The ground pulled out and away and the sky thundered down, immense and fast, and then pulled back and back and the grass was rushing up again. Michael pulled on the swing ropes, kicked his feet and flew backwards, his head leaning out and his eyes tearing from the wind. His heart galloped, but he didn’t slow down. You never got hurt unless you jumped, and it wasn’t yet time to jump.
His father waited by the slides, leaning back against the tall rusty one, his hands awkward without a cigarette. The stern ‘no smoking’ sign supervised him. Michael thought of it as an extension of his mother. “Not in the house, Graham,” she said last night, her voice tired, as Michael’s father flicked a light at the little white stick. “Don’t you dare,” she said, and the cigarette fell to the ground as they kissed, his father reaching round to rub her belly with both hands. It burned a round little hole in the carpet, a hole that glowed madly for a moment and then faded. Michael watched anxiously from the door.
Michael wondered if he’d love this baby like they told him he would; he kept one of the scan photos in the drawer beside his bed and looked at it before he slept. It was like an alien, a sea-creature, but it had real little hands, and eyes that watched him. He was scared of it sometimes, but he was also scared of telling anyone this. His mother said that he would love it more than anything, but how could she know that? He might not like it at all. The thought gave him a nasty shiver.
The ground whooshed towards him again, trees and slides falling and swooping away. Michael could feel his lunch, lumpy tapioca, slipping around inside him, and he held his breath and clenched his belly. He wouldn’t be sick in the playground, with his father there, his father who would forget to wipe him up and tell him instead about the reactions inside his body that had made the food come spewing out, while Michael retched and sobbed. Like that time when his uncle Bobby had come to visit from the farm with his shotgun in the back of the jeep, and Michael’s dad had brought it inside and dismantled it on the table to show Michael how it worked. Bobby had told them about his hunting trip; he acted out his manoeuvres, blocking them out in the floor like he was on stage.
“A big, fat female she was,” he said, “like yourself, Margery,” and Michael’s mother slapped him across the back of the head like he was a child himself.
“Watch it, Bob,” she retorted, and Bobby grinned. He spread his arms wide and winked at Michael.
“A mighty beast, kiddo, as terrible as your mother, but I had her all lined up with good old Janey there.” He waved at the gun, which accepted the praise in silence. “There was such a rumble when she fell, I thought an earthquake had hit.” Michael’s father asked him about the dissection of the beast, and at the loosening of the intestines, Michael’s own innards had rebelled, and his dinner spilled out again, all over the kitchen floor, eliminating the scene of the reconstruction.
Thinking of this, his stomach lurched and his grip slipped, and as the swing dipped back down to the ground, Michael’s concentration faltered and the rope twisted out of his grasp and he fell to the ground, hands and knees and chin scraped on the gravel, blood on the stones and on his cuffs and on his trousers. Grounded, flightless, he sat silently, sucking in his cheeks and wishing to vanish before his father saw him, fallen, longing for a crawl-space to slip inside and vanish.
His father was talking to another man by the fence. Their voices floated over to Michael on the still air.
“I’ll be a free man soon,” said the stranger, “And I don’t mind telling you, pal, I can’t bloody wait. She’s a weight around my neck.”
“We’re expecting our second any day now,” Michael’s dad said, scuffing the ground with his toes.
The man sniffed. “Fucking kids, man,” he said. “Mine are terrors. Right little bastards.”
He waved to the basketball court beyond the playground. Michael saw three boys of varying ages who were throwing the ball back and forth, aiming at each other in a slow, pointless version of dodgeball. The youngest was screaming that the others were cheating, and the eldest pushed him to the ground and told him to shut it. The youngest scraped up loose tarmac and flung the pebbles at his brothers. After a moment, the father wandered over and dragged him to his feet, called the other two like dogs, and they all trooped away, as if they’d been glued together and couldn’t peel away.
Michael forgot his stinging palms. What if his own brother was like one of these? He pictured himself cowering from a miniature terror, his parents indifferent.
The sky darkened above him; his father loomed. “Had enough, kiddo?” he asked.
Michael raised his bloody hands and trembling chin, and his father shook his head. “Better get a plaster so,” he said. They walked to the shop, his father telling him all about skin and veins and scabs, and Michael cheered up. His father bought cigarettes, and showed him the diseased lung on the packet, and Michael coughed. His father laughed. “My Pavlovian son,” he said, and Michael frowned.
His father shoved the packet deep into his coat pocket. “For later,” he said, “She won’t appreciate the smell if I come back now after a fag. The smells get to her something fierce.”
It began to rain as they headed home. The cracked earth puddled the water like it was sweating, then soaked it in, and Michael could almost hear it sighing and grumbling after a long thirst. The flowers in their garden were wilting and brown; only the ivy stood tall. Inside, his mother waited, wilting herself, huge and round, her feet red and swollen. Michael’s father took them on his lap and rubbed them.
“Old lady Em,” he said in a cartoon voice, and Michael giggled.
“Not long now, Mikey,” his mum said, and her face was bright.
I’m ready, Mam, he wanted to say, but the words were large and he was small, and the main thing he had to do now was to concentrate, to be ready, not to miss a thing. He wouldn’t even blink.