Life Vacation by Michael Bonnet

Alex stood at the threshold of his childhood bedroom. It had been depersonalised, save for a few rogue wrestling stickers that still clung stubbornly to the furniture they’d been pressed on three decades earlier. Not much had survived the cull, but he found an old pair of jeans and a yellowing Stone Roses T-shirt which somehow still fit. He guessed there must have been at least twenty years when his waistline diverged from his fifteen-year-old self, before a conversion into the church of ultra-running at forty returned him to his teenage proportions. What was that all about anyway? An attempt to put some miles between him and the inevitable decay of ageing? A belief that if you impressed death with your athleticism, he’d nod you his respect and pass you over for some lower hanging fruit?

Entering his dad’s room was a more discomforting prospect. Death had visited so recently, could he really be certain he’d left? Plus there had been no decluttering here. Alex had become wary of approaching his father’s personal effects after a scarf worn to Tesco caused a spontaneous crying fit at the self-service checkouts. His dad’s scent on the fabric was responsible, always lurking just out of reach and then, right at the moment he placed his basket down, unmistakably there, flooring him. He was vaguely aware of the awkward glances and grimaces behind him and then the cashier ringing the bell for assistance. Breakdown on aisle four.

It was smells and sounds you had to watch out for. They appeared innocuous but carried the real gut punch. Photos, for all of their brashness, were strangely impotent compared to the trill of a canvas tent unzipping, evoking memories of camping holidays; or the musk of a Hamlet cigar burrowed deep in Merino wool. On the first day he’d arrived, marinating in jet-lag and apprehension, Alex had sought out the old leather-bound family albums, expecting to be eviscerated. Wanting to be, really. Ever since he’d been told of his dad’s death he’d been seeking emotional confirmation from within himself that this news had been digested. He felt sad, but only fleetingly. If he took himself off somewhere quiet away from Jen and the kids he could manufacture tears, but he discounted these as his mind inevitably wandered away from the death of his father to the death of the mother dinosaur in Land Before Time, and the end of Blackadder and the rabbits being buried alive in Watership Down. It was California, he decided. Nobody could be expected to grieve in this cursed golden light. He’d weighed the heft of albums appreciatively as he set them down next to his dad’s old armchair. There was a pulse of anticipatory excitement for the gloom he’d soon be mainlining and then… not exactly nothing, but nothing much. Certainly not the knockout blow he craved.

The phone flashed again. Jen. He ignored the voice call but read the message that followed, taking care not to open it.

Sure you’ve a million things on hun. Call me when you can, don’t worry about the time! Love you XX

His approach was becoming untenable. He couldn’t say he was busy all the time and he’d already squeezed about as much mileage as he could out of the time difference and jet lag. For all its mod cons, the 21st century really did have a lot to answer for. The tyranny of constant contactability negated the benefits of travelling 4000 thousand miles and eight time zones away from your family. Nowadays a man couldn’t even pretend to be putting his deceased father’s affairs in order in peace. The phone flashed again. Alex’s shoulders shuddered as he recognised the estate agent’s number. He put the phone face down on the table between the malting gladioli and lilies. Sure enough, when he peeked later, the venomous coil of the voicemail symbol glowered back. He fumbled the phone off and headed out into the night.

To Alex’s sun-spoiled bones, the chill in the air felt biting, but judging by their attire it barely registered with the locals. It was strange to think that was what he had been once, before he became whatever he was now – some mid-Atlantic monstrosity. Friday nights though, he remembered them well enough. The demob-happy masses, shorn of any responsibility, cutting loose to the point of losing it. He walked up the strip, expecting to hear a white noise of screeches and yells from the throng. Instead he found it deserted. The layout was familiar, but where there had once been two-for-one pubs and ID-sceptic bars, there was now only shuttered-up shops and offices. A red and blue barber’s pole silently spun outside an establishment that had been colloquially known as ‘the meat market’. The White Hart retained its racing green exterior tiles, but the inside had been converted into a bicycle showroom. He walked on in search of revellers and eventually found them piling into an old industrial estate now decked out in MDF and fairy lights. Man, Alex thought, this shit is contagious.

The urge to cradle a pint glass became overwhelming and he found himself drinking a beer he’d never heard of from a local brewery that didn’t exist the last time he was here. Halfway through this, he heard someone call his name, doubtfully at first and then, seeing Alex’s heard turn, with renewed vigour.

“Alex Dale, fucking hell, it is you!”

He thought he recognised the man from school, though his name remained out of reach.

“Didn’t you move to New York?”

“No. Well, not exactly, California–”

“Oh my days, your voice! Say that again. Stu, get over here, it’s Alex fucking Dale, he’s back from New York. You’ve got to hear the state of his accent.”

Stu? Something stirred in some long-dormant recess of Alex’s brain. Stu Coppell, his brain concluded, with a decisiveness that surprised him. That would make the other man…

“Gary Pearce.” He held out his hand like a second-hand car salesman trying to close a deal.

“You remember?”

“Of course, of course. Good to see you buddy.”

“Buddy! Oh my days, mate, what have they done to you. Say something else?”

Alex laughed in a manner intended to put the joke to bed, but Gary and Stu continued to stare back in expectation.

“Hey,” he said eventually.

“Brilliant.” Gary grinned.

“So how’s New York?” Stu asked. “Do you work on Wall Street?”

“I’m in California actually.”

“Wicked. Las Vegas?”

“Not far.” Alex relented.

They settled into a predictable pattern, reminiscing about the days before their lives diverged. Do you remember the time when Murphy set off the school fire alarm for a prank and the sprinklers came on? Did you hear what happened to Ste Dunlop? He’s in jail now for child molesting.

All of a sudden, Stu cut the nostalgia short. Why was it that Alex was back home? Alex desperately wanted to explain without crying. He worried he’d choke on his words, or be betrayed by a tremor in his lip or quiver in his throat. He concentrated so hard on the mechanics of speaking that he barely registered his own words. He finished entirely unprepared for Stu and Gary’s response. Such was the earnestness with which Stu asked him how he was coping and the tender way Gary patted his arm across the table that his show of stoicism was instantly, tearfully, undone. This breakout of genuine emotion took them all by surprise and more pints were promptly sent for to quell whatever it was that threatened to rise. A covers band started up in one corner of the warehouse and a table of middle-aged women bobbed along happily as the balding singer told of a dark desert highway and cool wind in his hair.

As they chatted, Stu and Gary exchanged nods and pats with an intermittent stream of passers-by, none of whom Alex recognised. Alex envied the easy intimacy they seemed to have with these acquaintances. They asked after children and pets and for updates on home extensions, making plans to see each other again at the cricket club or at their kids’ next football game. He thought of his own life back in Walnut Creek. Even after all those years he’d never been able to liberate his friendships from the rigid silos they were structured into. Work friends were seen at work only, save for the bi-monthly trip to O’Donovan’s, where affected casualness was compulsory. The softball team he’d joined to broaden his routine seemed lovely and yet in all honesty he knew nothing about any of his teammates. There was lots of surface-level chit-chat, but it didn’t add up to much. Home life took precedence of course. Taking the kids to band practice every Tuesday, trips to the beach most weekends, date night on the first Friday of the month. He was busy for sure, which was better than not being. He just wasn’t sure how enthusiastic he was about what busied him.

“Do you surf?” Stu asked, bringing Alex’s attention back to the room.

The question didn’t register with Alex immediately, so Stu supplemented it with an enthusiastic mime of someone balancing on a board, his pint glass sloshing to and fro.

“Course he surfs,” Gary replied. “He’s in California isn’t he. The surfing state. Man, what a life. You got kids, Al?”

Alex nodded.

“That’s good, man. On Sunday, me and Stu and Tony Bleacker – you remember Tony Bleacker? – we take our lads out to Waves just off the motorway at junction four. It’s one of them artificial surf places. The kids love it. Now we have to go to Cornwall every half-term so they can get their fix, you know. Me, Stu, Tony and the missuses sit at this bar overlooking the beach and the kids stay out there all day, in all weathers.

“Course, it’s not exactly California,” Stu added.

“That’s true. We worry more about hypothermia than sharks.”

“And the only blondes we’re ogling are the golden ales they have down there. You tried them, Al? They’re unbelievable.”

Alex relaxed back into his chair. In the corner the band started up another number: Proud Mary. On cue, the ladies’ table graduated from head bopping to shoulder dancing before strutting towards the dance floor. Stu was miming something else now, possibly something fishing related Alex thought, though he couldn’t have asked if he’d wanted to as shrieks of “rolling on the river” drowned out all conversation.

It was still dark when Alex woke on the settee, draped in his father’s dressing gown. His head wasn’t yet throbbing as much as it deserved to. A fly-on-the-wall police documentary played on the TV and Alex vaguely remembered watching an episode or two before passing out. In the programme, the police were investigating a spate of armed robberies, wielding only truncheons themselves. Through Alex’s almost-American eyes, the show seemed quaint, comical even, like children playing dress-up. The big hats, the tiny cars, the distinct lack of bullet-ridden bodies. He turned his phone back on and instantly regretted doing so. Ignored messages once again demanded his attention. He tentatively read an email from the estate agent that simply said, We’ve had a good offer. Call me urgently. He watched a video of Jen and the two kids bouncing in unison on the trampoline in the backyard. He noted with concern a tightness in his chest that refused to relax.

He made his father’s favourite breakfast: kippers poached in milk. They had to be abandoned halfway through because, well, fish for breakfast was an abomination. It would be good to get a sweat going he decided, purge a few of last night’s toxins. He ran down the old railway track expecting only to do a few miles before his hangover caught up with him, but he was still feeling strong an hour in when the track met the canal. He sidestepped dog walkers with a smile and gave way to cyclists with an understanding nod. He felt great, strong; maybe there was something to the kippers after all. The towpath gave way to playing fields and he decided to do a lap or two of these, gaining speed as he went. He ran the last lap with Proud Mary blaring in his ears, first Creedence and then Tina, stopping finally to rest in sight of a game of cricket. It had brightened by then and the red ball and white sweaters stood out against the heavy green, and if that wasn’t even a bright blue sky. He snapped a picture and fired it off to Jen, safe in the knowledge that it was the middle of the night back home and he was immune from any response for a good few hours. Feeling energised he decided to take the bull by the horns and call the estate agent.

“Mr Dale, we finally speak,” they jibed him.

“Yes, you know – difficult time,” he volleyed back, smiling his way through the obligatory apology.

“So anyway, great news, we’ve got an offer at asking price with a buyer who isn’t tied down and keen to move quickly.”

“Oh, er, really,” he stuttered, feeling his shine being stolen.

“Yes, really fantastic news. So, shall we lock this in and get started on the formalities?”

Alex did not like the effect this conversation was having on him. His energy seemed to be waning, and was that the faintest sign of the knot in his chest returning? The estate agent filled the silence with some patter his brain tried hard to filter out. Achieved a good price. Alex rubbed hard at his scalp with the base of his hand. Very competitive market. How to play this? Need to move quickly. The sun in the sky illuminated him and suddenly it was all very clear. He needed to go full Californian on this little weasel. 

“Stop,” he said.

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t speak,” Alex said calmly.

“Didn’t we market this low, to, what was it, ‘get people through the door’?”

“Well–”

“Ssshhh. Please. And didn’t we specify offers exceeding the asking price?”

“Offers in excess of. Yes, but, it’s a very different market now and–”

“I think we should stick with the ‘offers in excess of’ rule. Ideally offers well in excess of.  You see I don’t really feel minded to give away my deceased father’s home at a discount to someone who’s clearly low-balling us. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Alex took the phone away from his ear and angled his face up to the sun while the voice on the on the other end, the voice that was probably less than half his age, the voice that sold houses but had likely never bought one, the voice that had to work every Saturday and could not be seen in anything less formal than a business suit, squirmed into reverse.

“Let me see what I can do,” said the voice.

“You do that” replied Alex, hanging up.

On the cricket pitch there was a satisfying thwack as the batsmen sent the red ball out beyond the chasing fielders. Offers in excess of, smiled Alex. O. I. E. O. Actually, he decided, he did still have plenty of energy. Maybe even enough to run the whole way back. And off he set, whistling Old Macdonald Had a Farm as he ran. E-I-E-I-O.

In the afternoon, the sky reverted to its usual opaque self, meaning Alex felt no guilt about holing-up in the living room and chain smoking Hamlets in front of the Antiques Roadshow. He watched the programme on mute while listening to a radio phone-in. He started to play a game with himself, guessing whether the contestants’ facial expressions meant that aunty Doris’s old cuckoo clock was going to pay off their mortgage or was going head-first into the nearest bin. Meanwhile, he tried to predict what side of the argument the radio callers would fall on based solely on their name and location. We’ve got Dave in Romford on the line. Thinks the navy should sink any migrant dinghies crossing the channel. Pretty much. Catlin in Hove thinks badgers should be cuddled not culled. Spot on. His success in these endeavours pleased him greatly. Perhaps he wasn’t as estranged from his countrymen as he feared. Watching cricket of a morning, taking the political pulse of his fellow citizens in the afternoon.

The day frittered away in a happy, fruitless squander. There was a brief flurry of exertion when Countdown came on and Alex scrabbled around the room for a pen and paper to join in. This precipitated a short nap that took him through to 5 o’clock, in time for a brilliantly camp British Judge Judy to preside over the transition from afternoon to evening. He was so lulled into tranquillity at this point that, when his phone rang, Alex made the rookie mistake of actually answering it. Jen’s day was still in its infancy, but already sounded significantly more productive than his. There’d been the school run and the gridlocked trudge to the office and then a phone-call from the school about another biting incident involving Lucas and the plans for the camping trip and possible veiled comments on the WhatsApp group that they weren’t doing their fair share of the organising and the ongoing home improvement saga and whether bisque was indeed the correct shade of paint for the hallway and not in fact cosmic latte. The words rat-a-tat-tatted into him so that by the time a pause came that he was expected to fill, he felt that disoriented he could only mumble, “U-huh, sounds tough.”

“When are you coming home?” she asked.

He paused too long on that one, mumbled something else about needing to finalise a few things, the house not being quite over the line yet.

“I know I’m panicking right now,” she said, “and probably not being as compassionate or calm as I should be. But it feels like you’re on vacation over there while I’m here trying to keep everything going on my own.”

He did respond to this one, reminding her about the emotional and practical difficulties that he was facing and on his own as well. “This isn’t much fun for me either,” he said.

He ended the call and un-muted the TV just as the judge brought his gavel down with gusto. They both knew they’d come uncomfortably close to naming something that once said, couldn’t be unnamed.

For a day or two he pretended that the situation was retrievable. He worked hard to convince himself that the ‘grieving husband revisits his homeland to lay his father to rest and courageously battle against archaic probate regulations’ angle was not entirely played-out. He kidded himself it could buy him a week, maybe even a fortnight longer. The absence of any proactive communication from said husband’s abandoned spouse however, confirmed otherwise. He called the ecstatic estate agent and ignominiously back-pedalled. “I’ll see what I can do.” The agent’s reply barely concealed a smirk.

Alex booked his flights for two days later. And so, with time no longer plentiful, he went back to the graveyard for the first time since the funeral, bookending his trip with a second absent stare at the recently raked earth and the empty space where a headstone would go once the grave had settled’. This concept had initially amused him, the idea of the restless grave needing to be soothed before it would accept any adornment. But now it all felt, well, graver. His mother’s grave was elsewhere in the cemetery and his father, economical to the last, had planned to bunk in with her, but a spate of subsidence meant that such doubling-up was temporarily prohibited. There were coffins sinking, and this was a concern, though Alex failed to see what difference it made if you were six feet under or sixty.

He stared a good while, willing himself to be present in this moment, but his mind refused, wandering wherever it fancied. At the perimeter of the graveyard was a narrow tarmacked path that led to the park. Here, mothers pushed buggies in silent procession. Alex joined them, falling into step with their gentle plodding. He wondered if he was ever pushed along this path as a baby, a doting Mum or Dad waiting for his gurgles to be soothed by the irresistible pacifier of motion. They called them strollers in America, which is what he called them now too, and this always felt a better word. Strolling is exactly what he’d done with Lucas and Layla. The easy stroll of a man content with the world and his place in it. At the park, some kids were playing football. Men that could well be Stu or Gary yelled too enthusiastically from the touchline, extracting a vicarious thrill from each pass and tackle.

He noticed the narrowness of the streets as he made his way back. In Walnut Creek the roads were so wide they’d test your eye-sight, but here, on this space-deprived island, they funnelled everyone together. Intimate, he supposed. Or claustrophobic. One of the two.

About The Author

Mike Bonnet is a UK-based short story writer published by the likes of Structo, The Honest Ulsterman and Riptide magazines.

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