It’s November already folks. Which means that Christmas is just around the corner. But before you start panicking, relax and read this, my final short story of the year.
“Bang! Bang! You’re dead, dad!” Campbell ran into the kitchen wearing his cowboy outfit, waving his toy pistols in the air.
“Steady on, son,” came the pleading tone of his dad. Mike Wright was standing by the kettle, wearily making a cup of coffee for him and his visitor. Campbell stopped suddenly and stared curiously at the strange lady sitting at the kitchen table. He shyly shuffled over to his dad and squirmed between his legs. Mike pulled him out and picked him up, giving him a warm cuddle, the type Campbell liked from his mum. Campbell’s hat fell to the floor, and Mike gave his dark blonde hair a playful ruffle.
“Who’s that lady?” Campbell asked Mike, pointing over to the woman.
“That’s Felicity. We work together,” Mike explained, allowing a smile to play on his lips. “Do you want to say hello to Felicity?”
Felicity smiled and waved over to Campbell, who simply shrugged and buried his head in Mike’s neck. Mike held him and gave Felicity a wry smile. As he held his son, he could feel Campbell’s warm breath on his neck, which comforted him no end. This boy in his arms was the only physical thing he had left of his wife. Apart from the memories and the bag of clothes in the bottom of his wardrobe.
Seven months had passed since Dina had lost her fight against ovarian cancer. Mike had done his best to bring up Campbell ever since, even though he’d lost his soul mate, best friend and partner in crime. He had been fully supported by both his own parents, and Dina’s, all the way from Pittsburgh in the US. Even his boss had been amazingly sympathetic, allowing him two months off to come to terms with it all, most of which time Mike and Campbell had spent in America with Dina’s family – her parents, Chuck and Becca, her sister, Emma, and her two brothers, Bob and Simeon. He’d had to go through two funerals – one on either side of the Atlantic – and, as per Dina’s instructions, Mike had split her ashes and scattered half back at home, and taken the other half across to Pittsburgh. The questions he’d had to field on that! But done it he had, and why not? He carried out her every wish when she was alive, and so it continued even though she was gone. Although he wasn’t too keen on taking Campbell to a lap-dancing club for his eighteenth birthday present. He would have to cross that bridge when he got there in thirteen years’ time!
But now it was time to get back into everyday life again. Campbell was back at school, his second year was going well. His teacher was keeping an eye on him and reporting to Mike when things were rough. The tears had mostly stopped, but bed-time was still a wrench for Mike, when Campbell asked ‘would mummy always be watching me?’ and Mike would nod and fight back his own tears. Dina had recorded a CD of songs for Campbell to listen to at bed-time, and dutifully, Mike ensured that it was playing before he kissed his son good night and turned out the light. The evenings were a real killer for Mike even now. Once Campbell was in bed, he had nobody to talk to. There was no Dina to share his observations with, or to bitch about work to. If he was honest, he also missed touching her body, be it just cuddles, groping, or full on penetrative sex. Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of the last two for a long time, but he could still remember her shapely body down to the last freckle and wrinkle. In fact he didn’t need to remember, Dina had insisted that he take a photograph of her in all her glory days before the hysterectomy – she had wanted him to be able to remember her in her prime, not the scarred, sickly pale imitation of a person she was going to become. Mike had both loved her and been disappointed in her for that. Loved her because she was so confident and happy with herself that she demanded he take a picture of her naked, yet disappointed that she might have thought that he was so shallow that she had to somehow preserve a perfect memory for him, in case it should dwindle and fade to nothing once she was gone.
Now he was a lone parent, Mike was finding out how to juggle working commitments with ensuring his son was cared for properly. Thankfully, his role as website administrator allowed him to spend most of his time working from home, giving him the freedom to do the school run twice a day, and ensure Campbell wasn’t ignored or left with child minders all the time. Felicity was the link between Mike and the office – she would send him all the necessary updates for the website and answer any queries he had. Felicity was also a young, single parent whose partner had decided one day he didn’t want to be a parent anymore. By sheer coincidence, Campbell was in the same class as her daughter Millie at school, a fact that had only just been revealed.
“Hey, mate,” Mike whispered in his son’s ear. “You know whose mum Felicity is?”
Still buried in Mike’s neck, Campbell shook his head.
“She’s Millie’s mum,” he finished. Campbell shrugged his shoulders.
“Millie has told me a lot about you, Campbell,” Felicity said kindly, still sat at the kitchen table. Her voice was soft and gentle, and was capable of melting ice. Campbell slowly lifted his head up, and gazed over at Felicity.
“She says that you are very clever, and you gave her your apple when hers fell on the floor at break-time.”
Campbell nodded shyly. Mike, who had heard this story already, smiled proudly at the thought of his son showing such gallantry at the tender age of five.
“And it’s her birthday in two weeks – would you like to come to her party?” Felicity offered. Campbell shrugged his shoulder and looked at his dad, as if seeking permission, or an excuse. Picking up on the look, Felicity continued. “There will be other boys from your class too!”
Campbell nodded at Mike, who nodded at Felicity.
“I think that’s a ‘yes’!”
Felicity finished her drink and said goodbye to Campbell. She wasn’t so lucky as Mike and needed the help of child minders to collect Millie from school, and now it was time for her to retrieve her daughter and take her home.
Later, as they sat eating tea, Campbell paused from chasing his peas around the plate and asked a question Mike was not prepared for.
“Dad,” he started. “Will I ever get a new mum?”
Mike exhaled deeply and rested his knife and fork on the edge of his plate. He leaned back and looked across the table at his son, who gazed intently back.
“Wow, where did that come from?”
“Well, there’s a boy at school called Sam Phillips, and his mum and dad aren’t together, and today Sam told me he had a new mum,” Campbell blurted. Mike thought for a moment, trying to translate his thoughts into a child-friendly explanation.
“Well, mate, Sam probably hasn’t got a new mum,” he hesitated, feeling his son’s stare. “His mum will always be his mum, but maybe his dad has a new lady in his life.”
“Right,” Campbell murmured, visibly trying to compute this new information. “So he will have two mums instead of one?”
Mike chuckled. “In a way, I suppose so,” he admitted.
“But Sam is quite naughty sometimes – why does he get two mums and I don’t have even one?”
Mike leaned forward and looked intently at Campbell.
“It’s got nothing to do with being good or naughty. Your mum loved you more than anything, and she still does,” he broke off, feeling choked up. He placed his hand on Campbell’s chest, and felt the beat of his little heart. “You will always have your mum in there, in your heart. That’s what matters.”
Campbell nodded, bleary eyed. Tea was finished in silence, and then they went into the lounge to watch The Simpsons together.
Once Campbell was in bed, Mike did the things that needed to be done – washing up the dishes, putting a load of clothes in the washing machine, ironing another pile of clothes, and only then did he sit down to have a glass of wine, some cheese and crackers and read a book. It was whilst he was reading that he thought about what his son had said at the table earlier. Would he really ever consider looking at another woman the same way he’d looked at Dina? Where was he going to meet someone for a start? Between work and looking after Campbell, his time was pretty much fully accounted for. And so what if he did find someone – how would Campbell react? How would Chuck and Becca feel about that? Mike tried to haul his attention back to his book, but again and again his mind wandered and created all sorts of situations to meet a new woman. It was at this moment, just as he was taking a bite of cracker that he bit his tongue, quite sharply. It interrupted his thoughts abruptly and brought him back to reality. Guilt enveloped him and made his stomach contract sickeningly. He needed to speak to someone about this. He reached over for his laptop that was kept on the shelf under the coffee table, and fired it up. He took a more careful bite of cracker and a sip of wine. Mike wrote out an email explaining all his feelings and emotions and sent it to Dina’s sister Emma. She was the sensitive type and would be guaranteed to be able to guide him through this.
It got late, and without a reply from Emma, Mike retired to bed. His sleep was interrupted in the middle of the night by an unexpected but spectacular bout of sickness. In the early hours of the morning, while Campbell slept soundly upstairs, Mike was clinging to the toilet bowl for all he was worth, throwing up until there was nothing left. He lay back against the bathroom door trying to muster just enough energy to drag himself off the floor and up to bed. When finally he was on his feet, he looked at his reflection in the mirror – he didn’t look good. He finally managed to get back upstairs and into bed, dropping into a feverish sleep where Dina appeared to sit on the bed next to him and told him not to worry and that she didn’t want him to be lonely now she was gone.
Mike was woken by Campbell jumping onto the bed and almost jamming one of his books up his nose.
“Can you read this, dad?” Campbell asked, looking curiously at Mike. Mike forced open his eyes and peered through the heavy eyelids.
“Okay, son,” he croaked, his throat sore from the night of vomiting. “Let me wake up a bit, yeah?”
Campbell nodded reluctantly and gazed at him, as if expecting it to happen in an instant. Mike turned over and sat up. His body ached from head to toe, and he could taste the acidity of bile in his mouth. This was going to be a challenging day. Mike gritted his teeth and began reading. Thankfully it was only a short story, and he finished quickly. He reached out an aching arm to grab his mobile from the bedside table. His fingers clumsily typed out two text messages – one to Felicity to say he wouldn’t be able to get into the office today; and another to his mum asking if she could take Campbell to school this morning. No sooner had he put the phone down, it buzzed away again. Mike checked it to see that his mum would be round at eight thirty to collect Campbell. Able to breathe a sigh of relief now his biggest worry was solved, Mike tried to drag himself out of bed to carry out the morning routine. While he gingerly went down to the kitchen, Campbell went down to have a wash, then back upstairs to get dressed and was at the kitchen table just as Mike was pouring out the cornflakes into his Spiderman breakfast bowl. As Campbell ate, Mike sat quietly next to him, the smell of milk catching in his nostrils and almost sending him rushing to the bathroom again. He swallowed it down, and waited for the clock to hit half past eight. Mike’s mum arrived just as Mike was brushing Campbell’s teeth.
“What happened to you? You look awful,” she told him.
“I was up most of the night, throwing up,” Mike explained. “And now I ache all over.”
“Oh dear,” his mum said, matter-of-factly, her focus on getting Campbell to stand still while she zipped up his coat. “Are you working today?”
“No,” Mike shook his head. “I was supposed to go in today, but I’ve had to call in sick.” His mum gave him an agonised look.
“You need to be careful taking days off sick. Especially as they were so good to you with Dina.” She lowered her voice noticeably when she said Dina’s name, as if Campbell wouldn’t hear her.
“Why was dad’s work good to him with mummy?” Campbell piped up.
“Never mind, son,” Mike forced a sickly smile and ruffled his hair. “You go with Grandma to school, and I’ll see you later, ok?” Campbell nodded, a concerned look on his face that was reminiscent of the looks Dina used to give him. To his mum, Mike waved weakly. “Any chance you could collect him as well?” His mum nodded her head.
“I’ll take him back and give him some tea as well, as you’re probably not up to cooking,” she offered. Mike smiled his thanks, and stood in the hallway as they did one last pre-departure check of Campbell’s school bag, and then they were gone. Mike went to the lounge window and watched his mum and his only son walk off down the road towards school.
It was mid-morning before Mike dared to eat. He made himself some lightly buttered toast and a mug of coffee and sat on the sofa. He huddled under a blanket and turned the laptop on to see if there was any response to his email. Sure enough, his mailbox had new messages. Following his routine, he deleted the ones that he knew were rubbish, before quickly checking his spam folder, which was full of the usual nonsense – impotence drugs, hot singles near Worcester, and free listings on ebay. Mike rolled his eyes and emptied the folder with one click. Back to his inbox, he glanced down the list of remaining mails. His eyes halted at the sight of Emma’s name. He hovered the cursor over the message, almost afraid to see what she’d said. He took a deep breath and tapped the mousepad. The message opened up and Mike read. It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. In fact it was pretty reassuring. Effectively, Emma told him ‘what will be, will be’. Just as long as he stayed in their life for Campbell’s sake, then it was almost a given that he would eventually move on from Dina.
It felt like a weight off his shoulders, although he still felt a weight in the pit of his stomach. He’d had other women before Dina, but none had even come close to capturing his heart the way she had. Their first meeting was almost fairy tale. Their eyes had met across a crowded Heinz Field concourse. She was wearing a black Pittsburgh Steelers jersey with the number 43 on it, a black and yellow stripey bobblehat and blue skinny jeans all topped off with black leather boots. Mike had been a star-struck Brit enjoying his first experience of American Football in its natural habitat, as opposed to the travelling roadshow that came to London. Mike was about to start weaving his way through the crowd having bought himself some food when he spotted her, looking around as if searching for somebody. Mike had his ticket but hadn’t a clue where to go to find his seat, so he summoned the courage and sidled up to her, burger in one hand, ticket in the other.
“Uh, hi,” he’d stuttered. “I don’t suppose you could help me find my seat?”
Dina had smiled politely, and glanced at the piece of paper in his hand.
“Sure,” she’d said. “You’re just a few seats down from me.” Mike said a silent prayer of thanks.
“Hey, your accent is funny,” Dina had continued. “Are you British?”
“Certainly am,” Mike then confirmed. “It’s my first time in America, and I’ve always loved the Steelers, so here I am!” He waved his burger-laden hand around to illustrate his point.
Just at that point, they were joined by Dina’s brothers and dad. He had felt entirely intimidated by the three fairly loud, brash men, and this had clearly shown, as Dina seemed to take control of the situation. She introduced herself and her family, Mike introduced himself and was almost knocked off his feet by the barrage of back slaps and shoulder pats that followed. It seems the Turner family had never met a real British guy before. It turned out that Mike was sitting next to Dina’s family – her brothers and dad separated Mike from this amazing woman. None of his other girlfriends had ever shown even the remotest interest in this sport that he enjoyed so much.
The game finished in a victory for the Steelers, so to celebrate, Dina and her brothers offered to take Mike to a sports bar in the city for a few drinks. Chuck had declined to join them, so the four of them had a few drinks and swapped stories – Mike told them how much he preferred the American Football to the Football he had grown up with.
“What? Soccer?” Bob had teased. “That’s just a bunch of pansies kicking a ball and fallin’ over!” Mike had been forced to agree with that succinct summary of the game. Simeon was the quieter of the brothers, but still loud enough for Mike to cope with. And Dina, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. She must have noticed because she was very touchy –feely with him, which at the time was quite exciting for him, although when he knew her better, it turned out that was just her way.
The rest, as they say, is history. A wedding in a Scottish chapel justified by their shared Scottish heritage – hence Campbell’s name – followed, as did Campbell himself.
And now Mike had the memories to treasure. He had managed to finish and keep down the toast and coffee, so decided now was the time to run himself a bath and have a chilled out soak, bath toy free for a change, and let himself be reinvigorated. Having gone upstairs to get some clothes to put on, he rooted around for the bubble bath, and came upon some lavender bath oil that must have been there from last Christmas – he had made a panicked last minute purchase in Boots and picked up some luxury bath products for Dina, even though he ought to have known that lavender brought her out in a rash – which he poured a drop into the bath. Immediately, the smell grabbed hold of his nostrils and forced its way up into his sinuses. Once the bath was full, Mike pressed play on his mobile phone music player and climbed into the bath. As Marvin Gaye asked ‘What’s Going On?’ Mike sat down in the piping hot water, before taking a deep breath and stretching himself out, sinking down under the surface for a moment before rushing back up, spluttering and rubbing the water out of his eyes.
He stayed in the bath until the bubbles had all gone, and his fingers and toes were as wrinkly as an eighty year old man’s testicles. He hauled himself up to his feet and reached over for his towel, threw it over his shoulders and stepped out onto the bathmat. He was drying his hair when the doorbell went. Mike stopped and cursed quietly to himself, hoping to give the impression that nobody was home – which might have worked, except Mike then realised that his car was on the driveway. Cutting off the music, he eased open the bathroom door and peered out. He could see the silhouette of a person at the front door. Then, without warning, his phone began to ring. The display told him Felicity was ringing. Mike looked at his phone, then at the door. Strangely, it looked like the person at the door was on the phone too. Mike slowly closed the bathroom door, and accepted the call.
“Mike, are you there?” He heard Felicity’s voice coming out of the phone, and as if in stereo, from outside.
“Uh, yes,” Mike replied quietly.
“Then why don’t you let me in?” Her tone was a mix between confusion and amusement.
“I’ve, uh, just got out of the bath,” Mike explained.
“Well, put something on, and open the door,” she chastised him. “I’ve got some unbelievable news to tell you.”
Mike agreed to this, so he quickly threw on a t-shirt and some tracksuit bottoms, not wasting time with underwear for now, and opened up the front door. Felicity gave him a sympathetic look and stepped over the threshold, allowing Mike to close the door behind her. She led the way into the kitchen and took off her coat, laying it over the back of a chair.
As Mike filled the kettle at the sink, she turned round with a broad grin on her face.
“Guess who has just got themselves a job in America?”
“Ant and Dec?” Mike guessed wildly.
“What?” Felicity gave Mike an admonishing look and shook her head. Her smile got wider and she raised her hand and pointed at herself.
“You?” Mike gasped, taken aback.
“Yes, me!” Felicity exploded. “Chicago, actually.”
Mike, still slightly surprised, leaned forward to give her a congratulatory hug.
“Great,” he said. “What’s the job?”
Felicity pulled out a chair and sat herself down. In her excitement, she crossed and uncrossed her legs about three times, showing off her black leather boots and patterned tights.
“Well, you remember I told you about my friend from University that had gone over there last year,” she took a breath and the pause coincided with the kettle boiling. “Well last month she called me to ask if I was interested in a teaching job. I jumped at the chance – I didn’t get a degree and a teaching qualification just to be an assistant,” she babbled as Mike handed her a mug of coffee. He nodded understandingly, yet quietly gutted.
“Well, I’ve enjoyed having such a capable assistant,” Mike told her generously. “And I’ll be sad to lose you, as will my colleagues.” He raised his mug to toast, Felicity nodded and met the gesture. As the mugs clunked together, their eyes met over the sloshing coffee. Mike wondered if he sensed some sort of spark there, so carefully broke the eye contact.
“Wow, that’ll be quite an adventure for Millie,” Mike said, forcing enthusiasm into his voice.
“God yeah,” Felicity sighed.
“So, when do you go?” Mike wondered.
“I’m filling in as maternity cover to start with, in January, until the summer.” She took a sip of coffee. “Then, hopefully, I’ll start permanently next Autumn.”
“Or Fall, as the Americans call it,” Mike observed, a cheeky smile on his face. This was met with a blank expression. Mike considered explaining it, but decided against it. “I’d better make the most of you while I still can then, hadn’t I?” That was all he could manage. Felicity smiled a little apprehensively.
“Are you and Millie doing anything on Friday evening?” Mike asked, finishing his coffee with a final gulp and setting the mug down on the draining board.
“Not that I know of, no,” Felicity told him.
“Why not come round for some tea then, after school. I’ll cook, you can wash up afterwards.”
Felicity gave him a shocked look, then smiled and nodded.
“Fine. But I’ll bring dessert.” She countered. Mike held out his hand, which Felicity shook vigorously.
“Deal!” they both said together.
Once Felicity had gone, Mike sat down to watch crappy daytime television and be alone with his thoughts. As he stared vacantly at the screen, Mike wondered whether he had actually just taken his first step in ‘moving on’ as people say.
When his mum dropped Campbell off in the evening, Mike was leafing through numerous cookery books to find something suitable to make on Friday. He wanted to do something that would be suitable for the two kids, but was fancy enough to impress Felicity. Ultimately, he settled for an old favourite – spaghetti and meatballs in tomato and basil sauce.
“Are you sure you should be inviting women around for dinner?” Mike’s mum asked, concerned.
“Why not?” Mike asked. “Millie is in Campbell’s class, Felicity works with me. What is wrong with that?” Mike’s mum said nothing, but her look said ‘don’t come running to me when it goes wrong’. Mike’s mum said her goodbyes to Campbell and took her leave.
When Mike was supervising Campbell cleaning his teeth, he told his son about their dinner date.
“Are you going to marry Millie’s mum then?”
“Uh,” Mike was stumped. “Not really, son. No.”
“Oh, okay then,” Campbell shrugged, a little trace of disappointment in his eyes.
“Millie’s mum is going to be moving away soon, anyway,” Mike reasoned, hardly believing he was having to justify himself to his own son. “And Millie will too.”
Campbell looked up at Mike, a crestfallen look on his face.
“Not yet though, mate. Maybe after Christmas though.”
Finally, with the night time routine complete, Mike tucked his son into bed and turned on the CD as he always did. As usual, he gave Campbell a kiss on the head and settled him down. He went out and stood just the other side of the bedroom door that he always left slightly ajar, and listened to the sounds of Campbell preparing himself to fall asleep mixed with the gentle hum of the CD, and the music that played from the speakers. After a while, Mike quietly eased the door open again and peered round. Campbell was already asleep, flat on his back, his mouth just slightly open. The usual lump formed in Mike’s throat, so he came back out and eased the door to, leaving the same gap as before.
Friday soon arrived. Mike collected Campbell from school and as soon as he got home, he began to prepare the tea. While Campbell entertained himself in his room, Mike was rolling up balls of mince with herbs and onions and finely crushed garlic. At the same time, his tomato and basil sauce was simmering away in a pan on the hob, next to a large pot full of water ready to boil for the pasta. He debated whether to dress smart or casual for the occasion, ultimately settling for a combination – dark blue Levi’s and a blue and red checked shirt. Campbell refused to make any such effort and steadfastly refused to wear anything other than his Superman pyjamas. Rather than upset him too much, Mike relented with a sigh.
Right on the stroke of six, the doorbell rang. Mike gave the food one last check, then went to open the door. In front of him stood a little girl, obscured by quite a substantial bouquet of flowers. Millie stood there, still in her school uniform, and peeped out from behind them. Then a hand appeared and nudged her shoulder. With a shy little smile, Millie offered the flowers out for Mike to take. He obliged and then Felicity leaped into view.
“We thought we’d bring you flowers,” she said with a smile. “Especially as in the few occasions I’ve been here, there are never any flowers in the place.”
Mike nodded and gestured for them to come inside. Millie stepped through first, followed by Felicity who had possibly made an effort for this evening. Instead of her usual chunky knit cardigan, she had on a slim fitting leather jacket and a long black skirt to her ankles.
“You look nice,” Mike offered.
“Why thank you,” Felicity accepted the compliment with a smile and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Uh, Campbell’s upstairs in his room,” Mike murmured, a little flustered. “I’ll get him down.” He was just about to yell up the stairs for Campbell to come down, when Felicity placed her hand on his arm.
“Its okay, leave him be,” she told him. “I’m sure Millie would like to see what Campbell’s room looks like wouldn’t you, darling?” Felicity addressed Millie, who shrugged half-heartedly.
“I’ll show you the way,” Mike said kindly. He started up the stairs, and motioned for Millie to follow him. Hesitantly, she did so, with Felicity bringing up the rear. Mike arrived at outside Campbell’s bedroom door and knocked gently.
“Millie and her mum are here for tea,” he called gently. “Is it okay if Millie comes in to play with you until tea’s ready?”
They heard some movement and the door opened. Campbell stood there in his pyjamas, a dinosaur in each hand. He nodded and stood to the side, allowing Millie to step past into the room. He politely offered Mille his Stegosaurus, which she took, and without any further delay, the two children were soon playing together.
Back downstairs, as Mike poured out two glasses of wine, Felicity sat at the kitchen table.
“Don’t you get lonely?” She asked him as he handed her a glass.
“Well, not really, not with Campbell around,” he said, missing the point.
“No,” Felicity smiled. “I mean,” she hesitated, hoping Mike would understand without her having to spell it out, “not having any adult company,” she finally blurted out.
“Sometimes, I suppose,” Mike admitted. “Why, are you offering?”