The day was crisp and clean. The air felt cold in his throat as he sucked it in. The walk across town had been a bit of a challenge. Jon hated pushing the buggy. The wheels had a mind of their own, they veered off in surprising directions and found every rut and hole in the pavement.
Robbie sat in the buggy happily, he didn’t care about the ride, but he was excited about the destination. Jon had promised him a trip to feed the ducks the night before to bribe him to go to bed. He’d hoped Robbie would forget. But kids never forget. They’re like elephants, but smaller with a greater potential for destruction. Jon based this observation on their flat which was littered with Robbie’s toys and mischief.
Robbie had got the hang of taking toys out of the cupboards and boxes they were stored in, but he hadn’t twigged that they needed to be returned. Jon imagined that he was always amazed when Evie cleared them all away again. There’s nothing as painful as standing on lego bricks in bare feet. I’m surprised they don’t use it instead of water-boarding.
“Quack, quack, quack,’ said Robbie excitedly as he recognised where they were.
“Yes, Robbie. What goes quack?”
Jon wheeled the buggy through the gates into Christchurch park. He used the entrance at the bottom of an adjacent road. It wasn’t the main entrance to the park that led up to the Mansion. This was a short cut to the ponds and the ducks.
He locked the buggy’s brake into place and lifted Robbie out. “Time to use those legs of yours.” Robbie immediately tried to make a run for it, forgetting about the little harness he was wearing that was attached to the buggy. He got the hint and fell into line, trotting along beside his pushchair.
There weren’t many people in the park, a few walkers here and there and the obligatory joggers. The ground was wet so Jon kept to the concrete path that wound between the patches of grass. A few of the trees were bare, but a lot were evergreens which gave plenty of colour to the landscape. The trees seemed to cling to the boundary fence, blocking out the town noise as soon as they passed beneath them. The park opened out, grass rolling uphill no matter what direction they went.
Jon struggled on with the buggy along the path past the war memorial on his left. Poppy wreaths could still be seen from when they were laid a month and a half ago.
Robbie ‘quacked’ with more excitement as he spotted the pond in front of them. They heard the ducks before they saw them which spurred him on.
“Alright, Robbie. Calm down or you’ll scare them off.” He immediately fell quiet, put his hands over his mouth and looked up at his father for approval with his big blue eyes.
The pond was lined with pointed black railings. There was no gentle descent into the water from where they were, it was a concrete pathway that defined the bottom end of the pond creating a need for the barrier. A rougher dirt path ran around the water on the right but it was still kept safe behind a wooden fence.
Robbie was leaning forward, straining against his restraints, his little hands holding onto the railing, straining to see the ducks he could hear.
The ducks rarely found their way up to this concrete landing so they had to feed them by throwing the food into the water. Jon leaned down, unstrapping Robbie and lifted him up, he was heavy. Jon forgot how big he was, he still thought of him as a baby. Robbie got more excited as his view of the pond and ducks became clearer the higher he got.
“Quack, quack, quack,” said Robbie, right in Jon’s ear.
Holding Robbie firmly around the middle with one arm, Jon pulled a bag of stale bread out of his pocket and un-twirled the plastic with his free hand. He gave Robbie a whole piece of bread. Robbie immediately put it into his mouth. “No, no, it’s not for you to eat, it’s for the ducks.”
“I know, you want to be a duck too, don’t you.”
Robbie kept hold of the bread while Jon pulled a piece off of it and threw it into the pond. Two ducks immediately converged on it and began squabbling, ducking their heads under the water and flapping their feet.
Robbie followed suit by throwing the remainder of the slice into the water. The large piece of bread floated and bloated on the water. It took about five ducks attacking it before it started to break up.
“You have to tear pieces off. That slice almost absorbed the whole pond.” Robbie just looked up at him, not getting the joke and expecting more bread to throw at the ducks.
Jon crouched down letting Robbie stand on his own. He grabbed the railing with his chubby fingers and pressed his face between the bars. Jon took all of the bread out of the bag and started tearing it into small pieces, putting them back in as he did it. He held the bag out for Robbie to dip his grabber into and throw the bread through the railing. He soon got the hang of it.
Jon’s phone rang. He kept the bag held out and fished in his pocket for the phone. He looked at the screen, it read ‘Mum.’
“Hello, Mum. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year to you too, Jonathan. Did you have a nice evening?” She’s the only person in the world that still calls me Jonathan. She chose the name, so I guess she gets a pass.
“Yeah, we had a night in. It was lovely, we put Robbie to bed and cuddled up on the sofa. It was perfect. How about you?”
“Hmmmm, your Father took me out to the social club. It was nice enough… Where are you, I can hear ducks.”
“Where do you think I am, Mum? I’ve bought Robbie to the park.”
“That boy has a strange predilection for ducks. You shouldn’t encourage it.”
“Why not? It’s harmless. I used to be the same with monkeys.”
“Yes I know, you had us worried for a little while. Never seen a boy eat so many bananas.”
“Well, I can’t stand them now.”
“Hmmmmm… Anyway, I just wanted to call to say I won’t be able to stay late on Thursday. I know Evie won’t be happy, but I can’t re-arrange things.”
“That’s fine, I’m on a half-day Thursday, so I’ll be home before Evie. I think she has a late shift.”
“Oh, good.” What’s wrong Mum, disappointed your stirring didn’t work? “Anyway, the girl shouldn’t be working in the first place, Jonathan. She should be at home looking after Robert.”
“Mum, drop it… And I keep telling you, your Grandson’s name is Robbie. It’s not short for anything.”
“Yes, I’m sure. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it. I’ll tell her when I get in.”
“Is she not with you?”
“No, I thought I’d give her some time alone… To paint.”
“Yes, her ‘art.’”
“OK, darling. Lovely talking to you. I shall see you soon. Take care.”
“You too, Mum. See you Thursday when I get back from work.”
All the while Robbie had been bombarding the ducks with bread, not taking the slightest bit of notice of his Dad. He only looked around at Jon when his hand found that the bag was empty. Robbie looked confused.
Jon smiled at the expression on his face. He loved it when little things confused him. It was that little jolt of surprise. As you grow up the surprises become fewer and further between. I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely surprised. Then again surprises don’t tend to be good, the older you get.
The ducks lost interest as soon as the bread ran out and dispersed. Robbie quacked at them in admonishment. Then promptly lost interest too. It seemed he was satisfied with what he’d seen.
Jon grabbed Robbie’s hand and pushing the buggy led him away from the pond. As they walked towards the grass Jon noticed a girl sitting on a bench. For a moment he thought she was watching them, then he looked closer. Her eyes seemed to be pointed in their direction but they didn’t see anything. She was in a daze. If it wasn’t for the fact that her hand moved to and fro to her mouth so she could suck on a cigarette, he would have thought she was comatose.
She looked as though she was in her teens. Her blonde bob hairdo curled down to her cheeks, it was untidy as though someone had just ruffled it up. She was very thin and pale, her cheekbones seemed to jut out making her eyes sunken. She pulled her hoodie around her as though she was cold.
Someone had a heavy New Year’s. I wonder if she slept here?
Jon was about to ask her if she was OK when her eyes suddenly focused on him. The look on her face stopped him from saying a word.
Jon walked past. He walked on until a curve in the path obscured the girl from view. He let go of Robbie’s hand and dug around under the buggy for a ball. “Want to play ball?”
Robbie ran onto the grass and put his hands up. Jon picked up the ball and gently lobed it underhand so it bounced in front of Robbie and rolled towards him. Robbie stopped it by standing still, bent over put a hand each side of it and lifted it over his head. He arched his back, thrust his arms forward and shouted. “Cat shit.”
Jon was so shocked that the ball rolled past him.
“What did you say?”
“Cat shit. Daddy you didn’t cat shit.”
Oh. Catch. It.
Jon retrieved the ball and rolled it back to him. “Just say ‘catch,’ Robbie.”
* * *
I’ve given her enough time to paint. I had no idea I was such a distraction.
He put Robbie back in the buggy and wandered towards the exit. As they rounded the bend Jon noticed that the hungover girl was gone.
Mud had caked around the wheels, so when they got back onto the pavement they started to jam. Jon couldn’t be bothered to clean them so he just carried on. It was like he’d taken a shopping trolley beyond the security sign and the wheels had locked.
It’s a shame they bought in that security measure. £1 for a trolley used to be the biggest bargain going.
The town had got a lot busier. The sale shoppers where out in force, even though the sales had started a week ago. Evie didn’t seem bothered about shopping, or bargain hunting. It was a mutually unspoken fact that they had no money to spend.
Jon thought Robbie had fallen asleep until he felt him moving around in the buggy. “Daddy, my hand tastes like mud. Urghh.”
“Don’t put it in your mouth then.” Jon smiled to himself and pointed the pushchair towards home.
Despite the chilly air he felt a warmth in his chest that spread throughout his body.
Contentment always feels like floating.
* * *
Jon lifted Robbie out of the buggy. As soon as his feet hit the floor he twisted away and ran into the front room, leaving a trail of mud behind him.
Jon finished folding the pushchair and took off his coat and boots before following him. He stood in the doorway and saw the trail leading up to Robbie clinging to his Mother with his muddy hands. He grimaced and shrugged as Evie looked his way.
“Alright?” He went over to them and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” said Evie.
Jon looked towards the blank canvas in the corner of the room. “How’d the painting go?”
Evie shot him a dark look. “No need to be sarcastic.”
“I wasn’t. I promise.”
“Oh, well it’s not going well. I just can’t get started. I went on the internet for a bit of inspiration and got sucked in… Then the time was gone.”
Jon bent down and kissed her again. “Not to worry. It’ll come eventually. You’ve just got to stick with it.” He picked up Robbie, who tried to keep hold of his mother. “I’ll take this monster and clean him up.”
By the time he’d scrubbed all the dirt off of his son and he looked human again, Evie had attacked the muddy trail through the kitchen.
“Sweetheart, I was going to clear that mess up. It was my fault after all.”
“Don’t worry. It’s done now.”
“Thank you. Would you like a cup of coffee.”
Oh, shit. She’s washed up as well. I promised I’d do that too.
He carried the drinks back into the living room. Robbie was on the floor amusing himself with whichever toy happened to be closest. Evie was sat at the computer.
Jon placed the mug of tea on the desk, leaned down and kissed Evie again. “Thank you for washing up too. I know I promised to do it. Sorry.”
“Doesn’t matter.” She didn’t look at him. She seemed absorbed by what she was reading on screen.
“What are you looking at?”
“The new Kurt Sampson article has just been posted.”
“I think you should read it too, it might be a useful exercise for both of us.”
I don’t give a shit what that charlatan has to say. But if it makes Evie happy I suppose I can give it a go. “Sure, I’ll take a look.” Jon leaned over Evie’s shoulder to peek at the screen. The title read: ‘How to be Happy.’ “Should I be worried, sweetheart? You’re reading something about being happy?” He tried to make it sound like a joke and failed.
“Evie turned toward him with a coy smile, her big green eyes looking up at him. “Don’t get paranoid, honey. I’m happy, but it never hurts to try and make things better no matter how good you have it.
That’s where we differ. It’s where we’ve always differed. I’m prepared to settle for what I’ve got.
Jon laid on the floor next to Robbie, he was playing with some blocks, he’d arranged them to spell ‘MDUEF.’
“Give me a shout when you’re done and I’ll read it. Anything to make you happy. You know that.”