As soon as I step through his garden gate the front door opens and he is there. He must have been waiting, watching through a window.
I know what to expect, vaguely, part from memory and part from photographs, but it’s still strange. Maybe because of the way he makes it look normal, with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face, and the way he calls out to me, ‘Hey’. Then, when I'm in front of him, ‘Hello, Eve.’
I’ve practised this next part in the mirror, watching my jaw snap down and up. ‘Dad. Dad. Dad? I have a Dad. My Dad said… No, I can't, I'm going to my Dad's. Hi Dad.’
But here, I keep the word inside.
‘Hello.’ I pull the sleeves of my cardigan down and fold my arms, afraid he’ll try to hug me, afraid he is expecting something more beautiful.
He’s still smiling. ‘Come in.’
He doesn’t wait, doesn’t see me inside with something like, ‘Welcome’. I think about turning around. About going home to my mum and saying, ‘Yeah, I met him. And that’s enough.’ And my mum asking, ‘Is it?’
I step into the house and close the door.
‘What do you want to drink, love?’ He’s waiting again, in another doorway. I know the house, in a far away way. If things had been different I might still have had a room of my own. A second home. I’ve played with that idea too, before coming here today. Leaving school on a Friday and saying, ‘I’m staying over at my dad’s this weekend.’ It seems lavish, exotic, exciting. But here it doesn’t. Here, between known and unknown, is cold and unsettling.
‘Love? To drink?’
Love, I hear. He’s confident, not just with his words but his movements too. At ease with me here. He walks into the kitchen, expecting me to follow. I imagine coming in from school, talking about my day. What would you like to drink, love. Or I’d help myself. Open the fridge, know the cupboards.
I nod, ‘Okay.’
In the living room we sit in armchairs, a gas fire between us. He talks. He asks about school and exams and hobbies, trying to find the parts of me that are his.
My answers are short, minimum: top set, exams ok, drawing.
He tells me about the people who are looking forward to seeing me. Relatives I don’t know. He tells me about places he used to take me to, things we did together. The Rugby Club on Sundays. Climbing onto the piano stool. Twice the size of you. So determined. Everyone in stitches.
I didn’t expect this, this advantage he’d have on me. This is why it’s easy for him, he thinks he knows me already. I look around the room, but not at the things I’m interested in. Not at his pictures or CDs or ornaments, the things that might tell me who he is. I fix my eyes on the walls, ceiling, floor. Anywhere but him.
There’s something on the carpet between us – a small, black, crumpled thing. A dead spider. I gasp and he hears it and says, ‘Ah. If that’s how you feel you probably shouldn’t look under the back window.’
So I get up and walk across the room, past him, to see four or five black and brown spiders, all dead and folded at the edge of the carpet. It’s one of those shocks where you feel your face pull across your forehead.
He turns in his chair to face me. ‘I’ve just had a lot of spiders lately. Are you scared?’
‘No.’ And to make him believe it I look him in the eye properly for the first time.
‘Your eyes didn’t stay green. You used to have green eyes.’
‘They were like mine.’
‘They’re blue now.’ Though sometimes they still look a little green, if I’m tired, or if I cry. I don’t tell him that.
‘I've been waiting for this day for seven years.’
I want to say I haven’t, or I want to ask why he waited, why he just accepted my absence. I don’t ask of these things, but he answers them.
‘It was hard. I didn’t know if your mum would tell you if I got in touch. I thought if I waited until you were older, you’d at least be opening your own post and making your own mind up.’
I decide to yawn.
He smiles. ‘You've still got it, that stubborn streak.’ And he starts laughing. The
laughter takes hold of him, his body shakes with it. ‘So stubborn. There was this time, you were a baby really, two or three, and we were walking through Bluebell Wood, and…’
I let myself look at him, all of him. His stomach spilling over his waistband. His thinning hair, swept over his head like a lie. Something in the corner of his mouth. I want to be at home, on my bed, lying on my back so my own stomach disappears.
He's stopped telling the story. ‘Sorry, Eve. But you know you've always been stubborn, don't you?’
Yes. Mum tells me most times we argue, and ‘you get it from your father’.
He thinks he can see me and he doesn’t even know me. I want to hurt him. I stare at his head. ‘Does your hair grow like that naturally?’
His laughing slows, his smile drops. He looks at me a while, his eyes lit in the light from the window. Then he turns around, away. After a minute he says, ‘You don’t have to be here, you know.’
He’s caught me. ‘I know.’
I look to the door and think about my next move. Something black in the corner of my eye. Something on my leg. How many spiders there must be in this room.