Lucy watched the peeling paint shower like pale yellow snowflakes from the inside of her bedroom door as it vibrated from an intentional violence. He could not have meant what he had done. Once the black cloud had lifted, as it always did, he would come to his senses and beg mum for forgiveness. Full of remorse, he would say, ‘I am so sorry, Anna, darling, it will never happen again’ and ‘Hey, Lucy girl, here’s a twenty, go and buy yourself something’. At thirteen, she would never say no to cash. That was the way it was. He got pissed; he acted stupid; he slept it off.
Lucy wondered if the chaos had been begun the day dad had been shipped out to Afghanistan; or perhaps it started when grandad took off around the world; or maybe it was her fault and she had done something terribly, terribly, wrong to provoke his anger?
Yesterday the phone rang and Lucy had rushed down the sun-starved hallway from her bedroom.
‘Hello, Lucy, is your dad there?’ said grandma Grace.
She ventured into the kitchen to gather him in. He was listening to the news and drinking tea.
‘Hey, dad, gran is on the phone,’ she said.
He walked unenthusiastically down the hallway towards the front room, with Lucy trailing in his wake. Grandma Grace’s muffled voice was calm, though firm, while dad stared through the picture window at the escarpment beyond.
‘For Christ’s sake, alright, I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘But don’t blame me if it all goes pear shaped, which it will.’
‘Hey dad, what’s happening? Is grandma alright?’ said Lucy, her tone both tender and inquisitive.
‘She’s fine,’ he said, and rolled his eyes.
‘Oh, come on dad, tell me.’
‘Your grandma is bringing your bloody grandfather over to Sunday lunch, worse luck.’
‘Who d’you mean?’
‘Wow, my grandad Frank. I’ve never met him.’
‘He just took bloody pictures, you know. That’s a thousand and one ways to tell lies if you ask me. You know, all the time I was in Afghanistan I never let on that the famous war photographer Frank Woods was my father. Well he isn’t as far as I’m concerned.’
‘Stuff him,’ he said. ‘He can go to hell.’
Mum had lavished time and attention on preparing Sunday dinner: roast beef with potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, Brussel sprouts and green peas, accompanied by rivers of thick meaty gravy; instead of the Mediterranean fish and vegetables which she preferred to cook. Mum was out to please. Lucy scrutinised the statue of a man sitting opposite her. Grandad’s silver hair shone in the sunlight and his wrinkles ran like desert tracks across his suntanned face, while the Hawaiian shirt, red flowers on a white background, did not look out of place on him, as such a garment so often does on older men, since he carried it well on his slim, fit-looking body.
‘My, doesn’t this smell champion,’ said grandma. ‘Thank you so much, Anna.’
‘You’re welcome. We want you to have a wonderful day, don’t we, Charlie?’
Grandma moved to fill the silence.
‘So, how’s your week been, Anna?
‘Oh, same old, same old. Shopping, tidying, cleaning. Oh, but I did buy a new blender, it’s fantastic, I’ll show you later.’
Dad glanced up from his plate.
‘How much did that cost?’
‘We needed it, Charlie. The old one is broken.’
‘I’m hungry,’ said Lucy.
Mum clasped her hands and the others followed suit, except dad.
‘Dear Lord, bless this food we are about to eat. Bless this family and keep us safe.’
‘Well, I’ll be buggered,’ said dad. ‘Have you joined the army of Christ, Frank?
‘Isn’t it wonderful to be together as a family,’ said grandma.
‘So, what do you say, Frank? Weren’t you the guy who always said, dumb arse Christians, war killed off the God dream for me.’
‘When in Rome,’ said grandad.
‘Well, if war didn’t kill off the Almighty for Frank here, it certainly did for me.’
‘Can we just move on, please?’ said grandma.
Dad looked at grandad Frank and raised his glass.
‘Cheers,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the family, old man. Long time no see.’
‘Thank you, son. That means the world to me.’
‘We’ll have less of the son, thank you.’
Grandma smiled at dad. ‘So, how’ve you been, Charlie?’
‘I’ve bust a gut in the garage this week, mum, but if I didn’t there’d be no food on the table, and we wouldn’t be up for no new blenders.’
‘Good onya pet, you always were a hard worker.’
‘Learned it all in that B & B of yours. You were a right slave driver.’
‘All for your own good, bonny lad,’ she said and laughed.
‘Did you work in grandma’s house, dad?’ asked Lucy.
‘Pass the apple sauce, please,’ he said.
‘All the time, love. Someone had to do the bloody work while others were gallivantin’ round the world,’ said dad, as he topped up his wine.
After dinner, grandma reached across the table and touched dad on the arm.
‘Darling, we need to talk. As a family.’
Dad poured himself a Jack Daniels.
‘Bloody hell, mum. Isn’t it enough that good ’ole Frank got in through the front door, eh?’
‘For which I am very grateful,’ said grandad.
‘We have to talk too?’ spat dad.
‘Please, Charlie,’ said grandma.
‘Alright, you wanna talk. Let’s talk. What exactly are you doing here, Frank?’
‘You know, lovey,’ said grandma.
‘The return of the prodigal father. A bit bloody late in the day. Haven’t seen you in years.’
‘You didn’t want to,’ said Frank.
‘So please, don’t come poking your nose in my family, right. It’s not like you’re a bloody expert is it, mate? ’Less it’s how to screw them up. Bloody expert on that.’
‘We don’t have much time,’ said Grandma.
‘Why is that any of our business? Sticking by folks isn’t exactly his way, now, is it?’
Grandad pulled himself upright in his chair.
‘Maybe you could calm down, Charlie.’
Dad stood up and pointed his finger at Frank as if it were a pistol.
‘Fuck your book. Fuck your cancer. And fuck you!’ he shouted. ‘We are all gonna die one day.’
Dad stumbled out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The rest of the family trooped into the front room like the beaten team at a cup final. Mum buried her head in a crossword. Lucy flopped on to the carpet and rolled from one arm to the other. Grandad winked at her.
‘Shall we take a stroll, Lucy?’ he said.
‘Show me the high spots, Lucy. Come on.’
As they headed down the road, he asked her about her life. She loved surfing and music, and school was alright. She asked back. He was into photography and football and being alive right here, right now.
They followed the winding towards The Red House Café.
‘This is my favourite hangout. They play cool dance grooves, and you sit in funky booths. Can I get a chocolate brownie with ice cream?’ she said.
Grandad ordered himself green tea and they found a table by the window.
‘Sorry about dad,’ she said.
He leant forward and peered into her eyes.
‘You know what? Just look after yourself, Lucy, that’s all.’
‘So what’s going on with you and dad?’
Her cheeks burned ruby red.
He reached into his bag and handed her a leaflet. She looked down on a photograph: an Afghan girl her own age was engulfed in flames. Underneath she read the words: Sea of Fire: The Life and Work of Frank Woods.
‘Why don’t you come?’ he said.
‘What is it?’
‘I mean the photo?’
‘That brave young woman was campaigning to educate girls. Every day she stood out front of the Ministry of Education with a placard. Out of the blue a battered white car roared up and three hooded men jumped out, grabbed the girl, doused her in petrol and lit the match. Then off they roared. I got six or seven shots before she died.’
When they returned to the house Lucy went in search of her dad and some kind of meaning to it all. She found him in his garage, sitting back in his old wooden chair with a bottle of whisky in his hand. She slid with caution into the tiger’s cage, he simmered and growled.
‘What do you want?’ he said.
‘Why are you so mad at grandad?’ she whispered.
‘For fuck’s sake, give it a rest,’ he said.
‘I want to understand, dad,’ she said.
‘It’s very simple,’ he grunted. ‘I’ve no time for the bastard. And I never will.’
‘I think he just wants to be your dad,’ she said.
He raised the bottle to his lips and took another drink.
‘He was never any kind of dad to me,’ he said, his anger growing. ‘That bastard never gave a toss. I’ll tell you what kind of father he was. That disgusting picture in your hand,’ he said, nodding toward the leaflet still gripped between her fingers. ‘I was there. I was in the army. He was taking bloody pictures for a newspaper. He called me even though I hadn’t seen him for years. I thought we were there to meet each other. He had some other ideas.’ Dad raised the bottle to his lips again and tipped it back. ‘I threw the girl to the ground and rolled her in the dust. It was too late. But at least I tried. And all the time he’s taking fucking pictures. That’s all he cares about. Pieces of silver. He said now people would know how terrible it all was and that would bring the suffering to an end. All I could see was the pain and the fighting and killing. I watched that girl die in front of me, Lucy. He never asked after me, not once. He never said, “How you going, mate?” All that man cares about is his self.’
‘I’m sure he loves you, dad,’ she said.
Dad pushed himself up from his chair, his blue eyes dimming behind a milky sheen. He steadied himself and wobbled towards the pit, where he picked up a red can from the floor.
‘He doesn’t give a toss about me,’ he said. ‘Do you reckon he really cares about you?’
He staggered back towards her until he was right up in her face. He unscrewed the lid on the can and poured petrol over the floor around his feet. He pulled out a lighter from his pocket and flicked on the flame.
‘What d’you reckon? Shall we show him, eh?’
Lucy stepped backwards.
‘Oh my God, dad, don’t. Please don’t!’
‘Well then, get the fuck off out of here,’ he said as he slid the lighter back into his pocket. ‘I told you to leave me alone.’
Lucy belted out of the garage and across the yard. She didn’t stop until she was safely in her bedroom, where she flung herself on her bed and wept. Later, day turned into evening, dad barged into her room.
‘Where’s Frank?’ he demanded.
‘Dunno,’ she said.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be helping your mum wash the dishes?’ he said.
‘They’re done,’ she said.
‘Go do your jobs, girl,’ he commanded.
Lucy leapt up off the bed. She wasn’t going to contradict him.
‘I’m on my way, no sweat,’ she said.
He lurched down the hall behind her. She could feel his breath on her neck and smell the whisky breeze. She walked into the front room, where mum was working on her scrapbook. He stumbled in behind her.
‘So where’s Frank?’ he demanded.
Mum glanced up at him and then down again at her book.
‘They’ve gone home,’ she whispered.
‘You what? Speak up, woman.’
‘They left an hour ago,’ she said. ‘Grace is going to ring tomorrow.’
‘With a fucking lecture no doubt.’
She remained silent and stared at her scrapbook.
‘Have you nothing to say for yourself?’ he said.
‘About what, Charlie?’ she asked, with curt precision.
‘You usually have plenty to say for yourself, darling,’ he said.
‘You’ve been drinking, Charlie,’ she said.
‘So what. Can’t a man have a drink in his own house, eh?’
She looked up at him. From the other side of the room, Lucy thought she was crying.
‘Charlie, you promised.’
‘You watched me, darlin’. Never said nothing.’
‘We agreed, a glass of wine. Not a bottle. And I can smell the whisky.’
‘He drives me flipping nuts.’
‘That’s no excuse, Charlie,’ she said.
He opened up the throttle of his anger.
‘I’ll do what I want, right?’ he barked. ‘And not you or him or mum is going to stop me. You get it?’
‘Don’t you care about your family?’ she pleaded.
‘Waltzing in here after donkey’s years,’ he said.
‘He’s trying, Charlie. Can’t you look in your heart? Before it’s too late.’
‘Too late years ago.’
She peered up at him and offered a final petition.
‘It’s our family, Charlie.’
‘And that’s fucked too. I mean, God knows why I ever married you. It’s a bloody mystery to me.’
‘God forgive me, Charlie. I’ve prayed and prayed for the strength to keep this family going, but heaven help me, I’m just about done.’
‘Left on the fucking shelf and desperate to have bloody kids, that’s what.’
‘How dare you?’ she said and stood to face him. ‘You’re a mean, horrible, nasty, man. I hope you rot in hell.’
His fist struck her in the face, and she buckled and collapsed onto the floor like a butterfly crushed by a wrecking ball.
‘Get up, you stupid cow,’ he screamed.
‘Dad, what are you doing? Stop it, now!’ shouted Lucy.
He swayed and glared at her; his eyes crazed like a starving dog.
‘Fuck off, Lucy.’
Mum stared vacantly up at her, white-faced.
‘Dad, stop!’ screamed Lucy as she grabbed his arm.
He dropped mum like a bag of river sand; a gurgle arose from her throat as she rolled onto her back and lay prostrate on the living room floor, blood trickling from her nose.
‘Get to your room, Lucy,’ he commanded.
She pulled his arm with all her strength until he palmed her in the chest, and she rocked back, crashing into the door.
‘Don’t make me tell you twice.’
Her mouth hurt like hell, but she would not cry.
Never, never, never.
She ran back to her room. He followed her and slammed the door shut.
‘Stay there and mind your own business,’ he shouted.
She reached for her phone and called grandma Grace. Ten minutes later she heard the roar of his Harley and the skid of the wheel as he raced away into the night. That was the last time she saw him.