by Ron Butlin
At first, every day was the same and
afterwards I'd fall into bed exhausted. An hour later I'd be jackknifed out of sleep,
ready to scream the house down.
Screaming's a therapeutic "plus," no doubt, but
not a real option at three in the morning. So I lay and held my breath, it felt like,
while the strokes of the church bell forced me another quarter of an hour closer to
getting up, getting dressed and starting the day after you were killed all over again.
Every chime and echo gave the darkness a few seconds' weightlike a paving stone,
let's say, where I could rest before taking the next slow-motion step towards daylight. At
3 a.m. there'd be fifteen paving stones still to goI'd be wide awake and dead beat
on every one of them. Washing-cleaning-cooking-laundry-shopping-teaching-preparing-marking
papers-the boys' tears-the boys' tantrums-chaos. It was when I was going out of my mind
one long night at the end of that first week that I thought of a plan to bring the chaos
to an end.
The following afternoon as each boy straggled back in from
school I met him at the front porch, then stood him against the wall to be measured:
William, 3ft 10inches; Michael, 4ft 2inches; Frank, 4ft 4inches. That done, and with the
through-doors wide open, I marched them in turn the length of the house (93 feet there and
back), and timed them. I insisted they maintained a straight line and a steady pace
throughout. At first they thought it a great laugh and chased each other up and down the
hall as if it was some kind of race. I soon put them right. Once they understood how
painstakingly I'd done the calculations, they respected my seriousness of purpose.
William, as fair-haired and sweet-tempered as yourself, proved the most biddable and kept
to his prescribed rate of 3.25mph with metronomic regularity; because of his tendency to
be easily distracted, Michael needed shouted at; Frank, threatening adolescence in a
couple of years, managed his set rate (3.75mph) only when I paced alongside him, blowing
my whistle every few steps.
That first night together twelve years ago, I never slept either;
nor did you. We kissed, undressed, made love, talked, made love again; then, all at once,
it was time for the breakfast tea and toast. A whole night gone with nothing to show for
it but your steamed-up windowsand me in love! Until then I'd thought love was a
woman's country where men wandered in and out on limited-stay visas, sightseeing and
collecting souvenirs, but never quite managing to settle. That one night changed
everything. A kind of soft-focus madness began: I turned up at your flat the following
evening with yellow roses, "to match your hair." Having trimmed them to fit, you
put them in a vase: "I can look at them and think of you when you're not here."
Not there? My idea was that from then on I lived in your heart . . .
The days that followed were dream days when I sat blissful
in a roomful of eight-year-old dinosaurs and pterodactyls without even trying to nail them
to their seats. Benign from the heart outwards, I left them free to roam among the desks,
like so many anarchic miracles come back from before the Ice Age, screeching and swooping
with life. A man in love, set down in the mayhem of prehistory. Oblivious to the ravages
of fifty million years' evolution happening around me, I'd appear to be cutting out paper
dinosaurs and pasting them down in the Dinosaur Checklist when really I'd be imagining
your arms around me, tasting your skin, feeling your tongue against mine.
I'm still a man in love, so why can't I do that now? Why is
there nothing, or even less than nothingonly your absence?
Now that we have no car we've returned to public transport.
Unfortunately, the boys' bus goes one way and mine the opposite. Hence every morning's
frantic rush. Hence my plan. Measurements and calculations completed, it swung into action
the following morning and worked like a treat: the previous night's dishes still in the
sink, the previous three days' unwashed laundry still on the floor, I was running late
when I got them lined up at the doorthree paratroopers ready for the big
dropand set them off at the necessary intervals. By going separately they didn't
interfere with each other's progress and so kept more or less to time. That was the plan.
Three perfect days followed. Then came the fourth. The bins put out, the shopping list
discovered, I was running even later when I locked up the house and marched myself to my
bus stop. It was when I'd sat down in my seat and we were passing their stop that I
glanced out the window. They were still there. Next second, I'd jumped to my feet, rang
the emergency bell, explained to the driver and was off the bus before the end of the
street. I returned to where the three of them stood in a neat line, satchels on their
backs, grins on their faces. William clutching his gym kit in a Tesco bag. He smirked up
"It was early."
The other two held their sides and howled with laughter.
But not for long.
The next bus wasn't for another hour. I'd have to phone
their school, then phone my own. Teaching cover would have to be arranged, timetables
altered. I walked them home ready to start all over again.
That evening I wrote to the bus company. My first letter of
complaint ever. I told them I'd done everything possible on my side: I'd timed the boys,
timetabled their separate mornings up to the moment each of them arrived at the
stoponly to find the Eastern City Bus Company hadn't done its part, the driver in
particular. I pitched it strong, presented my case and the attendant circumstances with
reasonable fairness. Afterwards I made a special trip to the post-box at the street
Every so often since then, it seems someone hits the PAUSE button
and the momentum I've managed to build up is abruptly stopped. I have to grab the edge of
the table or the back of a chair to steady myself. Then the button's released and
everything returns to normal. If the boys notice anything they never say.
Exactly a month to the day after you were killed I decided it was
high time the boys and I wrote a joint letter to the bus company as my previous ones had
gone unanswered. During lunch I explained how important this was; we had to demonstrate to
the owners that their duty lay in their drivers' strict adherence to their own timetable.
There could be no excuses. Each of us would tell his own story in his own words,
explaining how the bus's leaving too soon that morning had affected his life. William, for
example, had missed gym and that was the day they were picking the under-nines football
team; I had arranged to take a class to the museum. Having cleared away the dishes we
would sit at the dining table, each with a piece of paper and a pen. Stick to the facts I
told them, but stress the personal. William, as the youngest, was to be allowed a set of
coloured crayons should he wish to illustrate what he'd written.
For a moment before going into the room to join them I
paused outside. A pleasing, busy sound was coming to me through the door: the rustling of
the scraping of someone's chair, whispers as the boys discussed what they were planning to
write. It was a good moment.
I pushed open the door and went in. Three faces were
staring up at me. Trusting, hopeful faces. Another good moment.
I gave out the pens and paper and was about to go over some
final instructions then give them an opportunity to ask any last questions when, from over
at the window, I became aware of an agitation on the outside of the glass. A small bird
was beating its wings trying to get in. I crossed the room and pulled the curtains shut.
There had to be no distraction from the task at hand. I returned to the doorway, clicked
on the light then gave a slight cough to indicate we were ready to begin.
"Right, boys: Top right-hand corner: our address and
Frank finished this first, then Michael. The three of us
waited in silence for William to blot his way to the last digit and put his tongue back in
his mouth. Then we continued.
"Left-hand side, on the line below the date line.
Write: 'Dear Sir', capital D, capital S."
The clattering and drumming of the wings seemed more
frantic than ever, but I was glad to note the boys paid no attention. Their three
facesFrank's first, then Michael's and, nearly a whole minute later,
William'swere eventually raised from the paper.
"A good start means the job will go well." I
smiled. "Now, when you're ready, in your own time and your own words, continue your
Three heads bent down and three pens were poised to begin.
Before a word was written the boys had immediately moved into exam mode, shielding their
work from each other so there could be no chance of copying. It was a pleasure to witness
such commitment, such enthusiasm. I'd wait until things were well and truly started, then
begin my own letter. The bird must have flown away. Within seconds a calmness had settled
over the room; and I was almost smiling when I took up my pen.
We might have gone swimming that day, or played football, or gone
for a bicycle ride, or stayed at home. Or anything. Instead . . .
I'd been accelerating past the Fairmilehead sliproad when I
began waxing teacherly about the mystery trip I'd thought up that morning. No one else
knew where we were going. The whole thing was my idea.
The boys were in the back seat performing low-volume animal
impressions to pass the time; you were sitting next to me. You wanted to join in with them
but had just asked me for a clue about where we were going, so as not to have me feel left
"Not far from Edinburgh. It's a kind of farm, but only
for the one thingthere'll be hundreds and thousands of them though, more colours
than you could imagine." To tease you, I added: "They migrate here from Spain,
from Mexico even."
You were looking so puzzled I couldn't resist one final
clue: "They fly all the way, but you'd never believe it."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see you were
half-laughing. You must have been humouring me all along because a moment later you
Fragments of glass had risen in a broken-coloured shower
that for a split second seemed to hang motionless in front of me. Your voice had come from
beside me, from the point of impact:
From behind came the boys' screaming.
This letter was going to be the best yet. Polite, but a real
stinger. I leant forward to begin.
Then stopped. My sheet was already half-covered with
writing. How had that happened? I looked up again: the curtains were open once more.
William was now the only other person still at the table, the only other person still in
the room even. What the hell was going on? He was looking at me, his face a smear of red
and blue ink and tears.
"They're outside, you told them to go outside,"
I'd told them?
"Have they finished their letters?"
Without meaning to I'd shouted at him. He rushed from the
room. I heard the back door slam.
I began reading what was in front of me. A mess. A furious
scrawl of obscenities. Was that handwriting really mine? Here and there the paper had been
I leant on the table to pull myself to my feet. None of the
boys had managed to get anywhere near finished. A few lines, nothing more. Well, they
could finish them later. I smoothed out the sheets and started stacking them, mine at the
bottom, then Frank's, then Michael's; William's I placed on top. He'd not written a single
wordit was a drawing of three small stick-boys and their stick-man of a father
chasing after a bus as it disappeared towards the edge of the paper. I was about to
scrunch it into a ball when a detail caught my eye: he'd made the driver a woman. A woman
with long, yellow hair.
It's nearly midnight. I've returned to the dining room to pull
the curtains as I always do last thing; and I've just noticed a hairline of refracted
light running across one of the panes. The left-hand window's cracked. Surely that bird
beating its wings couldn't have broken the glass? I would have heard it at the time,
But there it is. I stare at the laceration of reds, greens
and dusk-blues . . .
I want to pull the curtains closed.
I want to turn and leave the room.
To shut the door behind me. To lock it.
. . . As if, at any moment, the colours might gradually
unfold and, with the very slightest quiver of unsettledness, begin to lift themselves free
from the glass. As if they might begin to mean something. But what can colours mean?