In an aisle at the supermarket’s centre was a shelf of too-large-to-be-true Perspex boxes. In every box was another box: a little white one, and in every little white box was a test. Frank shifted his weight and took up the cheapest of these Perspex boxes, too big to be concealed in only one big hand. He took it to the self-checkout. In seconds, the girl had to be called over when the machine’s voice proudly verified: Approval Needed. Meekly framed within her hijab, the girl’s smile colluded with her small talk to congratulate Frank on his purchase. Conjuring a gruffness he had learnt from his Daddy, Frank showed the girl his ID.
Littering the long walk home like disowned milestones were teens and kiddies alike. Spring was the worst for this. No longer accompanied by the long days of playtime that had once eclipsed it, the nostalgia came up in bitumen heat. Frank blamed St. Nicholas’s: the public school’s wrought-iron gates were planted at the bottom of his road. Every day at four thirty, ages five to eighteen made the journey down the main road and into town. First came the underachieving sixth formers, too low or too lousy to go in for extra curricular studies. Frank wanted to take them by the blazers and toilet dunk them in the heat waves of his nostalgia: tell them to make some memories worth hankering for. The only thing worse than reminiscing on the good old days was reminiscing on the wasted days.
But he kept his wild acts to the sweat of his daydreams and the kids filed dutifully past him, years eleven, ten, nine, until it was too late to shake anybody by the school uniform. Frank laughed aloud – it could be worse – and he was disgusted with himself for grinning when he opened the door and saw Claire at the kitchen table. She had been trying to rest without her head in her hands. He handed over the test. She galloped down a lungful of Pepsi in the kitchen. She couldn’t believe she was wishing for the cramps and the quick-queasy of blood. ‘We’ll see then. We’ll see.’
Whilst Claire locked the bathroom door, Frank walked upstairs to the bedroom where it had occurred. Even though they were extinguished days before, all those candles still went on with their promises: fresh linen, apple pie, lavender, fertilisation.
Frank binned the candles, flipped open Claire’s laptop, and queued some appropriate tunes. But the kids, damn them, screamed bloody murder from the neighbouring park. He sighed: never take up a job in your hometown. He lay on the bed beneath a spring sun that had come in through those ancient louvres at the same angle on this same day for over twenty-five years. His insides screamed at the same pitch as the kids. He thought of kissing Amy Albarn, getting punched by Louise Thraxton, then failing to become blood brothers with Charlie Murphy when they’d both chickened away from the kitchen scissors. Thought of coming home, maybe age seven, to Mummy in spoilt shorts.
Then Mummy came out of the bathroom and failed to string a sentence together. Frank tried to stand up, get out of this bloody sunshine, but Claire had already run down the stairs and out of the house. When he lay back down it was in the shade. He stared at the webs on the ceiling and recalled that the difference between a spider’s web and a cobweb lay fixed between one being inhabited and the other deserted. Six years old, he would have found these definitions inseparable. Frank shook his head, but escape from recollection was impossible when the present was inhospitable.
So he went down into age five, when every treat and trick of the world was one and the same with his own life’s treats and tricks. It was a bell jar, just as all-powerful as Halloween, as Christmas, as a birthday. He remembered his fourth birthday, when he’d hidden beneath the table and wished that all these guests looking for cake and party bags might leave him alone with Mummy and Daddy. Afterwards came three, vicious. His screams for all this unmade darkness to leave him alone were only granted when his parents broke in like the newborn dawn.
Frank rolled over on the bed and put his arms on his head, not sure if he was reenacting or just being childish. Nostalgia was a pretty impressive thing when you considered its neurological capabilities. And then came age two: a hotchpotch of recollections on loan from stupider times. Then one, when the trace of living within that vulnerable arm-to-leg-to-head of flesh came to him, was a miracle.
Zero arrived with Claire’s reappearance at the bedside. It arrived without sight or sound or any sort of sense, and she told him: she had taken the first medication. It was only a matter of a couple of days before she could take the second.
After Claire realised that Frank was not going to speak, but was only going to stare up at the cobwebs sightless, she forgave the separations of his body and made for his mind. She put her head in his lap. To the rhythm of the neighbourhood kids now walking home for dinner, she let him rock her, slower than seconds and years, until he was no longer there.