I didn’t used to think about “us” as a collective, or a team. I used the children as an excuse to leave in the morning, and not return till dark. Dinner cold; a sleepless woman anxiously confronting me with raised whispers. My booming voice would wake the children, and she’d be disgusted. Heavily pregnant, she’d waddle through to check on them, while I lit a cigarette and blew the smoke towards her spitefully.
Some mornings, I’d wake up alone on a makeshift mattress in the narrow, caravan like kitchen. The sounds of three children, the pitter-patter of tiny feet and high-pitched shrieks of excitement. I used to bark at them, but now they fill me with guilt. And sorrow. The girls tug at each other’s hair, sprinting through a hallway and into their bedroom, with a small boy barely walking, trying his best chase them. They ask questions but they don’t linger on yesterday, it’s as if none of it happened. They trust in the truths their mother and I tell them about the world. The alternative is too hard to bear.
I’m told I’m too hard on the boy, too authoritarian. Forcing his cries to die down with a gentle tap across his mouth. His sisters wince, I tell them to go to their room and they shuffle off like frightened little girls. The way Irena tells it to her friends, sounds like a drunk is beating a child to near-death. She’s too soft on them, but I’m trying to be a better father.
I see her when I sleep. I see her take off and run towards the exit, a mischievous child ducking underneath the crowd. I should have barged through everyone, I should have kicked down all the doors. Run after her screaming her name. I don’t even remember her name.
I awoke to a hangover and a bar stool, in pieces around me. A couple of people asked if I was ok, and I grumbled and headed off to smoke. It had been five hours and I couldn’t remember where I’d been, I glanced up at the pub sign to check its name, it seemed familiar, I knew how to get home. I ambled across the road to the off-license and bought a few beers for the way, I vaguely remember kicking through a fence before I burst in through the front door and stumbled into picture frames and smashed the front room mirror. Irena screamed at me.
“Where is our daughter?”
“WHERE IS SHE?!”
I never told her I loved her, even when she let me sleep in our bed. For all the times when I was too drunk to be a real Father, the vicious words and abuse I’d yell, the daughter I’d let run off. She tenses whenever I touch her, I don’t fully understand why she’s still here or why the children are still here. I wonder if they have no place else to go and they’re biding their time till a man in a van can pack their things and drive them to a place where the roof is held together by slate and not patched up by tape, literally and figuratively. Maybe I’m being given a chance to redeem myself, to be better than the creature that ripped holes through our family for vacuous self-gratification.
We get visitors every so often, mostly coming to ask questions of where I was on that day. That day. I always tell them the same story, they always leave. I think they’re hoping I’ll tell them what they want to hear, a story they’ve assimilated from the grubby clothes, the beer belly and my accent.
They think I’m subhuman, a vicious piece of work. They expect to find a body, they expect I killed her. The girls always come through afterwards and hug me, ask who those horrible men were and why they keep coming back? The walls are not as thick as we like to believe. Their love is unconditional, hopelessly naive, truly a blessing. A reason to live, a reason to be a man.
Irena grinds her teeth and watches, pensive. Maybe she believes it. I wouldn’t blame her, but it does make me angry that she thinks I’m capable. I go for a long walk, skimming beer bottles like stones into the lake, eyeballing dog-walkers, hoping one of them catches my gaze long enough to say a few harsh words. Is that who I’ve always been? A ghastly man who threatens people as a tension release?
As my walk becomes an amble, a solitary street light burns too brightly for my eyes. A crash of silicone and glass falls back to the newly paved walkway. I crush them further with a couple of stomps of my oversized boots. I sit and wait, teary-eyed in the fading light, for my daughter to find her way back to me.