by Gary Duncan
My wife says it would be better if I went out. Better still if I took Molly with me, just for an hour or so. She nods towards the kitchen table. The car keys.
I get up and pour another coffee from the machine. The coffee is too strong, just the way she likes it.
‘You do realise,’ I say, ‘that she hates me.’
‘Who’d you think?’
My wife is looking for something on the shelf above the kitchen table.
‘Fucking thing,’ she mutters. ‘It was fucking there, the other day, it was right fucking there and now it’s not, you haven’t taken it, have you?’
I say no, whatever it is, I haven’t taken it. ‘Our daughter,’ I say. ‘You realise she hates me, right? She—what are you looking for?’
She exhales heavily, hands on her hips.
‘Have you taken your pills?’ I say.
My daughter is five years old and she hates me. She calls me Dave, not Dad, and says things like, ‘I hate you, Dave.’
‘Have some coffee,’ I say, but my wife storms out, towards the living room. She yanks the curtains open and looks around. The room needs a good hoovering and plenty of air.
I say we have to talk, about our daughter, but my wife is already pushing past me, back towards the kitchen.
‘Book club,’ she says, scanning the shelf again. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit busy. You sure you haven’t taken it, or moved it?’
My wife started the book club three weeks ago. Advertised in the library, but only four people turned up the first week. A bunch of losers, she said. They were supposed to discuss The Road but spent most of the time listening to Johnny, a retired accountant, talking at great length about his colon cancer. There was an Australian guy, too, she said. Pete, with dreadlocks and a six-inch scar on his face. Easy on the eye, she said. Like a young Russell Crowe, dimpled chin and everything. She cried for an hour after they all left and said she didn’t see what the point of it all was—the book club and life and people and everything.
She runs a finger over the books.
‘What’s it today?’ I ask.
‘What you reading today?’
‘Great Expectfuckingtations. If I ever find the fucking thing.’
She says she’s only up to page twelve and it’s fucking turgid and everyone will be here soon, if anyone even turns up, and she still needs to put the kettle on and make some tea and get the biscuits ready. Custard Creams this time, she says, because Pete liked those. Said he wasn’t so keen on the chocolate Digestives and Rich Teas last time.
I offer to help but she tells me to go, and to take Molly with me.
She finds the book, and flicks through it. She makes a face.
‘Have you ever read this thing?’ she says.
‘Maybe, years ago, I don’t know.’
She opens it at page twelve and groans.
‘Just go,’ she says. She manages half a smile though, then runs her hand through her hair. She looks tired. I give her a peck on the cheek.
‘I’m sure it’s just a phase,’ she says. ‘With Molly. Nothing to worry about.’
She shrugs. ‘It’s a girl thing. All girls go through it.’
‘Did you? With your dad?’
Another half a smile. ‘No. I loved my dad. Just talk to her.’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know what to say.’
‘No,’ she says, walking away, book in hand. ‘You never do.’
Molly is in the back seat, staring stupidly out of the window. I give her a Mars Bar and a Coke to keep her quiet.
‘Not a word to your mother,’ I say. ‘Not one word, you understand?’
She says, ‘Where we going, Dave?’
I keep my eyes on the road. ‘Don’t call me that, sweetie. Okay? We’re going for a drive.’
‘Where to, Dave?’
I drive out of the village, past the school and the garage and the abandoned church. Molly shoves the Mars Bar into her gob and spills the Coke all over the seat.
We stop near the woods. We used to come here a lot, me and my dad, on our bikes mostly but sometimes we’d walk up the hill and bring some juice and cheese sandwiches and find a quiet spot in a field and just sit there for hours.
Sometimes we’d steal things, potatoes, bagies, pod peas, whatever we could get our hands on, all under cover of darkness. Dad would pretend Mum didn’t know and say whatever you do, don’t tell the Old Lady about this or we’ll be in big trouble, believe me.
‘This’ll be fun,’ I say, but Molly doesn’t want to get out of the car.
‘There’s rabbits,’ I say, ‘and badgers and foxes.’ I point towards the farmhouse two fields away, on top of the hill. ‘Long time ago, me and Dad, your Granda, we saw a big cat up there. Honest to Christ, a big cat. I thought it was a panther or maybe a lion, you know, but Granda said it was a lynx, definitely a lynx. You know what Granda was like, he knew stuff like that. And he was right. It was a lynx. They cornered it a week later with the hounds and killed it. Ripped it to shreds.’
Molly ignores me and looks out of the window.
There’s a yellowhammer on the hedge, just five feet away.
‘Why don’t we get out,’ I say, ‘and you can go and say hello to the little bird? Look, he’s singing to you, probably calling your name. You hear him?’
She says she doesn’t like birds.
‘You hear that? You hear what he’s saying? Molly, Molly, sweet little Molly, come out to play.’
It looks like she’s about to smile, but she closes her eyes and shakes her head.
The yellowhammer flies off. ‘What about the foxes?’ I say. ‘Do you want to see some foxes, they—’
‘Don’t like foxes.’
We sit for a while, not talking. I put the radio on. Molly is humming a tune to herself. It’s vaguely familiar.
‘That’s nice,’ I say. ‘What is it?’
She stops. ‘You don’t know it.’
She closes her eyes again and pretends she’s sleeping.
‘How about it then?’ I say. ‘How about we get out and have a nice walk? It’ll be good, just the two of us.’
She shakes her head again, so I give her a family size bag of chocolate buttons from the glove compartment and tell her to sit tight. ‘I need some air,’ I say. ‘But remember, not a word to your mother.’
I stop at the two beech trees that stand guard either side of the road, their ancient, gnarled branches reaching out to each other across the road—almost making it but not quite. I picture Dad up there, on those freezing nights many years ago, high up on those branches with his binoculars. ‘Fucking Renton,’ he’d say, ‘you need to watch out for that old bastard.’ Renton was the farmer who owned just about everything as far as the eye could see. ‘Crazy old bastard’s got a shotgun and he’s not afraid to use it, even for a few bagies.’
I turn and wave back to the car, just in case Molly is watching. She’s probably sleeping, or trying to lick the Coke off the seat, or still shovelling those chocolate buttons into her mouth. I wave anyway, just in case, and give her the thumbs up.
I keep walking till I reach the stream half a mile down the road. There’s a young guy leaning against the fence, rolling himself a cigarette. Chainsaw at his feet. Behind him the remains of the old oak tree I used to climb when I was a kid, that we all used to climb when we were kids—my dad and his dad before him and his dad before him and so on and so on, all the way back.
The young guy looks up.
‘What you doing?’ I say.
‘You what?’ He lights the cigarette and looks down and brushes some sawdust off his muddy overalls.
‘You can’t be doing that,’ I say.
He looks back at the tree as if he’s just noticed it. He’s removed the bigger branches and has stacked them in a pile near the stream. Firewood for the farmhouse.
‘Do what?’ he says.
‘That!’ I say, pointing. ‘The tree. You can’t just chop it down. I used to climb that tree, there’s a toe-hole halfway up, I used to wedge my toe in there and pull myself up to that big branch up there, near the top, or it used to be there before you cut it down, before you butchered it. My dad, he just died a few months ago, heart attack, he carved his initials on that tree with his pen knife, you can still see it, his initials, RT, if you look closely.’
He looks me up and down, trying to work out what he’s going to say.
‘You just can’t do it,’ I say. ‘It’s not right.’
He shrugs. ‘Says who?’
‘You? Who are you?’
‘None of your business, that’s who. This isn’t about me, it’s about the tree, the fucking tree, the fucking tree that you’ve just murdered.’
He turns and looks at the tree again. ‘It was dead,’ he says.
‘Apparently. The storm.’
‘Couple of weeks ago. You know, the big one.’
Storm was a bit of an exaggeration. I remember the wind picking up a little during the night, it was a Friday night, I think. I had to get up in the wee hours to close a downstairs window. The recycling bin had been knocked over and a few cans and cartons and whatnot had been blown into the corner of the front garden, but that was it.
‘Wasn’t exactly Storm of the Century,’ I say. ‘I closed a window and went back to bed and didn’t hear a thing.’
The young guy shrugs and looks up towards the farmhouse. ‘Loads more up there,’ he says. ‘You should see it up there, the carnage.’
He pushes himself up off the fence and offers me his cigarette.
I tell him I haven’t had a cigarette in twenty-two years.
He smiles. ‘It’s time you had one then. Go on, it won’t kill you. Well, it probably will, in the long term, but you know what I mean.’
I take it. I close my eyes and breathe it in, long and slow. We both quit at the same time, my wife and I, twenty-two years ago, not long after we first met. I haven’t touched one since, but she keeps a pack in the shed, in an old shortbread tin behind the door, and sometimes she sneaks out there for a secret smoke. She knows I know, but I never say anything and neither does she.
‘What’s so funny?’ the young guy says.
I open my eyes.
‘Nothing. I was just thinking.’
‘I can get you something stronger if you want.’
‘Just say the word.’
I hand it back to him. He takes another puff and stubs it out in the grass. He takes a pair of leather gloves from his back pocket and looks at the chainsaw.
‘I need to get on,’ he says.
‘What if I asked you to stop? Would you stop if I asked you? I’ll pay you.’ I reach into my jacket pocket and fish out a crumpled tenner, a fiver, some loose change and a ball of blue-grey pocket fluff.
He looks at it, then at me. ‘Bit late for that, don’t you think?’
The gloves appear to be too small, so he has to work his hands into them. ‘It’s just a tree,’ he says. ‘They said it was dead and said cut it down, so that’s what I’m doing.’
‘Do you always do exactly what they say?’
He smiles. ‘Pretty much, yeah.’
The farmhouse looks bigger than I remember. More outbuildings, a few caravans.
‘Who owns that place now?’ I say. ‘Still old Renton?’
‘Renton. Miserable old bastard. Never went anywhere without his shotgun and wasn’t afraid to use it.’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘Even he didn’t cut down trees though.’
‘Go and talk to them,’ he says, ‘if you think it’ll make any difference. But it won’t.’
He clenches and unclenches his fists and rubs his hands together. The gloves are impossibly tight, like a second skin.
He shrugs again and says, ‘Sorry.’
I watch him walk off, chainsaw by his side, to finish the job. I look back the way I came and can just about see the car at the far end of the road. I wonder what I’d say if Molly was here, if she’d expect me to say something to this young guy with the chainsaw. Would she even care about the tree? Would the young guy with the chainsaw have listened to me if she’d been here? Would any of it matter?
I start walking slowly back to the car. Halfway down the road, the chainsaw starts up, cutting through the quiet, then stops, then sputters and starts up again. I hum to myself, the tune Molly was humming in the car earlier, to block the noise out, but I can still hear it.
The house is quiet when I get back. My wife is outside, on the patio, smoking. Great Expectations is on the table next to her, opened, face down.
She doesn’t look up when I sit down beside her.
‘No one came,’ she says eventually.
She’s been crying.
‘No one?’ I ask. I reach for her cigarette. ‘What about Johnny?’
‘I think so.’
I look out over the garden.
The grass needs cutting and the fence needs fixing. We used to have an odd-job guy, an old guy called Steve, who took care of things like that for us, but my wife fired him because he talked too much. Looked at her funny too, she said.
‘What about the Australian?’ I say. ‘Pete?’
She shakes her head.
My wife doesn’t say anything for a long time and then says, ‘Where’s Molly?’
‘In the car. Sleeping. I thought I’d let her be for now.’
‘How was your walk?’
‘Good.’ I don’t tell her about Molly not getting out, about the young guy with the chainsaw.
‘I think I’m going to pack it in,’ she says. ‘The book club.’
‘You think I should?’
I’d never given it much thought. ‘It’s up to you,’ I say.
She picks up the book, flicks through a few pages, closes it and puts it back on the table.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘Let’s go and get the girl.’
Gary Duncan’s stories have appeared in Unbroken Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices.