It was barely light when Max arrived at a drab café on the edge of an industrial estate.
He leafed through the jobs section of yesterday’s paper with one hand, gazing momentarily out of the window at the low lying sun that cast long shadows onto the road. He gripped a mug of tea, bringing it to his lips mechanically and shook his head, sighing before he glanced at the clock.
Recently separated, he wanted to stay close by to have any chance of seeing Ethan regularly. He thought of his wife, and how glad she’d be if he moved away.
He’d spent the morning walking, from factory to factory, offering his skills. Each thanked him for his time but kindly informed him they had nothing available, promising to call him if anything came up.
And then he came to Polar Foods.
He told the receptionist he was job hunting. She asked him to wait and picked up the telephone. A few minutes later a tall man wearing a high vis jacket appeared holding a polystyrene cup of translucent tea. He introduced himself as Frank, the factory manager.
‘You looking for work?’
Max explained that he had more than thirty years’ experience as a factory mechanic.
‘Soz mate, no positions going for mechanics.’
Max’s head bowed. ‘You got anything, mate?’
‘Just general factory floor, minimum wage.’
‘I’ll take it.’
Frank puffed out his cheeks. ‘Can you start today?’
‘I’ve got another no show. The lad’s had his last chance, I’ll be letting him go, so the jobs yours if you want it. But I need you today.’
Frank checked his watch, ‘Now.’
This was a priority; he would have to take Ethan to the park another time. He’ll understand, Max told himself, if not now, then when he’s older; Dad needs to earn money. There were bills to pay.
Max nodded, rolled up his shirt sleeves and followed Frank to the office to fill out the forms.
After an eight hour shift packing frozen foods into cardboard boxes he went home. Home, since the separation, was a rented room in a house in Moss Side which he shared with an Estonian student less than half his age. The location was ideal, close to his son and estranged wife.
The musty air, pungent like stilton punched his nostrils when he entered the house, but for now it was all he could afford. The flowered wallpaper on his bedroom walls puffed up like boils from the damp, walls that remained bare. The room was furnished with a bed, a wardrobe, and a small table and chair by the window. Without a television Max spent many hours by the window that overlooked a distillery. He imagined a huge vat of beer, fermenting, bubbling away, until it was ready. The room remained meticulously tidy. On the bedside table lay his phone charger and betting slips. He kept no pictures or mementos of his former life, nor did he use the drawers, most of his clothes remaining in his suitcase.
This was a temporary stop, no point in getting too comfortable.
Before the split, his wife used to introduce him as the man who can. ‘A real handy-man,’ she’d say. He’d fitted out their bathroom, the kitchen and built an extension. Since the separation though he hadn’t so much as put up a shelf. His hands were restless, they wanted action. Since being out of work he spent most of the time in the bookies or down the pub. When he came home, he’d go to his room, and knock back cans of lager he’d bought from the off licence.
He’d given twenty years of his life to his previous employer. And then it was over. One mistake was all it took – so much for loyalty and hard work; Clive had just turned his back on him. But now, with a new job, maybe he could start again.
He closed his eyes.
He fell asleep.
He had a nightmare.
The same nightmare.
In the park with his wife and son, they all laughed under a warm and bright sky, before the temperature drops, their breath forms mists and a shadow looms, first in the distance, then nearer, cloaking them all in darkness. Lost in a pool of black he calls for them as the rumbling growls of a beast grow nearer. Wedged powerless by fear and panic, he wakes up in sheets soaked in sweat.
The night before his next visit to see Ethan, there had been a storm. He’d stood by his window, watching and listening to its rage. Afterwards, broken glass glittered beneath yellow streetlamps on the wet asphalt. In the morning, passing trees that had been torn from their roots and shattered slates on the ground, he walked to the house in which he’d spent fifteen years with the woman he married.
He’d arrived fifteen minutes early; she wouldn’t mind if he spent a bit more time with Ethan this week, would she? Often as he approached the door, his hand automatically slipped into his pocket for a key he no longer had. Once after the split he’d let himself in using his key. She didn’t like that. Told him to get out. Within days he’d received a letter from her solicitor: Further intrusions will result in our client contacting the police to file a restraining order. Didn’t it matter that he’d paid the mortgage for all those years?
He’d pressed the doorbell and stared through the frosted glass as the sun shone down. Usually, when he rang the doorbell, Ethan would appear, leaning over the back of the sofa by the front window, waving as Max’s wife opened the door. That day, though, the net curtains didn’t twitch and Ethan did not appear. He rang again and again as the neighbours pottered around their gardens, assessing the storm damage; Vera held secateurs and Jim dredged his rake through damp grass. Max avoided eye contact with either. He found it hard to believe there was a time he’d considered these stiff and retired nosey parkers as friends. People he used to talk to about speeding cars in the neighbourhood or the amount of junk mail being put through their letter box.
Finally, Jim had cleared his throat. ‘Everything okay, Max?’
Max smiled. ‘Yes thanks,’ he said through clamped teeth.
He noticed the hedge had been trimmed on both sides; many a time Max had sat with Jim in his shed drinking tea with brandy, and now just months later Jim was a man across a hedge. He’d made his allegiances clear.
Why the hell was she not answering the door? Her car was in the driveway. He no longer recognised the woman he’d married, the woman who had stuck by him through the years; sure he had some issues, but who doesn’t? What counted was that he made the effort to change. Nobody was perfect. She included. They had Ethan; he was supposed to fix everything.
Instead she became more volatile, hysterical at the drop of a hat. The more he tried, the angrier she became. He recalled the frenzy in her eyes, the spittle as she screamed into his face. It was hard to believe that this was the woman who once looked up at him, wide-eyed and innocent, flickering lashes, the same woman who would giggle at his every word.
Max had hoped that after the acrimony of separation there would be a cooling. She would appreciate him more once he was gone. In time she would feel lonely, if she wasn’t already.
He was lonely.
He fell back into old habits.
He recalled that other time, when he’d turned up late.
Things he swore on Ethan’s life he’d never do again. Drunk, dishevelled, his eyes bloodshot, stood on the doorstep banging on the front door with slurred words.
She wanted a divorce; she’d made that clear enough. He hadn’t signed the papers.
Now, today, he wasn’t interested in her. He just wanted to see Ethan, spend some time with him in the park; they could kick a football or maybe go to McDonalds. After all, Ethan was all that mattered, he would show his boy what a good father he was.
The lock clicked, and the door opened six inches, the keychain still on.
‘What do you want?’ she said.
What the hell did she think? He counted to himself, after three, ‘I’ve come to pick up Ethan. Take him to the park.’
‘He’s ill. Anyway, are you sure you’re not too busy to see your own son.’
‘No I’m not. I told you why I couldn’t make it last week,’ he said.
‘Oh yes, really moving up in the world, aren’t you. What are you now? A factory skivvy.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, it couldn’t be helped.’
‘No, I’m sure it couldn’t. I heard about what happened with Clive. I heard you broke his nose.’
He didn’t answer. ‘What’s wrong with Ethan?’
‘Well, apart from being upset about his father not bothering to turn up last week he’s got tummy ache.’
Over the years he’d witnessed many relationships break up, popping like light bulbs, believing he had something different, and time would reveal all. As he stood observing her contorted face, her delight in his misfortune, he struggled to understand where this hatred came from. It seemed primitive, atavistic.
‘Can I see Ethan?’ he said.
‘No, I said he was sick.’
‘Surely I can come in for a minute just to say hi. I’ve not seen him for two weeks.’
‘Whose fault is that? Maybe if you kept your fists to yourself you wouldn’t find yourself in this mess.’
‘Please, just one minute.’
Then he heard Ethan call from upstairs, ‘Mummy, is it Daddy?’
She shook her head, and blew through pursed lips, her fringe floated away from her eyes.
‘Please, just one minute,’ he said again.
She sighed, pressed the door shut before unlocking the keychain. The door opened. ‘Just one minute. Understand?’ she hissed.
He nodded, wiped his feet and stepped into the hall. Her eyes, like obsidian beads stared at the ceiling as he sidled in. He went upstairs and opened Ethan’s door. ‘Hello, Monkey. How are you doing?’
Ethan sat up and smiled. ‘Mum said I’m ill.’
Max sat on the side of the bed, his head rotating to face the bedroom door; her shoulder leaned against the frame, arms crossed.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘He has stomach ache.’
‘I thought you said he had a virus?’ He put his hand on Ethan’s forehead. ‘He doesn’t feel hot.’
‘That’s enough, you can leave now.’
‘I’m just saying he seems fine at the moment.
He turned to Ethan. ‘How is your stomach?’
‘Good. Are we going to the park, Daddy?’
He turned to his wife. ‘It’s up to Mummy,’
‘I told you he’s ill,’ she said, without moving her jaw. ’And why are you putting me in this position?’
‘But he seems fine.’
‘He’s not. What are you saying, Max? That I’m lying?’
Ethan’s face crumpled. ‘Don’t shout, Mummy,’ he said before beginning to cry.
‘It’s okay, Monkey, we’re not fighting.’ Max tickled Ethan’s belly. ‘We can go out next week when you’re better. I’ll buy you an ice cream, okay?’
Ethan stopped crying and nodded.
After sliding a teddy into the crook of Ethan’s arm he stood up and moved towards his wife. ‘You don’t mind if I use the bathroom before I go?’
‘Hurry up then,’ she said.
‘Bye bye, Monkey,’ he said as he squeezed passed his wife at the door and into the bathroom off the landing.
He leaned over the sink, checking his face in the mirror. He’d lost weight, the hanging jowls more pronounced, added years to his facade. On his head grew wispy brown hair, and his nose, speckled with burst vessels. This was the same bathroom he’d shaved his face morning after morning for fifteen years. The same bath they had showered in together. Then he saw a man’s razor on the sill above the sink, a bottle of aftershave, and a third toothbrush in the cup he used to put his in. His stomach churned. She hadn’t mentioned anything about seeing anyone else. Max flushed the toilet and opened the door; she was standing there waiting.
She followed him downstairs.
He stopped at the door. ‘Can I take the television from the spare room,’ he said.
‘I want you out,’ she screamed. ‘You said one minute.’
‘You’ve got the bloody house. The least you can do is let me take the bedroom television. You’ve got the big one downstairs.’
‘I said no.’
She began to push him; he held her wrists.
‘Let go of my hands!’ she screamed.
‘So you can watch television in bed with your man friend.’ He released her wrists. ‘You with some guy, with Ethan here, in my house. I always knew you were a whore.’
‘Yes I am, and proud of it. And anyway, at least he knows what he’s doing in the bedroom,’ she said with spite.
He stared at her lips that glistened pink with rage. Was she smirking? He remembered when they first started dating and she’d told him she loved giving blowjobs.
Heat passed over his body. It was a calm feeling, allowing his body to move with direction, as though caught in the current of a river. He watched his arm pull back, unsure what he was about to do. Like a video he watched as she lay on the floor holding her cheek. She screamed, he drew back his foot, and he heard Ethan cry, ‘Don’t hit Mummy, Daddy,’ from the top of the stairs, wearing the spider man pyjamas he’d bought him a year ago for his fourth birthday. Max made his way up the stairs, past Ethan and into the main bedroom. He unplugged the television and went downstairs carrying it under his arm.
He’d forgotten how angry she could make him. When would she learn to respect him? As he closed the door behind him he could hear her lock it. Both she and Ethan were sobbing. As he walked on down the street he noticed the neighbouring curtains twitch. He saw Jim by the gate and gave him a nod. Jim didn’t respond. As Max plodded on he looked up at the grey sky and hoped it wouldn’t rain. How long would it take to get cable set up so he could watch the football?
A bet was always more exciting when you could watch the match.
Leon Coleman is from Manchester, England. His stories have appeared in CommuterLit, CafelLit, Potato Soup Literary Journal and The Fiction Pool. His short story Silver Balloon placed third in the Henshaw Press competition of Summer 2019 and is included in the Henshaw Three anthology.