(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
Jingle Bells, played the tune from somewhere, in
BoneyM’s revoltingly sweet tones,
Jingle bells, Jingle bells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
On a one-horse open sleigh.
"Dad?" His son’s voice, trembling on the verge of panic.
"Dad? There’s another one."
"Don’t look at them, Davey." He fought down his irritation.
He needed to make allowances for the boy’s phobia – god knew he had to make
allowances for a lot of things – but this was beginning to get to him. This
time of year, one didn’t even have to step out of doors to encounter them. One
only had to turn on the TV or open the newspaper. They were everywhere.
But it wasn’t the ones in the papers or on TV that
frightened his son, it was the ones on the street corners and in the stores.
One couldn’t take him anywhere without panic attacks but one couldn’t leave him
alone at home either. Sean gritted his teeth and resisted the urge to crush the
boy’s hand in his own, to cause pain and tears. "Don’t look at him."
"But he’s looking at me, Dad." The boy’s voice, now
perilously close to the familiar wail. "He’s looking at me!"
"Nobody said you have to look back, do you?" But he took the
boy’s hand and pulled him round so now he was between David and the object of
his fear. He smiled apologetically at the fat man across the street, who looked
back and smiled benevolently. "He’s smiling at you, Davey," he said, but the
boy only tugged harder at his hand. "Dad? Let’s go, please?"
"All right, Davey." He tried his best to keep hold of
his temper, but it was difficult. His son needed to be helped, he often
thought. It wasn’t easy for the kid either, having to live with a father he had
virtually never seen till just half a year ago. It wasn’t easy coping with the
trauma of the loss of his mother, almost before his very eyes. And now this
He remembered the last time he had talked to Phoebe over the
phone. He hadn’t seen her then in well over a year, since after the divorce. He
had sent her a cheque every month and that was it. But his conscience had been
pricking him after he listened to the others in the mess hall talking about
their kids growing up without them, so he had finally phoned. Phoebe had been
surprised to get his call, surprised and not wholly pleased. He had sensed the
coolness right through the static of the really pretty bad connection. She had
said, yes, the boy was fine, and no, he couldn’t come to the phone and talk
because he was sleeping. It had seemed a bit odd that he would be sleeping
then, so early in the evening Phoebe’s time, but he had let it go. He had not
thought it worth phoning again.
But Phoebe was dead now, victim in her own home of some
psychopath so sadistic that when they had found her she could barely be
recognised any more as a human being. The madman had never been caught. And
Davey, who had been in the house at the time and slept through it all, was now
his charge – along with the responsibility of making a new life after a decade
and a half, all his working life, in the army.
Poor kid. Faced with the sudden loss of the mother who was
all he had ever known as family in the five short years of his life, forced to
live with a father who was not only a stranger but had certainly been blamed by
Phoebe (being who she was) for everything that had ever gone wrong (like "You
can’t have that toy because I have no money and that’s because your dad
is such a bastard"), he must feel like a prisoner of war. And on top of that he
had all this fear – of darkness and of closed spaces and of this and that and
whatnot. Fear, of all things, of Santa Claus.
He should have had left the army long ago, he knew. If he
had left early enough, Phoebe and he might still be married. The boy might be
growing up as a normal kid. But soldiering was all he knew, and it was not easy
to decide to throw away an entire career, after making Colour Sergeant Major,
just because his wife was not happy with him being away so often and so long.
But he had had the stubbornness in him too, and once she had left there was no
further point even thinking of leaving. He probably would have been in the army
now, Phoebe or no Phoebe, but for the Taliban rocket-propelled grenade that had
left his right foot a shattered stump. He had just been discharged from
hospital, artificial foot and all, when the news about Phoebe had come. And
after that he had been given a medical discharge anyway.
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