Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Her father leaned over her and kissed her forehead, his breath sweetened already by tobacco and instant coffee. She pretended to be asleep but she had heard him on the stairs seconds earlier and had to try hard not to smile.  It was very early.  The sky in the gable window appeared black still. “Time to get up, pickle,” he said.  He turned off the nightlight and turned on her bedside lamp, then left her to dress.

She ate toast in the kitchen, standing up, blonde and nine and a little stout, though quick on her feet.  Her father went to start the car, to warm it up for the short drive to the depot.  He was wearing his glasses now.  Heavy-framed things, like the more serious men on the television wore.  He was not a very serious man, she knew, but that was why she loved being around him, particularly when it was just the two of them.  When the twins weren't climbing over him, and Mum wasn't hanging off his shoulder.  She held his hand only when they were crossing the road.  He would kiss her once each morning, if he didn't have an early start, and once at bedtime.  Sometimes he would mess her hair up.  Otherwise they didn't need the reassurance of actual contact.  Nearness was enough, but nearness was better when only they shared it.  And today was a whole long day of it.

It wasn't very cold but he made her put on a winter coat.  She couldn't see her breath and knew he was being fussy.  She didn't want to moan and spoil things.  They got in the car.  The first part of the journey took one and a half country songs.  I'll see you in my dreams.  There were wide gates at the depot, made of wire and lopsided.  She remembered seeing him here last winter, standing with a gang of other men in donkey jackets.  They were burning wood in an empty oil drum and singing songs to keep warm.  On strike.  Everyone was on strike after that, but she had the feeling that her Dad had started it all.  She and her mother had brought soup and all the mugs from the kitchen.  Mum was very worried, but it had all blown over, just like Dad said it would.  She watched him sign in.  He asked her what the time was, even though the clock was in front of him.  He had been doing this ever since she learned to tell the time.  It was quarter to five.  

His lorry was a Scammell with eight wheels and a tank on the back.  All in bottle green, with the company name in foot-high script on the side.  He piloted the truck between parked cars and darkened houses.  Outside, the empty streets of the town seemed frozen by moonlight, like a painting or a photograph, and made strange and new.  She was reminded of the feeling she got when the family returned from holiday – visiting grandparents in Devon, invariably – and instead of finding home a familiar and reassuring space she sensed that it had undergone some subtle transformation, had become more orderly, or smaller, as if it were the house itself, rather than the perceptions of those who had vacated it, which was altered by their being away.  This was a kind of holiday, she thought.  Getting up early (though never this early) to beat the traffic.  No school.  Her father's face, handsome behind his spectacles, his lips pursed in a silent whistle, or a goodnight kiss.  Seen in full profile now.  Usually she was in the back seat, looking over his shoulder.  She liked looking at him , but if she did it for too long without him looking back a shiver of anxious pleasure would pass through her.  And then he always turned to her, somehow, even if she didn't make a sound.

She had a stuffed tiger called Ted, which she took almost everywhere, but not to school.  She retrieved the thing from her backpack, down in the gritty footwell, and sat him on the sill of the cab door, looking east. “What can you see?” she asked the toy.  Fences beyond the window, heard more than seen.  Invisible playing fields, low silhouettes of homes outlined darker against a blueblack sky.  No stars.  She leaned her head against the velour flank of the tiger, feeling the road and the engine singing against the frame of the truck.  The roads empty and the engine unvarying like the hum of a generator.  A soothing noise once your ears got used to it.  

She woke to daylight and seagulls and long rows of vehicles either side of them.  Her father handed her a Tupperware beaker with a lid.  There was orange squash inside, not too strong, which she gulped at.
“Where are we?”
“Portsmouth,” said her father.  He had a cigarette paper attached to his bottom lip and was massaging loose tobacco between his fingers.  She yawned.
“How long have I been asleep?”
“A couple of hours,” he said.  “Thought you'd wake up when we stopped.”
“I missed the city.”
“Not much to see there, just streetsweepers and fishmongers and none of them singing like in your films.  Hungry?”  She nodded.  “There's sandwiches in your bag.”

She chewed at a cheese sandwich and watched the birds circling over the tarmac.  After about ten minutes a man with a paddle appeared and began waving the lorries and cars onto the ferry.  They bumped forwards one at a time  up a ramp into the bow.  The hold of the ship smelled of oil and seemed unfinished, she thought, as if someone had started painting it and got discouraged.  It did seem like a big job.  They climbed the metal stairways to the passenger deck.  A strong breeze moved the water in the dock, the movement exaggerated as you went up, and the confusion between what you saw and what you felt.  As the ship heaved she grasped her father's hand tighter and smiled up at him.

They were first off at Ryde.  Her father saluted a man on the quayside as they rolled off the ramp and the man saluted back.  The town looked the same.  She was disappointed.  The buildings looked like the buildings everywhere else and once they got beyond the town the fields and trees looked the same.  She mentioned this to her father.  “We're still in England,” he told her.  “Just a bit of it that broke off.  The people here talk the same too, you'll be sorry to hear.”

They were delivering creosote to a timber merchants in the south of the island.  They pulled over once and she handed the road atlas to him.  He pushed his glasses up on to his head.  “Can't see it,” he said.  He put the map on the engine hood between them.  The mill was marked with a red dot, surrounded by a black circle, both in biro.  She tapped the page, “Here.”  He squinted and lifted the atlas up until it was an inch from his face.  “Got it,” he said.  She giggled.  He flicked his glasses down and released the air brake.  “Half a league, half a league, half a league, onwards!”  

The mill was noisy and dusty, so she stayed in the cab, flicking through the map.  Coryton,  Aylesbury, Watlington, Abergavenny.  She would see all these places when she was grown up.  Driving around in a Cortina with a sunroof, with nowhere in particular to be, just crossing names off at the back of the atlas.  Buying burgers in lay-bys and listening to country songs.  Please don't take him just because you can.  Her father popped his head around the driver's door.  “Twenty more minutes, hon, and we'll be off.”  She stuck a thumb up at him.  She leaned over so she could watch him in the large wing mirror, climbing up on to the tank. He banged things with a giant spanner, just to look busy, she suspected, and to let her know he was still there.

Half an hour later they were back on the road.  The wind had gathered and was blowing green leaves and other small debris across their path.  He slowed the truck and reached across the engine hood, palm up.  She put her hand in his and they drove on, north towards the ferry.

There were more vehicles coming than returning, and they were loaded with perhaps twenty cars and one other lorry.  The weather had worsened as they crossed the island and the boat heaved against its moorings and bumped the quay.  They sat on a padded bench near the bar and she drank a small bottle of Pepsi-Cola through a straw.  Her father was struggling not to spill a pint of tawny ale.  She stared at the fruit machines in order to focus on a fixed point, to make herself feel less queasy.  They had taught her this at ballet classes in the Methodist hall.  When you pirouette, you fix your gaze on one point, and snap your head round to it each time you rotate.  Keeps you steady and stops you from feeling sick.

“Are you feeling lucky?”
“I was just...” She stopped.  “Maybe?”  He made a great deal of the excavation, pulling faces and so on,  before eventually removing a fifty pence piece from his left trouser pocket.  He slid it across the table to her.  “Win big,” he said, smiling.  

She stood in front of the machines for a while, studying them.  They were each strapped to the wall with what looked like seat belts.  She chose the rightmost machine, whose lights, she felt, moved in a more comprehensible pattern.  She familiarised herself  with the hierarchies of fruit and imagined what might be purchased with a win.  She had been saving her pocket money towards a badminton racquet, an aluminium Gillian Gilks model, made by Carlton.  Three loganberries (were they loganberries?) would allow her to buy it outright.  She liked Gillian Gilks not just because she was successful, but because she seemed quiet and shy.  As if she too had twin brothers who screamed and climbed things constantly.  

She stretched up to insert the coin then stopped.  She was not a superstitious child, not really, but as this was a game of luck, she reasoned, it was probably a good idea to have your lucky things around you when playing it.  She returned to where her father was sitting and retrieved Ted, the stuffed tiger.  Holding him tightly in her left hand she walked back to the machine and stretched up on tiptoes to put the money in.  Nothing happened.  She turned to her father, who was pretending to read a newspaper.  “Press the button which says 'Spin',” he told her, without lifting his eyes from the story he was not reading.  The wheels settled quickly and heavily into place.  The fruits were misaligned.  She had not won.  “You have nine more goes,” said her father, as she trudged back towards him.  “Ah,” she said, spinning in place.  With ten pence remaining of her initial investment a button with SUPERNUDGE written on it began to flash. She decided to press it to see what happened.  The machine, which of course had a life of its own, began to inhabit this existence more fully.  Its wheels spun in new and opposite directions, more lights flashed, and a deep chugging noise, as of some great apparatus from the age of steam, resounded from deep within its fake wood carcass.  The wheels returned to their original position.  Half a second passed, a long half a second, then the wheels began to shunt, one position, one fruit at a time, into line.  Once a loganberry, if that's what it was, appeared on the first wheel it stopped.  The other wheels continued to tick around until they too showed the yellow and purple fruit.  The machine performed more electro-mechanical gymnastics, then reassumed its resting position.  She pressed the spin button twice more, and was about to press it again when her father stopped her hand.  “I think we should collect what you've won now, pickle, don't you?”  He had appeared very quickly, she thought.  Not like him.  

Her father considered the machine for a moment, its flashes and pulses, then hit a button which said “COLLECT” which was what she was going to do anyway.  Then it began to chug out unfamiliar coins, foreign currency she thought at first.  A voice on the Tannoy announced that they would be held in the dock for half an hour at least, because of high winds.  The money, which was not the colour of any money she had ever seen, continued to be hawked up from deep within the machine, until it spilled onto the sticky deck.  “Tokens,” her father said.  

He collected the money which was not money and took it to the bar.  She went back to her seat.  Her father was talking to a man in a waistcoat, behind the bar.  He was shrugging in an insincere way, like a bad actor.  There were six or seven other men around the bar who soon offered their opinions on what her father and the barman were discussing.  She couldn't hear what anyone was saying, but it seemed as if the other men were taking her father's side, as the barman was now shrugging to each of them in turn.  Her father shrugged too, then, but his shrug was real and familiar.  She had seen the gesture before, usually performed in front of her mother.  It meant that he didn't want to argue any more.  They didn't argue all that much, not in front of her, anyway.  Some of her friends had told her that their fathers would hit their mothers, but in her house it was Mum who did the slapping, but then it was only ever a joke, when her father was teasing.  

She saw him gesturing now, to the other men at the bar and realised that he was buying them all a drink.  She didn't really know how she felt about this.  It was nice that her father was being kind, and saying thank you, but at the same time she also thought that the money (which was not really money) was hers, and that she should have some say in how it was spent.  Her father pushed a pile of tokens towards the barman and he pulled on a lever and the drinks appeared.  That's why they called it pulling pints.  Then her father came over with another Pepsi and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps for her.  “Are you okay, Pickle?” he asked.  She nodded.  “Got your book?  And Ted?”  She nodded again, sucking on the straw in her Pepsi.  He went back to the bar and began to talk again with the other men there.  It drove Mum absolutely mad, this habit of his.  He could talk to anyone, and always did.  Mum was a bit of a snob, though, and sometimes she could be funny with people who she thought were a bit beneath her.  Dad didn't care about that sort of thing.  Ten minutes passed, during which she sipped at the straw in her drink, and alternately blew through it to make bubbles.  The Pepsi went flat almost immediately as a result, but she didn't mind.  As she played with her drink she read and re-read the same page of her book, which was written by a talking horse.  This was a bit weird at first, but you came to accept it.  The horse's thoughts were recorded in a slightly old-fashioned way but the thoughts themselves weren't, in fact, too complicated.  The kind of thoughts that you could imagine a horse having, if it was a particularly clever and capable of self-expression.  The boat kept lurching in the water, and it was raining now, the rain making a sound like maracas on the windows.  

Her father was buying another round.  She was certain, suddenly, that he would continue to buy drinks for the other men until all the tokens were gone.  Just to make a point.  It was an expensive point, and he was making it with her money, even if it wasn't really money.  She loved him very much but knowing what he would do, out of stubbornness more than anything, made her very sad.  She had her own plans for the winnings, had made plans even before she put the large silver coin into the machine.  She should have just pocketed it.  Squirrelled it away.  Put it with the other coins in the fragrant wooden box that lived under her bed.   She would have been that bit closer to getting what she wanted.  She felt her face reddening and her eyes getting hot, but she was determined not to cry.  
Her father checked on her every few minutes.  After almost an hour the ferry pulled out of the dock, still rolling from side to side, but it seemed that the worst of the storm had passed, and with it the stacks of misshapen coins that had spread across the bar in front of her father.  One by one he said goodbye to his new friends around the bar, and each of them passed him something and thanked him.  One of the men looked over at her and blew a kiss.  She squirmed in her seat and the men all laughed.  You didn't see women acting like this, she thought.  She couldn't imagine her Mum at a coffee morning engaging in strange transactions of this kind.  Some of her Mum's friends sold Tupperware, but Mum had explained that this was more of an excuse to see your friends, minus the husbands and kids.  The world of men seemed a mysterious and impenetrable place, a forbidding forest, a place where written rules were meant to be broken or circumvented but an entire constitution of unwritten laws were adhered to rigorously.  She had often heard her father explain aspects of this imaginary code to the twins.  They were allowed to wrestle, to be violent to each other essentially, provided there was no hair-pulling or blows to each other's private parts.  Nor were they allowed to fight with their big sister, because fighting with girls was fundamentally wrong, and because she would definitely pulverise them if they tried.  

She knew she was her father's favourite, that perhaps he cared for her even more than he did for Mum.  But this only sharpened the sense of disappointment she felt at him squandering her luck on a bunch of strangers.  He sat with her at last, and tried to make small talk.  She was not unresponsive but she made no attempt to disguise her chagrin.

“Are you tired, poppet?”  She nodded.  “It's been a long day, and an early start for you.”  She gave him the best smile she could possibly manage, given the circumstances and he laughed at the strain involved.  As he laughed she smelled the sourness of beer on his breath, an odour as familiar as roast potatoes, and somehow associated in her mind with this other smell.  As when he would return from the pub on Sunday afternoons, flushed and merry, before eating his dinner with a serviette tucked into his shirt and falling asleep in front of the television.

“Did you spend all the money?” she asked. “Yes and no,” he said, reaching into his trouser pocket once more, with the same mime of effort and ceremony, and showed her a handful of coins with a crumpled note amongst them.  She giggled, guessing at the business that had gone on with the other drivers.    “We negotiated,” he told her.  The word was unfamiliar to her.  “Fifty pence in the pound, but I think some of them were a bit more generous, because I told them the tokens were yours.   There's enough left for a treat.”   He looked very pleased with himself, which made her happy, even though she realised that part of this was due to the beer he had consumed, rather than the craftiness of his plan.  He wasn't supposed to drink when he was driving, she knew.

“D'you fancy an ice cream?”  She shook her head, and once again found herself trying hard not to cry.  This was not the treat she had in mind.  Again she considered the difference between the sexes.  The twins, and Dad with them, wanted everything now.  Sweets, crisps, beer.  Her Mum would buy a pattern from the shop in town, then spend weeks sometimes considering which fabric she would sew it from.  Looking at pictures in magazines in the big newsagents, then finding something she liked and getting the closest thing she could find.  Filling the arm of the sofa with pins as she stitched a dress from lots of bits that didn't look anything like a dress.  Smoking as she leant over the machine, feeding through the material, blowing ash away as it fell.  The whole process took ages, but the clothes she made were always worth the wait.  Her father bought clothes from the army and navy surplus stall in the market, and boiled the tar out of his jeans in a big pot on the hob, prodding at them with a stick, like a witch.  They were so different, the two of them.

Like Mum, she was willing to wait for the thing that she wanted.  Her Grandfather gave her 25p pocket money – five bob, he called it – every week, and she put 20p aside for the badminton racket.    The badminton racket.  With the money in her father's pocket and the savings in the cedarwood box she could still afford it.  She decided to just ask him for the money.  To thank him for being so clever for turning the unreal currency into actual money but then to explain that there was something she needed it for.  But not now.  She thought it was best to let the matter breathe.  To allow her father to consider whose money it was really.  

At Portsmouth the wind blew rubbish across the sloping tarmac, but the rain had stopped and a low afternoon sun appeared and disappeared between the hurrying clouds.  Her father saluted another man as they pulled off the ferry.  A blue Austin Allegro overtook them as they headed away from the dock and the driver sounded his horn.  Her father tooted back.  One of the men from the bar, she guessed.  Oblivious to how his kindness was being misdirected.  She hugged Ted to her and said nothing.  After a while she rested the stuffed thing on the door again and pretended to sleep.  And then she did sleep, waking after forty minutes, hot and slightly panicked.  They were halfway back to London.  

“Daddy,” she began, “I think I should be allowed to spend the money we won from the machine.”
“We didn't win it, darling, you did.”  This seemed like an end to the discussion.  She was very pleased.  “But that's where the problem lies,” he continued.
“What problem?”
“I gave you the 50p to teach you something.  A lesson about life.  But it all went wrong.”
“I don't understand,” she said.
“You weren't supposed to win.  Because no-one wins when they gamble.  Gambling is a way for stupid people to lose money.”
“But we didn't lose.  We won.  So we're not stupid.”
“No, we're not stupid,” he agreed.  “But if we expected to win every time we gambled we would be very stupid indeed.”  She didn't like the way the conversation was going.
“It was fun, though, winning.  And getting those men to give you their money.”   He nodded.  It was getting dark.  The road was busier in the other direction, the vehicles reduced to a stream of headlights curving towards them.  She squinted back tears.  

“The men on the ferry were very kind,” he said.  “So I think it would be nice to do something kind with the money, don't you?”  Her despair was complete, and she began to sob.  “Perhaps we could buy a present for the twins?”  She hated the twins at that moment, more than she had ever done.  With their dirty faces and relentless noise and bad behaviour.  They didn't deserve the slightest kindness.  They deserved to be viciously pinched when her parents weren't looking.  She wanted to scream these thoughts aloud.  She counted to ten, trying to calm herself down.  Then she counted to twenty, and thought about what was making her so angry. Because she was above all a sensible girl she acknowledged that her father was right, despite the agony that it caused her.  She tried to control herself once more.  She was too old for tantrums.  

“We could get them both model cars.  They'd like that.”  She felt her father looking at her as she stared out at the lights shaping down towards them.  Hundreds of people heading home, and not one as miserable as her.  

“I'm very proud of you, poppet,” her father said.  She couldn't reply.  She wiped her nose and eyes on her sleeve and sank into the passenger seat, wishing that she had never left the house that morning.  
She watched the city pass, unmoved by the shops and the lights and the great mass of scuttling humanity.  The few miles north, back to the depot, seemed endless, and the country songs in the car on the way home failed to offer any sense of solidarity or commiseration with her sorry state of being.  It wasn't gambling that ruined your life, she suspected, but rather the people who said that they loved you, and wanted the best for you.  She just wished the day was over.  

She put on her pyjamas and went downstairs again to kiss her parents goodnight.  The twins were already asleep.  It seemed that both her parents held her for longer than usual before sending her up to bed.  Her father looked at her and thanked her for being the best driver's mate ever.  This didn't cheer her up, rather it caused her to experience the disappointments of the day again in a sudden rush, like a film on fast forward, but her mother, perhaps sensing this, hugged her once more and the feeling went away.  


She could tell that her mother had done the wrapping.  The present, which fell off the end of the bed as she woke the next morning, was the shape of a teardrop and was very light for its size.  Her birthday was still three months away, so they had used Christmas paper and an old luggage label.  'To Our Remarkable Daughter', the label said, underlined with a row of kisses.  She opened the paper carefully and established that it was the right model.  She swished it a few times in the narrow, musty air of her bedroom, and considered the wonders that she might perform with it.  Then she ran along the landing to where her parents lay and dived headlong between them, laughing like a girl.

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