Robert wished the woman would go – go and leave them in peace. She stood there in the corner of the lift, a shopping bag slung over her gloved hands, face in half shadow beneath a crimson headscarf, and eyes large with watching. Robert grabbed at his son’s good arm and drew him closer. It was always the same with women, whether a wife or a stuck-up busybody in a department store lift. They demanded a man prove himself – show he was a mindful father.
The spindly arrow above the doors juddered and a bell tinkled. First floor. Gentlemen’s clothing. An old man in a trilby hat tottered past them, wandering into the forest of flared denim and sheepskin jackets. The woman stayed in her corner, eyes as bright and fierce as a newborn’s.
‘Almost there, son,’ Robert said. ‘Just three more floors, eh? Then you can pick yourself something. Maybe one of they model plane, eh? Or a Scalextric car?’
‘Maybe,’ the boy mumbled, not looking up, wriggling his arm free of his father’s grasp and digging his hand into his pocket.
Danny was nine years old now; he thought himself too old for holding hands with his Da. It was only natural. And a small mercy, really. Robert had never enjoyed holding his son’s soft, hot hand. It made him nervous – the cling of such smallness in his large, callused hand.
The lift doors shut again. Robert glanced across at the woman again. The eyes had grown darker and the lips thinner – an expression he recognised only too well. Mary favoured that same expression. The woman was staring at the plaster cast on Danny’s left arm and the yellowing bandage attached to his cheek. She was probably imagining the trail of purple stitches knitted underneath. None of your bloody business, he wanted to mutter. Nobody’s bloody business but his and Danny’s. It had had been the same at the Infirmary last week, nurses and doctors with clipboards clicking their shiny Parker pens. – How did it happen? Was nobody watching your son? Did nobody see the guilty car? Not even the boy himself? – Pen-pushing busybodies. More like the bloody police than doctors and nurses nowadays. And parents were always the first suspects, especially the fathers.
Danny, however, had said nothing. Robert had to give him that. His silence had been immaculate.
‘It’s pay day, son,’ he said, patting his wallet pocket. ‘It’s pay day and your Da is going to treat you.’
The woman tilted her head forwards, as though his speaking, and his speaking so soft, gave her permission to come out of her shadows. The amber eyes narrowed above the long nose. Robert stared back at her without blinking. She sniffed and retreated back into her scarf’s crimson shade.
Ting! Second floor – bedding, curtains, kitchenware. The lift doors slid open and the woman sidled past them and glided off without a backward glance. More interested in her eiderdowns now, of course. The husband was probably a banker or a lawyer. Heath’s bloody three-day week would make little difference to his fat wallet or her generously fed purse. Never mind the wee wean with the broken face: now she had switches of curtain to clasp and measure. Robert rested his hand on Danny’s shoulder.
The lift doors closed and it was just the two of them.
‘Do you mind that story about the glass lift, son?’ he asked.
The boy stayed silent.
‘Do you hear me, Danny? It’s not that long ago we read it.’
The boy waggled his head as though trying to shake a wasp from his hair. ‘Don’t remember,’ he said.
The boy’s reflection wavered in the silver doors, like a body disappearing under water.
‘You remember – by that writer, you know, who wrote about the chocolate factory. And that poor lad, who didn’t even have a bed to himself. Found a golden ticket wrapped around a chocolate bar. What was the lad’s name…?’
Robert knew Danny still had the dog-eared book crammed into his bookcase; he had spotted it the other afternoon, while the boy was at school. He liked to potter in the boy’s bedroom sometimes, flick through whichever book lay by his bed, pick up the comics he kept on his shelves. It must have been less than a year since they’d read the glass lift story together, during his last ever leave. Danny liked stories and Robert understood that. He could admire that in a son—the wanting to escape, to sail, to fly.
‘Do you remember, eh?’
Danny shrugged his shoulders and continued to stare at the floor.
Robert sighed through his nose. The boy had been like this for the last month now – ever since his mother had gone into that maternity hospital, the posher side of Glasgow. Or maybe it had happened earlier. Sometimes Robert wondered if Danny had started behaving funny three or four months since, as soon as he’d quit the army, since they’d all been living together in the house, father, mother and son, every morning and every night. Maybe it had started even earlier than that. Danny was not a forgiving boy – he blamed his Da for being away so long. It was all the mother’s doing, of course. A brooding wife. A suffocating Ma. The tour of duty in Belfast was the last straw, she’d said. The army or us, she’d told him. Even though nearly every other bugger in the country was striking or earning only three days’ pay. Even though there was no earthly sense in it at all. He’d become another man on Civvy Street, that choking, spit-bowl, fag-end street. He had let her turn him into a man with a janitor’s pay.
Not that it had made any difference. She still brooded. A couple of weeks ago it had been the joke he made about her belly, plump as a partridge. He had only said it to make light of her lying in the hospital bed, to let the pregnancy seem fine and healthy. The doctors were forever fussing. ‘So much older’, this second time around, they said. ‘We have to be careful.’ They whispered of the previous miscarriage and the haemorrhaging. They danced that word, ‘haemorrhaging’, around her bed and he saw a coven of fairy-tale witches. ‘She’s safest here,’ they said, frowning at him, as though it was his doing alone she was pregnant, as though she had not caressed and kissed and persuaded.
Robert gazed down at the boy’s blonde cap of hair.
‘Do you want an action man?’
‘No,’ the boy frowned.
A few weeks before the hospital, she had brooded when he suggested that Danny might join the Cadets. Teach the boy the survival skills. Work some muscle into his wee brain. That conversation had ended with her pouring a bowl of piping lamb stew into the sink. So much for his playing the interested father. Always best to keep your eyes, ears and mouth shut. Be the three little monkeys all in one.
‘How about some more Meccano?’ he asked.
The lift shuddered. The lights flickered and dimmed. Danny’s open mouth rippled in the silver wall.
‘What’s happening?’ he asked, looking up at his father for the first time.
Robert glanced up at the twitching arrow. ‘You’re all right, son. It’s nothing to worry about. It’ll be another bloody power cut. You need to take a candle and matches wherever you go nowadays, eh?’
The lift stopped. The little arrow sat midway between the three and the four. There was just the flickering of a lime-coloured light. And a slow undergrowth of sound. The purr of electricity. Far-off music. His son’s shallow breathing.
‘No, Dad! It’s all still alive out there!’
Robert couldn’t help but smile. It was a long time since he’d heard that word, ‘Dad’.
‘We’re stuck, Dad! The lift’s stuck!’
‘Keep yourself calm, son. Always remain calm. We’ll just press this button here, see.’ He reached out and pressed the red alarm button. ‘They’ll get us out in five minutes, you’ll see.’
He stared down again at his son’s tousled head of hair. His hand hesitated above the softness.
‘We should have taken the stairs,’ Danny moaned, clasping his plaster-cast hand inside the good one.
‘Mum would have made us take the stairs. It’s always safer, she says. And she’s right, see.’
Robert’s hand fell. It was a rag-doll head of hair. A head in need of a good comb and a wash. The boy had no idea how to keep himself. The mother did everything for him. No safety in that. Only dependence. A noose of apron strings. All those years he’d spent away from them, she’d ruined the boy. His every second bloody thought was hers. Safe. Everything had to be safe. It was no way to nurture a man of the boy. Spoiled, cringing, no fire in his wee belly. As though the world were all cosy, hemmed-in streets. All quiet, cooing rooftops and gold-topped milk bottles sitting by bowls of cornflakes. Never bottles rinsed clean by lads not much older than Danny himself, creamy milk bottles turned into petrol-black bombs on back-room tables.
‘See?’ the boy persisted.
‘We’re safe where we are,’ Robert muttered. ‘Have a drop of patience, will you?’
Danny didn’t look up.
‘If Mum was here, I wouldn’t be stuck –’ Danny began to gasp for air. Robert heard the missing swell of words. I wouldn’t be stuck here ‘with you’. Ungrateful wee sod. And so prim. Always ‘Mum’. Never Ma. Never Da.
‘Aye, of course! If she was here, everything would be milk and honey, wouldn’t it? All sugary porridge, eh?’
The boy’s face paled and Robert remembered again. He thought of the first afternoon his wife went into the hospital. Danny had come home from school and Robert had opened the front door to him. The boy had sensed something was wrong in that moment: a defensive sweep of eyelashes upon his small, flushed cheek. Dad never opens the door—that’s what he’d thought. Later, after he had explained and Danny quietened down, he made the boy a clumsy dinner of burnt sausages and watery mash and sent him early to bed. No bedtime story. No mother’s goodnight kiss. That was how the boy had seen it, no doubt, but Robert had feared more comparisons. He would read the wrong story in the wrong voice; his lips would bristle the boy’s cheeks.
Robert dug his hands into his anorak pockets. His fingernails pressed against a caked handkerchief ball. The boy was too young to understand. Men had to carve out a safe place for themselves.
‘Listen, son…’ he said.
Danny reached up and stabbed at the red button three times with his stubby finger.
Robert stared. His chest tightened. His son couldn’t bear to stand inside the same four walls with him.
‘Stop it!’ he yelled.
And it was that same claustrophobia in Danny, that impatience of claustrophobia that had caused the accident.
‘I’ve already pressed the alarm. Just have some patience. Everything will be fine.’
The boy stared up at him. ‘You said that about Mum,’ he mumbled.
‘You said be patient and wait. You promised you’d take me to the hospital and let me see her. But you haven’t. You won’t!’
Robert’s heart clenched again. ‘You’ll see her soon. She just needs a wee
bit of time on her own.’
They’d said it to him only yesterday, still the ‘threat of miscarriage’. Total bed rest. ‘No excitement.’
‘Is she dying?’ Danny asked, his eyelashes dark and clotted.
Robert swallowed. ‘Course not, son. She’s fine. She just needs to save her energy for the new wean.’
‘But she’s been in the hospital ages now! And I’ve still not seen her. She’ll think I don’t care!’ Danny paused, his wet eyes widening with the idea. ‘She’ll hate me!’
‘Stuff and nonsense! She wouldn’t want you seeing her in the hospital.’ Robert reached down and patted the boy’s shoulder. ‘It would be too hard for the pair of you. That’s why.’
‘But I want to see her! And you said! You said you’d take me to see her.’ The boy faltered; he gestured towards the plaster cast. ‘Before the accident.’
Robert stared. ‘Aye, well – maybe you would have seen her, eh? If you hadn’t been so daft.’
‘Your mother can’t see you like this… Your hand all in plaster. Stitches on your face. She doesn’t need any more upset.’
The boy stamped his foot and his face flowered red as the poppies Robert weeded from the school playing field. ‘I want my Mum!’
He’d said those same words the morning of the accident. A whining mantra. He’d driven Robert to distraction. For a moment, just one moment, Robert’s right hand had clenched and it was then he’d turned to Danny and told him they would go for a drive to the seaside, to Millport and Crocodile Rock. Anything, for his son to look up and give him a smile. His own Da had taken him there once as a boy, before he’d buggered off one summer night without so much as a goodbye. He’d skimmed stones across the water and spoken to Robert of his wanderlust and he had not understood at the time. Only six years old. But he had liked the yawning feel of the word on his tongue. ‘Wanderlust.’
And the promise of sea and ice cream had seemed to calm Danny that morning. Robert told him to wait on the pavement, like always, while he reversed the car out. He checked his rear and side-view mirrors, like always. And he saw nothing, only a still street and close-up, sunlit tarmac. He had seen nothing.
Robert glanced again at the fidgeting arrow still stuck between the three and the four.
He closed his eyes. He heard the sound again. The muffled thump of wheel and metal felling nine-year-old bones. He felt the pressure of Danny’s rag-doll limbs as he rammed his foot down on the brake. The boy’s fault. He knew not to hang around the car. Robert had drummed the dangers into him. Lucky he hadn’t been killed. That was what he’d told him afterwards. How many times had he told him? The world wasn’t safe. Stay on guard. Carve out your space and hold it.
The boy pressed his right hand against the lift door and began to whimper.
‘Stop it now, Danny! Do you hear?’
The boy pressed both hands now against the doors as though they might have magic in them and his touch might open them and he might run off into his ready-made chocolate factory.
‘Let me out,’ Danny cried.
He began to pummel the doors with his good hand. Imprints of his small outspread palm flowered upon the metal and faded, over and over. He stood back. They both watched his reflection waver.
‘I hate you,’ Danny shouted, as he turned, pressed his back against the wall and slid down into a hunch on the floor.
Robert’s chest clenched. ‘Go on! Hate me, then! You wee mammy’s boy!’
The boy hugged his arms around his knees and began to sob. Robert said nothing as he watched. He wondered if the tears stung as they trickled over the trail of stitches, the bruising work of needle and thread upon his son’s pink, elastic skin. Danny’s mother would not wonder. She would scream if she saw that small pillow of cheek, bound to be scarred for life. He couldn’t bring the boy to the hospital looking like that. ‘What kind of father can’t be trusted with his own son?’ Better than no Da, though. At least he always came home again. He stayed, even though sometimes he didn’t know how.
Tools clanged below and voices trilled, tinny like a lullaby on a far-off radio.
‘You’ll bring on another bloody accident, if you carry on like this.’
‘Good!’ the boy yelled.
Robert looked down at the boy’s burning face and the curls of blonde hair, which flicked up under his ears. The moth-shaped bruise on his tiny cheek seemed larger now; the shrinking bandage no longer hid the biting zip of stitches. And the plaster cast had grown thicker and mustard yellow. The sunlit tarmac flashed again in the mirror.
‘Good? What do you mean by that?’
Danny looked to the floor. ‘Good,’ he mumbled again.
‘You want more stitches, do you?’
Danny stared up at him, his cheeks blotched with tears.
‘Spit it out!’
Danny’s eyes flared. ‘I’m glad the accident happened.’
Robert’s heart withered. ‘What?’ he asked.
‘I got to the hospital.’
‘I got near Mum.’
The lift shuddered. The tarmac flashed again in the side-view mirror. And there was a flick of blonde hair. A slice of pink cheek. Robert frowned. No, that was wrong. There was only a still street. Only sunlit tarmac. Empty. He had seen nothing else.
He grabbed at the boy’s arm. ‘What you saying, eh?’
Danny pulled and stepped backwards.
‘Nothing,’ he gasped. ‘I just want to see my Mum.’
‘The day of the accident…’
Danny’s mouth trembled.
‘You waited behind the car?’
The lullaby of voices grew louder. Danny said nothing. His face was a blank–a matchstick-man face, impossible to read. But Robert saw it all. Even now his son squirmed to be free from his hands, as though they were a vice, as though he was the cagouled stranger Mas warned their children against.
‘You hate being with your Da that much?’ he asked.
Danny shook his head and stepped backwards.
The voices were just beyond the doors now, a gossip of lullabies. He could already see the scarved woman who had been in the lift earlier. She would be there, waiting, her eyes large and amber again. Danny would run away from him into her talcumed arms. Away from the turpentine arms of a janitor, a has-been soldier, a no-good father.
The lift stopped again. The bell tinkled.
Robert stretched out his hand towards Danny’s bruised face.
‘Don’t!’ the boy whimpered.
The doors gasped open. Danny darted out through the fluttering crowd.
Robert’s hand fell.