A short story by Carys Bray
She looks like an evacuee, sitting on a chair outside the school office with her lunchbox clutched to her chest. She smiles when she sees you. But it’s the sort of exasperated smile that your parents used to give, a smile that speaks of loving you anyway and despite.
‘Sorry,’ you mutter to the teacher whose smile also fails its welcome.
You need the loo. You are tomato-faced, sweaty. When you removed your cardigan earlier during the meeting that made you late, you were appalled by the sight of your milky arms and their thick winter coat of flesh; you immediately re-covered them and kept the cardigan on afterwards, in the greenhousing heat of your car.
You hold her hand as you leave the school together. It is warm, stickied by hot classrooms and wax crayons. She tells you a story about a boy called George who might love her. You buckle her into the car seat and listen to more about George.
‘He let me use his best eraser in the shape of an aeroplane, and he didn’t tig me at playtime.’
She doesn’t stop talking as you walk around the car to the drivers’ side. You have a little time before you need to pick up your sons from high school: twenty minutes to counteract your lateness. When you reach the end of the road, you turn right.
‘Where are we going?’
‘For an ice cream,’ you say.
You drive along the coastal road, past wet ripples of sand that stretch for miles. You can’t see the sea, but Blackpool is visible in the distance through the quivering heat-haze. You went to Blackpool once on holiday with your family. Your dad promised to buy everyone an ice cream, a proper one from a shop. He held the shop door open as you spilled inside, sunburned and sand-speckled. He shepherded you into a huddle and made a show of counting everyone, including himself.
‘That’ll be eight ice creams, please.’ He smiled his wide, pumpkin smile, revealing zigzag gaps of absent molars.
‘Can you do a discount?’ he asked as he emptied the contents of his wallet into his hand.
‘No? An extra small scoop for a reduced price, then?’
You reach the roundabout by the pier and turn off into the car park. The fast food restaurant is enveloped by scaffolding.
‘It’s closed,’ your daughter says firmly, as if she was expecting to be disappointed.
‘No, look. The drive-through is still open.’
You pull into a space next to the fabric warehouse.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I just need to pop into the shop and go to the loo.’
‘But you said I could have an ice cream.’
‘You can, but I really need the loo first. Let’s go quickly.'
She refuses to undo her seatbelt. She leans sideways, drooping out of her car seat like a little drunk. You reach for the seatbelt and your hand knocks into her.
‘Ouch,’ she exclaims, clutching her face, her neck, her shoulder. She starts to cry.
‘Where does it hurt?’ you ask. ‘I hardly touched you. I’m sorry.’
‘Owwww,’ she howls.
‘Where does it hurt?’
She won’t say. She cries heartily, wringing herself out. You lean back in your chair and stare at the pier needling into the distance, pointing towards the far-flung sea.
When she has finished crying you get out of the car and go into the shop. She follows you grudgingly, huffing and puffing up the stairs, sighing heavily each time you pause to allow her to catch up. While you are in the cubicle she peeps the scuffed tip of her shoe under the door. She scowls at you in the mirror as you wash your hands.
You hurry out of the shop and she darts after, stopping as she notices what you have already observed: a long queue of cars snaking up to the drive-through window. You glance at your watch as she exhales loudly.
‘I’m really sorry,’ you begin.
‘If you hadn’t gone in that shop . . .’
‘We haven’t got time to sit in the queue. We’ll be late for your brothers.’
‘You were late for me,’ she says.
You drive away from the beach, over the hump of the Marine Bridge, toward the high school. You turn the CD player on. It’s her favourite track, a carnival song about Alice in Wonderland. She extends her right leg and switches the CD player off with the tip of her scuffed shoe. Her eyes slice anger at you and she fixes you with a fierce, dredging stare. Then she turns her head, rests it against the passenger window and watches as the wide plane of the beach and the distant view of Blackpool recede.
In Blackpool, your dad handed you a reduced-price ice cream. The tiny scoop topped the cone like a pea on a drum.
‘Say thank you,’ he prompted.
You zipped your lips tight shut and watched other families order normal-sized ice creams, strewn with sherbet and pink sauce. Your older brothers scooped the ice cream from their cones in a single, gobble-lick.
‘You haven’t said thank you,’ he repeated as he marshalled everyone out onto the pavement.
‘Are you going to say thank you?’
You shook your head. He tried to take the ice cream from you. He tried to snatch it for a ransom of gratitude, but he knocked it out of your hand and it landed upside down on the pavement.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
You gazed at him through slit-thin, witnessing eyes. Blackpool Tower loomed like an enormous salt shaker, a tram passed in a gust of warm air and you slotted a picture of the scene into the projector of your memory. When I grow up, I will never disappoint my children like this.
Carys Bray's short story collection Sweet Home is published by Windmill Books.