Something Beginning with D
By Andrew Tomkinson
"Dad? Are we nearly there yet?”
To begin with, there is only his voice, a grumpy bleat, swirling around under the dim, flickering bulb of the interior light. Then beneath it the rearview mirror emerges, dreamt or remembered into being, staring off unblinkingly into the past. Then the dreamcatcher, swinging from the mirror’s neck; a small, wicker hoop laced into a net by spirals of brown string. It dangles three beaded, feathery tendrils down onto the dashboard below, as if to offer its services amongst the serious and functional instruments on the display. Like an air freshener, perhaps, struggling against the low, even rumble of the engine that seeps into the car from somewhere beyond the dark glass.
“Not yet, Charlie.” His father’s voice, tired and flat. “Try to get some sleep.”
“I can’t, Dad.” He wriggles about in the shadows behind his father’s seat. “Cassie’s taking up all the room.”
“I’m not, Dad.” Cassie’s voice is higher, sweeter. “Charlie’s a liar. He’s on my side.”
“No I’m not, am I Dad? This is the line here. See? This bit’s my side, that bit’s yours. And your stupid wings are on my side.”
“Ow! Dad, Charlie’s punching my knee.”
“Just... try to get some sleep.”
This is not everything. Some bits are missing, unassembled. His face is not all there; only the chin and the fingers resting on the wheel. The rest is darkness. The wing mirrors are dark too, and empty, and there is nothing to be made out beyond the windows but a blank static fizz. They don’t seem to notice this in the back– the blurred edges, the sleepy incompleteness of it. Perhaps it is normal for them. What is childhood, after all, but the gap between two slumbers? He sighs, lifts the outline of a sleeve up to the dreamcatcher and runs the tendril between his fingers, the blue beads sliding like rosaries.
He told the kids it was an ancient Native American tradition. You hang it above your bed and it acts a net, a filter, catching the nightmares and only letting the good dreams through. They loved that, of course. He bought it as a souvenir on The Big Trip. At LAX airport, in arrivals, before we’d even breathed the local air. That’s him all over. It hung in the bedroom for a long while, between us. He had a way of reaching up to it, making spirals in it like ringlets in our daughter’s hair, then letting the beads sift down through his fingers like pebbles in sand. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t understand it. I just thought, what a useless thing. At some point I banished it from the bedroom and it turned up here. Banished is a harsh word. Confiscated, perhaps. It was done in good humour. I told him: if you fall asleep at the wheel, bad dreams will be the least of your worries.
“Why aren’t we taking Mum’s car?” He looks over at my seat. “We always take Mum’s car. It’s bigger.”
This is the same car he had when we met. It didn’t matter back then; he was just starting out. It was something to get him from A to B. Then time rolled by, B became C, C became D, and I began to realise he didn’t know where D was.
“That’s why, Charlie; it’s too big. Now, try to get some sleep, okay?”
“Can you tell us a story then, Dad? If it’s bedtime?”
The children are dressed in white. You can see that now. Charlie is smothering away under his overlarge karate gi, the shoulders puffed up to his chin, the waist cinched in by a stiff white belt. Cassie is hugged by a tight, crumpled frock of cheap white chiffon from her dressing up trunk with a pair of elasticated fairy wings trapped against the seat behind her back. This is what happens when you let the father dress the child. They confuse dressing with dressing up. His own clothes are not apparent.
Cassie shakes her head. “Mum says you’re too old for stories, Charlie. Ackshully.”
“Shut up, Cassie, stupid bum-head. Dad, can you?”
“No, Charlie.” He doesn’t turn to reply. “Not right now.”
“Well, can I sit up in the front then? There’s no room back here.”
“Yeah, go and sit in the front, Mister Stupid Charlie. Away from me.”
“Shut up, fat-head-stupid-hair. Can I, Dad?”
“No, Charlie. That’s Mummy’s seat.”
“Yeah but she’s not here, is she, Dad?” He waits. “Dad?”
There is a truth to that, I suppose; on the face of it I’m not. Yet, in a sense, I’m the only one who is.
It started with a diamond. No, not quite, but with the promise of a diamond. Something deep, solid and ancient which, gripped tightly enough, one day would become a diamond. He proposed to me the day we met. I accepted, too. Here’s a man, I thought, who knows what he wants and where he’s going. Dynamic. On the up. There was no ring, of course, but there was a promise of a ring. He was full of that. Full of those. Full of it.
“Are we nearly there, yet?” This time he moans it, not looking up from fiddling with the rigid ends of his belt.
“Not yet, Charlie.” His father does not look back.
It was not always this way. There was a time when they would communicate in smirks and childish faces in the rearview mirror, when it was tilted downwards toward the back bench so they could share a sly raspberry at my expense. I thought it was childish. I never could stand the way he came to drive his car – eyes always in the mirror, never on the road ahead. I was glad to get my own. It seems a strange thing to have argued about now. The memory has softened between visits. These days the mirror stays firmly in place and Charlie has stopped checking it for his father’s face.
“This is taking forever, Dad. I’m so bored. Stuck in this stupid stinky hot car with no room cos of my stupid stinky sister, and it’s taking forever and we’re not even going nowhere and there’s nothing even to stupid well do.” He huffs, slaps his knee.
He was never really going places; there were never any places to go. On the up was only the first half of the revolution, where promises were as good as prophecies, and everything was only one phone call from the right agent away. I think now that Los Angeles was the mid-point, the furthest edge before must come down, where he hung, inert, for seventeen days of weightless waiting until the last hand and head had been shaken and the gravity of his failure took hold. The middle is the only honest point in any story, from beginning to end. His words, not mine. After that, he began his descent. A crash, we’ll call it, but stationary, in neutral gear. He clung onto that stupid dreamcatcher, took it to each meeting as if it were some kind of talisman, meanwhile his real dream was falling apart. They liked his work, but they couldn’t see a future in him. He lacked the drive. Hard to fault them on that. Crossed fingers type slowly. That was the last dream he ever chased; he stopped, slept, sat at home, waiting for something to land in his net. And my diamond? Nothing; a loose handful of coal.
I threw the dreamcatcher out when we got home. I remember that now. Strange how things change between visits. I was so angry with it, with what it represented. You don’t filter your dreams, I told him, you fight for them. You can’t hide from nightmares behind a net. He said it was a good luck charm, and fished it back out of the dustbin, said if I wouldn’t have it in the house, he’d have it in the car. Why? I asked him; it doesn’t even work. You didn’t get signed. A thing is worthless if it doesn’t work. Isn’t it?
“Where are we going, anyway, Dad?”
Good question. D, perhaps?
“Why don’t you two play another game.”
This has always been his solution to reality: fantasy. As if time is just something to be passed. As if truth is something they need to be protected from.
Charlie huffs. “Fine...”
“I’ll go first, Daddy,” Cassie’s voice is more faint. “Um... I spy...”
Her brother groans. “Oh great, thanks a bunch, Dad. Not this again! We already spied everything. It’s boring. Giving me a headache.”
“...with my little eye...”
“God. Are we nearly there yet?”
“... Something beginning with H.”
“Fine... what, then, Cassie? Horn?”
She wrinkles her nose, rubs a half-open fist into her eye socket and shakes her head.
“Uh, no, ackshully. You’ll never get it cos you’re rubbish.”
“Um... headrest? Handle? House? Hosepipe? Hat?”
There is a tiara on her head now. It appears just as Charlie knocks it off and it falls for a while, lands in her lap. She lazily replaces it. There is slowness to her. She is out of time.
“Don’t, Charlie! It’s not a hat, it’s a halo. I made it yellow, see. Halos are yellow.”
“Fairies don’t wear halos, dummy.”
“I’m not a fairy... stupid Charlie-head.”
“Then why’ve you got wings?” He coughs.
“I hate playing games with you. Anyway it was horn, you already said it. Daddy, aren’t you playing?”
“It was? Stupid stinky-haired cheater. Right, my turn. I spy...” He coughs again.
He’s too old to be talking like that. This is what happens if you protect them, if you let them hide in their childhood. I’ve always said so.
“...With my little eye...”
“Daddy?” Cassie cranes her neck past her brother.
“Cassie.” His lips barely move.
“Don’t you want to play?”
“No, Cassie, not now.”
“But Daddy, you always play. Mummy never plays but you always play.” He doesn’t respond.
He always said it was so important to keep it from them. Never argue in front of the kids. But who was that really to protect?
“Daddy, why isn’t Mummy coming with us?”
“...Something beginning with D.” There is a long, heavy pause.
The beginnings of a sickness is among them. A travel sickness; a motion sickness; a desire to be still. I feel it too, the queasiness of transition. Perhaps it is this way with all journeys. Perhaps there are no journeys and we each remain forever in the same place as things revolve around us. No, nonsense; that’s him talking. Hot air. The noxious stuff gets into your head if you let it.
She repeats the question.
“Mummy doesn’t know we’re leaving yet, Cassie.”
“But how will she know where we’re going?”
“She’ll figure it out.”
“Where are we going, Daddy..? Is she gunna meet us there?”
“I hope so, Cassie. I hope so. Maybe when she... finds out we’ve left.” Some movement on his chin. A smile, maybe? No, not a smile. Too dark to be sure what. The movement is slow. The air is heavy. “Cassie, darling... why don’t you have a look for something beginning with... what was the letter again, Charlie?”
“It was D, Dad.” Charlie frowns and tugs at the knot of his belt.
“Has she stopped being angry at you, Daddy?”
Explain it to them! Tell them we grew apart. I grew, you fell. I could not breathe with you. Tell them I made the right decision. It was not the right atmosphere for children. Tell them.
“Cassie, honey, I need you to stop asking questions, okay? Daddy’s trying to concentrate.”
“Oh... That’s okay, Daddy. Me too. I’m quite... sleepy.”
“That’s good, honey... Try to get some sleep.”
The dream always slows toward the end.
“I’m feeling car sick. It’s really stuffy in here.”
Things blur; they float apart.
“I can’t open my window.”
“Oh... How come?”
“Oh...” He takes a laboured breath. “Why?”
You begin to question the rules.
“It’s for your own protection, Charlie.”
“Can you open it, Dad? I want to let some... air in.”
“The car smells like... Cassie farts.”
Their speech is laboured. Spaces open up in between. I want to dive in and do something in these vacant slots of opportunity. Change something.
“Sorry, Charlie... It’s... better this way.”
“But... I’m car sick.”
“Why don’t you carry on with your... game, Charlie? Your... what did you spy?”
“I... something beginning with... D, Dad.”
He sighs. “Okay. Something beginning with D... Cassie, can you see something... beginning with...”
“She’s asleep, Dad.”
“Oh. Oh, that’s... that’s good...” He lifts a finger up to touch the dreamcatcher again, strokes it. It sways. “Sleep tight, little darling... Sweet dreams.”
Where do the bad dreams go when they are caught? Do they find someone else?
The interior light flickers. A tear clings to the faint light under his chin, pauses on the cliff’s edge at the end of a steep, shimmering track.
I think I understand now, how you felt when I left you. I understand now, what you meant when you told me, ‘they’re not your children to take.’
Charlie yawns. “But... Mum’s window is open... a little bit.” They look over to my seat. My empty seat.
“It has to be, Charlie... to let the hose in. Now try to get some sleep for me... okay?”
I want to take it back, to change it, but I can’t. I’m not really here. None of us are. All I can do is wait for it to end, and to begin again, different but unchanged.
The tear falls loose, dropping into the grainy abyss of the car. The light dims. The pieces drift away. The engine, the seats, the blank glass of the windows, they are gone, and once more there is nothing but the voices.
This is how it happens. This is how I am left.
“Dad, I can’t remember what what begins with D.”
“It’s okay, Charlie. We’re nearly there.”
Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Tomkinson