Lucas awoke slowly the next morning; sunlight shone through his eyelids. He wondered for a few moments why he was lying on such a hard surface. He sat up and opened his eyes all in one movement and remembered everything a second later. He was sitting on the floor of one of the upstairs rooms in their new house, the one with the bedstead in it. He’d tried sleeping on that at first, but without a mattress the steel mesh base was like a bed of nails. He’d spent the rest of the night sleeping on the floor using his shoes as a pillow and his jacket as a blanket. He stood up and stretched, his body numb and aching; there was a carpet burn on his left elbow. The room’s window overlooked the back of the house, facing the rear facade of another row of houses. Their new garden consisted of a cracked cement patio and a patch of overgrown grass and brambles a dozen feet square. After living all his life in a sixth floor flat the thought of having a garden was a strange one to Lucas.
He heard a voice outside his room and went over to the door to investigate. His mother was standing at the top of the stairs with her back to him; her hair was unkempt and her clothes creased. She was holding her mobile phone to her ear. “Yes.” She said. “It’s totally unfurnished; well we’ve been left one settee.... Seventy-two thousand and he reckons that’s a bargain... Maybe if it had furniture it would cost more... He won’t tell me, Gail! Somehow he’s managed to wangle a mortgage... God knows! Gold alone knows! He can barely meet the council’s rent!... I just don’t know what in Heaven’s name is going on... No he’s quite with it in every other way; he’s not hallucinating, not sleepwalking or anything, and if he’s hearing voices he’s not telling me. Something happened to him after he got hurt... Well I don’t see what we can do now we’ve lost the flat... I don’t know, Gail, he says he’s got something lined up... No, he’s quit Collingers, and he could hardly commute from here anyway, could he?... Oh no! He says he’s thought of everything!... We’ve got to find some furniture and stuff, get a GP and dentist, get the kids into local schools... No, to tell you the truth it hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t know anyone in these parts! I’ll have nobody to talk to!” She started to cry. “Of course we’ll stay in touch, Gail. We’re in Hertfordshire not Burma; I’ll come home and visit whenever I can...”
Lucas closed the door quietly and walked back to the window. He took his wallet out of his pocket and unfolded it. There, in the picture window, was a photograph of Jody. He’d taken it a few months earlier after school one day. She was standing facing the camera smiling; her blonde hair was curled around her shoulders and her eyes gleamed in the afternoon sun. He put the wallet back in his pocket and looked at the floor. He sniffed and wiped his eyes. A little later he went downstairs. His father and Brendan were still asleep in the car while his mother had returned to her bed on the settee. The kitchen smelled of grease and the steel takeaway trays still lay on the worktop where they’d left them last night. “Lu!” Cara ran up behind him.
“What is it, Caz?”
“Will you wake Daddy up? Please please please!”
“He’s got the back door key and I want to go out in the garden.”
By nine o’clock the whole family were awake. Lucas’ mother and father were chatting in the lounge while Cara frolicked in the garden; Lucas was in the back bedroom watching her. The tears that had been brewing up all morning burst out. He leant his head on the unvarnished windowsill and wept quietly into his screwed up jacket.
That afternoon Lucas and his father went out in a taxi, his father was eager to see more of their new hometown and Lucas went along just to get out of the house. They headed out of the residential district onto a main road with shops and businesses on both sides. The first stop they made was to a bank and Charlie made Lucas wait in the taxi while he went in. He came out a ten minutes later fanning a thick wad of notes. “Dad! Where did you get that!?” exclaimed Lucas as his father lowered himself into the taxi.
“But you’ve quit work.”
“I know.” he replied and laughed manically. His father seemed to be in a state of ecstatic lunacy. He sang and hummed to himself as the taxi rolled along the street. They stopped at a large, modern shopping centre; the taxi fare was eight pounds fifty. Charlie gave the driver a twenty pound note and told him to keep the change, then he hobbled the sliding doors into the glass enclosure and made straight for a stylish clothes store where he had both himself and his son measured for suits. “What do you think of this, Lu?” he asked. “You’ll look smart as a brass button in that, eh?”
Lucas looked down with distaste at the green jacket and trousers laid out for him on the fitting room table. There was also a starched white shift with a colourful tie. “Dad, I can’t wear this.”
“Of course you can.” Charlie began stripping off his jogging bottoms, tugging them roughly over his plastercast; his leather jacket and football shirt followed. He kicked the sandal from his good foot against the wall.
“But, Dad! I’ll look poncy!”
“Lucas.” Charlie said in a low, threatening voice. “We’re a decent family now. Decent! You understand? Children from decent families do not walk about dressed like that.” He gestured at Lucas’ casual trousers and t-shirt.
Lucas paused then began to strip. Once in his new suit he examined himself in the mirror in dismay.
“Come here, Son” His father crouched down in front of him. “I’ll show you how to do up your tie.” He flipped and twisted the tie around Lucas’ neck and pulled the knot tight.
Lucas choked as the tie closed around his throat like a noose. “Ah! Not so tight, Dad!”
“OK, OK. I’ll loosen it a bit.”
“That’s still too tight, Dad.!” Lucas tore at the collar with his finger, but his father stopped him.
“That’ll do, Son. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it. Charlie paid for the clothes in cash and left the shop with their old clothes in a plastic bag, which he dropped into the first litter bin they passed.
The shopping spree continued. They bought furniture and kitchen appliances, a TV set, a stereo, beds, bathroom fittings. When Charlie’s cash ran out he started putting bills on his credit card, one he hadn’t had before, Lucas thought. They caught another taxi out of town to a garden centre where Charlie purchased a whole plethora of gardening tools and a small greenhouse. It was getting dark by the time they stopped for a cup of tea at the garden centre cafe. Lucas sat opposite his father at the table and felt weepy again. He forced his emotions down and sipped his tea noisily to cover the sound of his runny nose. On the way home in the taxi Lucas asked: “Dad, why are we doing this? You’ve spent thousands of pounds this afternoon; you’ve bought piles of gear. We can’t afford it.”
Charlie laughed again. “Who says we can’t afford it?”
“Well, you’re out of work now.”
“Not for long, Son.”
“What are you going to do?”
He shrugged in an evasive yet teasing way. “Something... different.”
“Different in what way?”
“I mean we’re different people now, Lu; different from what we used to be.”
“But, Dad; I don’t want to be different.”
“You do, Son.”
“No I don’t...”
“Yes you do!” interrupted his father sharply. “When you grow up you’ll be glad this happened.”
“But what about...” He gulped down hard. “...my friends back home in Liverpool?”
“Forget them, Son; they’re losers, worthless nobodies. And this is home now.”
“But... they’re my friends...”
“No! You’re above them now. Don’t let them drag you back down. You’re going to live the rest of your life among proper folk: homeowners, professionals, people with money and status.”
“People who wear suits?”
“Yeah.” replied Charlie, appearing to miss Lucas’ ironic tone.
There was a long silence. “So this is our new life?”
“Yeah.” Charlie grinned. “Great, isn’t it?”
“What’s this place called?”
“No, I mean the name of our town.”
Oh, it’s called... er... hang on.” Charlie pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. “Belswill.”
“So that’s its name?”
“Yes,” His face became wistful. “Belswill: a clean, happy little English town. No council estate, no inner city schools and not an asylum-seeker in sight! Sweet country churches instead of mosques and cultural centres. This is the life for us, Lu!”
“Dad, what brought this on?”
“What do you mean?”
“You go out one day a perfectly average guy, the dad I’ve known all my life, you get hurt in that riot and you come out of hospital... like this.”
Charlie sighed and leaned his arm on the taxi’s window ledge. “A lot happened to me while I was in hospital. You know, when that wall fell on top of me it shook me... jarred me out of my normal train of thought, my daily life organization, everything! It made me sit back and think, to assess who I am and where I’m going. In that hospital bed I had days and days to sit and think and process that feeling, just think for the first time in my life. To think and... to read. I’m still the dad you’ve known all your life; I’m just... an upgraded dad, a better dad who can provide for his family and give them what they deserve.”
“So how did you decide that this was what you were going to do?”
His father didn’t reply and just sat still for a long time. Then, just as Lucas was about to repeat his question, he leaned forward and slid closed the window between the passenger compartment and the driver’s seat. He reached inside his jacket pocket, brought out a book and dropped it in Lucas’ lap.
Lucas picked it up and read the words on the cover aloud. “’The Key to Life- Ten Steps to True Success by Jared Ariston.’ Where did you get this?” The book looked old and was creased and tattered. Its yellow cover had not been laminated and the plain black lettering was its only decoration. The pages inside were thin and made of poor quality paper, the typeface and print were crude and untidy and the margins uneven. It was as if the book had come out of a cornershop photocopier and been bound in somebody’s garden shed. Lucas turned to the introduction. It began with a quote: “’If you’re born poor it’s not your fault, but if you die poor it is.’ Joselito Saliendra.” He turned the page: “So you want success? True success that will make you shine out above all the rest and make everyone around you envy you? Well, who doesn’t, but only a very few strive to attain it. Ninety-nine percent of the people in this world achieve almost nothing and live lives of no value. They spend their lives in menial employment, gaining little in the way of money, property or assets. Our society, quite rightly, shows no respect to this dispossessed underclass and treats them with the contempt that they deserve. If you’ve read this far, now is the time to tell you a few home truths: This book is the most important book you will ever read in your life. This is because it tells one how to live. If you put this book down now and walk away then you are unworthy to have ever been born. You’re unfit to be a parent, your parents don’t deserve you as a son or daughter; in short you are a disgrace to humanity. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but it’s the truth...”
“I just found it.” said Charlie. “It fell into my lap. When they moved me out of Intensive Care and onto the trauma ward it was sitting there in my bedside locker, right next to the Gideon Bible. It was as if it had been left there for me, a sign from God! I’ve read it three times!” His eyes glowed with passion. “This book spoke to me, Lucas! It made me see the world in a new light and understand what life is really for, what it’s true meaning is. It’s a terrible shock when the blindfold is lifted and the light of the real world is laid before your eyes, but it’s wonderful too!”
“Dad, this doesn’t look like a very nice book.”
“Nice? What do you mean?”
“It says you’re an unfit father. You’re not; you’re a good father to me...”
“I am now. I wasn’t before.”
“No, Dad; you’ve always been good, all my life.”
Charlie sighed and bowed his head. “Don’t say that.”
“Lu!” he snapped. “I said don’t say it!... We’re not going to live in denial any longer.”
The household appliances Charlie had bought arrived the following morning and the family spent the next two days locating and installing them; the bare house slowly transformed into a furnished home. The novelty and excitement lifted the spirits of the whole family and even Mary became enthusiastic as she planned out her new kitchen, bedroom and lounge; she chattered excitedly as she unpacked box after box of matching crockery, cutlery and culinary tools. Lucas and Brendan were given the back bedroom where Lucas had spent his first night, only now there was a mattress and clothes on the old bed and Brendan had a brand new divan. They had a cupboard and a desk with a PC and a case of bookshelves. The windows had been hung with Venetian blinds. Brendan set up the second PC in the lounge while their father assembled the greenhouse. In the evening of the second day Charlie went out to introduce himself to the neighbours, “announce ourselves” as he called it. He came back an hour later ruddy with frustrated gloom. “Damn it!” he shouted as he slammed the door. “I’ve been to four doors; next door is a contract carpenter!” He pointed to his left. “That side they’re in roofing tiles and opposite is a pest-controller and a bloody nurse! Damn and blast!”
“What’s wrong with them?” asked Lucas.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? They’re all losers!”
“The nurse is a loser?” said Lucas. “Nurses helped save your lives a few weeks ago.”
His father ignored him. “It’s a shame we have to start off in this area. It’s all we can afford right now. Never mind, we’ll soon be selling and moving somewhere better.” He pulled a folder out of a kitchen drawer and dialled a number on the newly-installed telephone. “Damn, I’ve got a voicemail... Hello, is that Prickells Estate Agents? This is Charles Doughty at Sixty Madeira Terrace, Belswill. I’d like to put my house on the market please. I’ll call back about this tomorrow.” He put down the phone.
“Dad, we’re not moving again are we?” asked Brendan. “I’ve only just got the PC set up.”
“Of course we’re moving again, Bren.” he replied. “We can’t stay here; this area is much too common for us.” His voice had changed. His Scouse accent was now heavily disguised by Queen’s English.
“Common!?” shrilled Lucas.
“But we’ve only just moved in!” continued Brendan.
“So what?” said Charlie. “This ain’t... isn’t going to be our permanent home. This is just the first rung of the Property Ladder. We’re going to do this joint up and sell it for more money than we paid for it. Then we buy somewhere a bit better, do it up and flog it again; and so on till we’re living in a proper home in a really decent area. It’s called property development and all professionals do it.”
“Talking about professionals, Charlie.” Said Mary. “What kind of professional are you planning on becoming to pay for all this development?”
Charlie started filling in a form on the estate agents’ folder. “I’m working on that.” He replied without looking up.