Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.
They brought Lenny home.
His tiny body was laid in his crib and placed in the front room on the table. Grace had bathed him – cleaning all the folds and crevices of his flesh, as he lay silent and still. Bill had watched from his chair beside the fire as she dressed Lenny in his baby clothes of gown, jumper, hat, and socks.
The funeral was planned and Bill worked on the coffin. The neighbours understood. They did not mind the sawing and hammering on the balcony outside the flat, and held their heads down as they passed by in respect for his loss. His heart broke, but his eyes were dry. Questions filled his head. Most of them started with why. It seemed that loss and grieving would be a constant in their lives. How could anyone remain committed through such pain?
It was cold that day and the snow had started to fall again. The chill went through Bill’s gloves and coat, and to his bones. He sat outside on the stairs sanding the corners of the coffin. The fragrance of the wood was some comfort in his sorrow.
‘I am going out, Bill.’ Grace pushed by him on the stairs, lent down, and kissed him on the cheek. He looked up at her. She pinned her cloche hat on her hair. ‘Keep an eye on Arthur will you?
He nodded. Grace buttoned up her brown coat, and walked on down the stairs.
Bill continued to sand. He breathed in the scent of the wood as though he was breathing the air. He thought he could smell the sea mingled with the sawdust. That smell caught his imagination as he smoothed his youngest boy’s last vessel. He imagined travelling across distant oceans. His grief was thrown to the far, sodden edges of the world.
‘Dad?’ Arthur’s voice interrupted his dreams.
‘Yes?’ Bill looked up at his son.
‘Where’s Mum?’ Arthur sat down next to Bill on the stair. His skinny frame was overwhelmed in a blue coat two sizes too big for him. Forever practical, Grace had said he would grow into it and anyway didn’t he look sweet?
‘Out,’ said Bill and ruffled his son’s wilful mane.
‘When she coming back? I’m hungry.’
‘Soon. Come here and help sand for Lenny.’ Bill passed Arthur a piece of used sandpaper.
‘For Lenny?’ Then, as if he remembered Lenny’s tiny body laid out in his crib, Arthur said, ‘He’s sleeping.
‘He is,’ said Bill. ‘He’s with the angels.’
‘Where’s that?’ Arthur’s faced screwed up quizzically. Because his bottom jaw was misaligned, he always looked determined as his chin pushed its way forward.
Bill pointed with his finger up in the air.
‘Eh? How’d he get up there?’ Arthur said smiling as if he didn’t believe a word of it.
‘He passed, Arthur lad.’
‘Is he with God? If he is, my mate Tommy said that only good kids go there. Tommy’s mum told him.’
‘And Ginger said naughty boys go to hell. And it’s hot in hell.’
‘He’s with God, Arthur, Lenny’s with God.’
This seemed to satisfy Arthur and, using the paper his dad has given him, he wiped it across the wood. He then stroked the coffin with his hand.
‘It feels soft,’ he said and stroked it again. Bill took his gloves off and stroked the top of the casket too. His heart ached. Bill wiped away a tear as Arthur looked up at him.
‘Are you crying?’ he asked.
Bill looked away and shook his head. ‘I’m all right,’ he said.
Sounds of children floated up the stairwell from the courtyard. Arthur’s head shot round and he looked down the stairs then back at his dad.
‘Can I go and play?’ Arthur asked. Bill nodded and Arthur leaped down the stairs two at a time towards the shouts and screams of his friends.
Bill’s thoughts continued with Lenny. Life meant death. Death was a certainty. How could you keep on going with that knowledge? He reckoned it was the good times like Christmas that kept him going.
Last Christmas had been the first one they’d had without Grace’s mum. He’d thought Grace wouldn’t get through it without her mum, but Lenny had kept her occupied. They’d visited Grace’s sister, Daisy, over in Croydon and the weather had been awful. By the time the train arrived at the station, it started to snow. Arthur climbed down onto the platform and poked his tongue out to the floating flakes of ice. Bill helped Grace down from the train and they walked the short distance to Daisy’s home.
It was a terraced house on a street lined with maple trees. The trees’ skeletons shivered in the wind and their leaves lay abandoned and crushed on the pavement. As Bill’s family bent themselves into the wind and snow, they could hear noises coming from the house.
Bill opened the gate and Arthur ran up the path to the front door. He snapped the letterbox twice and Grace used the doorknocker to announce their arrival. Bill watched Lenny stir against her—he seemed to feel the thrill of their arrival too.
Grace’s sister, Daisy, opened the door and ushered them in. ‘You’re here on time. The snow’s started… I was worried it’d slow you down – you know what trains are like. One leaf on the track and that’s it – delays.’ She wiped her hands on her grease-stained pinafore before she hugged her sister and put her hand up to Bill’s face. ‘Glad to see you.’
Arthur snuggled his auntie’s thighs and then ran off to find his cousin, Ray. Bill sighed. He was glad they’d made it to Daisy’s without problems.
He followed Daisy down the narrow hallway that ran from the front door to the kitchen. The night was cold outside, but Daisy’s home was warm and the bright rugs on her wooden floors brought colour to the house.
Grace’s eldest sister, Issy, was rolling out dough as Bill entered the kitchen. She looked up at Bill and gave him a hug. While Daisy was a plump dumpling, Issy was tall and slender like a silver birch tree.
Turkey smells wafted from the oven. The kitchen table was covered with utensils, flour, and jars of mincemeat, and shelves filled with tins and bottles covered the wall next to the stove. Bill watched Daisy walk over to the kitchen sink, look out of the window to the twilight, and then draw the green curtains shut. He opened his duffel bag and put the goodies, including a Christmas pudding, on to the table. Grace started making the pudding in January. It needed time to mature, she’d say. Her brandy butter was also popular. ‘Waste of good brandy,’ her mother had always said as she’d shovelled mouthfuls of pudding covered with the stuff into her mouth. They’d all laughed. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without her.
Grace had been devastated when her mother had died quite suddenly of a heart attack. Bill had come home from work and had found her in the kitchen, preparing supper, with tears streaming down her face. Tears he could handle—it was the long silence on a Sunday afternoon, as she would stare out of the window that he found disturbing.
‘Bill,’ Daisy’s husband Fred slapped him on the back with his good arm. ‘How are you?’
‘All right,’ Bill answered as he opened the pantry door and emptied bottles of beer from his bag onto a shelf.
‘And how’s work?’
‘Fine,’ Bill said. He poured two glasses of beer and thrust one at Fred.
‘Cheers!’ Fred said as he held out his beer. They chinked glasses.
Bill liked Fred. He fished the Thames with Fred during the summer. They both dangled their legs over the side of the wharf and threw the lines into the water. The bobbing of the waves was echoed in the dipping of Fred’s head as he talked. Bill listened and Fred talked.
‘Are they keeping you busy?’ Fred continued.
‘Yes. Big order just came in.’
‘It keeps food on the table, eh?’
‘Yes. And you?’
‘Can’t complain. We found a new assistant for the shop. He’s a hard worker. That’s all you can ask for really.’
Bill nodded in agreement.
‘We might be expanding next year,’ Fred continued. ‘The barber next door is closing – might be a good prospect.’
Arthur ran into the room and circled the kitchen table. ‘Dad! Look what I’ve got.’ He swooped up to Bill and pushed a wooden aeroplane into his chest. Bill smiled, grabbed the plane, and whirled around in a circle holding the plane up high.
Looking back down at Arthur, he said, ‘That’s a fine plane, Arthur boy. Will you fly that one day?’
‘No, Dad,’ replied Arthur, ‘I’m going to be a sailor like you.’
Bill ruffled his son’s hair and followed him back to the front room.
Arthur threw himself down on the rug next to his cousin, Ray.
‘Hi, Arthur,’ Ray called out through a mass of red hair and freckles. He sat in a dump of toys. ‘You wanna play with those?’ He said pointing to alphabet blocks piled on top of each other.
Arthur shook his head and flew his plane over the tin soldiers marching next to a wooden snake. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘Wheeeee! Ack Ack Ack.’ He knocked the tin soldiers over with his plane as he pretended to be in battle. ‘What are those?’ he asked Ray.
‘Those chains.’ Arthur pointed to the paper chains that covered the mantelpiece, picture frames, and bookshelves.
‘They’re Christmas decorations. I made them.’
‘They’re good. I’d like to make some too.’
‘It took me ages – it took me weeks,’ Ray said as a huge grin took over his face.
Billy listened to the kid’s chat and looked at the decorations around the room – sprigs of holly with red berries hung from the walls, and branches of fir smelling sharp and sweet fought for space with the paper chains over the fireplace.
‘We can make some paper chains tomorrow, Arthur, if you like,’ he said.
Arthur looked up at him. ‘Really?’
‘Like Ray’s decorations?’
‘Thanks, Dad!’ Arthur smiled.
Bill felt his own chest fill up with emotion. He ruffled Arthur’s hair again and moved over towards the fireplace.
While the kids played on the floor, the adults chatted, drank beer, and laughed. Bill looked around the room. Fred hovered behind the tall armchair that had previously been reserved for Grace’s mother. He waved his stump towards the fire, ‘Do warm yourself, Bill. It’s a cold night.’
Grace sat by the window and stroked Lenny’s cheek. Issy plopped down next to her. She kissed the baby’s head. ‘He’s so beautiful. He looks just like you and he smells like a boy – all musky.’
Bill watched Grace smile at this.
She looked over at him. ‘He smells like his Daddy,’ she said.
He smiled at her. She had a way of making him feel loved. He was a lucky man—too lucky really. He didn’t deserve her and he didn’t deserve her family. He left the room and made his way to the back door.
Standing in the yard, he looked up at the frosty sky. His breath condensed in the icy night. Bill took a cigarette from his pocket and struck a match on the brick wall. The smoke tasted sweet and the nicotine relaxed his body.
The kitchen window opened by his shoulder and he heard Daisy’s voice. ‘Ah… that’s much better. It gets hot in here.’ Bill wandered over the flagstones to the gate and looked into the alley. He opened the gate and walked.
When he arrived back in Daisy’s back yard, he leaned against the wall. Lighting another smoke, he listened to the chatter of the women in the kitchen. He heard Grace’s voice through the open window.
‘Most nights, it is hard. He dreams and sweats and thrashes about—it scares me. Sometimes the nightmares are so bad, he wakes up screaming. His screams break my heart, Daisy, the sound terrifies me.’
Bill sighed. He squashed the cigarette under his boot and walked back up the alley away from the house.