It was about half nine in the morning. He was talking to his oldest cousin on Xbox live, playing FIFA 12, when his father discovered him.
‘I thought you were staying home to study,’ his father said.
‘I am. After this.’ He was in his pyjamas and had the lilac duvet about his shoulders.
‘So you skived off the sports day to develop your thumb muscles.’ His father made this gesture, as if he were holding an invisible game console, moving his thumbs in almost an obscene way. ‘Yeah, those thumb muscles must be well developed alright.’
‘I’m studying after this,’ he said.
He went down to the kitchen not long afterwards. His father was sitting on the leather chair at the top of the table listening to the news on the radio. This was his father’s favourite chair. It was made of black leather, now worn to a lighter colour at the armrests. His father had a red mug of coffee on the table in front of him. It smelt good.
He waited until the news on the radio was over. He wasn’t really looking at his father when he said: ‘Any food?’
His father switched off the radio. ‘Hmm, any food?’ his father repeated, as if he was pondering a serious problem. ‘Yes, I think there’s a distinct possibility that we have food in this house,’ his father said, getting up and then going towards the largest cupboard and opening it. ’Oh look, ‘ his father said, ’it’s full of food. Isn’t that amazing? And all I did was open the cupboard door. Quite phenomenal.’
Then his father gave him one of those strange smiles, the one where you knew he wasn’t seriously smiling. A kind of fake smile—like the paralysed smile of Uncle Joseph after he had his stroke.
‘Let me show you how this works,’ his father said. ‘You see, you get a packet of cornflakes like this.’ He shook the packet to make a noise. ‘Then you put a bowl on the table like this.’ He took a white bowl from the lower press and put it on the table.
‘Then you put some cornflakes into the bowl—usually you put roughly the amount that you wish to consume. Then you put milk on the cornflakes—and sugar—if you’re that way inclined—and of course you are… that way inclined. Then you put a spoon into the cornflakes and you put the cornflakes into your mouth. Make sure always to open your mouth. I’m sure you can manage to open your mouth. In fact, I know you can open your mouth—because I’ve seen you yawning. This is called “eating”. It’s a skill worth mastering. I think you’ll find it very useful in life. If you’ve any problems just come back to me.’
He said nothing. He sat at the table in front of the empty bowl and watched his father going into the TV room. Then he heard his father call from the TV room: ‘Where’s the remote control? Any idea where the remote is?’
He went into the TV room. His father was standing in the middle of the room looking around him. He noticed his father’s clothes. He wore a brown checked shirt, relaxed-fit jeans rolled up at the bottom and a thick brown leather belt around his large stomach. He wore brown crocs made of rubber that looked like leather.
‘I’d say the possibility of finding the remote is very remote,’ his father said.
’Try the back of the couch,’ he said.
‘You try the back of the couch,’ his father said.
He found the remote control behind a yellow cushion on the couch and handed it to his father.
‘Now for some education,’ his father said, pointing the remote at the TV and pressing the button. ’You stay here and we can watch this together.’ His father placed the yellow cushion in the corner of the couch and leaned back on it.
He didn’t really want to stay. His father watched the History Channel and the Discovery Channel all the time; he could speak at length about asteroids and dinosaurs and natural disasters and tank battles and the First World War and the Second World War and Hitler and how they make all sort of things like biscuits and baseballs. His father paused the programme. The image froze on the screen. ‘Hitler’s Henchmen’ it said in red lettering on a black and white grainy background.
He sat on the couch beside his father.
‘Good,’ his father said. ’You need to watch this because this could all happen again.’
‘Hitler could come again?’
‘No, Hitler’s dead,’ his father said.
‘I know that,’ he said. ‘I was just wondering what you meant.’
‘What I mean is… is that there are plenty of headbangers out there just waiting, just waiting for the right opportunity to take over. Someone is waiting in the wings, just waiting.’ Now his father looked really serious. His father did not unpause the screen. Instead, he sat back and drank the last of his coffee from the red mug. ’Ah, that’s good coffee,’ his father said. ’One cup of coffee every day is fine. Everything in moderation—including moderation.’ This was something he said a lot. ‘A glass of red is fine. That doesn’t mean that twenty glasses of wine are twenty times better.’
That reminded him of that time two weeks ago in the small wine shop on the corner—the one that called itself a wine boutique. They had gone to buy a special bottle of wine for his mother’s birthday. His father had asked the young man in the shop if he could recommend a good Bordeaux. His father wanted this wine because they had rented a large villa with a swimming pool in the Bordeaux area two summers previously. They had nice memories of that time. ‘Would you have a good bottle of Graves?’ his father asked. ‘That’s her favourite.’
‘How about this one?’ the young man said, showing him a bottle. ‘Now remember you can’t leave the Graves breathe too long. You need to drink it quickly.’
‘No problem there,’ his father had joked. ‘Straight down the hatch.’
But the young man didn’t smile or laugh. He wanted him to laugh at his father’s humour. He felt tense and embarrassed.
And then at the birthday party, just as his mother was about to blow out the candles on the cake in front of all the guests, his father had said, ‘Hold it!’ as he tried to find the video function on his iPhone. And everyone had to wait while his father fiddled around with the phone until he stepped in to show his father how to do it. Then his mother blew out the candles. That night he heard his parents arguing in their bedroom. It was the first time he had heard his father screaming. He heard the words: ‘I told you… I’m trying. I’m trying. I’m fucking trying.’
His own birthday was coming up soon. He would be thirteen. His mother said he could have special treats for his birthday week at the breakfast table. ‘It’s your birthday week,’ his mother said.
‘What exactly is a birthday week?’ his father asked. ‘Why don’t we have a birthday month? Or even a birthday year and every day could be your birthday. Then every day can be special, but if every day is special, then it’s not so special.’
He did not understand why his father came out with all this random stuff and why he spoke so rapidly sometimes, as if he didn’t care if anybody was listening. And then his father did get annoyed if he didn’t listen.
Now his father was speaking again. ‘You need a checklist before you go to school. You need to remember to bring everything… your coat, your lunch, your homework… how could you forget that? If you think I’ve the time to be traipsing up to your school in the middle of the day, then think again, sunshine. I’ve a lot on my plate.’
He noticed his father had a coffee stain on his upper lip. It matched the colour of his checked shirt.
‘Yes, a lot on my plate,’ his father said. ‘I was up at six thirty this morning answering my e-mails.’
‘Did that take long?’ he asked.
Now his father gave him that strange smile again, the paralysed one. ’Nice one,’ his father said. ’I like it. I like it. Oh yes, there’s nothing like a little bit of niggle. You and your mother are good at it. Both of you. You really know how to do it.’
‘I was just asking,’ he said.
‘Of course, you were just asking,’ his father said. ‘I like it,’ his father was saying, shaking his head, smiling as though he was remembering some funny thing that happened. ‘Hmm,’ his father said. And then he stopped. His father looked at him and said: ‘I think you’re a minmax man. I’d say you are.’
He felt his father wanted him to ask a question, but when he did not ask the question, his father said, ’Minimum effort for maximum output. Minmax. That’s you. I’m the same.’
He felt sort of good when his father said they were the same.
His father now pointed the remote control at the TV and he thought his father would unpause the TV, but he didn’t. His father stared at the frozen screen and then turned to him and asked: ‘Do you know what a severance package is?”
‘I think so. I’m not sure,’ he said.
’Severance,’ his father said. ‘It comes from the word “sever”. The sort of thing you do with a hatchet. I’ve a very generous severance package. I’ve been generously severed. You needn’t worry about me.’ Then his father placed the remote control on the armrest and got up suddenly. ‘I’ve things to do, and you need to get food inside you.’ He followed his father back into the kitchen. His father was standing by the sink close to the dishwasher, looking out the window into the back garden.
‘I’m going to mow the lawn,’ his father said.
‘You did that yesterday.’
‘Well, I’m going to do it again today—before your mother gets home from work.’ His father then opened the dishwasher. A waft of steam was released and his father stood back allowing the steam to clear.
He sat back down at the table in front of the empty cereal bowl. He wanted to say some things to his father. He wanted to tell his father about his match on the Xbox yesterday evening. He had played this older guy from Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro. Some randomer, who tried to speak English but he couldn’t really understand him. And the Brazilian guy went two nil up, and every time the Brazilian guy scored he shouted really loud in Brazilian, so he had to take off the head phones to concentrate. He had concentrated really hard and tried new stuff and he scored two goals to equalise and then right at the end he scored the winner. His goal was unbelievable. He skilled two players and scored with a rainbow flick. It was unbelievable. And this random guy, the Brazilian guy, was really quiet now. He had recorded the goals and he could show his father. His father would probably say: ‘You could be any place in the world, playing that game. Any place in the world.’ That’s what his father often said.
He repeated the words ‘You could be any place in the world’ quietly to himself as he watched his father beginning to unload the dishwasher, taking out the holder for the cutlery first, then stacking the plates, making that plate sound. But the plate sound was a plate noise. His father was making the plate noise. And watching his father, he was thinking: of all the noises in the world this is the noise I hate the most.