Picking through debris. Sifting detritus. Sieving and shaking the coal from the clinker, and then I’m back. An inward child sat cross-legged in the middle of the high-walled back yard. Regressing and regretting. Embracing the past for fear it might reach out and strangle if I don’t take its hands in mine.
“Did I do well?” I whispered, timid and tamed. Terror came later. It seemed like the only time he could force himself to be proud of me was when I had somehow managed to find fuel from that teeming dust pile of waste. Waste not want not what not. I saved another ebony rock for the flames today, but only because — well, you never know, never can be sure — it might be the most precious of jewels rather than a lump of mere fossil.
“That’ll burn well,” he would say, as he carried the metal tray to the coal-fired boiler, neglecting the more important business of the day such as why she had disappeared to the top of the house or why the cupboard door was hanging from its hinges yet again. He could grit and grin his grimace through anything, that man.
He listened intently to the weather forecast on the radio as he stoked the age-old black and iron with the poker that scared me so. No, no, I’m not saying what you’re wildly imagining. It was the noise that unnerved me; the noise and the leaping fire. Picture a five year old with a firm conviction that this black-haired figure was somehow digging into the pits of hell, which I had only just begun to accept were undoubtedly lying beneath the foundations of our broken home and slowly breaking house. An obvious assumption, because that was the only explanation for the sights I had seen and the sounds I had heard.
His arms. Arms that wanted to be muscle, yet weren’t. I saw all the marks on the sleeves: grass stains from the garden, oil leaks from the engine, scuffs from the stonework, other tell-tale traces whose provenance I knew but could never, would never give a name.
In that yard and in that narrow corridor of a kitchen, we were close for a moment. Do you believe that too, from whichever fire you tend now? Tell me we were close and I might be able to hold onto those wintry weekend hours, if nothing else.
There we stood, sharing a brief desire to warm the creaking floors and eighteenth century walls for another night, so that when I hid myself under the thick blankets I would melt. So that I would melt, melt into, melt apart.