Roma Writer's Group
The Works of Lee Goleby
My shoes were dusty. We had walked quite a distance to the station. I wiped one foot over the other, but the dust merely rearranged itself into long streaks and blotches. They were my old scuffed school shoes - my only shoes - and I had spent a long time cleaning them with a wet rag. Now you could not see any difference. I considered squatting down to wipe them with a finger, but Mum had told us to stand here, and stand we must, or bear her wrath later. The image of a razor strap flitted across my mind.
I looked at my mother, talking to the man. She was different today, somehow. The clothes were the same, the hair the same, but she had altered in some indefinable way. It must be the man. My eyes shifted their focus, and I stared hard.
Only five minutes ago I had been searching for him without knowing exactly what he looked like. I had known I should look for someone tall, and tall he certainly was. I hadn't known enough to look for the hair - that red hair - or for the cauliflower ears.
The train had pulled in, and people clambered out: a few diggers on leave, women, children, old people, even a couple of dogs, but not an ordinary, tall man.
Then he was there, and the excitement, that had been building up inside me, drummed in my ears so loudly, that I could hardly hear what he said. I think he said hello, but that was about all. What had happened to the other words that he was supposed to say? Where were the words that told us all our worries were over?
The other people disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, so that now there were only the five of us in that whole huge station. The footsteps and echoing voices had vanished along with the people, and the only sounds were the pigeons and the urgent, but muffled conversation of the two adults a scant three yards away. Mum had directed us where to wait, then she and the man had moved out of earshot, so we were left with little to do, but take in the sights and smells around us.
The excitement had dissipated almost at once, as if I had been watching a sunset that had abruptly concluded without the expected grandeur.
Billy jiggled beside me, and I looked down at him, but he wasn't looking at me or at the two grown-ups before us. I followed his line of sight. He was gazing at the porter's trolley that tempted with its flat bed and long handle. I could see where his thoughts lay, and I turned to grin up at Jim. My older brother neither saw, nor felt my unspoken communication. His eyes were fixed on the man.
What had captured his attention? It wasn't the facial features, or even what was being said. Jim's eyes had a look in them that I had seen there many times: a hungry longing for the abundance of others. That shirt, those trousers, the stylish hat with its rakish tilt - all spoke of more money than we had seen in a year. Jim's eyes narrowed as he inspected the knife-edged crease of the trouser leg, and the shoes, scarcely worn at the heel. I knew he was comparing them with our remade and re-mended clothing.
I saw what he saw, and yet there was more that, I suspect, he hadn't noticed. I perceived a veneer hiding something undesirable. I saw clothes worn for a purpose, worn to impress, not honestly, but in order to obtain something falsely. The word I was searching for was "con", but that was not part of my usual vocabulary, and so it did not come to the surface, although I recognised the idea.
I strained to hear what he was saying, and I could catch an occasional word here and there, more by watching his lips and gestures. Words like "money", "house", "promise".
And then I heard Mum's reply. Her voice dropped a tone lower, but the scorn that accompanied it, imbued the words with a clarity that had been missing before. "Promise! All I've ever had are promises. We can't eat promises, and we can't wear promises. They don't keep a roof over our heads."
He replied, even more emphatically than before, though his voice dropped almost to a whisper. There were nothing I could make out, because his head was turning from side to side, as though haunted from every angle, until the sibilance of his final word hit me full on: " coppers!"
Why would this man fear the police? He was rich. We knew that rich people had no reason to be afraid of anything.
My thoughts were dancing around inside my head, and I tried to put them together to make some sense. They were like broken pieces of a cup I had once found, and tried to stick back together, but too many pieces were missing.
The minutes ticked on, although I tried to avoid looking at the railway clock, and even found myself counting the seconds before I would check the time again. I became aware that there were people milling around once again. The man's nervousness showed more clearly, and also something that looked like disgust. He glared down at Mum, and said something that caused her to flinch from him, and draw a quick breath. As I watched, her shoulders squared, her chin lifted, and I recognised the quality that had eluded me before. It was dignity - determination perhaps - or a subtle intermingling of the two.
He spoke curtly, sneered, and turned abruptly away from her back to the train. Mum, looking taller than I had ever seen her, came directly towards us, not once turning back. I looked, and saw him disappear into the doorway of the train.
Mum took my hand and Billy's too, and marched us out of the station. We went with her silently, knowing that something monumental had occurred, but not sure what that "something" was.
And that was it. That's all there was - the last time I saw my father.