Short Fiction by Jane Idrissi
His mother had been a fan of the Ford Cortina. Like her son, she had admired the shape, their finesse. Finesse. Through him, she had acquired an interest in cars; we’re just two car freaks spotting on Holloway Road, they used to sing to the tune of Wish You Were Here. But this February morning, almost a year after her death, as Khalil sat on the top deck with his eyes trained on Holloway Road, there were no Ford Cortinas. By the time the bus reached his stop at Seven Sisters: not a single one.
Sleet seeped through the canvas of his sneakers while he waited outside the shop. Fat snowflakes, like mini ghosts, caught in his hair and on his eyelashes. With the sleeves of his jacket pulled over his hands, he hugged his rucksack to his chest. Then the door opened, and the owner came out with a broom.
Khalil pointed to a display of radio control cars on a shelf behind the counter. He had saved a full year for the Mardave Marauder. He had red paint, a fine brush, and the whole day ahead of him. But it would be another six more months before he went to see his aunt. Another one hundred and eighty-three days until he would let his car rip on her isolated farm with nobody around to watch.
It was the summer after his mother’s death when he got his Knight Rider kite. He rushed straight from the store on Tottenham High Street and headed directly to the park, for it was the right kind of weather, windy and warm, the sun in and out. The kite shot right up to the sky, spiralling, shimmering. And Khalil forgot everything. Until two teenage lads, the taller in a trilby hat, the other one shaved, suddenly were hanging over him, badgering Khalil for a go. With the string wound tightly around his fist, he firmly stood his ground. But the trilby boy had a razor blade and he cut him clean across his knuckles.
When Khalil ran home, his father flew into a temper. “What is the matter with you! Crying like a baby! You can’t you stand up for yourself!” His father threw down his paintbrush. “Toughen up, Khalil,” he shouted, grabbing his jacket. “Now I have to go and stand up for you! How will I ever get to finish my work!” “Always trouble,” he grumbled, always bloody trouble.” He slammed the door so hard behind them, the portrait of the nude woman fell off the easel and hit the floor face down.
The whole way back to the park, his father walked ten paces ahead. He never said a word to Khalil who watched him from behind, fixing his eyes on a greyish mark below the left shoulder of his black leather jacket, trying to work out if it was paint because it looked like it might be bird shit.
The teenagers turned to greet his father with big ugly grins on their faces, and the kite plunged down hitting the grass with a thud. “Here’s Daddy,” they jeered. “Hey Pops,” they laughed. “Go home now!” He commanded his son, spitting through gritted teeth.
Khalil climbed over the gate at the side of his house to wait in the tiny garden. In the middle of the plot was a Cherry Tree planted by his mother moons ago. A mini wood surrounded by a concrete land; the tree cast the patch in shade where little else grew except wildflowers. Khalil poked about in the earth, kicking up mud with his foot, crouching down to collect small stones, and picking twigs from here and there. The clank of the front door closing made him look up; through the window he saw his father enter the kitchen. He watched him unlock the back door, heard his footsteps fading down the hallway. From the next house came the sound of Pearl singing.
In the kitchen, Khalil found his kite thrown on the table. He picked it up, saw that there was a big slit through the bonnet, and a chunk missing from one of the back wheels, ripped as if by hand. He found some scissors in a drawer and cut a length from the string. He turned on the tap, dipped his mouth to drink from the faucet, and then he went back outside.
Khalil must have worked on that catapult for at least a couple of hours, shaving the twigs until smooth with his penknife; finding the exact right size of stones; cleaning them with spit and polishing them on his jeans. He had made a fine thing. His stomach was hollow with hunger. He knew he needed food. His father had cooked meatballs in sauce the previous night. On the stove, there were some left in the pot. Khalil spooned them out cold and ate them with hunks of bread.
His father’s studio had once been their family living room. Now, hectic, psychedelic jazz thrashed from within. Khalil hesitated in front of the closed door then he quietly slipped out of the house. On his road, two kids he knew were knocking about with a football. They called out for Khalil to join them but, shaking his head, he moved on up the street.
Except for a few people walking their dogs and a young couple snogging on a bench, the park was almost empty. The sky had turned mauve. Soon the gates would be locked. Khalil took the catapult out of his pocket and felt along the wood with his finger. It was smooth even over the ridges.
In a nearby tree, tweeting raucously, a group of songbirds had gathered. Khalil was momentarily puzzled. He thought they only sang in the mornings. He had once heard that mockingbirds can identify and dive bomb people who have threatened their nests, but he wasn’t sure if they nested in England. He thought probably not. They were a North American bird; he was pretty sure of that.
He had two stones in his pocket. He aimed and fired. In a rush of feathers, the birds all scattered, bar one, smaller, scruffy-looking. This tiny bird seemed to be daring him and so he fired a second time. Khalil killed the bird instantly. He walked over to the corpse, picked it up off the ground. Then he broke down, great sobs wracking through his chest. He fell to his knees, crying. He stayed like that for a time. He heard a loud whistle and, looking up, he saw the park keeper standing by the gates. Khalil took off his t-shirt and carefully wrapped the dead bird.
He took the short cut back through the gardens of some derelict houses. At the corner of his road, he noticed someone loitering. He recognised that trilby hat. It was the lad he had been looking for but now he had no stones, just a dead bird wrapped in his t-shirt, and him all bare chested. “Hey, batty boy,” taunted the teen, “fucking pussy like your daddy!” His laughter, hyper, tore through the quiet street but Khalil did not run. He kept a steady walk all the way back to his house.
It was pitch black when he buried the bird under the Cherry Tree. Even though it was still only around half past eight, the house was in darkness; there was no light from inside either. He placed his catapult on the tiny grave made up of the rest of the stones set neatly around the edges. The back door wasn’t locked, and he let himself in through the kitchen. He was hungry again but there was nothing in the fridge except some crusty cheese and, old tomatoes. He saw a nearly empty bottle of whisky on the table. He took a swig and felt the lick of fire in his throat.
When he got back from school the next day his father was still in his dressing gown. For the first time in months, Khalil saw him smile. He had finished and sold a painting, to an important client, he told his son. “Let’s go and buy you a new kite,” he clapped, “I’ll go get dressed!” “It’s okay,” Khalil mumbled. Leaving his shoes neatly on the mat by the back door the way his mother had always taught him, he carried on upstairs to his room.
For most of the night, he had dreamed he was falling. Around daybreak, he woke – to tapping and ringing – and slipped back to clinging, and falling again. The radiators knocked, intermittently. An alarm, outside, wouldn’t stop. February light leaked through the shutters. Khalil stirred in a sweat. It was Saturday. The first Saturday for a while in which he had no plans.
He lay on the sofa watching tv. On the news flashed pictures of London. All the chaos caused by snow. At bus stops, people stranded; overground train stations, mostly closed. He sat up and looked through the window. Passing by, he spotted the top of a woolly hat. He switched channels to a documentary, Remembering David Bowie. In his lap, his mobile rang. He glanced at it and dismissed the call, settled back down to watch.
For hours, couched, zapping, he barely moved. Until, he stretched, gloriously reaching his arms over his head. Then he lifted his legs, swivelled around and rocked himself to standing. After another big stretch, he opened his chest, rolled his shoulders, and tilted his head from side to side. He worked the tension in his neck, gently turning, clicking and sighing, clicking and sighing, to the right and the left. It took him several minutes to achieve fluid click-free circles.
In the kitchen, he got a beer from the fridge and opened up his laptop. His screensaver, an orange, green and black mountain bike, was the one he was intending to buy. At some point, in the future, when he had moved to the country. At some point, in the future, that was his plan. Right now, though, he needed pizza. Or, maybe Chinese? He was torn. He could just order both. Khalil went for pepperoni pizza, extra chilli oil, large.
His father had left him seven voicemails. Without listening, Khalil deleted each one, and then he turned off his phone. His pizza sat restfully in his belly; the beer was going down well. He made a mental note to straighten that canvas, on the wall, two irregular orange squares melding to black. For now, he couldn’t be arsed. The painting could wait. As could his father. Just a couple of nights ago, he had got another call from Pearl. “Not my problem,” he had told her, “why don’t you call the police.” But he had gone over there anyway, found the old man lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of stale piss.
The snow on his mother’s headstone was tinged blue in the dim light. Khalil crouched down, brushed the ice away with his hands. Standing up, he blew on his frozen fingers. He heard a child’s voice, turning, he saw a young boy and a man stood by a nearby grave. The boy was wearing a beanie, the shape of a Tyrannosaurus rex, just visible in the dusk. After a time, the boy took off his hat and lay it carefully on the grave. Car lights swept across the churchyard. The man squatted next to the boy and Khalil watched them, two shifting shadows, packing and piling up snow. Until a stubby silver snowman emerged from the dark.
His father’s house was in darkness when he pulled up outside. Pearl’s light was on next door. Through the thin blind in the bay window, he could make out her shadow. From his car he called her number, watched her strain from the sofa to pick up the phone. She told him that she had not seen his father since yesterday. She knocked at lunchtime to drop off some groceries. “Well, you know, Khal,” she said, “he was up and about.”
And now his father was lying in fresh sheets, his body newly cleaned. His mouth, a baby sparrow, as his son fed him soup. He would leave a glass of whisky to get him through the night. Tomorrow, he already knew, the doctor would not be able to help. But, Khalil, he will keep trying.