It was the unexpectedness of the scream that pulled him to his feet from a sofa slouch before the television, that sent him in a run the short way to the kitchen. Jess’s soft padding steps the same path a few seconds before, unconcerned, slippered, still sounded in his memory.
Get me a packet of crisps whilst you’re in there, love, will you?
The snap of the light switch. The clicking of the old school fluorescent tube coming to life.
Now she was screaming. Had screamed. Just once. Jess was not a screamer. She’d worn out the novelty in her first year and now didn’t care for it at all in her eighth. If shocked, she’d say, “Ah!” loudly, but she was all done with screaming.
She was standing by the door to the kitchen, the lights on in there, her hands over her mouth, staring at the refrigerator.
“What is it? Jess? What’s wrong?”
Without taking her hands from her mouth, cupped over it as if over an oxygen mask, she said, “There’s something under the fridge,” in a small voice.
Oh, shit, he thought. Vermin.
Mind already thinking ahead to where he might buy poison bait, he asked, “What was it? Did you see?” He was guessing a mouse. Cockroaches? He’d never seen one outside a vivarium, but he’d heard of infestations. Always thought of them as being more an American thing, but with climate change, who knew anymore? Please don’t let it be cockroaches.
“It was big,” Jess said slowly, stepping away backwards.
A rat. Oh, fuck. He couldn’t say if that was better or worse than cockroaches but, either way, it was bad.
He sent Jess back to the living room with a drink and an assurance he’d sort everything out. Daddy will fix it. She nodded dutifully, but they both knew Daddy wasn’t great at fixing anything. When he was alone, he closed the door, took a deep breath to brace himself, and rocked the fridge out from under the countertop.
Nothing. He knew enough about rats and mice that they could slip away in a shadow and you’d never see them go, but he’d been expecting some traces, maybe even a rat hole. Absolutely nothing. No hole, no rodent shit, no half chewed abandoned food. They’d only moved into the flat a week before, and the landlord had told him that the refrigerator was new. It was still pristine under there.
A little self-consciously, he got down on all fours and sniffed the new linoleum. All he got from it was the scent of a floor-covering warehouse and the lemony tang of Flash. Nothing that hinted at rodents. He took the emergency torch from the kitchen drawer and sat on the floor, shining it down between the units and the washing machine and the cooker. All perfect and shiny. The landlord had been proud of the state of the place when he handed over the keys, and he’d been within his rights to be so. It was showroom clean. He put away the torch, walked the fridge back into its place, and returned to the living room.
Jess wasn’t watching TV. A serious child with an unnerving degree of focus, she was awaiting her father’s return and report. He sat by her.
“I have good news and bad news,” he said.
“What’s the bad news?” she asked. A serious child with an unnerving degree of focus who was more than fine with deferred gratification.
“That you’re going to feel silly when I tell you the good news.” She said nothing, so he continued, “There’s nothing there. I looked very carefully. Nothing to be found, not even traces. It must have been the shadows when you turned the light on. That flashing fluorescent tubes do when you turn them on, it can be confusing.”
“I saw them.”
“Going under the fridge.”
“Look, if there’d been mice—”
“Okay, well, something bigger than mice—”
“Not rats.” She turned to look at the screen. “I’ve seen rats on TV.” Then something absorbed her in the programme, and he decided to let it slide. It was always better to let things slide.
• • • •
He was cleaning the kitchen and—if he was honest with himself—checking it more carefully and in better light than he had the previous night, when there was a knock at the door. He assumed it must be a neighbour as the front door buzzer hadn’t sounded, but he opened it to find his ex-wife there.
“Hello,” she said, and smiled the smile that frightened him.
“You can’t be here,” he said. He wanted to add, there is literally a restraining order on you, but that would make her angry, and he quailed inwardly at the thought. It had been hard to get that order, both legally and emotionally. He was almost a foot taller than her, after all; what kind of man must he be to just stand there and take it, when she slapped him and punched him? What kind of failed excuse for masculinity? How to tell anyone that he couldn’t strike her, not even in self-defence, only put up his arms and hope she’d stop. He literally couldn’t strike a woman. Plenty of men could, and did, and they horrified him as monsters, but in the face of her violence, he envied them. Just one blow, enough to show her he wasn’t helpless. She was strong, though. She went to the gym, adored her own hard body, selfies everywhere, practised MMA. She’d once punched him out. He’d almost felt touched when he came around to her splashing water on his face, her worried expression. But then her relief that she hadn’t killed him was entirely because she didn’t want to be jailed.
All the restraining orders in the world wouldn’t help him in that instant if he angered her, if she turned violent.
She slipped past him into the flat. She did look good, the red/blond hair freshly styled. She always looked good, and he caught her scent as she went by. He would always love her a little. He could never hurt her. She would always hurt him.
“At school,” he said, slightly astounded that she didn’t know that much.
“Oh.” She went to the window, looked out. “Not a bad view.”
“Why are you here?”
She turned and looked at him, grinned that shit-kicking smirk he’d once found so attractive. “Wanted to see how you were getting on. Wanted to see how my daughter is doing.”
“You couldn’t care less.”
“How’s your love life?” He flinched. She had enjoyed an active sex life during their marriage, largely not with him. The ease with which she drew lovers made her feel powerful, as did his awkwardness. “I’ve been fucking and fucking and fucking,” she said. “I hope this place has thick walls. We wouldn’t want Jess to hear you wanking and crying all night, would we?”
She seemed to have forgotten that, towards the end, he could no longer perform with her. She had mocked him for it, another inadequacy for her to scratch at, but that time it had been different. They both knew it wasn’t physiological; it was because he could no longer look at her without seeing her for what she was, and who wants to put their dick in an emotional cancer like that? She’d taken it as an insult—nothing was ever her fault, after all—a burning car of resentment that rolled along until she had finally bared her teeth at him, drawn back her fist . . .
“I’ve been seeing someone,” he blurted. It was only technically true. He’d saved to go and see a prostitute. She had been kind, patient, and very, very professional. He couldn’t possibly ever go again.
The smirk vanished and he knew he’d gone too far. It was fine and dandy for her to sleep around, but heavens forfend he ever do the same, even after the divorce. She’d used to talk about free spirits and polyamory, but that only applied to her.
She walked over to him, to the edge of his personal space and then a step inside, and looked him the eye. “You know I can hurt you without leaving a mark, right?”
“You should go,” he managed to say.
She looked at him for a long moment. “I should. But I will come back, when I feel like it. You know the interesting thing about restraining orders? They’re worth fuck all unless somebody reports they’ve been breached. That’s a pretty small pool in this case, isn’t it? Who would know? If it gets reported, well, that would be bad, wouldn’t it?” She reached up and prodded him gently on the nose. Once he had adored her doing that, the intimacy, the fondness inherent in that touch. Now it was all about her dominance, just like everything else. “Just remember, you got lucky last time. I wasn’t careful enough. That won’t happen again. Next time, they won’t believe you.”
He believed her. Last time, even with a detailed medical report, his solicitor had had an uphill struggle. The magistrates bench looking at him, an unspoken “But, you are a man . . . aren’t you?” floating in the air.
She let herself out. He watched her walk down the street from the corner of the window. Once, she stopped and looked up at where he hid in the gap of the window edge and the curtain. She seemed to look at him for a full ten seconds, then walked away. When she was gone, he sat down on the sofa and looked at the rug between his feet until it was time to walk to the school to pick up Jess.
• • • •
Two evenings later, he was disturbed by the sound of laughter from Jess’s room. Relieved that she seemed to be over her shock of the other night, he knocked lightly and popped his head around the door to see what she was up to. He found her playing one of her board games against herself in the middle of the floor, still giggling.
“Who’s winning?” he asked, smiling.
She smiled back at him. “House Daddy is. He’s really good at this game.”
His smile faltered. “House Daddy? Who’s that?”
She returned her attention to the board. “The daddy who came with the house. He’s sorry he scared me in the kitchen. He didn’t mean to.”
“In the kitchen . . .”
“Under the fridge. The light surprised him.”
The thought It’s normal for kids to have imaginary friends warred in his mind with Having an imaginary friend called “House Daddy” who lives under the fridge is fucking worrying. How could he afford a child psychiatrist on his income? He was relieved that visiting sex workers hadn’t become an expensive habit for him, but he was still hardly a wealthy man.
“Jess, darling, there’s nothing and nobody under the fridge. I looked.”
“I know,” she said. “House Daddy told me you did. He lives in the walls, too, but he likes under the fridge best.” She wasn’t smiling now, not even looking at him. She examined the board, rolled the dice, moved a piece. Only then did she look at him. “It’s his turn now, Daddy, and he won’t come out while you’re here.”
“You’ll say he’s ugly. He just wants to look after us, Daddy. It’s not fair to upset him.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t say he’s ugly.”
“His arms are like snakes, but with hands on the ends,” she said, looking at her father very seriously. “And his skin is all sort of glued together from old calendars, one for every year the flat’s been here. And you can’t see his teeth because his mouth’s all full of shadows what he’s eaten.”
“That he’s eaten,” he said, hardly aware he was doing so.
Jess nodded. “That he’s eaten,” she corrected herself. “Which is a shame because he has got lots of teeth and he is very, very proud of all of them.”
Oddly, being told her imaginary friend had more teeth than a lamprey reassured him. It was a childish detail. The business with calendars less so, but she had probably got the idea from some book or TV character.
He smiled reassuringly at her, said, “Okay, but I’ll be back in half an hour to get you ready for bed,” and closed the door. Hardly had it clicked home when he heard the rattle of dice and Jess laughing with delight again.
I’ll play a board game with her at the weekend, he told himself. When I’m less tired.
• • • •
Before the weekend came, he was called to Jess’s school.
“You’ll realise that the coming weekend is Mothering Sunday?” said the headteacher. “The lesson plan was to talk a little about what mothers mean to the children, and then to make a card.”
“Ah,” he said.
“Jess didn’t take well to this. She said some very awful things about her mother and said she would rather die than make a card for her. When her class teacher tried to calm her, she said that her mother had beaten you and the police had made her go away.” There was a silence during which the headteacher watched him for his reaction. “It was very disruptive to the class.”
“My wife and I are divorced, as you know,” he said. “She . . . has problems. She thinks with her fists sometimes.”
The headteacher blanched. “Did she ever strike Jess?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
But now an image of Jess saying the wrong thing at the wrong time crossed his mind, his ex-wife lashing out.
You know I can hurt you without leaving a mark, right?
The headteacher was speaking again. “Jessica said that if her mother ever comes back to the flat again, you’ll kill her.”
He looked at the headteacher blankly. “Me? Hurt her? No. No, I’m not capable. I . . . no. That’s beyond me. I’m not like my wife. My ex-wife. I could never.”
The headteacher made a note on an A4 pad. “I don’t know what to say. I’d be inclined to take this very seriously, but that her story contains obvious absurdities.”
“Jessica is a very honest girl, but sometimes she doesn’t understand things . . . Absurdities? Like what?”
The headteacher consulted her earlier notes. “She says you live under the refrigerator.”
• • • •
On the way home later with a sullen and silent Jessica, it belatedly struck him that Jess could not have known her mother had invited herself to the flat in her absence. A guess, then. That was all.
• • • •
It was a difficult evening. He needed to talk to Jess, talk about her mother, and how there are some things that she shouldn’t talk about at school, some things it was better to keep at home, or never say, some things it was better to let fester.
The opportunity never arose. He made her chips and beans and fried egg for tea, her favourite, but her mood didn’t thaw. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the time.
His phone rang and it was his ex-wife. He didn’t even bother wondering how she’d got his new number. She’d have socially engineered it out of a mutual friend. She always got what she wanted, one way or another. “I want to talk,” she said immediately.
“This isn’t a good time.”
“I do not fucking care. I want to see Jess.”
His heart froze. He saw a phantasm of her striking Jess. Had it ever happened? “No. No, that’s non-negotiable. You agreed—”
“Fuck what I agreed,” which was another way of saying I just didn’t want to be criminally charged at the time. “She’s my girl, too. I want to see her. I want to be there for her.”
A thousand evenings of her going out by herself, leaving him to look after Jess, and now she wanted to see her. I want to be there for her, a line she’d stolen from some film or soap opera. Meaningless to her except, oh, the drama.
“I can’t talk about this now. Call me t—”
“No. We’re talking about this fucking now. If you don’t, I’ll turn up at the door.”
“I’ll call the police.”
“No, you won’t.” You coward. No, he wouldn’t. “You’re coming out to have a drink with me. A nice, civilised drink. The Old Fox & Hounds down the road, near the station. You know it? Half an hour.”
“Half an hour? What about Jess? I can’t leave her alone!”
A dismissive snort. “Of course you fucking can. It’s her bedtime, isn’t it? Put her to bed. Sneak out. No one will be the wiser.” He took a moment to think of what to say, but she read the pause as capitulation. Perhaps it was. “Do it.”
• • • •
Jess went to bed without argument, and almost without a word. “I’m sorry, love,” he said as he tucked her in and kissed her forehead. “I have to go and do some work, so I can’t read to you tonight. I promise to read twice as much tomorrow to make up for it.”
“It’s okay,” said Jess. “House Daddy can tell me a story.”
He hesitated, but time was pressing, and he left her.
He left the TV mumbling a soothing monotone, put on his coat and shoes quietly, was careful not to jangle his keys, and left the flat, out into the cold March evening.
He paced quickly, eager to just get it over with, to draw a line. The restraining order wasn’t a joke. He’d use it. He’d use it, by God. Don’t force him. Next time . . .
Next time she’d roll all over him again.
She had made a mistake last time, but she wouldn’t again. She was clever and wilful and cruel. People looked at her and saw a small, attractive woman. In other company, she pushed being cute and adorable. He was sure she’d already gas-lit everyone in her own circle that, even if she had marked him, it was only in self-defence. He knew there were other men out there, before and after him, who’d suffered her worst attentions, too. He also knew they would never say a word. Toxic masculinity was her shield and her cloak. The roar from it hid the outliers like her. Only men did bad things. Only men were monsters.
The pub wasn’t close. There was one around the corner, but of course she wouldn’t choose that one. Another along the way, but no. It had to be the one near the station, so she could roll in, walk five feet, and drag him a mile out and a mile back on a cold evening. Another one of her power plays. He should have stuck his heels in, demanded somewhere closer. He should have.
A mile in the cold, a mile when he was in a hurry, and a hurry for what? To find her warm in the pub, smirking. And that if he was lucky; her tardiness was measured and very deliberate. He hoped she had called him from the pub because he really didn’t have time to hang around waiting for her to turn up. The thought that, maybe by willingly meeting with her, he might invalidate the restraining order crossed his mind. Surely not? Surely something so hard won wouldn’t turn to legal dust quite that easily?
And there it was, in the urban tangle, The Old Fox & Hounds, hard by the railway station. He bustled in, wiped down his glasses as the condensation inevitably formed on them, squinted around to find her.
Two minutes later, he was sure she wasn’t there. He fished his phone out, texted her. Nothing. Gave her three minutes and then ’phoned. It rang, and then he was pushed over to voicemail by the default message.
“I’m here,” he said, “and you’re not. Two more minutes and then I’m going home. You’re a fucking piece of work, dragging me out for nothing.”
He gave it five minutes, and then walked back. He was tired, the day and the evening catching up with him. He just wanted to drag himself into bed and sleep. He was done with everything. It would be Saturday tomorrow. He would play a board game with Jess.
He got home, climbed the stairs to his floor, unlocked the door as quietly as he could, and went into the hall. The kitchen door was open, the fluorescent tube burning, his ex-wife lying on the floor, Jess kneeling beside her, and all the blood, so red on the new linoleum. So much to take in, so hard to understand.
“No,” he said quietly.
He went to the door, leaned on the frame, looked down at his ex-wife and his daughter. Jess held a knife, he saw.
“You’re not supposed to play with the sharp kitchen knives, Jess,” he said. He didn’t take it from her. It seemed a little late for that. The future was suddenly very variable, and he couldn’t take it all in at once. They were supposed to be playing a board game the next day. He didn’t suppose that would be happening now.
“Mummy came and knocked at the door almost as soon as you went out. She said she was here to take me away. She said you were bad. Then House Daddy said,” she dropped her voice a register, “‘I said what would happen if that fucking bitch came here again,’ and got the knife. Mummy was very surprised and died.”
He stepped over the body and sat by his daughter, the blood soaking into his trousers. He noticed that, even under the strong fluorescent light, his wife cast no shadow. “Oh, darling, what have you done? They’ll think I did this.”
Jessica rested her head on his arm. “House Daddy will take her away under the fridge, you’ll see. Then we’ll clean up the mess with lemon Flash. Tomorrow we can all play a board game together.”
So he sat with his daughter and they waited together.