Book Added Go to checkout. x

Now reading

Mr Jolly

by Michael Stewart

You are going back to the place where you played as a child. It is a wood that was once an old rubbish heap and, as you enter along the same path you took twenty years ago, you see the bits of broken glass and rusting cans that always poked out from underneath the roots of the trees. The trees were planted too close together. A botched council job. Their trunks stretch up, gasping for the sun like a fledgling with its mouth gaping for a morsel of food.

Each tree has reached as high as it can, so that the trunks are gaunt and pallid and there are no branches until the very top. The whole place seems to totter. No birds come to the wood and nothing grows beneath the trees except damp mud-coloured mushrooms.

As you make your way along the path, you remember bringing a book on trees with you – you must have been eleven. You spent hours comparing leaf patterns and pictures of trees in the book, but the trees in this wood were beyond classification. They were deformed, the leaves drained of colour or too small to fit the illustrations. There is no one else here. Nor is there any evidence of anyone being here. That’s what you liked about the place when you were a child. No one ever went there.

As you wend your way through the poles of bark, crushing the slimy fungus under foot, you remember finding a dead crow hanging by its legs. It was stiff and flies made a gauze of noise around it. It unnerved you, rather like Crusoe spotting the footprints. You thought you were alone, and you weren’t. But there was never any other sign of life and you soon forgot about that dead bird. As you wander, the familiar smell fills your nostrils. It’s a stale, fusty stench. Not too unpleasant once you get used to it.

You were twelve the last time you visited this place. That’s when your mum left your dad. It was funny, inside you always knew that one day they would part, and yet it came as a shock. You were watching Tom and Jerry. Your mum and dad were in the kitchen. You hadn’t noticed them talking. But then you noticed the silence.


Your mum’s voice. Even this is an omen. They call you Phil most times, except when there is something important to say, or when you are in trouble.


They have something they would like to discuss.

You switch off the television, the fizz of black screen in some way significant, and you walk slowly into the kitchen. Your mum looks at your dad, as though to prompt him. He looks back, wounded, and then turns to you.

What it is, Phil … me and your mum…

He tells you it’s not easy. He tells you that when you’re older you will understand – but he isn’t saying anything. His voice peters out. He looks at his wife again and then back at you. He puts his hands to his eyes, as though he’s ashamed to look at you. Your mum seems to view the man before her with disgust.

It’s your mum who speaks. She tells you they’re splitting up. She tells you it’s for the best. She tells you your dad is moving out.

You don’t know why, but you can’t stop it. Hot tears roll down your cheeks. Why are your parents doing this? Your mum is lovely and your dad is a laugh. Of course they argue, but you remember the good times. The holidays, the day trips, snuggling up together on the sofa on wet Saturday afternoons to watch a Carry On film, your mum coming in with a fresh pot of tea and warm buttered toast.

Don’t cry. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just sometimes grownups can’t live together. It doesn’t work, even though they want it to work.

Why has your mum said this? Why has she used the word ‘fault’? For some reason now, you’re thinking it is someone’s fault, and you’re thinking it’s your fault. You made them split up. So many times the arguments your parents had were because of you. Because your mum had been too strict and your dad had told her she was crushing you. You’d listened at the door. Or other times your mum had blamed your dad for being too soft on you. For not supporting her. So it was your fault for being bad.

There used to be a pond in the middle of the wood where the trees thinned out. You walk to that clearing. You want to know if it’s still there. For some reason you can’t put into words, it’s important. Will it still be there after all this time? You’ve heard of a Koi carp that lived for over two hundred years, so maybe it will be. It was the last thing you did before you moved out with your mum. The house was for sale. Your dad’s Koi carp collection had to go. Your dad was moving to a flat in town. There was no room for the fish there. There was a man coming to buy the fish off your dad. Twenty fish in all. You don’t remember a time before the fish arrived.

You don’t know why you did it, but that night, you crept into the garden with a plastic bag. You took the net by the side of the pool, the pool you helped your dad first dig out, then build, then line, then fill. The old pool had become too small. The fish had grown. You scooped out the smallest fish from the water and put it in the bag with some water from the pool. You called this fish Bruno – you don’t remember why. You carried the bag all the way to the wood, to the clearing in the middle, to the pond.

Now you’re a man with your own son. Your son is only five years old. How can he understand what you didn’t understand at twelve? It was the one thing you promised yourself you would never do. You would stick it out, for the sake of your son. But things have got so bad between you and your wife, that in the end you have to accept that it’s better for Josh, your son, if you do split up.

Your wife is right, what sort of house is Josh living in? One of constant arguing or one of ominous silence. You still love your wife, but there are too many differences. The differences that brought you both together. She is outgoing, and you liked that. It made it so much easier at parties. You were no longer the one who stood in the corner looking at the record collection or the one taking books off the shelf, pretending to read them. With your wife nearby you felt more confident. You were able to talk easily with people you’d never met before. But she wanted to go out all the time. She called you boring for wanting to stay in.

Perhaps you are, but your job means long hours and you’re too tired in the evening. Besides, it always meant getting a baby sitter, and to you it just didn’t seem worth it.

The trees are thinning out, giving the forest floor light enough to grow ferns. The path has run out, and you pick up a branch, to bushwhack your way through. It isn’t much further as you remember. You agreed that it’s better for Josh if there is one home where he is based. Your new place is a one-bedroom apartment, not really suitable for a five-year-old. You also have to be out first thing, to get to work. You agreed to look after Josh at the weekends. But it doesn’t seem fair. You want to spend equal time with your son. Why can’t he spend one week at your place and one week at his mum’s? Or three-and-a-half days a week with you and three-and-a-half days a week with her? Don’t be ridiculous, she said, he won’t know whether he’s coming or going.

At last you reach the middle of the wood. And there it is, the clearing and the pond. As you walk towards it, you can smell a vile, almost septic stench emanating from the water. As you come closer you can see a green scum on the surface. There are greasy green leaves. They form a shiny skin. You take the stick you’ve been using to clear a path and use it to sift the scum. The movement of the dank rotting foliage fills you with disgust.

The water is black and brackish. It looks like stale coffee. The stench is nauseating. You stare into the treacly sump, mesmerised by its stagnant inertia. It’s a mirror that reflects only the hollow at the centre of your pupils. It’s a mirror that throws up only shadows. You see a glutinous bubble rise to the surface and burst. Is this a sign of life in the murk? Surely nothing could live in this putrefaction.

But there it is, rising to the surface, a thick-skinned fish. Its scales grey and frayed. Its gaping mouth, slimy and emaciated. Its hard, glassy eyes, like a shark’s. It stares into you. It has aged and altered, but you recognise it – Bruno. Does it remember you? You feel a shudder travel down your spine. You look at each other. What must it think of this mud that was once a pond?

You stand up and then you’re running. Running through the narrow gaps between the trees. Dry dead branches snap under your feet. Mushrooms collapse; the flesh rips, the stalks crush.

When you get to your car you’re panting. You are wet with sweat. Why did you run away? What came over you? You will get a bag, like you did twenty years ago. You will get a bag and return, and you will find a home for that fish. That’s what you will do.

As you drive back to your apartment, you wonder where you’ll put the fish. There’s no room. You still have boxes of stuff to unload. There’s no way she will take it. Apart from anything else, her new boyfriend would reject the idea on principle. You don’t get on with him, for obvious reasons, but you feel that her new boyfriend is deliberately making it hard for you.

Last Saturday you called to pick up Josh. You were taking him for a pizza, and then to the cinema, but her boyfriend had taken him out shopping for some football boots. He never showed any interest in football when he was with you. She said she was sorry, he’d be back soon. But she didn’t invite you in. She made you sit in your car for over two hours, until he returned. It turned out Josh had already seen the film. Her new boyfriend had taken him.

Back at your place, you put the kettle on. You’re not thirsty but it’s a comfort. You sip your tea from the mug she bought you when you first started seeing each other. You sit surrounded by unpacked boxes. The fish seems a long way from where you are now. You hold the mug, remembering the day you took it from its wrapping. You stare at it for a long time. Eventually, you hold the mug to your cheek to feel its warmth. The drawing on the mug made you smile once. It’s a picture of a dog on top of its kennel. It reads: all is not lost.

from Mr Jolly (£8.99, £3.99 Kindle)

Be part of our story. Join the Valley Press newsletter.