Short fiction

Dust, by James Robb

CaptureThis fact I learned at an early age: the best blackberries were not the ones growing in the full glare of the sun. Those ones were often sour and wizened, with a hard pithy core and seeds that stuck in your teeth. They were the first to be found by birds and sucking insects, the first to lose their shine in a drought, they were the ones covered with a layer of dust from the road. You could always taste the dust.

The berries to look for were hidden from view. You had to get right inside the bush and look out. Only a child could find them, a child small enough to slip into the cavernous hollows formed by the sprawling blackberry canes without becoming snagged on thorns. Only a child, fond of secret hiding places, would even know how to look.

I could always find the best blackberries. Great bunches of them hung under the top layer of leaves, a dozen ripe ones on a single bunch, cool and sweet, berries so soft and ready to fall you had to cup your hand underneath before touching them.

And when I was ready to re-appear, I would always have more in my bag than anyone else – more, I knew for certain, than my father.

My father! Dead for thirty years, yet I can still see him clearly in my mind!

He is standing in the blazing sun just across the gravel road, picking thorns from his hands. His skull is shining in the sun. His great clumsy fingers and hands are blotched purple with blackberry juice, or blood, or both. He can’t see me – he never could – because I am hiding. That was my special power, to hide.

My mother is calling out from the distance.

“Where’s Jody? Have you seen Jody, Dad?”

My father looks around briefly, then goes back to the thorns in his hands. He is silent, his face screwed up in concentration on the task of picking thorns. Even with his glasses, he can’t see the thorns. I remain in hiding. My mother’s voice becomes distant. Soon there is nothing but the sound of cicadas singing, and of water in a stream somewhere below the bank.

Those narrow dusty roads never seemed to carry any other traffic. Why had they been made? They never seemed to lead anywhere, except to more dusty stretches, more gates and cattle stops, and more riverbanks covered with blackberries. Had they built roads just to take us to the blackberries?

But now there is a new sound disturbing the tranquillity of the afternoon. In the distance, the aggressive sound of a diesel engine makes itself heard. A tiny plume of dust rises at the farthest end of the road, and ahead of it there is a truck coming towards us. It is still a long way away. My father hasn’t seen it yet. My mother is calling again.

“I haven’t seen Jody for ages. Is he with you, Dad? “

My father notices the truck approaching. He quickly checks to see that our car is parked far enough off the road to let the truck past.

“He didn’t go down to the stream, did he?”

My mother’s voice has a note of worry in it. It’s time to come out from hiding. I emerge from the bushes and hold up my bulging bag of blackberries in triumph.

“Here he is!” my father calls out.

“Come here, Jody, let’s have a look at your bag! What a swag! Where do you find them all? Come and show me!”

My mother is further down, by the car, and I hold up my bag of berries for her approval. And in the same moment, my father realises his terrible mistake. The truck is only a short distance away, and he has called me right into its path. My mother has already seen the danger.

“Jody!” she shouts. But she is not calling to me. She is looking hard at my father.

My father is gaping, at the truck, and at me, then at the truck again. When things happen fast, he always stops and stares.

“No! Don’t come! Stay there! Stay where you are!”

He waves his arms frantically, and runs toward the road. With his flailing arms, he looks like a swan trying to take flight.

stock truckThe truck lets out a long blast on its horn that terrifies every living creature for miles around, and with a lot of squealing of brakes, wheezing of springs, and grinding of gravel, it lurches to a complete halt in the middle of the road. It sits there motionless for a few moments, chugging softly, while the great cloud of dust it has raised catches up with it.  The cattle crammed in the back, panting and craning, make a few random thuds on the floor.  The truck and its swirling cloud block my view of the other side of the road. But I can hear my parents running and calling out to me.

My mother finds me first and holds me tight in her trembling arms. My father arrives, and wants to hold me too, but my mother won’t let go, and the bag of blackberries is in the way. All he can do is reach in and ruffle my hair with his fingers. Then he goes to send the truck on its way.

The truck moves off, and he is left there alone on the other side of the road, looking across as my mother continues to clutch me and hug me. He takes off his glasses and rubs them with the corner of his shirt.

“Silly Daddy! Called me out in front of the truck,” I say to my mother.

“Silly Daddy!” my mother repeats, looking over my head at my father.

The cloud of dust gradually settles, leaving everything looking whiter than before – the car, the blackberry bushes, the road itself. On my father’s head, the new layer of dust mixes with perspiration and turns dirty brown. It has taken the shine off his skull.

There is more dust on the way home. We find ourselves following another truck.

“Kevin, for God’s sake, why don’t you just stay a bit further back,” my mother says. She only calls my father by his name when she is angry with him.

“I’m trying to overtake the damned thing, so then we can get out of the dust completely,” my father says.

Even with all the windows shut tight, it manages to penetrate. My mother and I are comparing the sizes of the three bags of blackberries. The sweet scent of blackberries mingles with the taste of dust.

“Silly Daddy,”  I giggle to my mother.

“Silly Daddy,”  she whispers and smiles.

* * * * *

I sat for a long time beside the empty coffee cup. I was in no hurry to leave, and they didn’t seem anxious to get the table. I had given up on reading the paper – my glasses were no longer strong enough for such tiny print. The good thing about getting reading glasses from the £1 shop was that they were easy to replace as your eyesight got progressively worse.

I gave my son the money for a custard pie that he had chosen.

“How’d it go?’

“Good!”

“Did she give you any new pieces to play?”

“One!”

“Did she notice that you hadn’t done any practice this week?”

“No!”

I couldn’t work out what it was that had brought the memory of picking blackberries so vividly to mind; the episode must have occurred at least forty years ago. The custard pie gave me time to think.

A woman passed close by our table on her way towards the door, and I had the answer to my question.

“Blackberries! Did you notice that lady’s perfume? She smelled like blackberries!”

“How do blackberries smell?”

How does one explain to a child how blackberries smell? I felt a pang of regret that my son had never been out picking blackberries. He was growing up in another country, on the other side of the globe. Easter wasn’t even the blackberry season here. It was not that he would be bereft of the joys of childhood, but they would be different from the joys I had known.

Maybe his strongest memory of childhood would be of eating custard pies in a café after his music lesson. This would undoubtedly be how he remembered me: it was the only time of the week when he and I were alone together. I gazed at him as he ate and he grinned back. It was a good time. I hoped he would remember it.

The image he retained of me would be much the same as the image I had of my own father: overweight, balding, glasses, a favourite woolly jumper that he insisted on wearing despite all the hoots of ridicule from his family. Long ago I had become resigned to the fact that I had taken my father’s form. I accepted it as some kind of divine retribution: For the crime of mocking thy father, thou art condemned to turn into him in thirty years’ time!  It must be a vengeful God indeed, to conceive of this punishment.

I wondered whether my son had the same feeling of superiority towards me that I had towards my own father at his age.  If he did, there was no sign of it in that angelic smiling face, as he finished off the last of the custard pie. I pondered all the sufferings and indignities of advancing age – thinning hair, sleeping problems, back pain – things that my father used to mention occasionally, without ever winning the slightest sympathy.   I thought of the countless times my brothers and I had made fun of his baldness – what exactly was it that we found so funny? Was it nothing more than his age that we were ridiculing?

There were other children in the café. Some were clinging adoringly to parents that were older, fatter, uglier than mine.  If ever there is a love that is really blind to appearances, it must be the child’s love for his parents. Why was it not that way with my father?

“So, do you think you’re better than your Dad?”  I asked my son, just to see his reaction.

I meant it in a joking way, but he looked mystified by the question, and unsettled by the hostility it implied. He didn’t answer, but just shrugged awkwardly. All I had succeeded in doing was to spoil our moment of closeness.

“Well, I guess it’s time to get going! Mummy gets worried if we take too long.”

I folded the newspaper and tucked it under my arm, and put my glasses in my shirt pocket. The car was over the other side of a busy road, a dreadful, one-way, four-lane city artery along which the traffic always went far too fast. Getting across this road was an ordeal. My son had been hit by a car a year earlier, and he had been nervous about crossing roads ever since. It was the one time when he wasn’t embarrassed to hold his father’s hand.

“Hold on to me!” I shouted above the noise. “We’ll wait till there’s a gap in the traffic, when those lights down there turn red, then we’ll make a run for it!”

He was still nervous, but he trusted me to make the judgement. The break in the roaring torrent of cars came sooner than I expected, and I had to make a sudden decision to cross. With one hand holding his, and the other keeping the paper under my arm, I raced out across the road.

The only thing that was not tightly held down was the pair of reading glasses in my shirt pocket. As soon as we broke into a run, they jumped out of the pocket and skittered across the road.

“Hold on! My glasses!”

I stopped in the middle of the road and looked back to where they had fallen out. The traffic lights had already turned green again, and four lines of cars were roaring towards us. I hesitated a moment. Then I saw the glasses, and ran and picked them up. They were nearest to the side of the road where we started from, and the cars were too close. I had to go back to the starting point.

My son! In my moment of confusion over the glasses I had forgotten about him. I looked up; to my great relief I saw him straight away. He was safely on the other side of the road, looking back at me, worried. He must have let go my hand when I stopped, and carried on to the other side by himself.

“Stay where you are! I’ll come over!” I shouted above the din of the cars, and waved. He couldn’t possibly have heard me, nor read the meaning in my flailing arms.

I rubbed the glasses on my shirt to see if they were scratched. As I waited for the next break in the traffic the enormity of my error of judgement dawned. I had risked my own life – and his! – for the sake of a cheap pair of reading glasses. He had trusted me to lead him across a dangerous street, and I had failed him. What would he think of me now?

Another break in the stream of cars came, and I rushed across. I knelt down and hugged him tight. He was relieved to be reunited with me, but seemed bemused by my concern. I couldn’t think what to say. I wanted to say ‘I’m sorry. I went back for my glasses. It was a really stupid thing to do.’ But I couldn’t say those words.

“Don’t say a word to Mummy about this, will you,” is what I actually said.

“About what?”

I searched his face for a sign of what he was really thinking – a little smirk, some hint of judgmental scorn. But there was nothing – nothing but a look of generosity and slightly bewildered happiness. He genuinely had no idea what it was that he had to keep secret from his mother.

My body shook with emotion. And to my mouth there came a dreadful, sickening taste – the sweet scent of blackberries, mingled with the taste of dust.

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