Short Story: Vinegar

Published in ‘Cheval’ (2015), edited by Jonathan Edwards and Alan Perry


It was Jack’s sixth Sunday of being a saint.

  ‘Next door’s having Sunday dinner,’ said Dan, leaning out through the back door to let the cat in. He watched Delyth-Next-Door’s cardiganed shape move through the steamy windows, the sound of her Madonna CD and her four bickering children drifting across the garden, carried by the smell of roast lamb and mashed swede.

  ‘Good for them,’ Jack said, elbow-deep in the freezer. His denimed backside stuck out, wiggling as he scrabbled among the boxes of fish fingers and value-range pizzas. 

  Dan frowned. ‘Why don’t we ever have a Sunday dinner?’

  ‘I haven’t got time to piss about with roasting no dinners, Dan.’

  ‘Well what are we having?’

  ‘Dunno.’ Jack tugged out a box of ancient chicken kievs, sending a shower of flaked ice to the tiles like electrical sparks. ‘These with chips?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Well what then?’

  ‘Sunday dinner.’

  ‘Dan, I don’t have nothing for no Sunday bloody dinner.’ He slammed the box to the worktop and pulled a bag of potatoes from the cupboard. ‘You’ll appreciate what you’re given.’

  ‘How very Christian of you,’ said Dan, watching as his father took a handful of potatoes to the sink and scrubbed the earthy skins under a blast of tapwater. He yawned. Fair play to Jack, he’d kept up this charade a lot longer than Dan had predicted. Dan would have bet his last fiver that his father would have given up and found himself slipping out of the off-licence with a four-pack of lager under his coat within a fortnight. Six weeks in and he was still going strong, a Saint Christopher dripping gold from his neck.

  ‘I don’t know what your problem is,’ muttered Jack, peeling potato skins. His face looked old in the dirty light that sliced through the blinds, his skin stretched over his cheeks like pale leather. He didn’t always look like that– old and sad. He used to draw looks from the mothers at the school gate, huddled together like hens in their rain coats, their beady eyes swinging towards him. They smiled over their scarves. Jack Jenkins cut quite a figure, towering above the other parents and stretching his broad arms to embrace the boy flinging himself at his Daddy, his hero at the school gates.

  They’d been to church that morning. Jack Jenkins had actually dragged his son to church. Dan had noticed Jack’s palms pressed together just above his crotch halfway through the service, as though he could pray in secret. Actually pressed together, like he thought himself some saint– Jack, with that wine-coloured scar snaking down his jaw and that oversized corduroy jacket that stank of rolled tobacco and wet dog. He used to hide whole bottles of whiskey in that jacket; just walk around in the middle of the day down the Kingsway with a bottle of cheap booze clinking against his rib and then sit at the side of the train station slugging it. He’d spend hours there, eyes rolling as the shadows leaned darker and longer over the traffic, scraping loose pennies towards him with a grubby finger and throwing cold chips at the seagulls. Sometimes Muggs came to join him, a pack of cards whispering between his hands. 

  And he thought the Bible could save him. The Bible. A stinking, grubby, useless, boring, pile-of-shit book was going to turn him into a new man. Jack Jenkins, the shiny new, squeaky-clean do-gooder who worried about things like poverty and praying for sick people in hospitals and abandoned kids and all the crap that none of them could do anything about.  

  Dan passed his eyes over his father’s faded polo-neck and the denim jeans hanging loose from his bony hips. If Mam could see him now, she’d have curled her lip and spat.  

  ‘All you ever used to do was go on at me to get clean. On and on and on. You and your mother,’ Jack said, lifting his eyes to the window above the sink. His face hardened. ‘Ashamed of your old man, that’s what you said.’ 

  ‘…well, yeah. No one wants to point out that the bloke spewing against the train station wall is their old man, do they?’ 

  ‘So what the hell am I doing wrong by staying off it then?’ Jack threw down the peeler and turned to look at his son. A vein wriggled down to meet the long scar, pearlescent in the afternoon light. ‘Huh? What am I doing wrong? Wrong now for a man to have a bit of faith in something other than a can of fucking lager? Want me to tell you to stick a fucking curry in the microwave while I go down the club all evening? Huh? Do you?’ He laughed. ‘Maybe I’ll bump into Muggs, have a few for old times’ sake.’

  Dan dropped his gaze. They never talked about Muggs.

  ‘Here.’ Jack rooted in his back pocket and cradled a handful of pound coins in his palm. ‘Go down the shop and get some vinegar, will you?’ He slammed the cupboard door. ‘We’ve run out.’

  

  *

  

They were already outside the rugby club when he passed, brows crumpled against the sunlight and cigarettes skewed from their lips. 

  The Boys. They watched Dan shuffle past with his earphones in, glancing up at them from beneath his hood. Paul gave him a stiff nod, drumming his fingers on his beer belly, a fat sovereign on his ring finger. The men muttered to each other in low voices, moving their lips only slightly as though Dan couldn’t see. An explosion of laughter boomed out from the huddle as four pairs of eyes followed him down the road. Dan turned his music up. Bastards.

  Every building was the colour of an ashtray. It didn’t matter how bright the April sun burned against the terraced houses, every shop front and squashed little home sulked in perpetual gloom, spitting out human shapes and little dogs every now and then or blowing out plumes of smoke through kitchen windows. Sunday afternoon: the whole street smelled of gravy. 

  Albert’s Stores stood at the end of the street, marked by a faded sign and a group of teens wheeling about on bikes outside the door, cans of Red Bull in their fists.

  ‘Alright,’ Dan said, nodding at their ringleader. The lanky boy nodded back. 

  Dan stepped into the cramped little shop, a jumble of overpriced tins, speckled bananas dangling from hooks and a messy display of newspapers strewn across the racks. The whole shop smelled of paper and old carpets. A lottery machine sputtered somewhere from behind the counter as Dan ducked behind the shelves, walled by rows of out-of-date biscuits and tatty rolls of giftwrap. He picked up a bottle of vinegar, slipped to the back of the store and found himself among the envelopes and stationery. He thought about his father’s twitching fingers before Albert moved the whiskey behind the counter to stop him grabbing it.

  Dan don’t know why he did it. His hand closed around a pot of markers.

  Sidling up to the counter, Dan paid for the bottle of vinegar. Albert eyed him conspicuously, a row of gold-coloured liquors glittering behind him on the shelf. 

  ‘That father of yours staying out of trouble?’ he asked, looking at Dan down his long nose. He reminded Dan of a crow, dressed in dark turtlenecks and arms lifting like wings whenever he reached for the cigarettes. 

  Dan frowned, rubbing a five-pound note between his thumb and forefinger. ‘None of your business.’

  Albert’s eyebrows floated upwards, a small smirk curling on his lip. ‘Carry on with that attitude and you’ll be out of here as well.’ 

  ‘And these.’ Dan slid a packet of fizzy sweets over the counter. 

  ‘Sixty pence.’

  ‘That’s no way to ask.’

  ‘Did you hear what I said? You want to be banned as well?’ Albert leaned over the counter. ‘What have you got in those pockets of yours, eh?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Go on. Empty your pockets.’

  ‘You can’t just accuse me.’

  ‘I know you’ve got something in there.’ Albert narrowed his eyes. ‘Just like that drunken father of yours–’

  ‘Fuck you.’

  Albert swooped at him. ‘Empty your bloody pockets!’

  Dan ran. He ran and ran through Emlyn Street, past the grey-faced houses, tearing past the rugby club and nearly colliding with Delyth-Next-Door chasing the cat out of the garden. He ran right past his house. 

  Panting, he stopped and gripped the railings of the iron fence that surrounded Fairfield Park like a cage, the children crawling in and out of tunnels like rats on the jungle gym. What the hell was he doing? He pushed his hair back with a clammy hand, bent double and sucked in the cold spring air. A small boy eyed him from underneath the climbing frame, his face pale and a scrub of ginger hair springing from his skull. He looked too small to be alone, crouched there in his scruffy parka and popping crisps into his babyish mouth. 

  He’d forgotten the vinegar.

  The boy tucked his knees up to his chest as Dan passed him to sit among the smashed glass on the tarmac, a bottle-green constellation beneath the swings. He pulled out the bundle of markers tied up with a rubber band in his hoody pocket. What the hell did he want to nick five shitty marker pens for? He slid one out of the rubber band and popped off the lid. God, he loved that smell. He tried it against his hand, but nothing came out; just a weak smudge dragged across his knuckles. Face hardening, he stabbed the nib at the ground and tossed it across the field. The little boy followed it with his eyes.

  He did the same with the second. And the third. The fourth left a thick black line across his fist. Smiling, he carried it over to the stone wall that divided the church grounds from the playground. On both sides of the wall, cigarette ends and faded pink crisp packets fluttered against the weeds that clustered either side. God, this place was ugly, even in the sun. Even the trees looked exhausted. Behind him, the boy crept up to watch him, dropping to crouch behind the metal slide. He chewed slowly on a mouthful of crisps.

  Dan wrote his name. He didn’t know why. Then he wrote his name again. He wrote his name over and over, Daniel Daniel Daniel Daniel, until the letters became meaningless scribbles and the words started to look strange, a nestful of snakes crawling over the stones. Stained-glass Jesus gleamed above him, darker this side of the window. You can talk to Jesus, the Reverend had said once, gripping the rosary around his neck. Talk to him and talk to the Father. How the hell would Jesus understand? He was alright– his father was always right where he was supposed to be; everywhere, all the time, and he didn’t even have a body to carry him around. There were times when Jack couldn’t have dragged his whiskey-sodden body to the bathroom for a piss.

  He turned to the little boy beneath the slide. ‘You want a go?’ Dan asked him, offering him the other marker. The boy shrank back. Dan shrugged. ‘Suit yourself.’

  Daniel Daniel Daniel. Daniel Edwyn Jenkins. He never told anyone his middle name. He was named after his grandfather, who he couldn’t really remember apart from a brown waistcoat and a red Bible on his bedside table, a soft old cheek smelling of tobacco and that terrible phlegmy cough that still came to him if he tried hard enough to think about it. He’d died of emphysema when Dan turned four. That was probably the first time Dan had noticed the cider cans over the coffee table and the shouting and his mother’s disappearing off into the night a year later. Then the vodka bottles moved in, filling the spaces left by Mam’s belongings and Muggs came to the haunt the kitchen late at night with his pack of cards, grinning with cigarettes clamped between his teeth.

  The boy tiptoed up beside him, his nose smeared with snot, leaving a thin yellow crust above his mouth. He stretched out his hand for the marker pen. Dan handed it to him without smiling.

  The boy popped off the lid with tiny fingers and frowned at the wall.

  ‘Like this.’ Dan wrote across the stones: Daniel Edwyn Jenkins. The little boy copied him, word for word, his letters tall and wobbly. Dan laughed. ‘Is your name Daniel Edwyn Jenkins?’

  The little boy shook his head.

  ‘Then write your name. Not mine.’

  The boy lifted his pen again. His parka was definitely a couple of sizes too big for him, the sleeves swallowing his hands whole. He pushed the cuffs back and pressed the pen nib to the wall, concentrating hard. His tongue poked out and slid along his lips as he wrote, a pink little blade. He stepped back and blinked at the black letters drying onto the stones. Dan stared at the boy’s handiwork.

  ‘Boy?’ Dan dropped down onto his haunches, levelling his height with the kid’s. ‘Your name is Boy?’

  The boy nodded.

  ‘That’s a funny name.’ Behind them, the kids slowly succumbed to the calls of their parents. One girl squealed, announcing that she was going for ice cream with her Daddy. The sound of hard footballs against rubber soles kicked away across the field, leaving only a scattering of crows cawing and pecking at the crumbs left behind on the tarmac. ‘Is that a nickname?’

  Boy took up the pen and wrote again. Boy. Boy Boy Boy Boy.

  ‘Do you have a second name then?’

  Boy looked up at Dan, confused. 

  ‘Did your parents ever tell you why they chose that name?’ Dan asked him. Boy shook his head. ‘What do the teachers call you?’

  Boy wrote it again. Boy.

  Dan lifted himself up to his full height as a man called out from behind the railings.

  ‘Are you listening?’ A red face the shape of a full moon scowled out from beneath a knitted hat, a cigarette clamped between his teeth. ‘Get your arse over here boy if you know what’s good for you. You’re coming in.’ The man blew a stream of grey against the sky and grinned as Dan turned to face him. He’d recognize that grin and wax jacket anywhere. ‘Well well well, shw’mae bach.’ He laughed, a cruel wheezing laugh forcing its way up from his lungs. ‘Oh, sorry. Do I say God bless now?’

  Dan’s fists tightened around the pens. 

  ‘Y’know, I’ll give him two months. Two months and he’s gonna cave.’ Muggs put his hand to his right pocket, as he always did, to check his cards were still there. ‘You really think he’s gonna sit there in that miserable living room with a cup of fucking tea when the internationals are on?’ He snorted and flung the cigarette butt to the floor. ‘Bollocks. He ain’t gonna stay in and watch telly on his own. Internationals, it’s tradition. He’ll tell you, just one pint see, it’s the rugby. He’ll be rat-arsed after one sniff of booze. Still…you could always pray for him.’

  Dan shook. What he’d have given to knock Muggs’ few remaining teeth into the back of his throat.

  ‘C’mon, boy.’ Muggs set his jaw and frowned at the tiny boy behind Dan’s legs. ‘You’re coming in. Stick a DVD on or something, go to bed when you’re tired. Consider yourself bloody lucky, boy…ain’t many kids can say they’re allowed to stay up late as they want and have free reign of the fucking house.’

  Boy dropped his head and followed his father out of the gate.

  ‘You been writing on them walls?’ Muggs jerked his head at the church walls. Boy shrugged. ‘Little shit. And you,’ he turned to Dan, ‘you should know better. Not very holy, vandalizing the fucking church.’ He wheezed a laugh and walked away, gripping his son by the arm and coughing violently. 

  Dan watched him go. Behind him, Jesus could have been waving after them over an old man’s head.

  Jack would be waiting for his vinegar. 

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