Troy was tagged. It was like carrying a microwave around on your ankle. What else were they going to do? Get a drone to hover over his head all day following him about? He wore a more flared trouser than he usually liked over it. He’d scratch around it from time to time, but an itchy tag was low down on his list of worries. He didn’t wear it with pride, and did feel a bit like a chained animal, but shrugged it off most of the time as a necessary precaution; the small price he’d have to pay for the punt they were taking in letting him back into what they called civilised society. Troy had never been particularly civilised. His manners, behaviours, attitudes; none of them had been very civilised, or so he was told. But he was trying his best today; today was a big day.
He was being allowed to take his daughter out for a walk in the local park. He was going to be monitored at a safe distance by his social worker and his sister. They would walk behind him at a respectful distance while he played with her in the park. The social worker would then return her to her mother after two hours contact time. Troy had to respect her for reticently agreeing to the visit. He begrudged her, sure, but he also accepted that after a little emotional arm twisting, she had consented in his favour. So, it was all good. This would be the first time he had seen his daughter, Kelly, in two years. He imagined her mother might be hiding in a tree in the park with a rifle like a sniper, ready to take him down if he put a foot wrong. In a fantasy land he imagined her shooting the tag off his ankle and them all running away into the distance to live happily ever after. He didn’t want that anymore. Too much had happened to make that an option. Accepting that was all part of his recovery. Less rear mirror gazing and more forward momentum was the solution. This afternoon was going to be a social experiment to see whether he could be in the company of his daughter without fucking things up. They sold the idea of chaperoning him as a good idea. The social worker would probably be carrying some checklist she’d be ticking away at as she watched him. They’d probably wire his daughter up with a microphone to record what he said to her as well. Troy took a deep breath and thought only of seeing his daughter. A walk in the park would be a walk in the park; nothing more.
Troy stretched his arms and straightened his jacket. Whatever happened he was going to be early, but now was the time to leave. He felt thick in his guts with nerves. He desperately wanted to see her but was desperately aware of not knowing how to behave in her company. First life nerves on a one life stand. He saw himself being pathetically polite; addressing her like she was a feather, scared of blowing her away with his nervous breath. They were virtual strangers by now. She would have some vague or terrifying memories of him, no doubt, and a head full of bad reviews, but as far as acting casual, or even acting like a parent went as strategies for the meet, he knew he was going to greet her like a blank, braindead imbecile. He thought he might bow and curtsy, or act like nothing had happened, pretend that no time had passed, call her bluff on the whole weird reconciliation drama of the thing; simply pick her up where they’d left off a couple of years ago; no questions asked. He knew this was desperately wishful thinking. Treating her like she was stupid was not part of the deal. His social worker would have prepared her for this, as would her mother, and they would have briefed her on the drill. They’d probably had to ask her permission as well. She had to consent to this; probably signed a ten-page document, giving them permission to take Troy down if he started acting weird or tried to abduct her. The fridge whirred and groaned, shuddered and creaked as he left the flat.
‘Don’t play it cool. Don’t weird her out with too much emotion, just show her you care, and love her. Don’t smother or scare her, just be nice and positive. A gift! A present. Shit, I haven’t got her anything.’
Troy then remembered his social worker saying that he didn’t have to sweeten her up with a gift or anything. This was about them. It didn’t need presents. It didn’t need to be framed like that, with the gift symbolising a kind of apology or a reward for her consenting to see him. This had to work on purely human terms, people not things. Maybe a sweet at least, Troy thought. He would go by a newsagent and grab a couple of packets of sweets they could share. He could fill any awkward silence with a sweet. Sweets were hardly going to jeopardise the fragile psychology of the meet. They were a get out of jail card, for a got out of jail guy. Wine Gums and a chocolate thing would do the trick, unless they were going to frisk him at the park gates for any contraband, weapons or booze. Would his tag start a siren wail at the sniff of a Wine Gum, he wondered? Knowing his luck…
He saw the three of them loitering at the entrance by the swings and slides. They were early too; keen to get this over with probably. Troy did a bit of loitering of his own, as he tried to shed his nerves, and get a peek at his long-lost daughter. He wanted to roll a quick fag but didn’t want to greet her stinking of tobacco. He took a deep breath and strolled towards them like a natural and normal tagged member of the public. They didn’t rush towards him when they caught sight of him. He hadn’t expected that, but he did think that would have been nice. A bit too much like a Hollywood movie perhaps, but it would have made him feel more special than he did. They waited patiently for him to approach, while his daughter naturally buried herself behind their legs. He’d expected this. He had prepared himself for this, and he wasn’t going to coax her out with the sweets. That would have been wrong. He looked down to check that his tag wasn’t visible. Everyone was smiling. Even he was.
Civilities, civilities; this was all about civilities; everything Troy hadn’t once been. Exchange formalities, set boundaries; be civil. There was a nodding ceremony, a smiling ceremony, a tentative nervous ceremony, an acknowledging ceremony, and then, stiff, and out of his depth Troy started to compose a smoking ceremony.
‘Come here you,’ his sister, Chloe, said, and hugged the tobacco pouch out of his hand and back into his pocket. They never usually hugged, but Troy knew she was doing this to show Kelly it was okay to love her father. Troy eventually pulled back from the embrace, smiled at his social worker, promised himself not to mention the weather as the first words to come out of his mouth, and looked down to catch the eyes of his daughter.
‘Hello darling. Long-time no see.’
Extracting her from the forest of adult legs she hid within took a bit longer than he’d have liked, but Troy remained patient, as they gently released her arms and fingers from their trunks, and guided her into the playground, letting Troy walk ahead so that he was in the play area to greet her when she walked through the gate. There were so many things he chose not to say, like ‘Do you remember me?’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘What have you been up to while I’ve been away?’ He was acutely aware of playing a long game here, one that hopefully would last him the rest of his life. She knew who he was. He knew who he was. There would be no pretending here. This was what it was, nothing more; a dad playing with his daughter in the park. He couldn’t afford to cram his whole life story into this casual meeting. There wasn’t the time. He could feel the need to blurt everything out to his daughter; confess his sins, explain his side of the story, and these words began to form a long queue in his head. They were backing up, shunting him forwards, trying to get him to spill their beans, but he had to keep his mouth shut. He had to let her breathe; let her do the talking, let her think. He couldn’t manipulate her into liking him more. He couldn’t go telling tales to her. She was no fool; she’d have seen right through him. He couldn’t try to win her favour by explaining himself. She needed his life story like a hole in her head. Troy took a deep breath and realised he didn’t know how old she was.
‘Hey, how old are you now?’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Ha, well, let me take a guess; sixteen?’
‘No silly, I’m nine.’
‘Wow, you look so grown-up.’
‘Do sixteens play on swings?’
‘You know what, you’re right, they don’t, silly me.’
‘Silly you, daddy.’
Silly sounded heavenly, daddy even better. If he could have had Silly Daddy stamped on his criminal record, he could have lived to a ripe old age with that. Why not let a nine-year-old decide your fate, in words and actions? They cut through the shit instantly. They didn’t complicate things like Silly Daddies did. She was as beautiful as he’d remembered her being. He wanted to just constantly stare at her, but knew that might disturb her, so he had to look at her when she wasn’t looking at him, and gorge for a few seconds before she caught him. She looked at him too. She stole a few little peeks back. This reassured Troy that there was some mutual curiosity going on between them. Best behaviour; best behaviour, and no sweets yet, no rewards, no buying affection. Chloe and his social worker had positioned themselves outside of the play area, and with eyes on the target, chatted away like a real professional couple of spies. Pushing Kelly on the swings was the traditional goal of this mission for Troy. This was the classic picture postcard image he wanted to buy into, dad and daughter in perfect, innocent harmony.
‘You wanna go on the swings?’
Troy knew he was going to ask her permission to touch her. He wasn’t going to assume anything.
‘Can I lift you onto it?’
He didn’t linger; he grabbed her by the waist, and in one quick motion hoofed her into the air and plonked her into the plastic nappy of the swing. She was heavier than he thought she’d be, and his back had strained a bit with the overconfident move he’d made. Locked in and safe he began to gently push her.
‘Well then, here we are.’
She ignored the words. Troy was clearing his throat of all its debris.
‘So…what shall we talk about?’
‘How’s school these days?’
She might have thought he was talking to himself.
‘So, do you like school?’
‘Yeah, I hear you, but you get to see your friends every day, don’t you?’
‘I do. Push harder.’
He could have been anyone pushing her, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t anyone, he was her father. He obeyed her and pushed a little harder.
‘Where have you come from?’
‘You mean, where do I live? I live just up the road in a flat in one of those tower blocks over there.’
‘Is it nice?’
‘It’s okay, nothing flash, I haven’t been there long, I think I need to decorate it a bit.’
‘Are you at the top?’
‘No, I’m about halfway up I reckon, I’ll count the floors and let you know.’
‘Colin lives in a flat too, but he says he might come and live with us soon.’
The teeth in Troy’s stomach bit down hard and he winced. Blindsided by the words he had to unboil himself immediately. It was like a jungle in his guts, and he needed to get some ice on it.
‘Does he now? Who’s Colin?’
‘Who am I then?’
The bullet whistled straight through his skull, and he didn’t feel a thing. There was no blood, no explosion, just a sweet, sweet whistle, and he was gone. It didn’t murder him, it just extinguished him.
‘You’re daddy silly, don’t you know?’
‘I do, I’m being silly, silly old daddy. So, what’s Colin like?’
He couldn’t help himself. She’d started it; not him.
‘Good, good old Colin.’
Not a single photo of him in the house probably. Colin on the wallpaper in the front room instead. Colin’s face on mugs, toilet paper, a Colin calendar in the kitchen, updated every year. Colin stepping in, Colin erasing his horrible memory, Colin doing the decent thing, Colin being the better man.
Troy knew he’d had training on this. He knew change was happening all around him, and had happened while he was away, and he’d been prepared for it, but the words coming from his daughters’ lips, sweet though they were, made it all the more painful to hear. She had this new boyfriend in her head, in her house, in her mother, and Troy had to gallantly accept this. He had to staunch the flow of his blood. No, he had to let himself bleed, but not let her know he was bleeding. This was about the two of them, nobody else. Troy wanted a sweet now; he wanted to chew down hard on the whole packet, stuffing his mouth with them so he couldn’t speak. He smiled weakly at Chloe, looking pathetically for affirmation. There was no smoking in the kid’s playground. Her curly blonde hair didn’t have a care in the world as it bounced around her head as the swing swung. Troy lifted her out of the swing, and they walked over to the slides. They hadn’t held hands yet, but that was okay, they hadn’t really walked anywhere. It wasn’t necessary. He wanted to walk across a busy road with her, to feel that protective sense of looking after her; of knowing he was necessary and needed. That would come, with or without Colin. That was his right. He had rights. He was proof, living biological proof. Whatever happened, he was the daddy here, and he didn’t have to fight for that. He didn’t have to earn that; he just was.
‘Let’s have a look at you.’
Troy bent down, held her sides, got face to face with her, and looked her directly in the eyes.
‘Let me have a nice look at you.’
He wasn’t asking, he was telling. If Colin could do this, so could he. Another bullet whistled by his head, but he dodged it.
‘Who do you look like?’
‘Yeah, you do darling, you look exactly like yourself.’
She looked like her mother in so many ways. He felt weird trying to find himself in a young girl’s face. He was glad she didn’t look much like him; that would have been even weirder; a man in a young girl’s face. She was clear and fine, pure and simple. The ravages of him could not be seen on her face. He hoped he was giving her a genuine loving look, and nothing more. He didn’t want her to be like him, but he didn’t want her to be like her mother either. He wanted her to be neutral, just herself. It was like he wanted to let her go, to not be soiled by her parents. He thought of letting go of her sides, and watching her fly away, drifting up like a balloon into the air. He wanted to scoop her up into his arms and take her home with him, but he knew this was impossible. The last thing she needed was the double act of him and the TV in his shitty flat. He wanted to think he knew what was best for her, like he had some divine knowledge of what children needed, but he had to accept this was nonsense. All he knew was that he had been away for two years, and his wife wasn’t his wife anymore. Kelly was in that mix, and the damage was done. He couldn’t see that damage on her face, but it had been done. The good thing was that the damage was over, but here he was, the damager visiting the damaged, with the intent to somehow squeeze himself back into her life, to make his presence known, to not reverse the effects of time, but to show her that life could still go on, that she hadn’t been abandoned, and that human repair was possible. What was she seeing in his face, he wondered? A generic older face, or a face she was distantly familiar with? He felt like he was laying the carpet of his face over hers, to make an imprint of his face on her eyes that she couldn’t forget. Everything was behind him now. He was offering her his face to see: not Colin’s, not her mother’s; his shabby, lost face, stuffed with all its regrets and mistakes and woes and pities. He wanted to give her his face. He wanted her to take it home and put it beside her bed; cuddle it, stroke it, fall asleep looking at it. He wanted her to put his face in her pocket and take it away with her. He had no use for it anymore. ‘Take it, honestly, you’ll be doing me a favour, I’ve got no use for it anymore.’ Get this fucking thing away from me; all it’s done is give me grief. He really felt like he couldn’t wear it anymore. It wasn’t that he wanted a new or different one; he didn’t want one at all. He wanted anonymity. He wanted to be faceless in a crowd, unrecognisable. But she needed his face to recognise him with. He had to think of her, not of him. That was the exercise; that was the work out; to think of others as much as yourself. He had no muscle memory of this, and it sounded exhausting.
Bored out of her tiny mind by his face, she suggested they have a go on one of the climbing frames. He looked over to Chloe and his social worker as he got up and smiled. They smiled back. Keep it simple. He should have stolen a cheeky kiss but was glad he hadn’t. He would leave that until the end.
‘So, who’s your best friend?’
Please don’t say Colin.
‘Ummm, Clara, Jenny and Rachel I think.’
‘Wow, you’re popular. Three best friends.’
‘You, of course.’
‘But we don’t know each other.’
‘Oh, we do, don’t we?’
‘Where have you been then?’
‘Well, I had to go away for a while, because I was unwell, and to get better, but I thought of you all the time, and now I’m back and better, and here we are.’
‘But you won’t be living in our house?’
‘No, sadly I won’t.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that, but maybe if that’s what mummy says.’
‘She says she loves him.’
‘Well, good for her.’
‘So, what will you do?’
‘Good question. I will be here just for you, whenever you want me to be.’
‘Like a secret?’
‘No, I’m your daddy, that’s not a secret, is it?’
‘But I don’t think mummy loves you anymore.’
Christ on a bike.
‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, and you don’t love me, right?’
‘She says she loves Colin now.’
‘I’m getting that.’
Send in the troops. Troy was done. All roads led back to Colin. Was that the deal? Had her mother rehearsed her to recite these words for him? Was she taking the piss? Troy felt like he was hanging onto the crumbling precipice of daddy’s little girl, as she was prising his fingers off one by one. The last time they’d spoken she’d been a cute, babbling little girl, now she was feeding him solid updates on the state of his marriage. Troy breathed deeply in; there was no marriage. There was no them. She was just blithely saying out loud what she’d heard. She had no tact; she was only nine years old. Bite the bullet. Get over yourself. Forgive and forget. Move on. Take it like a man, not like a little girl. Troy could feel the sweets in his pocket. Now was the time to use them. He needed a little solidarity here. He pulled the two rolls of sweetness out of his pockets like pistols and pointed them at her. Her eyes lit up, and then she frowned a bit.
‘No?’ Troy said defensively.
‘I’m on a diet.’ She said proudly.
‘I’m not supposed to eat sweets.’
‘Yup, Colin, I know, lovely old Colin, well, you don’t look fat to me.’
‘Teeth, for my teeth silly.’
‘Your teeth are on a diet?’
‘They’re bad for them.’
‘Yeah, of course, silly me, well, you don’t mind if I have one?’
Troy wrestled the wrapper open and put two black wine gums in his mouth and sucked on them profusely. He offered the open packet to her again.
She nodded, proud to be saying no. Troy admired her stamina, and then cynically thought she’d been brainwashed well. What went on back in that house was none of his business anymore. All the rules and regulations, the dos and the don’ts were out of his hands. He had the divorce papers at home, on the table, open, read but unsigned. He was just being stubborn and petty; deliberately not giving her what she wanted. There was a bit of a stalemate going on. Troy needed a breather.
‘You go play; daddy needs a fag.’
He waved her over to the climbing frames with a dismissive gesture as he began to walk towards the gates. Chloe and the social worker formed one quizzical raised eyebrow expression as he approached. It did look like he was walking out.
‘Are you alright?’ Chloe said.
‘I need a smoke.’ Troy growled, almost pushing past them.
Troy ignored the question and hastily assembled a rollie.
‘Nothing, I just need a fag.’
‘No, tomorrow, I just like to plan ahead.’
‘Really? It couldn’t wait?’
‘You getting a good show? Score cards all filled in? FAIL.’
‘She needs you.’
‘She don’t need me.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She’s got a life of her own.’
‘So, you’re rejecting her?’
‘She’s not interested. It’s fine. Why should she be?’
‘What is it she’s not doing?’
‘Nothing, it’s me, it’s me, it’s always me.’
‘Go back, just be with her. Play, that’s all; don’t over think it.’
‘She doesn’t care.’
‘I’m fucking shy.’
‘But you’re the adult.’
‘Oh, you reckon. There are two kids in that playground, not one.’
‘No, there’s a father and a daughter.’
‘I’m not up to the job. She deserves better.’
‘Well, in the absence of perfection, she has you. Just be yourself.’
‘He’s the problem.’
‘Oh, grow up Troy.’
‘You tell her that.’
‘Give me a beer and I’m a man; give me a kid and I’m a kid.’
‘So, you’re going to sulk because she’s not giving you enough attention.’
‘Alright, alright, sorry, I just don’t know what to say to her.’
Chloe took Troy by the arm and looked him squarely in the face.
‘You’re good at chatting shit, right? Go chat shit with her. If you’re such a kid, go be a kid with her.’
Troy smiled, picking squidged lumps of wine gum gristle out of his teeth with his tongue.
‘She’s had problems with fillings and her teeth recently, so she’s being discouraged from eating too many sweets.’
‘Right, sorry, I should have asked.’
The playground had turned into a battleground for Troy, and he knew he had to get over himself; just run and leapfrog over his own dumb shoulders and get shot of the damaged him doing all the stupid thinking and talking. As ever, he was his own worst enemy. She should have come running up to him like the kid on the platform in The Railway Children screaming ‘Daddy, my daddy’ launching herself into his arms. That had been his expectation, not her banging on about Colin, and singing his praises right into Troy’s face. He’d rehearsed this meeting so many times in his head, and now it was here he was making a total mess of it. Enjoy it for what it is; not what it isn’t, or what it could or should be. He wanted to make an impression though; that was the thing; he wanted to make an impression on her. Here he was, a freebie, a gift, a return in better condition, and he wanted the full Railway Children experience of her showing him how much she loved and missed him, not the brainwashed advocate for Colin he was getting. Troy needed to shed a few instant kilos of resentment; lighten up, switch off, burn off all this emotional lard that was stuck around his heart, be neutral, just like her; be loving, be affectionate, earn that place back in her life, do the graft, give… Give. Troy found it difficult to give without receiving. He was looking to her for love. If she gave it, he’d accept it, and give his portion back, in return. It was too fragile and confused in him. He needed her to set the pace; make the first move, and then he’d feel safe enough to return the favour. He’d been thinking about his love for her for the past two years, and now it had done a runner on him. He’d sniffed out some indifference in her, a bit of suspicion, or nervousness, and his love had scarpered away and was sulking, on strike, somewhere in his head and stomach, licking its wounds.
Love, fucking love, a love showdown, which cowboy was going to draw first and shoot the other with a bullet of love; Troy, Troy, Troy, stop thinking, start doing, get over yourself. If you’ve got it, give it. Don’t hold back; don’t look to her for permission to express your feelings. She’s nine fucking years old; be the adult, set an example, show her what you’ve got. Forget everything else; forget your ex, forget Colin, forget the two spies at the gate, forget the tag, prison, booze, turn off the TV and be present.
‘Right darling, where were we?’
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