Photograph by Kevin Coombs, Story by John Wilks
My dad was a funny man.
‘What do you want for your birthday, Princess?’ he asked on my eighth birthday.
‘Can I have a pony?’
‘Of course, Princess,’ he replied, ‘soon as I’ve finished building the stable in the backyard. What colour pony?’
I remember Mum being all serious about us tidying up – my toys on the lounge carpet, his tools on the kitchen table - and he stood behind her, stuck out his tongue, and put his thumbs in his ears wiggling his outstretched fingers. She couldn’t see him, but my giggles were a right giveaway.
‘You two,’ she said, shaking her head.
Everyone on our street loved my dad. Pete and Maureen from next door said he was the life and soul of the party. Dad often dropped by theirs for a cuppa with Maureen in the afternoon, or a can of lager with Pete in the evening. One time he lost a bet with Pete who dared him to cycle round the block in his underpants.
‘Please don’t,’ said Mum. ‘I’d be so ashamed.’
I waited for a cunning get-out, like in the folk tales about tricksters he read to me in bed. Maybe he would cycle at night when no one was watching. Maybe claim no one said he couldn’t wear trousers on top of his underwear. Maybe go so fast no one would notice. But instead he made a huge joke of it. He knocked on all the neighbours’ doors and announced a free show on Sunday at midday.
I held Mum’s hand as we waited at our front window. Exactly at midday he rode round the corner and pedalled slowly down our street, his arm stuck out signalling left with exaggerated bravado. Mum covered her mouth with her hand. We heard the neighbours cheering him on.
He wasn’t always funny indoors. It was often little things that got his goat. Like, there was no mustard on the table; I was fourth in Maths; Mum came home fifteen minutes late. He would go all silent and tap the table or the arm of his chair, rocking backwards and forwards. And no one smiled in our house for days.
When I was ten he gave me a puppy. I had strict rules: take him for a walk to the park morning and evening, never ever let him into the lounge. I loved that puppy. I called him Buddy and told him my secrets. Every day after school I went to the kitchen, stroked him and kissed his head, put dog biscuits in one bowl and fresh water in the other. At night I cuddled him on my bed when there was shouting downstairs.
Then one day I came home from school and Buddy greeted me at the front door. I must have left the kitchen door open in the morning when I was rushing to get to the Maths revision class. I followed him to the lounge and there were cushion feathers all over the place, and dog shit on the carpet by Dad’s armchair. I tried cleaning it all up before Dad got home but the dark stains wouldn’t go away. The next day when I rushed in at four o’clock Buddy was gone. I pleaded with Dad to let me have him back, at least tell me where he was.
‘I told you. Disobedience must be punished. You had your chance. I always keep my word.’
He was funny like that.
When I was twelve we had our usual New Year’s Eve party and I was allowed to stay up with the grown-ups. Dad cleared the front room for dancing and Mum bought a pile of frozen snacks from the supermarket to heat in the oven. There must have been fifty people crammed in. Coming up to midnight Dad said we had to stop dancing and turn on the telly and do the countdown.
‘Where’s your mother?’ he asked me, looking round the crowded room.
‘I think she went in the back garden with Pete for a ciggie.’
Next thing I knew there was shouting and Mum came in. Her hair was all messed up and she was crying. There was no sign of Pete. The neighbours gathered their coats and left, mumbling ‘Happy New Year, thanks’. Dad threatened to kill Pete when he found him. Mum cried that it hadn’t meant anything, it was just a bit of midnight fun.
And that was how they split up.
‘You have to choose which of us to live with, Princess.’
‘But I love you both,’ I said.
‘Not possible,’ he replied. ‘You can’t sit on the fence. Rules are rules.’
That night I stole a lipstick from my Mum’s dressing table and drew a big red heart with ‘D’ and ‘M’ inside on my bedroom mirror, then a tiny one on the skirting board behind my bed. Later Mum tucked me up, stroked my forehead like when I had a fever and hugged me, telling me over and over that it would all be alright.
So I went to live with Mum at Gran’s house and Dad swore he would never speak to me again, and I said fine, I would never ever speak to him again either. I missed him, his joking around, but not the tapping and rocking, not the unforgiving silences.
It must be ten years now since I saw Dad. Last night I felt the baby move inside me and I remembered drawing hearts in my bedroom and how it had felt to be so alone. And in my mind I saw Dad on his bike again, not brash and confident, just wobbly and vulnerable.
Part of me wants to keep up the separation, to stick to my word, like father like daughter. But part of me now thinks that’s pathetic, just stupidly obstinate, and I want to be bigger than him. I’m going to go and see him, surprise him. Rules are rules, I get that, but family’s family, right?
John Wilks is currently working on a collection of stories, and a few poems, about school and masculinity, juxtaposing his experiences as a boarding-school pupil with those as a teacher in Tower Hamlets. His story The Boy Who Hated Cigarettes was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize 2015; Homo Bile Pen won 3rd Prize in the Bare Fiction 2015 short story competition; The Invisible Boy was shortlisted and published in the London Short Story Prize 2016; and Past Perfect was shortlisted and published in the Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two (2017). Find him on twitter @johngwilks
Kevin Coombs has worked as a photographer at Reuters since 1989 based in London. He's covered major news events in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the USA as well as setting up coverage of global sport events such as the Olympic Games and Fifa World Cup. His pictures have been published in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Le Monde, Liberation, Spiegel, Stern, The New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, Paris Match, BBC News and hundreds of other news outlets around the world as well as a dozen books. You can follow him here - @coombskj