To Russell, always called ‘Dusty’ since the day he was born, his father was a big man; not just big but BIG. He had big hands. He had big feet. He had a big face whenever he picked up Dusty and kissed him on his nose.
Dusty’s Dad took Dusty everywhere with him.
Dusty would look up – way up – just to watch for that special smile that would break out and stretch across his Dad’s face like sunshine coming around the corner. The sun and moon and stars, all coming out together. It was his Dad’s special smile. It belonged to Dusty and for him alone.
At five years old, Dusty found himself alone – all alone. He was all alone with no explanation of why or how. He was alone. It seemed to Dusty that it was the first time he’d had an independent thought of his own.
It came like a huge Snowy owl out of a dark, dark cave, noiselessly at first. A silver speck in a tidal wave of inky darkness. Surfing towards the opening of the cave. Outside were storm clouds gathering their forces to present a magnificent display people would watch and later marvel over.
‘Where is my father?’ screeched the owl. The thunder rolled back and laughed; a deep, booming, sonorious laugh. Then the angry woman in the sky threw great streaks of light. A thousand spider-legs bursting in all directions from the lightning to send dogs running for cover under the porch, little children to drown themselves under warm covers; their parents exchanging anxious looks.
‘What did happen to his father?’ couples would whisper to each other but the priest in his long black coat and silver moon around his neck would place a long waxen finger to his lips and the question would disappear like a hesitant ribbon of smoke.
‘Hush! Not in front of the child!’
Dusty held his mother’s hand as they walked towards the hole in the earth. He wanted to see how far down the bottom went; deeper than any hole he’d ever dug.
Was that where his father would wait for him? Was that where his father would live? Inside a box at the bottom of a hole? Is this where he’d need to come when he wanted to talk to him? Would his father be able to hear his words when the men with their shovels had done their work?
Dusty watched the coffin being lowered into the hole in the earth and tried to make sense of it. It made none. That confused him even more.
Dusty was aware of droning. It was the man saying prayers. He watched the man’s lips move but it was as if the sounds and the movements of his lips were a badly synchronised soundtrack of a foreign movie.
He saw a robin land on the handle of a shovel leaning against a headstone. It was the red on its breast that had caught his eye.
The sound of prayers faded, leaving only a gentle sobbing that seemed to make the robin want to pipe its high-pitched trilling even louder.
Dusty smiled. Nobody had planned for the robin to come along and interrupt their dispiriting play – except, perhaps his father had arranged it for Dusty’s benefit.
His mother tugged his arm when he giggled as the little bird shook his feathers to let him know that it was there too.
Dusty looked onto his mother’s face and wondered who she was. She’d never been very friendly towards his father when he was around.
She glanced down at him and scowled. Dusty looked away before she realised that he didn’t really like standing next to her. He’d have preferred to stand and held his Grandmother’s hand. She looked as if she’d appreciate his attention. He’d point out the robin if he was standing next to her.
She was smiling at him now through her crumpled face. Dusty gestured with his head at the robin and nodded that the little bird would make her smile too. She liked robins, he knew.
When Dusty looked back, it was gone. His mother must have banished it with one of her looks.
He shrugged to tell his Grandmother that he didn’t know where the little robin had gone or why they were all standing around looking so sad.
His Grandmother tilted her head; questioning. She smiled. It looked like it must have hurt. Dusty let go of his mother’s hand and blew her a kiss. His Grandmother caught it in her hand – just like his father used to do.
Then she wept some more.
And the droning grew as the people joined in.
A crow landed on the graveyard stonewall and made a crude call. Dusty wanted to run across and shoo it away. It wasn’t invited. It shouldn’t be there. He would’ve waved it away but his mother had his hand in a grip too tight.
She was angry. He could tell. She breathed heavily through her nose when she was angry.
Dusty didn’t care how she felt. She could be as mad as she liked. She wouldn’t dare hit him with his Grandmother watching.
She tugged again. It was time for him to throw the lilly into the hole.
His father would’ve preferred a pack of cards to keep him occupied in the long hours ahead; maybe a bottle of beer. He liked his beer. Perhaps, Dusty thought, he should’ve thrown in his tobacco pouch.
Dusty liked to watch his father roll cigarettes. He could do it in seconds. Sometimes, he’d roll a cigarette with one hand to amaze him, like he’d make a coin disappear and then make it reappear from behind his ear – from the seat of his pants if his Grandmother wasn’t watching.
Somehow she saw everything. She’d tell his father off but Dusty could tell that she didn’t mean it.
She loved his Dad. His Dad loved her too. Dusty could tell when two people loved one another.
He wondered if his mother had loved him once. His father said he’d always loved her but then his voice would tail off like a sad puppy leaving because it hadn’t been noticed.
After the funeral, everyone went back to the Grandmother’s house. Dusty sat at the end of the sofa, alone. People watched him and spoke in hushed voices over his head.
They called him Russell. He didn’t know them either.
His mother seemed to be enjoying herself behind her mask. She spoke in her telephone voice to people she didn’t know; her breathless voice when she was talking to men. She liked to touch people on the arm when she wanted to be noticed; especially by the men.
She went from one man to another. She moved in close so that they could smell her perfume. It was the perfume that Dusty hated most. That and her lipstick that made him feel like a baby rabbit.
His teacher at school told him that mother rabbits ate their young. Dusty always tensed up when his mother loomed over him to give him a kiss; the perfume and the blood lipstick ready to bite and swallow him up in a vapour of strong liquor. At least she wasn’t shouting; the shouting, the perfume and the lipstick and now the aloneness.
Dusty wished his father was there to tell him it was a joke to be played on all those strangers, another game for them to play together.
Perhaps, it was a game. He’d play his part for his Dad’s sake. He’d let the old men pat him on the head and tell him that he was now the big man of the house and how he had big shoes to fill; big, big shoes – such small feet. Until they’d all gone, he’d play along.
Then he’d ask his Grandmother if it really was a joke. She never lied to him. She’d always tell him the truth, not like his mother, but his Grandmother was old and careful. He had to ask the right questions to get the right answers; the answers he felt he deserved. The trouble was that he didn’t know what questions to ask but Dusty supposed that he’d learn given time.
When Dusty was seven, he asked his Grandmother who his father was.
When Dusty was nine, he asked her what his father did.
When Dusty was eleven, he asked her why he’d died and how he’d died.
By the time Dusty was thirteen, he’d forgotten what his father looked like. His Grandmother put a photograph of eleven Irish immigrant steelworkers sitting on a girder having lunch sixty-nine floors above Manhattan in his bedroom.
She told him that they were 840 feet above the pavement. It was a big job – the biggest job ever attempted at the time. Only the biggest men could do a job like that, thought Dusty.
His Dad was a big man, one of the biggest, so perhaps, he had to be one of the men having lunch atop the skyscraper in New York.
His Grandmother never said which one he was, or if he was, and Dusty couldn’t remember what he looked like.
Was he the man on the end, lighting his friend’s cigarette from his own? Perhaps, he was one of the two men next to them chatting, wearing similar flat caps and thick welders gloves?
Beside them was a group of three. One of them had his hat turned around. The one in the middle was laughing with a cigarette in his mouth. His father, he remembered, smiled and laughed a lot, often with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. But this man looked older than Dusty remembered.
The younger worker was holding a drink in a tall plastic cup and looking at the contents of the box he was being shown. The third man was listening with a smile about to break across his face; like sunshine coming around the corner, remembered Dusty.
The man at the other end of the steel girder suspended in space sat all alone, holding an empty half-bottle of what might have once held liquor.
Dusty didn’t think he could’ve been his Dad but he understood why he was sitting alone with ten other people above a million more below who never looked up at the sky squeezed in between the skyscrapers.
The faces of the steelworkers all looked the same, but different.
Dusty drew each face carefully and studied each one to see if his memory would hiccup and give him a clue to what his Dad’s face looked like.
In Dusty’s memory, his Dad’s face was small and far away. He was only five years old when he looked up. His Dad’s feet were closer than his face. And when his Dad picked him up to kiss him on the nose, his face became too huge to recognise clearly.
Dusty was good at drawing faces. He drew his own and added wrinkles and laughter lines and hollowed out the cheeks with the side of his pencil. He showed the finished drawing to his Grandmother.
‘It looks just like your father,’ she told him. ‘Everything but the nose. He had a broken nose that had never set quite right, you know?’
Dusty didn’t. He thought about this for a long time.
He was fifteen now with new friends. They liked to hang around coffee bars in The Lanes in Brighton.
Dusty chose the boy carefully. He had a bad reputation which was exactly what Dusty was looking for.
He chose the time carefully too. It wouldn’t be easy.
He almost didn’t go through with it but he remembered the little robin that landed on the handle of the shovel that leaned against the headstone in the graveyard. He remembered the cheeky way the fragile little bird ruffled his feathers. It gave him the audacity he needed.
Dusty would start by ruffling the boy’s feathers about his mother.
‘Your mother bathes herself in cheap perfume to cover up the smell of alcohol and the stink of quick sex. Her mouth looks like a mother rabbit with her baby’s blood dripping from her tombstone teeth. She’d rather have any man than your Dad. She probably can’t remember what he looks like!’
The boy’s fist, his big, big fist, drew back and then came forward like a steelworker’s hammer into Dusty’s face.
There was a sickening breaking sound. His eyes filled with tears.
It was over.
At the hospital, the doctor confirmed the damage. Dusty allowed the nurse to clean away the blood before he discharged himself against the Doctor’s orders.
At home, he removed the bandage and looked into the mirror. He smiled. It was perfect. His nose was broken. All he needed to do was wait for the swelling to go down. His nose would never set quite right.
He would show his Grandmother. Whenever he looked into the mirror, he would see his Dad.
He’d grown into his father’s big shoes – his big, big shoes. He was now Big Dusty.
Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash