You know your dad isn’t in the audience because you watched from behind the stage as people settled in the brown plastic seats, mums, dads, grandparents, siblings from the high school in silly suits and striped ties, the knots all small and wonky.
You never wanted to play the clarinet anyway, you wanted to play the saxophone, but your dad said you had to learn all the recorders first, then the clarinet, and then the saxophone and you can’t help thinking you’d be better at the one you actually wanted to play, and the clarinet teachers says they are completely different instruments, but he has it in his head that this is the way to do it, so here you are.
Playing Little Donkey accompanied by Cally Troth on triangle.
He bashes in during the interval, holding his brown leather jacket over his arm, his hair pushed back into those hedgehog spikes, his glasses smeared over with condensation.
‘I’m so sorry I’m late,’ he’s saying to people, random people as far as you can see. ‘There was an old woman who fell in the road. I had to stop the traffic and look after her. I had to take her back to her sheltered housing. I had to make sure she was settled in.’
He is saying it to one of your teachers now, and she is getting him a cup of tea, has her hand on his arm, and you stare at him suspiciously over your glasses.
‘I’m sure she’ll understand,’ your teacher is saying. ‘Everybody wants their dad to be a hero! She’ll be proud of you.’
He’s saved a lot of old women from falls in the road and had to escort them home, a lot of times when he’s on the way to get you, or see you in something. Old women just seem to fall over when he’s on his way somewhere. He’s terribly unlucky (but at least he’s a hero.)
(Whenever you are waiting for him to turn up for something your heart and your stomach beat loud, with discomfort, every single time, saying, will he be here, will he be here, will he?)
‘They should be singing proper choir music,’ he says in the car on the way home. Not all that other stuff.’ He gestures a sort of globe shape and you wonder what exactly it is about fifty smiling children wearing tinsel singing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday it is that he disapproves of.
‘It’s fun?’ you say.
‘It shouldn’t be about fun,’ he says, and you wonder what it should be about then.
At your friend’s birthday party you are waiting with her parents for your dad to come and get you. Everyone has already gone and she’s already in her night dress, a light blue one that goes all the way down to her ankles, and has a scalloped neck, and a bow made of blue ribbon. (You’re glad you’re not in yours because it’s one of your old dad’s t-shirts that he got in Spain that has Madrid in big letters, cracked and fading, on the front of it)
‘I’m sure he’ll be here in a minute,’ says your friend's mum, and you nod at her slowly. You’re glad someone is. ‘Would you like some hot chocolate?’
You say yes, so you and your friend sit at their breakfast bar, with your hands round striped mugs, and at firsts it’s nice, and you are chatting and she’s talking about her birthday presents, and then it’s getting dark, and you’re still there, with your hands around a cold mug and her mum and dad are whispering in the hall way.
‘We were wondering about trying to drop you home, in case he’s…’ the word hangs in the air, and you say, ‘Okay,’ and they drive you to your house, but there is no one there, but the big window is open for the cat, and you say, I can just climb in there, I’ve done it before,’ and they look at each other, because you are nine, and nine year olds shouldn’t be breaking into their own houses, so they take you home, and you wait, and your friend goes to bed, and you’re still waiting, the shame of it, heat on your face, down your back, so you sit there, burning.
When he arrives he is dishevelled and he says sorry, an old woman had fallen in the road and he had to help her, and escort her back to her sheltered housing, and wait while everybody made sure she was okay. She had amnesia, so it took quite a long time to work out where she lived, and he didn’t want to leave her.
Amnesia. A new detail.
The next day everyone is talking about it at school.
‘Heard your dad forgot about you yesterday,’ says Gary Towers.
‘He didn’t’ forget,’ you say, shoving your ruler across your desk, slapping it at his knuckles.
‘Why doesn’t your mum live with you? Is it true what they said about her being a drug addict?’
You glare at him. You wonder what she’s doing right now, but it’s best not to think of it.
You have a tick sheet of the things that are late and due in at school. Your trip to HMS Victory letter. Your dinner money. Your PE kit, that was supposed to be brought in last week. There are other things too, but you can’t keep up with everything.
One night you wait for your dad to get back after work and he doesn’t. You put your sister to bed and sit at the window for a while, watching the people coming home, parking up, going inside their houses. After a while, you think you will make yourself a cup of tea and watch something on the television. You watch Tomorrow’s World because there is something about how people will get to places in the future, and you think, I will get to places by being on time.
You also think, if I could be left here like this, by myself with my sister asleep upstairs, then I could have been left like this all along, and we’d have never needed babysitters, and none of that other stuff you’re not supposed to think about needed ever happen. This thought makes you cross because you never wanted him to babysit you anyway, and you are more than capable of looking after yourself, and you are thinking this, about how capable you are, as you accidentally pour hot water from the kettle on your arm as you make another cup of tea, and you scream, and drop the kettle, so that the lino floor is a little swamp, until you soak it up with things from the laundry basket.
When you go to bed you have to leave the front door unlocked, in case he’s forgotten his keys, so you go upstairs, get under your duvet, and lie there in the dark, shivering. Every sound is a stranger’s hand on the front door handle. Every sound is someone letting themselves in to kill you.
By the time your dad gets in you are rigid with fear. You can hear your mum is with him, and you haven’t seen her for a while, and you want to get out and run down the stairs and hold her, but you don’t do that, instead you listen to them arguing about the fact she’s crashed the car into something, because she’s been drink driving, and your dad is saying he’ll sort it, and they’re crying, and then they’re shouting, and then they both leave again, while you’re still lying under your duvet, and you count the seconds backwards, from 190,000 and get that tic you get, where your head throws itself back, and you have to hold your head in place with both your hands, hold it carefully, so by the time your dad does get in, it’s like you’re set there, just like it.
You hear him stumble up to bed but he doesn’t check in on your or your sister. You feel bad you haven’t checked on her either, and hope one of the intruders in the darkness didn’t come and take her.
In the morning you are relieved to see her sitting at the table waiting for breakfast, and you make you both porridge. You let her put as many spoons of demerara sugar as she wants on it.
Your dad drops you off at the childminder, and you sink into the warm sofa, and watch her smooth out the sleeves of her daughter’s jumper, and you quickly smooth out the sleeves on yours, but it’s not the same, so you stop, because all of it, all of it right through, is embarrassing.
On Saturday, your dad drops you off at music school.
You are always missing music school, a Saturday school, for children who are a certain grade on certain instruments, where you play in an orchestra with other children, and in the summer you do a concert. You can only get out of the Yugo if your dad climbs out, lifts the driver seat out, and you climb out behind him. You do this, and grab the brown case of your clarinet, and he puts his seat back in, waves at you, and drives off.
It seems very quiet.
When you go to press the door in, it is locked. You wander around the outside of the building, looking for ways in, but it’s obvious it’s closed. You remember that it was closed during the holidays last year, and it’s the holidays now, and even though you’d missed loads, Dad suddenly remembered today, and had bundled you here, and you’d hand not time to remember about it being the holidays.
You sit on the curve of grass at the front, near the road and wait for him to come back. Every time a van or a car drives past you wonder if it will stop and someone will get out and bundle you inside it. You wonder if you will end up by the side of the road, chopped up, in black sacks, the hideous end your mum seems so obsessed with.
You wait the two hours, on the grass, click clacking the silver pads of your clarinet, thinking how disgusting the smell of the reed is, even if you look after it, that the smell alone is the reasons you’ll stop playing this, one day, when you don’t have to play it any more.
When your dad comes to get you, you don’t bother telling him it was the holidays because it will make him feel bad about himself and because you don’t want to hear all his reasons for getting it wrong. You watch him lift the seat out of the Yugo and you get into the back, where your sister is, and you look at each other, and play ice cream vans, where there are all this spouts from the roof and your swirl each other multicoloured ice creams into invisible cones, and can really taste the strawberries.
When you are older, much older, when you are back at work, full time, and the baby is at home with your husband, it is hard to get things right because if you are early to work, as you need to be, to feel good about the day, to be prepared, you are missing out on time with the baby. If you spend the time with the baby you arrive in the carpark at the same time as everyone else and you get that squeeze in your chest like you can’t do everything you need to do in the time you need to do it, and how do you pick which bit to do properly, and it has to be your daughter, so you are at the photocopier at the last minute and you are having a panic attack).
You have a friend who you meet for coffee and she arrives early too, both of you with your books, and you laugh at each other, standing in the queue for your drinks, and say, shall we sit in different corners and pretend we haven’t seen each other? So that’s what you do, for an hour, read your books, and then you walk towards each other, and meet each other, exactly on time.
When your daughter starts school, you are there forty minutes before they open the gates to pick her up. The thought of her looking out to see your face, and you not being there, is the reason you stumble out of the door at 1.30pm, drive the nine miles to the school, and always find a parking space. You are off work, out of a job, you feel bad about this, but also, it means you can be here on time (hours early, is what you often are, but that seems totally acceptable to you).
You take out a book and lean against the wall.
‘You’re here early,’ says a passer by, unnecessarily.
‘Not really,’ you say. ‘I like to be on time.’ It sounds so simple, this massive understatement that there really are no words for.
One day, when she bounds out, chucks you her rucksack, her bookbag, her water bottle, goes in for a big side hug, she asks you a question.
‘Mum why do I never get to stand over the side bit like the other kids whose mums and dads are late do?’
‘Because I’m never late, you say, proudly. You’ve seen those kids, waiting, at the side, searching the playground for familiar faces, can feel their panic, that moment when it drops that there might be nobody coming (there always is, though, and most people are just running late, and it can happen to anyone. But it doesn’t happen to you, because if it did you’d probably lie down wherever you are and die of ruining your daughter’s life by making her feel afraid and forgotten and unwanted.)
‘Can you be late tomorrow then?’ she says, hopping over the painted circles on the playground. ‘Just this once? Because I’ve never had a go at standing on that bit, over there, and I’d like to.’
‘Um… yes if you’d like me to,’ you say, and you laugh because once again you are thinking how you can never really go back and parent yourself, and that your daughter is not you.