that she enjoys our verbal duelling; it’s what keeps her alive; thinking up insults which she executes with a grin and could be construed as playful banter. I’m like the wayward grandson that she never had, but takes upon herself to scold and ridicule with much aplomb.
Some days we both sit out on our weather-beaten porches staring at each other. Possibly sharing a bond of being the only two houses of this rather un-British house design sat at the end of a cul-de-sac that boasts other larger, if not slightly more boring homes. Our natural shabby-chic could also be construed as quirky, rundown and tired, against the well-maintained facades of the rest of the street.
When I’m feeling slightly spiteful, I’ll raise a hand and wiggle my fingers in a camp wave, and then flex my levator labii superioris muscle that turns a lop-sided smile on my face into a crazed-sneer. Some days she’s been known, (quite un-lady-like, I might add) to give me the finger, and I’d concur that American television has a lot to answer for.
I also remember the time that she threw dog shit over the hedge at me saying that I could have it back. I don’t own a dog, and neither does she so God-knows where she got a fist-full of canine faeces from. However today she is nowhere to be seen, and I wonder whether she has spied me out here trying to enjoy a moments tranquillity, and thus taken it upon herself to turn the speakers to her record-player up as loud as they will go so as I too can endure Ms Wynette’s powerful lungs in all of their glory. I would wager that whilst Miss Chambers may agree with the ‘First Lady Of Country Music’ that it is indeed sometimes hard to be a woman, I am certainly not the man in question that she would stand by.
I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the Mississippi-born singer.
Like most fathers I swell with pride when I see my twelve-year-old daughter Daisy skipping up the road towards me, even with the local preacher in tow behind her as a chaperone. I was expecting my estranged ex-girlfriend to be returning my daughter to me after she had taken her out for one of her few and far between visits, even though this was just to pick her up early from school and grab a milkshake. I was geared up for a couple of rounds of verbal sparring which I would most likely later regret, so to have the local preacher instead was neither a worry nor a relief. Part of me might even go as far as saying that the two were polar opposites. Miss Chambers is fond of the preacher which I use as my own entertainment. Right in front of me I can see the forces of good and evil battling with each other.
“Hey pops,” Daisy smiles as she always does with her cheeky slice of irony. “Why are you looking so sad?”
“Your mother seems to have morphed into a preacher. I don’t remember her being that ugly. Has she finally filed away her horns and sawn up her forked tongue?”
“You are silly, dad,” she giggles. “Jean was late for some meeting some place.”
Whilst I try not to show any anger towards my ex Jean, I let a glance up to heaven escape. “Why didn’t she ring me then? I could’ve picked you up.”
Daisy shrugged like it wasn’t anything to worry about, however any father of a young girl will tell you, his daughter walking anywhere on her own is a grave cause for concern. She lovingly touched my shoulder and headed into the house, whistling to Tammy bloody Wynette, whilst I was faced with the cold hard stare from Father Dugan. He was a man of large stature with a clipped white beard and a voice that is a gentle but forceful whisper. I had known him for as long as I could remember. “Evening, Ed,” he says succinctly raising a hand just in case I’m deaf as well as dumb.
“Evening, Father,” I reply looking up like a child awaiting a scolding from a parent or school master. However the truth of the matter was that we danced this masquerade in perfect time. We had a relationship that others would look upon as strange. Father Dugan had been my grandad’s best friend, although they argued and appeared to hate each other, they hid the fact that they had a deep and mutual respect. When the sands of my grandad’s life suddenly emptied through a large hole made by cancer a couple of years ago, Father Dugan started helping me look after Daisy and whilst the two of us bickered, he is my best babysitter by a long shot. He actually fully understands me and knows that I need the arguments and friction in our relationship so as to keep us from being too close. He is astute enough to know that I hold him in high regards and have a fondness of his company and like my granddad, a deep respect that I will never fully show or outwardly admit to. Perhaps some of this is rooted in him knowing my family and the truth that I have so long tried to bury. The skeletons that he’s helped to close the closet doors on.
“You should really come by some time, you know?” And I probably would if he was talking about his home and not that of the man upstairs.
He put a hand on his hip that seemingly took the load off. His waistline seemed to be expanding more these days. I guess servants of the Lord ate well.
“The next time I have a free slot in my busy social calendar, I might just do that.”
“I would bet that your calendar is slightly more social than you, my boy.”
“And I would bet that you are not allowed to bet, Harry.”
“I’m a new breed of Vicar. I have an I-Pod, an XBOX and a Kindle, you know.”
“You don’t have an XBOX.”
“I have a broken plastic thing with XBOX written on it.”
“That would be my old XBOX, that you were going to fix.”
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and all that,” he grinned fending of the comment with his hand. “That thing is past repairing.”
I scratched my chin and before I could help myself I turned into an arse, as I replied, “I was just wondering: Has God got a Twitter account? Wouldn’t that be a good way to get His message across?”
“Every time you mock me, it tells me more about your insecurities and your worries about life’s offerings, as it does your need to be a smart-arse. You do realise that, huh?”
I smiled at that. He knew me well. Once I again I had no idea why I felt the need to say the things I did to him.
“Are you still going out tonight?” He asked in babysitter mode which instantly put me at ease.
“That’s the plan, Father. I have to warn you, I will be partaking in copious amounts of the Devil’s Water tonight. I may be in need of a confessional tomorrow.”
“Son, as sure as I have hair on my backside, you will stumble in and tell me exactly what you think of the world – exactly the same as you do each and every time you drink.”
“There is nothing wrong with a predictable drunk.”
“That there isn’t.”
“And don’t you be sneaking off next door to see your fancy lady,” I added but as soon as I said it wished that I hadn’t. Once again.
He smiled defeated, and just when I thought he was going to say no more added, “She is a sweet lady.” And then as an afterthought, “Although her musical taste is interesting.”
When I had composed myself again I said, “See you tonight Father.”
“Good bye,” he replied, raised a hand and strode off.
I took another gulp of the rich Columbian Suarez coffee, enjoying the way the taste danced its way over my tongue like some sort of caffeine carnival embracing more senses then you would care to imagine. There were sweet caramel and chocolate undertones in the lingering taste that kept me enjoying it over for a good period between mouthfuls. It was my preferred coffee that I had picked up from Rave Coffee (an excellent specialist roaster a few miles away). This is a special time for me. Daisy is safe home from school and likes to have half an hour to `de-student` herself (her phrase not mine), and so I enjoy a coffee and watch the world go by. Collecting my thoughts and thinking about upcoming designs for my job.
I am a tattooist by trade so my role is to talk, and be talked to whilst I work in order to put my client at ease. Some people are happy to blabber on to me for a couple of hours through nervous energy whilst I unleash my creative juices over their skin, transforming their human canvass to something of either beauty, or some horrid idea of theirs into something mildly palatable on the eye. My expertise lies in bright colours and abstract takes on cartoonish reality (New School is the term in the trade) – which is to say I try to take even the most boring of object and magic it into a fresh artistic piece of fun.
I should have relocated to London years ago, but I love the fact that people make the effort to come all the way from the lengths and breadths of the country to collect my work on their person, and whilst I have won awards for my work I prefer to work where I grew up. And do you know what? I’m just a country boy at heart.
Thornhill is a beautiful town in North Wiltshire a few miles from Royal Wootton Bassett and the city-like town of Swindon. Part of me that enjoys the familiarity and daily habits of my life, but there is also another part that doesn’t want to turn its back on my past, nor would I want to take Daisy away from here. To me, here is safe. It scares me when I think about my daughter and I living in a huge city. It just isn’t happening.
I own the tattoo shop that I work in, and jointly own a small but modest music venue with my friend Jason. It’s nothing fancy but it draws the occasion known small band, and gathers together potential clients. More importantly it means that I no longer work the hours that I used to but still make enough money to live off of. In some ways I’ve been lucky, but I guess even your wants and desires can become mundane when turned into routine. It doesn’t mean that you no longer enjoy them, but that you sometimes need the adrenaline rush of unpredictability to keep you on your toes, and let us be candid here – to keep you young.
Today something extremely strange happened; something that has left me speechless and unsure of what to do.
I received in the post a short letter from my father.
My father has been missing for 10 years.
Officially my father is dead, although his body was never found. His car was abandoned by the cliffs overlooking a small Cornish cove. Everything pointed to an accident rather than a suicide but then unofficially, and seven years later officially, the verdict was ‘death by misadventure’, and I inherited the ‘Caulfield Hall’, an elaborate large house that sits over the other side of Whitehorse Lake, a mile from where I now live.
Throughout my childhood my father was an obsessed man. I didn’t always know or indeed understand what held his attention so strongly, but he worked away in his study with an enthusiasm that I have not seen in anyone since.
Most people think that he was an artist and somewhat of an inventor on the side, however I knew him to be quite the opposite. His art was peddled out with little or no care – a safe style and medium that was popular and earned him more than a substantial wage to live on; however this was not what he got up for at 5am. Nor was it what kept him locked away in his study until past midnight some days.
He produced no new painting when he missed my ninth birthday party, nor was he covered in paint when I found him asleep one Christmas morning. He was working on something and this was the thing that was his biggest secret. I still wonder to this day whether it was this secret that was his downfall.
I was never that close to my father as he was caught up in his work and I was an annoying distraction to him reaching his final goal. I never resented that, and even was jealous of his stubborn will to finish his work no matter what else in life got in the way. His work had no limits. But I never knew whether or not he reached his goal, and I suspected that one day he had an unrequited epiphany that perhaps he would never finish his work to the point that he so strived. I believe that this was what drove him to the Cornish cove and he threw in the towel for good. Without his work what did he truly have? His family were no longer familiar to him; strangers under the same roof.
I truly believe that he is dead. Or rather I did up until I received this letter.
My mother suffered the neglect of my father and as a result started getting involved in groups and friends away from the family. She resented me and the anchor that I had become which kept her away from the fun that she lost out with through my father’s neglect. Sometimes I was left to fend for myself whilst my mother left for weeks at a time, and my dad was locked up in his study like a hermit. After one particular disappearance my mother decided not to return home at all. It wasn’t long before my grandfather came and took me away to his house to live. Last I heard my mother was in France living with a painter that actually enjoyed painting, and of course being showered with love and affection. I have no place in her heart no more, nor she in mine.
My family has been through a lot in local folklore, and we go right back as far as history is written, (although the town came to be somewhere around 1100AD). I try to keep to myself and so the whispers have gone back to China with their hackneyed expectations morphing from exciting scandal to a worn out titbit of banality.
I think about the authenticity of the letter from beyond the grave and wonder how this is so. Staring off to the larger houses either side of me I have no definitive answer, just a whole bunch of theories and ideas.
I have to also consider the fact that my father may well be very much alive.
Life is all about timing, and today my timing and luck were not on the same team. I try not to stay out on the porch for too long for one big reason: My neighbour Jez.
He pulls up in his black company-leased Volvo V50 estate waving so hard that he is unable to turn the steering wheel properly and proceeds to clip his plastic recycling bin, sending it rolling down the drive like some large cumbersome dice. He is smiling so widely that I am wondering whether I should pretend that my phone is ringing and escape.
Jez is an over-excited person, with a wife with whom he doesn’t get on with most of the time, and somehow tries to live his excitement through me. Of all of the people in the entire world to be his hero, he has in a rather deluded way chosen me. He has the ability to see the brighter side of life like a naïve child. He is cheerfully innocent of my emotions, seeming not to take in the words I speak, or re-arranging them into a sentence better suited to what he thinks I might be saying. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t take him seriously. How can I? He looks like he has somehow fallen out of a cartoon and landed right-next-door to me.
He is tall and doesn’t so much as walk as lope from one foot to the other, with his long neck bent slightly over as if trying to crouch apologetically from his six-foot-five frame towards my more modest five-ten. His eyes permanently look tired and he has a nose that is slightly too large for the rest of his face. He tries to hide his receding hairline by growing his hair a little too long and floppy than suits him. He is best described as somewhat gawky and with his dark plain suits looks like a cross between an accountant and an undertaker.
Whilst I never encourage interaction between us, and even go as far as being as distant as I can, he maintains a lost puppy routine with me like I am some sort of Master and he a willing apt pupil.
“Eddie, my man! How the Hell are you?” He said like he hasn’t seen me in a month. He’s forty-two, but speaks to me like we are college fraternity buddies, high-five-ing and belching out manly quotes and quips, recycled from movies that were amusing and palatable in youth, but in later years slightly juvenile. He still thinks that he is twenty, and is hanging on with dear life to anything that remotely resembles his teen years. Last week he mentioned that he thought he could still get on an 18-30’s holiday, and that we should book it. There are so many reasons why the suggestion is wrong that my brain has been overloaded with the inability to say only one reply. I’d love for him and a film crew to go ahead book it and show the world more reality-car-crash television.
I raised my mug which is as much enthusiasm as I dare muster so as to keep things as brief as humanly possible, and this to me should speak volumes, but subtlety went AWOL on the day Jez queued up for it and he took an extra helping of regret that he tries to sugar-coat into it being a ‘funny story’ instead. “I’m drinking earlier each day, my friend.” And whilst I know I am consuming coffee, Jez would assume that it is generously laced with hard-liquor. I am his Comic-book hero, of course.
Jez works in IT for a large financial corporation in Swindon and thinks that living next door to a tattooist somehow makes him cool. Next month he wants me to do his first tattoo. He said this to me last month. And the month before. And each month over the past three years, but of course next month never arrives. Jez loves to think that he is going to get a tattoo which to him is halfway between being a blank (someone without a tattoo) and being inked (someone with a tattoo). There is something so innocent about Jez that you end up always feeling sorry for him, and I think that this is what I despise the most about him.
The problem is that he tries to be nice but it always ends up costing me. He is like my unlucky charm that will insist on following me around. He cooked me some burgers once and I was so violently sick that I was sure that Daisy would become an orphan. Another time he said that he could fix my TV aerial, and ended up slipping on the roof and pulling my guttering down – he was fine, which is more than can be said for the window that he put the ladder through. He had also dented my car, lost my phone and given me an electric shock.
His house is slightly larger and certainly more studier than mine and he clearly had the third little pig as the chief architect, whereas mine is smaller and made of wood. You could say that I’ve had the metaphoric wolf trying to blow down my house for years, however whilst it has twitched and creaked, so far the house has stood fast, and yet to fall down.
I take a deep breath of frustration which of course will be construed as some Clint Eastwood aloofness, and look out at the houses in front of me filled with people getting on with their mundane lives and for a second I feel a pang of jealousy.
“Life looks good on you, my friend,” Jez stated, embarrassing me with his fake social-ass-kissing. We both know I look like shit. Even my daughter has started to comment. She asked me whether Tramp-chic was what I was aiming for only yesterday. I’ve no idea where she gets her quick-mouth from.
My neighbour and I couldn’t be on further wavelengths if I was to move to Mars. Jez nods at my mug again. “Yeah,” he sneered. “Have another of those hot dates with Ruby!” He finished with a wink - He’s a winker, you see; a nudger; a finger-pistol-drawer; a back-slapper; an arm-puncher. All of that, but mostly he’s a winker. He also has a habitual misunderstanding of my melancholy for a silent debonair thoughtfulness he considers cool, and unable to pull off himself. He has very limited feelings, and I assume this is why his wife thinks that he is an ass.
I swallowed another slug down wishing that I had indeed laced my coffee with hard-liquor. “I can’t say that I will,” I pondered looking into the mug, fantasising on some level that it would swallow me up. “What with the fact that we are just friends. So, unless I have drastically misread the signs, our ‘hot dates’, as you refer to them as, constitute two friends talking about her love life, and our mutual love of music and tattoos.” This was true. Ruby works in my studio, and is a great friend that has the ability to choose the wrong man on increasing regularity, but I am her safe male that wants nothing more than old fashioned friendship. He can’t understand why I would want a female as friend and not be constantly thinking up ways to get her drunk and take advantage of her.
“Seems like a waste of time to me. Nice girl like that, needs more than words!” He winked again. The day I look to Jed for advice will be the day that I bathe in lighter fluid and dry myself off with candles.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
I guess on some level Jez and I are friends. The same level of friendship as the one I have with my dentist or the tax-man. Despite the fact that he is a handful of years older than me, some days I feel like he is my step son. Not someone that I can fully shape and mould, but someone that I have to guide through life, a human-burden that I have no recollection of requesting.
“I guess I’ll see you later tonight, huh?” he said flashing teeth and dimples, which is his way of telling me that he is going to gatecrash my night out. He loves turning up at the club, winking, finger pointing and generally looking uncomfortable. In turn and despite my best efforts I end up either embarrassed, or him ruining my night and being embarrassed.
“Really? You’re unleashed and out on the prowl tonight then.”
“Indeed I am. Gareth, Sonia and a couple of others are meeting us for drinks. Should be a good night.”
Gareth is Jez’s mate from work that has the inability to smile and talks with an intensity that suggests either some conspiracy is happening around him, or he is about to end your life. The guy makes Jez look normal. Then there is poor Sonia with whom gets dragged out on these strange escapades by the weird twins in a daft attempt to show the world that another woman can interact with them too. Sonia however is a naïve twenty-year-old that sees them as safe older-brother types, whilst ignoring any drunken advances that include pawing with sloppy-hugs or smelling of her blonde hair. The reference to ‘a couple of others’ actually means that there is no one else, but Jez assumes he will see at least one or two other people he knows and thus it may on some level of vagueness appear that they might be there together. Jez uses a logic that has no rules of normality.
“How’s your wife?” I said, which usually shuts him up and sends him home. Instantly I paid for it as he jogged closer, presumably to be out of the hearing range of his spouse, and leaned into my personal space. I hate that.
“Some days I’m the luckiest man alive, and then most days I wonder what the fuck I did wrong to end up with that moody bitch!” He half smiled trying to conceal the serious undertone. He added, “You don’t know how good you’ve got it, is all that I’m saying.”
I rubbed my chin, and felt like smashing his face into the wooden pillar. “Yep, I’m Mr Lucky,” I corrected with little or no feeling. I don’t mean to be mean, but it’s not only Jez’s wife that thinks he’s an ass, and if you don’t mind me being a little more candid, I’d go so far as saying he was fucking idiot.
“Better to have lost in love, and all of that stuff!” He fired a shot from his finger-pistol, and I have to wonder whether he has a license for that thing. I am calm in the knowledge that the safety is more than likely on. His hyper mood has returned now. Although a strange look suddenly contorts his face as he looked behind me. The reason for this look is all too apparent as the strong voice of my other neighbour Miss Chambers starts up.