Keith’s mam doesn’t use Smash. From the doorway, Tommy watches her tip steaming potatoes from a metal colander back into the pan. When she turns to take a fork from the caddy on the dresser, she spots him and smiles a wide, red-lipped smile.
“Tommy! I didn’t hear you boys come in.” She puts the pan down and gestures at the table. “Take your cap off and have a sit down there. I’ll get you a drink. Where’s Keith?”
Tommy stuffs his school cap into his satchel and sits at the polished wooden table. “He’s putting his chopper round the back, Mrs. Crompton.”
Keith’s mam isn’t like other mams. Not like Tommy’s mam, anyway. Keith’s mam wears trousers and bright lipstick and does her hair up in a silk scarf with orange flowers on it. She listens to Dave Lee Travis on the radio, and she calls it a radio, not a wireless.
Keith comes in and his mam gives him a kiss on the side of his head as he passes her to take a seat next to Tommy. Tommy feels a hot prickling at the corners of his eyes and he looks down at the shiny mahogany. When he looks up again, Keith’s mam is watching him.
“How’s your mother, Tommy?” she says as she pulls two glasses from a cupboard.
“She’s OK thanks, Mrs. Crompton,” Tommy says. “Dad’s going to see her this afternoon. He says she’ll be better soon.”
“I’m sure he’s right.” She fills the glasses with milk and puts them on the table. “Biscuit?” She opens a tin bursting with custard creams and Abbey Crunch. “From a packet today I’m afraid. We’ve got some friends coming tonight and I’m so behind.”
Tommy eats the first one in two bites.
“If your friends are coming, can Tommy stay over?” Keith says, spraying biscuit crumbs on to the table. “Else I’ll probably die of boredom or something.”
Keith’s mam is still watching Tommy as he drains his milk. Her eyes are full of something that Tommy doesn’t want to see.
“Of course he can.” She takes Tommy’s glass from him and refills it at the fridge, pushes the biscuits a little closer. “We’d love to have you. There’s plenty to go round.”
Keith pulls a face. “It’s not that prawn cocktail thing again, is it?” He looks at Tommy. “That stuff’s mega-gross.”
His mam laughs and aims a gentle thwack at him with a tea-towel. “Not for you it’s not. I’m not wasting good food.” She returns to her potatoes. “Shepherd’s pie for you. Though there may be some Arctic Roll going spare if you’re good.” She winks at Tommy. “How about it? You boys could pop over to your house and pick up your toothbrush.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think my dad would like it.” Tommy doesn’t look at her. “He wants me back for my tea today.”
For a second, Tommy thinks she is going to try to persuade him, but when he looks up she has that same smile all grown-ups have been fixing on him this last month. It’s a smile of forced, fearful brightness; a smile of warmth and pity that makes him feel cold and pitiable inside.
“Right. Well. Another time perhaps.”
Tommy slides from his chair and picks up his satchel. “I’d better be going. Dad’ll be home from the hospital by now.”
“Give him my best.” Keith’s mam walks with him to the door. “And your mother. And do come back soon, Tommy. You’re welcome here, any time.”
When Tommy reaches the gate he hears Keith’s mam calling after him. “Tommy? I’ve just had a thought – there’s a steak and kidney in the freezer. Your dad doesn’t want to be cooking after work and the hospital. Why don’t you take it for your supper?”
Tommy’s tummy feels tight with milk and biscuits, but it still grumbles with longing.
“No thanks, Mrs. Crompton. We’re alright, Dad and me. I expect he’s got something in for tea, anyway.”
“Of course. Goodbye then.”
When Tommy pushes open the kitchen door, the radio is on. The wireless. Donny Osmond fills the room. Tommy hesitates. Music means Dad’s in a good mood, and he doesn’t know whether to be relieved or afraid.
Dad is sitting at the table, the end of a cigarette between his fingers. When he sees Tommy, he stubs it in the ashtray and gets to his feet. He hurries across the kitchen, arms spread wide.
“There you are,” he says, and a grin grows across his face. “I’ve got news for you.” His hands close round Tommy’s arm. “I’ve sorted it all out at last. There’s nothing to worry about anymore. Your mam’s going to be just grand.”
His eyes are bright and restless. The words tumble from him and Tommy’s stomach tumbles with them. This version of Dad always makes him uneasy. This is Grand National Dad, FA Cup Final Dad, the dad who fingers the slip in his pocket as George Foreman takes to the ring. This Dad says maybe this time and really believes it. His frantic mania of hope is not unfamiliar to Tommy, but there is a sharper edge to it today. There’s a kind of joy in his words, a madness – a panic that spills out of him across the kitchen, settling on the unwashed breakfast bowls, the crumbs where Tommy hacked up the heel of Tuesday’s loaf to take to school for lunch.
“I went to the church on the way back from hospital,” Dad says. “Not that little chapel place your mam likes, but the proper church – the big one behind Stanley Rec.” He releases Tommy’s arm, only to take hold of his shoulders. “I got down on my knees, Tommy. Don’t ever think your old dad’s too proud to beg. Not for your mam – I’d do anything for your mam, you know that. I made a deal with God. I’m going to clean up, Tommy. No more Double Diamond. No more horses or the dogs. None of it. I’m going dead straight from now on. I’m going straight and God’s going to make your mam get better. That’s our deal, you understand?”
Tommy doesn’t understand at all. At first Mam’s cough was nothing. One of those things – it’d been a damp autumn after all. Then her cough was just a little something. Nothing to worry about. And then suddenly, it was Everything. It was coming home to an empty house after school, and beans on toast for tea three days straight, and not knowing how to get the grass stains off his school shirt. And now Dad is saying it will be nothing again. Dad will make it nothing by coming straight home from the garage every evening, by turning the Pools man away at the door. Tommy doesn’t understand how that works.
“I know I’ve not always been the best dad to you.” He hasn’t let go of Tommy yet. This is the longest Tommy can ever remember them touching each other. “But I’ve never hurt you, have I?”
Tommy shakes his head. No, he’s never hurt him.
“Some men hit their boys, you know that?”
Tommy nods. Yes, he knows that.
“I’ve never done that. I’d never do that. I love you and your mam and I’m going to make it all right again. I’m going to be a good dad from now on, OK? We’re going to go to the Rec after school tomorrow. We’ll play football. You’ll like that, won’t you? And when your mam’s better we’ll save up and go to the seaside.” His voice rises. It is high and fast now – an Epsom Derby commentator in the final furlong. “We’ll get fish and chips, Tommy. We’ll get ice-cream.”
In the last rays of afternoon sun his face lights with a memory and he drops Tommy’s shoulders. He reaches into his tool bag standing open on the table.
“Look, I got us these.” He pulls out two tins: evaporated milk, glistening slices of peach. “You must be starving. We can have a little celebration. You and me. We’ll celebrate that your mam’s going to get well. Those doctors don’t know about my deal with the Big Man yet. But I’ll tell them tomorrow – I’ll go up at lunch and tell them – and they’ll change their minds then, you see if they don’t. Nobody’s going to be saying that Ted Granger let his wife die on the say-so of a couple of quacks.”
Tommy’s appetite – always sharp, no matter how much he feeds it – drains away. He feels sick. Die. Nobody has said that word to him before. He said it once, when Mam first went into hospital. Is Mam going to die, Dad? At first Dad had looked furious, like that time he’d caught Keith and Tommy trying out swears in the street and he’d made them wash their mouths out with Mam’s bar of Pears. Then, instead, he had laughed. He’d thumped Tommy hard between the shoulder blades. Course she isn’t. It’d take more’n a cough to do for your mam.
Dad scrabbles in the drawer for the tin opener, crashes two bowls on to the table. “I’m going to get us some money.” The peaches slop out of the tin, juice spattering on the grimy tabletop. “Can’t have your mam taking in ironing the second she’s back, can we? She’ll need a bit of rest and some good food. So I’m going to sell some things.” His eyes skip across the room, searching for inspiration. He frowns. “Or maybe I’ll borrow something. Jim from the garage knows a bloke who lends money to people like us – no questions asked.”
Tommy watches as milk streams from the can into his bowl, and he wishes Dad wasn’t talking so fast. He wishes that the words firing from Dad’s mouth feel like the truth when they hit him. He wants Dad to use a different voice – not the one he used when Nan gave Tommy a shilling for his birthday and Dad told him that Pearly Prince was a dead cert, or the one he used when he told Mam that Newcastle would win the cup this year for sure.
“Money,” Dad says. “That’s the thing, Tommy. All we need is a little bit of cash and we’ll be set.”
He throws a spoon to Tommy, laughing uproariously when Tommy fumbles it to the floor. “Tuck in, Tommo. We’ll be eating like this every day soon. When your mam’s better, we’ll have all sorts.” He hacks a peach slice in half with the side of his spoon. “Maybe we’ll even get a freezer and eat those fancy puddings posh folk get from Asda.”
Donny Osmond fades away, his voice morphing into the opening bars of All of My Life. Tommy retrieves his spoon. He pushes the peaches round his bowl, slopping yellow-white milk up the sides of the cracked glaze. He thinks of Keith and of shepherd’s pie with potatoes and real butter and Bisto. He thinks of Arctic Roll.
“What’s the matter?” Dad is watching Tommy, spoon hovering above his bowl, a drop of milk hanging from the end. “You don’t like it?”
Tommy grabs a large spoonful. “It’s great. Thanks Dad.”
He gulps down the peaches, barely bothering to chew, then lifts the bowl and drinks the milk from the rim.
Dad laughs. “That’s the way. Don’t let your mam catch you doing that though.”
Tommy wishes – wishes so hard it forms a lump in his chest – that she would catch him. If Mam walked in now and caught him drinking from his bowl and gave him a smack on the back of the head – Thomas Granger you’ve been brought up better than that – then Tommy would go straight as well, like Dad. He’d stop slipping his hands into the pockets of the parkas hung up outside the classroom at school, hoping to find some dinner money. He’d stop pinching cherry bonbons and flying saucers from Woolies. He’d do anything.
“Keith’s mam said I could stay over one night, Dad.” Tommy carries his bowl to the sink, adds it to the stack of crockery. “Can I?”
He feels the quiet at the table behind him, the sudden dissipation of the electric energy that had been glowing from his dad. And he knows Dad is thinking of Keith too. Keith and the silver chopper his dad got him for his birthday, and the new Cortina his dad drives to work, and the package holiday to Majorca his dad takes him on every summer.
“Course you can if you want to.” Dad gets to his feet. “When your mam’s better.” He puts a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “When your mam’s home, you can stay at Keith’s all you want, alright?”
Tommy nods. The lump in his chest hardens and rises to his throat. In his pockets, he presses dirty fingernails into the palms of his hands. He squeezes his eyes shut. Dad’s fingers tighten on his shoulder.
“It’ll be fine, Tommy,” he says. “You believe me, don’t you? Your mam’s going to be just grand now. I promise you. We’ve got God on our side – we’re on to a winner there.”
Tommy looks up into the unshaven face with its wide, certain grin. He searches it for something new, something different from all the other times. He looks for something that will let him hope, just for a bit.
“What do you want for tea?” Dad opens a cupboard. “You mam’ll kill me if I only give you peaches.”
He scans the half-stocked shelves, pushes a few tins aside. Then he lifts down a brown tub, white letters stretched wide across it. “How about this?” He pulls off the lid and shakes some of the pale yellow powder into an almost-clean basin. “Lovely bit of Smash?”
Tommy feels hot. His belly churns with milk and peaches and biscuits and the little ray of hope he knows shouldn’t be there – the one he always feels when the starting gun goes, or the referee blows his whistle, or two men face each other across the ring. Maybe this time.
“OK,” he says. “Smash will be grand.”