Eva side-stepped the cowpat on the muddy path, feeling the warmth of the sun as it penetrated through the cold of the morning. In the distance blackbirds trilled, but instead of watching them sweep by as she usually would, she kept her eyes firmly on the path in front of her. She didn’t have long for her walk, but she needed this time to herself to clear her head. The day would be full of people and full of chatter. The sort she generally found long and exhausting anyway, but today, more so. Today was Tom’s day. Tom’s birthday. In fact, soon she’d be rushing around, making ham sandwiches and putting cocktail sausages on sticks and laying out miniature cakes with fondant icing. All the things he favoured.
In the past, Joe complained about her preoccupation with her son. He claimed it was what drove them apart. It probably did. But, for as long as she could remember, having a child had been her main goal in life. He knew that; had always known that. She wanted a child. Children, in fact. Lots and lots of children. Why else would she spend most of her teens babysitting, and then train to be a teacher? She loved children. Absolutely loved them. In the distance, walking on the field with a giant Schnauzer, a mother and daughter caught her eye. The little girl, aged about ten, half-raised her hand and smiled uncertainly. It was Poppy from her old class. Gentle, kind Poppy. The girl’s mother glanced in the direction her daughter was waving, said something, then pulled the young girl away.
Discovering she couldn’t have any more children after Tom was a great shock, but in the end she realised it didn’t matter. If she couldn’t love lots of children, she would have more love for one. Of course, Tom was so easy to love: so calm and sweet-natured; such a curious child, ready to learn and discover. Although sometimes, there were disadvantages. Joe took many precautions, but still their child got into everything.
‘He’ll be a scientist or engineer when he grows up,’ Joe said, ‘with curiosity like that.’
Most parents thought their child was a genius, but she and Joe were absolutely certain. Tom learned to read in next to no time, years before his peers, and it was as if he was born counting. From the time he could sit up, he was a wonder with construction toys and puzzles. Eva would mix up pieces to trick him, but it was as if her son was able to visualise how the pieces fit together even before he touched them. He’d have things clicked back in one piece quicker than she ever could. By aged two and a half, Tom was able to use a screwdriver and pull apart toys and fit them back together in full working order. He also liked to see the machinery inside gadgets, and one day, Joe found both his phone and his tablet in bits. Eva smiled at the memory. Joe was red with annoyance, yet something about his shoulders reflected his pride at his son’s abilities.
She couldn’t remember the exact moment, but somewhere along the line, she and Joe stopped being allies in their love of their son.
‘You know, Eva, he’ll not die if you leave him unattended for five minutes. Ten minutes even. Go on, why don’t you give it a try?’
The sarcasm was a sign of the toxicity seeping into their relationship, and she remembered the words as if they were spoken only yesterday. A few weeks later, Joe left, claiming she was too focused on Tom, and he was nothing more than a third wheel in their relationship.
And today was Tom’s fourth birthday. Four. Where had the time gone? It didn’t feel like two minutes since his birth. Somewhere during the last year, he’d lost his babyishness, as his face slimmed, and his speech became more clear, assured and boyish. He looked very much like Joe. During one of Tom’s stopovers at Joe’s, his father risked taking him to the cinema to view one of those silly superhero films. From then on, Tom developed an obsession with flying. Not with planes, or helicopters, but a belief that real people could fly.
‘One day, Mummy, I’m going to learn how to fly. You’ll see.’
She ruffled his hair, more than half-believing he could do it, ‘I’ve no doubt about it, darling. You can do anything.’
As she reached the edge of the field, knife-edges of laughter pierced the early morning tranquility, and Eva stopped in her tracks. More early risers – a band of children accompanied by their mothers in the park. On any other day, she might have been in there too, as Tom was never one for lying in. Something – either her presence or a sound from the park – disturbed a tiding of magpies who suddenly rose up and screeched in the air above, their wings casting shadows on the ground. Keeping her head down, Eva took the first steps back home.
Back at the house, she was greeted by her husband’s car parked outside, his dark outline visible in the driver’s seat. Her father was inside the house, and would have let him in, so either Joe had only just arrived, or he’d been there a while but hadn’t yet knocked. Obviously he’s delaying, she thought, like herself.
Joe climbed out of the car as she got the door keys out of her pocket. He looked tired.
There was little to say. Not today. He was only here for one reason, and they both knew that.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll get dad to make some coffee.’
Keith, Eva’s father, was arranging a platter with triangle sandwiches and covering them with cling film as they entered the kitchen.
‘Oh thanks Dad – I told you I’d do that.’
‘It’s okay. I needed something to do.’
Cards crowded the window sills, and Joe picked each one up in turn, reading the sentiments inside.
‘There’s a lot,’ he said.
‘Yes.’ There wasn’t anything more to say.
He pointed at the blue and white balloons that decorated the corners of the room.
‘I’ve brought a helium balloon, but it’s still in the car. I thought he might like it.’
She nodded. ’He’d love it.’
Keith put on the kettle, and Eva turned the oven on and got a roasting tin to bake the sausages.
‘Are you hungry?’
‘No, I’m okay thanks.’
She looked at Joe’s face and he returned her gaze, but there was a blankness in his stare. She wondered if things would always be like this between them? She knew he blamed her, and she could understand it. Why wouldn’t he? She often blamed herself for how things turned out.
On the kitchen table lay a small wrapped box. It was a present for Tom. Inside was a game that simulated superheroes in flight. She’d known Tom would love it when she heard of it, and she stored it for months, having to stop herself from giving it to him early. She shook her head: Tom and his insatiable love of flying. His room was a shrine now to various superheroes in the form of posters and figurines, but Superman was his absolute favourite: Kal-El didn’t need any special equipment to get into the air.
‘When are they bringing him over?’ Joe asked, as Keith handed him a cup of coffee.
Joe nodded, and took a sip of his drink.
As Tom grew from infancy into boyhood, he liked his own space, and Eva made an effort to step away, remembering Joe’s accusatory words. In his spare time, the boy would spend hours in his room, drawing diagrams of machines that would catapult people into the air, and other machines that would transport themselves around and provide soft landings for the flyer. When she found them, the descriptions and pictures would make her smile. One weekend, after a good couple of hours of quiet from upstairs she shouted him to come down for lunch. She wanted to take him out in the afternoon, as some fresh air would do them both good. With no response, she went to his room and knocked on his door.
‘Tom? Come on – lunch is ready.’
Sighing with frustration she walked into his room, laughing nervously at what met her.
‘Tom, that’s really not funny.’
His feet were dangling about three feet from the floor, and the stool from his desk lay sideways on the carpet. His face was a pale purple, especially around the lips and eyes.
She recalled that she helped him down, and when he failed to move or breathe, she called for help. She also remembered how cold he was, but that was all. Everything else about that day was a fog. The Police told her that it looked like he was trying to set up a hoist using the window-blind runner, and the Coroner classified it as misadventure. Once again, there was a furore in the media about the danger of window-blind cords, but like everything else during Tom’s infancy, she’d been extra careful and tied each string to its own fixing on the wall.
Once she and Joe managed to drag themselves out of their traumatised stupor, they decided that as the funeral would be held on Tom’s birthday, it wouldn’t be a mourning, but a celebration. Tom would want that. He always loved party food and balloons, but most especially, fun. That’s what he’d always been about, though remembering was cold comfort.
Watching the coffin go into the ground made Eva numb, and putting Tom’s gift into the ground with him made her number still. She glanced at Joe’s face, at how stiff his mouth was, and she understood he was numb too.
Back at the house, once she’d served the sandwiches and spoken to everyone, Joe approached her.
‘I’ve still got Tom’s balloon in the car,’ he said. ‘Do you want to come for a drive?’
Eva nodded, and whispered to Keith she wouldn’t be long.
The ride up through the hills was comforting somehow. It was somewhere she and Tom would go occasionally to fly his kite, the wind whipping the ribboned tail round and round into a whirling frenzy.
At the Crags at the top, Joe and Eva stepped out of the car, and Joe opened the boot to get the balloon. It was a Superman figure, fist forward in full flight; red cape cascading behind. The wind snapped the balloon into a spin, and Joe held it tightly at the very top of the string.
Eva stayed back a little, letting him have this moment to himself – a little privacy was the least she could do – but Joe turned to her.
’Will you let it go with me?’ he said, ‘I can’t do this on my own,’ and for the first time in as long as she could remember, the expression in his eyes softened.
Eva took the string directly beneath where he clutched it, and the skin of their hands touched. They held on a moment, tight, then together they released the balloon and watched as it rose higher and higher and higher, moving further away into the blue of the sky.
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