Issue 3

Jenn Ashworth
Same Old

IT WAS THE SATURDAY BEFORE THE START OF SCHOOL. Barbara turned off her vacuum cleaner to listen to another news broadcast about the unusually cold weather.
        Donald had been in a strange, restless mood that morning too. Barbara had given him a roll of toilet roll and sent him wandering about the house mopping the condensation from the inside of the windows. He dabbed with wads of toilet paper that left fibres sticking to the glass and the mess agitated him even more. I remember him rubbing at the glass with the cuffs off his shirt, and yet even he was caught by the special broadcast and had drifted towards the front room to watch it with us.
        Gordon, wearing what looked like a ladies’ mink coat and matching hat, stood on the bridge over the Ribble and talked about climate change and global warming as the camera zoomed in on the lacy frill of ice working its way across the river from either bank. Baffled ducks skated along the rim and plopped into freezing, fast-flowing water that was brown and opaque. Things protruded from the water: trolleys, old bikes and prams, dented traffic cones wearing wreaths of twigs and slime. On the far bank, a mattress had been wedged against the bare earth by a broken wheelie bin, half filled with mud. The top part of the mattress bent forward, as if bowing to its invisible audience. In the morning, Gordon had said this was the coldest winter on record for eighty years, although in the afternoon his researchers had revised the figure to eighty four, and there were pictures of yellow trucks moving slowly along the emptied motorway spewing salt and grit behind them.
        ‘But it’s not all doom and gloom,’ Gordon said, and grinned.
        Barbara leaned on the vacuum cleaner and wound the lead around her hand, catching it expertly on her elbow in a series of swift, jerky movements that never caused her to take her eyes off the screen.
     ‘He’s had his teeth fixed again, hasn’t he Lola? A polish, at the very least. What do you think?’
        I was draped over an armchair, pretending not to see, not to be interested, although secretly hoping for the school pipes to go, for the holidays to be extended and school to be cancelled indefinitely.
        ‘Indeed, the young ladies of our city will be most pleased with an unexpected side effect of this cold snap,’ Gordon said.
        Barbara leaned forward.
        ‘The spate of unpleasant incidences that have been plaguing our city’s parks, gardens, train stations and other remote places,’ he went on cheerfully, ‘seemed to have dried up. While our Friends in the South may make jokes about the Lancastrian Man’s famed tolerance for the cold, it seems for the time being, our girls are safe. The weather is a touch too nippy even for the most prolific pest our city has ever seen.’
        ‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Barbara – suddenly grumpy. She turned the television off.
        ‘I’ve no problem with that flasher staying at home in front of his radiator,’ Donald said. His hand reached through the air, bumped my shoulder, and squeezed, ‘no-one with a daughter would.’
        ‘He’ll be at it again, come the spring. You can guarantee it. Him having a Christmas holiday isn’t the same as him being caught and having his –’ she stopped, looked at me, coughed, ‘people like that – they’ve not got a choice about it. There’s something wrong with them upstairs.’
        Barbara clattered the vacuum away into its cupboard and emerged without her apron and tying her hair back with an elastic band.
        ‘Come on. Let’s go out. We’ve been stuck in the house for days. I’ve sucked the flowers off the carpet, and we’ll be down to boards if I can’t get out for some fresh air soon.’
        ‘It’s freezing out there,’ I said, ‘were you watching something different to us just then?’ I turned my face back to the television, and it popped and the screen went blank. Barbara was holding the remote control, and she tucked it away in its holder by the side of Donald’s chair.
        ‘If it’s not frost, it’s flashers,’ she said. ‘We’re entitled to get out of the house. We’re going stir crazy. Look at your father.’ Donald was twitching the antimacassar on the back of my chair. ‘And anyway,’ she raised her eyebrows, looked at me meaningfully, although whatever it was she did mean was lost on me, ‘you’ve got a little errand to do, haven’t you Laura?’
        I slumped into the chair and ignored her.
        ‘Come on. Shoes and coats. Lola, you can wear your new one. Just don’t let me see you dragging your cuffs along the railings.’
        She stood Donald in front of the hall mirror to go over him with the lint roller before she would open the front door and let us out.
        Even though I should have been prepared for it, the cold outside shocked my lungs, bit the insides of my nose and made my teeth ache. We are two weeks past the longest night of the year in this story, but winter was working backwards and spring felt like it was getting further and further away. The paths and the walls of the house were scratched with frost and without saying a word to each other Barbara and me stood on either side of Donald – not touching, but hovering as he navigated the slippery, glittering pavement. We walked all the way into town like that, up the hill and past the train station three abreast under the white, freezing sky. Barbara tutted and shook her head at people who didn’t want to let us by. It was a bright, bright day. All the shiny surfaces: car bonnets, illuminated advertisements in bus-shelters, the green and gold plastic litter bins, were coated with their own thickening layer of white, and Donald’s coat was a light beige sports jacket that was dated and gleaming and wasn’t right for the weather, but it was all he would wear.
        When we got to the shopping centre, Barbara took Donald’s arm and pulled us through the revolving doors together. The three of us were wedged into a single segment of the turning mechanism. The blast of the hot air heater was directed down at us, and Donald was sweating heavily.
        ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, and pointed through the glass, ‘they’ve still got the Christmas trees up.’
        ‘Your father isn’t a child,’ Barbara said, and I let the sigh out, very slowly between my teeth so she couldn’t hear it, and the door completed its revolution and we were spat into the warmth and twinkling light of the shopping centre. It was still prickling with silver tinsel and the air was clogged with the dry, solvent smell of spray-on frost.
        ‘Where are we going?’ I said, and peered across Donald to Barbara, who was heading towards Boots and brandishing a handbag so brown and shiny it looked like it was made of wood. Brandish is right – she carried it over her wrist, held in front of her like a weapon. I wanted to walk away. I wanted to turn and melt into the crowd like a curl of steam. I knew, then, what she was going to do, but Donald was smiling and tugging me gently along, a fold of my new coat gripped between his finger and thumb.

The decorations in Boots were more subdued. When we got to the perfume counter the woman who was supposed to be serving us was kneeling on the top of a short step ladder. There was another ladder on the back of her tights, disappearing up her skirt, and she didn’t notice us until Barbara dropped her handbag down, heavily, on the glass counter. She was up on the ladder winding a red ribbon around the display cases on the shelf behind her. Red, heart shaped stickers dotted the boxes and bottles because there was a special offer for Valentines Day and they were getting ready for it already.
        Barbara coughed. ‘Excuse me, Miss?’
        The woman turned then hopped, heavily, down from the ladder, staring at Donald, and tweaking the hem of her skirt downwards. I wanted to say, ‘he’s not like that,’ loud, and in a tone like Barbara’s – but Barbara spoke first.
        ‘My daughter,’ she said, with such clear dignity I could tell she had rehearsed it, and imagined her standing, barefoot on the linoleum in her bedroom – straightening the rose-bud covers on her single bed and muttering it like a prayer, ‘wants to return an item she removed from this counter without paying.’
        I watched the shop assistant’s face change. I tried to imagine what we looked like to her. The three of us – Barbara in her shabby, aggressively clean and starched hound’s-tooth coat and cracked leather gloves, and Donald, rocking slightly and smiling as if he was about to be given a present, and me – jeans at high-water mark, school shoes and the Christmas-Present-School Coat, shoulders speckled with fine grains of snow that to an unsympathetic eye, could have looked like dandruff. And all of us lined up in order of size, staring back at her and her abandoned packet of tissue paper hearts.
        Barbara retrieved the white and blue and silver perfume box from her bag. She snapped the clasp back closed (the noise it made was as satisfied as she was) and placed the perfume carefully on the counter.
        'Here it is,’ she said, and gestured towards it. She didn’t look at me - her neck was rigid with fright. ‘She’d like to make up for her actions in some way. What do you suggest?’
        The shop assistant glanced at me. I looked at the red hearts and said nothing.
        ‘Don’t you, Lola?’ Barbara prompted. As if she was getting ready for a fight, she pulled off her gloves and laid them over the closed mouth of her handbag.
        ‘Are you sure?’ the shop assistant said. She gestured behind her without looking – like a weathergirl – ‘These are display boxes. We aren’t missing anything?’
        ‘It’s Valentine’s Day soon!’ Donald announced, and put his hand on the counter, ‘Have you got a boyfriend, young lady?’ The assistant moved her eyes from Barbara to Donald, who had opened his wallet and was proffering her an expired credit card, and then back to Barbara again. The credit card was green and white and orange – clearly an antique and the sort of object that would turn up as a curiosity in a jumble sale, and get snapped up by someone collecting props for a retro television programme.
        ‘Whatever’s number one,’ Donald says, ‘whatever you’d want your man to buy you. That’s what I’ll have, for my Barbie. And something light, and flowery, for my little girl. Cost no object,’ he raised his arm, dropped it around Barbara’s shoulders, clutched her, shook her a little, ‘she’s young at heart, isn’t she?’ he actually winked, ‘isn’t she just!’ and waved the card at the assistant. She didn’t take it. Barbara said nothing and the assistant looked at us as if we were all stark raving mad.
        ‘My mother thinks,’ I began, trying for that tone of injured dignity Barbara had managed so well.
        ‘Maybe,’ Barbara interrupted me, ‘we can come to an arrangement. Will you take the perfume back into stock? Can you do that for us, at least?’
        The assistant glanced at the box and shook her head.
        ‘There are health and safety…’
        ‘I see. Of course. I should have – Donald,’ she turned. ‘Put your wallet away.’
        There was a moment where nobody spoke. The tinkling music in the shop seemed louder, but I could still hear Donald’s polyester trousers rustling as he tucked his wallet away.
        ‘Maybe,’ Barbara said, and I knew in that instant that she wouldn’t be defeated, ‘Lola could work here for a few Saturdays. To earn the money back.’
        I opened my mouth – this was Chloe’s ideal job – we already knew you had to be sixteen to work on the perfume counter and if I got this job some underhand way, she’d kill me – but Barbara held up her hand, her fingers poised delicately. Her nails were painted neatly but the skin on the back of her hand was slack.
        ‘Miss,’ she said, as if it was the assistant who had started to protest, and not me, ‘my daughter did something wrong. Of which she is ashamed. Deeply. As a family, we are ashamed. Deeply. We are not destitute. Not enough to steal something. So she can work for you, to pay off the debt and make it right.’
        ‘There are all sorts of considerations to take into account,’ the assistant said, ‘there’s an induction. A training programme. We have to interview her properly. Equality and Diversity. I’m afraid it doesn’t really work like…’
        Barbara was sagging. The handles on her handbag flopped forward.
        ‘How much was it then?’ she asked, her mouth tight.
        The assistant scanned the barcode and looked at the numbers on the till.
        ‘Nineteen pounds and ninety nine pence,’ she said brightly, and Barbara flinched, and opened her purse, and the assistant asked it we wanted it gift wrapped, and I said, ‘I only paid twelve for it. Eleven ninety nine. Was there a sale?’ and Barbara told me to shut up, and the shop assistant said, ‘You paid already?’
        I wanted to laugh. I wanted to talk away, to shout at someone – probably Barbara, if I had the nerve, but Barbara was fumbling out a worn, carefully folded tenner and counting the coins onto the counter. She didn’t say anything, but her posture was loud enough: this is our food money, and watching her count was laborious and painful.
        ‘We’ll settle this with your company now,’ Barbara said, ‘and deal with the matter at home. Lola will apologise,’ she finished counting and pushed the heap of money across the glass with a flourish, ‘in writing.’
        There was some further talk about the address of head office, the correct title of the CEO, and a scrap of paper was scrawled on and passed over the counter. Barbara asked for assurances that the matter was closed now, that the police wouldn’t be involved in the light of my confession. The assistant muttered something in return but by this point I wasn’t listening.
        At some point during Barbara’s counting – between the click of the coins on the glass counter and Barbara’s snuffly, starting with a cold breathing – I had become aware of a difference in the quality of the air beside me. Nothing more than that. I looked, and Donald was gone. Barbara noticed at the same time as I did and she left the coins scattered on the counter, looped the handbag over her elbow, and we ran.

It wasn’t the first time Donald had disappeared. He used to vanish from the house once every few months – like a cat. Sometimes he came back after a few hours, bright and cheerful with a new magazine tucked under his arm – just like anyone else’s father. One time, he strolled through the front gate after a nine-hour absence with a new hat and a tin of Cherry Coke. Another time a neighbour called us at five in the morning to ask us if we knew that Donald had climbed over the bolted gates of the Gas Board car park and was now unable to get out. That was the thing. His vanishings were probably nothing, but they could have been anything – Donald brought with him the constant reminder that bad things could happen.
        Barbara and I left Boots and hurried through the shopping centre, looking through windows, checking behind displays of cut price advent calendars and Christmas cards. The shopping centre is built like a wheel on two floors – with a round central area that encircles an indoor fountain, artificial plants and a café. The shops are ranked along the spokes of the wheel and we worked through them methodically: John Lewis, Sweetens, Menzies, Bon Marché. The malls were busy with families out returning unwanted presents, spending their gift vouchers or examining the sales racks. We moved slowly, always peering around heads or jostling for space between bags and buggies and elbows. Whenever we reached the centre, I huddled into Barbara’s wake, hiding from the boys sitting around the edge of the fountain. They were leaning over in brand-new sports tops and trainers, close to the water – fishing out coins or blowing the paper off straws in a private competition. We passed them, rode the escalators upwards and waited outside the men’s on either side of the door like two stone lions. Barbara asked a man to go in and check the cubicles. We waited.
        ‘He was all right this morning, wasn’t he?’ I said.
        ‘Fine. Fine,’ said Barbara.
The man we asked to help took ages. I thought about urinals, rows and rows of them lined up like seats in a white porcelain auditorium. And rows of men, too – standing with their hands in front of them, moving the weight from one foot to another, the way I sometimes saw them in the bus-station alley, or down the back end of the park. The idea was dirty and exciting and my cheeks tingled and without meaning to, I thought about Chloe and Carl.
        ‘We should check the library,’ I said, ‘he’ll have gone to the library; his research.’
        Barbara didn’t say anything, but rapped on the door with her knuckles and used a voice like Margaret Thatcher – pretend posh – to call through the crack. The sound echoed inside, rattling along the tiles with the smell of piss and yellow disinfectant. I peered over her shoulder but there was nothing to see except torn scraps of toilet paper sticking to puddles on the floor.
        ‘He’s been pestering me to take his books back,’ I said, ‘and I haven’t done it yet. I bet he’s worried about the fines. He’ll have gone in to see about it.’
        ‘You shouldn’t encourage him,’ Barbara said quickly, ‘it isn’t fair. His projects! All those books. The papers.’
        ‘What do you mean?’
        Encourage. It was a new idea. I had thought Barbara and me had a kind of agreement about this. She took charge of the practical things. Changed his bed in the middle of the night, checked on him during the day when things went too quiet. Took care of the bills and his razors, complaints from the neighbours about things he tried to build in the garden. His meals and prescriptions.
        I typed. I did research with him. I listened to his stories and sorted out library fines. Stuck pictures into scrapbooks. Taped things off the telly. I took it all very seriously, accepted token and sometimes not-so-token payments for my services, and it wasn’t my fault I liked my part of the deal better than Barbara liked hers. We were supposed to keep each other’s secrets, Barbara and I. I’d say nothing about the occasions when I’d come home from school and Donald would still be in his pyjamas, distressed and ravenous. Barbara would put on a video and close the door on him when Chloe came round. It was a deal.
        ‘I don’t encourage him,’ I said.
        ‘This report he’s writing. Three typewriter ribbons in a month. He tried to oil the thing with a lump of lard and I’ve had to send it to be repaired.’
        ‘I said I’d type it up for him at school. When we go back. I’ll do it for him at lunch time, on the computers.’
        ‘That isn’t the point,’ Barbara said. She leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. A strand of hair fell over her face and she did nothing to tidy it away. ‘You’ve got to stop condoning him. Joining in. I know you think you’re helping, but you’re not. Do you understand?’
        She stood upright and looked at me. ‘Lola? You know it’s all in his mind, don’t you? This trip he thinks he’s going on. Making money out of his idea? Glow in the dark shrubbery? You know it isn’t right, don’t you?’ She looked frightened.
        ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘all right. He’s just making it up.’
        She sighed. ‘Not making it up. Your father isn’t a liar, Lola. He thinks it’s all perfectly reasonable. That’s why he’s taking so much time over it. It needs to be just right. But it isn’t–’ she cut herself off. ‘Let me put it this way. It would hurt him, very badly, not to be accepted onto this mission – not to get to talk to the scientists about his big idea, wouldn’t it?’
        ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘sure. He’d be gutted. That’s why I’ve been –’
        ‘No,’ Barbara said firmly. ‘That’s encouragement. If you care about him, you won’t be helping him to make it better – you’ll be distracting him from it. Getting him to think about other, more ordinary things. Saving him from the disappointment.’
        A man came out of the toilets then – the man who we first asked to help us. He was drying his hands on the front of his jeans and looked surprised we were still there.
        ‘My husband?’ Barbara asked. The man frowned, shrugged, walked away without really making a proper answer or even looking at her.
        ‘Come on,’ she said, and tugged at the sleeve of my coat, ‘we can’t stop looking. He could be anywhere. We’ll talk more about this later.’

We found Donald in WHSmiths. Barbara saw him through the window and pulled me inside. He was crouching over a pool of spilled newspapers, the rack at an angle behind him. Donald murmured calmly as people stepped over the mess. He was struggling to put the pages in the right order and every page looked the same: pictures of the half-frozen river, the leafless, whitened trees, the bundled kids sliding down hills on metal tea-trays, reams and reams of closely printed columns about global warming.
        I saw his neat fingers shuffling over the pages and heard the whisper of the paper. His head was bent forward and the bald-patch on his scalp was shiny and humiliating. Barbara pushed past me and knelt beside him to fold the papers, working slowly, saying nothing, bumping her shoulder against his.
        I hesitated on the mat in front of the automatic doors, feeling them slide close and bounce open behind me, the electronic sensor under my feet not sure what to do with a weight that hesitated so long. Are you staying or going? The draft at the back of my neck was icy.
        I know what I was thinking about. Chloe again – of course. I’d stopped imagining her and Emma at the New Year’s party now – the booze, the streamers, the late night trip out in Carl’s car. Now I was thinking about when I’d see her next – how I was going to approach her. I’d spent the morning sulking and brooding over it and had almost decided to pretend I’d forgotten completely about it – been whisked away to a last minute party of my own. It would have been transparent and ridiculous. Chloe would have smirked and then let me tell my story as if she was doing me a favour. Emma would have openly laughed and passed me the packet of photographs – her and Emma in party dresses, hair up, doing Auld Lang Sine. Even worse if they walked past WHSmith now and saw me kneeling on the carpet with my whole family, fumbling with newspapers while the shop assistants stared.
        The doors bumped closed, and then open again behind my back. Barbara looked up.
        ‘Go home,’ she said quietly, ‘go and peel the potatoes and we’ll be with you shortly.’
        I went.