We’re heading home on the train, end of our family holiday. The closer to the city we get, the less of Ma’s smile survives. Three stations to go. Rain patterns the windows, streams diagonally across the glass. Da’s been drunk since leaving the caravan. Every time he moves for the toilet the to and fro of the train causes his elbows to smack the head of each passenger he passes. I pray for some calamity. Pray that some stray boulder severs the back end of our carriage, completely pulverising the toilet compartment. Ma throws me a smile. Brief sunlight illuminates a silver stream before a woodland swallows it.
I could pull the emergency lever. I could vault from the screeching train, veer across the sodden terrain, vanish into the trees.
I don’t need to look from the window to know Da’s returned. What little sunlight there was has shrivelled from view, and all the birds in the skies have either died or departed. The train slows at the low concrete of a desolate station. No one gets on or off. Out beyond the moorland, the stream becomes a river.
I could catch fish. I could tend a wild garden. I could found a new civilisation, far from the tyranny of fathers.
Da puts his arm around Ma and she flinches. Two stations to go. I pray the ticket inspector is really a witch-doctor, defender of the human heart. Pray that he comes to inspect our souls and seeing Da is lacking, casts him out into the wilderness.
I could sharpen branches. I could burn their points in a big bonfire, to make them hard and true. I could skin the pelt of a fox, wear its head atop of mine, absorb all its cunning and endurance.
Da kisses Ma and she tenses. Her smile is sharp enough to crack the glass, cold enough to snap the tracks, hard enough for the train to buckle and bend, catapulting Da through the roof, through the storm-threatening sky to crash between the trees.
I could meet him there in his true form, out there where the land is mine. Out there, where there are no pubs for him to hide in. I could see, out there, where everything is stripped bare, not the ferocious grizzly that he wants to be, but the shivering, timorous rat at the core of him. I could spear him there on the riverbank, spear him through his angry, rabid heart.
The train lurches as it leaves the last station before home. The carriages upfront curve, a great metallic snake making to circle back on its tail. Da gives out the growl of a snore. Ma smiles that smile, code for us to take refuge in the moment.
The woodland thins out, the water plunges underground, and the city broods on the horizon. But in my heart a forest has taken root, where a river swells and cascades, and freedom blooms in its wilderness.