***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Katy Regan
New Year’s Eve 2015
(maybe one day I will call you Dad but not yet),
This is your son, Zac. I am writing this letter to give you an opportunity. I know you did a runner just before I was born and weren’t interested in being my dad, but how could you decide if we’d never met? I didn’t know I wanted to be Teagan’s friend until she moved onto the same estate as me. Luckily she was nice, but she could have been really annoying.
I don’t want to be offensive, but I have been really angry with you since the day my mum and me went on the promenade train in Cleethorpes when I was three and my mum told me you existed. I don’t know why you didn’t want to see me or even phone me if I was your child. You have never even sent me a birthday card. (In case you don’t know, my birthday is May 25th.) What kind of dad doesn’t send their kid a birthday card?
So I am giving you the opportunity to come to my party when I’m eleven. It’s five months away so lots of time to organize it. If you have any more children, you could bring them, as long as they like Toby Carvery because that’s where I’m going.
BE WARNED: my mum is really mad with you and my nan says you make her sick, but I am willing to give you a chance.
My grandad says, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” and I agree. For example, I never used to like mushrooms, but now I would have them on my death row dinner. I think if you met me you’d change your mind too.
Please write back.
P.S. Just so you know, you can only get two slices of meat at Toby Carvery, but you can have as many vegetables and Yorkshire puddings as you want.
Fact: There are only three animals in the
world that have a blue tongue: a chow chow dog,
a blue-tongued lizard, and a black bear.
So I’d already written to my dad on New Year’s Eve, but deciding to look for him only started, really, the night of my mum’s Date from Hell. She kicked everything off that spring; she made everything start happening that would change our lives for the better and make them brilliant. She says it was me that did it, but it wasn’t, it was her. (Even though she was drunk, it was still her.) That’s the only good thing about wine, I suppose. It can sometimes help you to tell the truth.
Grimsby, early February 2016
Sam Bale’s dad was walking across our estate in the snow. It was just him with his big furry hood up. He could have been trekking across the North Pole.
“How many points would you give him, then?” I said.
“What, Sam’s dad?” said Teagan. “None. No way. He’s been in prison for fighting people, he has.”
“He’s rich, though,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“He’s got a bath that’s a Jacuzzi—and he’s got a gold car. Imagine how much that would cost. A gold car!”
Me and Teagan were high up, leaning out of her bedroom window playing the dad game. Teagan’s my best friend. She lives on our estate but in one of the high blocks on the seventh floor, where you can see the whole of Grimsby, even to the sea. We live in a boring old maisonette with only two floors, but it’s nicer than Teagan’s inside because my mum can work, whereas Teagan’s mum’s got this disease where she’s tired all the time, so if you weigh everything up, it comes out equal.
I was round at hers for a sleepover because my mum was on a date. I don’t usually go round to people’s houses for sleepovers on a school night, but then, my mum doesn’t usually go on dates. This was her first in a year and a half. Before that, she was going out with Jason, but they split up because there was no chemistry.
The dad game is something me and Teagan made up after Teagan’s dad left her mum—and Teagan, and her sister, Tia—for Gayle from Ladbrokes. Since then, she hasn’t seen her dad much. Teagan’s dead angry with her dad and thinks she’ll have to get a new one eventually. My dad did a runner just before I was born, but Mum’s always said we had a lucky escape because he was a waste of space. So I’d like to get a proper dad too someday, and me and Teagan thought it would be good to work out what sort of dad would be best.
Our game’s called Top Trumps for Dads. It’s just like normal Top Trumps, except we give scores based on how good a dad we think someone would be: how kind, strict, or funny they are; if they’re rich and could take us on adventures; if they’d be able to stick up for us in a fight—and not a fight like Sam Bale’s dad’s been in, but a proper one, where you’re fighting for something worth it, not just for the sake of it.
Teagan writes down scores for the dads in our special file. So far, Jacob Wilmore’s dad scores the highest. He’s got a six-pack and a Porsche and he’s just a really nice man. He used to play football professionally and now he sometimes coaches the under-elevens. I wish I was good at football, just so I could see him more. We’ve finished doing all the dads at school now, though, so we’re scoring others we know, like Sam Bale’s.
“He might be rich, Zac, but he’s still been in prison,” said Teagan. “There’s no point having a dad in prison all the time; you’d never get to see him.”
“Yeah, and when you went to visit him, you wouldn’t be able to touch him and you’d have to be careful because he might be in with all the murderers.”
“And he’d have to wear an orange suit,” said Teagan. “I’ve seen it on Coronation Street.”
As well as living on the Harlequin Estate with me, Teagan’s at the same school as me but in a different class, so on Mondays and Thursdays, when I’m not at Nan and Grandad’s, we sometimes play together after tea. We like playing “the Olympics,” where Teagan does her gymnastics on the bars (three metal bars, basically, all of different heights, in the middle of our estate) and I do the commentary like on the Olympics. This is Teagan O’Brien on the bars, for the United Kingdom! When it’s cold or rainy, though, we like stopping in and leaning out of Teagan’s bedroom window and looking at all of Grimsby like we own it. Our estate is at the edge of the town near the sea (it’s not actually the sea, it’s the Humber estuary, but it goes into the North Sea). But don’t go thinking there’s a beach like there is at Cleethorpes—it’s not like that. If you look at where the sea meets the town in Grimsby, from high up here in Teagan’s flat, you can just see loads of cranes and boat masts, with the Dock Tower in the middle, poking out like a red rocket. The line where the water meets the town goes in and out where all the different trawlers have their parking spots. Our town is a fishing port. It used to be the greatest fishing port in the world back when my great-grandad was a fisherman, in the glory days. But then there were the Cod Wars, where Iceland and our country rowed about who was allowed to fish where, and that ruined everything basically.
“Hey, if you squint your eyes and look at all the snow,” I said, closing one eye, the way Mr. Singh from Costcutter does when you go in there and he pretends to be asleep, “you could be in Canada.”
“Jacob Wilmore’s been to Canada. He told me it was boring,” said Teagan.
“I bet it’s not. I bet it’s amazing.” The snow was amazing here too, if you looked closely. It wasn’t white, it was loads of different colors. That’s because it’s actually frozen droplets of water reflecting the light. I told Teagan this. “It’s the same for polar bears,” I said. “Their fur’s not white either, it’s transparent; it just reflects the light so it looks all dazzling. Underneath, their skin is black and under that are eleven centimeters of fat.”
“No way. Eleven centimeters?”
“Well, you’d need eleven centimeters of fat if you lived in the Arctic.”
“It’s like living in the Arctic in this house,” said Teagan. “And where’s my eleven centimeters?”
She leaned farther out of the window. She makes me nervous when she does that, because she’s so light, she could flutter away like a crisp packet. Teagan might be the smallest in our year but she’s not scared of anything, ever. I’m scared most of the time. Sometimes it feels like our bodies have been swapped around.
I leaned a little bit farther out too. The cold was lovely, it crept right through your clothes, and the moon was orange, with this sad, kind face.
“I wonder what my mum’s doing now,” I said.
“Why, where is she?” asked Teagan, flicking her hair round. Teagan’s hair is her best feature, like mine is my eyes. It’s chocolate colored and wavy.
“On a date,” I said.
“What, with a man?”
“No, a chimpanzee,” I said and Teagan laughed. She’s got this mad, crazy laugh; you can’t help joining in. I hadn’t said anything to Teagan because I didn’t want to jinx it, but I was really worried about my mum’s date. I wanted it to go well so badly that I’d prayed on Factblaster before I came out. Grandad always gets me a present just from him at Christmas, and last Christmas it was Factblaster. Every fact you’ve ever wanted to know, answered!, it says on the front. It’s totally awesome. I think it’s got lucky powers. I love my facts like I love my cooking. Out of my class, I’m probably second best at facts after Jacob, who knows literally everything, but that’s because his dad works on the rigs so can afford to take him all over.
My mum’s date was with a man called Dom. He knows my aunty Laura (she’s not my real aunty, she’s my mum’s best friend—I just call her aunty) and he’s got a sports car. My mum really needs a boyfriend. She loves me to bits, but we need a man in the house and, also, I liked it better when she was going out with Jason. I kind of miss him. Maybe I even loved him.
Teagan sighed. “Rather her than me,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, rather your mum than me going on a date. I’m not going on any dates when I’m older. I’m not going to have a husband or even a boyfriend.”
“Why not?” I said.
“’Cause men are stupid idiots, that’s why. You won’t be, obviously. But that’s because you’re different.”
I wondered what she meant by different. People don’t like different in my experience. They don’t like fat, or really thin; they don’t like people who are poor. But then, they don’t like too rich either, or big noses, ADHD, smelliness, sticky-out ears, funny teeth, glasses, people with one arm, weird names, or weird parents. They don’t like anyone who stands out, basically. I don’t think any of these things matter—it’s the person inside that counts. But not everyone thinks like that, do they? That’s just not real life.
The windows in the flats across the way were glowing orange. The way they were lit up, it made the flats look so cozy and I thought, that’s how Teagan’s flat must look from there too, but also how it was a trick, because you couldn’t see how scruffy her bedroom was on the inside, you couldn’t see the black damp in the corners, like you can’t see the black skin underneath a polar bear’s fur. You couldn’t see there was no dad there or that her mum was in bed because she’d got the tired disease. You can’t see the truth, just by looking on the surface. That’s something else I’d worked out.
I was thinking about all this when, all of a sudden, Teagan took a huge lungful of air. “Bogeys!” she shouted, so loud I bet it hurt her throat. I just saw Sam Bale’s dad look up before she tugged at my arm and yanked me down and then we were sitting with our backs against the wall, cracking up for ages. I laugh loads when I’m with Teagan; it makes me forget the bad stuff.
“Do you want some sweets?” she said, suddenly sliding onto her belly and under her bed. Teagan’s so little you could slide her anywhere. You could hide her like Anne Frank if you had to. She wriggled under her bed and brought out a plastic orange bucket. It was full of sweets from Halloween. “Have what you want.”
I couldn’t believe she’d saved them. Halloween was four months ago!
I chose a mini Mars Bar, a Drumstick lolly, and a Maoam.
“Is that all?” she said. She couldn’t talk properly due to the humongous gobstopper in her mouth. “You can have more. Go on, take more.”
Teagan’s the only person my age in the world I can eat in front of without going red. She’s the only person my age I can talk to about food too—about what I baked with my nan or what recipe I made up. She’s the only person my age who knows I want to be a chef like my uncle Jamie too. She never looks at me funny. Not like that. Not like most people look at me. When she talks to me, she just looks in my eyes. Sometimes I wonder if she’s even noticed.
We sat on the bed. It was quiet except for the rustling of our sweet wrappers and the room was full of the moon, making Teagan’s tongue look blue from the gobstopper. Then suddenly, there was shouting.
“Why?” a lady was going. “Why? Why? Why?” Teagan looked at me and we burst out laughing. “Wanker!” the woman shouted and we cracked up even more. We couldn’t get to the window fast enough to see what was going on, which was that there were two people, a man and woman, having an actual scrap in the snow! The man was skidding around trying to duck from the lady, who was hitting him over the head with her handbag. She was shouting but crying at the same time. She had blondish/brownish hair the same style as my mum’s and she was wearing a turquoise coat.
I recognized that coat.
“Oh. My. God,” Teagan said slowly. She wasn’t laughing anymore and neither was I. “Isn’t that your . . . ?”
I can tell you now, no ten-year-old kid wants to see their mum having a scrap in the snow, whacking someone over the head with her handbag. It makes the mum look mental and it’s not very ladylike. But that was exactly what was happening. I watched as my mum stomped off back home in the snow and then I sat on Teagan’s bed for a bit, deciding what to do. I went home in the end. Teagan understood because she knows what it’s like to be worried about your mum.
The back door was open when I got there, so I just walked in. Mum was frying sausages in the kitchen. She’d got changed into her PJs, but she still had her makeup on, plus the dangly earrings she’d bought from Matalan especially for the date. I wished she hadn’t bothered.
“Zac! Jesus . . . Bloody hell . . .” She jumped out of her skin when she saw me. It might have been funny, but it wasn’t, if you know what I mean. “Why aren’t you at Teagan’s?” she said, wiping under her eyes with her fingers. Her eyes weren’t looking at me straight and she had black tears down her cheeks.
“She felt sick,” I said. Lying makes me nervous, but I didn’t have a choice. She asked me for a cuddle and I gave her one. She smelled really strong of the pub.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as she hugged me, really tight. It hurt a bit, but I didn’t want to say. “What happened on the date—it went wrong, didn’t it?”
But she ignored me. She just started putting the sausages on the slices of bread she had on the side. They had big clumps of butter on and even bigger holes. “Do you want one of these, darlin’? Mummy’s special sausage sandwich?”
Her voice was funny—I didn’t like it—and she wasn’t cutting the sandwich all neat like she normally does; she was making a mess.
“Why’re you acting strange?”
“Strange? I’m not acting strange,” she said, but she was walking toward the cupboard to get some plates out and even her walk was weird. The way she was talking. I hated it. All of it.
“Are you drunk?” I said. “Because I don’t like it. Just act normal, Mum. You’re freaking me out.”
She reached up to get the plate, but when she turned around and looked at me, I saw that she was crying again, horrible crying with all her face crumpled up. “How can I be normal, Zac, when I’m not?” she said, doing this horrible sob, so big that a little snot bubble came out of her nose. “When I’m this disgusting fat pig? This big fat mess of a person? I’m not surprised Dom didn’t want to kiss me or that your dad never—” That was when the plate slid out of the cupboard and smashed first on her head, then all over the floor, and then Mum was shouting and crying and I was too, and I was trying to pick up the pieces of the plate as well as hugging her at the same time and I just wanted this whole stupid date, this whole night, never to have happened.
I didn’t want Mum to be on her own so I got into her bed and we ate our sausage sandwiches—Mum was dropping ketchup everywhere because she was still drunk, you could tell.
Afterward, I lay on her boobs. I love doing that ’cause they’re so soft, like pillows. I even have names for them. One’s Larry (he’s a bit bigger) and one’s Gary. Nobody but my mum and me know.
“What am I going to do, Zac?” Mum said suddenly. Her voice was all funny like she had a bad cold, because she’d been crying so much. “I’m never going to get myself a man like this, am I? Never going to get you a dad. And then you’ll leave me and marry a gorgeous girl, because you deserve a gorgeous girl, and I’ll just be a lonely old woman with cats.”
“But you wouldn’t be lonely if you had cats, would you?” I said. “Plus, you can get really friendly cats. And anyway, I’m not moving out—ever. Even if I do get married, I always want to live with you.”
Mum laughed. “You won’t always feel like that,” she said, kissing my head. “I promise you.”
“Anyway, you will meet someone. Nan says Liam ruined all your confidence but you’ll get it back when you get a new boyfriend. You’re dead pretty. I think you are.”
That was when Mum said the thing that made me glad this night had happened after all. “But that’s the problem, Zac.” She was stroking my hair; it felt dead relaxing. “I only ever loved Liam. I don’t think I even want a boyfriend if it’s not him.”
My heart was going boom. I didn’t dare speak in case she stopped talking.
“I loved him and he loved me—so much. He did, I know he did. And I just can’t imagine finding that again.”
She was quiet for a bit then and I thought she’d fallen asleep. Then she did a big sigh.
“Bastard,” she said.
“Right,” I say, holding my head at both sides as if it might explode or topple off if I don’t—I’m at the limit of human headaches; nothing would surprise me. “What would you like for your main breakfast, Mr. Zac? You can have anything you want.”
Zac’s eyebrows shoot up. “What, anything?”
“Yeah, if we’ve got it. Come on, what’s your death row breakfast? Bacon, eggs, Uncle Jamie’s pancakes . . . ?”
Hangovers always make me emotionally wobbly and an image pops up, bringing a lump to my throat, with no warning whatsoever: my little brother, cooking his special pancakes in our childhood kitchen, all big, curly bed-hair and purple hooded dressing gown. He used to make us pancakes every Sunday morning, showing off his culinary skills with how high he could toss them, and every single Sunday morning Dad would joke, “That’s my boy—a professional tosser!” And every single Sunday morning Mum would snap, “Michael, please, it is not funny. What would people think if you said that in public?”
And Jamie and I would snigger to ourselves—more at the fact that Mum got cross every time than at Dad making the same rubbish joke.
“You have to say your death row breakfast first.” Zac grins at me, bringing my attention back to him, to now, making the tears that were threatening to leak retreat to where they belong at seven fifteen on a Friday morning. He seems cheerful enough after last night, which is unnerving, to be honest. What promises did I make? What did I say? I used to trust myself, even under the influence, not to say anything I might regret, especially about his father. But now, worn down by ten years of single parenthood, I don’t so much.
“Oooh, Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes followed by two boiled eggs and a gigantic mug of coffee,” I say, still holding my poor, throbbing head. That’s if I don’t die of natural causes before my execution. (Imagining the Last Suppers of soon-to-be-executed serial killers might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it seems to be ours.)
Zac inspects me suspiciously with his gorgeous aqua eyes. (He gets those from his dad, worst luck.) He can smell overcompensation all right, but he’s all for exploitation and I don’t blame him.
“Okaaay, pancakes then,” he says, his face lighting up. I briefly wonder how long we have left of his face brightening at the mere mention of his favorite food or TV program; how long it will be before simple pleasures don’t cut it anymore. Will I be able to keep up? Will I be enough?
“But can I make them and you toss them?” he says. “And can I have syrup and bacon with them like Uncle Jamie says in his recipe?”
“You can, darling.”
Normally the chances of me letting him cook before school are basically zero. I’m definitely still drunk.
Zac slides off the breakfast-bar stool. “Yes! Uncle Jamie’s pancakes for breakfast!” he singsongs, padding to the fridge to get the ingredients.
My son has the look of my brother—the coarse, fair hair that tends to grow out rather than down; something about the openness of his face, the wide-set eyes. But even now, ten years on, when I hear my brother’s name, the shock that he will never again be on this earth occasionally—like now—hits me the way it did the day I found out. And then I get a pang of hate for Liam for his part in what happened that night. And I’m glad of that feeling, because you know where you are with hating someone, don’t you? It’s safer. Cut and dried.
A few years ago, when Zac was about seven, we went on a day trip to London. It was absolutely brilliant. I’d saved up my Tesco vouchers to go to the London Aquarium. Zac still talks about touching the stingrays and eating a crepe (you can imagine the hilarity), but for me, the main thing I’ll remember about that day is what happened on the train home, which is that I went to the loo, closed the door, but forgot to press “lock”—only for someone to come and press “open” seconds later and the door to open as slowly as it’s surely possible for a door to open, revealing yours truly with her knickers round her ankles to a packed rush-hour train. The walk of shame back to my seat was torture; teenage boys applauded me: “What happened? Get your arse stuck in the toilet seat, did you, love?”
If anyone ever asked me, “What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you?” I used to tell them this story; but now I fear what happened last night has surpassed it.
Obviously I don’t normally go to school with Zac on the bus (Zac makes me get the early bird one, it just not being acceptable to get the bus with your mum when you’re in Year 6, apparently), but, as luck would have it, what with me being unable to string a sentence together and stinking of wine, I’ve been called in for a meeting today with his teachers.
We sit at the top at the back, Zac nearest the window, me in the aisle seat. The snow has turned to gray sludge, making this part of Grimsby look grimmer than ever as we pass the tired low-roofed offices and shops of Freeman Street: Poundstretcher and Iceland, Khan’s Fashions and the Carpet Warehouse. A cold wind’s blowing a gale just to add to matters, and a trolley has made a break for it from the queue of them in front of Iceland. It’s alone and desolate, turning slowly and almost elegantly like a big fat silver fairy.
“Mum, how much did you have to drink last night?” says Zac suddenly, and my stomach flips.
“I just want to know.”
Now, how do you answer that? Because either way you’re screwed, if you ask me.
“Only half a lager, son.” Really, and that was the state you were in? I think you should give up drinking, Mum.
“A bottle and a half of white wine.” (That is the truth.) Really?—rings AA or ChildLine—I think you should give up drinking, Mum.
Actually, in my defense, I don’t normally drink like I did last night. Booze isn’t my drug of choice—you only need to look at me to figure out what is—but I was a bag of nerves and I made two basic errors: going out on an empty stomach and drinking white wine. There’s only one way that ever goes.
I put my hand into Zac’s chubby, tanned one—I still love to hold his hand—and say, “A little bit too much, I think, Zac.”
I shouldn’t be allowed on dates—I’m a liability. When I look at my dating history over the past ten years, it’s a car crash. I should do everyone a favor and just forget it. After Liam and the awful events of that June weekend in 2005, I didn’t dare go near another man for seven years—not surprising considering what happened the last time I got involved with one. Then, in August 2012, Jason popped up—literally, from behind the bar at the Pavilion nightclub in Cleethorpes. He was working two jobs back then, fitness training by day and bar work at night. I, meanwhile, was on a rare evening out with my best friend, Laura, who—worried I was depressed (I wasn’t arguing) and beginning to take on a deathly pallor because I was in the flat so much—had insisted on paying for me. I hadn’t been out in months and I went a bit off the rails, although to the outside eye it probably looked like I was having the time of my life. But even if no one else could spot it, I knew that when I pounded that dance floor till I was pouring with sweat, when I downed those shots of tequila and banged the empty glass on the bar, it was with a rage I kept suppressed the rest of the time. Fuck you, Liam. Fuck you. And when Jason accepted my very slurred request for a date, which I only remembered doing when he called me the next day, he had unknowingly been handed an exploding bomb.
The bus rounds a corner and we pass Your Fitness, where Jason works. I pass it every single morning, just to add salt to the wound, and every single morning I feel a pang of regret about that messy year I put him through. If there had to be a messy rebound boyfriend, after all, I would really have liked it to be someone less lovely and more deserving than Jase. Just to give you some indication of what I passed up (besides the most beautiful biceps you’ve ever seen in your life), when I finally stopped running hot and cold, and admitted I was in no state for a relationship, Jason still wanted to be friends. Zac was delighted, because he adored Jase, but I’m just not one of those girls who thinks that being mates with exes is a good idea, so I’m trying to cool the whole friendship thing off. I think we both need to move on.
“Mum?” Zac says, nudging me suddenly, making me jump.
I have a moment’s worry he’s noticed Your Fitness too and is about to start asking when we can next see Jason.
“I said, you do remember, don’t you?”
“Remember what?” I ask warily.
“What you said last night? You know, about Dad?”
I freeze. My stomach rolls horribly. So I did say something—but what and how much? Did I just blab everything when I was pissed? Deliver the news that would blow his whole world apart and I can’t even remember? Oh yeah, so, you know you’re upset about your dad abandoning you? Well, actually, that’s the least of your problems, because the whole truth is about a thousand times worse.
My hangover suddenly intensifies and my heart starts going like the clappers, but then I look at Zac’s smiling, inquisitive face. Surely if I’d told him everything, he’d be upset this morning? I study his expression for a few panicky moments and only when I’m completely satisfied it isn’t one of horror do I allow myself to exhale.
“Of course I remember, Zac,” I say, like, What do you take me for?
He leans his head on my shoulder. “The last bit, Mum,” he says, chuckling to himself. “That was well funny. When you just sat up and swore . . .”
We pass the park and the pebble-dashed sprawl of the Goode Estate, with me frantically trying to piece together last night. But there are huge gaps in my memory. I can’t even remember what Dom and I talked about; I just remember the feelings: the flutter when I fancied him the moment I saw him, and the excitement as we seemed to click—or, at least, I thought we did; the giddiness when he gave me a lift home in his sports car and I gushed drunkenly about how flash it was, splaying myself all over it, stroking the seats. Jesus . . . Us walking arm in arm across the estate, everything so white and perfect in the snow. (That was how I saw it, anyway; he probably only had his arm in mine to hold me up.) I remember lifting my face up to kiss him, closing my eyes—and then the rejection, like a slap in the face when he turned his cheek.
There was just this rage then—like there was that night I first met Jason—that rose up in me like a . . . like a bottle and a half of white wine, let’s face it, and suddenly I was shouting, “Why? Why? Why?” even though I knew why; it was obvious why. But I can’t help thinking, why did he go on a date with me then? He’d seen a picture (albeit head and shoulders only, but the absence of any visible bone—collar, cheek, or otherwise—is clear as day).
There are fat-girl brush-offs, however, and Dom went for the classic “Look, you’ve got a really pretty face”—after he’d as good as recoiled from it. I would have laughed if I hadn’t already been crying.
I close my eyes and rest my pounding head on the cool window. Christ, Juliet, I think. You love your boy so much, but it didn’t stop you last night, did it? It wasn’t enough to make you rein in the wine and the general self-loathing?
Mercifully, back home is also patchy. I just remember tears—from me, and possibly Zac because he absolutely hates it when I cry—and that when I stepped out of bed this morning, I went flying on the remains of a sausage sandwich that I’d obviously made when I got home, pissed. Because not only does white wine bore huge holes in your memory, it also makes you crave lard like there’s no tomorrow, and before you know it, you’ve knocked up an extra five hundred calories inhaling a sausage sandwich that you can’t even remember eating.
There are three of them waiting for me after I drop Zac off at his classroom: Miss Kendall, Zac’s teacher—pretty, young, slim (naturally, Zac’s in love with her); Mrs. Bond, the headmistress; and Brenda—a school counselor.
“Brenda will just be someone to emotionally support him at school,” they said when they brought her in at the beginning of November last year. Zac was struggling a bit—he’d even bunked off one day, which was most unlike him—and they said Brenda was someone he’d be able to talk to, who was totally on his side. (I wondered who I was, then—the enemy?)
“Nice to see you, Juliet. How are you?” says Mrs. Bond as I take off what feels like never-ending scarves and jumpers, revealing a slightly smaller me each time, like a Russian doll. Except, of course, even without all the layers, I’m not exactly small. I’m sweating like a pig from the hangover and the chair is much lower than I anticipate, meaning a little yelp slips out when I eventually land.
Three pairs of eyes then, all staring at me. I can feel the sheen of toxic sweat pooling on my top lip.
“Well, this looks serious,” I say cheerily, realizing it might be precisely that. “Oh God, what’s he done?”
He hasn’t done anything, they say. He just seems like a different boy to the one they knew in Year 5; he’s not fulfilling his academic potential; he seems angry sometimes and upset, anxious.
“But he’s a kid,” I say, “not a robot. Surely he’s allowed off days like anyone else?”
“Of course,” says Brenda soothingly. “Of course he’s allowed off days. But it doesn’t feel like it is the odd ‘off day,’ it feels like he’s fundamentally . . .” She tilts her head to the side, searching for the right word. I’m dreading what it might be. “Struggling at the moment.”
My throat constricts. I know that feeling.
“Obviously, I only met him in November, but even I can tell that this is a child who’s got a lot on his shoulders. And maybe nothing has changed since Year 5, but for whatever reason, he’s not coping as well as he was.”
“Can we also just chat about his issues with food?” interjects Mrs. Bond, and I actually laugh.
“Sorry, issues with food? I don’t think so. Zac’ll eat anything.”
You can practically hear the tumbleweed.
Brenda leans forward, as if she’s a cancer doctor about to impart bad news. That’s how it feels, like she’s telling me he has a disease, that my perfect boy is somehow defective. “We’re just a little concerned about Zac’s weight. He does seem to have put on quite a lot more since starting Year 6, and we just wanted to raise that with you.”
The alcohol has as good as worn off now, the postdrinking paranoia is setting in, and I’m suddenly aware of how my thighs are spilling over this ludicrously small chair, like a Pizza Hut cheesy crust. I even start to feel like they might have given me this chair on purpose, to make a point. I wonder about the possibility of it breaking, right now, into two, and how I’d never survive the humiliation, how I’d have to make Zac change schools . . .
“Has anything happened at home that might have triggered the sudden weight gain?” she asks.
Sudden weight gain? What is she on about? I live with him; surely I’d have noticed.
“Is he perhaps eating in secret, you know, taking food you’re not aware of?” suggests Brenda. “Some children do that if they’re upset in any way.”
I feel my cheeks flushing, tears threatening. How do you know? I think. You who can probably eat anything you want and still stay skinny? I hold the words—just—behind gritted teeth.
“He was found in a corner of the playground—almost as if he was hiding—eating a doughnut on his own,” she says and at first I laugh, partly because I’m nervous and partly because she’d have looked less serious if he’d been caught with a four-pack of Special Brew.
“Well, I never gave him a doughnut. If anyone’s having a doughnut, it’s me!” I say. Then I burst into tears.
“It’s the hangover,” I say. “Hangovers . . . they always make me emotional.” Which unsurprisingly is met with icy stares.
Brenda passes me a tissue. “I’m sorry,” I say, dabbing under my eyes. “I really don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Don’t worry, it’s a very emotive issue,” says Brenda, which only makes me feel worse.
“Look, he must have bought the doughnut on the way to school, because I always just put an apple in his bag.” God knows we’ve had enough letters go home saying they can only have fruit or vegetables for their snack.
“Well, perhaps we need to help Zac,” says Miss Kendall gently. Everything about her is gentle: her voice, her face, her fluffy blond hair; she looks like a nymph, an angel. “By making sure he doesn’t have access to money to spend on the way to school or to those kinds of foods.”
Those kinds of foods? I start to feel resentful, like they’re telling me what I can and can’t feed my kid.
“If I can just butt in,” adds Brenda, “having seen Zac now for half a term, I think we’ve got to know one another pretty well and I see a child for whom things feel out of control at the moment.”
He feels out of control? I’m failing miserably to stem my tears with a tissue.
“Everything’s related for him, and it’s a vicious cycle: the overeating, the weight gain, and consequently the bullying, which then leads to struggling generally at school, and on and on it—”
“Hang on a minute, bullying?” My stomach drops as if beginning the plunge from the highest dip of a roller coaster. “What kind of bullying? I know Zac’s big for his age, but I can tell you now, he’s the gentlest boy in the world. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Brenda reaches over and lightly touches my hand. “Oh no, we know that. Zac is a lovely boy. No, what we’re concerned about is him being a victim of bullying and one of the reasons for getting you here today is because we want you to know we have a zero-tolerance bullying policy at this school and that these incidents have not escaped our attention—especially what happened at swimming last Thursday.”
“I’m presuming you noticed he came home in a different shirt and jumper?”
I think back.
“Well, no, to be honest, because I sometimes work late on a Thursday, so Zac lets himself in. By the time I get back, it’s gone ten p.m. and he’s asleep . . .” Those looks again; I feel so judged. “I have no choice. I work in a sandwich shop, but we do catering events—you know, birthdays, business meetings, work parties—and I have to work shifts. That includes evenings.”
It transpires that on Thursday, after Zac’s swimming lesson, some little shit stole his school shirt and jumper. Nobody would confess and time was running out before the next lesson, so he was forced to wear clothes from the lost property box, none of which fitted him. And there’s worse: a fortnight or so ago, all the Year 6s had to be weighed—some government policy or something; I know because I stupidly signed the consent form—and Zac apparently freaked.
“He just did not—would not—take off his school jumper,” says Brenda. “And he got himself into a bit of a state.”
“What sort of a state?”
“Well, tears. Lots of tears,” she says. “And protesting, locking himself in the cupboard. I did manage to calm him down in the end, but he was very upset.”
“But why?” I ask, a sob escaping. I can’t stand to think of my usually calm and happy Zac so upset that he locks himself in a room; that doesn’t sound like him at all. But then, I’m beginning to wonder if I know him as well as I think I do.
“I suspect his size really bothers him,” says Mrs. Bond. “In fact, I think it’s really getting him down.”
Or is he desperately unhappy and I just haven’t noticed because I’m far too eaten up with my own issues? The thought sinks to the pit of my stomach, like a stone to the bottom of the sea.
“I know he’s a bit on the chubby side, but he’s not, you know . . .” The room seems to be getting smaller. “I do not feed him rubbish.”
Mrs. Bond looks at Brenda and then at me. It’s momentary—but it’s there all right. The one-second once-over that says, Well, you’re clearly doing something wrong.
“Actually, Zac is one of the children who was found to be medically above a normal weight for his age,” says Mrs. Bond. “You should have received a letter by now.”
“What letter? I haven’t got any letter.” The tears have all but stopped. I’m just starting to feel angry. “And what do you mean, above a normal weight? Who decides what’s normal anyway?”
Obese, they said.
“Obese?” I repeated, dumbfounded. “He’s ten. I know he’s on the chunky side, but it’s puppy fat. It’ll go when he shoots up.”
Also, what am I meant to do about him eating doughnuts when I’m not there? I can’t watch him every minute of every day, I told them; I work. What did they want me to do? Tell shops not to serve him? Put locks on the cupboard doors? Deny him anything nice? Life is hard enough for Zac what with his shithead absent father.
There’s also his love of cooking. He’s a foodie! And how many telly chefs could they think of who are skin and bone? I said. Jamie Oliver is chubby . . . And James Martin, who used to present Saturday Kitchen, isn’t exactly svelte.
“I mean, he just loves cooking and baking. He takes after my brother, you see, although unfortunately my brother’s not with us anymore. And he loves mashed potato; mashed potato is his absolute favorite. He’d have mash for breakfast, dinner, and tea if you let him. He likes to experiment with all sorts of mashed potato. What do you want me to do? Stop buying potatoes?!”
Like I say, hangovers always make me emotional.
Costcutter is opposite the bus stop in the middle of the little parade of shops on our estate and after I get off the bus—where I spent the entire journey sobbing like someone had died—I go in there to get a few bits. The hangover and whole apocalyptic feel of the world now the snow’s melted to sludge isn’t doing anything to lift my mood, but I feel helpless and so angry. Angry toward whichever little shit stole my boy’s clothes, angry toward the school for having the audacity to call my son fat in the first place and somehow suggesting (in my mind, at any rate) that this makes him a valid target, and angry at Zac for not telling me about any of this. But most of all I’m angry at myself, because I feel this is my fault—that, fundamentally, none of this would be happening if I was a better person, a better mother; if he didn’t have to make do with just me. And then I’m back in that spiral of thought: Liam left Grimsby and us, and, yes, perhaps he felt he had no option at the time. But that was ten years ago and I wonder what I hate him for more these days—what he did that night or the fact that he’s never come back. Does he not want our forgiveness? Does he never miss Zac and me? What does it say about me that he never, ever fought for us? That he basically left one life and started another, without so much as a backward glance?
Often I wonder what he’s doing and where he is, but when I try to picture it, my mind is completely blank; as if, after that night, he walked out of our lives and out of this world; as if he just jumped off its curve into fathomless black. I try but I can’t conceive of him existing without us.
There’s a hot counter in Costcutter where they do sausage rolls and pasties and the hot pastry smell hits you from about a mile away. I knew resistance was futile as soon as I stepped off the bus and anyway, I deserve one. I deserve a week’s supply of pasties after the twenty-four hours I’ve had. So I go over there, get the sausage roll, and put it in one of the white takeaway bags with the silver lining (every cloud and all that). And then I get a few other bits, bread and some toilet roll, and I hit the aisle where all the biscuits and cereals are, every intention of going straight to the till. Who am I kidding? I’ve decided already. I probably decided before I even set foot in the shop, no doubt back when Mrs. Bond was delivering the news that my baby was being terrorized, and once the seed is planted in my mind and the adrenaline is rushing through my veins in anticipation, that’s it, game over—and before I know it, my hand has stretched out, taken something, and slipped it into my bag. It’s so easy I do it again. I don’t even know what I’ve taken; I just know that something glints gold at the bottom of my bag and it’s giving me a thrill. That I feel like I’ve got one up, not on Mr. Singh, the shop owner—I feel eternally guilty about Mr. Singh—but on the universe. Because otherwise I feel like it will swallow me whole.
I walk across the estate to our block, the wintry sun low in the sky. There’s a bunch of girls smoking on the corner and Eunice cruising across to Costcutter on her mobility scooter as she does every single day at this time.
I wave at her.
“Snow’s all gone!” she says. “Be spring before you know it.”
“Can’t wait, I’ve had enough of this gray sludge!” I call back, but inside I feel a tiny pang of dread. Nearly spring means June is just around the corner with the anniversary of Jamie’s death; the anniversary of Liam leaving. It never seems to get any easier.
I walk the half flight of stairs to our front door and let myself in. I don’t relish coming home to an empty flat, never have. You’d think I’d be used to it after ten years, wouldn’t you? But I can’t seem to let go of the feeling it wasn’t meant to be like this. I put the shopping on the table, take the sausage roll out of its silver lining, and open the cupboard above me to get out a plate. It’s as I’m doing this that I spot the brown envelope on the doormat, in between the Evening Telegraph and a pizza delivery leaflet. It has North East Lincolnshire Health Authority stamped on it and even from here I can see the words Parent or Guardian of Zachary Hutchinson through the little plastic window. I stare at it for a moment, frozen, like it’s a mouse I’ve just spotted. I feel as resentful, as invaded, as if it were. I imagine some jobsworth civil servant typing it out—probably twenty stone themselves—condemning my child to being fat and lazy. What gives anyone the right?
I’m about to pick it up and chuck it in the bin, but something stops me; something to do with a vision of my boy, standing in the middle of the swimming changing rooms with no top on, feeling ashamed and scared. I know how that feels, and I’m all grown-up. I feel like I owe it to him to at least open the stupid letter. I lean down and pick it up before I change my mind.