From On the Side
Finding your father is one thing; deciding what to do about him is another.
He paid the cabbie and stood on the street corner. The cabbie looked at him again, just to be sure. He was somebody’s son, but he couldn’t put a name to him. Not your average teenager – got a bit of style – the trainers and the leather coat told you that. And the voice, right posh:
“Just pull over by the mews.” The boy paused as the taxi slowed. “That’ll be fine.”
He wanted change of a fifty-pound note. The cabbie folded the note and inserted it in his wallet. He handed back a clumsy handful of change to the boy who was now standing on the pavement with his suitcase. A bit on the tall side, upright with short fair hair. If only the boy would turn around, he’d get another look at his face but the boy continued to stare down to the end of the mews. The cabbie pulled the wheel round and swung out into the traffic.
The boy had stood here several times before. Once he had tracked the man down, he knew what had to be done. Then, even in the dark, he had turned the corner and known the place, had set off along the mews and gazed at the large house. At the bottom of the steps he waited, hoping that someone would appear. It would have been enough, at first, just to see who came out.
But it had not happened like that. He sensed his own impatience, walked up to the door and put down the case to one side.
“You can’t see him. It’s a private house. Just clear off!”With his right foot the boy prodded the metal strip at the foot of the door. It was a red door and the man who stood there was a big man, a strong man who looked on impassively.
“You’re not impressing me or the door.” The man continued to watch him without moving a muscle. “So just go away.”
“I’ve told you, I’m his son. He’s got to see me.”The man laughed, watching the boy’s face crease with rage.
“Doesn’t mean he’s got to see you. Never sees anyone unless he wants to.” The man looked up from the angry boy on the step to the busy street at the end of the mews.
“Now, just take yourself off and save us both trouble.”
Again the boy’s foot found the metal strip along the bottom of the door.
“I keep telling…”There was a strong hand shoving against his shoulder. His feet felt for the lower steps and missed. When he sat up the door was shut. There was no one to shout at now so he hammered on the door which remained solid and unyielding. Then he bent and yelled his anger through the letterbox.
Silent and impassive, the house looked down at him. He turned and remembered his suitcase which he picked up. Then he headed along to the street where he hailed another taxi.
Back at the flat he found his mother’s note on the kitchen table.
“Mr. Smith rang. See him before school. Don’t forget.”
He let the note drop and jabbed at the button on the answer phone. The machine clicked and whirred, then stopped. The boy looked around the large kitchen. It was where much of his life had been lived, away from the smart room, the room where his mother lived her life with her friends.
For a long time he had not known about that other room. He remembered the boxes of toys on the top shelf to the left of the stove, here in the kitchen. One of the au-pairs had bought them when his uncle had returned him from boarding school only to find his mother away somewhere on holiday. For a moment he wondered what had become of the girl and the others who had looked after him.
He decided to eat in.
Alex had only the one address for his father. He had seen him a few times now, always on television, once on a chat-show. That was the worst time. His father had spoken about the two wives and their daughters, but had said nothing about a son.
Alex picked up the phone and ordered a pizza, a “four seasons,” his favourite. At the other end of the room, tucked into a wide alcove, was a large, slim-line television. Alex sat on the sofa and flicked the remote. The Saturday afternoon schedule was packed with talk about football. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of a match, goals being scored and crowds cheering. They held Alex, these glimpses into his father’s world, until the doorbell rang.
Alex took the pizza from the delivery boy, carried the box to the worktop and found a plate. All the time he faced the corner with its television then, as he tugged open the box, a familiar face appeared on the screen. It was the team coach, standing on the edge of the pitch. The man spoke for a few moments to an invisible interviewer. There was a sudden switch to a game and the screen came alive briefly until the presenter took control again. His father had not appeared, only his deputy.
The picture changed to a paddock where horses and riders milled around, bright colours dull in the rain. One rider fought to control his mount. Someone mentioned the closing odds and the result of a race elsewhere but his words were wasted on Alex who looked on as the horse finally unseated its jockey. He ignored his half-eaten pizza and watched the small man clinging to the reins.
Another click of the remote and there were shampoo advertisements. Another click and it was shower gel. For a second, a girl’s brightness held him then he clicked again.
The race had started and a jockey in pink was doing well. The commentator’s voice rose. Alex ignored him but enjoyed close-up shots of the rider, urging his horse forwards, lifting him over the hurdles, willing the animal on. The commentary rose to its final crescendo then the riders wheeled their mounts around and the man in pink headed for the winner’s enclosure. The final odds appeared and the scene dissolved.
“We’ve just heard that Dickson is not at Wellside this afternoon, so we’re taking you back to Martin Andrews at the ground, talking again to Charlie Gates.”
The familiar stand appeared behind the two men.
“I’ve had no contact with him since yesterday – he’s just had a bad cold for the last three days but he’ll be back in a day or two”
The conversation continued but Alex sat back now.
He turned off the set and sat still for a moment. Then he got up quickly, seized his coat from a chair and felt in his right-hand pocket. From a pile on a low table he took a newspaper and left the flat. Outside, he found a taxi and directed it to the house he had visited earlier in the day. The house looked down at him as he paid the driver and stepped up to the door. Behind him, the cab turned out of the mews. A different man answered the door and Alex was nearly able to duck into the house.
“Just want to see my dad, that’s all.” The man was pushing the door so that it held him firmly against the doorframe. The man laughed.
“I don’t know about your dad, but Mister Dickson’s seeing no one, not even you.”
“He’s my dad. I want to see him. You can’t keep me away from my dad.”
Alex stepped back, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. “Come on Dad, where are you? It’s Alex, Angie’s boy.”
The man stepped away from the door and started towards him.
“You keep away from me or I’ll call my dad.” The man came over to him and reached out a large hand. Alex glared defiance. “You keep your bloody distance.”
The hand arrived and took his elbow. Alex twisted, unable to escape.
“You keep away from me.” He felt the other hand take hold of his collar. Then there was a voice in his ear.
“I’m keeping you away. That’s my job, sunshine, so just you push off, see. Do us both a favour.”
Alex looked over the man’s shoulder. He could see little apart from a wide corridor that ran away from the street, away from him, and into his father’s world. This time there was no need for the man to push him; Alex pulled away from him and away from the open door. Before the man could swing it shut Alex had already stepped back from the house.
Next time two men answered the door.
“Takes two of you now.”
The larger of the two men, the one Alex had encountered earlier in the day, stepped towards him, wagging a finger.
“You’d better sling yer hook.” The finger was jabbing directly towards him now. Then the door was closed again.
He resisted the urge to shout. From one pocket he took out a lighter and a container of fuel. He upended the container into the letterbox and squeezed until it was empty. From inside his coat he drew out the newspaper. He eased the pages, gently, so that they separated a little, then held the lighter steadily underneath them; the orange flame flowed slowly upwards. When the paper was well alight he slid it into the mouth of the red door and listened as it fell, plop, onto the mat inside. He peeped through the letterbox to make sure that it was still burning then retreated.
He did not have long to wait. The flames flickered beyond the windows, then an alarm wailed. Alex hoped that he would see his father this time with the two men but again he was disappointed. When they opened the door he tried to get past them.
“You again is it?” This time the larger man held onto him. He turned to his companion.
“Go back and call the police. I’ll hang on to this stupid twat.” He caught Alex by the collar and a sharp fingernail tore the boy’s skin. Alex held his head to one side and said nothing. The man expected a struggle but his prisoner was more interested in the fire.
The smaller man set off round the outside of the building. Soon he returned.
“On their way – told ‘em we’ve got matey here.”
The larger man turned to Alex.
“You keep shouting out for Mister Dickson – now you’re gonna get the shock of your bloody life. He rather likes this house – look what you’ve done to it.”
Alex felt their contempt as they shook their heads. The older man relaxed his grip on his collar; Alex jerked away from him, dodged to one side and rushed through the open door, into the smoke and flames.
He paused, saw a patch of smoke where there were no flames and hurried through. The lights in the house had already gone out and it was difficult to see. Behind him, flames flickered along the walls and the skirting. For a second, Alex looked back through the smoke, found a door and wrenched it open. He could neither see nor hear anything in the room beyond so he turned back and groped his way further along the wall. The next door opened but again he found nothing. Outside the fire engine bell was followed by the wail of a police siren and around him the crackle of the flames grew. He turned back to where he had thought the stairs had been but they had withdrawn into the dark and the smoke and he had no idea where they were.
The coughing was beginning to hurt and his eyes streamed. Uncertain of the door’s position he turned around and bumped into a small table. There were shouts and the sound of a powerful hose from somewhere in front of him, then two bright lights bobbed up and down together. The firemen heard his cries and within a few minutes he was safe outside.
Just as a police officer was getting out of a patrol car. He slid his cap onto his head as he approached. He was tall and could look down at Alex as if the latter were a particularly troublesome sub-species.
“Is this the boy?”
“Yes. Says he’s our boss’s son, but of course, we haven’t the faintest idea who he is.”
“Who is your boss?”
“The soccer manager?” The man nodded.
“What are you gonna do with this joker?”
“Find out who he really is.” The policeman, a sergeant, turned to Alex.
“This your doing?” He nodded to the group of firemen working around the door. Already the flames were falling back. No one else had come out from the house but a few neighbours stood in the road.
“What does it look like?”
Another police car turned sharply into the mews, slowed down and parked well away from the fire engine. Two officers got out. The sergeant watched them then turned back to Alex.
“I think you’ve some more talking to do then.”
“He’s been hanging about out here on and off all day – something about seeing our gov’nor.” The speaker, the smaller man, jerked his head back towards the house.
“I told you, I just wanted to see my father – it’s his house.”
“Bollocks! E’s only got daughters – everyone knows that.”
“Your name young man?”
“You heard what they said.”
The two men from the house stood to one side.
“Can’t you just arrest him and lock him up? We’ve seen more than enough of the stupid little prat around here.”
“I’m Dickson, Alex Dickson.”
“Okay, so you’re Alex Dickson.” The sergeant shook his head. “Address?”
“14, Arkwright Mews, W3.”
The sergeant shook his head again and looked around for the other officers. He beckoned them to come over.
“You don’t live here. That’s quite obvious.”
“I do now. It’s my father’s home – I can live here if I want.”
The officer tapped on his notebook.
“Stop buggering me about, young man. Do you have any identity with you?”
”Don’t need any, do I?” He glared at the sergeant.
“Come on, we’re wasting our time here.” The sergeant turned to his colleagues.
“Can you get a statement from these gentlemen and speak to the brigade? The neighbours might have noticed something. Our young friend here’ll see more sense down the road.”