by Neil Greybanks
Because the kids like their eggs unburnt at the edges, their egg yolks runny, Brogan leaves them frying so they’re burnt at the edges and the yolks are firm. It’s childish — he knows that. He considers adding a few splashes of Tabasco, adding too much pepper, too much salt…but he’s not a monster.
Remembering the reindeer horns on his head, he removes them, before placing the last plate on the table. ‘Kids!’
First it’s Abi, who sits her doll on Kit’s chair; he knows what will happen when Kit turns up, but doesn’t say anything.
Then it’s Jake, thumbs working his phone, headphones covering his ears. Brogan taps Jake’s shoulder, mimes the removal of headphones.
Kit runs into the dining room. ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo.’
‘No!’ Abigail jumps from her seat, scratching at Kit’s arms to take back her doll.
‘You two — please — sit down.’
Brogan sits at the table and sighs.
‘Tell him Brogan,’ Abi says, ‘tell him to give it me.’
‘Kit, let her have it.’
Kit throws the doll across the room before sitting at the table, knocking the table leg, spilling the drinks.
Abi chases after the doll, muttering how much she hates Kit.
‘How was the exam?’ he asks Jake, who is cutting into his egg, clearly disappointed with the lack of runny yolk.
Jake shrugs, ‘All right.’
‘Went OK? Remember my GCSEs.’
Jake shrugs again, makes a sound like: don’t know.
Kit is snarling at Abigail. ‘Mommy says you can’t have your doll at the table.’
‘That’ll do,’ Brogan says. ‘That’ll do.’
‘Where is Mommy?’ Kit throws his fork onto the table and sits back in his chair.
‘You know where she is.’ Brogan exaggerates his breathing.
Brogan nods. ‘Talking to your teacher.’
Kit’s face alters.
Abigail sings: ‘You’re going to get told off.’
‘Mrs Daveys hates me anyway.’ Kit folds his arms across his chest. ‘Hate her too.’
‘And what about you Abi?’ Brogan asks. ‘What will Mrs Turner say about you?’
She smiles. ‘Say I’m a good girl.’
‘Swot,’ Kit mutters, sniggering, uncrossing his arms, reaching for his fork.
With her eyes narrowing, Abi turns to Kit and sticks out her tongue.
‘Can I go?’ Jake asks through a mouthful of food.
Brogan looks at Jake’s empty plate, compares it with his near full one. ‘Hungry?’
Jake kicks back his chair and is covering his ears with headphones as he leaves the room.
There’s something about Jake’s empty plate, with its strewn knife and fork, its daubs of sauce that reminds Brogan it’s nearly a year to the day he and Rita began trying. It was fun at first — with all the trying. But the more they try, the more miraculous it seems that Rita could have three children already. It was easy for her and Max. It was so easy in fact, they even had children by accident. Not only was Abigail an accident, but she was quite sweet, and she was a child. Not like Kit — Kit was a savage, a barbarian.
‘Please,’ Brogan says, his shoulders falling. ‘We’ve talked about this.’
‘Daddy says in some countries it’s good manners to burp.’
‘Not in this country.’
Kit burps again. ‘These eggs aren’t runny. Said I want them runny. Daddy makes them runny.’
‘Is Mommy…’ Abigail pauses, closes her eyes, and sneezes, ‘with Daddy?’
‘Abi, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze. It’s all over your food now.’
‘Errrr,’ Kit says, ‘you’re eating snot.’
‘Christ,’ Brogan mutters to himself.
‘You sweared,’ Kit says, pointing.
‘It’s swore. And it’s not really swearing.’
Abigail sits up straight in her chair. ‘Daddy says that word is probably the worst one.’
‘Can think of much worse,’ Brogan mutters.
‘What?’ Kit asks, kneeling on his chair.
‘It’s pardon,’ Brogan says.
‘It’s…never mind. Abi, eat up.’
‘Don’t want it now,’ she says, her lower lip protruding. ‘Covered in sneeze.’
Kit laughs, knocking the table, spilling the drinks for a second time. ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo.’
Brogan places the palm of his hand against his forehead and counts. If they did have a child, if by some miracle Rita was right about all the options available to them, then his child would be different; his child would never burp at the table.
All the reasons she’s grown to hate Max are there in the way he speaks with Mrs Daveys: the patronising tone, the short temper, the snobbery.
She looks out onto the playground. This was her school too, and Max’s, many years ago — many years. She sees herself dressed in a red jumper, grey skirt, white socks over her knees, running across the playground.
‘Why’d you leave?’ Max asks, arriving behind her.
‘Why’d you carry on talking to her? Old bat’s never liked him.’
‘Want to find out what’s wrong with him. Find out what this cuckoo business is all about.’
‘You took her side.’
‘You didn’t give me chance to speak. I wanted—’
‘What do you mean, wrong with him? There’s nothing wrong with him. It’s her — she doesn’t understand him — never has. He needs—’
‘It’s not her,’ he says, before pausing. ‘Look, Kit is…’ he pauses again, moves closer to her. ‘He’s my son. But you’ve got to see what a pain in the arse he’s being. And if he keeps saying cuckoo I don’t know what I’ll do. Told her we’d support her any way we can. Take away his iPod, his X Box…’
She watches his lips moving, but isn’t listening. She works it all out. And it’s simple. All it involves is the twisting of time, of events — the exchanging of one event for another, one important decision moved in relation to the next.
‘I’m pregnant,’ she says, interrupting him.
His expression doesn’t alter at first; only the twitching of his lower lip, the faintest tightening of his jaw, gives him away.
She shrugs. ‘Pregnant,’ she says again, as if practising the pronunciation. She remembers telling him the same thing on three previous occasions, each with its own distinct context, its own place within their shared history.
He unbuttons his coat. ‘Pregnant?’
The noise of conversation swells in the hall; the formal tones are absurd in a room with miniature tables and chairs, multi-coloured plastic cups and rows of small wellington boots lined up on a rack next to the door.
She grabs his hand, pulls him through a set of double doors. Her quick, heeled footsteps echo in the corridor that is decorated with hand shaped paintings, drawings of birds in nests, photographs of children in red jumpers smiling.
‘Rita? Where we going?’
She pushes open the door to a classroom.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she says in the darkness, tugging at his coat, his belt.
She stops, looks into his eyes. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve not thought about it.’ She steps out of her heels. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve not wanted to get your own back. Teach me a lesson.’
He turns to look at the door, and then back at her, his head tilted to one side like a dog listening. She watches him close his eyes, take an exaggerated inhalation of air. The top row of his teeth press against his lower lip and she remembers the expression. In the glass of his eyes, the narrowing of his lips, the raised chin is the superiority she hates. He’s frozen, and she can see he’s somewhere between wanting to leave, and kissing her.
She unfastens his belt, before moving over to a table in the corner of the classroom. Knowing what will sway him, she bends over the table, and hitches up her skirt. Looking across the desks through the darkness, she tries to remember if this was once their classroom. She tells herself it was, because then there is a strange symmetry, a twisted justification in what she’s doing.
He pushes against her — the smells, the sensations, the loathing — it all comes back to her.
It’s over as soon as it begins, confirming its triviality. He makes his grunting noise and she feels the edge of her top lip curling. She reaches behind, gripping his jacket to stop him moving away, ensuring it’s done properly. It’s simple. Max has done this to her many times before, and to do it again is only a confusion in time and place, nothing more. It’s easy — this instead of months of appointments, tests, Brogan’s disappointment, not to mention the cost.
She pulls down the hem of her skirt. ‘You should have backed me up with her.’
He shakes his head, rubs his forehead. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’
‘She’s a dragon. Doesn’t understand him.’ She arranges her hair and clothes.
He fastens his trousers, adjusts his belt. ‘You’re insane. You know that?’
‘Hurry up. Need to get back to the kids.’
Kit opens the front door, before running back into the living room.
Max never comes into the house; he waits in the same place, outside the front door.
Brogan asks him to come inside, with little enough conviction to mean it.
‘It’s fine,’ Max says. ‘Need to get back.’
‘All OK?’ Brogan asks Rita as she drops her bag on the table in the hall.
‘Their teachers. All good?’ He knows it isn’t, but asks anyway.
‘Usual.’ She kisses his cheek with cold, hard lips. ‘Kids,’ she shouts, ‘your dad’s going.’ She walks away, into the kitchen.
Abi runs into Max’s arms. Brogan watches the two of them exchange kisses, listens to their hushed words, unable to make out what they’re saying.
Kit appears, slamming the living room door behind him.
Max points at him. ‘Don’t you start with the cuckoos mate.’
Kit laughs and punches his dad in the stomach, and he pretends to be hurt.
‘Can we have eggs next time, Daddy. Brogan’s eggs are nasty.’
‘Don’t be rude,’ Max says, smiling.
Abi takes her doll into the living room.
‘Cuckoo, cuckoo,’ Kit sings as he runs after her.
‘Did you ask about the cuckoo stuff?’ Brogan asks.
‘It’s a project they’re doing. On the cuckoo — how it lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. Clever really.’
Rita appears from the kitchen, pointing at Max, ‘You have them Saturday night remember.’
Max looks confused and the three of them are left looking at one another.
‘Saturday. Yeah — Saturday,’ Max says eventually.
Brogan feels Rita’s hand run along the small of his back. He wraps his arm around her shoulder.
‘You won’t forget?’ she says, her voice soft. ‘Only…’ she glances at Brogan, ‘we have plans.’
Brogan can’t remember making any plans, but nods in agreement.
‘Of course,’ Max says. ‘Saturday.’
Again, there’s silence between them. Brogan imagines undressing Rita, right there in the hallway, to remind Max what she looks like naked.
Abi appears with the reindeer antlers. ‘Daddy, Daddy, look.’ She tugs at Brogan’s arm. ‘Look at Brogan, Daddy.’ She places the antlers on Brogan’s head, giggling as he stands. ‘Here, Daddy,’ she says, reaching to take back the antlers, scratching the skin behind his ear.
She gives them to Max.
‘I’ll put them on later sweetheart. Promise.’ He takes the antlers and blows her a kiss.
Abigail skips back into the living room, shivering at the cold.
Max turns to leave. ‘Saturday,’ he says, walking along the path to his car.
Closing the door, checking the kids are out of earshot, Rita says, ‘Wanker.’
‘That bad?’ Brogan asks.
‘Yeah, no — it was fine.’ She strokes his arm, smiles, and walks back into the kitchen.
He watches her walk away. There’s the sway of her hips, the small clump of blouse that has worked its way up and out of her skirt, her heels clip-clopping across the wooden floor, her hair swaying. Her perfume lingers in the hall, along with the faint waft of her day: the office, the canteen, the car.
He rubs behind his ear where Abi scratched him. On the tip of his finger is a smudged streak of blood.
The first sips of wine always settle her thoughts. Without looking at him, she recognises in Brogan’s shallow breathing, his words gathering.
‘Can’t have taken that long at all,’ he says.
She watches him, in the corner of her eye, sit upright on the settee. ‘What?’ She recalls the dark classroom, and Max.
‘Having the kids. I mean…’ He pauses, and glances at the ceiling. She follows his line of sight and pictures the children asleep in their beds. ‘Must have been easy — for you and Max.’
‘Don’t really remember. Just sort of happened.’
But she does remember: reaching for her pills, and her hand freezing. She remembers how, from that day onwards, sex with Max being different. What she was doing was deliberate, a choice, a decision she made every time she went to take a pill but didn’t. She could never get used to it. It was as though sex had changed completely, had become another act altogether. Back then, sex with Max was filled with motive, with ambition; in the brief time between choosing not to take the pill and falling pregnant, she was the happiest she’d ever been.
‘Be so much easier if it was like that for us,’ Brogan says, as though reading her thoughts. ‘Don’t you think?’
She wants to tell him how Max would have never talked about another man making love to her. ‘Don’t want to talk about any of that. About him.’
‘But it must have been different, knowing he could…do that…at any time.’
She can’t look at him, thinking if she does, she’ll feel something she can’t take back. She recalls the night before, and his joke: ‘Maybe we should ask him to…you know…’ When she looked at him, he was nodding at her lap, his laughter strained, his eyes heavy. She waited for him to explain, to confirm his joke, but instead he asked, ‘When do you see him again? Parents’ evening isn’t it?’
And what was it she said? ‘I’ll ask him for a quickie in between appointments shall I?’ It was childish, but she couldn’t help herself. She watched as his laughter stuttered, before falling away to a silence similar to the one they share now.
He sighs, before saying, ‘We should see someone. Like you said. Get some advice. Couldn’t hurt.’
There are no words, and all she can do is nod.
She watches his posture alter, his legs press together, his back slide down the settee, his hands palm to palm next to his lips as though in prayer. And beneath his trousers, she sees he’s hard.
She imagines the box of pills beside her bed, and tries to recall the last time she took one. Not until this moment has she missed the crackling sound, like fire, of plastic being squeezed, the pop of foil ripping, the weightlessness of the tiny pill falling into the creases of her cupped hand.
And because there are no words, the silence too heavy, too revealing, she mutters, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo.’
Neil Greybanks has been writing for some time, having discovered a great interest in using the short story form to tackle the big ideas. He teaches English in a secondary school just outside his hometown of Wolverhampton in the UK. You can find more of his published stories at neilgreybanks.com and connect with him on Twitter @dazedcharacter.