Published in Ambit magazine 2016, issue 223.
Marco is in pain. Even loose pyjama bottoms make him cry out and he’s been indoors for three days since his operation. If he knocks himself, mum comes running. His willy is a new blue colour with plimsoll stitches at the top. He tries to make me look but I start shouting and he gets into big trouble.
We have crept downstairs to watch TV. It’s a film about the Mafia, Marco says. Mum’s on the phone in the kitchen. I don’t think she knows we’re in the sitting room.
‘He looks like dad,’ Marco whispers.
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘The soldier one.’
It’s true. The man called Michael is short just like dad, has the same mouth, thick black hair and even the same wet angry eyes.
Marco holds up two of his fingers like a gun and points them at my head. He’s been acting funny and it’s not just because he stopped weeing properly. He screws his mouth up and squeezes his eyes together like the sun’s hitting him in the face. Like he’s got a tummy ache.
He’s only nine but he went on a plane by himself for a skiing holiday with dad and the air hostess let him drink as much coca cola as he wanted. I’m a year younger so mum wouldn’t let me go. Marco’s got nice new clothes but he’s become paffuto as dad said on the phone. He is scared of fat children. There was a quarrel about who had made Marco chubby; dad said it was fish-fingers and chips – mum said it was pizza and Coke. Sometimes he has trouble pushing out a poo which doesn’t help.
In one of the photos he brought back, Marco’s in a red ski suit, leaning on his sticks on the top of a snowy mountain.
‘It was too tight,’ he said. ‘They bought it for me but it was too tight.’
When my mum looked at the photo her mouth twitched. Dad’s not there but next to Marco is a young woman in sun-glasses, her cheekbones sharp under her skin.
‘That’s Marisa,’ Marco said, ‘she works with dad.’
Mum and dad are married but dad lives in Italy because that’s where the shoe factories are. There aren’t many wedding photos, just three or four small ones, but I flap back the sticky plastic to see more clearly. I like mum’s wavy hair, her freckles and dad’s handsome face. Their clothes are made from the same flowery stuff; dad in a shirt with big collars, grinning so you can see the gap between his teeth, mum in a dress holding a bunch of flowers across her chest. ‘I was pregnant with your brother,’ she told me. She’d taken off her glasses for the photo. They are laughing at each other, their mouths close as if about to kiss.
Dad flies all over the world. He’s a shoe designer. America is ‘favoloso,’ he tells us,’ the art galleries, the shops in New York, glass lifts that speak to you in Tokyo, gambling in Las Vegas, chauffeur drives in Singapore. He also tells us that in Italy people live ‘properly,’ they eat well and make sure things are tidy. But he says that
Leyton, where we live in London, is ‘dirty and people live like pigs.’
I look up and down our street, the small houses squashed together like different teeth, pebble-dashed, bricked or smeared in yellow cement. The grey pavements mirror the grey sky and the dog poo glistens with rain.
But dad doesn’t know that I can run to the corner shop to buy sweets and there’s a playground at the end of the road where we scream on the long-chained high swings. When the sun shines and the wind blows and the leaves scatter, it’s like the whole world’s humming. At Christmas a float comes round and Santa waves at us. There’s a donkey under the compost heap at the end of the garden who talks to us. He doesn’t know these things.
When he looks at me sometimes, I feel my Italian half shrivel away. Then I’m just left with the English part, my mum’s bit. That’s when I see all the mess; the kitchen floor covered in so much Lego you have to wade through it. Bits of toast crust and cereal slop under the table.
Once every few months mum shouts, Your father’s coming! He’s on his way! Pulling the hoover from its coiled grey sleep under the stairs she jerks it round the floor where it sicks up sausages of fluff and hair. I’m on dusting and polishing. Even if the glass looks smeary mum keeps saying, good girl, good girl as if I’m in a race. I feel so good, I lead her to a small cupboard in the wall behind Marco’s bed. When she opens the door she sees all the pants dangling on the doll’s house with their yellow-brown stains. Mum screams at him. Then she calms down and asks him if he’s having trouble again.
‘Why d’you tell mum?’ he asks me after the pants are picked off with the end of a broom.
‘It’s my dolls house!’
‘You don’t even play with it anymore.’ He hates me now.