Daddy left the Christmas they lived by the sea. The small rented flat on the beach road had dirty white walls and a shiny red patio that smelt of cherries. The summer was hot, and the holidays seemed to roll up into one everlasting day. Rebecca did not go to the beach. Instead, she moved between the kitchenette, where Mother drank tea, and the balcony, where she would sit watching the neighbourhood boys float paper boats down the gutters.
But most of the time she stayed in the main bedroom where Daddy worked on the puppet he said was his last, his most special. Daddy smelt of wood varnish, warm cigarettes and Old Spice. He shaved each morning now, which Rebecca thought was a good idea because it was too hot for the full beard he used to wear.
Wooden puppets had filled the rooms of their city home until the day Mother packed them all into boxes. The puppets were modelled on the very characters that Rebecca found in her storybooks. Knights in armour, witches with warts, bears with hard, jagged fur, and even a wolf with cotton white teeth and claws. The same day a man in blue overalls arrived in a van to take them all away. The arms and legs of the puppets dangled from the sides of the boxes as the man carried them outside. When they were all gone, he dug a pen from his front pocket, signed a piece of paper on a clipboard and gave it to Mother. Then the man looked briskly around the room and closed the door behind him.
That evening Mother decided to cook stew for dinner. The butcher down the street, with his lamb chop sideburns and bloody apron, offered Mother the marrow bones she usually took to make the soup Daddy loved. But Mother said she wanted stewing meat instead.
When Daddy arrived home from the fairground, tired yet jovial, he found the kitchen filled with the rich smells from the stove. He smiled as he went over to the pot and lifted the lid. Then he turned to Mother, scratching his beard with a baffled look on his face.
“Rebecca, go read in the living room, sweety,” said Mother.
On the sofa, Rebecca crossed her legs beneath her and opened her book to the story about the tin soldier. A story she knew by heart.
“Where are they?”
Daddy’s voice rose, loud and harsh, like a giant. It did not sound like Daddy at all. He pushed his way into the living room with hard steps. Mother followed him, but went no further than the kitchen door. He stood in front of the empty cabinet and held it, pressing his weight against it as if to wrestle it to the floor.
“John,” said Mother in a quiet voice. “Be reasonable.”
But Daddy did not look at her. The cabinet began to shake because Daddy was shaking. Rebecca opened her book as wide as it would go until the spine began to bend and crack. On the page the little black goblin leapt from a snuffbox. Her parents did not look at her. The strong smell of stew drifted into the room.
“What about upstairs?” Daddy said, pressing his head against the glass of the cabinet.
“Please,” said Mother. “We can’t go on like this.”
Daddy pushed himself back from the cabinet and bounded up the staircase.
“John,” said Mother. “Please, think of your daughter.”
But Daddy did not reply. He didn’t make any sound at all.
Rebecca sat at the dinner table alone that evening. She moved the potatoes around on her plate until they were cold. She did not touch the pieces of meat. Mother drank cups of tea and read through the newspaper, circling ads with a red crayon that she’d taken from Rebecca’s schoolbag. Daddy stayed upstairs. The air of his cigarettes settled in every room with the stink of a moth-eaten old blanket.
The next morning, when he came downstairs, he wore a grey suit and his face was clean shaven.
When he left the sea air grew cooler. The neighbourhood boys still played with paper boats in the gutters in the street below. With Mother locked in her room, Rebecca dangled her new puppet from above. A one-legged soldier made of wood. Daddy’s last, his most special. She thought then about the ballerina, loved by the soldier made of tin, and how, against all odds, he had made his way back.
Rebecca knew little about love, but she let the puppet go.
First published in Writings, Kingston University Press, 2013.
Artwork by London based art student Siobhan Lynch. Half Filipino, a tad Irish and a bit of an obsessive painter. Siobhan’s overall work looks at anthropomorphism, with a special love for piggies.