One day last summer, having helped my mother clear her lounge in anticipation of a removal van, we leashed our dog and walked him up to the etiolated sports field behind the house. The dog, a sandy Labrador, choked himself expectantly on his collar until she bent down, unhooked it and let him run free. Below the field was a boarded up scout hut in an empty car park. There had been rumours while I was at university that the Akela was keeping some boys back after he’d dismissed the rest.
On my honour, I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God and to the Queen
To help other people
And to keep the Scout Law
He told some parents that troop meetings finished at 7:30pm when they really ended at 7pm. The word jamboree wouldn’t sound the same again for those boys. There was warped corkboard nailed up over the hut doors and the dog nosed around it. The scene looked like it needed a dog nosing around it, and then it had one. I remember talking to an old friend about the Akela, and he was unsurprised: ‘Oh yes, mine was one too it seems.’
I had come home begrudgingly. After her recent divorce from my father, my mother had been forced to sell the ‘marital home’, and I was eating into valuable holiday days by being here. The ‘marital home’ as it was referred to in all court documents and solicitors letters, was a three bedroom semi, at the end of a row, with an expanded double-garage and an extensive teared garden, somewhat Versailles-like in its ostentation. The interior of the house was in a mild state of disrepair. It was a house that was always being renovated but never being finished. One of the rear exterior walls faded from off white to off cream where a can of paint had ended.
My mother threw a tennis ball out of a plastic sling that she called her tennis arm. The ball made a pleasant Euclidian shape in the air. Indefatigable, the dog went back and forth collecting the ball from the bushes, careening across the faded football markings. Then he arched his back and defecated on the edge of the penalty box.
‘That’s a foul,’ I said.
‘No, that’s a penalty,’ She said.
It had taken me many years to realise that we shared the same sense of humour. It didn’t resonate much with many of my peers – it was demotic and crass – who were well-educated and a bit holier-than-thou. I aimed up.
My mother inverted a doubled-up shopping bag and retrieved a clump of sodden grass. She made it look almost normal: a small price to pay for seeing the dog take joy from the world.
‘That’s my boy.’
There was a narrow woodland path that skirted the sports field. The dog bounded off ahead, nose to the dirt, and took up the trail of other dogs. He waded in and out of various semi-recognisable flora. The last of the evening light was dappled under our feet, bacteria under a microscope, or the dirt on an iris. My mother was wearing black wellington boots that came up to her knees. She swung the bag beside her, and I’d catch a whiff of the dog’s acrid shit on every forward arc. He’d likely been in the dry foods cabinet again, gorging on cereal and cooking chocolate. There were rows of red and white-brick houses surrounding the field, partially hidden by green fences. From inside the trail you could’ve pretended you were camping. Then there’d be the starting up of a water hose and the spray tapping on a parked car, or a television show breaking out from an open patio door as someone stepped outside to smoke, and you’d remember the proximity of all the life-living.
I’d often come up here to re-enact scenes from war movies I hadn’t seen but that older kids, or kids with more lenient parents had, and which I absorbed by osmosis. A group of us had small families or were only-children, and we naturally sought one another out over the estate. There was a slow accretion over the course of two years through primary school. At its height the team boasted eight full-time members, who were counted on to do anything and everything to get out of the house. On any given school night I’d hear the tell-tale knock on the double glazed front door, and the ‘is he allowed to play?’ from my perch at the top of the stairs. We’d then go house-to-house, smelling the leftover smells of family dinners, waiting in the lounge or playing on the front step, while they finished up. It was in these moments, these incursions, that I saw what other families looked like around one another. There were dining tables laid out assiduously. Footstalls or laps used as place mats in living rooms. Some families were raucous and showy, some softened by intimate lassitude, like they were nearing the end of a long journey on an overheated bus. Once at the field we would take up arms, branches we broke off trees (some of us felt more remorseful about this than others), or bits of metal piping we assumed had no other insidious purpose, and at the count of five ran in opposite directions. I wasn’t particularly melodramatic, so I didn’t play well when shot. I couldn’t do the dying fall, shuffling off of the mortal coil, or the throat gripping. So I just avoided getting shot. ‘You’re not invincible; that’s not fair.’ I would keep sniping from behind trees, or crouch action-man style against a holy-bush – riddled with imaginary bullets – until one of the kids figured out a creative way to disable me. ‘My bullet grazed your arm, you can’t shoot out of your right hand now.’ I’d pretend to throw the rifle stock into my healthy hand, and continue. ‘You’re not ambidextrous, that’s not fair.’
We followed the spotty touch line around the edge of the field. My mother took air in through her nose and looked to the sky, as if she was not just leaving the house, and the estate, and the neighbours she had never talked to, but the earth as well. The dog was, as ever, oblivious to any human feeling, and I, for my part, ignored this histrionic display.
‘I’m going to miss it here.’ She said, hoping to draw me out.
‘Why?’ I asked fittingly.
‘Because this was my first home.’
‘No, you owned that house in Newquay first.’ In Newquay I had attended a pre-school and become covetous of a rug in the play pen and an accompanying bag of beat-up matchbox cars. The rug had an intricate, and in my developing mind, fully-functional road map of an unnamed seaside town sewn into it. And, like how I imagine town planners do when plotting new traffic systems, you could push the matchbox cars around the roads with a degree of accuracy afforded by the size of the matchbox cars in relation to the breadth and lengths of the roads.
‘Well, fine, you know what I mean. My first house with you and your sister. This is where I imagine you whenever I think about you. It’s hard for me to see you in London, or to see Catherine in Swansea.’
‘You’ll get over it. Time heals everything.’
‘Maybe I don’t want to get over it.’ She had the blossomed scar of an iron burn on the inside of her forearm, which she rubbed. ‘Nowhere else is going to be quite the same.’
While, as boys, we had played out our violent, military fantasies here on the sports field, we had not been bolshie or popular enough to use it to play football – the other universal love of competitive (pre-testosterone) pre-teens, and another, equally violent fantasy. That we played on a much smaller, more secluded pitch, lower down in the estate, away from the scornful laughs, and inevitable ball-thieving, of the older boys who lived around and stalked the cul-de-sacs like wolves. In relative comfort we donned our team’s colours, and dropped our jumpers about ten feet apart. I wore the magpie stripes of Newcastle, even then expressing myself in monochrome. Coming from the provinces we had to put our faith in respectable, top-flight teams from cities many miles away we might never visit: Liverpool, Arsenal, Leeds United. We supported these teams in sticker albums, annuals, Pro Evo Soccer (though because Konami couldn’t afford the licencing fees they had names like Teeside, Liverpool, London and Leeds) and on Sky Sports 1. We played a kind of two- or three-a-side: a roving keeper-cum-defender, a few bellicose forwards. There was a considerable amount of hoofing from one penalty box to the other and matches often ended in double-figure scores. We hadn’t figured out diamond formations or number 10s. This field was at its most radiant, had its greatest potential, when the wind went through the beeches that bordered it. I almost smile now thinking back to prayers we made to the never-seen, council-contracted groundskeeper who kept it that way, perfectly trimmed; perfect.
Invariably I played alongside, or rather in front of, my cousin, Daniel. He was born one day before me, in the same hospital, and while he held that over my head, I held a serviceable control on the ball, and a solid aerial presence, over his. Our opponents were two boys from our class, who we also swam with at county level. Sam and Sam. I’m not redacting their surnames, I simply don’t recall. Double-syllable, working class names though. Collins? Stuart? It is of some consternation to me that I can’t remember their names. This was a time before the monikers that defined our later years, ‘dude’, ‘man’, (the regretfully appropriated) ‘fam’; we used surnames as if we were in boarding school, but really because we watched football on TV and all the players wore their surnames. Sam and Sam, whose surnames I ought to remember. One had vibrant ginger hair, cropped close to the head for the sake of modesty. One Sam was a specialist at butterfly, the other had blonde hair so blonde it looked like he might have had albinism, and a deformity caused by an infant illness, which none of us truly understood, and had had his right arm removed below the elbow. He swam for England at under-13 level, a beguiling feat. We did not think him, as our classmates did, or indeed our teachers (who were ever apologists), ‘disabled’, but that instead he was in some way more evolved. To watch him swim was to watch a child returned to the womb. He was effortless, lithe and rippled (though perhaps a little underweight). Whatever asymmetry there was on land was forgotten once he was submerged. And we fought him on the pitch with the same boundless fervour we did any other member of our small troop, and I remember more than once that truncated elbow coming into contact with my temple. I think he went on to become a Paralympian, perhaps specifically a triathlete, at least that’s how I will remember him here, for my own sententious purposes.
There was a yelp from the undergrowth, and then a whimper. The dog emerged limping and looking a little wilder.
‘Oh, no. Poor baby, come here.’ My mother cooed to the dog, who drew up to her, ‘We get adders up here in the summer now; you never know.’
The thorn was stuck between his pads, and he lifted his paw up delicately to show her.
‘Let’s get this out and take you home.’ She straddled him in case he bucked or went to run, tensed her knees and pulled out the thorn. A good centre meter long; a miniature obsidian dagger. The dog withdrew its leg and ambled down towards the scout hut car park. A breeze went through the trees, lifting their limbs up in poses of surrender. The sun had settled between two semi-detached houses, revealing oil leaks on the road. I offered to cook dinner.
‘Now that would make a change, wouldn’t it? I’m not sure you’ve ever done that.’
‘It’ll have to be simple.’
‘I can eat simply. Can’t be as bad as your father’s cooking, can it? He just about burnt beans on toast. Remember I can’t have too many carbs though, mummy’s getting trim.’ This was a new affectation, something she did to remind us, my sister and me, that we were still mothered.
I turned on the oven and seasoned some chicken breasts. My mother stood behind me unsure of what to do with herself. It must’ve been one of the few times she’d been relegated to sous chef in her own kitchen. I could feel her pre-empt my every move, the sound of her plastic flip-flops, which she wore exclusively in the back portion of the house, like there was bacteria on the linoleum, sticking and unsticking. Finally I uncorked a bottle of cheap white wine I’d seen languishing in the fridge for the past two Christmases. It left an accusing clear, sweated silhouette on the plastic fridge divider. She took the bottle, poured some into a tumbler and retreated to the sink. Realising there was nothing to wash up she started thinking.
‘I’ve got to keep busy.’
‘I’ll do the dessert.’
She chopped up some mango, dropped it in a zero-percent Greek yoghurt and put it back in the fridge, then rolled herself a cigarette using a little device that looked like a hammock supported by two rolling pins. She shook off her flip-flops and pulled on some boots, stepped through the diamanté drapes and out the back door. I could hear the hens clucking and hurrying down from their roost to greet her. They ran like their dinosaur ancestors. I laid the chicken in front of me out on a baking tray. We’d always joked, much to her annoyance, about serving one of the ailing ones up at Sunday lunch. She was so fastidious about recycling – individual receptacles for tin, cardboard, glass, food – it seemed apposite to recycle these sickly and inconstantly laying hens.
I peeled the carrots with a stubby knife, cutting too deep beneath the skin, pulling the knife towards me, which was how I’d been taught. Mum was outside pacing, smoking hurriedly. I filled the kettle to boil. She came back in, the hens followed close behind, trying to get an angle into the house.
‘Out, girls. Out.’
She shut the door. Their beaks rattled on the plastic.
‘It’s bloody windy out there now, but look at these beauties.’
She clutched two eggs like trophies. Was she getting shorter? Her shoulders had always been hunched. She’d always carried herself like someone older than her age – she was young for how old I was, her first born. She’d been 24; my father was almost a year younger. They thought that anomalous. That he was a toy-boy. They had married at 18. Dad in his parade uniform, mum in a very classic, ivory dress.
We drove past the rural church once. I was now 27 and she held me in simultaneous contempt and awe. To have lived so long, unmarried – ‘people grow up slower these days’ – unfettered, and unready to get down to the hard graft of living and loving – ‘it’s not as exciting, is it?’ – I’m sure she envied me too. I asked her to help me chop some vegetables for a salad.
‘I hope you’re going to dress that lightly.’
‘I wasn’t going to do anything to it.’
‘Are you sure? Let’s see what we’ve got in the fridge. You can’t just have raw carrots and tomatoes. That’s unsophisticated.’
‘Since when have you become such a gourmand?’
‘Let’s see. About 14 months ago. Must’ve been around the time your father left.’
She handed me some salad dressing, and pointed to the balsamic vinegar in front of me. I poured the boiling water over the carrots and got the hob going. She was talking away and I walked form the kitchen into the adjacent toilet, a distance I had always thought unhygienic.
‘I think I quite like being alone. So much freedom.’ A beat and then, ‘I know you can hear me through that door.’
I lifted the toilet seat and stared at the turquoise stained water. It was both placid and active – some combination of air-flow and an imperceptible leaking from the cistern kept it at a simmer. I sat down on the cold wooden seat. I didn’t like the sound of piss splashing in the water at the bottom of the bowl or sloshing down the side. I sometimes employed a skew-cocked method to dampen the noise. The room was full of toilet roll, stacked to the under stairs ceiling against one wall. There was a perverse care in the architectural design of the toilet roll wall, like rose pink brick work. My mother had tried to make the bulk order look beautiful. My parents forbade unused space.
‘Are you taking all this toilet paper with you?’
The dog had taken up guard outside the toilet. He did this regularly. Rescued and resultantly crippled by a complex about being abandoned again. He sat back anxiously when I came out, and walked at my heel. It wasn’t as though I was getting a sense that he loved me, just keeping me in his line of sight.
We sat around the coffee table with our meat and salad and boiled carrots. On one side of the room stood six boxes of assorted size, bulging unhealthily. The TV was murmuring on in the background and the dog lay with his head on the arm of the sofa. There were interior design magazines underneath the glass of the coffee table. My mother sighed, a carrot stabbed on the end of her fork.
‘I can remember doing this a few times when you were younger.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked begrudgingly.
‘You and me sat eating on our own.’
‘We never really did formal, sit-down meals,’ I said.
She looked at me laterally, somehow, though we were face-on across the table.
‘What did you think of my cooking back then?’
‘I liked your staples. Chicken in white sauce.’
‘They still do that, now it’s in cans.’ She nodded reverentially as though she’d been ahead of the curve.
The seagulls returned from the estuary and began to caterwaul overhead. Families of them had set up on each of the roofs on the estate. They launched themselves between the terraced houses like screwed up paper planes.
‘You know why he wasn’t here for dinner much.’
‘Yes, I know.’
We waited as if hearing ourselves speaking down a long distance phone call.
‘You had the opportunity to leave. We both would’ve supported you.’
The room was about to get dark, absorbing as much of the last light; the dark, now empty wooden furniture turned a lambent amber. She dug the TV remote out of the denuded sofa, its cushions piled next to it, and turned up the volume on the news. The national team transitioned over to the local station – what we’d familiarly called Carrot-crunching news. I watched as a reporter visited a farm in the middle of lambing season. She helped suckle a lamb which was unceremoniously hoisted out of a fenced-off area. She seemed genuinely enamoured with the thing, as it embraced the bottle and spluttered on her.
It had been two Christmases before, roughly the age of the bottle of white wine that sat empty between us on the table, that I had mediated a final, fatal argument. Making naïve plans for their future and finding a way to avoid lawyering up. Using my best world weary/plaintive voice. My mother had picked up the car keys and left the house at half one in the morning, having heard enough; my father and I sat and watched a super hero movie. He kept turning to me amid the fight scenes, as caverns opened up in New York City streets and waves of trans- galactic aliens shot green bolts across the sky, to ask if I thought she was going to be okay. I believed that people didn’t follow the trajectories that other people feared they would do. I think all suicides are shocking. It never seems avoidable. People never see it coming. We could’ve gone out looking for her in the car, but we watched the movie to the credits. She slept overnight in a carpark by the seafront, and came back the next morning to start clearing his stuff into suitcases. My father went without much drama, but it wasn’t like it was the first time he’d been kicked out.
The first time was after he dropped a 20kg barbell, and 30kg in accompanying plates, on or near my head. I was five, it didn’t seem to have any long-lasting repercussions. I have subsequently become well acquainted with gyms, and can take succour from the fact that a 50kg deadlift is far from respectable for a naval officer in peak physical fitness.
Once the lambing feature was over the news team broke away to the inside of a lifeboat station. A man in orange overalls, surrounded by low hanging ropes and cables, stood facing the interviewer. He spoke mechanically, his words knotted up like the ropes framing him.
‘A man went missing from Exmouth beach earlier this evening. He was seen paddling away from shore in a yellow kayak, making his way south of the beach. An RNLI lifeboat was sent out shortly thereafter, having received emergency calls from dog walkers on the beach. The man is still missing, and the search has been postponed due to current adverse weather conditions. The man is thought to be in his late-forties or early-fifties. We will begin our search again in the morning.’
The interviewer drew back the mic and handed over to the team in the studio, he’d not said a thing himself. From there into the weather. Sky clearing overnight, cool and dry in the morning, light outbreaks of rain in the afternoon. My mother went and put the kettle on while I channel hopped. The bushes were dragged back and forth by the wind and rapped the window. The lounge reflected back into me, the TV going like a light box.
Later it seemed inevitable. A knock at the door. A man in a black overcoat we didn’t recognise removed his cap and pushed his hairline back over the top of his head. The strands of hair splayed like fingers.
‘Evening, are you Mrs. Farmer?’
‘It’s Ms. Walker now, actually.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. We have reason to believe that your husband, sorry, Mr. Farmer, is missing.’ Another man, smaller, in a white and orange jacket, emerged from behind him. The man inside the lifeboat station. ‘This is Mr. Lambert, from the Coastguard.’
Matthew Turner is a writer who lives in London and works in publishing. His work has previously appeared in the Cadavarine. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Birmingham. You can find him on twitter @mfredturner