“Where are we going?” Felix asks, as our father navigates the dual carriageway.
“We’re just calling in here for a bit,” Our father nods at the road sign that looms ahead, with a large 3 colour rainbow and ‘Welcome to Hempstead Valley,’ on it. He indicates and steers off the main road.
I don’t recognize the place, although the roundabout we’d passed five minutes back was the one where we’d stood to wave at a car that contained the Queen. Dad had said that he would’ve preferred Brian May. I think Felix gets his contempt for the monarchy from him.
We’d driven away from an argument. My parents are always disagreeing or raising their voices. The earmuffs will be good for that.
It’s my birthday tomorrow, so my mum was getting stuff all ready for the party. I’m not sure if people will come or not. They think the house we live in is ‘weird’ at school. Mum’s party bags aren’t going to help.
Early in the morning, before the shouting, she was baking. I was hoping for a spaceship cake, but I could already tell it would be an Ewok. My mother loves a theme.
If he was different, my father might have volunteered to take us out of his own accord. Allow Mum time to listen to a Carole King record, look at the Argos catalogue, have a cry in private.
Instead he always seemed to grab our hands in retaliation. He forgets the important things as we drive away, Felix’s Orange Blossom doll, my medication.
From the underground car park, there are lights in the floor to guide you, so that you can see the way in.
“Daddy, can I get some earmuffs?”
“Can we get a Wimpy afterwards?” Felix is picking up fluff along the side of the tiled walkway, so his voice is a bit buried.
“Yes,” My father says, although I’m not sure he knows what that means. We’re not supposed to have ‘junk food’ – we don’t have normal chocolate like the other kids at school, we have something that’s also brown, but tastes really disgusting like that fake chocolate from advent calendars.
It’s surprising that my father is even around today. We don’t see him all that much at the weekend. I suppose he had to help with my birthday, although he’d spent the morning drilling in the loft and only came down when the ceiling collapsed. A white lump of something fell and landed in the Ewok cake, like an asteroid. That was when the row took off. My father didn’t seem sorry that mum’s handiwork had been destroyed.
He fiddled with the tape player all the way to the shopping centre. The Pepsi Band Aid Hits tape was stuck in it, so it kept playing the same bit of Dr. Beat by Gloria Estefan until it got too much to bear. Then we had to listen to the radio turned up really loud.
It was so loud that he wouldn’t have heard me say that I wanted an ‘ET yourself’, a photo silhouetted in front of the moon. Fiona Kirk got one done in Florida. Some of the other kids went to Disneyland, where the castle is bigger and pinker, but they’re both really hot. Mum said Dad holidayed in the loft - that was why we didn’t get to go to America. I didn’t really mind. I just wanted a day at the Natural History Museum, so that I could get a pencil sharpener that is also a dinosaur. Rak Hajit has one that’s a Triceratops, but I want the Diplodocus with his neck bent round in a curve.
“There’s a shop back there dad,” I shout over the noise of the gathering crowds, “For the earmuffs I mean.”
“I just want to go to see something first.” Our father sounds snappy.
“Daddy, why are there so many people?” Felix tries to keep hold of dad’s hand, although dad is trying to pull away. “I hope that the Wimpy won’t be full when we get there.”
I said that our father often dragged Felix and me out with him as a point in a grudge-match. Lately, wherever he ends up taking us seems to have been planned in advance.
The Ewoks lay on the table in columns, most of them naked. One of them wore a snood.
“Mum! Why are there so many Ewoks through here?”
“They were on offer at Bentleys. I thought they were perfect.”
“What for? Their outfits are missing.”
“You know, for the party bags. People can make their own outfits anyway. That’s more fun.”
I saw the other favours lined up at the end of the table: tooters curled up like snail shells, rubbers in the shape of strawberries and tiny gel stickers of the alphabet.
“No-one’s going to come.” I said and walked out of the room.
Up ahead there’s a huge crowd gathering. It’s bigger than the queue for the cinema at half term, so I can tell it must be a big deal.
“Darth Vader’s going to be here. Do you know who that is?” Dad sounds like an instructional video in something really boring.
Felix and I look at him, confused. He spends so much time at work or in the loft he must just be exhausted to ask us that - we had just come from a house full of Ewoks.
“Er, excuse me,” a pot-bellied man with a strange fringe of hair like the monk in Robin Hood taps my father on the shoulder.
My father is not a big fan of physical contact. It’s difficult enough to get him to hold hands with me and Felix, or even sit next to my mother these days, so this guy wasn’t playing very safe.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I was just trying to get your attention.”
“It’s your children,” the Friar bloke hisses.
“You leave my children alone,” my father grabs our hands again.
“It’s just that it isn’t really suitable for them to be here now.”
“I’m a parent. It’s a PG, so fuck off.”
“Dad, can we go in Dorothy Perkins?”
“What’s going on Dad? Why are there so many people?”
We seem to be surrounded, people pushing past us more frantically now.
“Darth Vader is arriving.” My father says, as though it’s a normal thing for Darth Vader to turn up in this strange indoor world.
“Why would the man think it’s not ok for children?”
“That man doesn’t know anything.” My father looks around for the Friar, who has been swallowed up by the surging crowd and lets us go.
The music starts suddenly, gloomily. There’s a fanfare and I can hear people cheer. They move forwards, straining to look. Felix can’t keep up with my father’s determined stride. Ahead of us a security guard steps forward and pulls a barrier across to create some space on the floor and now I can see my father trapped on the other side of it. He stretches his arm out but is quickly covered by the baying hoards.
The crowd parts again as a figure in plastic armour marches towards us, down the gangway the barrier has created. The figure is all in black and has a grille for a mouth. There is a loud wheezing sound from overhead.
It really is Darth Vader. I check to see if Felix gets it, but there are so many tall people I don’t think he can see too much except their legs and the illuminated patches on the floor.
“He sounds like he’s got asthma,” Felix says.
“He’s got respiratory problems, it’s part of his condition,” a boy dressed in a brown sack mutters without really looking at us. He has some taped together kitchen rolls coloured in with green highlighter pen in one hand.
“We’d better go find dad,” I decide, when the cape has swished out of view.
“I need the toilet,” Felix says.
We go to the bathrooms at the food court. I only know that it’s called this because there is a giant sign saying ‘Food Court’. Felix says he is old enough to go to the boys’ alone and I don’t argue.
After five minutes I go in and check. The men’s is deserted, each of the stall doors stand slightly ajar. Oh God. Felix where are you. I know I can’t go without him.
I run, panicked, across to the NSS newsagent. It’s huge – I wouldn’t know where to start. There is a big display of Strawberry Shortcake dolls in the window, but they haven’t caught his attention. Earlier in the week my father had asked about fireworks. Not anything right on our doorstep, but the big display in the castle park over ten miles away. He said people from the army were in charge and there was the biggest Catherine Wheel in the county.
One of the dolls in my troupe is called Catherine Wheel, Wheel her last name like ours is Homes. Back then I wanted to change my surname to Karvol when I was old enough. My dad had said, why not make it ‘Calpol’ and have done with it you sick child. I agreed that Felix could be a Karvol too, but he, not being as theatrical, would have less need for a pseudonym Catherine Wheel’s been missing now for 24 hours.
I feel hot and scan the edge of the Food Court again. He’s there by the Spud-U-Like swing bin - I can just see his bowed head.
“Angie, I want to get a Wimpy,” Felix is sat at a table counting out sweets and buttons from his coat pocket.
“Felix, we need to find dad. We should have followed the black robot.”
“That was Darth Vader.”
“How do you know it was him? You couldn’t see.”
“Mr. Wimpy told me.”
Behind us the Wimpy sign flashes. By the doors beyond it, opening on to the outside world, an oversized Beefeater bumbles up to people to hug them. I recognize the figure and remember that I was almost invited to a party here by default. Fiona Kirk dropped my invitation card in the wastepaper basket right in front of me - she was made to re-offer it after she hit me in the face with a plimsoll. Even the girl at Brownies who teased me about not seeing Caravan of Courage wasn’t as mean as Fiona. My mother said that I wasn’t to go to the bully’s party. I always thought it was just because she couldn’t drive me there.
Outside the NSS is the biggest indoor fish pond I have ever seen. The fish glisten like they are spun from actual gold. I wish that we could stay crouched here for the rest of the afternoon, relying on a giant magnet to draw us back to our father when it’s time to go home. The water splashes up and I see something darken and sink. I’m relieved that it is only a Mr Wimpy badge, something easy to replace.
My parents shared a record collection – it was all jumbled up together so that Neil Young cohabited in the same alcove as Big Brother and the Holding Company. I don’t feel like I will ever allow all the parts of me to mingle so freely. I’ll have my LPs stationed on one side of the file, keeping them separate from any others. Theirs overlapping like that shows they agreed on some things back then.
When my mother left for good I noticed that the Rolling Stones records were all still there. She had a tirade about Mick Jagger once after I caught her drinking the aged Southern Comfort from behind the tumble drier. I said that it was probably not the best idea; but everything else boozy was gone from the house, she said; she said that she was desperate and who was I to know what that felt like?
I wonder if that’s what loves feels like - like wanting to share your record collection with someone who makes you want to drink unsavoury spirits. I can’t imagine anyone persuading me to do this.
Our father will make his way to Dorothy Perkins to be reunited with us I’m convinced, so I begin to lead Felix through the mall. Everyone else seems huge. As we plough on through the sea of people, bound up in winter clothes, Orange Blossom (who hasn’t been left behind for once) tumbles from Felix’s grasp. The gaps close over, filled by the growing crowd, and the doll is lost amongst them. Felix, realising Orange Blossom is gone, starts to bawl.
Over by the reversible jumpers in Dorothy Perkins the shop assistant asks me what’s wrong and I say that we’ve lost our dad. Felix won’t stop crying.
Another lady wearing a name badge that says ‘Flo’ on it and a really tight skirt that makes her look like a lightbulb lifts Felix up onto a high stool.
“Just wait here a minute,” she says to me. I want to tell her about Orange Blossom, how we need to get him another one, otherwise he’ll cry enough to fill the fishpond twice over, but she strides away out of the shop.
Outside it looks dark away from the up-lighting. I pick out the things I would choose if my father was like Mr. Attaway (who only came on weekends and got Michelle whatever it was she wanted): a lilac anorak with a husky dog on the back, a zig-zag pattern sweatshirt. The jumper assistant is talking to Felix. I try on the fuchsia earmuffs and admire myself in the mirror when I see Darth Vader in the reflection.
Years later I thought that he must have ducked in Dotty P’s to get away from the crowd whose appetite for the king of mercenary space crime was relentless. The jumper girl can’t appease Felix who slides down from the Blind Date stool and charges for the door in the direction of a man, wearing a C&A anorak just like our father’s who is hovering by the entrance. Felix keeps his eyes scrunched up as he runs, so he can’t see the other figure step into his path until it’s too late.
“Daddy!” he screams, as he hit legs encased in black shin pads.
Darth Vader squats down so his mask is almost at Felix’s level and rocks back on his haunches. He places a gloved hand on Felix’s trembling shoulder.
“I am not your father,” he says before heading for the changing rooms. Though a curtain was drawn across the cubicle, as the helmet came off I’m certain I heard him laugh.
Outside in the centre I hear our names one by one over the tannoy - an announcement for someone to come to our rescue.
We were over the road at the Attaways, when the fight broke out. It was at Crimewatch level when Frances sent us back over to the house. I thought it was weird to put us in the frame like that, but they did seem to calm down when we walked in.
Mum still blames Frances for the time I was left at school. I cried and Mrs Bax looked embarrassed when she called up and there was no-one home. I don’t know if she thought she’d have to take me home with her and offer for Mr Bax to drive me back later on. Maybe Mrs Bax could make Pasta Alfredo for us all. I saw them have it in a film.
The lights go out at the shopping centre so it is at once a monsters lair hanging. The shutters to all the shops are lowered to conceal their bright treats and neon signs. Behind the slats it looks like sections of a giant prison.
Flo walks past the security lodge. She has a leather jacket done up over her uniform, so we can’t see her badge anymore, but we recognize her smile. The bag she has on her shoulders clinks as she walks and has a tassel hanging from it, with a peacock feather charm.
Flo discovers we’re still there and asks us if we’ve finished with the Argos catalogue.
I say that we have, but it’s been used. There are ribbons of paper scattered and on the floor in front of Felix is a sheet of paper with torn shapes arranged on it.
“What are you doing?” Flo asks and crouches down beside him.
“We’re making a picture of what our house will look like when we’re grown-up.”
Felix tells her to be sure not to sneeze, so it doesn’t get blown away.
When he finally comes back for us we’re sitting in the back room of the security lodge - me up on the counter swinging my legs, Felix dozing by my shoulder.
“Where have you been, Daddy?”
“I’m sorry, Felix, the crowd was so big.”
“Well, thank goodness you’re here now, Mr. Homes.”
“Last time dad looked after us by himself we had to go to the hospital,” Felix tells the security guard. I think he thinks he is the police.
“Well you did eat a lot of pot pourri,” I say to Felix then smile up at the guard.
The guard lifts us both down. Felix clutches at an imposter Orange Blossom, I, in place of a toy, my Ventolin inhaler.
In the car we listen to Pepsi Band Aid Hits that has become unstuck. I look out of the window, holding Felix’s hand in the gap between his car seat and my harness, and watch the road until I see the unfamiliar grass verges melt away and the rows of houses of the Parkwood estate come into view. Felix is singing Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Usually I sing the man’s part of the duet, but I don’t feel like it. I sense my father is annoyed with us.
We turn into Chesham Drive and see the smoke, a small plume in the sky, like a headdress over our house. There is a fire truck parked up outside number twelve, the hose winding through to our kitchen.
“It looks bad, but it’s nothing too serious,” the first investigating officer says, gesturing to the lone fireman dousing out the flames. “The blaze is all under control.”
“Your neighbour, Ms. Attaway got to it just in time.”
“I think Mrs Homes left the oven on.” the FIO adds.
Another policeman comes out through the gate, “Nice herb garden,” he remarks to no-one in particular.
We stand in the front garden by the pampas grass. It looks rather worse for wear, matted like the unbrushed tail of a My Little Pony. Since both my mother and father’s interest in it had waned and the caring became carelessness it stood in its circular bed out the front like an exotic crop circle, the tallest stalks gradually beaten down by the wind.
“Oh, we had a look in your garage sir, for a fire extinguisher. It was already open.” The policeman indicates the open garage door.
“Can I get a Zoom, Daddy?”
“It’s November,” my father says to Felix, but points to the freezer then heads to the back garden.
“Would you like a Zoom too?” Felix asks the policeman, as he opens the lid to the freezer.
I notice there is a smashed bottle of Taboo on the floor that hadn’t been there when I put my bike away.
This was how I found Catherine Wheel when Felix opened the chest freezer: She had been laid down on a wood baton on top of the Zoom box, so she came out on a stick, like a doll-shaped ice lolly.
“Like Han Solo in Star Wars Three, Angie” Felix says, closing his fists.
“Yes. It is, isn’t it?”
I uncurl Felix’s fingers. Inside is a leaf from the verbena bush that we are always told not to touch. I rub it between my fingers as I walk over to where Dad stands under the conifers watching the saloon doors burn.