Writer,Philip Corker, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website


You can tell them by the colour of their scars. Blue. Blue scars on the back or the shoulders, the forearms or the face, lifelong marks where pieces of the underworld had fallen. Yesterday, I found my fatherís blue scar. It was on the lower right side of his back, about one inch long and distinctly hollowed out. I had offered to massage his arthritic spine, the one that had once made leaping backhand curves into the air and then landed like a silk cushion. ĎWhy is it blue dad?í ĎItís coal dust,í he said. ĎIt gets under yer skin.í I made a solemn pause. I put the tip of my finger into the blue hole. It was almost religious.

After tea I followed him into his late afternoon garden. Late and sunny. The place isnít what it used to be. Once it was a fire of roses. Now itís mostly grass and the flower borders are burnt out.

His shed and greenhouse stand idle, rubbing their chins, like two old men trying to remember their names. Once they were both centres of industry, a production line of cupboards and shelves, of potted plants and sweet tomatoes. Now the gro-bags and trays are little deserts, the hammers and drills say nothing.

I imagine a ball of tumbleweed blowing across the lawn, and think how dad would once have been outraged by the sight of it. Now heíd probably just close his eyes, roll his thumbs, and say, ĎItís only a bit of bloody fluff.í

Being in the house was unnatural for him, and he was often difficult to find. Now it seems like a permanent retreat, and his armchair is showing signs of fatigue.

I ask if heíd like a walk to the river, but I donít expect him to say yes. Itís difficult getting dad to do anything these days. Heís grumpy and awkward and takes advice like a dog takes worm tablets.

ĎIíll just get mi big coat and mi stick,í he says, taking everyone by surprise.

My mother can hardly believe it.

ĎWonders never cease,í she says.

ĎThereís no stopping him today,í my wife adds.

Itís a long time since me and dad walked down to the river. Years. Every ten minutes we stop so dad can have a breather. When we get there we sit in the long grass on the riverbank with the sun in our faces.

Thereís an old bridge over this stretch of the river. Since I was a boy Iíve always called it Dead Dog Bridge. There was nearly always a heavy sack jammed in the rocks beneath it. Sometimes a sack would be stuck there for weeks. Once I asked dad what was in the sacks.

ĎDead dogs,í he said. Dogs that nobody wanted. Dogs that were old and sick. Dogs that were too much trouble.

Dad clears his throat and spits into the grass. It dribbles down the corner of his mouth. Once he used to spit into the fire at home with the force of a thunderbolt.

ĎThatís how God made the world,í heíd say, and I believed him.

I look at him now and I wonder how he ever managed to swing a pick or even lift his lamp. His silver head sits on the old railway. The pencil line of his face shakes ever so slightly, like a solitary coal wagon in a petrol haze.

I almost ask him a question about coal mining, but then think better of it. Dad knew how to work like a team of horses, but he was never very good at explaining things. If I asked him where he was going heíd say, ĎIím going to see a man about a dog.í I spent a large part of my formative years wondering who this man was and what his dog was called.

On rare occasions dad would get serious and try to impart some wisdom about life. Once, when I was nine years old, or maybe it was thirteen, dad said, ĎThere are some things you can never have. Thatís just the way it is.í As it happened Iíd already worked this out, but I didnít want to upset him by saying so. I had noticed that some totally mysterious force kept certain things from me, and it didnít matter how hard I tried or where I looked.

At that time I was collecting football stickers for all the first division teams. After a long campaign I had a photograph of every player in the album, except one; Colin Dobson of Sheffield Wednesday. The worst part of it was, Wednesday were my team and Dobson was my favourite player. Not because he was good, which he was, but because my sisterís best friend thought he was gorgeous and I thought the same about her. The only time I was happy to miss The Magic Boomerang on the telly was when she came round for tea. But whatever I did, whoever I asked for a swap, it became clear that a picture of Colin Dobson was one of the things I could never have. There was no reason for it. Thatís just the way it was.

In a similar way, I had once tried to collect the entire alphabet from the letters on the back of smarties tops. The first twenty five were no problem, but it didnít matter how many smarties I ate, who I asked or how many gutters I kept an eye on, I could not get a letter Y. I donít know why I couldnít get a Y, but I just couldnít. Then one day the glorious answer dawned on me. They donít make Ys. I didnít know why they didnít make Ys but they obviously didnít. I felt so much better. But it didnít last long. A girl I knew, who was already wearing secret things, said they did make Ys because sheíd got one that very morning. I said I didnít believe her and sheíd have to show me to prove it. So she opened her motherís old handbag and showed me her Y. I didnít sleep much that night, knowing I could never have a Y and that some people did. Thirty years and nothingís changed. Nothing. Colin Dobson has simply been replaced by the love that never lets you down, and the letter Y has mutated into the answer to the universe. To make things worse, I still support Sheffield Wednesday and have trouble getting to sleep at night.

Dad wipes the spit from his mouth. I take a good look around. The place isnít what it used to be. Once it was a magicianís hat, full of cornfields, woods and fishing ponds.

When I was in short trousers, my summers were spent around here, and the craziest things were possible.

It was common knowledge among the under-nines, that Harry Roberts, an escaped triple-killer on the run, was holed up in these parts. This meant that picking bullrushes was even more dangerous, as Harryís ugly face could appear through the reeds at any moment, and even a champion bullrush was no match for a madman with a gun.

In a similar way, we were in Golden Woods one afternoon, when somebody said theyíd seen a lion, and it was coming for us. Iím pretty sure I heard it roar, but we didnít wait to find out. I donít know how long it took us to get home for tea, but I expect we set some kind of Olympic record. Four boys and three girls. Seven jelly babies bawling and laughing and running for our lives.

We believed anything in those days. We were truly magnificent.

Today the whole place is one sprawling slagheap, and the magicianís hat is punched out.

From here you could see the wheels of seven pits, turning like the stars. I used to imagine a line joining them all together, like the Plough, the Great Bear, Orionís Belt. Once dad said to me, ĎThere wonít be any pits one day. Theyíll get rid of Ďem.í I didnít know what he was talking about. I thought the pits were forever, like the sky and the six weeks holidays. I wondered who Ďtheyí were. Now I know. The old man was right and I understand now what he was talking about.

We take a steady stroll to what remains of dadís old mine. Thereís not a lot to see. The massive black wheels have been removed from their constellation by a signature. The deep shaft has been filled in by the rubble from the canteen, the offices and the bath house. A generation of ghosts are singing and swearing in the showers. The nightshift is over.

ĎForty five bloody years,í dad says.

We stop at the top of the old shaft. Itís marked only by a small concrete post. We both stand there, looking at it, as if it were a gravestone about to speak.

I put my hand on his shoulder. He taps the post with the metal point of his walking stick.

ĎI donít miss it,í he says, and turns away.

We head back home, down to the river and over Dead Dog Bridge. I think about looking over to see if thereís a heavy sack jammed between the rocks, but I decide not to. We say nothing all the way home.

When we get back my wife and mother are sitting in the garden. The shadow of the house cuts a diagonal across the lawn. It laps at their feet.

ĎLook whoís back,í my mother says. ĎDid you Ďave a nice time?í

ĎAgh, we Ďad a bloody great time,í dad says.

My wife squints at us. ĎWe didnít miss you,í she says with a smile. I blow her a kiss and she swats it away.

After a cup of tea and a sausage roll we all watch Inspector Morse. Things have changed since dad used to play Z cars on the mouth organ. It was his party piece every christmas. ĎI could teach Larry Adler a thing or two,í heíd say after. Then Iíd say, ĎPlay Home On The Range dad. Go on. Play Home On The Range.í And he would. It was his encore. I thought dad would always be playing Z Cars and Home On The Range on the mouth organ at Christmas. I thought it was forever, like the sea and the pop man.

After Inspector Morse has gone home to play a record, everyone goes to bed, except for me. I say Iím going to watch Paxman the Axeman on Newsnight, but when everyoneís gone I turn off the telly and just sit there. I donít know why Iím just sitting there, but I am. The only thing I can see is the river under Dead Dog Bridge, the only thing I can hear is dadís walking stick on the concrete post.

An hour goes by and Iím still just sitting there. Eventually I force myself to get up and go to bed. I check the locks and the gas about three times, turn the lights off, put them on again, have another quick look at the gas, turn off the lights once more and go up to our room, the room we always sleep in when we visit. The bedside lamp is on but my wife is asleep. The book she was reading has slipped to the floor. I can see she is dreaming. Her eyes flick from side to side under her lids. I look very closely at her. I go right up to her face. I wonder if sheíll ever let me down, and at the same time I think about another woman I once knew, once loved. A woman who walked away and never came back. Itís a long time ago but I still think about her. Blue scars never go away. They just fade a little bit each year.

Later, in the early hours, I suddenly catch myself half way between sleeping and waking. I know Iím dreaming and at the same time I can feel my body in the bed. Iím wading down a river on a sunny afternoon. The sky is an iridescent hummingbird blue. I can feel the water running over my knees, and briefly wonder if my wife can feel it too. I have a stick in my right hand, which Iím using to balance. I look at it. Itís my fatherís walking stick. About twenty yards ahead of me is a bridge. Itís not like any bridge Iíve ever seen, but at the same time I know itís Dead Dog Bridge.

Jammed in the rocks beneath it is a heavy sack. By the time I get to it the sky has turned grey and the bridge is lit up like a juke box. I know I have to open the sack and look, but I can already feel the muscles in my neck begin to tighten. Is there really a dead dog in there, that nobody wanted, that was too much trouble? I feel panic rising in my chest and I start to gasp for air. What if itís not a dead dog? What if itís full of minersí lamps, or a giant poster of Colin Dobson, or all the Ys I never found? I poke the sack with my fatherís stick. Then I realise. I donít have to open it. I donít have to look. I have a choice. I kneel in the water and push away the rocks. The sack bobbles, falters, turns round twice, and then floats away, under Dead Dog Bridge and down the river.

When I wake properly I can still feel the tightness in my chest and throat. I go to the window and open it wide. In the cool monochrome garden I can see the outline of the shed , the hedges and the chairs that were left out. Down the road a violet street lamp flickers on and off. I take three deep breaths and release them slowly. It tastes good, like a childís sweet medicine.

I close the window and return to bed, looking forward to its warmth. I hold my wifeís hand, very lightly, so I donít wake her. One day, for one reason or another, she wonít be there either, like that other woman, like dad. But sheís here now, and so is he. I can hear the old dog snoring.

I think again about the dream, kneeling in the river under Dead Dog Bridge. Iím glad I chose not to look, and I feel a rare contentment. Letting that sack go, itís the most sensible thing Iíve done in years.

If you find it, donít open it. Donít look. Just get on your knees and push it away. Let it drift on the shoulders of the river, past the nettles and the rat holes, past the empty pityards and the old estates, down the river and into the sea. Donít open it. Donít look. Just push it away. Thatís the best thing you can do with dead dogs.

Philip Corker, 2010.