by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt
“Come away, boy.”
The tinkle of a metal half-choke chain. The snuffle of a snout. The soft lap of a calm sea. Cold air slaps and smothers with the scent of estuary. I adjust my hat (my ‘old man’s cap’ as Josh calls it, cheeky bugger – sorry, love); pull it down with one hand, awkwardly balancing chips in my lap. The warm heaviness sinks in with the weight of a sleeping cat. Like my sleeping cat, who’ll be at home waiting for us. Cheddar. Silly name I know. At least I did get pets in the end, like I always said I wouldn’t and you always said I would. Well, it gets lonely, you know. You were right. You were always right. Josh was the one who took me to get them from that rescue place. You know.
Josh thinks it’s funny I wear an old man’s cap. Burgundy tweed, M & S. Laughs he does. Suits you, Dad he says. Then giggles. Cheeky… so and so. Thing is, you never think you’re old, do you?
I stopped at twenty-nine – that’s what I tell everyone; that’s what I tell our Josh. There you are looking out of the same eyes and marching on the same legs thinking you’re different, invincible somehow, and then one day, well… the legs creak to a stop. Need a bit of oil to get moving in the morning – at first – then after a nap, then after tea… then, well, then. And your eyes fail you too and you need varifocals to see anything clearly and then you wish you hadn’t put them on because when you go into the bathroom your old grandad staring back at you. And you think – you think – dear God I am old. And you say: son, time goes way too fast (it’s a cliché I know, I know…) and— only you can’t remember what the ‘and’ is… because you lose the thread, see? But Josh always finds something else to fill the awkwardness (good boy) while I try to forget I forgot and the reason is…because I’m old. Hard to forget that.
Only I’m not old.
I am not old – repeat after me. I. Am. Not. Old.
I got to twenty-nine and stopped.
Charlie Braddock will always and forever be twenty-nine. And then I think: if only.
And so… tonight here I am; just like every New Year I can remember: at our place – only you’re not here. And you never will be here, will you? Except… they say you are. Because they (I forget who ‘they’ are now, I think the vicar is one of them) say you’re everywhere (or is that God?) and that when you’re gone you’re never really gone (maybe just as I am never really more than twenty-nine, eh?). So, Gertie love, my sweet dear Gertie, I still come. For you. And if that’s true, and you’re really here with me now – right now as another new year is about to start without you, then sit with me. Sit with me a while.
I stare at the empty space on the bench. I did alright, didn’t I?
I see a fingernail of moon skimming the edge of a cloud. No stars tonight.
I rustle the chip wrapper to pricked ears. “Not for you, boy” His wet nose pokes my knee and I know in a few minutes I won’t be able to resist those eyes, just like I could never resist yours. Or chips, or angel cake or cheese and onion crisps or those crusty sandwiches you always made. Same filling every night. Creatures of habit we are, until you realise that’s all you have left to cling onto. And your son tells you, make some changes, Dad. Get a dog, or a cat, or both. No I said. No. No. No. Yes. Been watching too much of that TV programme, you know the one. The vicar one.
Suppers don’t taste the same anymore. Nothing does. Except for chippy chips.
A fizz of fireworks splatters across the sky and melts away over the sea. Then I say, “Go on, Gertie love, have a chip with me.”
And for a moment, a tiny fraction of a moment I am sure I feel your hand touch mine as we reach into the wrapper and grab for the same chip, crispy chips not soggy ones – always from the good chippy up the high street, just like you always insisted. I miss you, love. So much.
I close my eyes and savour the salt in the air and on my chips and a hand that I want to be there, but is it? Was it?
I will always miss you, Gertie love.
Then I poke a chip into Branston’s drooling mouth and say, “Come on boy. Best get you home.”