‘You can’t do and have anything you want, Jack,’ I said. ‘Not when you’re only seven... You’ll have to wait for the new Xbox and you’re not staying over at Brandon’s again, not after last time - sneaking out of windows at night, at your age. When you grow up you can do whatever you want, but till then… stop acting like a cheeky little monkey and let me finish painting this door.’
‘You’re the cheeky monkey, Dad.’
Here we go, doing his parrot impression. Jack adopts a belligerent stance, with hands on hips, copying his mother; he gets it all off her you know.
‘You’re a scallywag, Jack.’
‘You’re a scallywag. It’s not fair!’
‘Look, lad, whoever told you life’s fair, was lying.’
‘You know, Dad…’ He shakes his head, looking like a grumpy old man, ‘I’m really disappointed in you.’
‘Well, life’s full of disappointments, son, so you’d better get used to it.’
‘I hate you!’ He stamps his feet. ‘You’re a rubbish dad! I’m glad your hair’s falling out!’ He storms off, sulking.
Here comes his baby sister, the resident little angel. She looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, apart from the fact that she’s pulling the hair out of a doll, trying to make it look like me.
‘Daddy,’ she shouts, accusingly.
‘What is it, darling? I’m a bit busy, you know.’
‘What… where?’ I look around, startled, and get paint on the door handle.
‘He’s the Son of God, isn’t he?’
‘So they say.’ I dip the rag in white spirit and clean the handle. ‘But I bet he still does what his dad tells him.’
She drop-kicks the doll across the room then does a pirouette.
‘When he died on the cross, how did he get to heaven?’
‘Um… Why don’t you ask your mam?’
‘She doesn’t know,’ she moans, while picking her nose.
‘Don’t you have teachers at school to tell you about things like that?’
‘They don’t know anything; they’re rubbish at answering questions.’
‘Oh right. Well, you know what they say – stop kicking that chair, Gemma – God works in mysterious ways.’
‘Do you love Jesus, Dad?’
‘Course I do, darling, he was a great man. I mean… he saved that Good Samaritan, didn’t he? Then what else did he do…? Oh yeah, he stopped them bad people from throwing stones at that lady. I wish I could turn water into wine.’
‘And you get presents when it’s his birthday.’
‘Yeah, that as well... I might have known that’d be your favourite bit.’
‘Have you ever seen Him, Dad?’
‘Well… you know… only on the telly.’
‘They’re just actors, silly. You know, Dad, for a grown-up, you can be so stupid sometimes.’
‘Hey, young lady, mind your manners. Doesn’t it say something in the Bible about respecting thy father?’
‘I’ll see him one day, won’t I, Dad – when I go to heaven?’
‘Ah, now that’s debatable. If you don’t behave yourself, you’ll be going downstairs to see Old Nick with all the other naughty girls. Anyway, chick, I’ve gotta do something in the shed.’
I enter the kitchen where the love of my life is preparing to feed us all. Her hands are covered in flour, as is her nose.
‘All done, darling,’ I say, beaming proudly.
‘So what do you want, a medal?’ She’s brandishing the rolling pin. ‘It only took you four months to get round to it.’
‘Your kids are really doing my head in today, you know.’
‘Oh, so they’re my kids now, are they? That’s funny seeing how it’s you they take after.’
‘Give over, woman; I was a little angel at their age.’
‘Yeah, right – a fallen angel, maybe.’
‘Well, if you think they’re a chip off the old block, they’re not that bad, I suppose. I’m off to clean my brushes.’
‘Don’t you be smoking... in that shed.’
So it’s down the garden path to the family man’s last retreat. I clean the excess paint from the Hamiltons with an old bath towel and put them to soak in a jar. Then I turn on the radio and park up on the stool before lighting up. I get to thinking about how it used to be – you know – getting to lie in on a weekend, having uninhibited sex without worrying about the kids hearing or walking in on you, not having questions that have no answer thrown at you and constantly being made to feel stupid by children. But then, we all have our cross to bear, I suppose. At least I don’t have to wipe their backsides any more.
I become aware of the gravel bed outside being disturbed by furtive footsteps.
‘What do you want, Gemma?’ I ask the door.
‘Mam told me to say you’d better not to be smoking in there.’
‘Tell your mam that if she doesn’t stop using you to spy on me, I’ll give her bum a big smack.’
‘But you shouldn’t smoke, Dad, you might die.’
‘I might die if I don’t get any peace and quiet.’
‘What you say?’
‘Never mind, go on – go pester your mother for a change.’
I’m reading the newspaper, when I hear the approach of tiny feet again.
‘Go on then, Gemma; spit it out. What did she say?’
‘Mam said you just try it and see what happens.’
‘Tell her I’ll sort her out when we go to bed tonight.’
No rest for the wicked, I suppose, so I’d better plunge back into the fray.
When I enter the kitchen, there’s her indoors taking a fighting stance and pushing out her WMDDs.
‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you.’
‘Well, I hope it’s a wishbone.’
‘Did you tell Gemma that I had a big bottom?’
‘As if I would, and have you going all paranoid and making us all eat Quorn and rabbit food, 'cause you’re on a diet.’
‘Tell your mam I’m gonna smack her big bum, you said.’ She’s threatening me with the rolling pin.
‘You know how kids mix everything up. Anyway, you know how exquisite I think your derriere is.’
She slaps my hands away before I can cop a grope. I can sense a big argument coming on, so I call Gemma in from the dining room.
‘Mammy says she’s gonna tell you all about Jesus and heaven, darling.’ Then I beat a hasty retreat.
As I approach the last door I painted, I freeze in shock and horror. It’s got pages from a comic stuck all over it, along with a postcard of Jesus. God give me strength.
‘Gemma, Jack, get in here, now!’
Gemma walks up looking all innocent and trying not to grin, as I pace the floor waiting for Damien Thorn to grace us with his presence.
‘What you gobbing off about?’ says Jack as he strolls in.
‘Who did this?’ I point at the ruined paint job. They both point at each other. ‘You both did it, didn’t you?’
‘I didn’t do nowt, Dad.’ Gemma tucks her chin in and bats her eyelids shamelessly, while wringing the hem of her skirt with both hands.
‘She did, Dad,’ Jack protests.
‘Let me see your fingers then. Well… why are you hiding them behind your backs?’ I concentrate on Gemma. ‘You won’t go to heaven if you lie, you know.’
‘All right, then.’ She swings her shoulders from side to side. ‘I only put Jesus there after he’d already put all that on. So what’s it matter. Just chill out, it looks better like that anyway.’
Jesus wept, is there any wonder I’ve hardly any hair left.
‘Right, that’s it, God knows I’ve been patient. This is your final warning and I mean it this time. If you don’t behave yourselves… you’re gonna get smacked.’
‘No, we won’t,’ says Gemma, doing a little dance, ‘you always say that.’
‘Yeah,’ says Jack with a smirk, ‘you’re all mouth and trousers, you are, like Mam says.’
I stoop forward and tap his bum.
‘Didn’t hurt,’ says he, and smacks me back.
I try to speak – but suffer from a fit of apoplexy and have to sit down. Finally, I recover the power of speech but, realise I need to change tact.
‘I can’t believe I went out this morning to buy you Jaffa Cakes, Wagon Wheels and Walnut Whips. Now I’ll have to eat ’em all myself.’
‘Oh, poor Daddy,’ says Gemma, standing beside me and putting a comforting arm around my back. ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean it, honest.’
‘Where are they then?’ says Jack, ever the cynic. ‘Prove it.’
‘Right, you can go in the front room or upstairs. If I see either of you in here again today, there’ll be no more pocket money. Now move it.’
Jack leads the way, followed reluctantly by Gemma. She pauses in the doorway.
‘Daddy, can I have a Walnut Whip, please?’
‘No! Go on, get lost.’
‘You get lost!’ She sticks her tongue out at me before disappearing.
I gingerly peel the pages from the door, cursing quietly to myself. Then the other half appears in the kitchen doorway.
‘What you gonna do with it?’
‘I’ll just have to let it dry, sand it down and paint it again, after we’ve murdered the kids and disposed of the evidence.’ I turn to face her. ‘It’s no good threatening to smack them any more; they know we won’t hit ’em. I’ve got an idea though.’ I start whispering in her ear.
‘I’ve got a better idea,’ says she, grinning.
The little terrors are watching cartoons in the front room when I join them. I get ignored completely, as though I’m the villain. I’m watching Gemma twitch and wrinkle her nose, wondering how on earth I’d managed to help produce such a beautiful, sweet devil.
I try to concentrate on the goggle-box, but they don’t make good moral tales any more – you know, like Top Cat.
Here comes the boss, looking like she’s on the warpath.
‘Right you!’ She points at me. ‘Get upstairs and tidy up those clothes you left lying around the bedroom.’
‘I’ll do it later, I’m watching telly,’ I whinge, like Jack. When she repeats the command, I shrug. ‘Whatever.’
She sits next to me on the sofa, and then pulls me across her knees, with a bit of cooperation from me. I can see the look of amazement on the kid’s faces as I take a thrashing and yelp loudly. Then I’m rolled off Mother’s lap and dumped unceremoniously on to the floor.
‘Do you two want some as well?’ she shouts at them.
‘No,’ they chant together, all the colour draining from their impish faces.
‘Well, behave yourselves then.’ She gets up and storms out.
I get up, rubbing my backside. It really hurts as well. When I sit back down again, the kids are staring at me in disbelief.
‘What a nasty mammy, hitting me like that.’
‘Well,’ says Gemma, stoically, ‘you shouldn’t be naughty, should you.’
I head out to the shed. If ever I deserved a smoke, this is it. Pausing at the kitchen door, I address my spanker. ‘You weren’t supposed to thrash me for real, woman. I never said you had a big bum, honest.’
‘But I had to make it look real, didn’t I?’ says she, feigning innocence.
I’ve almost finished the cigarette, when I hear footsteps on the gravel and a football being bounced. The locked door rattles. I unbolt the door, and open up to be greeted by Jack the Lad.
‘All right, Dad, how about going down the park for a kick-about – mate?’
‘You’ve got a cheek – mate, after how you’ve treated me today. You know, Jack, one day you’ll have a house and you’ll realise what hard work it is looking after it. I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in you, son.’
He shrugs, displaying his adolescent indifference. ‘Life’s full of disappointments, Dad; you should be used to it by now.’