If you were to look out across Abbey Park tonight, just after all the children had been called in for tea by their parents, you’d see something unexpected. Usually, once the children have collected their footballs and skateboards, the park would be deserted, and it would stay that way until the morning rush of mothers and toddlers. Not tonight.
As the moonlight trickled into the darkness that carpeted Abbey Park, a man in a suit could be seen. He was sitting at the swing he’d ran to every day after school as a boy, determined that he would be able to soar so high that he would fly over the bar at the top. He’d never managed it. That wasn’t why he was here tonight.
The man sat quietly, allowing the echoing silence of the park to wash over him. He held the cool chains loosely, slowly rocking back and forth by pressing onto his toes, and then rolling back onto his heels. The spring breeze swept in, playing with his soot black hair. His dull grey eyes stared intently at the tarmac beneath his shiny leather shoes. He didn’t blink.
He sighed heavily and began wedging his feet out of his shoes and wriggling his toes in their new freedom, before kicking the shoes to one side. He turned his attention to the silk noose around his neck, loosening it just enough to pull it out from under his collar and over his head. He placed the tie on top of the briefcase that sat on the tarmac, unbuttoned the top button of his white shirt and slowly rolled his neck. He winced at the movement. His hands found the chains of the swing once more.
As a child, Luke had come to this park to try and soar into the stars. As a teenager, he had avoided the park completely. As an adult, Luke only returned to the park to think.
His dad used to bring him to Abbey Park on Sundays where they would play football together. Luke looked forward to playing football with his dad. They suited each other in ability, as neither were very good, but his dad taught him about football and the offside rule. Luke always managed to score goals against him. It was how fathers and sons bonded in the neighbourhood.
On Tuesday nights, the boys on Luke’s street would have a match against the boys from the next street. His dad always came with him and cheered. He eventually became a coach for Luke’s team after bowing to the pleas of the boys. Often when they practised, the team would run circles around Luke’s dad, but his dad always insisted that he was letting them win. Everybody knew him. Everybody told Luke what a great dad his father was. Luke didn’t need telling. He knew.
Luke unclipped the clasp of his wristwatch and slid it off his hand, placing it next to the tie on the briefcase. The watch had been a present from his wife one anniversary. He couldn’t remember which. He raised his arms and held onto the highest part of the swing’s chains that he could reach and pushed his neck down until a loud crack sounded from between his shoulder blades. Running his hands back down the chains, he rotated his shoulders and tilted his neck from side to side, scrunching his eyes as he did so.
He loosened his grip on the chains and let his arms slide onto his lap before he started twirling his silver wedding band round his finger, still staring at the floor, rocking back and forth. His left shoulder suddenly shuddered involuntarily, and Luke swiftly returned his hands to the chains, holding them tightly, supportively, the corners of his mouth twitching in pain. He left the ring slightly higher up on his finger than it had been before.
The barking of a dog broke the silence that surrounded Luke and his thoughts. He looked up as the dog bounded towards him, his owner straightening up in the distance after releasing the hound from its lead. The dog reached the swings and started licking the hands of the familiar man who sat there; Luke ruffled the dog’s head, just behind his ear as he liked it, before looking up and smiling at the dog’s approaching owner.
He thinks I don’t know.
The ticking clock is driving me crazy. Josh and David have been in bed for two hours now and Luke still isn’t home. There’s nothing I can do but wait for him to come home and tell me he’s been working late. I run my index finger around the rim of my wine glass slowly, listening for footsteps coming down the drive.
“Mummy?” David’s little head pops around the living room door. He’s clutching his blanket tightly with his tiny fist. “I can’t sleep.”
I scoop my four-year-old up onto my lap and stroke his blonde hair, cradling him with my free arm. He wraps his arms around my neck and buries his head into my shoulder. He smells of bubble bath.
“Is Daddy home?” he mutters into my shoulder.
“No, sweetie,” I say. I think before continuing. “Daddy… is working late.”
“I need to ask him something.”
“Can’t you ask me?”
I feel his head move from side to side. “I’ve got to ask Daddy.”
I squeeze him tightly, “I’m sure he’ll be home soon.” And then he can look his son in the eye and lie to him about where he’s been. Maybe I should wake Josh up too and then his whole family are here for him to lie to all at once. I cuddle my son.
“Shush, Domino!” The heavy words rang out from underneath the moustache of the large dog-walker who had finally reached Luke.
“Don’t worry, mate,” Luke muttered, ruffling the dog’s ears with one hand, his other hand holding onto the chains. The man squeezed himself into the neighbouring swing and threw the stick he’d been carrying across the field. Domino darted across the field happily, following the stick’s path before becoming distracted by something in the grass and completely ignoring the original intention of his run.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the large man sniffed. “Visiting your dad?”
“Kind of,” Luke smiled to his childhood friend.
“Top bloke, was your dad,” grunted Otter, gazing across to the football pitch. “Top bloke.”
After Luke’s dad had died, his mum had offered to go and play football with him at the park, but Luke had refused. The park was dead to him without his father. Even when his mum took him to watch a match to try and get her son to join in again, he’d looked at the bustle of children and regarded Abbey Park empty. He had tried to avoid it since then because he would always expect his dad to be there. He wasn’t. They’d scattered his ashes over the football pitch. Luke had only started visiting the park again recently, now that home was becoming unbearable. When his first son Josh had started crawling and walking, it hit him, and then when David arrived, the guilt doubled. He couldn’t be like his own father, the man he had idolised. He’d never be able to play football with his boys. He couldn’t stand that.
The pair sat in silence for a while, watching Domino chasing his own tail and bounding happily through the uncut grass. Luke tilted his head to one side, massaging his stretched neck with the palm of his hand.
“You need to tell her.”
Luke sighed. “I know.”
They were going to notice soon; it was getting worse. They’d work it out, if they hadn’t already. Amelia had once found a photo of Luke with his father playing football and questioned why Luke never played football with his own boys. It had broken his heart to lie to her, and to speak ill of his dad, but it was easier than the truth. He’d told her he’d fallen out with his father and resented any memory of him, and wouldn’t play football with his own boys. It was a lie. He did want to – more than anything. He just couldn’t.
“I think I can sleep now,” whispers David.
“Alright sweetie, do you want me to come up with you?”
He lifts his head up, holds the blanket to his mouth and nods. His big blue eyes look so sad. Luke needs to see how much he’s upsetting his son. Luke needs to walk through the door right now and make everything better.
I delay taking David back upstairs, hoping his father will come home. He doesn’t. I pick up my son and his blanket and carry him to his room. David puts his finger to his lips as I climb the stairs; he doesn’t want to wake Josh. I open David’s door, stepping over the wooden train set on his floor and ducking underneath the paper mache solar system hanging from his ceiling. I put him in bed and tuck him up under his football encased duvet. I stroke his hair some more, admiring his delicate cheek dimples and thick long eyelashes. He squeezes his eyes shut, pretending to be asleep so I’ll leave his hair alone. I stop stroking it, as requested, and lean over to kiss him on the forehead. When I retreat, he opens his eyes.
“Mummy… can you ask Daddy something for me when he comes home?”
“Of course, sweetie. Anything.”
“Can you ask him if he’ll play football with me at the weekend?”
“I’d better be going, mate,” Otter wriggled free from the constraints of the swing and whistled. Domino came pounding back through the grass and onto the playground. He sat obediently, wagging his tail, and allowed Otter to reattach his lead.
“Send my best to the missus,” said Luke. He tried to pull himself up.
“Aye, will do – mate stay there, don’t hurt yourself.” Luke sunk back, relief washing over his face. “Listen, you take it easy. Stop fretting about all this and get them told. Mia loves you. She’ll understand. You’re a lucky son of a bitch, you know that? They deserve the truth.”
Luke winced with guilt, but shook it off and said goodbye to his friend. Otter gave him a last grave look and set off back home with Domino. Luke sat on his swing for a while, thinking, like he always used to do. He nodded to himself; Otter was right. They deserved more. He’d decided. He leaned over, pain flashing over his face, and he stuck his feet back into his shoes. He sat up straight, stretching, holding onto the chains for a minute, before picking up his tie and hanging it round his neck, letting it dangle loosely against his shirt. He slid the watch back onto his wrist and snapped it shut. Luke picked up his briefcase, took a deep breath, and carefully hauled himself to his feet. His knuckles were white with the strain. He took a last look up to the football pitch, to his dad, and started walking unsteadily out of Abbey Park and towards the train station.
I brush my teeth and undress in the bathroom, staring at my reflection in the mirror. I know I’ve had two children but I don’t think I look that different to when I first met Luke. I’ve got stretch marks from Josh and my scar from the caesarean section with David, but Luke always said he liked them because they reminded him of what I’d gone through for us. I’m a little saggy in places perhaps but it’s no excuse for him to be cavorting around with some tight little tart.
He’s been claiming to be working late for a while now, and I’d almost instantly guessed. I didn’t want to believe it…. He’s become more distant than usual. He’s avoided the boys and not wanted to play with them – he looks guilty around them. He’s always refused to take them to play football because of some argument with his dad, but now it’s like he doesn’t want to be a father anymore; like he doesn’t want to be a husband. I can accept his distance from me, but not from the boys. I love them too much for him to do that to them.
I switch off the bathroom light and tiptoe to the bedroom. The carpet tickles my bare feet. I slide under the covers on my side of the bed and look across at Luke’s side. I reach over to try and make a dent in his pillows, so I can at least kid myself that he’s still here; like he hasn’t left us.
As I thump his pillow, my fist catches something hard inside his pillowcase. I reach inside and discover a box of tablets – they’re prescribed to Luke. Anti-depressants. I snap – I’m suddenly furious. He hides so many things from us, from me, how is he going to be happy if he won’t talk to me? I bet he talks to his mistress, the one with the fucking dog. He comes home covered in dog hair but says he’s been at the office. Liar. Fucking cheating bastard!
I get up and snatch the pillow, ready to throw it against the wall and scream… The photo of Josh and David that I have by my bed makes me stop. I release the pillow instantly and sink down into the bed. Hot tears spill down my face and over the hand that clasps my mouth shut.
Luke stood on the platform, waiting for the board to refresh. He was determined to make things right. He’d let them down and they didn’t deserve it. He rolled his shoulders back – a couple on the opposite platform looked up at the sound of his bones cracking. He was used to this; he gave them a weak smile and tilted his neck.
He’d been diagnosed with the muscle wasting disease before he’d met Amelia, but after meeting her he’d never found the right moment to tell her. He hadn’t thought it would be much of a chat up line, and after they’d got married he didn’t want to lose her, so he kept quiet. He knew this had been stupid, but it was way too late now; he’d lived with the guilt for eleven years. His medication had kept most of his symptoms under control, and he’d got away with saying he just had a bit of a bad back. Not anymore. His doctor had said the wasting muscles were affecting his bones too; they were weakening. Rapidly.
How could he tell the woman who’d promised to stay with him forever that soon he’d be unable to do almost anything for himself, and that she’d have to look after him full time? She hadn’t signed up for that. What sort of dad was he that he couldn’t play football with his boys? It had killed him to keep this from them, but it was better if they didn’t know. Otter was right; he was the luckiest man alive… and they deserved better.
“The next train approaching platform one does not stop at this station. Please stand back.”
He couldn’t burden them, he refused to. He loved them too much. They’d understand.
He was sorry. So sorry. He loved them.