Circling the wagons

It was the end of one of those damp grey London days where the sun never really rises and the drizzle never really turns into rain. Just like the night their father was killed.

She knew the words from the police statement by heart:

“A man ran from the house, carrying something in his right hand. At the gate, he turned towards me but he ran the other way when he saw me. He dropped whatever he was carrying as he reached the corner. I dropped my shopping and ran inside. I found my father lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.”

Chris could see Jackie and Catherine moving about by the cut back oil drum that was serving as an incinerator, sexless in their quilted coats. Catherine wasn’t much help at all, not really, but it wasn’t the usual spoiled princess bit. She’d dreamed of the day Grandpa would take her child down to the lock-up to show off his treasures and instead here they were, consigning it all to trash. She and Catherine had squabbled their whole lives. Time to give it a rest.

And it was almost done now, anyway. A big pile for the charity shop. Another for the council to collect. Guy and Steve could shift the rest on the weekend, hire a van.

He’d been staying with Chris while their mother was in the hospital having a stent put in her heart. When the procedure was over and she was awake and fine, he’d confessed he’d rather be in his own home, without all the noise and dogs and kids. She’d joked that she could use the break too, and she’d driven him home after supper. The police – and everyone else – said she shouldn’t blame herself, that if she’d gone in with him they might both be dead. In her heart, she knew they were right but that didn’t stop her worrying the if-onlys like a rosary.

She’d only nipped round to Somerfield for some milk and bread, couldn’t have been more than five or ten minutes. She noticed the front door was ajar as she was parking and truth be told her heart started pounding right then, even as she told herself it was probably nothing. Her hands were shaking. She knew.

Their mother had come once, that first time, but she couldn’t face the task. She had never pried when he was alive, she said, wasn’t going to start now. Guy had caught Chris’s eye then. She looked away. Later that night, when the kids were in bed, he promised her there was nothing left, nothing to embarrass her and the kids if the worst should ever happen.

She joined her sisters on the forecourt. “I found something scandalous,” she said, holding aloft a pile of batik shirts. Jackie grabbed them from her with a shriek of laughter.

“No! Remember when I found him rescuing them? When was that? Forty years ago?”

These bloody ugly shirts were dad’s biggest vice.” Catherine’s voice threatened tears again.

“I still wouldn’t let him wear them,” said Jackie. That was her job: keep it light, keep the peace. Piggy in the middle.

“We can call it a day if you like,” Chris said. Catherine shook off the suggestion.

“I’m sorry. Hormones.” She stood, her belly vast with potential.

“Remember that awful joke he used to tell. Hormones. Whore-moans?”

“Don’t! Jax, please!”

It worked though. They all cheered up a bit thinking about their father’s awful jokes. Catherine started feeding the shirts into the fire. Chris grabbed one from her.

“Charity!” she said, aghast.

“They’ve got holes in them.” Her tone was snippy: I’m not stupid, it said. Chris quelled her irritation.

“I’m sorry, carry on.” She rubbed Catherine’s bump.

“No, I’m sorry.” They smiled at each other. Count the blessings.

Putting a name to the face was the thing that gave her peace. In the minutes, weeks, hours afterwards that’s what she saw: over and over and over. A man in a hood running from her parents’ house, turning towards her – time moving so slowly; did she speak, did she shout? – and then in a flash he was gone. As she called the police, as she watched while the paramedics tried to revive her father, as she sat in the ambulance holding his hand, that’s all she could see. She’d wake in fright as he turned towards her in her dreams, a blank inside the hood where his face should be. When she’d found him in the files, she’d cried with relief. Julius Donaldson. Now when she dreamed she saw his face.

Their father never regained consciousness. His last words to her were ‘see if they’ve got any jaffa cakes – the proper ones’. Everyone said it was lucky they caught the guy. Apparently that was the big consolation prize for losing your Dad just weeks after Christmas: “they caught the culprit”. Everyone said so, and they all looked gratefully at Chris. Some people patted her on the arm, like she was getting an award at school.

The police theory was that he’d been watching the house, figured it to be empty. He’d been upstairs when she’d dropped her father off and panicked when he was disturbed. No prior record of violence, they said, as though that should be a comfort. They made her pick him out of a line up. Guy wanted to come but she went alone, shaking like a leaf the whole time. She thought it would feel good but afterwards she sat in the car crying for an hour. She’d have to do it all again in court.

By the time they left the lock-up, stripped of everything that had made it their father’s, the day was drawing close. The ground was wet from the drizzle and street lights and house lights shimmered in watery reflections. It was quiet, like when it snows, with everyone hunkered down indoors. They chatted inconsequentially. At one point Catherine stopped and clutched her side, making Jackie and Chris fuss, but it was just a kick. Then, out of the gloom on the other side of the road, came a flickering white light. It seemed to meander back and forth, even as it strobed.

“What is that woman doing?” said Chris. They all paused, an edge of fear darkening the evening, and peered at the apparition.

“It’s a bicycle.” Chris laughed, her fear dissipating. She’d thought it was a woman with a torch, walking with a tall, bald man. She couldn’t think why you’d have or use a torch like that, but a bicycle made sense! The boys walked under a streetlight then. Two black youths, the taller of the two wearing a pale beanie, the other steering the bike with one hand, the light wavering as the front wheel wobbled side to side.

“What is that woman doing?” Jackie’s tone was perfect mimicry, except for the emphasis on ‘woman’. Catherine joined in, always happy to gang up on big sister.

“Should have gone to Specsavers!” she said, “You’ve always had terrible night vision, Chris”. The words flew out easily enough but they hung in the air. Over the other side of the road the boys continued on their way. A car went past, wet tyres squelching on the wet tarmac. A lifetime of memories crowded the space between them.

Chris spoke first.

“It must have been the strobing. Crazy.” She couldn’t quite meet her sisters’ eyes, so she started walking. Catherine looked to Jackie. Jackie looked at Chris’s receding figure.

“Crazy,” she said aloud, rubbing Catherine’s belly. “Auntie Chris is crazy.” She tilted her head towards Chris. Catherine nodded imperceptibly and they started walking together, taking a few quick steps to catch up to Chris.

“We should have kept one of those shirts for Mum,” Jackie said. “She’d love it.” She slipped her arm through Chris’ and squeezed her arm.

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