‘When will he come, Ma?’ Sara asked, even though she already knew the answer.
‘In the mornin’. He’s already on the way.’
Sara had been waiting all her life to see her father. She and Ma had talked about this day for ages. Sara had been born while he was in Liverpool Prison. Six and a half years later, he was finally coming home. She wasn’t sure why he had been sent to jail. Ma had said something about a post office robbery.
Sara had never visited a prison, although she knew what they looked like from television. Ma had also brought back pictures. The building itself consisted of grey walls and small, black-barred windows. Every few months Ma had made the trip to Liverpool on the B&I ferry. She had once asked to go, but Ma had said that kids weren’t allowed. Sara thought this was wrong, but she was told it was a way they had of punishing prisoners. On returning to Dublin, Ma would tell her everything about the visit.
Sara picked up a creased photograph and stared at it for a long time. It showed him sitting in his cell, a huge red poster of the Liverpool football team pinned on the wall behind him. She held up another photo of him standing, hairy arms folded across his chest, staring directly back at her. He never smiled in any of his pictures, whereas Ma looked as if she’d die from laughing in some of hers. Sara saw the tattoos running down his thick arms. She told herself she would get some when she was older.
She began asking Ma what would happen when he returned. It had become a little game they played which she never tired of.
‘Tell us again, whah we’ll do when he comes home?’
‘Okay,’ Ma smiled, ruffling her black curly hair, ‘he’ll get off the boat an’ he’ll be carryin’ a red Liverpool shoulder bag with all his clothes an’ stuff. He’ll come up along the docks, then tum into Pier Street. He’ll cut down through Jane Place then cross into Portside Lane. Then he’ll tum into the flats. He’ll be singin’ as he comes up them stairs.’
‘Is he a good singer, Ma?’
‘Thinks he’s another bleedin’ Michael Bolton, he does,’ she laughed. ‘Now, where was I?’
‘He’ll walk up the stairs.’
‘Yeah, then he’ll knock on the hall door an’ …’
‘An’ where will we be while this is gain’ on?’
‘We’ll be in here. He wants us to be home waitin’ for him.’
‘Whah happens when he comes in the door?’
‘He’ll drop his bag on the floor and sweep yeh up in his huge arms an’ hug yeh so hard yeh’ll be ready to burst.’
‘I won’t burst!’ Sara laughed. ‘An’ thah’s when I say ‘welcome home’ to him?’ Her mother nodded.
‘An’ then it’s your tum to hug him?’
‘If he hasn’t given ’em all away to Sara Bollard!’
‘Whah comes after?’
‘You tell me!’
‘We’ll all have chocolate cake an’ lemonade an’ then whah’s next, Ma?’
‘Yeh’ll go next door to Tina’s for a while, won’t yeh?’
‘Why do I have to go there?’
Ma had never mentioned this before. ‘So me an’ him can talk for a while.’
‘Never yeh mind … it’s mammy an’ daddy talk.’
‘Can I jus’ stay here an’ listen?’
‘Enough, Sara.’ Ma’s voice hardened a little. ‘Yer gain’ to Tina’s, okay?’
‘Okay.’ Sara mumbled.
‘Listen girl,’ Ma leaned closer, ‘yeh won’t tell him about them other people who came here?’ She gripped Sara’s wrist tightly.
‘If yeh do he’ll get mad an’ go away again. It’ll be all your fault.’ She ran her tongue along her upper lip. ‘Yeh won’t say a word?’
‘No, Ma,’ Sara made the sign of the cross under her chin, ‘swear.’
‘Cos if yeh do, then he’ll go an’ tell the social worker on me.’ Sara looked into her mother’s troubled eyes.
‘Promise yeh won’t say anythin’ to him about those men? Nor the woman either?’
‘I won’t, Ma.’
He was coming home. She’d never say anything to upset him.
‘Okay, let’s watch Oprah, then we’ll do some cleanin’ up.’
A few times Ma had brought a fat, blondy woman home with her. Sara liked her because she was real nice and always brought something for her to eat. Sara could tell they were having a great time together, laughing and giggling in the bedroom.
‘Yer a good little girl, Sara.’ As Oprah ended, Ma reached over and kissed her forehead, then began to tickle her. Sara rolled around the sofa laughing so much that tears ran down her face.
‘Can we all go to Burger King when I get back from Tina’s?’
‘If yer Da is not too tired. Let’s wait an’ see, okay?’
Sara had gone to Tina’s lots of times, whenever Ma had people with her. Sometimes if Tina wasn’t able to take her in, she was told to stay in the front room and watch television. Sara liked that. If she got hungry she could help herself to whatever food she wanted, provided there was some around.
Once she even saw them doing it; the time the man made her watch. Ma had said no to him. Even when he gave her a lot of money, she still said no. Then he whispered something in Ma’s ear and her face turned pale. Sara had told him that she wanted to watch the telly but he made her stay. He sat her down on the window-sill. Every so often he caught Sara’s eye, then smiled down at Ma. There was less of the moaning and laughing that Sara usually heard. It was all over more quickly than usual too so Sara got back to the front room in time for Den TV, her favourite.
‘Never again,’ Ma said after the man left, ‘thah mad bastard isn’t comin’ here any more.’
When the morning finally came, everything was ready. Ma had completely cleaned the flat the previous night. Places were scrubbed that Sara had never seen clean before. Ma had even stuck shiny red plastic flowers in the flowerbox on the front window-sill. The real ones had died months ago. As Ma cleaned out the kitchen, she played the tape of her favourite song over and over. She said the song was old long before she was even born. Sara sang along with her.
‘Somethin’s gotten hold of my heart
Keepin’ my soul an’ my senses apart
Somethin’s gotten into my life
Cuttin’ its way through my dreams
like a knife… ‘
Later Ma had shown her new clothes to Tina. She held out a pair of panties and laughed.
‘I bought ’em the last time I was in Liverpool. Digger tol’ me to wear these. He wants to make up for lost time, ya know like?’
‘It’s been a while,’ Tina said,’ he’ll eat his way through them things in no time!’
‘He’ll be hungry enough, thah’s for sure!’
‘Whah kind are they?’
‘This one is chocolate an’ the others are strawberry.’
‘God, he’s gain’ to make a meal of yeh, isn’t he?’
They both laughed again.
‘It’s an awful long time for a man to go wantin’ it, y’know?’
‘Who are yeh tellin’, Josie? D’yeh know whah my Richie did when he came out of Mountjoy for Christmas? We spent thah whole day…’
She glanced over at Sara and dropped her voice to whisper in Ma’s ear. She clenched her fist and jabbed it again and again under Ma’s smilin’ face.
‘Oooh … it hurt so lovely.’
Soon they were both shrieking and clapping like little girls.
For the hundredth time that day Sara leaned over the top balcony of the flats and watched to see if her father was coming.
‘Be careful,’ Ma yelled. ‘Christ, climb any higher an’ yeh’ll fall over.’
Sara knew that Ma was uneasy. She had spent most of the morning sitting in front of the television, drinking bottles of cider and smoking her way through twenty Blue. Sara had to go next door to Tina’s flat for more cigarettes. Ma was wearing her new red dress with the lowcut front. Sara wore the navy blue jumper suit that Ma had bought her in Guineys. Every so often, Ma looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. She kept whispering to herself.
Someone knocked loudly on the kitchen window and Sara jumped. Ma tossed her cigarette into a saucer and moved quickly towards the window.
‘He’s comin’,’ Tina shouted through the glass pane. ‘He’s outside the front gates with a couple of his old pals. Any minute now he’ll be comin’ up them steps. Are yeh ready?’
‘Ready as I’ll ever be! He say’s he’s got all kinds of advice of whah to do to me from the fellas in his prison section.’
She winked at Tina who giggled.
‘Yeh look lovely in red. Will yeh come over an’ tell me all about it later on?’
‘If I can get me legs to move I will,’ Ma patted her hair,
‘otherwise use yer imagination!’
Tina turned, peering over the balcony.
‘Here he comes! I’m off. See yeh later, Josie.’
Sara was too excited to sit and wait. She ran to the window and pulled back the net curtain. ‘I see him, Ma! He’s comin’ along the block.’
Sara ran to the door, then stopped, suddenly hesitant. She saw his shadow through the frosted glass. The door opened and he stood before her. He was taller than she had ever imagined. His red hair was short and he wore blue jeans and a red shirt that said Liverpool FC. He carried a red shoulder bag slung over one shoulder, just like Ma said. A snake choking a nude woman rippled on his bare arm. He glanced down at Sara then stepped around her.
‘I’m Sara,’ she said shyly, moving sideways just enough to block him. ‘Welcome home.’
‘Well, whah have we here?’
He bent down and picked her up a like a rag doll, tossing her into the air and catching her tightly.
‘How’s the young one doin’?’
His fingers pressed hard into Sara’s body. She smelled beer and cigarettes and saw yellow teeth. He was smiling, except for his eyes, which seemed to be staring right past her. Sara felt confused, wishing he’d hug her but also wanting to be put down. He held her at a distance, as if examining her. Then he gripped her jaw and turned it from side to side.
‘She looks just like yeh, Josie.’
He carried Sara into the front room and dropped her onto the sofa. She wasn’t ready and fell over. She lay on her back, watching him look at Ma, who sat on the edge of the armchair, just staring back.
Sara thought he’d be singing. She thought he would hug her and that Ma would run to them and they’d all hug each other. But he just stood there, as if waiting to be invited in -not singing at all. Ma sat stiff as a statue, cigarette smoke drifting from her nose.
‘I saw yeh in all the photos,’ Sara said slowly.
But he paid no attention. He kept staring at Ma, who slowly rose from her chair. Carefully she tapped cigarette ash into the saucer.
‘So yeh finally got here an’ brought somethin’ with yeh.’
Ma glanced down a little. ‘Is thah a gun yer carryin’?’
‘It’s been a long time, Jo.’
‘Do yeh wanna see the pictures, Da?’
Sara’s voice was softer now, less certain. Ma was standing in front of him now, smiling. She took one last deep drag on her cigarette and flicked it into the fireplace. Red lipstick had come off on the cigarettes and cider bottle and her eyes were wide and glassy, just like his. Ma looked at Sara and pointed towards the hall door. She knew what that meant.
‘We have cake for us to eat,’ she offered quickly.
Ma let out a gasp as he pulled her close pressing her to his chest. Then his hands were all over her. Sara watched as he unzipped Ma’s dress from the back and it fell to the floor. Still clutching her, he backed her towards the bedroom.
‘Can I sit on the window-sill?’ Sara called to the retreating figures.
‘Whah’s she sayin ?’ he asked.
‘Nothin’, Digger,’ Ma said quickly. ‘It’s nothin’ at all.”
There was anger in Ma’s eyes, the same scared look from the time the man had made Sara watch. Then Da picked her up and carried her into the bedroom, kicking the door shut behind him.
‘I’ll watch the telly,’ Sara whispered to the slammed door, ‘and go to Tina’s later.’
She turned on the set, then went into the kitchen. Taking the chocolate sponge cake from the fridge, she cut off a thick slice. She turned up the sound. Dustin the turkey and Socky the bear were screeching ‘Happy Birthday’ to boys and girls all over Ireland. Then the Spelling Bee came on and buzzed around the screen. It formed the letter ‘S’ and a picture of a ship appeared.
Sara looked at the bedroom door and hoped that they wouldn’t be too long in there. She paused as she was about to lick cream from the cake. A loud moan came from inside. Sara walked quietly to the bedroom door and listened, but couldn’t tell if Ma was laughing of crying. She stared at the cake in her palm, then carefully scooped off some of the creamy brown topping and shoved it into the keyhole. She used more cream to make the letter ‘S’ on the door, then hesitated, hearing the music for Dinoblasters behind her. She quickly smeared the remaining spongy goo all over the door knob, then ran and squatted before the screen just as a tyrannosaurus bellowed its welcome. Watching, she absently licked chocolate cream from her fingers.