My aunt would come over to babysit, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, arriving as I finished brushing my teeth for bed, as my mother packed a bag with night-school accounting textbooks. Sometimes she’d pack me an overnight bag as well and drop me off at my father’s.
He rented a top-floor flat in a huge Victorian house, shared with a woman and her daughter. On alternating Fridays, he would pick me up from my after-school babysitter with his bicycle, steering with one calloused hand on the saddle as we walked together. Noise from the other flats filled the house. Its dirt-floor basement, always unlocked, harboured his swish barrel. Vinegar filled my nose as we tipped the rum cask onto its side and rolled it around to leach the alcohol from the grain of the wood. The Saturday afternoon open swim, movies I wasn’t normally allowed to see, Sunday batting practice in the park, I would use these weekends to test the waters with swear-words I’d learned in the playground, words my mother would punish me for even knowing. “You can say shit, but not fuck,” he said one night when I casually slipped it in there, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, imitating his cool stride as we jay-walked through traffic.
During the week, I lived in front of the television, cartoons endlessly fired onto my brain frame by crudely-drawn frame. When the programming changed to news or talk shows, I would leave the TV on so I could hear it in the background while I poked my hamster through the bars in its cage or built Lego until my fingers were sore. My mother’s textbooks covered the kitchen counter while Kraft Dinner brewed on the stove or hot dogs and French fries sizzled in the oven, or while the microwave zapped a leftover mix of the two.
On Honey-nut Cheerios mornings, she would slip quickly from room to room in her pyjamas and full make-up, waiting until the last minute to put on her freshly-ironed office outfit, only a cup of tea for breakfast. I pushed the soggy O’s around my bowl as she marched, forward, keeping our little lives together.
It was just before Christmas and she bundled me in my red and blue one-piece snowsuit.
“Christopher. Work with me here, please,” she said, turning me towards her roughly as she did up the zipper.
She was late for work and it was my fault. We were rushing, we were always rushing. I bent down to get my backpack, she chipped her nail in the zipper.
“Would you stand still for one minute, please! Don’t forget, Santa is watching.”
Red-cheeked and overheated, I looked at my mother. “Santa isn’t real.”
She stopped, looked me in the eye. “Where did you hear that?”
“Why do you think Santa doesn’t exist?”
“Because I know it.”
“I just do. It’s impossible.”
Tears welled in her eyes. She zipped me slowly to the chin and I bent over stiffly to put on by backpack.