This house is full of spaces, but here under the kitchen table is best. When he’s scooched right up against the skirting board nobody is any the wiser. He can stay undetected for hours as long as he is careful of the radiator. Not because of the heat - it is never switched on even in the depths of winter - but its hollow metal echo will give him away if he knocks against it.
There’s Mam now. He likes the way the puffs of dust swirl around the black tiles and are chased away by the gust from the kitchen door as it opens and closes. Clouds of dog hair and toast crumbs tumble and dance before disappearing into the gap between the washing machine and the fridge. She’s not closed the door properly, you need to grip the handle and keep pulling until the lock snicks otherwise it will swing open again and the dog will get out into the hallway and be up the stairs before you know it. Today it doesn’t matter about the door. From here he can see Barney’s tail hanging over the side of his rubber dog bed and if the radio wasn’t on he’d probably be able to hear the wet snuffles of his deep-sleep breaths. Occasionally, a claw scritches against the tiles as his back-leg twitches in his sleep. The dog won’t be making a break for it this afternoon.
Mam’s at the sink. The hem of the tablecloth obscures everything above her calves. The tap hisses as she fills the bowl and there’s the chatter of china as she clears the breakfast crockery from the draining board. She’s barefoot. She stretches, revealing one sole, dark with dirt from the kitchen floor. These bloody tiles, she says often. I don’t know what the council were thinking. The black gets everywhere.
The oven light blinks on. It’s still early but she must have turned the dial to preheat it. She’ll start chopping veg soon. The window in the oven door is smeared with grease. Once, for dinner, she had served up thick slices of bread coated in a dull sludge that smelt just like the oven as it heats up. Fussy little sod, she’d said when his lip quivered. Dad had laughed. Baap re, he’d said. No wonder your empire crumbled if that’s the best you could manage. Not wanting to upset Mam, he’d taken a large bite but his throat refused it. Gagging, he’d managed only to hold the claggy mass in his mouth until they’d both been looking the other way and then he’d let it fall back out onto his plate. Chewed, it looked no different. Sorry Mam, he’d said, his tongue coated with grease. It had clung to the back of his teeth. Well, there’s nothing else, she’d said and had scraped his plate into the dog bowl.
Sundays are best. He sneaks in early to listen to her preparing dinner. Sometimes she sings along with the radio. He can see her feet tapping. But not today. On Sunday, there is chicken and proper roast potatoes. And boiled. Once there’d been mash too and Dad had said, Baap re woman, who has the stomach for three kinds of potato? But he’d eaten it all the same. There had been flecks of gravy on his shirt collar until bedtime.
Most days after school, some of the bigger kids from the other estate will follow him part the way home shouting, Oi Mowgli, what’s for dinner? Once he’d shouted back, Beans on toast, and they’d thrown stones at him. But on Sundays, there are normal vegetables. Carrots and peas and thick wedges of parsnip that nobody touches. He knows that in every house on his street everybody will be sitting down to a similar meal.
Dad comes in now. One large brown toe pokes from a hole in his sock. Any tea? he says. Mam does not answer and Dad says, Baka? He watches as Dad crosses the kitchen. He stops with one foot either side of Mam’s. Whali, what’s all this? he says. That poor boy, Mam says in a thin voice. Just sixteen. He knows what boy she is talking about. It’s been the talk of school. That was far from here, Dad says as if that makes a difference. They said his own mother couldn’t identify him, she says. He’ll need dozens of operations and even then. His face. That poor boy.
He’d seen the pictures in the paper. The boy used to look just like him.
At the pond round the back of the Sports & Social Club, he’d sometimes lose hours staring at himself in the filthy water. His translucent image in the surface had his Dad’s features but Mam’s tone. It made him dizzy. Once, a couple of the bigger kids from the other estate had crept up behind him whilst he was dropping large stones into his reflection. They caught him watching his face his own face as it rippled and reformed. Briefly there were four faces, each the same pale shade, shimmering on the surface. Then one of them said, Can you swim, Jungle Boy? And shoved him hard in the back. The pond was chest deep and the mud had sucked one trainer from his foot as he splashed his way back to the bank. When he got home, Mam had chased him straight back out the door, his wet sock slapping at the street. You get back in there and search for it, she’d said. They’re near new those shoes.
Simeon Ralph is a writer, musician and lecturer. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. Originally from Essex, he now lives in Norwich.
The Ekphrastic Review
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