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I’m lying in the bath with a jar of olives balanced halfway between my nipples and my belly button. It is the flattest part of my flat body, and so is a good surface for a jar of olives. Despite the olives, the room smells strongly of roses. My camouflage trousers, socks, boxers and Iron Maiden t-shirt are in a pile on the floor by the toilet.
I’m keeping the jar steady with my left hand, my right floating beside me. Every now and then I fish about in the jar for another olive, pop it into my mouth. Sometimes I manage to catch two at a time, and I feel like an expert fisherman.
My mouth tastes salty and soapy all at once, and as I run my tongue over my teeth and gums to get the last morsels of olive flesh, I find my teeth are fuzzy. Now I think about it, I can’t remember when I last cleaned them. I take a mental note to do it at the next opportunity. The bits of me that aren’t submerged (knees, left arm, nose) are cold; the fine baby hairs on my legs are standing on end. I wriggle further down and the hot water swishes a little higher up my legs. Steam twists and writhes in spirals on the surface of the water. Everything smells of Mum.
Dad had thrown the rose bubble bath away – along with a lot of other things of Mum’s – several days ago, but I snuck out of my room that night, tiptoed past his snores, and downstairs to the kitchen bin. I saved what I could, but Dad’s been eating a lot of baked beans of late, straight out of the can with a soup spoon, and her face flannel and her tubes of makeup and face cream and Vagisil were coated in hardened baked-bean juice, so I left them there. The bubble bath – English Rose, almost full – had been saved from the bean juice by a screwed-up paper towel which acted as a kind of barrier.
The waterline is tickly on my cheeks. My face is an island in a flowery ocean. It is an Egyptian death mask. I think of the movie Face/Off and wonder how much it’d hurt to undergo a face-swapping operation. I don’t know whose face I’d rather have. I don’t think I’d pick anyone I know. Maybe not even a human one.
The funny thing is, I’m not sure I even like olives. I don’t hate them, like I hate fried egg white, the skins of new potatoes, McDonald’s beef burgers. But I can’t say I really enjoy them either. Dad HATES olives. He was going to throw this jar away, but I said I’ll have them and he looked at me like I’d just told him I could fly. Regardless, he put the jar back in the fridge. The brine was a bit cloudy and he said Whatever, just make sure you give them a sniff first.
I did sniff them, as I ran my bath. They smelt like vinegar and salt and a salad that’s been left too long in the sun. I bring my arm out of the water and see it is swollen with heat, pinkish. My left hand is slim and cool and pale, like Mums. I fish in the jar for another olive, almost drop it but catch it at the last second before it falls into the water. I put it in my mouth. I’m getting full now. Being full of nothing but olives is a strange feeling like your stomach’s got a small fire in it. I suck it gently instead of crushing it to nothing straight away. The skin is very thin and delicate, and I scrape it off with my teeth. It doesn’t taste like food, it tastes like memory.
Mum “got a taste” for olives in Crete. Mum and Dad had their honeymoon there, and whether because they wanted to remember their honeymoon, or because they just couldn’t be bothered of thinking of somewhere new to go, the three of us went away there last summer for a week. They’d collected vouchers out of The Sun and got a third off the accommodation and flights. Mum made Dad buy the newspapers because she wouldn’t be seen dead reading that rubbish. Mum is left-wing and says that Dad is right-wing, but Dad says they’re all as wrong as each other, just in different ways. One time, when Mum accused Dad of being right-wing, he said Yes, yes. Just label me, Janey, that’ll make you right, and Mum slammed down the bottle of milk she’d been adding to her coffee and went outside to “look at the weeds”. Dad leaned across the kitchen table to where I was pretending to read my school English Anthology and said It’s best to just agree with them, women. I said Yes Dad and smiled to make it look like I really agreed with him even though I hadn’t yet made my mind up if he was right. O my luve’s like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June, I read.
Slosh of washing-up in the bowl.
How come people in books are allowed to spell words however they like, but I have to spell stuff properly?
Squeak of sponge on the back of a plate.
Why can Robert Burns spell “love” L-U-V-E?
He’s Scottish, son. And it’s pronounced RAB-bie. Rabbie Burns.
Oh, I said, not really understanding. I thought about asking more, but Dad was already humming Brown Sugar by The Rolling Stones.
I abandoned my essay and flicked instead to the war poets at the back. The best stuff’s always at the back of things.
After a while, he took Mum’s abandoned cup of coffee out to her and they didn’t come back in for ages and ages. It was a Sunday and I played Xbox for hours without anyone telling me to do something productive. By the time they did come back in, I’d got to level fourteen and they were holding hands.
There’s a heavy squeak and a clunk. I don’t recognise the sound as the door to the stairs being opened straight away because it sounds different underwater. But then there’s a thud, thud, thud of Dad’s feet on the stairs and I lift my head out of the water using the muscles in my stomach, still clutching the olive jar tight. He stands outside the bathroom door for a minute. I fancy I can hear him breathing, thinking what to say, but really I can’t hear much at all because my ears are clogged up with rose-scented water. I only know he’s there by the shadow under the door. Finally, he says What are you doing in there? I chew the olive and swallow it down. Nothing, I say, because I don’t want to tell him I’m eating olives and thinking about Mum. I don’t want him to worry I’ve gone peculiar, though I think I might have, a little bit.
You’ve been in there hours.
This isn’t true. The alarm clock from my room is sitting on the tiles behind the cold tap. The face is all steamed up but I can just make out 18:31. I’ve been in here for fifty-eight minutes.
Fifty-eight minutes isn’t much for a bath. Any less than that would be a waste of water.
I’ll be out soon, I say.
You’ll turn into a prune.
I’ll be out soon, I say again.
My ears have unclogged themselves a bit, and I hear him sigh before he thud, thud, thuds back downstairs again and the door closes with another squeak and a clunk. After a few seconds, I hear the Mock the Week theme tune. He watches a lot of Mock the Week and QI and Have I Got News for You; they’re all repeats and the things they talk about happened long ago. They make a lot of jokes about Tony Blair and Princess Diana, neither of whom I can really remember. Princess Diana is dead and Tony Blair gives after-dinner speeches now and he’s a millionaire. Dad likes to say Oh yes, when they mention a news story he remembers. I sometimes ask him to explain what Ian Hislop or Paul Merton are talking about, why he’s laughing. Sometimes he seems to enjoy explaining the jokes, and turns down the volume to tell me a long supporting anecdote, losing his thread and finishing with How did I get here? Sometimes he gets annoyed when I don’t understand the words they use or get confused between Iraq and Iran – his eyebrows knit together and his lips go up in a sneer, like an ugly Elvis. Sometimes he is patient and gentle. Sometimes he looks at me in the disgusted way he looks at his laptop when it won’t connect to the internet. I can never guess if he’s going to be annoyed or not, so mostly I don’t ask anymore, just laugh in the places he does. Sometimes I worry he doesn’t like me very much, and that if we weren’t father and son – if we just happened to meet – we wouldn’t like each other at all.
Mum never made me feel like that. I eat another olive.
The landline rings. Dad calls his mobile “the portable” and the home phone “the landline”. He also calls printers “Photostat machines” and gets angry with the staff at the library when they don’t understand what he means.
It rings for a third time and I can hear the creak of his chair.
He’s made a lot of trips to the library recently, and comes home with bundles of printouts which he keeps in brown envelopes labeled things like “HOUSE”, “CAR”, “WILL”, “F-O-A BRIEF”. A will is a list of everything you own and what needs to be done with it when you die, F-O-A means “for the attention of” and “brief” is what Dad calls the lawyer. Dad’s lawyer is very pretty and blonde and wears tight, grey suits. She’s been round to the house a couple of times for Dad’s signature; he went bright red when she leaned over him to point a dotted line out. She speaks with a funny accent that reminds me of Radio 4 and can make a one-syllable word last for ages. Dad says she smells nice but I reckon she smells like a vanilla Magic Tree.
Dad picks up the landline and I put my head back under the water.
My stomach squeezes, making a churning noise which fills my head. My stomach often squeezes when Dad answers the phone. It’s sometimes so bad that I need to go to the toilet. This has presented problems when he answers his mobile when we’re in the car.
Dad’s voice sounds pleasant, a low rumble, far away and powerful. He isn’t angry and he isn’t crying, so my stomach squeezing may be to do with all the olives. Words drift through the ceiling/floor like ghosts, thank you … yes … happens. They swim through the water and into my ears before disappearing. Well, says Dad decisively, why don’t … should … think so … very.
I can’t face any more olives. I put the lid on and carefully drop the jar onto the hairy red bathmat. Dad thought red was a daft colour for a bathroom but it’s Mum’s favourite colour and she pointed out he’d chosen orange and brown for the living room, blue for their room and yellow for the kitchen and it was surely her turn to pick a colour. So the bath mat is red and the towels are red. The bin and the cabinet and every other tile on the walls are red. Mum even made sure that the soap in the dish was red too. There’s only a dry shaving of it left, and Dad’s put a bar of pale green Shield on the shelf ready for when it runs out. The shield makes my face go flaky.
Say that again?
I feel very sick now. It’s nearly seven p.m., and we’ve not had our dinner yet. I hope he forgets tonight. I don’t think I can bear any more pizza. When I was nine, we went on holiday to San Francisco, and one day we looked around this prison on an island there called Alcatraz. The guide, who Dad said was a “fairy”, told us about when the prisoners had complained about how bad the food was and so the prison laid on spaghetti bolognese for them, which they were chuffed about. The next day they had spaghetti bolognese and the next and the next until they’d had it for breakfast, lunch, and supper for two straight weeks. On the fifteenth day, someone started a riot and one of the guards was killed, so the next day they got toast for breakfast and chicken and rice for tea, and then lasagne and then beef stew and so on. After that, a law was passed that meant you couldn’t feed prisoners the same meal three times in a row. I used to wonder how long it would take me to get bored of my favourite food, pizza. I reckoned it’d be a few weeks at least. I was wrong, the answer is five days.
A metallic click tells me Dad’s hung up the phone. My blood throbs in my ears. I burp olive brine.
Reluctantly, I pull the plug with my toe. I stay in the bath, listening to the suck and slurp of the plug swallowing water until it’s empty. I’m very cold, but I feel better for it – it’s difficult to feel sick when you’re cold. Nausea is a hotness, an uncontrollable sweaty heat, pressing in at you from all sides. Standing in the rain or under a cold shower can trick sickness away.
When I enter the living room in my fluffy lion slippers and Dad’s old dressing gown, he’s standing next to the phone. The phone is “retro”, which means it isn’t wireless like everyone else’s and the answering machine only sometimes works. His hand is on the phone, and the phone is in its holder.
I’m out of the bath, Dad, I say when he doesn’t move.
He turns to me. I can tell by the movement of the wrinkles on his cheeks that he is blinking a lot. His eyes are obscured behind reactor-light glasses.
I was just thinking.
I don’t want to know what about, so I say okay and turn to go to the kitchen.
I used to wish she would leave, you know, he says.
I’m facing the wall, halfway through turning my back on Dad. They’re photos on the wall. Mum with me, aged seven. Dad and me, stiffly holding hands in front of Cadbury World. Mum and Dad, so young I don’t recognise them – Dad’s got a guitar on his lap and Mum’s holding a glass of wine. I’ve never heard him play guitar. Mum on her own on a beach somewhere, with sunburnt shoulders. Dad on the bonnet of his gold Ford Granada, frowning – there’s a dent in the bonnet. None of the picture frames match.
We haven’t loved each other for years. I probably shouldn’t tell you that, but I want you to know.
I focus on the picture of me and Mum; we’re at the park around the corner, sitting on separate swings.
She was going to leave. He coughs once, short and harsh. Actually, we were days away from telling you.
The grass beneath mine and Mum’s feet is pale, overexposed.
But I want you to know, I didn’t want her to die.
I’m laughing. Mum’s not.
I told you the driver was found to be under the influence? The payout’s going to be quite a lot. Is there anything you’d like?
She’s staring straight at the camera.
Dan, he says, then Danny? He’s never called me Danny before.
There’s a pink smudge of my dad’s finger at the top left corner of the picture, blocking out the place where the sun is.