THE LITTLE SOLDIER
Daddy left the Christmas they lived by the sea. The small rented flat on the beach road had dirty white walls and a shiny red patio that smelt of cherries. The summer was hot and the holidays seemed to roll up into one everlasting day. Rebecca did not go to the beach. Instead, she moved between the kitchenette, where Mother drank tea, and the balcony, where she sat watching the neighbourhood boys float paper boats in the gutters. But most of the time she stayed in the main bedroom, where Daddy worked on the puppet that he said was his last, his most special. Daddy smelt of wood varnish, warm cigarettes and Old Spice. He shaved each morning now, which Rebecca thought was a good idea because it was too hot for the full beard he used to wear.
Wooden puppets filled the rooms of their home until the day Mother packed them all into boxes. The puppets were modelled on the very characters that Rebecca found in her storybooks. There were knights in armour, witches with warts, bears with hard, jagged fur, and a wolf, too. The same day a man in white overalls arrived in a van to take them all away. The arms and legs of the puppets dangled from the sides of the boxes as the man carried them outside. When they were all gone, he signed a piece of paper and gave it to Mother. The man looked briskly around the room and then closed the door behind him.
That evening Mother decided to cook stew for dinner. The butcher down the street, with his lamb chop sideburns and bloody apron, offered Mother the marrow bones that she usually took to make the soup that Daddy loved. But Mother said that she wanted stewing meat instead.
When Daddy arrived home from the fairground, tired yet jovial, he found the kitchen filled with the rich smells from the stove. He smiled as he went over to the pot and lifted the lid. Then he turned to Mother with a baffled look on his face.
Rebecca, go read in the living room, darling, said Mother. On the sofa, Rebecca crossed her legs beneath her, and opened her book to the story about the Tin Soldier, which she knew by heart.
Where are they? Daddy’s voice rose, loud and harsh, like a giant. It did not sound like Daddy at all. He pushed his way into the living room with hard steps. Mother followed him, but went no further than the kitchen door. He stood in front of the empty cabinet and held it, pressing his weight against it as if to wrestle it to the floor.
John, said Mother in a quiet voice. Be reasonable.
But Daddy did not look at her. The cabinet began to shake because Daddy was shaking. Rebecca opened her book as wide as it would go until the spine began to bend and crack. On the page, in an illustration, the little black goblin leapt from a snuffbox. Her parents did not look at her. The strong smell of stew drifted into the room. What about those upstairs?
Please, said Mother. We can’t go on like this.
Daddy pushed himself back from the cabinet and bounded up the staircase.
John, said Mother. Please, think of your daughter.
Rebecca sat at the table alone that night. She moved the potatoes around on her plate until they were cold. She did not touch the pieces of meat. Mother drank cups of tea and read through the newspaper, circling ads with a red crayon that she took from Rebecca’s schoolbag. Daddy stayed upstairs. The air of his cigarettes settled on every room like a moth-eaten old blanket. The next morning, when he came downstairs, he wore a grey suit, and his face was clean shaven.
Once he was gone the sea air grew cooler. The neighbourhood boys still played with paper boats in the gutters in the street below. Rebecca dangled her new puppet from above. A one-legged soldier made of wood. His last, and most special. She thought about the ballerina, loved by a soldier made of tin, and how, against all odds, he had made his way back. Rebecca knew little of love, but she let the puppet go.